Just This Once (A Last Frontier Lodge Novel) - J.h. Croix - ebook
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A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Just This Once is a friends to lovers story between a brilliant prosecutor who’s sworn off love and a Navy SEAL who’s been hiding his feelings for too long. Becca Hamilton is a busy prosecutor who’s dedicated and passionate about her work. After being left high and dry days before her wedding several years ago, she promised herself she wouldn’t let her heart become vulnerable again. Yet, she didn’t count on temptation in the form of Aidan McNamara.Aidan McNamara is many a woman’s dream—a tall, dark, sexy-as-hell military type who tends to save the day so often it’s annoying. Becca has been quite successful at ignoring the spark that burns every time Aidan is near. Until he shows up and happens to save her evening. One scorching hot kiss on a rainy night, and Becca begins to question the limits she set for herself. She gambles she can allow herself just one night with Aidan.Aidan has been half in love with Becca since the first time he laid eyes on her. A chance encounter kindles hope in his heart. He can’t say no when she asks for one night, but he knows from the start he wants more.Becca quickly discovers that ‘just once’ won’t even come close to satisfying her desire. She’s completely unprepared for the depth of feelings Aidan elicits. Forced to take a much-needed break from work, she decides a journey to Last Frontier Lodge in Alaska might give her some perspective and a long overdue adventure. A trip she hoped would clear her head only leaves her missing Aidan so much she can hardly stand it.Aidan is a man of plans and action, but with Becca, he’s winging it every step of the way. When she takes off to Alaska, he finds himself following her even though it goes against his grain. Can Becca let down her guard long enough to let Aidan into her heart? Can Aidan convince her he’s worth more than just once?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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Just This Once

A Last Frontier Lodge Novel

J.H. Croix

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Epilogue

Excerpt: Falling Fast by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved

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Acknowledgments

About the Author

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1530039096

ISBN 13: 9781530039098

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Dedication

This one goes out to Alaska - a breathtaking and inspiring place!

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Chapter 1

The thwack of the windshield wipers was steady as Becca Hamilton drove along the highway. It was approaching midnight, much later than she planned to be on her way to her parents’ home in Bellingham, Washington. She had yet another late night at work in Seattle, but she’d promised her mother she’d be there for the weekend. After working too late and failing to come through on the same promise last weekend, she was bound and determined to get there tonight. The visibility was crap with fog and rainy mist encompassing the road. She might as well have been in the middle of a cloud. It was so foggy, she couldn’t tell if her defrost was working, so she wiped at the windshield with her sleeve. With a sigh, she dropped her arm away. She rolled her shoulders in a weak attempt to ease the tension bundled in them.

Glancing at the clock, she estimated she had another hour before she made it to Bellingham. Suddenly, headlights flashed in front of her as she came around a corner, much too close for comfort. Blinded by the glaring lights, she yanked the steering wheel and swerved to avoid the vehicle coming straight at her. She felt the other car bounce off of hers with a hard thump that jolted through her body. She heard a loud screech before her car tumbled into the ditch. She came to a thudding stop with her car on its side.

Stunned for a second, she started to scramble, unbuckling her seatbelt and trying to climb out before it occurred to her she might want to take stock of her situation first. She froze and glanced around. Rain continued to fall, her windshield wipers carrying on as if nothing had happened. She looked up toward the road to see the taillights of the car that ran her into the ditch disappearing into the wet darkness.

“Great, just great,” she muttered. “Run me off the road and leave. Dammit!” She adjusted her position, so her hips rested on the console between the driver and passenger seats. She mentally scanned her body and didn’t sense any significant injuries. Her shoulder had jammed against the door in the tumble into the ditch. She figured she’d be sore from the impact by morning, but all in all, she seemed okay. The pressing issue was she was alone in the dark, rainy night and stuck in a ditch. She was living a bad cliché, if only for a moment.

If there was one thing Becca hated, it was asking for help. It ranked right up there with dating. She hated it so much, she actually pondered the likelihood that she could somehow get her car upright again on her own. Mid-thought, her rational brain kicked in. Are you out of your damn mind? Don’t confuse yourself with a superhero. There is NO way you can get your car out of this ditch by yourself. Her ridiculous train of thought elicited a wry smile that faded promptly. There were times she had to swallow her pride and accept she needed help. They were few and far between, but tonight definitely qualified as such.

