Please be advised that although I do always promise my readers happily ever after, sometimes it takes the characters a while to reach that point. And, frankly, CHLORINE & CHAOS is chaotic.
The characters are chaotic.
The romance is chaotic.
Each time they break-up, make-up, wash, rinse, repeat, it’s—you guessed it—chaotic.
In addition, CHLORINE & CHAOS contains some heavy topics, and I would be remiss not to alert you to this upfront. My main character deals with flashbacks to foster abuse, self-harm, and sex while intoxicated. There is also mid-divorce infidelity.
If you don’t feel comfortable reading about such topics, even fictionalized, please stop now. I do not wish to unintentionally add pain to the lives of my readers.
If you choose to continue reading about Sage and Brand, then please hold on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride… and you may get wet.
Almost nine years away from this town and the raw ache of shame still gripped Sage's heart. She’d moved on, moved away—there was no arguing that—spent the past few years making a name for herself, building a career, only visiting her hometown on the third weekend of each month and every major holiday . . . yet the scars remained ever-present in her mind. The burn of the blade still seemed fresh on her skin.
A psychological demon she couldn’t quite tame.
No matter how far she traveled, or how much she grew, this town would always signify one thing for Sage Shepard.
Dirty little secrets.
You’ve got this. Sage repeated the words in her head for the millionth time, still unconvinced of their validity. Her feelings toward her home town aside, she had no idea how she felt about Lorimar High. Part of her loathed the school because of the town, and the memories it held of that time in her life . . . .
But she wasn’t that gutter trash foster kid anymore. She wasn’t anyone’s secret.
You’ve got this.
She leaned forward, her hands splayed flat against the bathroom countertop, gaze locked on the woman staring back at her. Sage’s hair was no longer jet black, though it had taken nearly that entire nine years away to rid herself of the damage all that cheap dye had done to her blonde locks. Her eyes, still as stormy as a mid-winter day, weren’t hidden behind choppy color-of-the-week bangs, or downcast in shame. Her skin, milky white with just a light dusting of freckles, no longer carried the bruises of her foster father. Fathers.
Her scars remained. Tiny, raised lines; a self-inflicted map of every assault crisscrossing over the soft skin of her forearms and inner thighs; a keepsake of every trauma she’d experienced but couldn’t avoid. Every moment she’d felt defenseless, vulnerable.
Reminders that she’d never be that fragile little girl again.
With the support of a guy no one would have ever guessed she’d cross paths with, Sage had finished high school with decent enough grades, and by some stroke of luck—not a miracle, for she’d long ago given up on God—Sage managed to receive enough funding from the system to attend college. Now, with a BSN and RN certification under her belt, Sage found her dream job close to home, and close to the one person from her past she’d promised to come back to. The only person who could bring her home.
Returning to Lorimar High wouldn’t be easy, Sage was under no delusions, but she’d had no idea just how difficult it would be until she woke up this morning with a pit in her stomach the size of the Great Lakes. Her fingers shook with nerves, and her stomach threatened to reintroduce her to her morning coffee. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that third cup.
She finished her makeup, applying her favorite blush-pink lipstick to her now-plump lips—amazing what a friend with a skincare license could do for you these days—and stood straight, squaring her shoulders and holding her head high.
Regardless of her history with this town, she’d at least walk into work today with the air of someone who hadn’t been broken by the system.
Because she wasn’t that scared little girl anymore.
Tig pulled his attention away from the old-school, boxed television set, narrowing his green eyes on the kid seated in front of his desk long enough to make two assessments: one, this scrawny runt wouldn’t last a day on his team; and, two, instinct told him the kid came from money.
The team needed money. Which meant Coach needed this kid.
He smiled, leaning forward on his elbows. “What can I do for ya, buddy?”
The runt pushed his glasses up on his nose with his index finger, looking away as if Coach Tiggs was a busty blonde, not a tired swim coach, and Tig held back the laughter. The kid was too clichéd for his own good.
“I . . . I’m here to join the team.”
No shit. “Can you swim?”
The shyness lifted like a veil, sliding off the kid’s face to reveal a confident, teeth-baring grin. “Yes, sir. I can swim.”
With eyebrows raised, Tig assessed the sudden one-eighty in the kid, and that mask of awkwardness slipped right back down over his face, downcast eyes and all.
