Touch & Go
“How about we ease back on the throttle?”
This was somewhere around Colton Hayes’ eight thousandth hour in the air so the fact that his student was hurtling them toward the runway in the flight school’s brand-new Cessna wasn’t overly concerning… yet.
Faith, a tiny Latino woman in her fifties who sat on a cushion to see over the instrument panel, overcompensated and half a dozen alarms went off in the cockpit.
“Oops!” She gentled her touch on the throttle and eased it forward until the alarms stopped screeching.
“Very nice,” Colton told her, loosening his death grip on the door. It made students more nervous when he grabbed the yoke in a panic. The turquoise blue waters of St. Pete Beach glimmered under the plane’s belly as Faith lined them up on the runway. Colton kept his hands loose and ready in his lap should he need to take control. “You’ve got this. Just skim over it and act like you’re not going to land. And watch out for that sailboat mast.”
Albert Whitted Airport was tucked away on the edge of the Port of St. Petersburg and many boat captains weren’t aware of its existence… until a small plane scared the hell out of them.
Faith grinned and cracked her gum, treating her first solo landing like it was just another day. “You got it, boss.”
They bumped and bounced a little on touchdown but overall, it was an excellent first landing.
“Nicely done,” Colton told her through the headset.
Faith whooped and did a little shimmy in her seat as she taxied down the tarmac. She parked—crookedly—but in the right general area and popped her headset off. She whipped out her tidy little notebook, wet a finger, and flipped through to the appropriate page. “Solo landing?” She crossed it off with a flourish of her pencil.
Colton high-fived her. “Suck it cancer!”
Faith came to him eight months ago with a new cancer diagnosis and a bucket list. While her cancer had been kicked to the curb officially as of last month, fly a plane had been upgraded to earn pilot’s license.
They ran through the post-flight checklist carefully before he released her to her nervous husband, Al, who sat in the waiting room and prayed the rosary while Faith was in the air. Al picked her up mid-stride and twirled her around on the tarmac.
Life was short. And no one knew it better than the Delgados.
“Thanks, Colt,” Faith said, beaming at him with her arm wrapped firmly around Al’s waist.
“Anytime,” he grinned. “Going for ice cream?”
“You bet! Wanna come?” Al offered.
“Nah, not today,” Colton told them. “I’ve got plans.”
Faith raised an eyebrow. “Mm-hmm. She say yes yet?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Not yet.” Colton had spent the last eight months pursuing the bartender/night manager at Sunset Point, an open-air dive bar a short walk from the airport. The bar had a killer view of St. Pete’s two best attractions: the daily sunset that turned the sky to an artist’s canvas and McKinley.
Faith patted his arm. “You’ll wear her down. I believe in you.”
The Delgados left, arm in arm, and Colton tied down the plane and gave it another once over. He’d thought briefly of taking it back up for a short solo. Some folks meditated, some prayed, Colton flew. There was something peaceful, almost spiritual about feeling the earth drop away beneath him, being suspended between ocean and clouds.
But tonight, he wanted his feet firmly on the ground and his ass on a bar stool with a view of the prettiest, sharp-tongued bartender in the city.
He headed into the flight school office and handed over the headsets at the desk. “How’d she do?” Talia asked. Talia was the no-nonsense office manager for the airport. Even she’d developed a soft spot for Faith.
“One of the best firsts I’ve seen,” Colton said, filling out the plane rental paperwork.
“Think she’ll get her license?”
“Nothing’s gonna stop her,” he said, sliding the clipboard over the counter to her.
“Speaking of, you trying for your 900th shoot down tonight?” Talia’s brown eyes sparkled.
It wasn’t a secret that he had a thing for McKinley. It had become a bit of a sport for his co-workers watching him get turned down at the bar time after time.
“She can’t say yes if I stop asking,” Colton said with a good-natured shrug.
“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed giving him the side-eye.
“Where do you think?” Talia said, waving a heavily ringed hand toward the hallway. Colton headed in the same direction and soon caught the sound of soft snores. He poked his head into the observation lounge. It was a bright, sunny room with a large window facing the runway. And curled on a luxury bed that Talia and the rest of the staff had chipped in for was Walter the rescue beagle. At nine, he wasn’t quite as obese as he had been when Colton found him sad-eyeing him from the confines of his cage at St. Pete’s Animal Rescue. There were slightly fewer neck rolls now and his belly no longer wobbled like gelatin. But he was still hefty for his breed.
“Walt,” Colton said, nudging the dog bed with his toe.
The dog grumbled, but his white tipped tail thumped out a lazy beat.
“Come on buddy. Let’s go back to the hangar and then I’ll take you home.”
On the word home, Walter’s bloodshot eyes opened. Home meant dinner and maybe a romp around the backyard before Animal Planet.
“Let’s go,” Colton said, patting his thighs. “Come on!”
Walter grumbled and heaved himself up. He gave a stretch accompanied by a doggie groan and padded after his master.
“See ya tonight, Talia,” Colton called on his way out.
“Bye, Colt. Bye, Walt.”
McKinley’s day couldn’t get much worse. The ice maker had stopped working on the lunch shift and she’d had to waste a precious half hour of the beginning of her shift buying out the convenience store’s supply of bagged ice. They were out of two draft beers. And she’d had to fire a waitress today for “forgetting” to card a table of underage tourists. Her replacement was good and pissed about being called in on her day off.
And McKinley didn’t blame her a bit.
She shoved a hand into her thick curls and dropped the sunglasses down over her eyes to head back out onto the deck.
It was busy even for a Saturday evening, which meant money for everyone and fun for the crowd. Every table on the sunshine yellow deck was full of people laughing, talking, drinking. The band was warming up. She gave a salute to the bass player who signaled for another round. McKinley dropped a bucket of beers off at a table full of sunburned fishermen and a plate of loaded nachos for their neighbors, a ladies’ night out from the looks of them.
She swung back inside and ducked behind the bar, pouring beers and waters for the band.