She flicked on the interior light and searched for her purse, which held her phone. It had fallen to the passenger side on the floor. Far out of her reach. She started maneuvering to grab it when there was a knock on her window. She scrambled back up and managed to reach the button to open the window. As the blurry glass rolled down, a familiar face loomed in the rainy darkness. Aidan McNamara, the absolute last person she wanted to see her like this. Aidan was a family friend through her older brother Gage. They’d served together in the Navy SEAL’s. Aidan was a woman’s dream if one liked tall, dark, sexy-as-hell military types who tended to save the day so often it was annoying. Even under these circumstances, Becca’s pulse raced at the sight of him. As much as it drove her insane, her body had all kinds of ideas about Aidan.

“Becca?” Aidan’s brows hitched up when he saw her.

“It’s me.”

“Are you okay? Let’s get you out of there.”

Aidan didn’t bother to ask what happened, but instantly went into action. After he did a quick circle around her car to make sure it was safe to pull her out, he opened her door and reached in for her. He ignored her protests as he lifted her out. Next thing she knew, she was in his strong arms, the rain falling softly around them. He adjusted her weight in arms. Becca shivered and couldn’t help the tiny curl of comfort that snuck through her. A corner of her savored feeling protected like this. Aidan had the disconcerting tendency to elicit this feeling in her. She pushed against it like a cat swatting its paw and wiggled.

“Put me down,” she demanded. Her voice sounded prickly, and she didn’t care.

She heard his sigh. “Becca, it’s more work to put you down right here than it is to carry you. The ground’s like mush here. Let’s get to the road, and I’ll put you down.”

She bit her lip and stayed quiet. Aidan’s embrace was strong and sure. She could feel his muscles flex against her body as he stepped carefully up the incline. Her pulse galloped and heat slid through her veins. Why, oh why, did this man have to affect her like this? She’d sworn off men after her fiancée had dumped her two days before their wedding. That had been three years ago. Since then, she’d had no trouble completely ignoring men. Except for Aidan. He had this unerring ability to make her flushed and flustered simply by existing.

He reached the road and carefully eased her down. His black sedan was pulled to the side of the road, its lights illuminating them. She glanced up. Of course, Aidan had come to her aid without bothering to put a jacket on. His button-down shirt was clinging to his muscled chest and arms. His black hair was damp from the rain. His blue eyes were bright in the small circle of light cast around them. His strong features were shadowed. His blade of a nose crooked the tiniest bit in one spot. She’d always wanted to ask how he broke it, but she never had. With his career as a Navy SEAL, she surmised he’d had many brushes with injury.

He gestured to her car. “Need me to get anything for you?”

“Oh, um. I can get my stuff. Let me…” She started to turn and walk back into the ditch when she felt his hand curl around her arm.

His grip was strong and implacable. “I’ll get it. You seem to have gotten out of this without getting hurt, but I’m not letting you go back down there. Where’s your stuff?”

“Oh my God! Don’t be all tough with me. I’m fine. I can…”

“Becca,” Aidan said, his tone low with warning. “Gage will let me have it if I let you climb back down there and you somehow get hurt. We don’t know if your car’s stable where it is, and it’s a mud pit. Just tell me what I need to find.”

She wanted to argue, but she bit it back. She was cold, tired and wet. The shock of getting bounced into a ditch by another car was starting to set in. Shivers raced through her and she felt slightly dazed. She struggled to gather herself and think clearly, annoyed at how out of it she felt. Too tired to wrestle with herself, she took a deep breath and managed to nod. “Okay. My purse fell on the floor in the front. My bag should be in the backseat.”

Aidan nodded and turned away quickly. She waited by the side of the road. She heard him moving around, but she couldn’t see much in the dark. Her car engine and lights were turned off before she heard a door slam, and he climbed back up to her side. Her purse and small overnight bag were hanging from his shoulder. She followed him to his car. Somehow, he beat her to the passenger side and held the door for her. Once she was seated, he handed her purse over and put her bag in the backseat.

His car was warm. She held her hands in front of the heater and rubbed them together. Of course, he drove a luxury sedan. She had no idea what kind of car it was, but the seats were soft, supple leather, and the engine hummed so quietly she could barely hear it. When Aidan climbed inside, he looked over at her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“A car came around the corner in my lane. I swerved to avoid them, and they bumped me on the way. Next thing I knew, I was in the ditch.” She hugged her arms around her waist, her teeth chattering slightly from the cold.