Tig smiled. Give me one year with you, kid. You’ll walk these halls like a king.
If he could actually swim.
“Do you have your paperwork? Joining the team has to be cleared with the office.”
“Yes, sir.” He nodded, his brown hair shaking down over his eyes. His sweatshirt was about three sizes too big, nearly swallowing him.
Tig stifled a groan. “And, of course, you’ll have to show me what you can do in the water.”
That arrogant grin flashed again.
“And you’ll need a haircut.”
The kid raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me, sir?”
“My boys don’t hide behind bangs, son”—the kid swallowed hard, but Tig continued—“All right. If we’re agreed, I’ll see you after school. Three-thirty sharp. I don’t tolerate tardiness. For any reason.”
“Oh, okay. After school?” He clutched a satchel-type briefcase to his chest.
Odd choice of backpack, Tig thought, raising his brow again as he stifled a groan—this kid would be more work than he’d anticipated, but Tig wouldn’t let him down. If he could swim, of course.
“Yeah.” Tig waved around the room, then gestured toward the television set. “I have work to do.”
As the kid turned toward the door, Tig called to him. “Uh, kid?”
He turned around, eyes hidden behind those bangs once more. “Coach?”
He tilted his head to the side, brow furrowed. “I’m sorry, sir?”
Tig sighed, wondering what this student’s grades must look like and trying not to feel discouraged. Bad grades meant no extracurriculars, and this kid meant money, so he sounded each word out, clearly and slowly: “May I have your transfer paperwork, please?”
The kid’s eyes widened and he shook his head, reaching out to hand Tig the stack of documents in his hand. “Sorry, Coach.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Artemis, sir. Artemis Langford.”
Tig stared for a long few seconds, unblinking. “What the hell am I supposed to do with Artemis Langford?”
Artemis tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes, his brow furrowed. “I’m sorry, sir?”
Tig shook his head. He hadn’t meant to speak the question aloud. “Never mind, Artie. You can go now.”
Artemis nodded. “Yes, sir. See you after school.”
“Oh, and Artie? Stand up straight. The boys on my team don’t cower.”
Artemis’ eyes widened briefly, then a small smirk drew up the corner of his lips.
Tig smiled as the kid actually did as he was told, straightening and squaring his shoulders. As he did so, Tig assessed his build, happily noting that Artie wasn’t the runt he’d pegged him for originally—he just had the posture of a frightened field mouse and needed some help with his wardrobe.
Stick with me, kid. Tig knew firsthand what a little confidence and swim team glory could do for a high schooler. Hell, he’d been a local god in his day.
Coach Tiggs returned to his task, pressing play on the DVD player’s remote and resuming the video feed from the team’s last swim practice.
After a too-quick five minutes in the car, Sage finally stepped onto the front steps of Lorimar High, stiletto heels clicking on the pavement.
I wore the wrong shoes.
I’m trying too hard.
She exhaled a deep breath, reminding herself that the torment of her youth hadn’t been dished out here, on these grounds, but rather in the confines of home, behind the façade of safety.
But, regardless of what she told herself, the sinking feeling remained tethered in her gut. Root of the problem or not, returning to Lorimar brought back all those feelings again, and she wondered for the hundredth time today if she’d made a horrific mistake.
Jimmy’s round face flitted through her mind, his grin wide and unwavering, his love pure and selfless. Aside from Brandon, he’d always been the one to keep her strong, keep her focused on the future—even after Brandon was long gone. Jimmy kept her strong now. Sage focused on that smiling face in her mind and inhaled a deep, cleansing breath. She smiled, tapping her neck and the tiny, lucky, elephant pendant hanging from a delicate silver chain. The one Jimmy gave her when she graduated high school and left the system, all within days of her eighteenth birthday.
‘Elephants don’t care, Sagey, they’re bigger than God.’
The same necklace he asked about every time she’d visited him over the last nearly nine years. Every. Single. Time. She’d made the mistake of forgetting to wear it only once, an oversight that would never happen again.
She smiled at the memory of Jimmy’s meltdown over the missing pendant, and how long it had taken him to believe her that she’d just left it on her bathroom counter, convincing him that the trinket hadn’t been kidnapped, as he’d called it.
I’m doing this for you, big brother. Just for you.