Leeta stabbed at the register screen next to her. “Well, I guess if Sandy was going to get fired at least she had the sense to do it on a night that I’ll make enough cash for those sexy Maui Jim’s,” she said.
McKinley snorted. “Yeah, there’s always a right time to serve underage customers.”
“Technically she only tried to serve them. You caught her before any beer was actually delivered.”
“Still,” McKinley grumbled. “It’s my ass if something like that happens.”
“And what a fine ass it is,” Leeta said with an exaggerated wink.
McKinley rolled her eyes. “You’re the worst.”
“You looooove me,” Leeta reminded her. “Besides if you won’t date customers, you might as well date me. We can share clothes and rub each other’s feet after shift.”
“You and Byron break up?” McKinley asked, piling the drinks on her tray and pouring six shots of Fireball for the wrist-banded twenty-somethings at the corner of the bar.
“Ugh. He turned out to be an ass.”
“If only someone would have warned you not to get involved… again.”
“Yeah, yeah. ‘Don’t date customers.’ Don’t you get tired of being right?” Leeta demanded.
“Never,” McKinley answered with a shake of her head. “Now go make lots of money so you can be my sugar mama.” She doled out shots followed by six waters for the partiers and spun back through to serve the band. “Bring the house down, boys,” she told them.
They were a Jimmy Buffet cover band that usually had customers crowding onto the dance floor before the first song was over. “You comin’ out for ‘Brown Eyed Girl’?”
“I’ll be here. Just give me a little warning where you are in the set list,” McKinley promised.
Behind the bar again, she delivered burgers and frozen drinks and the requisite smile for people enjoying their vacations while she worked her ass off. Not that she minded. She liked the work, the pace, the casual acquaintance with an ever-changing crowd.
Leeta claimed McKinley was a commitment phobe. And she wasn’t wrong. McKinley had been there before. Committed, married, blindsided. But she’d moved on, rebuilt. Well, most areas of her life, at least. Despite the fact that she was thirty-five in a spring break town, she got plenty of attention behind the bar. Harmless flirting, drunken propositions. But she wasn’t in any hurry to stop enjoying her alone time. She had a cute little apartment two blocks from the water, a job that energized her, and a circle of friends that didn’t care if she was divorced or single.
She felt a frisson of energy skate over her skin and knew he was here.
“Hot Fly Boy just landed,” Leeta hissed as she passed by with an empty tray.
“He has a name,” McKinley shot back and studiously avoided the corner of the bar that Colton Hayes had just bellied up to. He was beyond cute and charming and smart and seemingly sweet. And that was the problem.
She’d fallen for that kind of package once before and look how that had ended. Her husband had become a stranger on the other side of the table with a lawyer.
While her standard brushoff “I don’t date customers” worked on most men, Colton was immune, determined, ridiculous.
Against her will, her gaze skimmed over him. Dark hair that curled at the ends, sharp green eyes with soft laugh lines. He was never clean-shaven and always tan, suggesting some kind of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean lineage. He gave her a wave and an easy grin and she felt the corners of her mouth lifting. He wore a pine green polo that made his eyes look even brighter. McKinley returned her attention to the double rum and Cokes she was pouring and let herself secretly enjoy the weight of his gaze on her.
“Hey, there, Kinley.” His voice was deep and smooth like that very nice bottle of Lagavulin on the top shelf.
“Hey, Colt,” she said, ordering her pulse to calm the hell down. She wasn’t interested.
She dropped the rum and Cokes off at their rightful owners and wiped her palms on the back of her cutoffs.
“How’s our favorite bartender?” Colton’s friend and fellow pilot, Chelsea, rested her elbows on the bar and reached for the stack of menus on top of the cooler under the bar. Her red hair was tied back in the trademark ponytail atop her head. She wore a pink tank top and three leather corded necklaces. They were regulars and would serve themselves if McKinley let them.
“If I see her, I’ll ask her,” McKinley quipped. “How were the friendly skies today?”
“Beautiful,” Colton said.
“Sounds like you’re talking about more than the skies,” Talia spoke up as she arrived. Black, bold, and beautiful, she was the smartass of their little group. Colton slid off his stool and waved his friend onto it.
Always the gentleman. He’d been too consistent over the last eight months for it to be an act. But people changed, McKinley reminded herself.
“The usual?” McKinley asked. She was always pricklier when he was around because she didn’t trust herself completely to stay firm in her resolve not to dive into another relationship. And that’s exactly what Colton was looking for. He didn’t dabble in sex and one-night stands. He had the look of “sexy pilot seeking lifelong commitment” written all over him and had said as much in their conversations.
“Yes, please,” Chelsea said, slapping a palm on the menu and sliding it over to Talia.
“Where’s the rest of your party?” she asked.
“Milt and Sonny hit the dance floor first,” Colton said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the music. Rounding out the airport crew were Milt, a flight instructor with a mountain man beard, and Sonny, a lanky mechanic with a booming laugh. They made it to the bar a good three nights a week. None of them ever drank too much. They all tipped over twenty percent. And Colton and Sonny had, on more than one occasion, walked inebriated customers back to their hotels for her.
And every visit, Colton asked her out.
McKinley rang in their order, a pitcher of beer, waters all around, and loaded fries. And snagged the bar phone when it rang next to her elbow.
“Sunset Point,” she said, tucking the phone into her shoulder and starting the pitcher pour.
“Hi. Is this McKinley?” a female voice asked.
“Great! My name is Faith and I’d like you to reconsider your stance on Colton Hayes.”
McKinley turned around to stare at Colton. He was laughing at some story Chelsea was telling. As if sensing her, he turned those bottle green eyes on her. He cocked his head to the side, questioning.
She arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?” Now he was putting strangers up to annoying her. His charm was slipping.
“He didn’t put me up to this,” the caller said quickly, as if reading her mind. “And you probably shouldn’t tell him. It’s just, I’m one of his students and I honestly have never met a kinder heart. I have cancer— had,” Faith corrected herself.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” McKinley said, recalling a few stories Colton had shared about Faith, his gum-cracking, cancer-fighting student.