He reached behind her and pulled something forward. “Here, put this on. You got pretty wet.” He handed her a sweatshirt.

Without thinking, she pulled it over her head, sighing once it fell around her. It held a subtle woodsy scent. The sweatshirt nearly swallowed her whole, but she tugged it close, savoring the warmth. She could hardly let herself think it, but she loved that it held his scent.

“Thanks. I didn’t realize how cold I was.”

Aidan nodded, his eyes still on her. “Should I take you to the hospital to get checked out?”

She shook her head quickly. “No! I’m fine. My shoulder jammed against the door when my car rolled in the ditch, but I’m fine. I do not need to go to the hospital.”

He was quiet for a long moment before he nodded. “Okay. Let me make a call to get your car towed.”

Before she could say anything, he tapped a button on the screen in the center of his dashboard.

“Hey, boss. What can we do for you?” A man’s voice came through the car speakers clearly.

“Hey, George. I need you guys to arrange for a towing company to come get Becca Hamilton’s car out of a ditch. It’s about twenty minutes north from our office. I’ll wait with her until you guys get here, then you can take it from there.” Aidan owned a private security company and had an entire crew he could call upon at any hour. Becca figured George must be one of his employees.

“We’ll head up there right now. Are you on I-5 or Route 9?”

“Route 9. Look for my car.”

“Got it.”

The line clicked.

“You didn’t have to…” Becca started to say.

“We’re not leaving your car here.” Aidan glanced out the window as another car drove by, its headlights blurry in the rain. “The fastest tow company can’t get here sooner. This way, George will wait with your car and make sure everything’s taken care of. In the meantime, where were you headed?”

After Aidan retired as a Navy SEAL, he started his private security company in Seattle. The company quickly developed an excellent reputation. Becca encountered him and his employees frequently in her work as a prosecutor for the Seattle District Court. She hadn’t thought through what she was going to do about her car. Having Aidan step in and handle the situation rubbed against the annoyance she carried due to the simmering attraction she was doing her damnedest to ignore.

Warmth was starting to seep through her bones between the heat in his car and his sweatshirt. She took a breath and tried to gather her thoughts. Being this close to Aidan was discombobulating. She preferred to be somewhere she could take a step back and create enough distance between them, so her heart didn’t pound so hard and heat didn’t slide through her veins. To regain control, she latched onto her annoyance.

“You don’t have to step in and save the day, you know? I’m perfectly capable of calling a tow company and waiting for them to come. I appreciate you stopped, but…”

She paused for a breath, realizing her words were flying out of her mouth. She was flustered and disoriented. Between her unexpected roll into the ditch and Aidan’s appearance, she was off kilter in more ways than one.

Aidan appeared to be waiting. She glanced sideways to find his eyes on her, inscrutable in the dim light inside the car. After another long beat, he spoke. “Becca, I’m not trying to save the day. I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t do for a stranger. I saw your car in the ditch and stopped to see if I could help.” He gestured to the window. “It’s rainy and cold out and going on midnight. I can’t in good conscience just leave you here. I have no doubt you’d take care of yourself if I hadn’t happened along. Maybe you don’t feel the same way, but I consider you a friend. I’m not leaving you alone on the highway in this weather. Your brothers would never let me hear the end of it if I did.”

She knew what he said was true. He would stop to help anyone because that’s the kind of man he was. She just hated the fact she needed help and the one man who somehow got under her skin happened to be the man to stop and help. She glanced out the window. The pace of the rain had picked up, shifting from a heavy mist to something close to pouring rain. It felt like they were in a warm, dry island inside his car. The space compressed. Awareness prickled along her skin. Aidan was no more than a foot away from her. Darting her eyes sideways, they landed on his hand resting on the steering wheel—a strong, muscled and masculine hand.

When she brought her eyes to his, they coasted over her face—assessing, measuring. She could barely breathe and somehow had to get through the next twenty minutes until George arrived.

Aidan shifted in his seat, one of his hands falling to the console between them. “Have I done something to offend you?” he asked suddenly.

