My first kiss...and it was everything I’d imagined it to be, with the exception of there being an audience for it. But it was hard to acknowledge them or their cheering and whistles. Flames scorched my already heated skin. Dez’s lips moved against mine, working the tight seam open. I gasped, wondering where in the world he’d learned to kiss like that. Jealousy flared like a beacon on the heels of that thought. Okay. I didn’t want to know how he’d learned.
Someone cleared his throat loudly. “As thrilled as I am that you are happy to see my daughter, I do believe you can stop now.”
Dez slowly lifted his mouth, breathing heavily as he tipped his forehead against mine. The quick glimpse of his eyes showed the pupils dilated, and the irises were a deeper blue, like a pair of shimmery lapis lazuli. He closed them, exhaling raggedly. “Jasmine.”
At the sound of his deep voice, so different than I remembered, I broke his hold and jerked away. Stepping back, I placed my hands against my flaming cheeks and then lowered them, folding my arms over my br**sts. Confusion swelled in the wake of conflicting emotions. Happiness. Fury. Excitement. A whole lot of lust. And then another heaping of anger. Added to the fact that his reappearance was so sudden, I didn’t know what to make of it all.
Dez’s eyes never left my face. Not for one second since we parted. The stare was as intense as the sensation of being pressed against him, as searing as his kiss. The door to the front lawn loomed beyond him and I had an urge to make a run for it.
I was slow to pick up on the chatter around me, but it was my father’s words that cleared my thoughts of the haze.
“So it’s settled,” he said, causing my jaw to hit the floor. “The ceremony will take—”
“Wait!” I spun toward my father. “Nothing is settled.”
“Excuse me?” Dez said, speaking two words for the first time.
I ignored him. “Nothing is settled. I have not accepted the claim.”
A hush fell over the gathering clan. Needless to say, this was about to get a whole lot more awkward.
My father’s brows furrowed, and I was acutely aware of Dez moving to stand beside me. “It didn’t look like you were going to say no a few seconds ago.”
Dez touched my arm. “Jas—”
A sick feeling bloomed in my stomach at the use of his old nickname for me. Stepping away from him, I met his stare. “No. You do not get to call me that.” I kept my voice low, but I knew we were being overheard. The clan, mostly male, was worse than old ladies when it came to gossip and drama. “You do not get to walk back into my life and—”
“Okay,” my dad said diplomatically. “I think you two need to talk.”
I tipped my chin up. “I’m not sure there’s anything to talk about.”
Dez held my stare for a moment and then looked away, a muscle thrumming along his jaw.
“Jasmine, the pair of you need to come to terms. You have seven days to make a decision. No reason to make a hasty choice.”
“My decision isn’t—”
“We’ll talk,” Dez interrupted, grabbing hold of my arm in a firm but gentle grip. “And we won’t need the full seven days.”
I glared up at him. I was tall, but Dez towered over me now. “Oh, it’s so good to see that your arrogance hasn’t changed.”
Dez’s lips tipped up in one corner. “I think you’ll find that a lot hasn’t changed.”
“I don’t think I really care.” I tried to pull away, but he held on, his grin going up a notch. “Seriously.”
His eyes glittered with challenge and something else I couldn’t put a name to. “We’ll see about that.”
Finding privacy inside a houseful of people who obviously had nothing better to do with their time than eavesdrop proved difficult. We could’ve gone upstairs to my room or the one that used to be his, but that seemed too intimate and would’ve been too much for me right then. I was already off kilter enough.
We ended up outside, in the garden along the back of the mansion. The moon glinted off the stone walls built around the peaceful patch of land. On any given night, you could find a couple sneaking off among the thorny rosebushes and juniper trees. Not that anyone needed to sneak. Wardens were almost always in the way of making babies, but perhaps it was the appeal of doing something seemingly naughty. I honestly didn’t know.
“You look beautiful.”
I stared at the roses. At night, their petals looked like black velvet. “Do you really think that’s going to get you anywhere?”
“I’m not trying to get anywhere.” His voice was closer, and a tingle of awareness skimmed down my spine. “It’s the truth. You were always something to look at, but damn, you’re beautiful, Jasmine.”
My heart jumped at his words no matter how badly I wanted to remain unaffected. A cool breeze stirred my hair and caused the hem of the stupid gown to float around my calves.
“Look at me,” he cajoled, tone gentle, even a little bit teasing.
I rolled my eyes. “I was serious inside, Dez. There’s nothing we need to talk about.”
“Are you sure about that?” His heat warmed my back, warning that he was closer still. “Because the way you kissed me tells me something totally different.”
“The way I kissed you?” I spun around and had to take a step back. He was right there. “I didn’t kiss you, you jerk. You kissed me.”
“Technicalities,” he murmured, and in a flash of a heartbeat, he was so close we were breathing the same air again. “You kissed me back.”
Although that might be true, I’d be damned before I admitted it. “I was too shocked to think clearly. Trust me, it won’t be happening again.”
“Is that so?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes.”
He dipped his head so we were eye level. “I’m going to have to disagree, Jas. That was only our first kiss—and it wasn’t even a real kiss.”
If that wasn’t a real kiss, what the hell kind of kiss did he consider real then? I pivoted on my heel, stalking off down the path.
Dez followed silently for a few seconds. “This wasn’t how I expected you to greet me.”
My mouth dropped open as I stopped in front of a stone bench. I turned around slowly. “Are you serious?”
He stared at me in a way that made me wonder if he’d lost brain cells during his absence. Dez wasn’t stupid. He was very much the opposite, so how could my reaction to him be a surprise?
Staring at him, it was hard to reconcile the young man I’d once known with the male standing before me. Tears burned the back of my eyes, and when I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I had no idea what happened to you.”
He closed his eyes, tensing. “Jasmine—”
“For three years, I didn’t know if you were alive or dead!” A knot rose in my throat. “No phone calls. Not even an email or a text. Nothing. How could?” My voice cracked and I turned my head, inhaling deeply. “I didn’t know what to think.”
He cupped my cheek, his thumb smoothing down my face, chasing something suspiciously wet. “Please don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying.” Stepping sideways, I hastily wiped at my cheeks. “It must be sprinkling. I think the weather was calling for showers.”