ETHAN’S HOUSE WAS ON THE OTHER side of town, which meant it was a fifteen-minute walk. With the longer days, the sun was still out, the sky blue. She distracted herself by naming the flowers she passed. As she knew little more than the basic rose/carnation/daisy types, it wasn’t a totally successful diversion.
Instead she questioned her choice of clothing for the evening. She’d wanted to be casual but not too casual, settling on a cap-sleeve T-shirt in light green and a white denim skirt that showed off her spray-tanned legs. With her red hair, real tanning was impossible and only promoted sunburn and freckles.
Maybe she should have simply worn jeans. Did a skirt imply a date? She didn’t want him thinking she thought this was more than it was.
Before she could make herself totally insane, she turned on Ethan’s street and paused to admire the house. It was relatively new, craftsman style with a wide porch and plenty of wood. Cream shutters contrasted with the deep green of the main house.
There was plenty more to appreciate, but she had a feeling that if she stood in front too long, she wouldn’t have the courage to go inside. Eventually the neighbors would notice her frozen on the sidewalk, assume she was crazy and call the police. From there it would all be downhill, proving that going inside was probably the safest and best plan.
She made her way to the front door, which opened before she could knock. Ethan stood there, looking tall and masculine and sexy in jeans, boots and a soft white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. His hair was slightly mussed, his expression both welcoming and expectant. For a second she felt a very different kind of tension-one that began low in her belly and worked itself all over her body. While it was better than nerves or annoyance, it wasn’t any safer.
She’d loved Ethan once, she reminded herself. That made her vulnerable. Just because they’d worked through a few things didn’t mean she could relax now. Noticing that he was a good-looking guy who made her insides sigh with appreciation wasn’t anything she had time for.
“You made it,” he noted.
“Amazing but true.” She stepped inside. “Great house. Did you build it?”
“A few years ago.”
“With Rayanne?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“No. I sold that house.”
Because of the memories? Probably, she thought, telling herself not to ask questions if she didn’t want to hear the answers.
“Come on in,” he said, motioning her to the left.
The entryway was large and open, with a two-story ceiling and dark wood floors. She crossed the space and entered a huge living room with a fireplace at one end and a view of the mountains through big windows.
The furniture was masculine but comfortable, the artwork conservative. Rugs covered enough of the hardwood floor that sound didn’t echo. On the far side was an opening to a dining room.
He led the way into the kitchen which was filled with cherry cabinets, miles of granite and large south-facing windows. Two bar stools had been pulled up to the counter. There was a bottle of red wine and two glasses, along with a plate of appetizers. Delicious scents of garlic and spices drifted from one of the two stainless steel ovens.
“I’m impressed,” she said.
“Don’t be. I know a great caterer. I call, food arrives, I heat it.”
He waited until she took one of the seats before reaching for the wine.
“The perfect bachelor lifestyle?” she asked.
“Some days.” He opened the bottle with an easy, practiced motion. “You’re not married, either. Want to talk about it?”
She took the glass of wine he offered and shook her head. “Not really.”
“Because of the guy or because we should stick to safer topics?”
“I think safer topics are a better idea,” she answered cautiously.
“You sound wary.”
“I’m prepared to practice my duck-and-cover skills.”
He gave her a smile. “Because I may start using you as target practice again?”
The bar was high enough that with her sitting and him standing, they were practically at eye level. She could see all the shades of brown that made up his irises, the long, thick lashes that took her three coats of mascara to achieve. If she inhaled deeply, she would catch the scent of soap and man. A scent she remembered, even now.
“Tonight we’ve called a truce,” he declared, touching his glass to hers. “Remember?”
“And I can trust you?”
The smile turned into the slow, sexy grin she remembered. The one that made her think about how long it had been since she’d had a man in her bed. No, not a man, she corrected herself.
They might have been young, but he’d still been a whole lot more than her first time. He’d been her best time. He’d made love with a combination of affection and tenderness no one else had matched. He’d made her believe that anything was possible.
And then he’d broken her heart.
“A truce,” she agreed, knowing that having loved Ethan once, she would always be vulnerable to him. She had to stay strong to protect herself and Tyler.
He moved to the other side of the counter and pushed the plate of food toward her.
“How’s it going with Roy’s kids?” he asked.
“So far, so good. I’ve got them fed and feeling safe, so that’s half the battle.” She leaned toward him. “They survived on their own for nearly three months. Roy’s wife left them one hundred dollars and took off. I want to report her to the police, but I need to talk to Roy first. Find out what he wants.”
