The Soldier’s Refuge
by Sabrina York
Coming May 23, 2023 from Harlequin Special Edition
When two friends rediscover one another…
It might be for keeps.
Natalie Tuttle fled her hometown—and its humiliations—for big-city life. When she must return after her mother falls ill, the last person she wants to see is Jaxon Stringfellow, the onetime friend who shattered her heart. But military veteran Jax is so much more than the boy he once was. And he’s coming to terms with his own demons. Can Nat grant him the forgiveness he seeks…and so much more?
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It was a gorgeous day.
Nat threw back her head and just soaked it all in. By the time Danny found a good spot for fishing—based on decades of experience in these waters, and a little machine on the bridge that showed schools on radar—the sun had risen, painting the sky and the water with a wash of orange and rose.
Normally, those were two colors that didn’t complement each other, but somehow, God made it work. She sighed and pulled her jacket closer, hugging herself as she braced against a swell. She loved the gentle sway of the boat, the call of the gulls as they recognized a potential meal, and the smell of the coffee Jax had brought her from the galley before joining the other men in setting up the lines.
The kids were adorable, standing in a row at the stern, in their orange life jackets waiting for a fish to bite. Nat pulled out her phone and took some pictures for Amy, and then wandered the deck, taking more shots here and there. Every shot was a keeper. It was like that on a day like today. Point and click.
She got some really good shots of John J reeling in his big catch—nearly six inches, and another of Georgie, focusing intently on baiting his hook, tongue out and all. And some of Jax, in action. Reeling in a big salmon—and then his dismay when it escaped. Then one of Ben bending down to explain something to Quinn, who stared at him with wide, adoring eyes. Another of Ben and Danny on the bridge deep in conversation.
After a while, she pulled out her book, sat in the sun on the bow and pretended to read. But really, she was just enjoying the day.
How had she forgotten how much she loved this?
She looked up as Jax plopped down beside her. It had started to warm up, so he’d stripped down to his T-shirt, revealing the forearms she’d been obsessed with as a girl. Muscled and tan and sprinkled with dark hairs. Gosh, she wanted to pet him.
Would it be rude to pet him? Probably.
“This is wonderful, Jax. I’m so glad I got invited.”
He chuckled. “You can get invited any time you want to be invited.”
There was something there, in his expression, that made her wonder if he wasn’t just talking about fishing. But she couldn’t ask, because how would she ask? What would she say?
“Hey, Nat?” The tenor of his voice shifted, just a little, and he looked around—to make sure they were alone? Her heart hitched.
She stuck her thumb in the book she wasn’t reading to hold her place. “Yeah?”
“I, ah… Well, I’m not sure how to ask this…”
“Just ask.” She leaned in to give him a nudge. The heat of his sun-warmed arm kissed hers. A part of her wanted to keep leaning.
“Hmm. Okay. Well, today, this morning, when I saw you at Amy’s…”
“Was I imagining it, or has something changed?”
“Changed?” She nearly burst out laughing. But she didn’t.
“You…something about you seemed…different?”
“Ah.” She glanced at him, and then away, because she couldn’t seem to hold his gaze as she said her truth. “Well, this morning, I found out you’re not dating Amy. Could that be it?”
He stared at her. “I… What? Why did you think I was dating Amy?”
She shrugged and said on a self-deprecating laugh, “Because that morning you answered her door, first thing in the morning, half-naked?”
“I wasn’t half-naked.”
Uhh… “You kinda were. Any normal human woman would make the assumption that you’d slept over.”
“I did sleep over.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat. “Any normal human woman would make the assumption that you’d slept over…with her.”
For some reason, he still looked a little stunned at her revelation. “I sleep in the guest room on the ground floor when I stay over.”
“I did not know that.”
“Well, why didn’t you ask Amy about it, then?”
Because she hadn’t wanted to hear the answer, maybe? “My family doesn’t exactly excel in straightforward communication, in case you haven’t noticed.”
He chuckled then, because the dysfunction in Tuttle communication was hard to miss. Then he leaned closer and sealed his arm against hers, and a shiver racked her. “Why didn’t you ask me?” he asked in a soft voice.
She barked a laugh. “How stupid would that have looked? `Scuse me. Are you dating this woman with whose waffle iron you are on a first-name basis?”
“That’s hardly fair,” he said. “That waffle iron forgets my name all the time.”
She snorted a laugh, which made him laugh, too.
Then, when he sobered, he held her gaze and said, “Well, if you have anything you want to know about me, just ask.” And he said it so sincerely, she had to believe he would honor that invitation.
And though the thought made her stomach churn, she sucked in a deep breath and did just that. She asked. “Would you have kissed me the other night in the studio if Ben hadn’t burst in?”
He didn’t answer. For a long while there was only the slap of the waves on the hull and the whip of the wind in her ear. So, she peeped at him.
His expression stole her breath. It was…hungry.
Without saying a thing, he cupped his hands on her cheeks and pulled her right into his face. And he kissed her. Hard.
It was a kiss that said, You gotta ask? But with a smile.
He pulled back to look at her, as though to assess the success of his communication. And then, he kissed her again. She loved that he moaned a little in the back of his throat as he took her mouth again. And again. As though he was starving for her. It sent a sizzle of heat up and down her spine. She couldn’t help but respond and tangled her fingers in his hair to pull him closer as he deepened the kiss, only growling a little because his hair was too damn short to get a good grip.
“Hey, kids!” Ben bellowed in an overly jovial tone from just over there. “Is that a whale fluke?” And then, when the kids ran to the starboard, he clomped over in his ridiculous yellow boots and nudged Jax with a toe. “Hey,” he hissed. “Kids on board.” And then, to the kids, “What? Not a whale? Oh no. Maybe next time.” Then he took Nat’s hand and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, Nattynat. Little help with the M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S please?
“I can spell,” Georgie warbled.
“I’ll just bet you can,” Ben said, rolling his eyes. Not at Georgie.
He rolled them at Jax. And Nat.
She hardly cared. Her soul was aloft, dancing with the gulls on the wind.
Because Jax had kissed her—really kissed her—leaving absolutely no doubt in her mind that as much as she ached to explore this delicious tension with him, he wanted it, too.
From Harlequin Special Edition: Believe in love. Overcome obstacles. Find happiness.
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