She could tell by his tone that he was genuinely curious. She shook her head. Because how could she explain that the only thing he’d done was to be the one man who made her forget her promise she’d never let a man get to her again? It wouldn’t be so bad if he were some random guy she encountered once in a blue moon. No, he had to go and be one of Gage’s best friends and a friend to her entire family. She couldn’t avoid him even if she tried.

“Well, then what is it? Every time I’m around you, you seem annoyed.”

Instead of dropping the topic, he kept going. Her body was a jumble of nerves, electricity emanating from him and coiling around her, setting her nerves alight and heat notching higher and higher.

“I’m not annoyed.” Maybe she could try to opposite approach. Say the opposite of everything she felt, and the feelings would go away.

He arched a brow, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Really?”

Annoyance arced higher. “No, I’m not! But I’m about to be.”

Aidan chuckled. Anger rose inside her, and she opened her mouth to tell him off when it occurred to her she was being ridiculous. She couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled in response. She turned to him and collided with his gaze. In a flash, the air around them hummed with heat. His smile faded. Becca could hardly breathe. She held still, her heart battering against her ribcage. Before she knew what happened, he leaned across the console, erasing the distance between them.

She opened her mouth to say something and his lips came against hers. Soft and sure at once, he fit his mouth over hers. The second his lips met hers, deep longing pulsed within. Her mind went blank and she froze, but for the life of her she couldn’t pull away. Not when her body cried out for more, craving to get as close as she could to imprint herself against his body the way his lips were now molded to hers. He angled his head, his tongue tracing her lips. Her breath broke on a low moan, and he captured it by deepening his kiss. His tongue delved inside, hers responding by tangling with his. The kiss went from a tentative exploration to explosive. Heat surged through her in waves as she nearly crawled across the console to get closer. His hand stroked up her neck, lacing into the hair at her nape. His thumb brushed across the beat of her pulse, which went wild at the feel of his calloused skin against her.

Oh. My. God. He felt so good—so, so, sooo good. All this time, she hadn’t allowed herself to wonder what it would feel like to kiss Aidan. Every time her body considered it, she ran away from the thought, trying to shove her body’s desire into a box where she could lock it up and pretend it didn’t exist. Now that she’d tasted him, she didn’t think she could ever forget. He kissed the way he did everything—with complete confidence. He alternated with strong, commanding strokes of his tongue and soft, devastating kisses when he pulled back incrementally.

Somehow, her hand was stroking into the curls at the base of his skull, his hair damp against her fingers. He tore his mouth away, his lips coasting down her neck, his rough stubble scraping her skin, making her arch into him. Hot, wet kisses blazed a trail along the edge of her collarbone and dipped into the vee of her blouse. Her nipples were tight, peaked in desire. She wanted to feel more, more of everything. She wanted his touch on every inch of her body. Now.

Chapter 2

Aidan loosened his hand in Becca’s silky brown hair and dragged the back of his fingers along behind his lips. She tasted so damn good. She tried to blend in and not stand out, but she was too damn beautiful for that. Her kisses gave her away—passionate and wild. She threw herself into their kiss, her body twining against his in the cramped space of his car. He licked into the valley between her breasts. He couldn’t resist sliding his hand around to cup her breast, its weight heavy against his palm. Her nipple tightened under his touch.

Suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the window. He swore and leaned away from Becca. Her eyes slammed into his—her beautiful blue eyes. He’d stared into those eyes many times, always struggling to rein in the impulse to kiss her. Her eyes were a deep shade of blue, usually guarded with a hint of distrust, the shield she hid behind. At the moment, she looked as stunned as he felt. The shield had fallen and what he saw there slammed him in the gut. Vulnerability, confusion and desire swirled together for a split second before she shuttered them. She pulled back swiftly.

At another knock on the window, he turned and tapped the button for it to open. Conveniently, the windows had fogged between the rainy cold and the heat in the car. George’s grin met him. “Hey boss. We’re here.”

“I noticed. Give me a sec, okay?”

At George’s nod, he closed the window and turned back to Becca. She’d firmly planted herself as far away as she could, mashed up against the door with her arms crossed. She stared straight ahead. Her lips were plump and swollen, and her cheeks were flushed. Her pulse beat rapidly in her neck, her skin illuminated from the lights of George’s car behind them. Her pulse was the only clue that she was anywhere near as affected as he was by their kiss.