Squaring her shoulders, Sage smoothed the front of her gray blouse, checking to see that the buttons weren’t bulging—the forever curse of a large chest—then ran her fingers over her burgundy pencil skirt and took one hesitant step forward. Before she could hesitate, before she could change her mind, she followed that step with another. And then another.
School would begin in just over an hour, and the campus would soon swarm with disgruntled students, pissed off about the first day back after winter break, pissed off about Monday. She hoped to be settled into her new office by then.
Sage walked up the five stairs and through the double doors, into the main entrance, then straight to the front office, which was directly to the left. A stout woman with graying hair and red-rimmed glasses manned the front desk.
“Mrs. Hall?” Sage smiled, warmth filling her, the presence of an old friend slowly dispelling her nervousness.
The woman looked up, a familiar grin pulling her round cheeks upward. She stood, her smile widening further. “Why are you still standing way over there?” She waddled around the desk, wrapping Sage in an embrace so fierce it mirrored Jimmy’s famous hugs.
Mrs. Hall slid her hands to Sage’s shoulders, then held her at arm’s length, looking up at her through thick lenses. Playing coy, she tilted her head. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
Sage grinned, straightening. “Well, I’m your new school nurse. But you already know this.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. “And if I’d told you back then that I knew that someday, Sage Shepard, the one who spent more time sitting in that chair over there”—she pointed to a worn, brown fabric chair in the corner of the waiting area—“than attending actual classes at Lorimar High would be our school nurse? Bah, you would have argued.”
“You’ve mentioned that.” Sage tugged at her bottom lip with her teeth, but she couldn’t keep from laughing. “I never argued with you, per se.”
Mrs. Hall snorted. “I’m proud of you, Sage. For all you’ve done for yourself, and for Jimmy. Remember when you didn’t even want to bother with graduating?”
Sage nodded, feeling the telltale tickle of tears forming behind her eyes. Pride. It’s what she felt, and what she saw in Mrs. Hall’s eyes. Pride. It wasn’t something she’d seen in many people besides Jimmy.
Mrs. Hall hugged Sage one more time, briefly, then shook her head as she returned to her desk. “What a mistake that would have been,” she mumbled as she pulled a file of paperwork from a drawer beside her, then glanced up at Sage once more. “All grown up.”
“You always seem so surprised.” Sage smiled again, shaking her head. Even as a troubled teen, Sage had loved Mrs. Hall. She was the type of woman who never judged—an adult who didn’t size a kid up, then instantly lose all faith in them.
Mrs. Hall’s gaze met Sage’s eyes. “Not surprised in the slightest. Pleased. I’m pleased to see you became the woman I knew you could become.”
That tickle behind her eyes kicked up again, and Sage smoothed her pencil skirt, trying to find the words that would even remotely express the swelling in her chest. “I’m pleased that you’re pleased, Mrs. Hall.”
“Ellie, Sage. For the last time, call me Ellie.”
“You know I can’t. It just doesn’t feel right. Especially now, back here—”
“Hey, Ellie, you know that new kid we got today, that transfer from . . . .” His words trailed off, but Sage had heard more than enough.
Every muscle in Sage’s body tensed at the sound. Her eyes fluttered closed as the honeyed tone caressed her ears, then widened as so many feelings, so many memories assaulted her mind. If possible, Sage would have sworn her palms instantly flooded with sweat. She sucked in a breath at the heart-stopping, no, heart-racing realization of who stood behind her, then leaned forward, palms resting on the desk—the only thing keeping her upright. The sharp scent of chlorine tickled her senses, and every cell in her body buzzed with the confused excitement that now surged within her.
He cleared his throat.
Her knees weakened further.
“Tig. My name is Tig.”
She narrowed her eyes, raising one bedazzled eyebrow. “No, that’s what your friends call you. Jocks like you always have a nickname. What’s your real name?”
He smirked, his lip curling up just a bit in one corner, and she found herself unable to look away.
“Brandon. Brandon Scott Tiggs.”
“Does anyone call you Brand?”
He tilted his head, brow furrowed. “Nope.”
“Perfect. Hey, Brand, I’m Sage.”
“Hmmm,” he said, considering. “I like that. It’s really nice to meet you.”
She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh yeah? How do you know? You don’t even know me.”
He smiled, a beautiful, raw grin that caused her heart to race.
“I just have a feeling,” he whispered.
