Desire After Dark (The McCarthys of Gansett Island #15)
by Marie Force
Tobias “Slim” Jackson has the perfect life as a pilot on Gansett Island in the summer and in Florida in the winter. He’s happiest when he’s in the air, or at least that was the case before last summer when he met Erin Barton, Gansett Island’s newest lighthouse keeper. Now he can’t seem to find his usual enthusiasm for flying, winter in the sunny South or anything that doesn’t include her.
Erin has been stuck on pause since she lost her twin brother. She’ll tell you herself that her life has been a hot mess since Toby died. After dropping out of law school, she’s flitted from one pointless job to another, existing rather than truly living. Then she comes to Gansett Island to take over as the new lighthouse keeper and meets Slim, who happens to share her beloved brother’s first name. That small coincidence is enough to convince Erin that she needs to spend more time with the dashing pilot—except for the fact that he’s spending the winter more than a thousand miles from her.
Now Slim’s come home to Gansett for the holidays and to hopefully pick up where he left off with Erin. He’s got twelve days before he’s due back in Florida to finish out the remainder of his winter obligations. A lot can happen in twelve days, but will it be enough to convince Erin that it’s time to start truly living again? Read Slim and Erin’s story and catch up with the rest of the Gansett Island cast in Desire After Dark!
On the morning after Slim Jackson came home to Gansett Island, Erin Barton awoke to the scents of his cologne and starch on the dress shirt he’d worn to the McCarthys’ anniversary party. At some point, he’d discarded the suit coat he’d been wearing when he arrived.
She didn’t remember falling asleep with him on the sofa, or how they’d ended up snuggled together under a blanket. His chest made for a comfortable pillow, and his arms around her had kept her from tumbling off the sofa during the night. The last thing she recalled was kissing him—soft, flirty kisses that hadn’t gone much beyond lips stroking lips, with the promise of more to come.
The thought of that promise had her skin tingling with awareness of the man sleeping next to her. After they’d connected last fall, he’d left the island to work in Florida during the off-season. She’d been counting the days until she could see him again, which wasn’t something she did very often. In fact, she couldn’t recall the last time she’d looked forward to seeing any man.
Before he arrived last night, she’d tried to prepare herself for disappointment. Maybe the connection they’d forged months ago in person and maintained through texts and phone calls and FaceTime chats would’ve waned in the many weeks they’d spent apart. But it took only a few minutes in his magnetic presence to know the opposite was true.
Their connection was alive and well, and they had twelve days together to explore where it might lead. Though she’d enjoyed their many entertaining conversations over the last few months, Erin didn’t know where she wanted their “flirtation” to lead. She hadn’t been seriously involved with a man in years and wasn’t sure she had what it took to be in a relationship anymore—or if she even wanted a serious entanglement at this point in her life.
The last man she’d been serious about had been during law school, before she lost her twin brother in the 9/11 attacks on New York City, and her carefully crafted life fell apart in the aftermath of unimaginable loss. By the time she came up for air, the man she’d once planned to marry was long gone, not that she could blame him. The poor guy had tried, Lord knows he’d tried, but there had been no consoling her.
Thinking about those dark days was never a good idea, especially today when she had something far more positive to focus on. She moved carefully to disentangle herself from Slim’s embrace, hoping he would sleep awhile longer. He’d been tired last night from the long day in the air, flying from Florida to Rhode Island for the McCarthys’ party—and to see her.
Erin went upstairs to make herself presentable. She also couldn’t recall the last time she’d spent the night with a man. It had been a while, long before she moved to Gansett Island hoping to jumpstart her stalled life.
If the first few months on Gansett were any indication, the move had been a good one. Thanks to her close friend, the former lighthouse keeper, Jenny Wilks—now Jenny Martinez—Erin had been introduced to an amazing group of new friends. And she’d met Tobias Fitzgerald “Slim” Jackson Junior, the sweet, sexy pilot who’d come to her rescue after she sprained her ankle on a dark island road last September.
Thinking about that night made her feel giddy and breathless, which was silly, really. At thirty-eight, she was far too old for such foolishness. Regardless, he’d charmed his way into her life that night. He’d been dropping in regularly ever since, mostly via phone, text and FaceTime, until last night when he showed up in person, sparking more of that giddiness that seemed to happen any time he was around.
He’d met her parents at Jenny’s wedding in October, and they’d immediately adored him and tuned in to the crackling attraction between them. That had been a great night, capped off by a magical good-night kiss when he brought her home. But then he’d left the island for three months to work in Florida, and Erin had been surprised by how much she’d missed him.