“No need to be sorry. I’m still here, kickin’ ass. Anyway, Colt is one of the nicest people on the planet. He waved my flight lesson fees and donated his time and sent me flowers after my last radiation treatment. I couldn’t think of the right way to say thank you until now. So, what I’m saying is you should go out with him.”
McKinley held Colton’s gaze. “I’ll take that under advisement,” she said lightly.
“Look, honey. I know that it can be tough. Dating today sucks. I thank my lucky stars that I found my husband when I did and don’t need to deal with any of that ‘swipe right’ bullshit. But this is a no-brainer. Colt’s smart, sweet, gorgeous, and he thinks you’re amazing. What the hell else do you want? Give him a shot.”
There was a muffled noise in the background of the call and McKinley put her finger in her ear to hear better over the music.
“I gotta go. Al’s in the hot tub. Listen, woman to woman, life is too short to be careful. Okay? Oh, and I’m trusting Colt’s judgement on you. If you’re a terrible person, forget I called.”
McKinley frowned, considering the woman’s words. “Okay?” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Great. Good luck!” Faith hung up leaving McKinley flustered.
She shut off the tap that was overflowing beer from the mouth of the pitcher like a frothy waterfall. She wiped it down with a clean towel and crossed to Colton’s party. She dropped the pitcher in front of him and handed over their plastic cups. His fingers brushed hers as he took them from her. And she felt that damn zing through her blood. Every time they touched, no matter how casually, it was there.
“Everything okay?” he asked, his voice low.
No everything was not okay. Not with a little patty fingers sending a blush to her cheeks and neck and probably her entire torso. Why was it so damn hot in here with the Florida coastal breeze picking up the ends of her hair and playing with it? It was not okay. Not with people calling her at work to lobby for him. Either he was the most determined player she’d ever met in her life or he was the nice guy everyone insisted he was. And McKinley didn’t know which option made her jumpier.
“It’s fine. Everything is fine,” she said, dragging her hand away from his.
“Excuse me, miss?” a woman across the bar flagged her down.
McKinley took a deep breath, pasted a breezy smile on her face, and did her job.
She was always in motion. It was hypnotic, watching the swing of her hair, those heavy ropes of curls that hung down her back in a riot of brown and blonde and gold. She was quick, efficient, and a damn poem for the eyes. She laughed boldly, smiled widely. And nothing ever threw her. Not a spilled pitcher of margaritas down her tank, not a customer arguing over the charge for bacon. And certainly not a persistent flight instructor.
McKinley was always under control. Her favorite color was deep purple. She loved sweet potato fries and fish tacos, and had a degree in hospitality management from Virginia Tech. She was divorced and didn’t date customers. He’d made a game of slow nights at the bar, asking her questions, conversations in between filling drink orders. And little by little, piece by piece, they’d gotten to know each other.
Talia elbowed him in the ribs. “Stop staring. You’ll scare her off and I won’t get a refill.”
“I’m not staring,” he lied. They’d always shared long looks across the bar. But tonight there was something more in those lovely brown eyes of hers.
“You haven’t blinked in four minutes.”
His dad always loved to tell the story of the first time he met Colton’s mother. In the produce section over a selection of overripe avocados. He took one look at her, in her pretty pearl-buttoned cardigan and ponytail and knew she was the future Mrs. Hayes. He asked her out on the spot and ten months later they were married.
Colton hadn’t thought of marriage the first time he’d seen McKinley in her red Sunset Point tank top and frayed cutoffs. But the longer his exposure to her, the more fascinated he was. He felt like a high school freshman again when eighth grader Becca Slater walked by with her sexy little overbite and long, black hair.
She swung by, empties in her hand. Colton purposely chose to sit near the glass washer so he was guaranteed face time.
“What’s the question tonight?” McKinley asked him as she dumped the glasses onto the rotating tray.
Colton showed up every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday night armed with a question designed to pry McKinley open. They sparred, verbally, over the course of the night and when Colton left, it was always with a little more knowledge about the woman who fascinated him.
“What did you want to be when you grew up?” he asked, twisting his pint glass in a slow circle on its coaster.
“Mmm,” she said, eyebrows lifting in appreciation. She spun off to mix a half-dozen specialty drinks. It was how their conversations flowed on Saturdays. In fits and spurts between beers.
“Hey, sweetheart!” A barrel-chested man with a sunburnt nose and sunglasses worn backwards on his head whistled for McKinley’s attention. Colton noticed the stiffening of her shoulders and wondered if the guy realized her smile was just a few degrees above frost.
“Me and my new friends here are ready for another round,” he said, throwing his thick arms around two bikini clad women who had come in together. The women looked decidedly uncomfortable.
Warning bells triggered in the back of Colton’s head.
McKinley approached the threesome. “You all want some food?” she asked, slapping a food menu down in front of the man.
He shoved the menu back at her. “What we want is tequila. Doubles,” he cackled.
Talia laid a hand on Colton’s arm. “She’s got it.”
Colton slowly loosened his death grip on his fork. But he kept his attention on the drama playing out across the bar.
“You ladies know this gentleman?” McKinley asked, leaning her elbows on the bar friendly as can be.
They shook their heads.
“I’m Barry. We’re old friends,” the man insisted, slurring a bit and listing to one side. “This is my friend Buffy and my other friend Muffy.” He laughed at his own humor, a loud guffaw that drew eyes from all around the bar.
“Here’s the thing, sir. I think these ladies were having a very nice evening without you and I’m going to ask you very nicely to back off,” McKinley said. The women looked relieved, but the man went red in the face.
“Do your fucking job and pour us some tequila,” Barry said, leaning into McKinley’s space.
Colton pushed his stool back and stood.
“I think you’ve had enough, sir,” McKinley said, unruffled. “And I think these ladies would appreciate it if you headed back to your hotel and slept this off.”
Barry reached across the bar and grabbed her by the arm. “Tequila, twat.” The crowd went silent.
Colton was around the bar with Milt, Sonny, and Chelsea hot on his heels.
