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The Best Man
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The sound of rushing water was louder now. Faith had spread out the blanket on a rock and sat down. Juicy as a ripe peach. An image of her under him, legs around him, practically made him stagger.
He really had to stop thinking this way.
They were at the edge of a deep gorge, a waterfall cascading into a round pool about twenty feet below them. He wished he had a camera so he could look at this picture when he was deployed, baking in the sun of Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever the Army would send him. He'd show it around. This is where I'm from. I had lunch with a pretty girl right on this rock.
"Nice," he said, sitting next to Faith.
"The pool's pretty deep," she said, pointing as she took a sandwich out of her lunch box. "Maybe twenty, thirty feet. Jack says it's bigger underwater. Like a bell. He used to jump off that rock there."
She glanced at him and took a bite of her sandwich. "No. Too scary for me. Honor never did, either. Said we'd already-well. No reason to risk your life just for the sake of it, you know?"
They ate in silence, the dog coming up to beg for a scrap. Birds twittered, the waterfall roared. Beside him, Faith finished her sandwich and seemed content to just watch the water. The mist of the falls had coated her hair in tiny beads, making her look like a slightly pornographic woodland fairy.
"Well," Levi said, suddenly aware that he'd been staring at Faith for too long, all sorts of hot, red thoughts pulsating through him. "I'm going swimming. Which rock do I jump off?"
"Oh, Levi, don't," Faith said, jerking to attention. "My phone's back in the truck. What if you hit your head or something? A tourist got a concussion a couple years ago. My brother broke his arm when he was fifteen. It's not safe. Please don't."
It was kind of nice, her begging for his well-being. Then again, that pool was frickin' gorgeous. He shrugged. "I'll try not to break anything." He stripped off his shirt, well aware that he was a pretty fine specimen. Pink crept into her cheeks, and she shifted her gaze straight ahead. "You coming, Holland?" It sounded like a proposition.
"Absolutely not," she said, all prim and proper. "Don't do it. I have to get back to work, anyway. So do you, right? And really, jumping is dangerous."
"I'm going into the Army in two months, Faith. Jumping off that rock is probably less dangerous than an IED or suicide bomber." He winked at her, went to the rock and looked down. The water was green and clear, churning where the falls poured in. "Geronimo," he said, then pushed off.
He went in feet first, shooting down, the water swallowing him, cold and silky and utterly beautiful. Opening his eyes, he could see that Faith was right-the pool expanded underwater by about ten feet, the stone walls like a church. He'd always been a pretty good swimmer, was one of the first into the lake each spring. This, though...this was unbelievable, so smooth and deep and secret. He ran his hand over the stone, amazed and a little sorry that he'd never been here before.
The thought came to him that if he'd been Faith's friend, he might've seen this place years ago.
Then he kicked to the surface, and looked up to see Faith's worried face above him as she peered over the edge. "Come on in, Holland," he called, treading water. "Live a little."
"Live is the key word," she said. The dog's face appeared next to hers, looking much happier than she did.
"I'm still alive. Come on. I'll catch you."
"You won't catch me. I'm not a little kid, and it's a twenty foot drop."
"I'll be right here. Don't be scared."
Her expression changed. She wanted to, he could see that. "Rich girls," he called up, swimming over to where a thin outcropping of rock stuck out into the pool, like a natural diving board. He grabbed onto it, aware that it would make his very healthy muscles bunch. "So boring."
"I'm not rich," she said.
"Well, you are boring if you just sit there and watch when you could be down here, having fun with me," he said.
She hesitated. "I'm not wearing a bathing suit."
"So?" Oh, yeah, he was making progress. Faith in a wet, white shirt, her red hair streaming down her back...even the cold water wasn't keeping his body from appreciating that image. "Come on, Holland. Do it for me, a young soldier about to leave home to protect your freedom." He grinned up at her, and after a second, her expression changed from worry to something else.