He’d been a terrible flirt from that first night. Thinking about what he’d said to her the second night could still make her shiver all these months later. After she’d agreed to have dinner with him—once she was off the crutches—he’d stated his intentions rather boldly.
“I’m also persistent. If you’re going to make me wait until the crutches are gone, I guess I’ll have to come by to visit every day and make a pest of myself so you don’t forget about me.”
“You’re going to drive me crazy, aren’t you?”
“Baby, that’s the very least of what I want to do with you.”
Thinking about that now made her smile. In addition to his sexy good looks, she loved how easygoing he was, how funny and confident. She loved calling him out when he got too cocky, and he made her laugh—a lot.
The thing she found most attractive about him, however, was his kindness, especially during the days leading up to Jenny’s wedding. He’d understood how difficult it was for Erin to see her beloved brother’s fiancée marry another man, even though she was thrilled for Jenny and Alex. Slim had provided the kind of support she would’ve expected from a longtime friend rather than a new one, and he’d helped to get her through what might’ve been a crisis otherwise. No matter what else happened between them, she’d always be thankful to him for that.
She took her hair out of the messy bun it had been in last night and brushed it until it fell in soft waves past her shoulders. After brushing her teeth and putting on a bra under her T-shirt, Erin crept down the stairs, taking a subtle glance at the handsome man still sleeping on her sofa, before continuing on to the kitchen to make coffee. While she waited for the coffee to percolate, she gazed at the collage of family pictures on the fridge, zeroing in on Toby’s smiling face. He’d be gone fifteen years later this year, but to her it might’ve been fifteen minutes. She missed him desperately, even after all this time.
It had taken a while, a couple of years, actually, for her to realize she would simply never get over losing him. So she’d stopped trying, which had freed up the emotional energy she’d spent railing at the circumstances under which he died. She smiled back at him now, thankful for the photos, the memories, the reminders that he’d once existed and had been closer to her than anyone, other than Jenny, of course.
Though the photos were displayed in a tidy arrangement, Erin straightened them as she did every morning, in a pattern of left to right. Left side first. Always. Keeping up that ritual and many others was the only way to prevent further catastrophe, or so she told herself. Her obsessive routine was interrupted when an arm slid around her from behind and whiskers scraped against her neck.
A shiver of sensation traveled down her backbone. “Morning.”
“You forgot to kick me out last night.”
“So I did. You were tired after flying all day. I didn’t have the heart to kick you out.”
“That’s awfully nice of you to say since you haven’t even let me buy you dinner yet.”
Erin gave his belly a playful poke with her elbow. “I’m beginning to think this dinner date is never going to happen.”
“Oh, it’s happening. Tonight, in fact.”
“I have plans tonight.” She poured two cups of coffee. “How do you like it?”
“Black is good.”
With his hands on her hips, he turned her to face him. “What are these plans of which you speak?”
She handed him the mug and looked up at him, dazzled by his gorgeous face, the warm brown eyes, the sleep-ruffled hair, the scruff on his jaw and the lips that had kissed her so tenderly the night before. “Alex and Jenny are having everyone over.”
“Then we’ll do dinner tomorrow night, yes?”
“Sure, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” Erin loved to goad him, something she’d never felt comfortable doing with other men. But Slim was nothing if not comfortable to be around.
His eyes lit up with amusement as he took a drink of coffee. “I believe you’re underestimating me.”
“Would I do that?”
“Yes, I believe you would. But that’s okay. I do my best work when the expectations are low.” He wrapped a strand of her hair around his finger. “Your hair has gotten long since the fall.”
“I decided to grow it out. You’ve seen that on FaceTime.”
Shaking his head, he said, “You always have it up.” He ran his fingers through the long strands. “I like it.”
“Thanks,” she said, unnerved by the intense way he looked at her.
“I need to head over to my place and see about getting the water turned on and firing up Big Bertha, the temperamental furnace that takes three hours to warm up.”
“Oh, well… Um, you could stay here if it’s easier than opening up your place.” The words were out of her mouth before she could take the time to consider what she was offering.
A raised brow was his only immediate response. While she held her breath, waiting to hear what he would say, he took another sip of coffee.
“Unless you’d rather—”
He laid his index finger over her lips. “I’d rather be wherever you are, but I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s no imposition. I have hot water and heat and everything you’d need.”
