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I blamed it on the casserole.

He might not have talked to me otherwise. He sure wouldn't have touched me.

I was talking about Jamie Jacobs. The guy who irrevocably changed my life. And not just my life. He changed the very shape of my heart.

I'd been crushing on Jamie for going on a year now. Last school year as a freshman, my eyes lit up like moon pies every time I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of him in the hall or the cafeteria. My heart would beat wildly every time I saw him pulling in or out of the parking lot in his aqua-blue Bronco. He always rode with the top off, even in the winter, and he'd pretty much introduced me to the concept of sexy and what it looked like in real life.

And now here he was. At my house. In my backyard.

When he'd walked through the back gate with Donovan and Lassiter, I seriously thought I was going to have a heart attack.

"Erin, you still there?" Ally asked from the other end of the phone I forgot I was holding. Ally was my best friend. Had been since kindergarten. We played on the volleyball team together. Shared most of our secrets with each other. My crush on Jamie wasn't one of those secrets, not because I knew she wouldn't approve, but because the way I fantasized about Jamie being all mine was something I cherished as mine alone.

I dropped the pink eyelet and lace curtain, letting it fall back in place in front of my bedroom window. My window overlooked the backyard, and I'd been checking it regularly for the last hour so I wouldn't miss the moment Jamie arrived.

"Listen, Ally. I gotta go. Some of the guys are here and I need to get the casserole out of the oven."

"You know, you are the luckiest girl on the planet," Ally said. "All that deliciously packaged testosterone at your house at one time. How do you stand it?"

"Well, considering they've been threatened literally with their lives if they so much as look at me, it's all wasted."

"Yeah, but you can still feast your eyes on all that gorgeous flesh." Ally sighed dreamily through the phone.

"Yeah, speaking of feasts, the oven timer's going off. I really got to go. Bye." I hung up and threw the phone on my bed. I checked myself in the mirror above my dresser, something I'd never done before when the 'guys' came over.

Today was different. Today Jamie was with them and just because he was technically off limits didn't mean I couldn't look good. I smeared on another layer of lip gloss and coated my eyelashes one more time with mascara. I was going for older. More worldly than my sixteen years. At nineteen, Jamie wore the look of experience. He looked like he would want things. Like he would expect things. Things a sixteen-year-old girl shouldn't even know about.

Not that me looking older would change anything. Jamie was, and always would be, forbidden fruit. Besides the fact he was nearly four years older than me--not an insurmountable obstacle--he was the newest recruit in my dad's experimental team--an obstacle that was insurmountably insurmountable. I wasn't kidding when I told Ally all the guys in my dad's command risked life and limb if they so much as turned their head in my direction.

Jamie was also the experimental part of the team. Meaning he wasn't exactly human. He was amazingly more than human. What better person to recruit to be on a SEAL-type team than someone who was literally born to be in the water?

Jamie possessed the strength of the other four guys on the team combined. The second he submerged himself in the Gulf of Mexico, the pores in his skin opened up and allowed him to breathe water. He could swim for days, maybe weeks, at impossible speeds and not get tired.

Today, when the inevitable happened, and Donovan and Lassie and Ross went for a swim in the pool, Jamie would be forced to sit on the sidelines. He could breathe salty gulf water. Chlorinated pool water, not so much.

I knew all this because I'd snuck in my dad's office one night and riffled through the files that had been left out on his desk. Jamie's had been easy to find. It was thick, with pages and pages of documented and undocumented facts about Jamie's species. Up close, clinical pictures of the gills behind his ears that I'd found fascinating. I'd traced the crescent shaped layers of skin over and over with my finger. I studied the pictures of the fine almost translucent webs between his toes, waiting to be repulsed, only to find myself more enchanted with the idea of him. I scanned microscopic pictures of his skin, smooth and hairless and oh so touchable. The more I read, the more obsessed I became. All my friends gushed and fan-girled over Harry Styles and Ian

Somerhalder while my every fantasy was right here under my nose. So close I could smell him.

