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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Winter

**SNEAK PEEK - That Kiss **





CHAPTER 1 — DECKER

Three Months Earlier . . .


“I’m sorry Decker, I can’t—” Camilla shakes her head, her hands covering her mouth as tears fill her eyes. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t marry you.” 

“Uh . . .” I blink several times, completely taken aback. It’s not that I’m cocky; I just truly thought she and I were on the same page. “Okay,” I say before putting my hand on my knee and standing back up. I’m still holding the ring, unsure of what to do or say next.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.” She stands up, walking over to the edge of the deck. Her back is toward me, but I can see her shoulders shaking as she buries her face in her hands. “This isn’t how I—” 

“Hey,” I reach out toward her, my hand finding hers and pulling her into my arms. We stand there for several minutes, her face buried in my chest. “What’s going on?” I pull her back to look into her now-red, swollen eyes. “I have to admit that this is not at all how I thought you would respond to that question, but now I’m worried. Is there something going on I’m not aware of? Did I do something?”

She shakes her head, patting her eyes dry. “You did nothing wrong—you’re perfect, actually. It’s me. After our conversation the other night about you possibly moving back to Colorado in the future, I realized this is all moving too fast for me.”

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry, baby,” I say, stepping toward her. “We can slow things down. I know we’ve only been dating for six months, but I just thought—” I laugh to myself. “Well, I’m not sure what I thought, but clearly, it wasn’t the right thing.” She tries to smile but there’s more she’s not saying; it’s written all over her face. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

She nods, wringing her hands together. “It’s not that I don’t love you, because I do.” She grabs my hand as if that will somehow soften the blow. “But my entire family is here in Texas, and you know how close I am with them, and I just . . .” Her chin begins to quiver again so she blurts it out: “I can’t imagine living almost a thousand miles away from them.”

“Okaaay,” I say slowly, trying to follow her. 

“I can’t commit to you knowing you might move back home. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us.”

“I see.” I nod, trying to hide my disappointment, but I’m sure it’s evident in my tone. “So not taking it slower, but ending it altogether then?”

She stands there with eyes full of tears. “I came over tonight to tell you how I was feeling about it all. I had no idea,” she says, trying to hold back tears, “I swear.”

“It’s fine. I know you didn’t, baby, but why throw this away on a maybe? It’s up to me when it comes to wanting to stay in Texas or move back to Colorado, so it’s not up to fate.”

“Because you’re not truly happy here, Deck. We both know that.”

I stare back at her, wanting to tell her that’s not true, but I won’t do her the disservice of lying. When I moved down here a year ago to manage my family’s secondary ranch location, I was elated. I wanted a fresh start—a new landscape where a certain someone wasn’t forever ending up in my line of vision. Maybe it was to prove myself to my dad, or maybe it was because I felt like I was being a hero to my twin brother, Ranger, letting him stay in Colorado to chase after the woman of his dreams. Whatever the reason, it’s slowly fading. 

“I want to be happy here, Cam. That’s why I proposed.”

She shakes her head. “I can’t be your happiness, Decker. You’ll end up resenting me if you stay here and miss out on your siblings’ new babies being born back home, and the exciting business ventures Slade Brewing is rolling out. I want us to work, but I can’t ask you to stay.” 

I give her the weakest smile I can muster. “On that note, I guess I should probably walk you out then?”

We walk in silence back through the house so she can grab her things before making our way toward her car. When we get to her car, I reach for the door and open it. She pauses, reaching for my hand, but I move it away.

“Decker, wait—” She chews her bottom lip like she’s unsure.

“It’s okay, Cami. No need to force something that isn’t meant to be. I won’t ask you to go against your heart.” I slide my hands into my jeans, turning halfway back toward my house. 

“So that’s it?”

I shrug. “Guess I’ve never really been too good at goodbyes.” This time, I don’t turn back around. The echo of the gravel crunching beneath my feet sounds so loud against the quiet June evening. Just as I reach for the front door, I hear her engine start, the flicker of her headlights bouncing off the house as she shifts the car into reverse and drives off.