Ethan looked stunned. “She abandoned two kids?”
“Walked out and never came back. The money ran out, the utilities got turned off. Melissa’s been stealing what they needed to survive.”
“No one noticed?” he asked. “No one called social services?”
Liz thought about her own childhood. “You’d be amazed at how many kids slip through the cracks. I’m going to see Roy tomorrow. I wanted to go there while the girls are still in school.” She glanced at him. “Would you mind taking Tyler? I don’t think he’s ready to see Folsom Prison.”
“Sure. Bring him by the office.”
“What’s going to happen to the girls?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m hoping Roy has a plan. If he doesn’t, my family just got bigger.”
“You’d take them?”
She nodded slowly, thinking if there wasn’t anyone else, she didn’t have much choice. She knew nothing about teenage girls, except she’d once been one. She hoped that was going to be enough.
“That’s a lot to take on,” he said.
“You’d do the same for one of your brothers or sisters.”
“Probably. If Mom didn’t take them first.”
“She is a tiger.” Liz did her best to keep her tone light.
“You’ll like her a lot more when you get to know her.”
“Something else to look forward to,” Liz murmured, hoping she wouldn’t be in town long enough for any of Ethan’s family to be an issue.
“Having Roy’s kids in your life would change everything,” he told her.
“I know. I’m still kind of in denial. Better to wait and see what happens than start any planning now. If the arrangement
She looked up and saw him staring at her. “What?”
“Just waiting for you to admit you were killing me over and over again in your books.”
She shrugged, trying not to smile. Or be happy that he’d obviously read her books. “You should be flattered. You’re a recurring character in a successful series of books.”
“I’m a dead body. Not much to be flattered about.”
“You always get a name and a history.”
“Along with a very graphic description of my death.”
This time she did smile. “You’re a tough guy. You can handle it.”
He smiled back. “I’m hoping to persuade you to move on to another victim.”
“The writing muse is a tricky thing.”
He leaned against the counter. “You don’t believe in muses.”
“How do you know?”
“You wouldn’t give up that much power to a force you couldn’t control.”
He was right, but it startled her that he had figured it out. No doubt their pesky past was to blame. Before she could figure out what to say, the oven timer dinged.
Saved by the bell had never sounded so good.
THEY MADE IT THROUGH DINNER talking about safer topics. The catered food was excellent, the wine good enough that she didn’t protest when he refilled her glass twice. The result was a pleasantly full feeling combined with a slight buzz. Liz wasn’t drunk, but she was glad she was walking rather than driving home.
“Does the town look different to you?” Ethan asked when they’d finished eating. It had grown dark outside. A cool breeze drifted in through the open windows.
“There’s been a lot of growth,” she said, turning her glass slowly. “Those new houses out by the golf course. When I left, I’m not sure they’d even broken ground on the lots. There are a few new businesses. Daisy’s place is now the Fox and Hound.”
“Daisy’s place has been five different restaurants in the past ten years. No one knows why-it’s a good location. Lots of foot traffic.”
“There are new people, too,” she added, glancing at him. “And some old. I ran into Pia yesterday, along with your sister.”
Although she was watching carefully, nothing about his expression changed.
He seemed to sense her scrutiny and frowned. “What?”
“I thought you’d have something to say about her.”
“Because she’s here. Because when I first found out I was pregnant, I came back to tell you only to find you in bed with her.” She held up her hand. “Sorry. That’s not truce material. You’ll tell me that I left and you could see whoever you wanted. That will hurt my feelings, then I’ll yell and we’ll fight and I’m tired of fighting. At least for tonight.”
“You don’t need me here for this conversation, do you?”
“Apparently not.” She sighed. “I do have a question about her, though.”
She nodded. “In high school, she was really horrible, right? Mean and bitchy and not someone you’d leave a small child with?”
“She wasn’t the nicest person.”
“Good. Then it’s not my imagination. Because she was totally different yesterday. Friendly and nice. It was so unexpected, I felt like I was having an alternate-universe experience. I started to wonder if I was remembering the past wrong or something.”
“You’re not.” He hesitated. “I didn’t sleep with Pia.”
Liz was sorry she’d brought it up. Apparently Pia wasn’t the only one to have bitchy moments. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. We were at a party, I was missing you and lonely and mad. I’d been out with her a couple of times, I took her home, but I was too drunk. Nothing happened.”
All this time later, she found herself wanting to believe him. “Ethan, it was a long time ago.”
“I didn’t sleep with her,” he repeated.
