One Unforgettable Kiss
by AC Arthur
Book 2 in the Temptation Series
A bid on passion
All navy pilot Garrek Taylor ever wanted was to fly far from his family’s notorious past. But now, with his wings temporarily clipped, the famous sextuplet is back in his Virginia hometown to live down a scandal and unload his family’s historical antebellum mansion. His plan is sidetracked when he becomes the winning bidder at an auction for a date with Temptation’s most reluctant and gorgeous bachelorette.
The only child of a retired army colonel, Harper Presley is haunted by the secret that forced her return to the comfort of her Southern town. The unconventional house restorer is mortified to be paired off with an infamous Taylor—until desire blindsides them. As a slow burn of passion heats to a combustible connection, Garrek confronts a mistake that could end his military career. Can Harper help them both rebuild their lives…and build an everlasting future?
One Unforgettable Kiss
Book 2 in the Temptation Series
One Unforgettable Kiss
“We have another bid! Going once. Going twice. Going…three times and it’s gone! Sir you’re our lucky winner!”
Garrek heard the applause behind him and turned to see what was going on. The room wasn’t large, accommodating maybe a hundred people, including the dance floor in the center and the homemade bar set-up in the corner where he’d quickly found a seat. But comfortable Garrek was not at this moment, as he noticed the gaze of every person in the room was now on him.
“Come on up here and claim your prize!” a short man with his hair parted and slacked down to the side announced into the microphone he was holding.
The crowd clapped and cheered, stepping aside until a walkway had been formed starting where Garrek stood at the bar and ending at the two steps that led to the stage.
“Come on. Don’t be shy. Your prize is waiting!” the man continued.
Garrek had no idea what he’d won because he hadn’t entered any contest. All he’d done was follow the crowd that had been heading into this old building because they’d looked excited about coming in here. And when he’d seen the sign on the door that read “Cash Bar”, Garrek had felt a wave of relief. He needed a drink. He didn’t want one because each time he swallowed his favored rum he remembered the night that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. But he needed it. That was a simple fact.
It had been a long week; one he was still wondering how he’d survived. His career was on the line and after two Cuba Libres, his mouth was still dry. He’d just held up his hand to signal the bartender that he would like another rum and Coke. That’s when the man on the stage had begun to speak.
“He’s a handsome one too,” the woman who had pushed through the crowd to stop right in front of him said. “Nice body and everything.”
The last was said as she lifted small hands and pressed them firmly, front and center on his chest.
“Harper you let me know if you need any help with this one,” the woman spoke over her shoulder, as her hands squeezed his pectorals.
Garrek was wearing a white t-shirt that fit him snuggly, a fact the woman who looked to be in her mid-sixties, seemed to enjoy.
“I’m Connie and I’d be happy to escort your fine self up to the stage.”
Before Garrek could decline her offer, Connie, with her cap of silver hair and no more than five-foot-high stature was right beside him, lacing her arm through his and holding on tight. She wore a pale green and white polka dot dress and a huge white flower was pinned close to her left shoulder. Her grin was wide as she looked up at Garrek and when he continued to stare down at her, she winked. Before Garrek could react, she was taking a step and Garrek found himself quickly slipping off the wobbly stool he’d been perched on to follow her lead. They moved down the path that reminded Garrek of the old Soul Train line, sans music. He hadn’t purchased anything but drinks since he’d arrived not even a half hour ago, so he doubted he’d won a raffle.
The people on the outskirts clapped as they walked by and Connie nodded as if she were in her element being the center of attention. When they came to the two steps that led up onto the stage, Garrek had to hold Connie steady as her knees wobbled with each step up. A quick flash of memory had him thinking back to his late teenage years in Pensacola, the years that his mother’s condition was getting worse.
“Here we go,” the man said as he touched the younger woman standing next to him on the shoulder. “Now, you can thank us later, Harper. But this is what the lovely ladies of The Magnolia Guild wanted to give to you.”
She looked frightened.
That’s the first thought that came to Garrek’s mind as he gazed at the woman standing next to the man, who was doing all the talking.