Maybe I should have hugged her one more time. Maybe I should have told her I’d stay. But I let my pride get the best of me. I close the door behind me, locking it then heading straight to the kitchen to grab a beer. 

The cold ale tastes like instant relief going down my throat. I close my eyes, taking another long pull, letting the bitterness linger. I’m about to close the fridge when I see the still-unopened bottle of chilled champagne on the shelf. I push it aside, grabbing a second beer and walking back out to the deck. 

The Adirondack chair scratches across the floor as I kick it to the side, taking a seat on the outdoor sofa next to the fire pit. I finish my first beer and quickly move on to the second. “Should have grabbed the case,” I mutter as I lean back against the cushions. 

After finishing my second beer, I fish the ring out of my pocket again and stare at it, the fire dancing across the edges of the diamond. I have the sudden urge to hurl it out into the darkness, but instead, I put it back into my pocket and hang my head in my hands. 

I feel like a failure. I thought coming down here was the second chance I needed—that being away from home, I’d get over the hit-it-and-quit-it lifestyle, find someone, and actually settle down. But here I am with a broken heart, wanting to crawl back home with my tail between my legs, to tell my dad he was right: I wasn’t ready to be down here on my own. 

“How the fuck did I get it all so wrong?”

I pull my phone from my pocket, my thumb hovering over Ranger’s name. I know he’d tell me exactly what I need to hear so I don’t make any rash decisions. But I don’t call him. He has a new baby now, so he doesn’t need to worry about me and my mantrum.

Instead, I do what I’ve been doing every night for the last few months. I swipe over to my pictures app and scroll through the hundreds of photos I’ve been sent from my family since I moved down here. A video of my oldest niece, Cecilia, learning to roller skate makes me laugh. Her little hands dart out in front of her every few seconds while my brother Tyler encourages her from behind the camera. 

When I reach the point in the photos where I normally stop reminiscing, I decide to keep going, dragging my thumb down my phone screen so it scrolls back a few years. When the screen stops moving, my thumb lands perfectly over one I haven’t seen in years—one I completely forgot I took. 

I press the photo to enlarge it, my chest immediately growing tight when her face takes up half the screen, my face next to hers, both of our eyes blurry from drinking, her arm casually draped around my shoulder as I extend my arm to take the selfie. 

Her, the real reason I ran away to Texas and wanted a fresh start. 

Her, the woman who has tormented my brain for the last few years.

Her, Juniper Riley, far too young and far too naive for a man like me to be getting any ideas. 

I continue staring at the photo and now remember the night like it was yesterday. It was her 21st birthday, and she insisted on me buying her the first shot of the night. It ended up being the first shot of many. Most of us Slades were there that night, along with several of her friends, but I think it was the first time I realized that the little crush Juney Riley had on me growing up had grown into full-blown desire. I clocked it in her eyes the second time I caught her staring at me from across the room. In fact, Ranger and Tyler both teased me about it that night. But it didn’t stop there—in fact, it felt like every year her crush only grew stronger, as did the teasing from my family.

The real issue was that it wasn’t one-sided. The last year I lived in Colorado, she was a senior in college, 22 years old, and it seemed like her mission was to end up in my bed. I knew I could only resist for so long, and that it would only be a matter of time before I caved and did something we’d both regret. 

Juniper Riley isn’t just too young for me, she’s just starting out her life. She’s young and should be out with her girlfriends partying, not talking to a 31-year-old man who runs away from his problems instead of dealing with them. Not to mention, her father and my father are best friends. I know damn well that Mr. Riley knows that all of the rumors about me being a fucking playboy asshole through my teens and most of my twenties are true. I close the photo app quickly, a pang of guilt shooting through me like I’m betraying Camilla. 

