Tuesday Tales/LIPS

From Work in Progress: Return to Summer

A chill hugged Summer’s spine. She no longer had any need to look for a signature. She should have known. If she’d been more open to the possibilities she would have. The technique itself was the signature. She’d probably known on some level from the first landscape, but hadn’t wanted to face it; hadn’t wanted to think of him . . . to remember. As if she could ever forget.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?” The voice at her elbow carried just a hint of French accent. “This is called Summer’s Innocence.”

Summer shuddered. Why had he named it that?

She glanced at the man who had appeared at her side. He was shorter than her by a few inches, and a bit round in the middle, but rather handsome in the manner only a Frenchman could be. His hair, just beginning to recede, was otherwise thick and nearly as dark as her own. His blue eyes danced with delight behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

Obviously he expected a response. It would be rude to ignore him and run out of the building. But it wasn’t a desire to remain polite that kept Summer’s feet from following her mind’s urgent directive.

“It’s quite a nice work,” she murmured.

“Truly impressive,” he agreed. “However, I am afraid this particular piece, like a few others here tonight, is not for sale.” The little man’s voice was tinged with regret, accompanied by a dramatic sigh. “There are several other pieces by this artist that you will undoubtedly find as memorable as this one.”

Summer tempered her ready sarcasm just slightly. “Yes, this one is . . . quite memorable.”

“Please allow me to introduce myself, mademoiselle,” continued her new companion with a little flourish. “Preston Sinclair at your service.” He didn’t bow and place a kiss to the back of her hand, though the courtly gestures would have suited him.

Now his interest in her was clear. Preston Sinclair, owner of the Sinclair Gallery.

“It’s very nice to meet you, but I really didn’t come here tonight to purchase, Mr. Sinclair.”

Seemingly not offended, he smiled and offered his hand. “Nonetheless, it cannot hurt to look, can it, Ms. . . . ” He raised a questioning eyebrow.

Conceding a point to Sinclair’s persistence, a wry smile formed on Summer’s lips and she extended her hand. “My name is Summer St. Aubin.”

Clasping her hand, Sinclair held on as he spoke. “Ah, a beautiful name for a beautiful lady. Perhaps you would like to meet the artist, then, Ms. St. Aubin? He is here tonight for the opening of his exhibit.”

Words of protest formed in Summer’s brain but never made it to her lips before Sinclair was drawing her across the crowded room. Hurt and anticipation raced neck and neck along sensitized nerve endings. Any hope that the room would be too crowded to traverse was quickly squashed. The horde of people parted like the Red Sea for Preston Sinclair.

And then she saw him. He stood across the room, his back to her, apparently unaware that he wasn’t alone. Summer struggled with the knot of emotion pulsing in her throat. Sandy brown hair skimmed the collar of his black tuxedo. Examining the portrait in front of him, hands clasped loosely at his back, this was a pose she was well familiar with, and it usually meant trouble.

Summer’s eyes strayed to the portrait, and her steps faltered. A woman reclined, held captive in the slanting morning sunlight. Her black hair fanned in contrast across the white sheet on which she lay. Creamy shoulders tantalized, as did hints of curves beneath a red satin sheet. A sultry expression emanated from smoky eyes, set in a heart-shaped face. Full red lips were parted in invitation, their color matching the rose petals scattered like drops of blood against the white satin. A gold chain with a tiny charm glinted at her neck.

Summer raised a hand to her neck. Her fingers fluttered there, seeking the chain lying beneath the fabric of her dress. Directing her attention back to the man in front of her, she allowed the memories to swamp her. Then he turned around and eyes the color of dark Baltic amber skimmed over her. She felt the flare of heat even though he was still several feet away.

****

She couldn’t be standing there, hair all swept up, looking older, more polished than he’d last seen her. The red satin of her gown fell from her long neck to the tips of her toes, lovingly clinging to her curves, too reminiscent of the satin sheet in the painting for her to be real. He closed his eyes, knowing when he opened them, she wouldn’t be there.

But she was. An arc of exquisite pain electrified his heart.

Smoky gray eyes, wide and staring. The hair piled on her head already with strands escaping. She never had been able to keep her wild hair confined for long. His fingers ached for the feel of that dark silk again. His body longed for the sensation of that petal-soft skin against his.

She took a tentative step toward him, then another. Because it felt right, his arms opened. Her lips parted the way they always did before she’d kissed him, and she moved in slow motion. When she entered the circle of his embrace, his hands slid around her, drawing her closer. In a fog, his mind registered the glide of his hands over the rose petal skin he’d just been wishing for. Then she melted into him the way she always had, the way that still felt too right for comfort.