Garrek was a Navy pilot, but he’d been trained as a soldier first. His instinct to protect was strong and quick.
“That’s right, Beuford,” Connie said as she stepped away from Garrek to grab the microphone from the man’s hands.
Beuford frowned down at her, but Connie didn’t notice because she’d already turned her attention to the woman.
“Now, Harper, us ladies at the guild have known you since you were a little thing running around town with scraped knees and dirt smudges on your face. Haven’t we ladies?” Connie asked and looked out to the crowd.
There was a group of six women wearing the same white corsage as Connie, standing close to the stage, nodding their agreement.
“So don’t be shy. We had this auction just for you ‘cause we knew we’d get you a good man that way. Good men always step up to the plate,” Connie continued.
The woman—the one Connie had called Harper—didn’t move. She was wearing a long black and white skirt and a sleeveless white blouse. Her hair was pulled back from her face so Garrek couldn’t see how long it was. Why that mattered he wasn’t sure.
“You were the highest bidder coming in at two thousand and twenty-five dollars,” Beuford said, stepping around to clap a hand on Garrek’s shoulder.
“Wooo-weee, over two thousand dollars for a date with our little Harper!” Connie yelled.
She grabbed Harper by the hand and pulled her closer to where Garrek stood, shocked speechless by what was happening. He’d been in Temptation for a little over an hour and already he was the center of attention. Again.
To be fair, he was sharing the attention with the strangely quiet Harper, just as years ago he’d shared the spotlight with his five siblings. Wait, did they just say he was the highest bidder? Meaning he was paying for a date?
The thought was almost laughable because the last thing in this world Garrek wanted right now was a date with another woman, and he certainly wouldn’t be paying for one if he did. Clapping resumed and music had started to play as Connie pushed Harper’s hand into Garrek’s. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel the little spike of heat at the contact. He felt it and then he brushed it aside. Garrek had grown really good at ignoring things he didn’t want to deal with.
“Well, say something Harper,” Connie insisted and put the microphone in front of Harper.
Without thinking twice, Garrek took the microphone and spoke into it, “Harper and I want to thank you for coming out tonight. We’d also like to announce that the money raised here tonight will be donated to—” he paused.
Then he looked over to Harper. Garrek was six feet even. Harper was a tall woman, her shoulder only a couple inches shorter than his.
“The Veterans Fund,” she said after staring at him questioningly for a few seconds. “The two thousand and twenty-five dollars will go to Temptation’s Veterans Fund and provide support for those who fought hard to protect us and this country.”
Garrek’s first thought was how had she known who he was?
Connie snatched the microphone at that point. “No. No. That’s not the plan for the money. It’s going to The Guild because we planned this little event. We’re planning to get a sign to hang over the doorway to our headquarters. It’ll be real classy and that way everyone will know where to find us.”
Connie nodded as she spoke, as if everyone was naturally going to agree with her. The six women who Garrek suspected were also from The Guild, mimicked Connie’s movements and there were some murmurs from the crowd that said they were confused. Well, they could join the club, Garrek thought.
Then he spoke again, without the need of a microphone. He was loud enough that they could hear him across the room where the bar was. He knew this by the shocked look he received from the bartender after he announced, “My check will be written to The Veterans Fund. Any other proceeds from this event can be used for whatever purpose The Guild decides.”
Connie gasped and clamped her thin lips closed, her facial expression clearly annoyed. Garrek doubted she was thinking about touching his pecs again at this moment. Beuford looked from Garrek to Connie and back to Garrek again without saying a word. The once clapping crowd had now gone silent, some of them with mouths open in surprise. Other’s whispering to the person next to them. All of them staring at Garrek.
How the hell had this happened?
He’d come here to get away from people looking at him in question. Now, it seemed he’d walked right into yet another sticky situation with a woman. He wanted to curse, or possibly even run as far from this place as he’d just run from Washington. Instead, Garrek made his way off the stage, slowly pulling the woman named Harper along with him.
Harper was done!
