|Jay Samuels knew exactly where to find his girlfriend. Not in the waiting area, eager to throw herself in his arms the minute he deboarded the plane and appeared. No, Ashley would be in the gift shop, trying to convey blaringly that picking him up was an afterthought. She'd act like coming to get him from the airport (twice a year or so) was a major inconvenience to her. Maybe it was. Maybe he'd prefer to have her tackle him with enthusiastic love. But he'd always delighted in Ashley's mystery, her unfathomableness.
He smiled eagerly, making his way around other passengers in the tiny La Crosse airport. Even knowing he and Ashley would spend the entire week he was on leave butting heads, he couldn't wait to see her. Since she'd moved to La Crosse when she was seventeen, he'd had to take charge to get what he wanted. She never made it easy, never fell in line with his plans without a good argument. He had a big one on his hands tonight, but he was up for it. He was spoiling for it.
Still grinning, he entered the gift shop and saw her immediately. A woman as elegant and breathtakingly gorgeous as Ashley Savage was hard to miss. She wore an utterly feminine, utterly sophisticated expensive business suit that she couldn't have imagined even touching a decade ago. The suit she wore today was in shades of pink, a floral print, with a form-fitting jacket that followed her exquisite curves, and a little skirt. Three inch pumps showed off deeply tanned, mile-long legs. She was five-ten, only a few inches shorter than him, but taller than most women, especially in the heels. As usual, she wore her waist-length, champagne blond hair in a twist at the back of her head. Wisps hung around her delicate face. He had the feeling she thought tying up her hair the way she did made her unapproachable and unattractive to men. She couldn't have been more wrong. While she didn't need the make-up she wore, he had to admit she applied it with an expert hand. She looked completely natural, as if she wore no cosmetics at all. He wondered if she had any idea how beautiful...and intimidating...she was to men. Heck, she probably intimidated women just as easily. But he expected that was her goal. She didn't allow anyone or anything to get to her.
An ache started inside him that he knew would only get stronger with every minute they spent together in this short time. Does she have any idea what she does to me? For him, no other woman could come close to her. That had never been what she intended, of course, and he'd well known it after they graduated high school and started independent lives. She'd purposed for them to become separate from each other in every conceivable way.
She'd met rich-from-birth humanitarian Amanda Grant, who'd hired Ashley at her interior design company and taught her the ropes. In a very short time, Ashley had obviously learned a lot from her mentor -- she'd mastered how to dress and talk properly, but she'd also designed her own style and it was worth gold. Amanda's clients had fallen for Ashley left and right, and she'd become a success in every sense of the word.
Since then, Jay had to concede that what they'd shared no longer fit -- she'd been right about that, in not so many words. He'd ceased to harbor any more illusions about befriending someone who'd seen so much pain. Plain and simple, friendship could no longer satisfy him. Not when he'd seen her strength, the way she'd picked up the pieces of her shattered life and rebuilt herself from scratch. Wanting their relationship to move into something more romantic had become a priority to him, but she hadn't made it easy for him. To this day, getting anything from her was a never-ending battle, but a worthwhile one that he hadn't and wouldn't tire of, not when she allowed him to be with her despite "the inconvenience." I never made it easy for her either. Just the opposite. I was hell on her when we were younger—just because I enjoyed our sparring so much. Unfortunately, he couldn't deny that he still derived pleasure from that. But sparring wasn't all he desired anymore.
Jay's hands clenched. He loved her, wanted her. While that desire felt old and familiar, the torture in his longing was new and nearly unbearable. The feelings between them used to be so light and fun. The last time he'd come home... Being with her constantly wasn't enough. Having her next to me, allowing me to touch her...the ache to kiss and hold her won't be satisfied until she belongs to me wholly. At the time, he hadn't been sure how to make that happen. He'd wondered countless times what she would do if he told her the only future he could envision beyond being a chaplain and a minister outside the military was all about her. If his life didn't include her forever, he wasn't interested. This time, he'd discover one way or another what she would do when she learned he'd already taken a step into a permanent life with her. He planned to ask her to take a step of her own.
Looking at her guarded face now, he already knew the answer to that. She saw him standing here, aware he was watching her, but she wouldn't admit it a moment sooner than she willed. She wanted to make him wait for her. That was all right with him. Her control issues had given him a chance to look at all he'd missed for months on end.
In a calculated move, she glanced up from the magazine she was perusing, pretended she'd just now realized he'd arrived, and murmured, "Oh, you're here. Let me pay for these, then I'll take you home."
She dropped another fashion magazine into the basket she carried. Jay followed her to the checkout counter, stepping right in front of her just before she got there. Her expression was irritated, just as guarded as before, and it should have reminded him of something hard as ice or stone. Ashley's intentions to keep everyone away no longer worked on him. Everything about her spoke of soft femininity to him.
"Not exactly the hello I was hoping for," he said under his breath. He pressed up against her, and she glared at him.
"Can I help you?" the clerk called pleasantly.
Ashley stepped around him, effectively dodging his embrace to put the basket on the counter. Undeterred, Jay put his arms around her from behind. She stiffened defensively, but he held her a little tighter. He put his mouth right against the shell of her ear while the clerk went about the business of tallying her purchases. Breathing in her expensive, mesmerizing perfume, he murmured, "I'd rather not go to my parents' right away."
"They miss you."
"I miss you."
Impossibly, she stiffened even more. He nuzzled her neck, becoming increasingly intoxicated by the scent and feel of her so close. He wanted to get out of here. Now. I need to be alone with her. This wasn't the time or place, but he couldn't get himself to back off. Instinctively, his counselor brain started to analyze both of their actions, but he shook off the need to do that with her. When he was home, he wanted to relax and enjoy his time with her.
She paid and took the bag the clerk handed her. Gently, she nudged him away, turning to ask, "Have you gotten your luggage?" "Nah." Seeing Ashley had been his first and last thought when the plane landed.
She led the way to the baggage return across the lobby from the gift shop. When they arrived and watched the bags coming through, she said, "I have to drop off this fabric sample book with a client and then go back to the office..."
He didn't care to hear the list of things she'd prepared to keep them apart. He slipped through her defenses and put his arms around her while she was still talking.
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