I thought running down here would solve all of that, but it didn’t. Then, I met Camilla. She was sweet and quiet and it felt like she accepted every part of me. I promised myself I wouldn’t hold back with her, so I let myself fall for her and I felt truly loved by her. My heart aches as my thoughts turn into past tense. 

Loved.

I let it sink in, a tear falling from my eye and rolling down my cheek. It feels like a semi is parked on my chest and a dam of tears is seconds away from breaking if I let myself wallow. So I stand up, heading inside and up to my room to do the one thing I can think of that will actually give me some time to think through things. I pack a suitcase and set my phone alarm for 4 a.m. 

Driving from Texas to Colorado to visit my family is exactly what I need right now.

***

“What in the hell are you doing here?” Ranger’s smile spreads from ear to ear as he walks down his front steps in only his socks, his arms already outstretched to pull me into a big bear hug. “Did you and Dahlia plan this?” he asks, referring to his wife.

“Nope, actually just decided on a whim last night that I needed to come back home and see everyone.”

He pulls back, an eyebrow cocked. “What’s going on?”

I shake my head just as the front door opens wider and Dahlia steps out with their daughter on her hip. “We’ll talk later, but for now, I’m dying to see my little niece.” I step around Ranger, walking up the stairs to give Dahlia a hug and kiss before snatching Amethyst from her mother’s arms.

“Look at these cheeks!” I pretend to nibble her cheeks, sending her into a fit of giggles. “She looks just like you, Dolly.” I hold her up next to her mom. “It’s crazy.”

“Thank God for that!” Ranger laughs as he ushers us inside his house. 

“Mom and Dad know you’re in town?”

“Nope, came here first.” Amethyst tugs on my beard.

“No, sweetie,” her mom says, removing her hand then turning to me. “How long are you staying? You’re staying with us, right?”

“Yeah, would love to. I’ll even be your built-in babysitter for the weekend. I’ll head back out Monday morning. Can’t leave Ethan alone too long; the cowboys love playing jokes on that man.” Ranger and I laugh. Our younger cousin, Ethan, is bright and extremely driven, but gullible, and the cowboys and ranch hands have caught on.

“You guys sit and chat. Let me take her and give her a bottle before she starts getting cranky,” Dahlia says as she takes Amethyst and heads toward the kitchen.

“Since you’re staying through the weekend, are you going to the Riley celebration on Saturday?”

“Riley celebration?” My stomach drops.

Did Juniper get married? Engaged?

“Yeah, it’s Ron and Mary’s 40th wedding anniversary. The party’s going to be at Mom and Dad’s house.”

My shoulders sag in relief, but only for a second. “Uh, I had no idea it was happening, but yeah, of course I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it.”

“I had actually forgotten about it too, honestly, but I ran into Juniper this morning grabbing coffee over at the—”

“Juney’s in town?” I try to hide the hitch in my voice, but there’s no use: my face grows red and my chest burns. I didn’t expect to have this kind of visceral reaction to seeing her, let alone just knowing she’s back in town. 

“Yeah,” Ranger’s lips spread into a wide grin, “of course she’s back in town for it. Don’t worry, though. Rumor has it she’s dating someone back in Boulder, so it looks like she’s finally over that crush.” He laughs, standing up to walk toward the kitchen. “I’ll grab us some beers.”

Relief washes over me, but it’s quickly replaced by something else—jealousy maybe? I physically shake my head. No, this isn’t jealousy. It can’t be. It’s guilt again. Guilt for even thinking of another woman when 24 hours ago I was ready to put a ring on Camilla’s finger.

CHAPTER 2 — JUNIPER

Three Months Earlier . . .


“Well, Juney,” my dad looks across the kitchen table at me, “have you thought any more about my offer to take over the business?”

I place my glass of lemonade on the table and nod. “I have, and I want to do it.” 

