Vanessa Flint gave me a look I was familiar with, the one that said she didn’t want to be interrupted. But her voice was warm and friendly. “Haven, how nice to see you here! Are you having fun?””Words can’t describe it,” I said. It was just not my night. Of all people for Hardy to hook up with, it had to be my boss from hell. Fate was trying to get it through to me that this wasn’t going to work on any level.
Hardy set his glass on the bar. “Haven — ”
“Hi, Mr. Cates,” I said coolly. “Have a good night, you two. I was just leaving.”
Without giving either Vanessa or Hardy a chance to react, I turned and pushed through the crowd. Nauseous and white-faced with fury, I acknowledged that my family was absolutely right about Hardy. He was trouble I didn’t need.
I’d made it about halfway through the room when I felt him come up behind me, his touch on my arm. I stiffened and turned to face him. His face was as hard as granite.
“Go back to Vanessa,” I told him. “If she thinks I’ve taken you away from her, I’ll be cleaning the office bathroom for the next week.”
“I wasn’t with her, I was having a drink. Was I supposed to wait alone in the corner while you were trying to make up your mind about me? ”
“Not in the corner, no.” I glared at him. “But you could have at least waited five minutes before finding a replacement.”
“She wasn’t a replacement. I was waiting for you. And it took you a hell of a lot longer than five minutes to decide if you wanted to dance with me. I’m not going to take that shit from you or your family, Haven.”
“After the way you’ve behaved in the past, what do you expect? Flowers and a parade? They have every right to distrust your motives.”
“What about you? What do you think my motives are?”
“I don’t think you want me to answer that in front of all these people.”
“Then we’ll go somewhere private,” he said through clenched teeth. “Because I’m going to have an answer, by God.”
“Fine.” My mind went blank, frozen in white panic, as I felt him take my wrist. The last time I’d been handled by an angry man, I’d ended up at the hospital. But his grip, firm as it was, was not painful. I forced myself to relax and go along with him as he steered me through the crowd.
A female singer was crooning “Summertime,” the dark, moody melody weaving around us like smoke.
I was in a daze as we made our way out of the room, past the crush in the lobby. We reached a set of doors, but we were forced to stop as someone stepped in our way. Gage. His eyes flashed like bottled lightning as he glanced over both of us, missing no detail, including the way Hardy was gripping my wrist.
“Do you need me?” Gage asked me quietly.
Hardy looked like he was ready to commit murder. “She’s fine,” he said.
My brother paid no attention to that, only kept his gaze on me. I felt a wave of gratitude for him, understanding how difficult it was for him to let me go off with a man he despised. But Gage knew it was my choice. He was there to offer help only if I wanted it.
“It’s okay,” I said to him. “I don’t need anything.”
My brother nodded, although it was obvious he was struggling not to interfere. As we left him, he looked as if he were watching me walk off with Lucifer himself. I knew Gage was afraid for me. He didn’t trust Hardy Cates.
Neither did I, come to think of it.
Hardy pulled me past the set of doors, and around a corner, working deeper into the building until we finally stopped in some kind of maintenance stairwell, which smelled of concrete and metal and musty dankness. It was quiet except for a dripping sound, and the broken rhythms of our breathing. A light from somewhere above shed uncertain fluorescence over us.
Hardy faced me, looking huge and dark against a background of concrete. “Now,” he said brusquely, “tell me what you wouldn’t say back there.”
I let him have it. “I think if I were anyone but a Travis, you wouldn’t give me the time of day. I think you want to show my brother Gage that if he got Liberty, you’re going to get back at him by sleeping with his sister. I think you have more hidden agendas than you can admit even to yourself. I think — ”
I stopped with a gasp as he grabbed me. a wild feeling pumped through me, a mixture of fear and anger and, unbelievably, arousal.
“Wrong,” he bit out, his accent heavy and charred with scorn. “I’m not that complicated, Haven. The truth is, I’ve wanted you ever since I met you in that damned wine cellar. Because I got a bigger charge out of that five minutes than I have with any woman before or since. No secret plot against your family, Haven. No hidden agendas. Plain and simple, I’m just interested in screwing your brains out.”
My face was stiff with offended bewilderment. Before I could string a few coherent syllables together, Hardy kissed me. I pushed at him, and his mouth lifted, and he muttered something that sounded obscene, but I couldn’t quite hear it over the rampaging pulse in my ears.
He took my head in both his hands, fingers shaping around my skull. His lips found mine again. The taste and heat of him were unbearably sweet as his tongue sank into my mouth. The pleasure of it went screaming through me, hunger striking against equal hunger, creating fire. I opened to him, shaking so hard I could barely stand. His arm went around me, shielding my back from the cold press of concrete, the other hand running down the front of my body. I kissed him back, licking into his mouth the way he was doing with mine. I was feeling too much, losing control.