And God did he smell good. Like the sun and the ocean and a warm salty breeze. My friends were welcome the latest bad-boy cast in a CW television show. Or the hottest boy band member.

I wanted a man.

I wanted Jamie.

Too bad I was never going to get him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My parents divorced when I was ten. As far as I knew, it was amicable. Neither of them cheated on the other. It was a simple matter of them not loving each other anymore. My mom was the one to move out. I came home from school one day and she didn't live with us anymore. She didn't ask if I wanted to go with her. She just up and bought a condo in Rosemary Beach, a small coastal community a short drive away.

It was a relief really. Given a choice, I would have chosen to live with my dad anyway. I'm pretty sure my mom knew that and moved out without a fuss to spare us both. Me from having to hurt her by choosing to live with my dad, and her from having to live with that choice. I loved my mom. In a lot of ways, she was my best friend. But as far as having things in common and what suited my lifestyle, I was more compatible with my dad.

Consequently, I'd learned to cook at an early age. I was good at reading cookbooks and following directions, and honestly, I enjoyed it. My dad didn't expect it of me. We shared kitchen duties equally. But on the occasions when his guys were over, I spent the majority of the time inside while he manned the grill. Six grown, and in most cases still growing, men who exerted way above the average amount of energy, could put away a large amount of food. Especially meat. They wanted lots of it. Chicken and burgers. Steak when my dad was feeling generous. He'd put together some shrimp skewers today. I wondered if that was because Jamie was here. Another thing I learned from Jamie's file. His kind preferred seafood. Which made sense.

The potato casserole was my mom's recipe, handed down from her mom and her mom before that. It was a big hit amongst the guys and a staple on the Saturdays they came to hang out. They would play pool, sometimes end up in a poker game. Sometimes they'd drag the Ping-Pong table out and have a mini tournament.

I turned off the oven timer, pulled open the door and was met with a blast of hot air. Someone, probably Lassie because he was the reigning champ, must have gotten the Ping-Pong table out. I heard the ball pinging back and forth just outside the French doors in the kitchen overlooking the pool and patio area. What I hadn't heard was someone open the door behind me and come inside, so when I turned around and came face to face with Jamie, it took me by surprise. I froze, holding the casserole in front of me, unable to move.

Jamie. In my kitchen. Towering by the back door, making our ample-sized kitchen feel small. His pale green eyes washed over me like the gentle lap of ocean waves. They warmed my skin and made me tingle all over. I should probably breathe, but that was impossible at the moment. Maybe he would catch me when I fainted and I would finally know what it felt like for him to touch me.

It was the heat from the casserole dish that drop-kicked me out of my hypnotized state. The oven mitts were old and worn and the heat from the dish burned right through them. I yelped, and half dropped, half threw the offending dish on the kitchen island.

"You all right?"

My eyes shot to Jamie's face at the sound of his voice. I searched my memory, wondering if I'd actually ever heard him speak. He was so close I could see the darker green flecks in his eyes, the shine of his almost black hair. His brows descended over those pale emerald eyes set in a face some might consider severe with a hard square jawline and sharp cheekbones so prominent under his close cut hair.

"Yes," I said, hiding my hands behind my back, fighting a grimace.

"Let me see." His voice was like an ocean roar, deep and throaty, yet somehow gentling.

"It's nothing," I said, not wanting to appear weak. Not in front of him. Not knowing what he was and the things he could do. He was the epitome of strength and struck me as someone who wouldn't be impressed with weakness.

"Let me see," he said again, more sternly this time. I held my hands out, palms up. On my right palm there was a red spot a little bigger than a quarter where the hot dish burned me.

"The mitt must have a hole in it." Funny, it didn't hurt much. With Jamie standing so near, all I felt was the force of his presence. The way it made my heart thud and my breaths come slow and shallow.

"Come here," he said.

