Sybil Bartel: Contemporary Romance Author

Impossible Choice: Chapter 1

“Miss me, Sugar?”

I shrieked, my body lurching a foot off the lounger. Grabbing my untied bikini top, I barely managed to keep myself covered as my other hand flew to my forehead to shield my eyes. Sun-bleached hair, bright green eyes, gorgeous tanned muscles—my only friend in this whole world gazed mischievously at me.

“Talon!” I couldn’t decide if I should kick him or kiss him for sneaking up on me.

His sultry chuckle washed over me. “Hello sweet island girl.” He shamelessly flirted, brushing my hair aside.

I grinned like it was Christmas morning. “You’re here.”

Talon gave me his million-dollar smile. “Yeah, Sugar, I’m here.”

Ignoring the traces of melancholy in his voice, I quickly tied my top and threw myself at him, wrapping my arms around his neck. “What are you doing here?” I hadn’t seen him since he’d traded another man’s life for my freedom.

Talon’s hard arms tightened around me and he stood to his full height, literally sweeping me off my feet. “Aw, Sugar,” he chided softly. “Is that any way to greet an old man?”

Pushing the memories of three months ago aside, I smiled up at him. “You’re not old,” I said, playing our game.

“True enough, but you didn’t answer my question.” He tried to frown but it didn’t stick.

I was so happy to see him, I smiled wider. “You didn’t answer mine.”

His face softened and his Southern accent turned to warm honey. “Christ, Sugar, have a heart. I can hardly ’member my own name when you look at me with those big brown eyes, smilin’ like you won the lotto.”

I laughed and snuggled into him. Sun, sand, surf and coconuts, no one smelled like Talon. Inhaling deeply, I almost couldn’t believe he was here.

He kissed my forehead. “There, ya see, Sugar? I knew ya missed these arms holdin’ ya tight.” His voice went quiet. “It’s been too long.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “too long.”

We stood like that for a minute.

Then Talon abruptly stepped back and his hands went to his hips. “So, what’s on the agenda for today? Sunnin’ and watchin’ your sexy little ass by the pool?” He scanned my yard and the intracoastal beyond then trained his eyes back on me. “Nice view.”

Ignoring his flirty comment, I dropped back to my lounger. “You got it, unless you have a better idea.”

He reached behind him and pulled his T-shirt over his head one handed. Sculpted shoulders, ripped muscles, washboard abs—even though Talon was no longer in the Marines, his body was active-duty perfect.

Kicking off his flip flops, he lowered his six-foot frame gracefully onto the lounger next to mine and a crooked smile hit his lips. “You propositionin’ me? Cuz I got mad skills.” He winked.

I laughed. “I’m sure you do. I’ll bet plenty of women can attest to that.” I might’ve rolled my eyes.

Every muscle that had been sinuous and relaxed a moment ago went rigid and ominously still. “You forgettin’ you’re one of ’em?” he asked impassively.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Part of me wished I could forget, but a kiss like that? I mentally shook the memory away. “I’m with Buck,” I reminded him sternly.

Talon studied me for a moment then nodded. “Just checkin’.” He leaned back and closed his eyes.

I stared at him, not sure what just happened. Talon always pushed the envelope, but there was an edge to him today. My eyes dropped to his chest then skimmed the hard planes of his abs. I’d surfed with him, run the beach with him, I knew every cut angle on his body was hard earned.

“Like what you see?”

I quickly averted my eyes and changed the subject. “Trouble finding my place?” I asked, sugary sweet.

He opened his eyes and gave me an incredulous look. “Now that’s just insultin’.”

Not only had Talon never been to the house my parents left me in Miami Beach but I lived in a gated community. He’d obviously gotten past the guard but that wasn’t what was bothering me. “Why are you really here?”

“I missed your smart mouth.” Board shorts low on his narrow hips, his hands behind his head, he was the picture of ease but I knew better.

“Bullshit.” I wasn’t stupid, I knew who sent him. “Buck wanted you to check up on me.” Sadness enveloped me as the memory of our last conversation gnawed at my heart.

“Always so suspicious, Sugar. Can’t I just miss ya?”

He could, but he didn’t. Talon never lacked for female companionship. “Fine.” I sighed. “I’ll let it drop for now but I know you’re lying.”

Talon’s green eyes sparkled as his hand went to his chest. “Callin’ me a liar? You tryin’ to wound my pride?” He may have sounded affronted but the telltale gleam of humor in his expression gave him away.

“Nothing wounds you.” Talon kept everything, especially his emotions, in check. He was the least reactive person I knew, which wasn’t saying much.

“Oh Sugar, now there’s where you’re wrong.” Talon grabbed my hand and stood, taking me with him. “Little island girls who choose my best friend over me? Now that’s plenty woundin’.” A wicked smile spread across his face.

It was all the warning I got.

