Slipping in here in the last couple of hours of Excerpt Week, with a longish scene from the rough draft of Chapter 4 of Hunter, my sequel to Swamp Ghosts. Hunter Painter is Gunnar Wolfe’s best friend, though even Gunn doesn’t really understand him. Hunter marches to a very different drummer than most of the folks in Riverbend, Florida. In an unguarded moment, Hunter confesses to Gunn that he has loved Willow Greene since the 11th grade, over 16 years ago, and Gunn advised him strongly to call her. After much internal agonizing, he does and finds himself having lunch with Willow at her cottage, when things take a surprising turn, scaring Hunter away in a panic. (He still lives at home, btw, helping care for his ailing mother.)
HUNTER GROANED, PULLING his feather pillow over his head not only to block out the world, but just in case he started shouting in frustration, which is what he felt like doing.
What the hell happened? What the bloody hell just happened? Everything was fine. It was going better than I ever thought it would, and then suddenly it all went crazy. She kissed me! Why the hell did she kiss me like that? How the hell was I supposed to resist that?
The memory of that kiss rocketed into him so hot and fast, it scorched path through his soul. Never in his life had a kiss transported him that way. He could still feel her mouth under his, sweet and yielding, and burning like fire. The raspberry scent of her hair lingered on his hands, and he would never, ever forget the taste of her skin. Every nerve ending in his body felt burned raw from the experience—so sensitive, the slightest breeze sliding over it might cause unbearable pain.
But somewhere in his torment, he also remembered how she had responded to him, moaning into that kiss, and whispering his name over and over as they clung to each other. She had wanted him, too, a concept that had never once seemed a possibility to him in all the years he had loved her.
Doesn’t make it any better, does it, you stupid fool? Still never gonna happen. You don’t belong with Willow Greene, and nothing’s going to change that. All you’re doin’ here is torturing yourself.
He swore into his pillow, muttering in angry disgust. “’Take a chance,’ Gunn said. ‘Call her up,’ Gunn said. I’m going to find that bastard and pound him to death with one of his own cameras!”
That image distracted him from his woes for about thirty seconds, and then he slid even deeper into the hole of misery he’d dug for himself.
Never gonna leave this room again. Can’t be trusted to go out into the real world and behave like a person with a single, functioning brain cell. Just gonna have my meals delivered right here, and Dad can walk Biscuit. I’ll tell him I’m sick—and keep tellin’ him that for the rest of my life.
A sudden rap on the bedroom door, interrupted his maudlin thoughts.
“Hunter? Are you awake?”
“Yeah, Dad. You can come in.”
His father stuck his head in the door. “Sorry to bother you, son, but…well…there’s a young lady down here says she wants to talk to you.”
Horrified, Hunter bolted upright. “What? What are you talkin’ about?”
“I’m talkin’ about this pretty little thing at the front door, says she has to talk to you. Long silvery hair, sweet smile, named…um…”
Hunter smacked his head. “Willow.”
His dad nodded. “That’s it. You wanna come down?”
“No! Did you already tell her I’m here?”
“Well, sure. Should I be lying to young ladies who are lookin’ for you?”
“Yes! I mean, no, not generally. Just this one.”
“You do something to her, Hunter?”
“No, of course not. Well, not like you mean. It’s just…aw, it’s complicated, Dad. Can you just tell her I wasn’t up here, or I’m asleep, or I’m sick, or I’ve gone to China…something? I’m not coming down there!”
His dad gave him a disapproving look. “Okay. Have it your way, but no, I’m not gonna lie to this little gal. I’m just going to go tell her you don’t want to see her.”
Flinging himself back down on the bed, Hunter growled in frustation. “Fine. If that’s what you want to do, do it. I’m still not coming down.” He clamped the pillow back over his face, and refused to say anything else.
His dad sighed in disgust, closed the door a little too hard, and stomped down the stairs.
Two minutes later, Hunter heard a tap, and the sound of the door opening again.
This time, he didn’t bother to lift the pillow. “Did she go away?”
“No, I didn’t go away, Hunter. And I’m not going to.”
Once again, Hunter bolted to a sitting position. He dropped his pillow and stared at Willow, mouth agape.
“Willow! You can’t just walk into my room. It’s…you…this isn’t…”
“Oh stop, Hunter. I’m here. And you and I are going to talk.”
He opened his mouth to protest again, but Willow was having none of it. “Don’t bother blustering around and ordering me out. I’m not going.”
Hunter swung his feet to the floor, leaned his elbows on his knees, and buried his face in his hands, groaning. “This can’t be happening. You are not here in my room. My father did not let you walk up here. I’m having a nightmare.”
He heard the scrape of wood on the floor and peeked through his fingers. Willow was dragging his desk chair to the bedside. She positioned it directly in front of him and sat down, then she reached out and gently pulled his hands away from his face.
“Hunter…look at me. Please?”
His heart gave a lurch. She was touching him again. How was it that he had managed to keep from ever once touching Willow Greene for more than sixteen years, and now it was happening every forty-five minutes? He stared at her hands, small and pale against his, then gave up, and raised his eyes an inch at a time, until he met hers.
Willow’s eyes were a shade of green Hunter had never been able to find words to describe—and he had tried, in poem after poem. There was a depth to them—a mystery that spoke of age-old secrets—and they added to the overall sense of magic he always felt in her presence. But now, her eyes flashed with frustration and impatience, and he’d earned it. He’d just never expected her to call him out on it.
His breath puffed out in resignation. “Okay. Lookin’ at you now, Willow. Why are you here?”
“Why am I here? Are you really asking me that, Hunter? You come to my house, have lunch with me, walk around my garden, kiss me like I’ve never been kissed in all my life, jump back like you’ve been burned, and take off for home without a word of explanation, and now…you ask me why I’m here?”
Her eyes flashed green fire. “Do you think I fall down on the ground with every good-looking guy who stops by my house? If so, you are sadly mistaken. Why do you think I’m here, Hunter?”
“Damned if I know. Didn’t expect it, for sure, and by the way, you kissed me, remember?”
“Oh, I just started it. You took over pretty quickly, as I recall, and you weren’t shy about it, either. Nor were you complaining.”
Heat crept up his neck and into his cheeks. “Reckon that’s fair. Forgot myself, is all. You can’t go kissin’ on a man, and not have him react, you know. Shouldn’t be doin’ that, Willow.”
“Don’t you dare lecture me on kissing, Hunter Painter! I’ve kissed and been kissed before, for your information. What happened today was altogether different. I know it and you do, too. You look me in the eyes and tell me you didn’t feel something happening.”
He tried. He really did, but his eyes skittered off to one side and then the other, looking at everything in the room except back into Willow’s. He knew with absolute certainty that looking into her eyes would be a fatal mistake. He’d be lost in those depths, and nothing would ever be the same again.
He was staring at the nightstand when he felt her hand on his cheek. She turned his face back to hers. “I mean it, Hunter. Tell me that kiss meant nothing to you.”
“It was just a kiss, Willow,” he whispered, staring at the tip of her nose.
“My eyes, Hunter. Look at my eyes.”
He groaned again, painfully aware it sounded more like a whine, then locked his eyes with hers, and tried once more. “It was…it was just…”
She leaned closer. “If it was just a kiss, you won’t mind trying it again.” Before his befuddled mind could process that idea, her lips were on his, and the whole world flipped upside down.
Hunter Coming Fall of 2015