“You do?” His brows shoot upward in surprise. Juniper, I don’t want you doing something out of—”

“I’m not, Dad,” I say before he can finish. “You’ve prepared me for this my entire life, whether you realize it or not. All those evenings you’d let me help you work on cars in the garage, and the Saturday mornings I’d sit with Mom while she did the payroll and bookkeeping when you guys were first starting out.”

He laughs, wiping away a stray tear. “Remember how you’d always talk me into buying donuts every Saturday?”

“Yeah, I remember how you’d always act like you weren’t going to buy them.” I stand and pull my chair across the hardwood floor, sitting down closer to my dad. “Dad, you and Mom deserve to retire. Go travel and see the world, or fly-fish up in the mountains at the cabin you guys never use. You’ve worked your entire lives for this.”

“It’s hard. Working is all I’ve ever known, but you’re right and your mom has so many places on her bucket list that I can’t wait to take her to.” He pulls out his phone and shows me an actual list of places he’s written down in his Notes app titled: Places for My Sunshine.

My heart aches for a love like my parents have.

“I can’t wait to see your vacation pictures.” 

“But sweetie,” he reaches for my hand, “there’s still a lot of world for you to see. I don’t want you settling back down here if your heart is somewhere else.”

“Dad, I loved going to school in Boulder, and I’ve enjoyed living there the last year-and-a-half after graduation too, but I miss home. I want to live here, where my friends and family are and all of my favorite memories reside.”

“Nothing, and I mean nothing,” his voice shakes and his chin begins to quiver, “would make me prouder as your dad than to have you running our family business.”

I don’t bother responding; it would just be a blubbering mess anyway. Instead, I pull him into a hug. Two things my dad loved growing up were cars and working on cars, so he turned his passion into his business. With my mom by his side, they’ve grown it into a much larger operation that not only services regular vehicles, but farm and industry equipment too.

“Let’s keep this between us for now, sweetheart.” He kisses the tip of my nose. 

“Ron?” My mom comes down the stairs, her head focused on the front of her dress as she walks into the kitchen. “How does this look for the party? Oh, hey sweetie, I didn’t realize you were still here.” She pokes her hip out, the floral dress draping over her tall, thin frame. “Give me your honest opinion.”

“Stunning,” I say honestly. You would never believe my mom’s age if she told you. She’s always jovial about life and whatever she’s doing. She truly is a ray of sunshine like my dad always says.

“Hot damn!” My dad whistles, standing up to take her hand and twirl her around. “You look just as beautiful as the day you walked down the aisle.” 

He nuzzles her neck, making her swat at him playfully before they kiss.

“And on that note,” I finish my lemonade and reach over to grab my purse, “I’ll leave you lovebirds alone. Don’t wait up. Love you.” I wave, my back already to them as I step through the back door of the house. 

I unlock my car and slide into the driver’s seat, sending a quick text to my friends Brooklyn and Dolly to let them know I’m heading that way to meet them. When I told them I’d be in town for my parents’ anniversary party this Saturday, they insisted on a girls’ night for drinks and catching up.

When I arrive at the bar a few moments later, I get an almost giddy feeling in my stomach. Maybe it’s being back in my hometown after living away for a few years, or perhaps it’s because a lot of the memories I have at this bar are ones of me spending most of the evening just trying to get Decker Slade’s attention.

A warm blush creeps up my neck at the memories. I’m not sure if it’s from embarrassment, given the way I was so obviously into him, or the fact that I know damn well I’d still behave the same way if he were here. I shake my head and pull my keys from the ignition before darting inside to meet the girls.

“Heeeeey!” I hold my arms out toward both women as they get up from the booth they’ve chosen. 

“Hey, gorgeous,” Dolly hugs me tightly, “how are you more beautiful every time I see you?”

“I know, right?” Brooklyn rolls her eyes, smiling broadly before giving me a warm hug. “We’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you guys too.” I take a seat across from both of them, a glass of rosé already waiting for me. We instantly launch into how have you been? and what’s new? conversations. It’s been almost five months since I came home for the holidays, which may not sound like a long time to be away, but when you spent almost every single day of your first 18 years in a small town where you see everyone on a daily basis, it feels like forever.