"Fine. But if I die, you have to tell my father in person, okay? And you have to take care of Smiley, because he'll miss me. He sleeps on my bed."
"I promise your dog can sleep with me if you die. Now get in here."
She went to the edge of the rock, and even from his vantage point, he could see her bare toes clenching. Retied her shirt more firmly, hiked up her shorts. "Okay, Private Cooper. Here I come."
Then she jumped, her hair sailing out behind her, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched. She cut into the water about ten feet from him, then popped up almost immediately, her hair in her face, spluttering and coughing.
Levi swam over to her, and she grabbed onto his shoulders instinctively, clutching him hard, her br**sts pushing against his bare chest. He put his arm around her waist and swam over to the outcropping, which she grabbed with one hand.
Her other arm stayed around his shoulders, and her legs kicked between his, treading water, her smooth thighs brushing his. She didn't need to hang on to him, but she did. Her heart thudded against his, fast and hard, and he realized she was scared. From the jump, maybe. And maybe she was scared of him...maybe that, too.
"I've got you," he whispered.
This would be it. A moment to take with him, the feeling of her sweet, wet softness, her cheek against his, treading the clear, pure water as the waterfall gushed and the leaves rustled and sighed.
Faith pulled back a little, her eyelashes starry with water. He could kiss her. He could just lean in an inch or two, and their mouths would be touching, and he'd bet she'd taste so sweet. His hand slid up her ribs, so close to her breast that she sucked in a shaky breath, and lust, hot and heavy, flowed through his blood.
He kissed her as gently as he knew how, not wanting her to push away, wanting only this, just one kiss. Her lips were soft and cool and wet from the water, and he couldn't help himself, he licked her bottom lip, she tasted so good. When she opened her mouth, he wanted a lot more, suddenly starving for the taste of her, abruptly rock hard. He pulled her h*ps against him, letting her know, and her fingers dug into his shoulders, her tongue answering his, a soft little sound coming from her throat, and it was so, so good he couldn't think, he could just drown here, more than happy to have this be his last day on earth.
Then she broke away, pushing away from him and scrambling up onto the rocks
"I-I-I can't," she said over the rush of the water.
It felt empty without her against him. Empty and cold.
"See, um, Jeremy and I, I mean, we're... We're not really... It's a break. We're not officially... So I can't. I can't kiss anyone else."
"Whatever," he said idly. Except he was furious, all of a sudden. Not just with her, either. With stupid Jeremy, who'd probably never kissed her that way before, who had no idea how. With himself, for kissing his best friend's girl. But, yeah, mostly with her. If she didn't want to kiss him, maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't have been hanging on to him like a spider monkey. She'd wanted that kiss, and he'd given it to her, and now she was Polly Purebred again.
Ah, crap. He'd just kissed Jeremy's girlfriend.
"We should get back," she said, her voice tight and pinched. She turned her back to squeeze the water out of her shirt. She did the same to her hair. Her hands were shaking, he noted. She turned around, her shirt clinging to her. If she'd been braless, he might've had to kill himself. As it was, the cold water (and rejection) were doing wonders for his condition. "Levi, I hope you won't be..."
She hesitated, then nodded.
"Don't worry about it," he said casually.
She bit her lip. "Um...I don't think I'll tell Jeremy about this. I mean, it would just hurt him. Right? So I won't say anything." The plea in her voice was clear-And you won't either, right?
He swam to the rocks and hoisted himself out of the water, watching as her eyes scanned him. That's it, rich girl. Heterosexual male. Enjoy. He walked over to her and stood very close. "You know, I always did think you were ditzy and spoiled and irritating," he said in a low voice. "But before today, I never thought you were a tease."
With that, he made his way back up to their adorable little picnic area. The dog woofed at his approach and again offered its belly, but this time, Levi ignored him. Instead, he grabbed his shirt and pulled it on, picked up his brown bag and headed back to work for the Lyons, walking through the Holland fields in the bright light and hot sun.
