More Than Words
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I could smell the river, sort of like minerals and mud, but it wasn’t unpleasant as I breathed it in. Jessie sat down beside me and pulled a light sweatshirt out of her purse, opening the food and laying it out on top of the makeshift tablecloth on the portion of flat rock between us.
For a few minutes we ate in silence, and I enjoyed the sun on my face, the gentle sounds of the river lapping the shore below, and the occasional bird cry. A distant melody seemed to swirl softly in the air, dancing off the sparkling water, moving quickly from leaf to leaf, but it soothed me rather than making me desperate to catch it, and when I went to put a strawberry in my mouth, I realized my lips were pressed together and the snippet of music hummed in my throat.
I bit down on the bright red fruit, the sweet taste bursting across my tongue, relishing the fresh, delicious food. The strawberries were perfectly ripe, the ham rich and salty, and the cheese creamy as I spread it on the bread. I’d eaten in the finest restaurants all over the world, yet I’d never experienced a better meal than this. Jessie moaned softly as she bit into the soft bread, and my blood heated in my veins. I glanced at her, and her eyes widened as if she hadn’t realized she’d made a sound that I could hear, but then she laughed softly, sort of bashfully. “This is so amazing.”
Everything’s amazing. The food, the day, this moment. You.
I smiled, reaching over and using my pinky finger to wipe a bit of cheese from the corner of her lip. She stilled, our eyes meeting and a flare of electricity moving between us before she lowered her eyes and brought the tip of her tongue to the place I’d just touched. My cock hardened, pressing against the zipper of my jeans, and it was a welcome ache, slightly painful but laced with a steady throb of pleasure. I wanted her. Jessie. What surprised me the most was that I didn’t just want sex, didn’t just crave the mindless oblivion of my own release. I wanted her. I wanted to smell her skin, to know the particular scent between her legs. I wanted to taste her everywhere and hear the sounds she made when she came. I wanted to feel her shiver and throb around me, and I wanted to hear my name on her lips when that happened. I wanted, and the feeling swelled inside me like an entire orchestra as it neared the crescendo, just beginning that heart-soaring rise. “Jessie …”
“Yes?” she whispered, a note of something in her voice that almost sounded like fear.
“I … You were my first kiss. Did you know that?” She blinked, her lips parting. “No. I didn’t know.” Her delicate brows drew together, and she tilted her head. “I was?”
I smiled at her obvious surprise. “Yeah. I wasn’t always …” I grimaced, not knowing how to end that sentence without reminding Jessie exactly who I’d become.
“Callen Hayes, international gigolo?” she asked, a glint of teasing in her tone.
I let out a laugh mingled with an exhale, squinting at her as my smile faded. “I thought about kissing you for a year before I worked up the nerve. All those days we’d sit in that boxcar as you read. I’d stare at your lips moving and …” I groaned, shooting her a small smile.
She offered a shy smile in return. “I thought one of the reasons you didn’t come back was because you hadn’t enjoyed kissing me.” She glanced away, out to the horizon.
“No, Jessie. I did enjoy it.” I shook my head. “I enjoyed it too much.”
The sun shifted above, and when Jessie’s eyes met mine again, they appeared gold, ringed in deep, twilight blue. Eyes like sunset. Beautiful. “I enjoyed kissing you too much, and I wanted to do it again and again. I want to do it now.” My voice was a hoarse whisper, laced with the desire pulsing through my veins. Jessie must have heard it because she looked down, her lashes casting shadows on her cheeks. A faint pink color rose in her face. A blush. God, she was innocent and sweet, possibly even inexperienced—a saint, whereas I was a sinner. And I wanted her anyway. I wanted her more than I’d wanted anyone in a very, very long time.
She didn’t say no. Her eyes fluttered closed as my lips touched hers. I moved in closer, weaving my fingertips into her hair, my thumbs brushing the smoothness of her cheekbones as I swept my tongue over her lips and entered her mouth. She let out a sigh, and I moaned as her tongue touched mine, dancing, exploring. Our kiss deepened, and my lust grew, but I wanted to draw this moment out as long as she’d let me.
Jessie broke from my lips, turning her face downward, and my hands dropped with her movement. She used her thumb to wipe at her lip and shook her head, just a small movement, before she glanced back at me, looking beautiful and uncertain. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t be sorry. I heard what you said earlier. I just couldn’t resist.” The truth was, I hadn’t kissed anyone else’s lips since our kiss in Paris. I hadn’t considered why … didn’t even think it’d been a conscious choice. I’d done … other things, but my lips hadn’t touched anyone’s since hers.
I felt her eyes on me as I looked out at the river. “Callen, do you remember anything about my family?”
I turned my gaze to her, surprised, trying to remember the things she’d told me so long ago. “Your parents had a bad marriage.”
Her lips, still swollen and pink from my kiss, tipped up in a sad sort of smile. “To say the least. My dad was a chronic cheater. He couldn’t stop, or he didn’t want to. Maybe both—I don’t know. My mom used to drag my brother and me with her to catch him in the act—sometimes very literally.” She cringed at some memory, and I felt a pinching sensation in my chest at the sorrowful look on her face. “In the end, I resented them both.” She shook her head and looked out at the water. “I promised myself I’d never be like her. Not ever. One of many, competing constantly for the attention of someone who was never going to love her the way she deserved.”
My eyes moved over the pretty lines of her profile—the feminine sweep of her jaw, her slightly upturned nose, her delicate cheekbones, and I felt a thickness in my throat.
She saw her father in me, a womanizer, a man who didn’t have the capability or desire to be faithful to one woman. I wanted to deny it. I wanted to tell her she had the wrong idea about me. Hell, I even considered lying to her. But that wasn’t fair, not to either one of us. There were things about me I didn’t ever want anyone to know, secrets I’d gone to great lengths to protect, so getting that close to anyone was impossible. And there were a hundred more reasons anything other than friendship, or maybe a casual affair, wasn’t in the cards. Couldn’t be.
I let out a gust of breath. “I realize I’m not relationship material, Jessie. I know that better than anyone.” I ran a hand through my hair, feeling surprisingly sad to say the words out loud. But they were true, and I couldn’t deny them, not to myself and not to Jessie. “I just … We’re only in the Loire Valley for a short time. Do you think we could enjoy each other while we’re here? Just for the next couple of weeks. No promises, so no regrets. And then we’ll go back to our lives.”
She pressed her lips together, shaking her head as she looked away. “You want me to be a temporary plaything?”
I leaned back, remorse causing a burning sensation in my throat. “No, Jessie … that’s not what I’m asking for. I’d never think of you like that. I’m attracted to you. I can’t help that. But … whatever you’re comfortable with, that’s all I want. Just to spend time with you while we’re here.”
She bit at her lip, staring at me, her expression seeming to reflect the mixture of sadness and possibility I felt inside myself. Finally, she let out a sad-sounding sigh. “I don’t know, Callen. I’m here to work. I need to focus on that. And … I don’t think getting involved in any way is going to be good for either of us. It seems you have plenty of company to keep you occupied without me. How was the hot tub last night, by the way?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she grimaced. “No, don’t answer that. See? This is what would come of us spending time together—”