“How’s motherhood treating you two? Brook, are you ready for your third yet?” I wriggle my eyebrows at her, bringing my wine glass to my lips. It’s tart and refreshing.

“Not a chance in hell,” she says dramatically. “I just need a chance to breathe without a child needing something or Tyler bending me over something.” 

“Ohhh no,” I tease her, “are you having too much sex with your extremely hot and rugged cowboy husband?” Dahlia bursts out laughing, Brooklyn following suit. “That sounds soooo exhausting.” We all fall into a fit of giggles and it feels just like old times. Almost instantly, my heart is full, a feeling of reassurance washing over me regarding my decision to move back home—something I’ve only told my parents.

“Speaking of sex . . . Juniper Riley?” Brooklyn and Dolly bump shoulders, their hands curled around their wine glasses as they eagerly await some juicy gossip. 

“Whaaat?” I ask slowly, confused at their confusion. 

“Your new boyfriend?” Dahlia finally says. “The one Ranger said you mentioned?” 

“Oh . . . ooohhhh.” I nod my head enthusiastically, completely forgetting about that stupid little white lie I let slip out when I ran into him this morning. “Right, my new man.” I take a long sip of wine. “I wouldn’t say boyfriend, per se. I mean, neither of us actually agreed on giving a title to anything yet; we’re just seeing where it goes.”

“Aww, she’s blushing.” Brook squirms giddily in her seat and a pang of guilt cuts through me. “I’m just happy to see you putting yourself out there . . . getting over a certain someone.”

“Yeah,” I laugh, attempting to pretend her comment is a joke, “I’m sure he’ll be heartbroken when he hears.” I say the last part in the hope that it plants a seed, so maybe this information will get back to Decker—for what reason, I don’t know. Maybe in my fantasies, I’m hopeful it will make him realize what he’s lost. 

What he’s lost? Girl, get a grip. He never even had you.

“Is the sex hot?” Dolly grins. “I swear the hottest sex is always with the guy you say you’re not going to catch feelings for or put a label on the relationship. The one who just gets under your skin and makes you want to ignore all the red flags.” Her gaze drifts and she chews her bottom lip, lost in thought.

Brooklyn looks over at her. “Something you want to tell us, Dolly? Ranger know about this mystery man?”

“It was Ranger,” Dolly laughs, her face growing red. “He was that one I swore I’d just have a little fun with. You guys remember, I was always crying about being lovesick.” She laughs. “God, I wish I could go back and hug myself and say, ‘Chill, girl, it’s all gonna work out. You’re going to get your man.’”

“I’m so glad you guys were able to work things out.” I squeeze her hand. “I know Dean is probably smiling down on you guys—so happy that his best friend could be the one to take care of you forever.”

“Me too,” Brooklyn adds. “Then again, I bet he was probably up there banging his head against heaven’s gate watching Ranger unable to pull his head out of his ass for so long.” She snorts. “Speaking of heads in asses, Ranger needs to give Deck a lesson in removing his own, because look what happened: He fucked around and you got a boyfriend.” She rolls her eyes. “Men, when will they ever learn? Guess he’ll just have to eat his heart out when he finds out.”

I smile and nod, laughing along as I mentally kick myself for saying anything to Ranger about a boyfriend. I thought it was just a silly little comment that would make its way back to Decker, but I guess I should have known better. 

“I’m sure he’ll be just fine,” I say, hoping the subject will quickly change and I can stop squirming in my seat. 

“You can find o—” Brooklyn stops abruptly, her eyes darting to Dolly’s, who I swear shakes her head “no” quickly. “I mean, do you need any help for tomorrow? I know you said over text that everything was good to go, but just want to make sure?”

I’m tempted to ask what I just missed, but my brain tells me it’s just because I’m tired. Planning my parents’ anniversary party has been a bit more stressful since I did it long distance, but it’s come together so well. 