She spoke rapidly. “I don’t know how that happened, but let’s forget about it. I’m not thinking clearly and you’re not either. How about I hitch a ride back to Seattle with your guys? They won’t mind, right?”

Aidan shook his head. Maybe he hadn’t planned to kiss Becca tonight, but he’d wanted to ever since he’d first laid eyes on her almost ten years ago. Back then, she was a mere twenty-three years old and a very studious law student. He could still recall the first time he saw her. He was on a break between missions with his team. Gage had invited him and another friend, Matt, to a family barbecue. Becca had been seated at a picnic table, her glossy brown hair hiding her face as she studied a book. She was already in her second year in law school. Then, he was a young twenty-eight years old and deep in the swagger of being a Navy SEAL. He hadn’t even noticed her at first, but sat down at the table to rest his knee, which was sore from a fall. Becca had finally looked from her book and pushed her glasses up on her nose. He felt like he’d been punched. She was so damn beautiful, he’d simply stared at her.

After several long moments of silence, Becca’s mouth had curled into a smile. “You must be Aidan,” she’d said. All he’d been able to do was nod. Somehow, he’d regained the ability to speak and carried on a semi-normal conversation with her, all the while reminding himself he couldn’t try to make a play for Gage’s little sister. Not to mention, he wasn’t interested in making a play in a casual way. He’d looked at her—at the gorgeous fall of brown hair, her sharp blue eyes behind her cat-shaped glasses, and her full pink mouth—and he’d wanted to lift her in his arms and carry her away to be with him forever. But he couldn’t do that because he was home between missions. He was already scheduled to leave with his team in a few short days on another classified mission. In the intervening years, she’d gotten engaged and dumped by her fiancée. He’d learned that bitter news from Gage on the mission when their friend Matt had died.

Aidan had known for years Becca was the one and only woman for him. Yet, time and opportunity had boxed him in. Beyond the lightning bolt of attraction he felt for her, she called to him on so many levels. She was brilliant, strong and independent. She was also a protective, loving sister. Due to his friendship with Gage, Aidan was close to their whole family and watched her time and again be there for her family whenever anyone needed her. The hardest part had been watching the walls come up around her after her engagement fell apart. Before that, he’d resigned himself to the fact he’d have to let her go since she appeared to love someone else. After that, he’d yet to sort out a way to approach her. To say she was unapproachable was an understatement.

On top of everything else, there was the complicating factor that she was Gage’s sister. In the beginning, his life as a Navy SEAL kept him away so much that romance hadn’t been a priority. He’d been able to put his feelings for Becca on the back burner. He figured if he ever had a shot with her, then he’d figure out what to do about how Gage might feel about it. Gage was one of his closest friends, and while he wasn’t irrational, he was a protective older brother. Until tonight, Aidan had figured he simply might never have to worry about how to navigate the problem with Gage.

Ten long years after his heart nearly stopped when he first saw Becca, Aidan finally kissed her. Instead of it being planned and carried out meticulously, he’d impulsively kissed her in his car on the side of the road. His heart pounding, he gathered himself and looked at her.

“I won’t forget it, and neither will you. Stop pretending.” Her eyes swung to his, wide. “I didn’t plan it this way, but I’ve wanted to kiss you for too damn long, and don’t pretend you didn’t want it too. I’m going to get out and make sure those guys don’t need anything from me. Then, I’m taking you wherever you need to go. We can talk on the way. Or not. But for God’s sake, don’t act like this was nothing. Because it damn well wasn’t and you know it.”

Becca stared at him and chewed her lip. He thought his heart might pound its way out of his chest, but he forced himself to breathe. He was afraid he’d played his cards too fast, but he’d kept his feelings under wraps for so long, his restraint was weak. When she finally nodded slowly, he let his breath go.

He climbed out into the rain, which soaked him instantly. After checking in with George and Dale and confirming the towing company was on the way, he climbed back in his sedan. Becca turned to him.

“You’re soaked! I don’t imagine you have a towel in here, huh?”

“Actually, I do.” He reached into the back and curled his hand around the handle of a black case, which held first aid and other supplies. A small, highly absorbent towel was tucked in the corner. He whipped it out and dried his face and hair.