Sage sucked in another shaky breath, pushing the memory aside. She righted herself, rubbing her palms against her skirt while staring wide-eyed at Mrs. Hall.
The woman smiled, actually smiled. She’d known this would happen.
Shaking the stupor from her mind, Sage slowly turned around, eyes still wide, as her heart simultaneously froze and melted within her chest—as if that were even possible. Her stomach dropped to her feet, past her feet, right into the solid earth below her patent leather heels. Any trepidation pushed aside by Mrs. Hall’s warm welcome rushed right back to the forefront of her mind.
Mouth still open on his unfinished sentence, indicating less time had passed since Sage had been struck dumb than she’d thought, the man’s eyes widened when Sage finally faced him.
Brandon Tiggs stood before her, just as breathtakingly gorgeous as she remembered.
Golden boy. Star student. Swim champion.
Their gazes locked for too long; Sage couldn’t breathe. She tried to avert her eyes, tried to focus on something else—the way his wavy, dirty-blond hair laid back, as though he’d finally rubbed his hands through it enough times that it just knew to lie back now—but her gaze kept returning to his eyes—soft, muted green . . . like eucalyptus . . . like sage—his lips, full and straight like she remembered, oh God, did she remember—then back to those damn beautiful eyes again, as if her gaze was pulled by some force she couldn’t fight.
Didn’t want to fight.
She’d get lost in those eyes all over again if she allowed herself the chance.
She nodded, trying to swallow the giant lump that clung to her throat.
“Ah,” Mrs. Hall sounded pleased. “So you two remember one another. Good, good. Miss Shepard, here, is our new school nurse, Brandon.”
Brand smiled, and Sage smiled back, surprised by the movement of her own lips. She wanted to shake herself, but still couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Luckily, because had she any feeling in her legs, she may have run right the hell out of the room like a total freakshow. Good Lord he looked amazing. Time had only made him more beautiful, manlier. He was all man now. Her mouth watered, actually watered as she stared at him.
“Welcome back.” Brand’s gaze roamed freely over her body, causing heat to ignite throughout her veins. “You look . . . .”
Mrs. Hall cleared her throat, and Brand’s eyes flicked back to Sage’s face.
“The years have done well by you, Sage.”
“Thank you. It’s good to see you again, Brand.” Ah, good, you can speak, after all. “Did I hear you mention swim practice?” Sage’s brow furrowed. “Are you coaching here?”
“Yep.” Brand stuck his left leg out, wiggling it around awkwardly, but all Sage could focus on was the dusting of blond hair that covered his tanned calves. Bigger calves, stronger calves than she remembered.
Sage brought her gaze back to his, trying to clear her thoughts. “I’m sorry? What?”
“Car accident. Right after high school. Never made it out of town.” He shrugged, but Sage knew what those words meant.
He’d never made it out. She frowned, remembering Brand’s one goal in life, and how nothing else had mattered to him but reaching that damn goal: representing the US in the summer Olympics. Not his academics, though he’d had to keep those up to remain on the team. Not his girlfriend, Rosie, though he’d kept that up for appearances and to remain in his parents’ good graces.
Not even Sage, though he’d loved her as much as he’d known how.
Or so she’d told herself all throughout high school.
Secretly or not, for a while, Brandon Tiggs had been the one constant in her life, aside from Jimmy.
And here he was. Staring at her as though she’d stepped right out of a magazine, hunger in his eyes, and . . . what was that? Appreciation? Longing?
He smiled again, his gaze lingering on her lips just a little too long.
Sage’s stomach began its slow ascent, creeping back up to her torso—where butterflies flapped around, tickling her insides, and warmth pooled low in her belly.
Not ten minutes since returning to her high school, and she’d already reverted back to the lovesick teenager she once was. Except that now, she had the added desire of a woman who knew what men could do for her . . . . and none had ever come close to Brandon effing Tiggs.
Forget the abuse from her foster fathers. Forget the trauma, the fear, the constant apprehension of a childhood spent cowering.
Brandon Tiggs had been the hardest part of her past to get over.
And here he was.
Holy shit. Sage Shepard walked out of his life nearly nine years ago, then strolled into Lorimar High this morning looking like sex on a stick. This wasn’t the black-haired rebel Tig remembered—though he’d loved every bit of that girl. He’d never forgotten her, never gotten over her, never found anyone who made him feel the way Sage had for those four years of high school.