“No, no, you girls have done enough just asking about it, but thank you so much.” We turn our attention back to our conversation, reminiscing here and there and catching up some small-town gossip I’ve missed out on. 

After we say our goodbyes, I head out, opting to take the long way home, the one that takes me by the Slade ranch. It’s pointless since Decker doesn’t live there anymore and I can’t even see his house from the road anyway. I drive by, a smile pulling at my lips at the fun times I had coming here as I was growing up, and once again, it just feels right to be back home in Colorado. 

***

The soft breeze coming down the mountains rustles my spring dress, goosebumps breaking out across my skin. I smile and wave to a few of my parents’ friends from across the yard as they step into the house where most of the others are gathered. 

I pull my cardigan from where it’s resting on my waist and tug it over my shoulders as the sun sinks slowly behind the distant peaks. The crowd grows louder inside the house. I turn to see what the commotion is, squinting to try and make out through the kitchen windows who they’ve gathered around. 

My stomach drops and my shoulders stiffen as I take a few steps closer . . . just as Decker Slade turns his head and makes direct eye contact with me. My knees grow weak and I have the sudden irrational urge to fall to the ground so he can no longer see me, but I don’t. Instead, I give him a timid smile, but his attention is quickly pulled away when his older sister, Milly, throws her arms around his neck.

“What the fuck is he doing here?” I nervously pace the deck, unsure if I should go inside and say “hello” like everyone else. I decide it would be weirder to stay outside. After all, this little crush I’ve been allowing to linger all these years is pretty one-sided. 

After watching him get pulled every which way for almost 20 minutes, I walk up behind him when he’s ducked away to grab a beer from the fridge. 

“Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.” 

He stands, the fridge door closing as he twists off the top of the bottle. He turns around slowly, the beer frozen halfway to his lips when his eyes meet mine. They quickly drop down to my cleavage. I’m petite but God didn’t spare any curves when it came to my body. His eyes drag up me slowly before he finally takes a slow sip. His tongue darts out to lick of a drop of foam before his lips spread into a lazy grin. 

“Good surprise or bad surprise?” 

And there it is: That slow little fizzle in my belly that burns for this man every time he smiles at me.

“Good, of course.” 

“You look . . . nice.” His eyes peruse me again as he takes another drink. 

“Thanks.” I look down at the dress and cardigan I bought specifically for the party. I wanted to feel grown-up tonight, like a young woman who’s finally coming into her own instead of the usual array of band tees and denim shorts I sport. “So wh—”

“Deck, bro, come here. You have to see this.” His younger cousin Aiden pops up behind us, startling me and pulling Decker’s attention away. He gives me an apologetic smile, but I wave it away, walking back toward the great room to find my parents.

“I’ll find you later.”

By midnight, all the guests have finally dissipated, the caterers have cleared everything out, and I’m exhausted. 

“Good night, Brennan.” I hug Decker’s mom back, her faithful Baccarat Rouge still lingering. “And thanks again for letting me throw the party at your house.”

“Of course, darling, your parents are our best friends.” She cups my face. “You’re practically a second daughter to me. Now drive home safely.”

“I will, I promise.” I take the steps down the front porch toward my car when I hear Decker’s familiar voice. 

“Leaving just like that?” I spin around to see him leaning up against the porch, a bottle of whiskey in his hand, dangling by his knee. “Told you I’d find you later.” 

“It’s pretty late.” I shrug, my cardigan now fully pulled tight around my body. 

“And? You’re young and you don’t work tomorrow. Come on.” He motions with his hand holding the bottle, walking back up the porch steps to the chairs at the far end of the corner. I follow him.

He takes a swig of the whiskey before handing the bottle over to me. I reach for it, staring at it like it’s going to bite me. 