His mouth broke from mine, roughly searching the side of my neck. The rasp of his shaven jaw sent bolts of delight down to my stomach. I heard him mutter something to the effect that after going to a fancy college I should at least be smart enough to know when a man wanted to go to bed with me. Except that he said it a lot more crudely.
“I’m not a gentleman,” he went on, gripping my body, his breath hot on my skin. “I can’t get you into bed with fancy words or nice manners. All I can tell you is that I want you more than I’ve ever wanted a woman. I’d break any law to have you. If you’d gone with me that night we met, I would have taken you to Galveston and kept you there for a week. And I’d have made sure you never wanted to leave.”
As the arm behind me tightened to arch my torso upward, I realized he’d pulled at the side of the dress until my breast was bare. He cupped the shallow weight, his thumb prodding the tip until it was tight and rosy, and then he bent to touch it with his tongue. I lifted, gasping, as he kissed the erect nipple, sealing his mouth over the taut flesh. He tugged rhythmically, sending washes of pleasure through me, licking between each soft pull. I held his head to me, tears stinging the corners of my eyes because it felt so good.
He moved upward and fastened his mouth to mine again, the kiss rich and drugging. “Let me into your bed,” he muttered. “I’ll give it to you any way you want it . . . long, slow, hard, easy . . . Hell, I’ll even try to do it like a gentleman, if that’s what gets you off. You think I want you because you’re a Travis? I wish you were anyone but a fu**ing Travis. Your kind of people have looked down on me my whole life.”
“I’ve never looked down on you,” I snapped, shaking with frustration and desire. “If you knew anything about me, you’d never think that.”
“Then what’s the problem?” he growled. “Your ex-husband? You still got feelings for him?”
“No.” My hands worked at the folds of his lapel, fingers clenching on the sleek fabric.
“Tell me you don’t want me. Tell me, and I’ll leave you the hell alone.”
“I’m not good at this,” I burst out. “My God, isn’t that obvious?”
Nick is the only one I’ve ever slept with. I can’t be casual about this.”
I had never meant to admit that. But I was helpless, broken open, afraid I couldn’t stand to be hurt the way Hardy was going to hurt me. Sex and pain and fear were all mixed up in my head.
Hardy went still. In one blistering moment, everything changed. He forced my face upward, his hand cupping the back of my head. His eyes were blue even in the darkness as he stared at me. Slowly his grip gentled, turning protective, his free hand stroking the goose-flesh on my upper arm. I realized he was stunned. It hadn’t occurred to him that I might be too inexperienced to know how to play the game.
“Haven . . . ” The new softness in his voice made my trembling even worse. “I didn’t know. I thought — ”
“That I’m a spoiled River Oaks brat? A snob — ”
“But I — ”
I fell silent and let him hold me. I was swallowed up in his embrace, clasped against that hard chest. Part of me wanted to escape. The other part of me craved this, being held, being touched. He stroked my hair, fingertips moving gently over the curve of my scalp. I felt something giving way, some inner tightness dissolving.
We swayed a little as we stood together, as if sensation were an ocean current pushing against us. Hardy nuzzled into my neck. I twisted to find his mouth, and he gave me what I wanted, kissing me with slow hunger until I was weak and dizzy. His arm was strong around me, cradling and supportive. With his free hand, he clenched his fingers into the loose folds of my dress, easing the knit fabric upward.
I jumped as his hand clasped my bare hip. He kissed my throat and said things I only half heard, endearments, reassurance, soothing me while he parted my thighs. He touched me, opening tenderly, one fingertip moving over layered flesh in teasing circles, smaller and smaller until he reached the center. I writhed helplessly as he caressed that one pulsing spot, over and over, and every time the callus on his finger crossed the wet surface of my clit, a pleasure-cry rose in my throat.
I melted on him, moaning, while the need for sex, to be filled, pulsed all through me. Turning my mouth to his, I let him kiss me as deeply as he wanted, welcoming the aggressive thrust of his tongue. His hand left me, and he reached for the fastenings of his pants . . . and it was then that disaster struck.
As I felt him so huge and hard against me, all the pleasure disappeared. Just . . . vanished. Suddenly all I could see, hear, feel, was that last time with Nick, the searing pain, the brutal thrusts eased only by the slick of my own blood. My throat and stomach pulsed with nausea, and the masculine body against mine was revolting, his weight unbearable, and I began to struggle without thinking.
“No,” I panted, twisting away, shoving hard at him. “No. I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I — ” I stopped myself by biting hard on my lip, realizing my voice was rising in a harsh echo.
“What is it?” I heard Hardy ask, his breath coming in rough pants.