And he’d never forgiven himself for the pain he’d caused her. He doubted she’d forgiven him either. He didn’t deserve her forgiveness.
He ran his hands through his hair as he leaned back in his chair, rocking back and forth in shock. That was all he could call it: pure, exhilarating shock. How had Jimmy managed to keep this a secret? Tig shook his head. He’d been checking in on Jimmy Shepard once, sometimes two times a week since Sage left all those years ago, keeping his promise to a woman who hated his guts. Her brother was the most important thing in her life, and Tig had made sure Jimmy stayed happy and healthy, checking in at the care facility and feeding Jimmy’s love of elephants with the occasional trip to the zoo, or with a stuffed animal or trinket for his collection.
He couldn’t believe Jimmy kept Sage’s return a secret from him, but then, he had been acting a bit funny the last few times Tig visited.
And Ellie Hall . . . she had to have known Sage was coming back. She’d kept the secret from him as well. Who else conspired against him? Definitely not Sage. He’d nearly knocked her off her feet with his presence; that much Tig could tell.
He leaned back in his chair, one hand in his hair, and a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Sage was back. He had a second chance.
He’d be damned if he fucked this up twice.
The way that tight skirt clung to her legs . . . his thoughts roamed to what lay beneath the red fabric, and he wondered if she’d added any more ink to the broken heart on her hip bone. He hoped she hadn’t had the small tattoo removed or covered up.
Her lip and eyebrow rings were gone, as was the blue-black hair dye, the bangs, the safety pins. Had she walked past him in the grocery store, he probably wouldn’t have recognized her.
“Did you say something, Tig?” Coach Simmons paused outside Tig’s door, poking his head in, bushy eyebrows raised.
Tig looked up, meeting the man’s dark gaze. “Nah, sorry, Coach. Just thinking out loud.”
As usual, Coach Simmons took Tig’s response as an invitation to enter, and he took a seat across from Tig. “You see that new piece of ass today? Damn, and here I thought slutty nurses were only a thing for Halloween—”
Tig was across the desk before he realized he’d moved, palms splayed against the hard wood, knuckles white as he fought against the urge to strangle the football coach. “Stay away from her, Simmons.”
“Whoa, easy there, stud.” Simmons slowly raised his hands in surrender. “I get it, you’ve already claimed this one for yourself, huh? That’s cool, man, I can dig it.” Simmons repositioned his groin, adjusting in his seat. “She hot as fuck, though, so if ya don’t nail her soon . . . .”
Tig growled—actually growled—deep in his throat. Simmons was a pig—always talking about women like they were slabs of juicy steak he couldn’t wait to bite into.
“Just stay away from this one,” Tig forced through clenched teeth. “We have history.”
Simmons’ eyes widened. “No shit? You dirty dog, that was fast!” He stood and slapped Tig across the back, and it was all Tig could do not to grab the man by the throat—a desire he’d fought since Coach Simmons began working at Lorimar High two years prior. Tig righted himself, narrowing his gaze at the bastard before him.
Missing the hatred in Tig’s eyes, Simmons pressed on. “I’d like to have history with an ass that fine, man. I’d wear that thing like a hat! You’re one lucky sonofabitch.”
With teeth grinding and fists clenched at his sides, Tig watched Simmons walk out of his office, then he slammed his palm onto the desk.
At least the asshole hadn’t been talking about a female student this time.
Sage spent the first few hours of the day familiarizing herself with her new office—arranging things to her liking, locating items she knew she’d need frequently, rearranging Band-Aids and cotton swabs, and . . . dammit . . . when she’d relocated the jar of tongue depressors for the twelfth time, she nearly screamed in frustration.
She wouldn’t be able to focus on anything with Brandon Tiggs on campus.
How did this happen? She’d known when he hadn’t made it to the Olympics, not because she’d heard about the accident, but because she’d watched for his name in the papers, searching stats and news releases for her town’s golden boy. She’d never found him, and chalked it up to destiny—she wasn’t meant to find him, wasn’t meant to follow his career. They’d come from two different worlds, and the break-up at the end of senior year, though heartbreaking, had been for the best. She’d known it then, and she knew it now.