“Oh please, I’ve seen a bartender pour liquor down your throat on more than one occasion.” He laughs and it makes me laugh too. I close my eyes and take a swig, the burn hitting my throat and stomach almost instantly. A few years ago, yeah, I was absolutely a party girl, but these days, that doesn’t interest me so much.

“Smooth,” I cough and sputter as I hand it back to him. He laughs again, taking another drink before the silence settles between us.

“So what are you doing back in town?” I finally ask.

“Not much,” he leans forward, his elbows on his knees, “just wanted to see the family is all.” He pulls his cowboy hat from his head, running his hands through his dark hair.

“Your beard’s gotten long.” I lift my chin. 

“Guess it has, hasn’t it?” He runs his hands over it briefly before turning back to the whiskey. “So what’s life like in Boulder? Gotta be more exciting than here.” 

He stretches one leg out in front of him, leaning back into the chair. Somehow this man manages to look better in person than any fantasy I could conjure up. His broad shoulders dwarf the chair, his chest thicker than the last time I saw him.

“It’s good,” I shrug, pulling my eyes away from him. “I’m usually pretty busy with work, but I love getting out and hiking on the weekends with my friends. What about you? How’s life in Texas?” My stomach clenches when I ask, because I know there’s a fair chance he’ll tell me he’s happily in love. The way Dolly and Brook looked at each other during drinks last night, I half-expected him to show up with someone.

“Can I ask you something?” he asks, ignoring my question, and reaching his hand out to touch the edge of my cardigan. “Why are you pretending to be someone you’re not?”

I frown, pulling the material away from him. “I’m not. I’ve worn dresses before.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. You look uncomfortable; you’ve been tuggin’ at that thing all night.”

“Well, I’m not uncomfortable. I’m fine, just cold.” I let the cardigan fall open, attempting to appear relaxed, because he’s absolutely right. I do feel uncomfortable, but it’s not because of what I’m wearing; it’s because he continues to stare at me like he’s about to pounce. “And for the record, people change, Decker.” 

I keep my gaze forward as the conversation bounces between us, moments of silence lingering. I want to ask him what’s on his mind—why he’s trying to find himself at the bottom of a bottle—but I know it’s a thread I have no interest in pulling at.

“I should probably get home. It’s super-late and I’m sure yo—”

“I’ll walk you to your car,” he interrupts, standing up and reaching his hand toward me.

“O—okay.” I place my hand in his and he helps me up from the chair, his other hand coming to rest on the small of my back as he leads me down the steps and toward my car. Before I realize it, my keys are in his hand and he’s reaching around me to open the door. 

“Thank you,” I laugh slightly, “such a gentleman.” I take the keys from his hands as his smile fades. He looks down at me, his brow furrowing slightly as he takes a step toward me. My shoulders are already against my car, so I have nowhere else to go.

“Not if I can help it.” His eyes are dark, focused on my lips. 

My eyes drop to where he’s raising his hands, sliding one into my hair as the other comes to my waist. I’m in complete shock, and my heart thuds in my ears as his cologne hits my nose a second before his lips are on mine. 

“Open your mouth for me,” he whispers against my lips. I’m about to ask if I’m dreaming, because finally, after years of imagining what this exact moment would feel like, he’s kissing me.

The kiss is soft, wet—almost sweet—before it suddenly turns hungry. His lips cover mine, his tongue sliding between them as he pulls my body against him, the thick, rigid evidence of his arousal pressing into my lower belly. 

I’m drowning in ecstasy from a kiss. One single kiss. My toes curl inside my shoes, my hands still at my sides as my body melts against him. I’m not innocent by any means, but I have never been kissed like this by anyone, and if I had to bet, I’ll never be kissed this way again.

I’m seconds away from climbing his rugged, muscular body when he pulls his tongue from my mouth, his lips caressing mine gently two more times before he steps back, his fingers lingering on my chin as he stares down at me. 

“I guess one thing hasn’t changed. Good night, Juniper. Have a safe drive back to Boulder.”

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