Becca started laughing. “Only you would have a case like that. Or maybe Gage,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

“Gage definitely has one. Carryover from our military days.” He tossed the towel into the back seat and eyed her. “Okay, I don’t think we ever got to the part about where you were headed.”

“You can just take me back to Seattle.” Her shoulders hunched on a sigh.

“I’ll take you wherever you need. I know you weren’t driving home at midnight.”

“I was on my way to Bellingham to see my parents. I was supposed to go last weekend, but it got too late, so I promised I’d be there this weekend. Now it’s past midnight, it’s pouring and if you take me, I don’t know how I’ll get back home.”

Aidan shrugged. “We’re headed the same place. Did you forget Ellie lives in Bellingham?” Ellie was his younger sister.

She glanced at the clock. “Okay. You sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all.” He didn’t wait for her to reconsider and put his car in gear and slowly pulled off the side of the highway.

Once they were on the way north, he glanced to the side. Becca was no longer plastered against the door. Her shoulders had relaxed, and she leaned back in the passenger seat, curling her feet up under her knees. He elected to keep conversation casual. He sensed if he referenced their kiss or anything he’d said afterwards, she might shut down. The rainy drive passed swiftly. The lights of Bellingham glimmered through the rain. Aidan had been to her parents’ home a number of times, so he made his way there on memory. When he pulled up in the circular drive, he cut his lights and climbed out quickly. Becca wore a rueful smile when he opened the passenger side door.

“You just love opening doors, don’t you?”

He shrugged. “My mother was old-fashioned. She insisted on manners.”

She nodded and climbed out, stretching as she stood. He snagged her bag from the back and walked by her side to the front door. The rain fell around them. Her eyes were tired. He sensed the only reason she wasn’t her usual prickly self with him was she was too tired for it and her defenses were down. A surge of protectiveness washed through him. He hated that ever since her asshole of a fiancée had dumped her, she’d become bitter and prickly like a cactus if anyone got too close.

She looked up at him, her lashes spiky from the rain.

“Can I stop by tomorrow?”

She nodded. He didn’t wait and dipped his head to catch her lips. He wanted more, so much more, than the quick kiss he allowed himself. Somehow, he’d managed to bumble his way through his impulsive kiss with her earlier, and he didn’t want to push too far, too fast with her. She was well-defended and with good reason. Her lips were so soft and supple, he almost lost his hold on the thin thread of control he had. He forced himself to step back. “I’ll call you.”

Chapter 3

Becca woke late, so late the sun was high in the sky and filling the guestroom at her parents’ house with bright light. She kicked the covers off and shuffled into the bathroom. As she stood under the steaming hot water, her mind replayed Aidan’s kiss last night. She kept trying to convince herself she must have imagined how earthshaking it was, but her body betrayed her. Merely thinking about it sent heat spiraling through her. She tried to force her thoughts off of him, but her mind was stubborn and kept leaping back on the track that was dedicated solely to Aidan now. She bounced between the hot memory of what it felt like to have his lips on her skin and what he said afterwards. Did he really say he’d wanted to kiss her for too damn long? She must have imagined that. Every time she tried to dismiss it as an overwrought, erroneous memory, her heart and body clamored otherwise.

Annoyed, she dressed quickly and headed down the hallway to the kitchen. After all five of their children had grown up and moved out, the Hamilton’s had wisely sold the sprawling home they owned outside of Seattle and relocated to Bellingham. Their home was situated on a small rise on the outskirts of the city with a view of Bellingham Bay. The hallway opened into an expansive living room and kitchen. Becca’s mother, Jill, was putting dishes away in the kitchen. Becca strode to her side and gave her mother a quick squeeze around the shoulders.

“Hey Mom, I made it!”

Jill glanced over and smiled. Her mother’s dark hair was shot through with silver streaks. She kept it short though its tendency to curl won out no matter its length. Her face was framed with wispy curls. “I heard you come in last night, but figured it was best to let you get to bed. Glad you made it. Where’s your car?” Jill put the last plate away and handed Becca a mug from the cabinet. “Coffee’s fresh,” she offered, gesturing to the coffee pot nearby.

Becca filled her mug and took a welcome sip. “You make the best coffee.” She took another swallow before leaning against the counter. “When I last saw my car, it was on its side in a ditch.”

Jill’s hand flew to her mouth. “What happened? Are you okay? Why didn’t you call us?”