Speaking of now . . . her mind wandered to his soft green eyes, that tanned skin, those rugged shoulders, the way his burgundy and gold polo shirt stretched taut over muscles she remembered well—muscles that had only grown since high school.
The image of today’s Brand merged with the memory of his lips on hers, the way he’d so tenderly loved her, made love to her all those years ago. Publicly, he’d been just another jock at school, someone she didn’t spend time with because outcasts like Sage Shepard didn’t socialize with golden boys like Brandon Tiggs. Privately, she’d spent every waking moment with the love of her life, her high school sweetheart. She’d given him her heart, her body, her soul. He’d been her polar opposite, but against all odds, Brand picked up every broken piece of her, time and time again.
And she’d never been the same since.
“Damn,” she whispered, grabbing for the tongue depressors in frustration and moving them to another shelf in the cabinet. How did this happen? How had no one told her, warned her?
Her jaw twitched as the answer came to her, innocent and pure . . . and, apparently, Sage could now add scheming to Jimmy’s list of attributes.
Sage smiled—irritated that Jimmy had kept this secret from her, and reluctantly excited by the prospect of working with Brand.
She picked up the phone, dialing the number to the quaint two-bedroom apartment she and Jimmy had just moved into together.
“Hey Jimbo, whatcha doin’?”
“Watching Adventure Time, Sagey. Are you at school?”
“I sure am.”
“Do you like it? I miss school.”
Sage smiled. “I do like it, Jimmy. You were right—this job is perfect for me.”
“I know, Sagey. I always know what’s best for you.”
Her smile grew. “Do you think anyone remembers me here?” This was a test.
Jimmy laughed, which Sage could hear muffled even through the hand he covered the receiver with.
“You saw Tig!”
Sage closed her eyes, then pinched the bridge of her nose. “I did. But you knew I would, didn’t you?”
“I always know what’s best for you, Sagey.”
She inhaled a deep breath, tears springing to her eyes. “I know you do. You’re the best big brother in the world.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“Jimmy. I haven’t seen him in almost nine years. It’s not like that.” She pushed the mental image of Brand’s lips out of her mind. “It’s not like that,” she repeated, more for herself than her brother.
“Tig and Sagey kissing in a tree! K-I-S-S-I—”
“Okay, Jimmy, I get the point. I need to get back to work, now”—someone had to find a suitable location for those damn tongue depressors—“did you eat lunch yet?”
“No, but Ellie will be here soon. I’m making us peanut butter and banana!”
Sage shook her head, grinning, not in the least bit surprised that Jimmy and Mrs. Hall had probably done everything they could to bring Sage back to Lorimar High. She wondered, for the first time, what became of the nurse Sage replaced when this job just miraculously became available right when Sage was ready to begin job hunting.
She should have known something was up. Hopefully they hadn’t thrown the poor woman in the river.
“Did you hear me, Sagey? Peanut butter and banana! Your favorite!”
“Yeah, Jimbo, sounds yummy. Don’t forget the mayo.”
Of course, Sage couldn’t have known—she’d had no idea what happened to Brand after high school.
But they’d known. She was sure of that. Mrs. Hall—her brother’s favorite person and weekly lunch date—had been in cahoots with Jimmy all along. That woman was a sneaky devil!
And it had worked. Because here she was. Back inside with the one guy she’d loved since she knew how to love.
What the hell was she supposed to do with that?
He paused at the doorway of her office, palms sweating. “Knock, knock.”
Sage fumbled, sending a jar of tongue depressors onto its side, scattering them across her desk. “Damn.”
Tig smiled. He liked how her mouth looked when she cursed, the way she instantly pursed her lips once the word was out. He remembered that perfect mouth in more ways than one. She stood, smoothing her skirt—a habit he recalled well, though back then it was destroyed black jeans or a lace skirt covered in safety pins. She wrung her hands now, another familiar routine, and he had a hard time keeping himself from stilling those delicate fingers.
“I can’t believe you’re here.” He cleared his throat, attempting to dispel the huskiness of his voice.
She smiled, her gray eyes sparkling. “Well, I am the nurse. Where would you expect me to be?”
“You know what I mean. When did you get back?”
“Just before Christmas.” She tilted her head. “You didn’t know?”
Tig shook his head. Had he known, nothing would have been accomplished as he awaited her return. Even now, his mind and his mouth had lost nearly all of their communication skills. He desperately searched for words to say.