“You left out one very important feature of your lovely offer.”
“What?” she asked, genuinely confused.
He touched his lips to hers. “You’re here, and since you’re offering twelve days of all Erin, all the time, I gratefully accept your kind offer.”
“Do I need to spell out what I’m offering and what I’m not offering?”
Smiling down at her, he said, “No need. We’ll go with the flow and see what transpires.”
Erin laid her hand on his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like this.”
Covering her hand with his, he quirked that sexy eyebrow again. “Like what?”
“This. You, me, us. Hours on the phone, looking forward to seeing someone, dating.”
“You make that sound like a dirty word.”
“It has been for me.”
“Well, you haven’t had the supreme pleasure of dating Tobias Fitzgerald Jackson Junior. He’s in a whole other league from all other men you’ve had the misfortune of knowing.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “And he speaks of himself in the third person, because that’s so attractive.”
A rakish grin lit up his face. “You know it, baby.” He put his coffee cup on the counter. “I’m going to grab my bag out of the car and then borrow your shower, if you don’t mind.”
“A daily shower is part of the lighthouse bed-and-breakfast package.”
“Oh yum, what’s for breakfast?”
Erin groaned. “Aw, jeez, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“You don’t have to cook,” he said, chuckling at her comment. “I could take you out somewhere.”
“No need. I have stuff here. I’ll scrounge up something edible.”
“You sure about this, sweetheart? If you’re having second thoughts about your spontaneous offer, I can get out of your hair for now and come back later. Totally up to you.”
Erin loved that he called her sweetheart and appreciated that he’d given her an out, but she didn’t want out. She wanted him to stay. She wanted to spend every minute of the next twelve days with him, not waiting for him to come back. That didn’t mean she wasn’t scared senseless of how attached to him she might be when it came time for him to leave again.
“I’m not having second thoughts about you staying,” she said.
“Then what?” He touched the furrow between her brows that she hadn’t realized was there.
“I’m concerned about what happens when the twelve days are up.”
“That’s easy. You come back to Florida with me and hang out for the rest of the winter.”
Erin wondered if her shock registered on her face. “I’m not going to Florida with you.”
“Why not? What’ve you got to do here that would be more fun than hanging out in the warm sunshine with me?”
Nothing. There was nothing here that would be better than spending the rest of the winter with him in Florida. But she couldn’t do that. “I do have a life here, you know, and a job.”
“That takes five minutes a day, and Jenny could do it for you since the landscaping business is shut down for the winter.”
“They’re not completely shut down. They’re still plowing snow and selling Christmas trees.”
“She would do it for you, Erin. You know she would.”
Yes, Jenny would do it for her, but running the lighthouse wasn’t the only reason she couldn’t go. But before she could fall down that particular rabbit hole, he came to her rescue once again. “Let’s not worry about that today when we have so many better things to do, such as getting a tree for this place. It’s four days before Christmas. Where’s your tree?”
“I didn’t bother to get one.” Since her brother died, she hadn’t bothered with a lot of things that used to bring her joy. A tree always seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
“We need to rectify that immediately. We can’t very well spend the holidays together and not get a tree. I have needs that must be met.”
The double meaning wasn’t lost on her. “Is that right?”
“Absolutely! It’s Christmas. That means we have to bake and cook and wrap presents. Lots to do and not a lot of time left to do it before the big day.” He was still talking as he headed down the stairs. “Be right back!”
Erin watched him go, oddly elated by his overabundance of Christmas spirit when that would normally annoy her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d given a crap about the holidays. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. The holidays were one of many things she’d stopped giving a crap about after her brother was cruelly murdered along with three thousand other innocent souls.
Erin couldn’t help but wonder what a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky man like Slim would think of the darkness that dwelled inside her. What would he think when he found out that she hadn’t stepped foot on an airplane in nearly fifteen years and, if she had her way, never would again? There were a lot of things about her that would probably be a huge turnoff to a guy like Slim, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy this interlude with him while it lasted and then pick up her regular life already in progress after he left.
Marie Force is the New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romance, including the Gansett Island Series, which has sold more than 2.2 million books, and the Fatal Series from Harlequin Books, which has sold more than 1 million books. In addition, she is the author of the Green Mountain Series from Berkley Publishing as well as the new erotic romance Quantum Series, written under the slightly modified name of M.S. Force.
Her goals in life are simple--to finish raising two happy, healthy, productive young adults, to keep writing books for as long as she possibly can and to never be on a flight that makes the news.
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