The only reason she’d put on a skirt and come to the Sadie Hawkins Dance was for business. What better way to promote Presley Construction—a company owned and operated by a woman—than to come to a dance where the women were supposedly liberated enough to ask the men out? Yet these same women apparently thought Harper needed help finding a man when the truth was Harper wasn’t even sure she ever wanted a man permanently in her life. She certainly wasn’t on a personal crusade to find one that would take precedence over everything else in her life.
Well, coming here tonight had seemed like a good idea when she’d first thought of it. This dance was an annual event in Temptation, like so many others in this town. Up until tonight it had been one that Harper had proudly stated she’d never attended.
She shouldn’t have broken the streak.
If she’d known what The Magnolia Guild had secretly planned for tonight, she wouldn’t have come. In fact, she might have left town completely. How embarrassing. How totally and utterly humiliating to stand on that stage and be auctioned off like cattle. But she’d been trapped. Running off the stage and out of the hall would have definitely made her the butt of the whole town’s jokes for the foreseeable future. So forget trying to get anyone to hire her to do construction work, they’d be too busy laughing at poor little Harper who’d had to be auctioned off to a man instead of being able to get a date on her own.
So she’d stood there, frozen to that spot on the stage, staring at one of the columns in the center of the room that had been wrapped in pink and blue streamers. Everyone was staring at her, she knew. They were talking about her again. Some things never changed, especially not in Temptation.
“Who will bid two hundred and fifty dollars to take Harper out on a date?” Beuford Danforth had asked after Connie had not very politely dragged Harper onto the stage.
Beuford was the unofficial host to just about every event in Temptation since he’d been a radio personality for twenty-five years before retiring. When there wasn’t some type of town get-together Beuford could be found on the wrap-around front porch of his lime green shingled house putting together one of his Lego creations. He was seventy-two years old and still fascinated with the toys.
Harper’s cheeks had burned, not only at the question, but at the complete and utter silence that fell over the room like a tent. She’d clasped her hands in front of her and clenched her fingers until she worried she might actually pull off skin. Her heartbeat wildly and her shoulders had begun to shake. All reactions she’d had before and ones she’d sworn she would never have again.
She’d tuned out everything by that point, everything except the man touching her hand. At that moment a jolt brought her back to reality and she’d looked up into eyes the darkest shade of brown she’d ever seen. He wasn’t from Temptation, that was her first coherent thought as he held her hand tightly in his. There was no man in Temptation that looked like this. Harper would remember if there was. There’d be no way she could possibly forget.
He was taller than her, with an athletic build—a very toned and alluring, athletic build. His hands were large and engulfed her long fingers. His light complexion was a perfect backdrop to the dark hair of his goatee and thick eyebrows. He was wearing simple dark slacks and a white t-shirt, yet he still managed to look like a movie star—perfect enough to be on the big screen seducing women across the world.
Women like her.
No, never her, she’d reminded herself just in time to reply to the question he’d asked her.
“The Veterans Fund,” she’d said after taking what she hoped was a mind-clearing deep breath and releasing it. “The two thousand and twenty-five dollars will go to Temptation’s Veterans Fund and provide support for those who fought hard to protect us and this country.”
Her grandfather and her father and all the other brave men like them.
Connie hadn’t liked that one bit, a fact Harper knew she’d hear about in town for the next week. When Constance Gensen was upset everyone in Temptation heard about it. This time, as was the case too often in the past, Harper would be involuntarily entrenched in Connie’s discontent.
“Do you need a ride home?”
His voice was deep and had the effect of a good shot of whiskey—grabbing her immediate attention and making her shiver all over.
“Ah, no,” Harper replied and then cleared her throat. “I drove my car.”
“Because you didn’t have a date.”
“I didn’t need one,” she replied quickly and with certainty.
“Yeah, I know how that feels,” he said and then looked away.
“You’re not from around here,” Harper stated, even though she was sure he knew that. “Are you visiting someone?”
He didn’t reply but did look at her again. Then, as if just remembering, he looked down at her hand. The one he was still holding. Harper’s cheeks warmed again and she attempted to pull away, but he held tight.