“You’re gonna want to move that hand, Barry,” McKinley said, staring down at the ham fist closed around her elbow. “And you’re going to want to leave, now.” Cool as a cucumber in a glass of spa water.
He sneered at her and Colton cleared his throat. “There a problem here?” he asked, keeping his voice mild.
“Yeah, this bitch won’t pour the tequila.”
At this point, there was no reason to do things quietly. Colton grabbed the man by the collar of his sweaty Hawaiian shirt. “Let’s go visit the parking lot,” he said, squeezing the guy’s arm until he broke his hold on McKinley.
The crowd cheered as Colton and Sonny shoved Barry toward the back entrance. He put up an alcohol-fueled fight on the way out, but Colton didn’t mind the chance to throw a few elbows. And when Barry tripped over his own damn sandals and landed face down in the gutter, Colton took pleasure in watching him flail on the ground like a beached whale.
“Problem?” A police cruiser rolled up, windows down, on its usual bar patrol.
“They assaulted me!” Barry howled.
“Hey, Lance,” Colton greeted the beat cop.
“How’s it going, Colt?”
“We escorted this lovely human being from the bar where he verbally assaulted several female customers and staff, sir,” Sonny reported, showing his military roots.
Lance got out of the car on a long sigh. “Anyone inside interested in pressing charges?”
“Not likely,” Colton put in.
“All right. I’ll take care of him.”
“Thanks, man.” Colton shook Lance’s hand and left the braying Barry to his fate.
He and Sonny returned, the victorious happy hour heroes. McKinley didn’t make a fuss, merely set a fresh pitcher of beer in front of them with a quiet “on the house”.
McKinley’s right-hand server and friend, Leeta, was more effusive. She leaned over the bar and gave them all smacking kisses right on the mouth… including Talia and Chelsea, much to the delight of the crowd.
One of the best things about living in a vacation destination was Colton never knew what was going to happen from one night to the next. Not an hour after Barry was hauled off in the back of Lance’s cruiser, another fuss stirred up on Sunset Point’s deck.
A chorus of “oohs and awhs” rippled through the crowd. Even the band cut off mid-song. Colton craned his neck to see what the fuss was about and spotted a skinny brown dog limping its way across the deck. The dog made a beeline behind the bar and plopped his ass down in front of McKinley, tail thumping gently on the wood floor.
“What in the—awh!” Leeta the deck server crooned at the dog.
“Where’d you come from buddy?” McKinley asked, crouching down. The dog scooted closer and lifted his front paw. And Colton saw something he’d never seen in McKinley’s pretty brown eyes before. A softness.
Hesitantly, she accepted the offered paw. McKinley didn’t have dogs. She’d grown up in a petless family, Colton knew from their ongoing getting-to-know-you conversation.
“You’re a little banged up, aren’t you bud?” She looked up at the audience leaning over the bar. “Anyone know any doggy first aid?”
Colton raised his hand.
McKinley nodded at him. “Come on back, Colt.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d let him behind the bar. At six-foot-three, he was useful for reaching the top shelf.
He liked being invited into her space.
He crouched down next to her and held his hand out for the dog to sniff.
“Order up!” someone called from the other side of the center bar.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, touching his arm as she rose.
Colton examined the dog between pets and scratches. “Who’s a nice boy?” he asked, ruffling the dog’s ears. He was skinny and his paws had a few burrs in them, but besides a raw patch on his neck he seemed like he was in good shape. His smell was another story. The dog smelled like he’d gone for a swim through fish guts.
Colton helped himself to an empty salad bowl out of the dish bin and the bar faucet. “How about some water, buddy?”
The dog gratefully lapped up the water when Colton set the bowl in front of him, his front paw resting on Colton’s knee as if to keep him in place.
“Not too much,” Colton cautioned with a laugh.
“How’s he doing?” McKinley asked, hustling around the big wooden column in the center of the bar. She dropped down next to Colton on the floor and gently scratched at the dog’s neck. His brown eyes rolled back in his head in puppy ecstasy.
“He’s all right. Hungry and skinny and sore,” Colton told her. “But seems okay otherwise.”
“Leeta?” McKinley called.
“Can you order our little friend here some plain chicken and rice from the kitchen?”
“You got it,” Leeta said, fingers flying across the register screen. “Sunset’s happening. Want me to ring the bell?”
McKinley skimmed a hand over the dog’s head. “Yeah, go ahead.”
In Colton’s humble opinion, the best part about Sunset Point—besides its beautiful as hell bartender—was the sunset ritual.
Leeta reached overhead and grasped the knotted rope that hung from the bell mounted to one of the wood columns. She rang it three times and a hush fell over the crowd. Every night, the patrons of Sunset Point gathered at the railing and watched in silence as the sun dipped below the horizon.
For someone who was as enamored with the skies as Colton was, paying homage to the sunset was poetic. For a minute, silence fell over the bar. The band cut mid-song. The drunken giggles slowly quieted and everyone just watched as the sun slipped beneath the water, leaving a blaze of pinks and oranges and reds in its wake.
McKinley was close enough that her shoulder rubbed his upper arm. The dog seemed to understand the significance of the moment and scooted between them, leaning against her bare leg. And for a few seconds, Colton’s life was perfect.
His thoughts were full of sunsets and avocados.
McKinley hauled ass through the rest of her shift keeping a watchful eye on Dunes, as they’d dubbed the dog. He’d settled comfortably under the glass washer on a Memphis Bowling League windbreaker they’d liberated from Lost and Found and tapped the tip of his tail every time she passed.
She’d put her customers to work, having them contact the local animal rescues. Each confirmed what the others had: no one had any room for him tonight.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a dog for the night,” Chelsea said with a yawn. It was getting late and the crowd was starting to thin.
“Shit,” McKinley sighed, eyed Dunes as she swiped a towel over the bar where a family of four adults had enjoyed every frozen drink on the menu. “Looks like it,” she sighed. She wasn’t exactly equipped. How was she even going to get him into the car? Hold a cheeseburger in front of his face and coax him through the parking lot? “Where’d Colt go?” she asked. It was unlike him to leave without saying good-bye. But there was a stack of bills in the shot glass that held his check.