Information that shouldn’t make a difference, but still loosened a knot inside of her.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You’re welcome.” He picked up his wine. “I know why you left, but I wish you’d stayed to talk to me.”
She shrugged. There was no way that would have happened. “You went back to college and forgot about me.”
“I never forgot.”
There was something about the way he said the words. Something about his dark gaze. She felt herself drawn to him, or maybe she was drawn to their past. Ever since she’d gotten the e-mail from her niece, her life had been crazy and confusing and she hadn’t had a chance to catch her breath.
“You swore you’d never stay here,” she remembered, to distract them both. “After college, you were going to see the world.”
“It didn’t work out that way.”
He stared at her. “You know about that?”
Ethan had entered college on an athletic scholarship. He and Josh had always planned to take the racing world by storm. They would compete together, sharing the victories. They’d planned back-to-back Tour de France wins, arguing about who would be victorious that first year.
In college Ethan had been hurt enough that he never had the chance to race competitively.
“I wasn’t reading the paper searching for your name, if that’s what you’re asking,” she corrected. “But I heard what happened. I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “That was a long time ago. I finished college and came home to sulk.” One corner of his mouth turned up. “Not that I would have admitted it at the time. Then my dad died unexpectedly. My mom fell apart. Everyone looked to me and I had to make it right.”
Which sounded like him. Even in high school he’d been a steady kind of guy. Not that rejecting her had made him hero material.
She told herself to let that go, at least for now. Tonight was about getting to know each other again so they could be friends and deal with Tyler.
“You took over the business?” she asked.
He nodded. “Learned it from the bottom up. Took me a while to figure out I liked building things. Then I started with the windmills.”
“And the rest is history?”
“Something like that.”
“You could have walked away,” she said. “But the thought didn’t cross your mind, did it?”
“No. You know me-it’s all about family. The Hendrixes’ place in our town’s history.” His tone was filled with both humor and pride.
He’d been like that before, she remembered. Proud of his heritage and amused by it at the same time. Back in school, he’d claimed he was different from his father, but he was wrong. When push came to shove, he worried more about the family reputation than doing the right thing.
She probably should have resented him for that, but she couldn’t. It was who he was. It was like resenting feathers on a bird-a waste of time. He was who he had always been-a basically good guy with a few faults.
Their eyes met. Something crackled between them. Awareness, she thought, feeling a sense of yearning she hadn’t felt for years. A wanting that was based on both what she knew had been possible once, and a sense of loss. She’d carried emptiness around for so long now. A dark hole where her love for Ethan had once lived.
There had been other men who had tried to claim her heart, or at least her body and her attention. Occasionally she’d had relationships. With Ryan, she’d done her best to convince herself she was in love-but she’d been wrong. There had only ever been Ethan.
He’d been the one who had made her believe, both in herself and in possibilities. With him, she’d been able to imagine a place that wasn’t Fool’s Gold. They’d talked about going away together, about a future. He’d told her that he wanted to marry her.
She felt a sudden unsteadiness, even though she was sitting. As if past and present had somehow become entwined. She knew that wasn’t possible, that she and Ethan were incredibly different people. That any feelings she had were the result of the wine and the stress and maybe how good he looked sitting across from her.
He swore under his breath. “Don’t,” he breathed. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Instead of answering, he rose and circled the bar. She came to her feet without being prompted. They were standing so close, she could feel the heat of him.
They stared at each other, a sense of the inevitable growing. Of being unable to escape, and knowing she didn’t want to. Then his hands were cupping her face, drawing her to him. She went willingly, pressing herself against him even as his mouth claimed hers.
The kiss was hot, insistent, erotic. His mouth was firm and tender, better than she remembered and she had thought she’d remembered it all. Her arms went around him as she held on.
They pressed together, hard to soft, male to female. He was thicker, broader. A man now. A man who pulled her close and tempted her with a kiss that tore at her soul.
Their tongues tangled in rediscovered erotic yearning. He tasted of the wine and of himself-flavors that were impossible to resist. She tilted her head to deepen the kiss, leaned into him, wishing she could crawl inside. He dropped his hands to her hips, his fingertips lightly touching the curve of her butt. Without thinking, she pushed her hips toward him in an age-old invitation. Her belly came in contact with something hard and thick and dangerous.
Sexual need exploded. It crashed into her with no warning and left her breathless and hungry. Desire poured through her, liquid heat that stole her strength, her will and her common sense. Knowing he wanted her, knowing what he would feel like inside of her, was too much.
