His lips softened over mine, teasing and cajoling, seducing me with promise. He tasted of wine and desire. He pressed me closer, molding me to his taut frame. Fire swept up my spine and I curled my arms around his neck, lost in his heat, wanting more. Tiny sounds of pleasure I barely recognized as mine escaped me. An ache built deep inside and I forgot everything but the feel of his lips and his body. He cradled the back of my head with his hands, burying his fingers in my hair. I’d never before been kissed like this, with an urgency and expertise that turned my insides to liquid and made me forget everything but the man who held me in his arms.
Suddenly the sounds of clapping and shouts of “More! More!” rose around us, releasing me from my sensual haze. Embarrassment swirled through me and I jumped back. My breathing harsh, I stared at the man in front of me. His ragged breathing matched mine. The intensity in his deep brown eyes made me shift uncomfortably.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” I managed on a shaky breath. My face burning, I hurried over to the table where my friends waited—laughing and leading the crowd into even louder claps and cheers. Calls for more kisses reverberated through the bar, filled with patrons eager to get a start on the June weekend.
“Danielle, that was great,” Amy said when I reached the table. She wiped tears from her eyes. “I can’t remember when I laughed so hard.”
I scooped my purse from the chair where I’d left it and sent a narrowed-eyed glare around the table. “I can’t believe you made me kiss a stranger in a bar.”
“Stop pretending,” Maddie said with a laugh. “You’ve been ogling him since we got here. It’s your thirtieth birthday. Let loose. You wanted to kiss him. And you know you can never turn down a dare.”
My friends and I had been together since kindergarten. They knew me well. Unfortunately for me, they knew I’d always been competitive. Maybe it was being raised with three brothers, but I’ve never met a challenge I didn’t accept. And I never lost. Taking on whatever dares my brothers threw at me, I’d gotten myself into lots of scrapes growing up, to the chagrin of my parents. But I was thirty now, and kissing strange men in bars was too much, even for me.
Amy stopped laughing and looked beyond me. “I think he’s going to come over.”
Heart thumping, I turned around. At the bar, his friends, all part of a bachelor party, laughed and egged him on. I thought I saw money exchange hands. The jerks were placing bets! The handsome stranger walked toward me.
Despite my embarrassment, I couldn’t help appreciating his good looks as he strode closer. His black T-shirt stretched over his muscular chest, and his wide shoulders tapered to a narrow waist. Black jeans rode low on his slim hips and encased his long legs. Having been in his arms, I knew he towered over me by at least a foot. His hair was cut short, but the shadow of a beard on his chiseled face gave him a dangerous look and saved him from seeming too “corporate.”
He smiled when he reached me, a wide smile showing even, white teeth. My traitorous heart did a little flip. I felt another flush creep over my face.
“You don’t need to be sorry,” he said in a deep voice with a trace of a soft Southern accent. Humor shone from his brown eyes. “I’ve never had a beautiful stranger come up to me and start kissing me. I liked it.”
He stood a whisper away. I inhaled his scent of spice and male and the lingering notes of the wine he’d been drinking. I was never at a loss for words, but his raw masculinity made my words stick in my throat.
Behind me, Amy snickered. I silenced her with a glare, and then turned back to the handsome stranger. “I do need to apologize,” I said, finding my voice. “My friends dared me to kiss you. I’m sorry I used you like that.”
“You can use me anytime,” he said in a smoky voice.
His voice, his words, the appreciation in his eyes, all made my insides heat up. What had I gotten myself into?
“Our friend is suddenly shy,” Alice said, moving closer to him. “That’s not like her.”
He laughed, his gaze still on me. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
I shook my head, squirming under his attention and the stares I felt from everyone in the bar. I hated being the center of attention, especially for pulling such a stupid stunt.
“My name isn’t important,” I said, clutching my purse.
“You’re not married, are you?” Maddie asked him. “We didn’t see a ring. We checked before we sent her over.”
He shook his head. “I’m free as a bird.”
“There you go,” Amy said with a self-satisfied look at me. “You’re both single.” She turned to the handsome guy. “Since my friend isn’t talking, I’ll talk for her. Her name is Danielle.”
“Danielle.” His soft accent made my name sound beautiful, almost musical.
Heat coursed through me. Disturbed by my reaction to him, I jerked my gaze from his and looked around at my friends. “I’m out of here.”
“You can’t leave,” Maddie said. “I’m the designated driver.”
“I’ll wait by the car.” Grabbing my purse, I practically raced out of the bar.