McKinley didn’t miss the lift of Chelsea’s eyebrows, the smirk that settled on her lips. “He said he had to run some errands tonight,” she said with a shrug. McKinley remembered her mystery caller earlier. Give him a shot.
As if the patrons picked up on McKinley’s impatience to get home, the crowd slowed and dissipated a little ahead of schedule. She dismissed the kitchen crew and all the servers but Leeta half an hour early. She and Leeta sped through closing, counting the drawers and flipping stools so the early morning cleaning crew could de-sticky the floor.
“Hey, Duney,” McKinley said, ducking down to peer at him in his doggy den. “It’s time to go home. Well, my home. You don’t have one yet, but I’ll make sure you get a good one.” He lifted his head and cocked it to the side as if he were listening.
She’d saved half of her turkey burger from her dinner break and used little nuggets of meat to guide Dunes out of the bar and into the parking lot.
Her skin tingled when she spotted the long, lean, shadow standing in front of her car. Colton Hayes with two large shopping bags at his feet. Dunes wriggled his backend, his tail wagging fiercely as if they were best friends.
“What’s all this?”
Colton smiled kneeling down to ruffle Dunes’ ears. “Figured you’d need a few supplies.”
Curiosity got the best of McKinley and she browsed through the bags while he ran his hands down Dunes’ skinny body. She found dog bowls, a small bag of fancy dog food, a leash and collar, a menagerie of toys—stuffed and rubber—and a very soft bed.
“Colton, you didn’t have to do this.”
“You’re taking him home. You didn’t have to do that,” he pointed out.
McKinley sighed, suddenly exhausted. The dog looked up at her with canine adoration. “Thank you,” she said grudgingly.
Colton gave her that crooked smile. “You’re welcome.
She looked at him hard for a long minute. This was the first time he hadn’t asked her out and this was the first time she wished he would.
“So, you’re gonna want to go easy on the food for him tonight since he ate a lot already. You don’t want him getting sick in your bed,” Colton said, standing up.
“He’s not sleeping in my bed. He smells like a sewer.”
Colton handed her a bar napkin.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“My number. Just in case you need anything tonight… with the dog.”
McKinley looked down at Dunes, who was leaning against her leg and watching Colton happily. She sighed a long drawn out sigh of resignation.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to design beach bikes and sell them from a stand on the boardwalk.”
His mouth lifted in the charming as sin, crooked grin.
He’d ridded her of a drunk and hand-delivered dog necessities. It was time to break the rules. “Do you want to have lunch tomorrow?”
It was too dark to read Colton’s expression exactly but the straightening of his shoulders, the cocking of his head told her he was surprised.
“I’d like that,” he said easily.
She was relieved that he didn’t press her on why exactly, after turning him down a thousand times, she’d changed her mind. He simply accepted it.
“Okay then.” McKinley nodded and opened the door to her backseat. Dunes jumped in as if he’d done it a thousand times before. “I’ll call you,” she said.
“I’ll be waiting.”
Was she blushing? Was that an actual blush turning her cheeks a heated scarlet? Crap she was out of practice.
McKinley felt like an idiot. She’d changed her outfit three times. Finally settling for a cute pair of patterned shorts and a simple peach tank. Perfect for the Florida summer.
“Don’t judge me,” she said, looking at Dunes in the reflection of her mirror. “I don’t date. Technically this is your fault.” The dog yawned and rolled over on her sunny yellow comforter exposing his belly. Dunes had ignored his nice new dog bed last night in favor of McKinley’s comfortable queen-size. After a bath that had turned her tub a gag-worthy shade of brown, of course.
She and Dunes had shared a breakfast—dry food for him and an omelet for her—and then taken a long, slow walk around her neighborhood and onto the beach. And now she was about to spend her Sunday afternoon with a man that she was not mentally prepared to date.
“This is the worst idea in the world, “she said to her reflection. But her reflection didn’t care. It was smiling.
She grabbed her phone and fired off the text she’d been waffling on sending.
McKinley: Hey. It’s McKinley from Sunset Point. I’ll be ready in about half an hour. I can meet you somewhere.
Good. No emojis. No exclamation points. Nothing to get his hopes up about anything beyond lunch. It was just lunch. It wasn’t like they were going to have sex. This was a casual, trial date.
Her phone rang fifteen seconds later. She rolled her eyes and answered.
“I’ll pick you up, “Colton’s voice said warmly in her ear.
“That’s okay. I can just meet you somewhere.”
“I have some things for Dunes that he’ll need.”
“What kind of things?” she hedged.
“The kind of things that will keep him occupied while he’s alone. I’ll meet you at your place. Text me your address.”
She muttered a good-bye and hung up on the smile she could hear in his voice.
“I hope you’re happy, Dunes.”
Twenty-five minutes later, she spotted Colton’s Jeep pull into her building’s parking lot. She opened her front door the second his knuckles grazed the wood. Those sharp green eyes settled on her. “Wow. I was only fifty percent sure you weren’t messing with me,” he said, letting his gaze roam her from head to toe.
“Seriously?” McKinley laughed.
“I thought I’d knock and a middle-aged NASCAR fan would answer. And I’d have to save face by pretending I was doing door-to-door surveys about delivery pizza.”
“That’s oddly specific.”
“I gave it a lot of thought last night.”
Dunes scampered to the door, shoved his face between McKinley’s legs to rub his nose in Colton’s crotch. “Hey there buddy,” Colton said, leaning down to ruffle Dunes’ ears. “You smell a lot better.”
McKinley wrinkled her nose. “My bathtub needs a deep cleaning, but at least this way he’s allowed to touch my furniture.”
Colton straightened and McKinley felt her heart do a little flip-flop when his gaze returned to her. “I brought a few more things for him,” Colton said, holding up a bag.
Just because she invited him in, didn’t mean they were having sex, she reminded herself. McKinley bit her lip because right now he looked good enough to have sex with in casual shorts and another polo that hugged his athletic frame. “Come on in, then.”