Sweeping one arm behind my knees and catching my back with the other, Talon tossed me in the pool so fast I didn’t have time to scream. I surfaced only to see him dive in. When he swam toward me, I tried to splash the shit out of him but I wasn’t fast enough.

Cradling me to his chest, he grinned in victory. “You splash me, you splash yourself.”

I didn’t bother to struggle. Besides him being a wall of muscle, he’d trained with Force Recon. I wasn’t getting down until he decided he was putting me down. “You threw me in,” I accused with a fake pout.

“Yeah.” He chuckled softly before dropping his voice to a whisper. “I like you wet.”

“Talon!” I shoved at his chest, hard. “Buck would destroy you for a comment like that.”

Laughing, Talon released me. “Tell Deer Hunter what I said when you see him next. Give him somethin’ to think about.” He winked.

I swam away. Talon nicknamed everyone and despite Blaze already having the nickname Buck, Talon called him Deer Hunter. I was sure there was a story behind it but I didn’t know it. There was a lot I didn’t know about Buck. I was head over heels in love with him but I’d only met him and Talon four months ago. After spending a few weeks together, Buck declared his intent to marry me then shipped off to Afghanistan for his third tour.

At first, I was fine. Buck and I had video chatted a few times and I’d been happy. But as the weeks stretched into months, I’d become despondent. I’d been on my own since I was sixteen and I didn’t think the separation would be an issue, but having Buck near me, for even a few days, had ruined me. I craved him—his touch, his smile, the intense way he looked at me. I missed him more than I missed my parents and that scared the hell out of me.

“Hey.” Talon came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Nothin’ doin’ Sugar, nothin’ doin’, just givin’ you a hard time is all.” My back to his chest, he pulled me to the edge of the pool.

I breathed out past the lump in my throat. “I know.”

“Talk to me,” he said gently.

I stared at the contrast of his arms against my waist. I had a natural honey hue but Talon was a surfer—a surfer who had a way of getting past my defenses. I couldn’t explain it except to say I knew he’d never judge me. I took a breath then told him the truth.

“I’m having a hard time. I thought I’d be fine but I miss him and I’m becoming a little resentful of the fact that he’s gone for so long. I know it’s not him, I know it’s me. I need to build a life for myself now that I can, but I just want him around. I feel guilty for even thinking it, let alone telling you about it. And the last time we spoke?” My voice broke, guilt and regret eating me alive. “I asked how long he planned on being a marine.” The dead silence I’d been met with still haunted me.

Talon shifted. “You think you’re the first woman to ever own those feelin’s?”

“No.” But that didn’t make it right. Buck had warned me what I was getting into. I felt like I was betraying him by even having these thoughts.

“Look.” Talon moved us to the steps and set me down. “There ain’t no right or wrong when it comes to emotion, darlin’, there just is. You can own what you want but when it comes to relationships, it won’t do you any good if you keep it to yourself. You tell Blaze any of this?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t dare.

“And how’s that fair? He can’t fix what he doesn’t know is broken.”

“There’s nothing broken with him,” I protested. Buck was amazing. Quiet and strong and intelligent, he’d jump in front of a moving train for me.

“There’s nothin’ broken with you either, darlin’,” Talon said quietly, pushing my wet hair behind my ear. “That’s not what I’m sayin’ here.” He grasped my shoulder. “But not collectin’ a government paycheck won’t make him a different man. Once a marine, always a marine.”

Suddenly, I was too close to Talon. His intensity, his ability to switch from flirtatious to deadly serious in less than a second—Talon was a dangerous vortex I’d fallen into once before. I wasn’t going to do it again.

I pushed away and swam underwater to the other end of the pool. When I surfaced, Talon was still on the steps. He watched me with an intensity only Buck could match.

Dunking to push my hair back, I lifted myself out of the pool and walked back to my lounger for my towel. I didn’t look, but I felt Talon’s eyes on me the whole way. I studiously dried off and by the time I was done, Talon was swimming laps. He was a lot of things but still wasn’t one of them.

I went inside and made iced tea. When I came back, he was on the lounger and his easy smile had returned.

“I was wonderin’ if you had any hostess in you,” he teased.

Trying like hell to not look at his wet muscles, I handed him his drink and smirked. “Watch it or you’ll be wearing that tea.”

Talon laughed and took the glass. “Now there’s that smart mouth I love.”

I set my glass down, twisted my hair up, and lay back on the lounger. When I glanced at Talon, he was blatantly staring at my body.

“Cut it out,” I warned.

His forehead creased and when his eyes met mine, I was momentarily stunned by his merciless gaze.

The backs of his fingers glanced across my stomach. “I expected to see you knocked up,” he said quietly.

My heart plummeted and I felt the color drained from my face. “What are you talking about?”

His hand slid away and for one breathless moment, I was caught in his knowing stare. “Who’s that fear for, Sugar?”

 


Don’t miss IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE by Sybil Bartel, available August 2015 from Carina Press.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Sybil Bartel
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

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