The pediatric office where I was a nurse hummed on Monday morning. It seemed as if every kid in our practice had gotten ill over the weekend. My humiliation over my actions Friday night in the bar had dissipated. I wouldn’t admit it to my friends, but I’d enjoyed kissing the handsome guy, and I had to acknowledge the whole incident was rather humorous. But I’d run off like some scared virgin.
I consider myself reasonably intelligent and attractive, but I’ve never had a long-term relationship. No man I’d dated had ever excited me very much. I usually ended up being buddies with them, like my brothers.
The guy in the bar Friday night sure didn’t give me any brotherly vibes. My face heated now, remembering the sizzling kiss and my wild response.
“Danielle.” Our receptionist’s voice drew me out of my daydream. I turned to see the elderly woman standing by the doorway to the small office the nurses used.
“There’s a guy outside with his nephew,” she said. “Claims the little boy has a bad sore throat. Sounds like strep. The doc is stacked up to the rafters with patients. Do you think you can do a throat culture?”
“Sure, I’ll be right out.”
I tapped keys on the computer to enter the report I’d been working on, and then went out to the waiting area. A man knelt in front of a small boy I recognized as one of our patients, six-year-old Nicky Foreman. His mother, a widow, had recently remarried. The man with Nicky was wiping tears from the little boy’s face with a tissue.
There was something familiar about the man’s short hair and his wide shoulders. My gaze scanned him, admiring the way his white T-shirt stretched taut across his muscled back.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He stood, jamming the used tissue into his jeans’ pocket, and turned to face me. I stared into dark brown eyes. Familiar eyes. The surprise on his face turned to humor.
His full lips quirked in a grin. “We meet again, Danielle.”
“Oh. My. Gosh.” How did this happen? Fate? I don’t believe in fate, yet the last time I saw him we were in a bar in Philadelphia, thirty miles from my home here in Delaware. What were the chances of seeing him again? Very good, I guess.
Nicky clung to the man’s hand. The little boy looked ready to start crying again.
I quickly came around the desk and knelt in front of the frightened child. “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.” I straightened and turned to the man who’d brought in Nicky. I had a job to do and a little boy to take care of. “You’re his uncle?”
He nodded. Worry flitted over his rugged features. “Will he be okay? I’m not used to kids. His mother, my sister, got married Saturday and I’m babysitting while she’s on her honeymoon. I called her and she said Nicky gets strep throat a lot and I should bring him here.”
“We’ll take good care of Nicky. Don’t worry. I’ll check his throat and do a culture.”
The tension left the handsome guy’s face and he smiled. “I’m supposed to give you this.” He dug into his pocket and produced a folded sheet of paper. “Here’s a note from my sister giving permission to treat Nicky for any medical problems while she’s away.”
I took the note from him, unfolded it, read it, and then handed it back. “So you’re Tara’s brother?”
He nodded and held out his hand. “Adam Delancey. You know my full name. What’s yours?”
“Danielle McAllister.” I took his proffered hand. As we touched, something electric passed between us. I quickly pulled my hand free. He gave me a surprised look and I knew he’d felt the same kind of electricity.
“Now you know why we had the bachelor party Friday night.”
At the mention of Friday night, my face heated again. I looked away from Adam and held out a hand to Nicky. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s get you fixed up.” The three of us went back to the exam room.
A little later, Adam, armed with a prescription for antibiotics, held Nicky in his arms, comforting the scared little boy. “You’ll be okay, big guy. We’ll call your mom when we get home and you can tell her what a good boy you were at the doctor’s.” Nicky buried his head in Adam’s neck.
“We’ll have the results soon,” I said. “We’ll give you a call.”
I turned to leave the room.
“Danielle,” Adam said, stopping me.
Turning, I met his eyes. “Is there something else?”
He smiled, a bone-melting smile I felt all the way to my toes. “There is. I’d like to see you again.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re single, right?”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“We’re not exactly strangers,” he said, leaning closer. “Can I call you?”
His nearness sent a delicious shiver through me. There was no reason for me to say no. But it had been only three months since I’d parted ways with the last guy I’d dated. I wasn’t sure I was ready to start dating again. And Adam scared and excited me. No man had ever made my insides liquefy with such heat and need.
“Afraid?” he asked with a soft laugh.
I bristled. “Of course not.”
A mischievous light came into his eyes. “I think you’re a woman who likes a challenge. I dare you to go out with me for two weeks and not kiss me.” He grinned. “I’ll do everything I can to make you want to though. I double dare you.”