Faith, he noted, didn't return.
That weekend, Jeremy called him, his voice its usual bouncy tone. "How you doing, bud?" he asked. "Wanna hang out?"
"Sure," Levi said. Whatever guilt he'd felt about kissing Jeremy's girlfriend he'd managed to ball up and toss into the dirty laundry area of his conscience. Hell, he told himself, he'd have kissed just about any female under the circumstances. It had just been a bad case of...whatever. "How was California?" he asked.
"It was great," Jeremy said. "And I have some good news. Faith and I are back together."
"Not surprised," Levi said. Like she was gonna dump the golden boy. The star quarterback. The future doctor. The heir to the Lyons' vineyard.
Levi saw Faith at school, of course. Jeremy's angelic girlfriend, who couldn't tell the difference between a guy who wanted to bang her silly and a guy who didn't.
MOST OF THE CALLS Levi had to respond to were pretty mild, and he liked it that way.
This call, however, was one of the livelier calls they'd had this week. On Tuesday, he'd sat out with a radar gun after Carol Robinson had complained about the speed on her road at 2:40 when the high school kids got out of school. Yesterday, he talked to the third-grade class about why drugs were wrong. There'd been a call from Laura Boothby, because she couldn't reach a vase on a high shelf of her flower shop and didn't want to fall by using her stepstool, which her no-good son had promised to fix and hadn't, and would Levi please come over and get it for her? (He had. Figured it was better than finding Laura with a broken hip three days from now.) Last night around eleven, there'd been another call from Suzette Minor-third this month-who'd heard suspicious noises and wanted Levi to come check her house (especially her bedroom). He had, though not with the results she wanted. The whole red swishy nightgown thing, the "Officer, please help me/I'm frightened/My, but you're strong" didn't work on him. He'd been hired to protect and serve, and "serve" did not mean "service."
Most of the calls to the Manningsport Police had more to do with being a good neighbor than any true police work. It didn't hurt that he was a local and, being a decorated veteran, someone who'd become pretty much universally loved. History had a way of fogging over when you were given a medal or two... Ellis Mitchum seemed to have forgotten the time he'd told Levi that his precious Angela wasn't going to get knocked up by some trailer trash like Levi. Now, Ellis loved nothing more than buying him a beer and reminiscing about Vietnam. (Angela, for the record, had gone on to get knocked up by a kid from Corning their senior year.)
Nope, Levi was no longer trailer park trash; when the time had come to hire a cop to help out Chief Griggs, the town council, including old Mr. Holland, just about fell over themselves to accept his application. One year later, the chief retired, and Levi got that job, too. He now presided over Everett Field, his deputy, and Emmaline Neal, the administrative assistant with a penchant for analyzing him. It also meant that Levi earned ten grand more a year, and since his sister was in college, that was welcome.
But, as chief, he had to go on almost every call, too.
"Oh, Chief, please!" Nancy Knox wept. "He's going to kill my baby! Please help!"
"Okay, okay, let me take a look," he said. He crouched down and looked. No murders yet. Everyone looked very calm. Even a little sleepy. "Everett, go to the other side of the porch in case he makes a run for it."
"Yes, sir, Chief. You bet. Going to the other side of the porch right now, roger." Everett paused. "Uh, is that the south or the north side, sir?"
"Just go around the porch, Ev," Levi said, trying to curb his impatience. "Don't let him get away."
"Roger that, Chief. Going to the other side, won't let him get away." Levi heard the click as Everett snapped open his holster.
"Put your gun back!" Levi barked. "For God's sake, Everett. You're gonna hurt someone with that someday."
"Oh, my poor baby! Is she still alive?" Mrs. Knox said. "I can't look! I can't!"
Levi looked back under the porch, where a dog and a chicken were eyeing each other. "She's alive, Mrs. Knox. Don't worry. Come here, pooch. Come on, fella." READ MORE ...
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