I was shivering, hostile, every cell in my body geared up for self-preservation. “Leave me alone,” I snapped. “Take your hands off me.” I fumbled with my dress, trying to pull it into place, my fingers shaking violently.
“Haven — ” His voice was ragged. “Did I hurt you? What is it?”
“I’m not into fu**ing in public places,” I said coldly, edging toward the door. If he touched me again, I would fall apart . . . I would go crazy. “And I don’t like being pushed.”
“Like hell I was pushing you. You wanted it.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Hardy.”
He looked flushed and dangerously aroused and annoyed as hell. Slowly he began to restore his own clothing. When he spoke again, his voice was low and controlled. “There’s a word, Haven, for a woman who does what you’re doing.”
“I’m sure you know a lot of interesting words,” I said. “Maybe you should go tell them to someone else.”
And before he could reply, I fled from the stairwell like an escapee from prison.
Somehow I found my way back to the modular theater, the sounds of dancing and laughter swirling around me. I was terrified by the realization of how much was wrong with me, that I couldn’t tolerate the normal act of ha**ng s*x with a man I was attracted to. And I was humiliated by the way I had just behaved. Hardy had no choice but to think I was a bitch, a cocktease. He would never want anything to do with me again. That thought sort of relieved me, but at the same time I wanted to burst into tears.
Todd found me immediately. He had been talking with a guy at the bar, his gaze leisurely sweeping the room, when he saw me come in. He came to me, his gaze focused on my pale face and kiss-swollen lips. “You look like you just banged the Dallas Cowboys,” he said. “First and second strings.”
“Please, can you call me a cab?” I whispered.
Concern warmed his blue-green eyes. “I’ll take you home, sweetheart. Here, lean on me.”
But I flinched as he tried to put his arm around my shoulders.
“All right,” Todd continued pleasantly, as if he hadn’t noticed my bizarre reaction, “why don’t you take my arm, and we’ll go out the side door?”
He drove me to 1800 Main in his BMW Coupe, asking no questions, maintaining a comfortable silence until we finally got to my seventh-floor apartment. He had decorated it with an eclectic mix of antique-shop furniture and a couple of his own cast-off pieces. Creams and whites were balanced by dark distressed wood. And Todd had added a few touches of whimsy, like covering the inside-facing panel of my front door with an antique bamboo hula-girl screen.
Taking one look at my wretched face, Todd reached for the green chenille throw on my sofa and wrapped it around me. I snuggled in the corner of the sofa, drawing my feet back to make room for him.
“Must have been some dance,” Todd said, untying his bow tie. He left it hanging loose on either side of his neck, and relaxed on the sofa beside me, as graceful as a cat. “What happened?”
“We didn’t dance,” I said numbly.
“He took me to a dark corner somewhere. A stairwell.”
“Purely for my vicarious enjoyment, tell me . . . is he good?” I could feel my face go crimson. “That good?” Todd asked.
A shaky laugh escaped me. I wasn’t sure I could put it into words. “You know how when someone kisses you, you can tell they’re only doing it as a step to something else? Like they’re just trying to get it over with? Well, Hardy kisses like it’s the only thing in the world he wants to do. Each kiss is like a complete sex act.” I closed my eyes for a second, remembering. “And he’s a face-holder.”
“Mmmn. I love that. So did one of your brothers find you?”
“No, it was me. I screwed it all up. I freaked out in the middle of it.”
There was a long silence. “Freaked out how? What do you . . . Haven, take your hands down and look at me. This is Todd. Just say it.”
“I got scared. More than scared. I pushed him away and ran out of there as fast as I could.”
“Scared by what?”
“I felt his . . . you know, his . . . ”
Todd gave me a sardonic glance as I hesitated. “Hard-on?” he suggested. “Package? Lap-taffy? Bait-and-tackle? Come on, Haven, let’s not talk about this like a pair of tweenies.”
I scowled defensively. “My conversations don’t usually include the subject of erections.”
“Too bad,” he said. “All the best conversations do. Go on, sweetheart.”
I took a deep breath. “While we were kissing, I felt his erection, and all the desire just disappeared. Poof. After what I went through with Nick, the feel of that has a lot of bad connotations for me.”
“Went through what?” he asked quietly. “You’ve never told me. Although I’ve had my suspicions.”
“The night I left Nick,” — I looked away from Todd as I made myself say it — “we had rough sex.”
“Rough sex?” Todd asked. “Or rape?”
“I don’t know.” I was drowning in shame. “I mean, we were married. But I didn’t want to do it, and he forced me, so I guess — ”
“It was rape,” he said flatly. “It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not. If you don’t want to do it and someone forces you, it’s rape. Holy shit, I’d like to kill the bastard.” Todd’s face was dark with a fury I’d never seen in him before. Bui as he stared at me, his expression changed. “Haven, sweetheart . . . you know if a woman’s ready, aroused, it’s not going to hurt. Especially if the man knows what he’s doing, which I have no doubt Hardy does.”