My competitive juices stirred. I couldn’t turn down the dare. I lifted my chin. “You’re on.”
It was my last date with Adam. According to the terms of our bet, if after two weeks, I’d resisted kissing him, he owed me dinner at one of Philadelphia’s best restaurants. Then, he’d walk away from me. If he won, he’d have his kisses and my commitment to keep dating him. Tonight would decide the winner.
As I fixed my unruly curls into a ponytail, I thought back over the last two weeks. I’d enjoyed spending time with Adam. A lawyer, he’d left South Carolina to take a job with a Philadelphia firm to be closer to his sister, his only family. While he waited for his new apartment in Philadelphia, he was living at his sister’s in Wilmington.
What would happen tonight? My insides knotted with anticipation and I studied myself in the bathroom mirror. Ponytail looks good, makeup okay.
As I applied a coat bright red lipstick, I felt the familiar pang of need whenever I thought of kissing Adam again. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to do a lot more than that. I’d never lost a dare. But my resolve to resist him wavered with each date. He was charming, funny, and sexy. He knew what his nearness and his touch did to me and he tempted me every chance he got.
We’d waited until his sister returned from her honeymoon before going on our first date, to a trendy bistro in Philadelphia. Adam took me to Atlantic City another time, to a Phillies game, and to dinners at upscale restaurants and neighborhood diners. He’d brought me flowers and candy every time.
The doorbell rang and my pulse raced. I patted my hair and took a deep breath, then went to the door. Adam stood before me, looking gorgeous and sexy. Not fair, I thought, my gaze sweeping him. Dressed in tan slacks and a black T-shirt, he vibrated with a sensuality that enveloped me and made heat gather deep inside me.
He held out a bouquet of yellow roses, my favorite. I could never resist yellow roses. He was good all right. He knew how to play.
“If I could have found blue roses to match your eyes, I would have bought all they had,” he said, his voice husky. His hot gaze trailed over me.
I squirmed under his close scrutiny, and looked down at my black Capri’s. They were okay. No stains. Did I have a stain on my green tank top? I resisted the urge to run my hands down my clothes.
I raised my gaze to Adam’s. His eyes lit with a sexy gleam, a gleam that met an answering awareness in me. Desire curled in my stomach. I wanted him. And he knew it. Well, I’d show him. I’d win this dare.
As I took the flowers from him, our fingers touched, sending jolts of pleasure through me. I stepped back. Holding the flowers close, I inhaled their sweet perfume, willing calmness into my body, fighting a losing battle.
I moved aside to let Adam into my apartment. My cat, Topper, sleeping on the sofa, roused from his nap and opened his green eyes.
“Hey, Topper, old boy.” Adam went to the cat and stroked his head. I heard Topper’s purrs across the room. He really knew how to pour it on. He even liked my cat. Gotta love a man who likes cats.
Adam had pulled out all the stops, taking me on a dinner cruise down the Delaware River. The popular cruise ship, known for its romantic lunch and dinner cruises, was crowded this July Fourth. Once darkness fell, fireworks would start in Philadelphia. We’d have a front row seat from the ship’s deck.
We sat at a table in a secluded corner of the glass-enclosed dining room overlooking the river. The setting sun lit the still waters of the Delaware, bathing the usually murky river in a golden glow. The ship cut smoothly through the water, past the New Jersey shoreline, visible in the dying rays of the sun. The double spans of the Delaware Memorial Bridge loomed ahead, as if beckoning the ship closer.
Candlelight flickered on our table, the light reflecting on the white tablecloth. The shipboard buffet featured rosemary beef, smoked ham, chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach, macadamia-crusted salmon, and pasta—all worthy of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. The waiter poured us each a glass of wine from a vintage bottle of Pinot Noir, then left.
Adam picked up his wine goblet. His eyes sparked with gold fire in the candlelight. “To the most beautiful woman who ever took a dare.” He grinned. “And to my winning.”
I touched my glass to his. “Oh, you think so? I’ve never lost a dare in my life. And I don’t intend to start now.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said with a chuckle.
I picked at my food, my appetite gone. I’d resisted Adam’s considerable charms for two weeks. If I won the dare, he’d be out of my life. I hated to lose, but I couldn’t let Adam walk away. I needed time. I didn’t have time.
Adam set down his fork and touched my hand where it lay on the table. “You’re not eating much,” he said, looking at my plate. Then he smiled, a wicked, knowing smile that raised my pulse a few beats. I’d never before felt this kind of passion with any man, or this need to know Adam better, to have him in my life. Was this what real love felt like?