It was as if time itself had stopped and immediately he was thrust back to when the most natural move in the world was to brush his lips lightly across hers. They still tasted as sweet, still made him yearn for far more than a kiss. With a soft sigh, she moved her lips against his and he was lost in the sense of coming home.

He took possession of her mouth without asking as he ran his hands the length of her spine. She could still steal his breath. Her lips parted further and the tip her tongue teased his, enticing him with the promise of heat. She slid her hands along his chest, stopping at his shoulders. As he angled his head to deepen the connection, she finished her upward slide and fisted her hands in his hair.

Next to her, Preston began babbling some form of introduction. “Ms. St. Aubin, may I present—Mr. Kyle Sebas . . . tian.” Awkward silence fell and Sinclair sighed. “Ah, but I see the two of you have apparently . . . already met.”

Any points Kyle deducted for Sinclair’s babbling, he gave back when the gallery owner tactfully excused himself.

Kyle eased out of the kiss, his hands lingering at Summer’s waist as he took a half step back and surveyed her face. Her eyes were still the amazing shade of campfire smoke, and they still drew him in. Her lips were fuller. She was still slender, yet also with more curves. She’d been a girl on the edge of womanhood five years ago. She was all woman now. His heart ached that he hadn’t been part of her transition.

He watched Summer transform now. She drew herself up, squared her shoulders. Her face took on a reserved maturity that completely obliterated the outgoing, impetuous girl she’d once been.

The craving that had never been satisfied, yet somehow had never faded rose within him, threatened to overwhelm. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, but it was far from calming. The fragrance of summer flowers filled his nostrils, bringing his awareness of her fully back to life.

“Kyle,” she murmured, the coolness in her tone belying the silver sparks that still swirled in her eyes. “It’s—been a long time, hasn’t it?”

So she was going to play it cool . . . even after he’d experienced her obvious heated response to his kiss. Determined not to give into the urge to tip her over his shoulder and carry her off to someplace private, Kyle broke contact and stepped back. “About five years.”

“Here you are.” The young blond god approached from behind her and an invisible fist tightened around Kyle’s chest.

She’s not yours. The words echoed through Kyle’s mind, though he hadn’t spoken them aloud. He wanted to separate the young man’s head from his shoulders with a good old-fashioned brawl.

For a split second, relief mingled with the doubt in her eyes. Then she hid all trace of emotion behind a neutral expression. The smile she turned on the approaching man was the same one she’d once saved only for Kyle, and his heart clutched.

“The crowd moved and I got caught up.” She accepted the glass of white wine from the other man with a murmured thanks.

Emotions slashed at Kyle’s gut like shards of glass. Meeting her again had been inevitable. They moved in the same world. He’d only been waiting for the time she would surface in the same place as him. But he’d never pictured another man in the scenario. Kyle concentrated on relaxing the hands that had balled into fists at the younger man’s approach.

“Tim Woodward, I’d like you to meet an—old . . . acquaintance of mine.”  Summer’s voice was tinged with the false sweetness the socially correct generally saved for introducing someone of questionable station. “Kyle Sebastian. The featured artist tonight.”

Kyle’s lip curled into what he hoped was an adequate smile. The introduction left a nasty aftertaste in his mouth. Not friend, not almost-lover, but with that slight hesitation emphasizing “old,” he’d been relegated to the position of former acquaintance.

Woodward pumped Kyle’s hand with enthusiasm. “I’m a devoted admirer, Mr. Sebastian.”

Still watching Summer, Kyle caught a subtle flinch and a flash of irritation in her eyes, and his mood lightened when he realized she hated that her beau was a fan. It was a fight to keep from laughing out loud, but he forced an even tone. “Always nice to meet one of my admirers. I hope you find something to your . . . liking tonight.”

With a smile he wasn’t feeling, Kyle shifted slightly, and opened a direct line of sight from Woodward to the portrait behind Summer.

The younger man’s grin widened. “Now that’s one I wouldn’t mind owning.” His gaze faltered, swung to Summer, then back to the painting. “Holy moley! That’s you!”

A rosy flush crept up Summer’s neck and stained her face. “That was done a . . . long time ago.”

“And unfortunately, this is one of the pieces I can’t bring myself to part with,” said Kyle, crowding Summer just a little. In a daring move, he looped a possessive arm around her shoulders. “It evokes . . . memories.”

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