I followed him over to the sink like a well-trained puppy. He cupped his hand under mine and held it, the touch light as a cloud. I hoped he couldn't hear how my heart thudded at his nearness. His skin was so warm and his hand was so big it dwarfed mine in comparison. With his other hand, he took a piece of ice from a bag sitting in the sink. How could hands that I knew held superhuman strength be this gentle?

My eyes roamed on their own accord. His feet were bare, the webs between his toes barely discernible. White boardshorts encased his powerful legs below a navy blue t-shirt that was beginning to fade. The cotton fabric molded to his chest in an enticing display, doing little to hide the fine-honed muscle underneath. I swallowed and looked up into his face. His eyes locked onto mine and didn't let go. I don't think I'd ever been looked at that hard. A deep, soul-searching penetration before his mouth cocked in a sort of half smile, and I knew I would never again in my whole life see a face as beautiful as his.

"Smells good," he said, his large fingers still working the ice over my skin. "What is it?"

"Wh... what?" I stammered. Did he mean me? Did he think I smelled good? It was hard to think with him this close. With my hand cradled in his. With those eyes so intent on my face.

"What did you take out of the oven?"

"Oh, that. It's a potato casserole. The guys like it." I shrugged away my disappointment. Food. It was always about the food with these guys.

The ice had done the trick. The burn no longer stung. Or maybe Jamie just had magic in his hands. He let his magic hand fall away and I resisted the impulse to grab it back. The loss of contact seemed to crack the intimate moment wide open, and Jamie took a step back as if he just then realized how close we'd been standing. Close enough his scent still hung in my nose.

He lifted the bag of ice from the sink and said, "Cooler's empty." As though he needed an explanation for why he was in my kitchen.

I watched as he turned for the door, dying a little inside, wondering how I could get him to stay.

"You making brownies?" He nodded to a pan on the counter. I had been waiting for the potatoes to get done before I put the brownies in to cook.

"Yeah, you like brownies?" I felt a slight flush rise in my cheeks. Could I sound any more eager?

He dabbed at the pan, globing batter on the end of his finger. If any of the other guys had put their no-telling-where-they've-been hands in my brownie mix, I would've knocked them upside the head with the oven mitts. As it was, my eyes were riveted to his mouth as he licked the batter off his finger.

"I love brownies."

And there it was again, that smile that did funny things to my heart and made my stomach feel like it could fly.

Thank God Donovan's face appeared in the door before I said something really stupid like, "I love you."

"Grill stuff’s ready," Donovan said as he walked inside, bringing a wave of humid air with him along with the distinct smell of sweaty male. "You need me to grab something?"

"Yeah, get the casserole," Jamie answered for me, a sharp command in his voice.

"Here." I opened a drawer and pulled out another pair of oven mitts. A pair without holes. "Use these. The pan is hot."

Donovan made a big show of smelling the cheesy potatoes after he picked it up and shot Jamie a look that could have been a warning then said, "You're an angel for making this. This whole pan, I call it."

"Not likely with Lassiter here." I swiped the brownies off the counter and slid them into the oven, set the timer again, then went to the refrigerator and took out the salad I'd put together earlier. The guys weren't big on vegetables but they'd eat it since I made it, so long as I provided a gallon of ranch dressing. Which I grabbed with my other hand.

Hands full, I used my foot to close the refrigerator door. Jamie was still there, standing by the door. He had such beautiful lips, full and pouty and fully masculine. I held my breath waiting for them to speak again.

"I'm Jamie Jacobs." Those perfect lips said as if I hadn't said his name a thousand times over in my head.

"Erin Shaw," I responded, my gaze steady on his.

"Marshall's daughter. The untouchable." His eyes teased, but there was a challenge in his voice.

"You touched me." I lifted one eyebrow, having to crane my neck to look up into his face as I made my way to the door he held open.

He smiled at me when I walked by, knowing and dangerous. Fire. I was playing with fire. Because while his words had sounded like a challenge, mine sounded like a dare.

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