Teeth gnawing on her bottom lip, she looked down, pulling those storm-filled eyes away from him.
“Don’t do that.”
She brought her gaze back to his.
There. He used to get lost in those storms.
“Don’t look away from me, Sage. I haven’t seen you in what, six, seven years? I want to soak you in.”
“Eight,” she whispered. “Almost nine.”
Had it felt like a lifetime to her as well?
He took a step forward, focusing on the way her eyes widened slightly, then dropped his gaze to her chest—so much larger than he remembered—as it rose and fell with quicker succession. He took another step forward. She didn’t retreat. Another step. Soon they stood just a foot or so away from one another, and Tig knew his strength would be tested if he got much closer. Her lips begged for his; her eyes, wide and full of curiosity, scanned his face, his eyes, his lips, pleading with him to take her in his arms—
Sage turned, then sat in her desk chair with a thud, her womanly grace momentarily forgotten, and Tig realized that awkward girl who pretended she didn’t give a shit still resided inside this beautiful woman she’d become.
He swallowed. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She busied herself with collecting the fallen tongue depressors, avoiding his gaze. Each wooden stick that hit the trashcan’s floor echoed in his ears, filling the awkward silence, reminding him that he stood there, dumbfounded in her presence.
“Sage . . . .”
She didn’t look up. She hadn’t forgiven him.
“Sage.” He didn’t know what to say. His heart broke with every second her gray eyes weren’t locked with his. He needed her to look at him, needed her to see him. God, he needed her.
He hadn’t even realized how badly he needed her until she walked back into his life.
She stopped collecting the wooden sticks, then slowly met his gaze. “I don’t know what to do here, Brand. I don’t . . . what do you want from me?”
He drew in a ragged breath. What did he want from her?
Nothing. And Everything. All at once.
Sage stood rigidly as his green eyes flicked from her eyes to her lips, to her throat, then back to her eyes, holding her breath for what would come next, but he didn’t respond.
What could he say? Sorry for breaking your heart? Sorry for becoming your world, then leaving you alone when you needed me most?
Sorry for hiding you away for the four years we were together, keeping you my dirty little secret?
Stop it. That hadn’t been his fault. She’d had to remind herself of that fact over the years, remind herself of why Brand kept their love a secret, though it did nothing to dull the pain.
“I can’t . . . .” She didn’t know what to say either, and could barely think past the thrumming heartbeat in her ears.
“Sage.” The way he cradled her name in his mouth, so delicately, so protectively . . . she wondered if she even needed him to say anything else.
Sage rose from the chair, walking to him once more before she even realized she’d moved, as though her body was still just naturally drawn to his.
They stood there, locked in a silent battle, neither of them knowing what to say, or how to fix their broken past. Sage’s heart threatened to break free of her chest, but her arms begged to hold him. Her fingers twitched. She fought the urge to wrap herself around him, let him love her, soothe her the way only he knew how. Seeing him again brought back every moment of tenderness, every cry of passion, every fear soothed, every trauma forgotten. He had been the bandage that always held her together, the glue that kept her from falling apart when life threatened to destroy her.
God, she wanted that again. She wanted him again.
The familiar chemical scent of years spent in the water teased her senses once more, lulling her back to the days when she’d get lost in the smell of him, the feel of him, his love, his touch.
She dropped her gaze, focusing on his hands hanging at his sides, and allowed herself a moment to get lost in the memories . . . so slow and gentle, his touch so deliberate.
The fingers of his left hand twitched as if also remembering the way it felt to touch her.
Even though she knew he’d fought the same hormonal urges any high school boys dealt with, he’d loved her with precision, with a deftness she hadn’t found in any man since. And dammit, she’d tried.
She reached out now, brushing her fingertips across his knuckles, the ache to feel his hands on her again nearly debilitating. He grabbed her hand, and she brought her gaze back up to his.
Sage swallowed hard as the memories flooded her mind. If he stood there any longer, eye-fucking her with that confidence she remembered so well, she’d slam him onto the desk and ride him all the way to the pleasure she couldn’t forget.
“God damn you, Brand. I tried to forget you.”
You'll probably want to check out the rest of the Flawed Heroes series. Each standalone promises high heat and a lot of chaos.
Don't say I didn't warn you...