The Freedom Hall was part of the old shoe warehouse that had gone out of business ten years ago. The building had been purchased by Kittinger Hale, a retired schoolteacher who had hit the lottery and found his birth mother in the same week. His birth mother being Gloria Ramsey who had been on the run from her abusive husband when she’d stopped in Temptation to give birth to the son she would leave at All Saints Hospital the next morning. Buying the building and slapping Gloria’s name across the front window was what Harper figured was Kittinger’s tribute to Gloria. To the citizens of Temptation, it hadn’t meant nearly as much. The building would always be called The Freedom Hall, after Freedom brand shoes that had been manufactured there for fifty years before going out of business.
The building was on the corner of Maple and Grove Streets. There was a black streetlamp still sporting the multicolored spring fling banner around it just a few feet away from them. The light was excruciatingly bright, bringing even more attention to the fact that they were holding hands.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said. Harper stopped looking around to see if anyone was outside at the moment and stared at him.
“Neither should I,” she replied.
He was rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand at this moment. Attempting to pull away again was certainly an option, except that Harper didn’t want to break the contact. The warmth from his hand was comforting, his strong grip protective, the heated spikes moving quickly throughout her body foreign, but not unpleasant.
“I should go,” he said.
“Me too,” she replied.
Yet neither of them moved.
There was space between them even though their hands were connected. His body wasn’t touching hers and while she felt as if she were being physically drawn to his, Harper hadn’t moved an inch.
So why did it suddenly seem warmer?
“Thanks for agreeing to donate to the veterans,” she said because she didn’t know what else to do.
“It’s no problem,” he replied.
Then, finally, after more silent moments, Harper figured this situation was absolutely ridiculous. She yanked her hand away from his—not realizing he’d lightened his grip so that her extra effort made her look even more preposterous.
“I’ll also apologize for what just happened back there. I don’t know what they were thinking, but getting a tourist roped into their shenanigans probably wasn’t the plan.”
“I’m not a tourist,” he told her in a very exact way.
He didn’t sound like he was offended, but that he wanted her to know this for certain. It was odd, but then, wasn’t this entire situation?
“Fine. Well, I apologize. Good night.”
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
“It’s not—” her words trailed off as he once again took her hand.
“Which way?” he asked.
“Down here on the corner,” she replied.
Now, she was walking down the street hand-in-hand, with a guy she didn’t know. This was strange. And it was dangerous. And she should know better. So even though she was walking next to him, Harper reached into the side pocket on her skirt and grabbed her keys. Her cell phone was in the other pocket, but there was a can of mace on her key chain. She pulled her keys out just as they approached her car and then she immediately moved to the driver’s side door.
“Well goodnight, again,” Harper said. She kept her back to the car door and her eyes on him.
He was standing with his legs slightly spread, hands tucked into the front pant pockets of his slacks. Again, Harper noted how attractive he was and how that thought exacerbated the unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“Goodnight, Harper,” he said.
Once again neither of them moved.
It was confusing because just fifteen minutes ago Harper had wanted nothing more than to run out of the hall and to her car. She lived on her grandfather’s farm which was on the outskirts of town about twenty minutes from the hall. Tonight was Sunday which meant that Pops and her dad were sitting in front of the television watching whatever sport they could find. Uncle Giff and Aunt Laura would be at their house a little closer to town, probably sitting in front of their television too. There wasn’t’ much else to do in Temptation on a Sunday night, except maybe, stand around with a strange, yet undoubtedly sexy, guy.
Then, the guy moved. Coming straight toward her and stopping only a breath away. A breath that Harper immediately sucked in. Her finger moved to the nozzle of the mace can and she had just begun to lift her arm to aim it in his face when he closed his eyes and shook his head. Before Harper could make another move, he was gone. He moved even faster than he had before because by the time Harper found her breath and let it out slowly, a hand going to her thumping heart, he had disappeared around a corner.
What the hell had just happened?
Harper had no clue. What she did know was that she wasn’t going to forget her first and only Sadie Hawkins dance, or the undeniable arousal that her highest bidder had awakened.