Colton and the dog followed her inside, down the narrow foyer and hallway into her little living room. Colton made himself at home on her couch and unpacked the bag on the coffee table. Dunes nosed through the items with excitement. “I thought since we were leaving him alone today we could give him something to entertain himself with,” Colton said.
He dropped a large rubber item on the coffee table and placed a jar of peanut butter next to it. McKinley stared at the items.
“What is that?”
“It’s a Kong. You fill it with peanut butter and the dog spends a crazy amount of time trying to lick it out.” He demonstrated by finding her kitchen and her utensil drawer and filling the mysterious Kong with peanut butter.
“Dogs are so weird,” McKinley observed as Dunes tap-danced on his hind legs.
“So are dog lovers,” Colton said, making Dunes sit before handing over the toy to the ecstatic dog. “You look great. Are you ready?”
She resisted the urge to smooth a hand over her hair. “Uh. Sure. Let me get my bag.”
She paused in the doorway and looked back at Dunes. He was slurping away at the Kong on his belly halfway in the kitchen and living room. “He’ll be okay, right?”
Colton laid a hand on her shoulder. She hated that she liked the shock of his touch. “He’ll be fine. I promise.”
“I’m holding you personally responsible if he destroys my couch or cries sad little dog tears while I’m gone.”
Colton looped an arm over her shoulder and steered her toward the door. It was a friendly move, but her blood started to sing. Everything about him was easy, charming, and just a little too sexy. “He’ll be just fine,” he said confidently.
He led the way to his topless Jeep in the parking lot and McKinley looked over her shoulder up at the window of her apartment expecting to see Dunes’ face mournfully staring after them. There was no dog face in her window.
“He’ll be fine. He has his peanut butter,” Colton promised, reading her mind.
“Where we going?”
He held the passenger door open for her and waited until she slid onto the seat before closing it. “I thought we’d take a little side trip before we eat. Hope you don’t mind.”
Colton navigated the streets of St. Pete, heading east. The hot Florida breeze blew her hair off her neck. Nineties R&B, the kind that took her back to high school, poured from the speakers.
“You’re not taking me to my work on my day off, are you?” McKinley joked, when Colton headed in the direction of Sunset Point.
“Please. Give a guy who’s been thinking about a first date for eight months a little credit.”
McKinley’s lips curved. There was that easy charm.
“The airport?” she asked, when Colton swung the Jeep into the small lot. “So you’re taking me to your work.”
“Ever touched the clouds before?” he asked, turning the engine off.
McKinley shot him a skeptical look. “Does that line actually work?”
Colton gifted her the full wattage and made her toes curl against her flip-flops. He leaned in close enough for her to smell his soap. “I’ll let you know in about half an hour,” he said.
McKinley laughed despite herself. “Seriously what are we doing here?”
He reached over and unfastened her seatbelt. “We’re going up there,” he said, pointing an index finger towards the sky.
She shook her head. “Oh, no. I don’t know you well enough to get in a tiny metal can and go thousands of feet above the ground.”
Colton was undisturbed. He hopped out from behind the wheel and rounded the vehicle to open her door. “McKinley, you know every single detail of my life thanks to our getting-to-know-you dance. You can trust me. I want to take you up. Show you my happy place.”
Reluctantly, McKinley slid out of the Jeep. “You’re not going to do any weird loop de loops or pretend we’re out of gas, are you?” she asked suspiciously.
“Jesus, what kind of guys have you dated?” Colton wondered, taking her hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.
“I don’t date,” she told him. He held the door for her and she entered the small airport office.
“Good,” he said, with a wink. “Because then I’m really going to stand out.” He led the way down the hall to the U-shaped desk in a reception area overlooking the runway. “This is where Talia works during the week,” he said.
“Hey, Colt,” the silver-haired man at the desk wore a blue polo shirt and a bored expression.
“How’s it going, Martin?” Colton asked, picking up a clipboard and scrawling some information on the page. “Can we get two headsets, please?”
“Sure thing. I’ll get the extra good one for your pretty friend,” Martin said with a long, slow wink in McKinley’s direction.
Colton laughed. “Get your own girl, Martin.”
Martin held up a hand to the side of his mouth. “Give me a call if you get sick of this one,” he said in a stage whisper to McKinley.
“I’ll do that,” McKinley returned.
Martin produced two headsets and wished them a happy flight.
McKinley’s nerves started vibrating the second her flip-flopped feet hit the tarmac. Colton, on the other hand, sauntered toward a small shiny single engine plane whistling as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
He must have sensed her hesitation because he paused and held out his hand. “I promise you’ll love it,” he told her.
And damn if she didn’t believe him. She approached the shiny aluminum beast the way she would a horse. Slowly and with great respect. McKinley watched Colton clamor around the long slim body checking the plane from propeller to tail and back again.
“Preflight check,” he explained.
She nodded, gnawing on her lower lip. He could spend an extra hour checking if it meant she’d get to put two feet on solid ground again.
“All set,” he said, opening the passenger side door.
“Oh, god,” she whispered under her breath. McKinley had flown before. Once. When she was seven she and her parents had flown to Buffalo, New York, to visit her grandparents. But she’d never set foot in a plane so tiny. She peered into the cockpit. A wall of instruments that looked like she really shouldn’t touch them sat innocuously beneath the small windshield. There was a steering wheel—a yoke—in front of her seat. Probably in case Colton was knocked unconscious and she had to take over and crash land in the Gulf.
“Hop in,” Colton said. He held her hand while she scrambled into the seat. He popped her window open and then shut the door. The sweltering Florida heat had taken up residence inside the small plane and McKinley wondered nervously if she’d remembered to apply deodorant.
Colton opened the opposite door and climbed in. “I’ll get the air going,” he said, swiping his hat off his head and replacing it with the headset. He turned the key—planes had keys?—and the engine sputtered to life along with a blast of slightly cooler air.
He took the plug of her headset and inserted it into the auxiliary jack. McKinley hesitated briefly then put it on over her ears and adjusted the microphone.