“I don’t have much of an appetite.” I pulled my hand from his and picked up my wine glass, taking a sip, letting the rich liquid slide down my throat, hoping it would dissolve the confusion that wound through me. It didn’t.
“Could your not having an appetite have anything to do with losing our bet?” Humor tinged his voice.
I glared at him. He threw back his head and laughed.
Our dinner over, we walked outside to the deck and leaned on the ship’s railing. Water lapped the sides of the ship as it cut through the water. Pale moonlight shone a path over the water and drenched the stars above. On the other end of the deck, an orchestra played a slow, romantic tune.
“Shall we?” Adam asked, turning to me and holding out his arms. His lips quirked in a sexy, lopsided smile.
I put my hand on my hip. “Oh, you’re good, you’re really good. We can dance all you want, but I won’t waver. I’m winning this dare.”
He leaned closer. “I don’t think so. Let’s dance, unless you’re afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I said with more bravado than I felt. I couldn’t tell him I was more afraid of my feelings for him.
He took me into his arms and held me close. My traitorous body melted against him. I inhaled his scent—coffee, wine, mint, and Adam. I leaned my head on his firm chest. His heartbeat vibrated through me, sure and steady.
“Danielle,” he whispered. He ran his hand slowly down my back. A sensual knot tightened low in my belly.
The music ended, but we continued holding onto each other, swaying gently to our own music. We finally pulled apart. Despite the warm night, a chill went over me. I missed Adam’s touch.
“Are you cold?” he asked, putting an arm around my shoulders.
He touched my chin with his fingers and tilted my face toward his. He bent his head, his eyes dark and mysterious in the moonlight. “There’s nothing in our dare that says I can’t kiss you,” he whispered.
Oh, how I wanted him to kiss me, but I knew if his lips touched mine, I’d be lost. I pulled away. “No fair.”
“Why is that?” he asked, failing miserably at looking innocent.
“You know why.”
The first boom of fireworks pulled our attention to the Philadelphia shore. We ran to the railing as fireworks lit the sky, brightening everything around us. Adam put his arm around my waist and pulled me against him. His touch provoked a rush of pleasure. I’d seen fireworks my whole life, but this night there was something special in the air, something that made the fireworks more colorful, more exciting than ever before. Maybe it was the man next to me. The man who made me feel more alive than ever before.
Suddenly, I knew. I’d waited my whole life for Adam. My relationships with other men were tepid compared to the excitement and sensual energy that coursed through my veins when I was with him. I wanted to keep seeing him, to become a part of his life, and he mine. But I’d never lost a dare. I would figure out a way to win both the dare and Adam.
Forty-five minutes later, the fiery display was over.
I looked up at him. “That was amazing.”
He kissed the top of my head. “You are amazing.”
Desire flared deep inside me, burning me like hundreds of fireworks going off at the same time.
We made small talk as we drove back to Wilmington. Contentment stole over me, along with confusion. Our date and our dare were coming to a close. Who would win?
The usually thirty-five-minute drive took close to an hour and a half with the traffic leaving Philadelphia on the holiday night.
When we got to my townhouse apartment, Adam walked me to the door. I dug in my purse for my keys, and then slid the key in the lock.
“Danielle.” Adam cupped my shoulders and drew me around to face him. “The two weeks is up.”
I blew out a breath and nodded.
His jaw tightened and anger flashed in his eyes. “Seriously, Danielle? I really care about you. I can’t believe you’re going to let me walk away. Don’t you care at all? Is this silly bet worth more to you than a relationship with me? Don’t you want to see what we might have? Take a chance on me, on love. I dare you.”
I looked into the dark eyes of the man I was coming to love. No way could I let him go. I dropped my purse and moved close to him. I skimmed a finger over his full lips, and then stood on tiptoe to kiss him with all the pent-up desire I’d held inside for the past two weeks.
With a small groan, he pulled me closer, deepening the kiss. I clung to him, pressing against his firm body. Who cared about a bet when I had Adam?
He released me, holding me in the circle of his arms. His eyes shimmered in the dim light from the street lamps. “Danielle,” he whispered.
I wrapped my arms around his neck. “My friends and my brothers will never let me forget I finally lost a dare. I don’t care. I’ve won a lot more.”
“I think we both won.” He bent and kissed me again, a possessive kiss that dared me to love him—a dare I gladly accepted.