“Slow down, Mom. As you can see, I’m fine. My shoulder’s a little sore, but that’s it. I wasn’t too far north of Seattle when a car swerved into my lane. A little bump, and I ended up in the ditch. Before I had a chance to call anyone, Aidan showed up. He was on his way to spend the weekend at Ellie’s.”

Saying his name aloud sent a curl of anticipation through her. Dammit, she did not need this right now. She’d sworn off men for good reason. She didn’t need to fall for Aidan McNamara. Maybe he wanted to kiss her, but everything about his life screamed permanent bachelor. He worked nearly all the time and, as far as she knew, he kept his relationships strictly casual. She forced her mind back to the moment. Her mother was saying something, and she’d lost track.

“Say that again, Mom. My brain hasn’t had enough coffee yet.” True, but not why she was distracted. She took another gulp of coffee and topped it off before walking to the small round table by the windows and sitting down.

Jill followed and sat across from her. “I was just asking where your car was now.”

“Oh, right. Aidan arranged for two of his crew to wait with it until the tow company got there. You know Aidan, he probably had it sent to the most swank towing company lot in Seattle. As if there could be such a thing.” She rolled her eyes and glanced out the window.

“Now, honey. Don’t give Aidan a hard time for helping you. He’s a good man.”

Becca idly twirled a lock of her damp hair around her finger. “I know. I was teasing. He’s another Gage—always there to save the day.”

Jill frowned. “And what’s wrong with that?”

Becca couldn’t seem to eliminate her slightly snide tone. She didn’t really mean it, but Aidan set her off. Their kiss last night had only exacerbated the feeling. She certainly didn’t want to try to explain that to her mother. She bought a moment by taking a slow sip of coffee before she met her mother’s soft gray eyes.

“Nothing’s wrong with saving the day. You know me, sometimes I tease too much.”

Her mother held her gaze, her eyes a tad too knowing for Becca’s comfort. “Maybe so, but you hate asking for help more than anyone I know, so I’m sure it rankles when you need it. It wouldn’t hurt you to be forced to ask for help a bit more. Maybe you’d get over yourself then.”

Becca tried to beat back the defensive feeling that arose inside. She wanted to stomp her feet and deny her mother’s point. However, it was so apt, she knew she’d sound ridiculous if she argued. She hadn’t always been this bad about it. She and her twin brother Garrett occupied the middle tier of siblings in their family. Gage was the oldest, her and Garrett next, then Sawyer, and last came her only sister, Jessa. Being jostled in the middle and surrounded with three brothers, Becca had fought to be as strong and as tough as her brothers. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she’d always wanted to be strong, to show the world she could take care of herself. Yet, she hadn’t been antagonistic to the concept of relying on someone. She’d taken a spin on trying to let down her guard, which had ended in the spectacular and mortifying end of her engagement when she caught her fiancée with his pants around his ankles in the bathroom and another woman’s mouth wrapped around his cock. The woman in question, Lynne Green, had allegedly been Becca’s friend and was supposed to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. The bitter irony of how cliché it all was still rankled at her.

Even worse, Kyle—she could barely stand to think his name—had pulled himself together faster than she had in the moment and technically broken up with her before she managed to form a word in her brain. He’d gone on to report to their many shared friends and acquaintances his toned down version of events, which included the face-saving detail that he had broken up with her. She was too embarrassed to tell many people the sordid truth, but a few close friends knew. To her knowledge, her mother didn’t know the worst of it. She only knew Kyle had broken up with Becca two days before the wedding and he’d gone on to date her friend.

To say Becca didn’t enjoy the idea of allowing herself to be vulnerable, which meant asking for help sometimes, was an understatement after that. Traversing this mental trail of events, Becca smiled ruefully at her mother. “Maybe so. At least I let Aidan drive me up here last night after he made the arrangements for my car. That’s big for me, you know?”

“Easy, Oscar,” Aidan warned when his sister’s dog barreled toward him.

Oscar incrementally slowed his gait, but he still crashed into Aidan’s knees. Aidan leaned down and ran his hand through Oscar’s thick fur.

“He can’t help himself,” Ellie remarked from across the room. “He loves you to pieces.” Ellie tucked her almost-black hair behind her ears as she looked over at Aidan, her hazel eyes glinted with amusement.