“Yes, but even though my mind knows it, my body doesn’t. So as soon as I felt that huge thing pressing against me, I couldn’t stop myself from going into a blind panic. I felt positively nauseous. God.” I wrapped myself tighter in the green chenille as if it were a cocoon.
“Haven’t you talked about this stuff with the therapist yet?”
I shook my head. “We’re still working on my boundary issues. And she’s on vacation for the next two weeks, so I’ll have to wait until she’s back to help me deal with this.”
“Sex isn’t a boundary issue?”
I frowned at him. “I’ve had a lot more important things to worry about than sex.”
Todd opened his mouth to reply, appeared to think better of it, and closed it again. After a moment he said, “So just when things were getting hot, you told Hardy to stop.”
“Yeah.” I rested my chin on my bent knees. “And I . . . I wasn’t very nice about it.”
“What did he say? What was his reaction?”
“He didn’t say much of anything. But I could tell he was pissed.”
“Well, yeah, guys tend to get pretty frustrated when they’re hung out to dry, sexually speaking. But the point is, Hardy didn’t hurt you, right? He didn’t try to make you do something you didn’t want?”
“I’d say that means you’re pretty safe with him.”
“I didn’t feel safe.”
“I think at this point, safety isn’t a feeling, it’s a process. Starting with trust. Why don’t you try telling Hardy some of things you’ve told me?”
“He won’t be able to handle it. I know he won’t. He’ll be headed for the exit door before I can even finish telling him what a basket case I am.”
“You’re not a basket case,” Todd said calmly, “and he’s no fu**ing wimp, Haven. I think the reason you’re drawn to him is that deep down you know he can handle anything you could throw at him.”
“But what if he doesn’t want to?”
“Here are your options: you can give him a chance to cowboy up, or you can walk away without ever finding out. And then you’ll have to face this same deal with the next guy you’re attracted to.”
“Or . . . ”
I moistened my lips nervously. “I could practice with you first.”
I had never seen Todd at a loss for words before. But his eyes widened, and his mouth opened and closed, fishlike, for at least ten seconds. “You’re asking me to go to bed with you?” he finally managed to ask.
I nodded. “If I’m going to freak out or throw up in the middle of it, I’d rather it be with you. And if I can manage to get through it with you, I’ll know I can do it with Hardy.”
“Oh, shit.” Todd started to laugh helplessly, grabbing my hand and kissing the palm. “Sweetheart. Haven. No.” He kept my hand, laying his cheek gently against my palm. “I would love to help you through this, little friend, and I’m totally honored that you asked.
But right now you don’t want a fuck-buddy. You want a hell of a lot more than that. And somewhere, not far from here, there’s a big, blue-eyed roughneck who’s dying to show you a good time in bed. If I were you, I’d give him a try.” I felt his smile press against the edge of my hand as he added, “If you can get past him being so ugly and scrawny, that is.”
When he released my hand, I closed my fingers around my palm as if his kiss were a lucky penny. “Todd, when you danced with Liberty . . . did she say anything about Hardy?”
He nodded. “She told me in spite of that thing that went down with Gage’s business deal, she doesn’t see any danger in you and Hardy being interested in each other. Based on what she knows about him from the time they both lived in that little craphole town — ”
“Yeah, whatever.” Todd was not a fan of small-town living. “Based on that, Liberty doesn’t think he’d hurt you. She said Hardy had always gone out of his way to keep from leading her on, and he’d done what he could to help her. In fact, she thinks the two of you might even do each other some good.”
“I can’t imagine how,” I said glumly, “when I can’t manage to be around his erection without freaking.”
Todd smiled. “A relationship is about more than just an erection. Although, if you ask me . . . wondering what to do with one is a nice problem to have.”
After Todd had left I took a long bath, pulled on a pair of flannel pajamas, and poured myself a glass of wine. I wondered where Hardy was at that moment, if he had stayed at the theater after I’d left.
The temptation to call him was nearly overwhelming, but I wasn’t certain what I wanted to say, how much I could bring myself to explain.
I resumed my place in the corner of the sofa, staring at the phone in its cradle. I wanted to hear Hardy’s voice. I thought of those fevered minutes in the stairwell before I’d gotten afraid, when his hands and mouth had been all over me, slow and searching and tender . . . so good. So unbelievably good —
The phone rang.
Jolted, I set aside the wine, almost spilling it in my haste. I snatched up the phone and answered in breathless relief. “Hello?” But the voice was not Hardy’s. “Hi, Marie.”