“Couple more preflight things and we’ll be on our way,” Colt’s voice crackled in her ear. McKinley turned to look at him and felt her pulse kick up a notch. They sat shoulder to shoulder in the crammed cockpit and he was running through some mystery checklist.
He radioed the tower and must have understood the garbled reply because then they were suddenly moving, bouncing and rolling in a wide arc. The turquoise bay was straight ahead, the nice, safe building at their back. Colton turned them again in a tight 180 to line them up with one of what looked like hundreds of lines on the ground.
He leaned over her and pulled her window shut. Colton looked at McKinley and grinned. “Ready?”
No, she was not ready. She wanted her nice quiet apartment and her familiar job. She didn’t want to be flying hundreds of feet above where human beings were supposed to be. She didn’t want to date. She just wanted the comfort and safety of her normal.
Oh, shit. What if they crashed? Who would know to look in on Dunes?
But they were moving, lumbering and bumping forward, the whine of the engine loud even through the headset. Terrified, unprepared, McKinley reached out and gripped the muscle of Colton’s thigh.
She thought she heard an intake of breath through her headset, but it could have been the whooshing of her blood as it left her head. She was in a tiny metal bucket that was rapidly picking up speed with a man she hadn’t intended to date. This was the single dumbest thing she’d ever done in her entire life. This could be the world’s shortest first date.
And then the wheels stopped bumping, the ground dropped, and everything was smooth. “Holy shit,” she murmured.
Colton’s laugh echoed softly in her ears.
The ground was falling away beneath them as the nose of the plane tilted, driving them higher. They were being pushed and pulled and suspended and suddenly there was nothing but blue beneath them and above them.
Colton leveled off at one thousand feet, incredibly conscious of McKinley’s hand that still gripped high on his thigh. She wasn’t looking at him, her face was plastered against her window and he couldn’t tell if she was excited or ready to barf.
“You okay over there?” Colton asked.
She turned toward him, eyes wide and dazed. “We’re flying,” she said.
“Welcome to my favorite part of St. Pete’s,” he said.
“This is…” she trailed off, leaving him anxious. Did she see what he saw or was she blinded by fear?
“What?” he asked.
“Amazing.” The smile she shot him went straight to his gut. He’d considered himself something of a McKinley aficionado since he’d first laid eyes on her all those months ago, but he’d never seen her looking this happy, this free. “It’s so peaceful and beautiful and… I feel like this is how heaven is supposed to look,” she said.
And just like that, a metric ton of avocados hit Colton in the head.
“I can’t believe you get to spend your days like this,” she said, her gaze glued to the window again.
The strip of St. Pete’s Beach stretched out beneath them in a long, lean finger of white sand dotted with tiny people.
“Welcome to my happy place,” he said.
McKinley turned to study him. “Just so you know, no date will ever top this moment right here.”
“That’s what I was going for,” Colton said with a quick grin. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Like it?” she said. “I feel like I’m having a religious experience.”
“Just wait,” he promised.
“I don’t see how you can make this any better.”
“Have a little faith, Kinley.”
He flew them over her neighborhood low enough that she could pick out her apartment building. She waved, though no one could see her. “Do you think Dunes is okay?” she asked.
Colton thought about the dog who in one night had gone from homeless and hungry to sleeping in McKinley’s bed. A place he wouldn’t mind visiting if given the chance. “Yeah, I think he’s just fine.”
“I wonder if he’d like this?” she said half to herself.
“I take Walt up all the time.”
“Your dog? You fly with Walter?” she asked.
“He mostly sleeps through the flight and grumbles through the landing,” Colton told her.
“I liked the takeoff,” she said shyly.
Colton reached over and squeezed her hand where it rested on her leg. “That’s my favorite part,” he told her. “All that energy and anticipation?” That second the wheels decided to leave the ground was a holy moment, a moment that man broke his connection with the earth to visit the gods.
“It’s like you’re leaving your mortality behind and becoming a part of it all.” McKinley’s voice sounded crystal clear in his ears. Shit. This was more than a crush. More than lust. She was his takeoff.
Colton felt… free.
“Are you ready to touch some clouds?” he asked.
McKinley dragged her gaze away from the beach and line of hotels beneath them. “Are you serious?” she demanded.
“Deadly. Open your window,” he said, nodding at the glass.
She wrestled the latch up and pushed the glass out. The hot, humid air filled the cockpit instantaneously. But being closer to the sun than the ground wasn’t stifling. It was stirring. He lined up over the ocean for a grouping of stratus clouds just off the coast. “Stick your hand out the window.”
McKinley did as she was told, though not without a skeptical glance at him. He accelerated into the fluffy, white abyss and waited with bated breath.
“Oh!” The shock and wonder in her tone carried through loud and clear in his ears making his blood sing.
She leaned further out the window, her arm stretched out and fingers extended as the white vapor slipped over her skin. “I can feel them,” she said, astounded. “I’m touching freaking clouds right now!”
Colton laughed and circled around just so she could do it again.
“This is the best thing ever!” McKinley crowed.
He’d never seen her so free, so happy. Colton vowed on the spot to make McKinley smile like this for the rest of his life.
“You want to fly?” he asked, jutting his chin toward the yoke in front of her.
“Are you kidding me?” she demanded.
“Totally serious. I’ll show you how.”
The McKinley on the ground would have politely declined. But this airborne McKinley? The one who was soaring over the beach city she loved? She was a badass thrill-seeker ready for her next adrenaline rush.
“Tell me what to do,” she said, wrapping her eager fingers around the yoke.
Colton gave her gentle instructions that she followed to a T and was delighted when she felt the plane react to her movements.
“Perfect,” Colton’s voice purred in her ear. “Now why don’t you bank to the right. Keep your eyes on the altimeter. Beautiful.”
She glanced in his direction as she executed the turn and found him recording her with his phone.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her attention returning to the horizon.
“Recording our first official date so I can play this at our wedding.”
She laughed with pure, unadulterated joy. “You’re insane.”
“And you’re flying a plane,” he pointed out.
“Thanks, Colt,” she said, softening.