Maybe it was the past she couldn’t seem to escape, or everything that had happened in the last couple days. The emotional ups and downs that left her unable to think things through. All she knew was that she wanted Ethan with a passion she hadn’t experienced in a long time and if she didn’t have him that second, she would probably die.
He must have read her mind, or felt the shift in her body because the hands on her hips tightened. He moved his mouth from hers, only to trace an arousing line down her jaw to her neck. He nipped on her earlobe, before licking the sensitive spot right below it.
He pulled up her T-shirt, then reached behind her and unfastened her bra. His mouth closed on her tight, aching nipples, licking and sucking until she shivered with arousal. Each tug, each stroke, sent fire racing through her. She burned everywhere. The frantic need grew until it was more powerful than her heartbeat, more necessary than air.
Her legs were weak, her core swollen and damp. She touched his arms, his chest, then dropped her hand to his erection, cupping him through the thick fabric of his jeans.
Still sucking on her breasts, he shoved up her skirt and slipped his fingers between her thighs. He found the promised land on the first try, easing his fingers against the hypersensitive, swollen flesh. She pulled back long enough to rip off her cotton bikini panties, then returned to his welcoming embrace.
He thrust two fingers inside her, using his thumb to rub her very center. In a matter of seconds, she could barely breathe. Tension and pleasure competed. Her legs wobbled.
Ethan eased her back a step. She felt the kitchen island behind her. As he slid her onto it, she heard flatware hit the floor, followed by the crash of a dinner plate. His gaze locked with hers, as if the sound didn’t matter. As if there was only this moment and the two of them.
He was still rubbing her, moving his fingers in and out. Her muscles tightened around him, drawing him in deeper. He stroked with a sureness that allowed her to surrender. The steady rhythm of his thumb matched the pounding of her heart. She could see the fire burning in his dark eyes and knew there was no turning back. Maybe that chance had never existed.
She unfastened his belt, then the button on his jeans. She eased down the zipper, mindful of how big and hard he was, and how good he would feel inside her.
She shoved his jeans down his hips, then did the same with his boxers. The second she freed him, he stepped forward, replaced his fingers with his erection and pushed into her.
The force of the thrust pushed her back a good six inches. She braced herself on the countertop, her hands jarring loose a glass and more flatware. She didn’t care. Nothing mattered but how he filled her, stretching her, satisfying her, going deeper and harder, the heat building between them.
He had hold of her hips. She wrapped her legs around him. They were joined so completely, she had the feeling they could never be separate again. More and more until all she could think about was the pleasure spilling over and around and then she was coming.
She cried out her release. His low groan accompanied her sounds of satisfaction. They strained toward each other, making it last as long as possible, the contractions slowing and finally stilling.
The kitchen was silent except for the low hum of the refrigerator and the sound of their breathing. Reality returned as Liz slowly lowered her legs and Ethan stepped back.
She’d just had sex with Tyler’s father-on a kitchen bar. She’d been back in town less than a week and she’d already surrendered to a man who had rejected her years ago, accused her of lying and keeping his son from him. A man who was nothing but trouble, with a huge family and ties to a town she couldn’t wait to leave.
“Crap,” she muttered as she carefully slid to her feet, then stood and steadied herself. “Crap, crap, crap.”
“Liz,” he began.
She held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t,” she ordered as she pulled down her skirt. Her panties were somewhere on the floor, but she didn’t bother looking for them. “Just don’t. This was really stupid. On the stupid scale, it gets a ten.”
He pulled up his boxers and jeans. “It’s not like I planned this. It was just one of those things.”
Typical man, she thought, picking her way through the broken glass. It was a whole lot more than that. It was trouble. No matter what happened between them, the sex would be lurking. She’d given in when she’d meant to be strong.
“What the hell were you thinking?” she demanded. “Don’t you ever use a condom?”
She sucked in a breath. “I’m on the pill, you idiot, but haven’t you learned anything since high school? This was a huge mistake. It never happened. Am I clear? Never.”
“You can’t pretend it away.”
“Watch me,” she declared as she made her way to the front door.
Her purse was where she’d left it, on the small table in the entryway. She grabbed it and left, walking briskly to the sidewalk, ignoring the slightly squishy feeling that was the lingering proof of what they’d just done.
Ethan didn’t come after her and she was grateful. By the end of the block, she was willing to admit she might have overreacted. By the second block, she knew the person she was really angry with was herself, not him. By the time she got home, she didn’t feel any better about what had happened and she didn’t have a clue how she was ever going to face him again.
Whoever said you couldn’t go home again had been dead wrong, she thought as she climbed the steps to the house where she’d grown up. You could and being there was nothing but a disaster.