He put his phone away. “I like seeing you smile like this.”
His confession, low and raspy, had her skin and blood and muscle firing up. She was flying a plane with a sexy, smart, sweet man who had respectfully pursued her for the better part of a year. Just what was she so damn afraid of?
Of failing again? Or of flying?
When the wheels touched the earth, smooth as butter—under Colton’s control—McKinley felt the twin pangs of disappointment and elation. She was also suddenly ravenous. And not for the tacos Colton had promised her.
“What did you think?” Colton asked after they’d both exited the plane. The sun was shining down on them. A strong breeze lifted her hair, welcoming her back to the earth. And those clouds, the ones she’d touched, billowed above them. Colton was grinning at her behind his aviators like he already knew what she thought.
She closed the distance between them and didn’t stop until she was pressed against him. His lean, hard body to her soft curves. He lost his easy grin when she planted her lips against his. McKinley was tired of careful and safe. She wanted to hang on to this feeling. Alive, electric, enamored.
She felt him tense against her, felt his muscles coil and knew he was fighting nature. Fighting to stay gentle, to not overwhelm her. Kissing her the way the sun kissed the ocean every night. Their mouths melded, and the breath she sucked in when she parted her lips was a shaky one. But there was no time for breath, not with Colton’s tongue sweeping past her lips to claim.
He pulled her in until she couldn’t tell where he ended and she began. McKinley pushed her busy fingers into his hair shoving his hat off his head. It fell to the tarmac along with the beating heart she’d wrenched from her own chest.
“McKinley,” he gasped.
But she wasn’t interested in talking. She dove back into the kiss with ferocity.
Colton’s hands skimmed her body, exploring. She loved the feel of his work-roughened palms cruising her curves, dragging through her hair. He wrapped her heavy curls around his fist and held her there.
“We need to slow down, Kinley,” he warned with a soft laugh of wonder. But neither of their bodies were interested in listening.
“No, thanks,” she said politely as she dug her fingers into the cotton of his polo, dragging him back to her.
He swore under his breath. And then they were moving. He hustled her backward. She was too busy kissing him to wonder where they were going until the hot Florida sun disappeared from her skin. She must not have moved fast enough for his liking, because Colton picked her up, wrapping her legs around his slim hips and carrying her further into the open hangar.
They made it as far as the box of an office that jutted out into the space. He pressed her back against the wall. “I’ve thought about doing this for a very long time,” he breathed, nipping at the stubborn line of her jaw.
She tilted, offering him better access.
“I want to touch you,” he murmured, brushing his lips over her hair, her face.
“Yes,” she breathed.
Colton let out the breath that sounded like a groan and dropped his forehead to hers. But still, he hesitated. McKinley grabbed the wrist of his right hand and watched his face as she slowly slipped it under the hem of her tank.
Her stomach pulled a double back flip at his touch. She wanted him. Ached for him. Eight months of flirting, of playing it safe, and this had been simmering under the surface. Life. Lust. They made her heart beat faster.
“Is this okay?” he asked softly, his palm brushing over her belly button and higher over her ribs.
She grinned up at him. “It’s better than okay, Colt.”
“You’re beautiful, Kinley. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“You can say that after being up there?” she pointed toward the sky that they’d just explored together.
“Oh, yeah.” His hot fingers trailed paths over her skin, skirting the edge of her bra. “No contest.”
“Can I touch you?” McKinley asked him breathlessly.
Colton’s knees buckled momentarily and she laughed softly.
“God, yes,” he whispered.
She knew he wanted to go slow. To sample and savor. But she wanted something different, a fiery feast. A fast fall into the fire that had been burning low for so long. She slipped her hand beneath the waistband of his shorts and reveled in the way the muscles of his stomach tensed to solid rock.
She waited for the little voice to scream at her for being irresponsible. To remind her of what happened last time she’d allowed herself to get swept up. But there was nothing but her own blood pumping hotly through her system. Her fingers met his battle-ready shaft through the thin material of his underwear. And she found herself shoved hard against the wall, her leg looping over his hip while his erection grinded into her stomach.
Need pulsed, and throbbed, and shredded its way through her. If Colton were to move his hand up an inch, that rough palm grazing her nipple, she’d go off like the finale of fireworks on the 4th of July. And, right now, there wasn’t anything else she wanted more than that.
“Sorry. Sorry,” he panted. “Lost control for a second.”
Wide-eyed, she glanced down at where he pressed so intimately to her. “I liked it,” she confessed.
“God, McKinley. You are killing me. I’m trying to be a good guy here.”
He was. Colton Hayes was a good guy and he was proving it again, when it mattered most, first by not killing her in a plane crash and now by not fucking her against the wall. And nothing else could have convinced her more quickly that the man she’d spent the last months getting to know was indeed good.
She took a deep breath and gathered her last scrap of sanity. “Okay. I know. I got… carried away.”
He didn’t move back from her and she didn’t push him. They stood like that, rooted together, bodies begging for more.
“I’m gonna need more than a first date, Kinley,” Colton said finally.
“Okay.” She nodded, her head loose on a neck that seemed like it had lost its muscle. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
He kissed her again. This time softly, sweetly. Like a promise of what was to come.
“Oh, hey, Colt! Didn’t know you were work— Oh, shit. Sorry.”
Colton whirled, stepping in front of McKinley, leaving her shaking and disheveled.
Sonny was looking everywhere but at them, the tips of his ears a shade of scarlet Colton had never seen on him before. “I’m just going to…” Sonny pointed over his shoulder and walked out, tripping over a toolbox on his way. “Nice to see you, McKinley!” he called.
“You too, Sonny.”
Colton turned back to McKinley.
“Listen,” McKinley began.
“If you start saying anything that sounds like ‘that was a mistake’ you’re going to break my heart.”
Her swollen lips curved. “I’m saying this has been one hell of a first date. But maybe we should get something to eat and talk… fully clothed. Maybe with a table between us.”
“How do you feel about tacos?”
She grinned, blinding him again. “As long as you don’t complain about me eating five of them in one sitting, I feel really good about them.”