Authors: Maggie Shayne
“You're going to have to sleep down here tonight. No way are you going to be able to make the stairs.”
He eyed her. “I can handle them.”
She shook her head.
“Try me,” he said.
“Don't tempt me or I might.” It was meant as a joke, a little flirtatious teasing to lighten the mood. But the fire that leaped into his eyes set a matching one in her belly. Damn, she couldn't seem to help herself. Or stop herself from pushing it a little further. “And then my father's going to want to know how those nice stitches he put into your thigh got torn out.”
His eyes were intense and deep, and his fingers brushed over her jaw. “You trying to distract me or comfort me? Whichever it is, it's working.”
She averted her eyes, not comfortable with the softness in
his tone, or the depth to which his eyes tried to dig into her soul, because it stirred up softness and depth inside herâand she just wasn't ready for that. “I was only kidding, River. I'm not so hard up I have to attack a wounded manâ¦unless he felt completely up to it and was utterly willing.”
“You wouldn't be the one doing the attackingâhow's that for willing?”
She smiled and decided she was overthinking this thing almost as badly as he was. “Just about perfect.”
“It's justâ¦it's not my wounded leg I'm worried about.”
“No. You know what I'm worried about.”
She rolled her eyes and thought, Here we go again. “Yeah. I know what you're worried about. You've got a giant pain-in-the-ass Wolfman complex.”
“Wolfman?” He looked utterly perplexed.
“Wolfman,” she said. “Didn't you see it? The Universal classic? Lon Chaney Jr.? The Gypsy woman tells him he's destined to kill what he loves. That's the real curse he bears, not that he turns into a wolf by the full moon, but that he can't love anyone without putting their lives in danger.”
River lowered his eyes, and she saw the pain in his face.
Jax put her palms to his cheeks and made him look at her. “
curse. But it's not yours, River. Because you didn't kill Stephanie.”
“We still can't be sure of that. What if I did? God knows every clue we find just adds more motive. More reasons I might have lost it andâ¦” He shook his head slowly. “What if it
my curse? What then?”
She shrugged. “Okay, I'll play along. Suppose it is your curse? It still wouldn't apply here.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because you don't love me. And you're not going to. I don't want you to.” Just saying it drove the truth home to her.
That it was a lie. An outright lie. God, what was happening to her?
He nodded, but didn't meet her eyes.
“Good. So we're clear on that?”
“Clear as a bell.” He didn't sound any too happy about it, though. It made her wonder if he was feeling the same things she was. And that scared her even more.
“Great. I'll get us some blankets, then. And don't worry, River. I'll be gentle.”
o who was she?”
Ethan turned sharply at the familiar sound of Victoria's voice coming to him from their bedroom. He'd finally finished explaining himself to the police and escorting them around the property as they conducted a thorough search.
“God, Vicki, you scared me half to death.” He tipped his head to one side, studying her face. Beautiful, clear of any hint of makeup and starting to show the touch of time. She sat up in the bed, legs under the covers, a book open on her lap. “I didn't even know you were home. Why didn't you say something?”
She blinked. “You brought a woman here, Ethan. I didn't know what to think.”
“Oh, honey.” He tugged his tie from his shirt as he moved toward the bed, then sat down beside her, stroking a hand over her cheek, searching her eyes. “Baby, you didn't thinkâ” He shook his head and started over. “That woman is a cop. She's working with Frankie Parker over in Blackberry.”
She blinked then, some of the worry easing from her eyes. “She's trying to find River?”
“I don't know. To tell you the truth, I have a feeling she knows more about him than she's letting on. Might even be helping him.”
He'd gone so far as to break into her house, to find out just
how much she did knowâand found men's clothes in the bedroom, and River's police file. It didn't prove anything. But he didn't like what he was thinking.
“I don't understand,” Victoria said, her voice very soft.
“The lady cop, Jax is her nameâshe's been staying at River's house. You know the town owns it now.”
“I didn't realize.”
He nodded. “I took her to dinnerâsolely to talk about the case, see if I could get her to tell me anything. Stopped back here to pick up my PDA. There are some notes on it I need for tomorrow. That's all, Vicki.”
“Pick it up? Why? Where were you going?”
God, this wasn't going to sound good, he thought. “I was going back to Blackberry. I've been staying at the inn over there. While you've been at your parents'. Alone, Vicki. Completely alone. I just thought I should be close in case River surfaces.”
“Are you that certain he's there?”
He nodded. “I'm sure of it.”
Victoria lowered her head, and her breath rushed out of her. “It's not that I don't trust you,” she whispered. “I do. It was justâfor a moment when I saw you come in with her, I thoughtâ”
“I know. I promise you, Vicki, I will never hurt you like that again. Never. I swear.”
“I know. I believe you.” She wrapped her hand around his. “I was telling myself how foolish I was beingâthat I should come out and let you know I was hereâbut then I heard a gunshot. And everything went crazy after that. You were phoning the police and that woman was outside, running around in the snow. What happened, Ethan?”
He lowered his eyes. “There was an intruder in the house. God, and you were here alone.”
She frowned, searching his face. “I came home early be
cause I wasn't feeling well. Took a sleeping pill. He must have already been here when I came inâbut Iâ¦I never heard a thing until you and that woman arrived.”
He slid onto the bed beside her, wrapped his arms around her and held her close to his chest. “I took a shot at him as he ran away. JaxâLieutenant Jackson, that isâsaid I hit him.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “I don't know what I was thinking. I thought I aimed low, but it was so stupid to even point the gun in his direction. I don't know how I could have hit him. God, Vicki, I'm pretty sure I shot River tonight.”
“You shot at an intruder. You were protecting your homeâour home. Protecting
Her hands curled in his hair, and he lowered his head to her chest and fought against the tears that tried to escape.
“He was running away,” he whispered. “Jax said I could be charged.”
She tugged his head upward, stared down at his face. “Did you tell the police that?”
“No. I told them I was too shaken to remember details. They agreed to take a more thorough statement in the morning.” He closed his eyes. “They wouldn't have done that for anyone else.”
“You're a respected doctor.”
“I'm your father's son-in-law,” he said, knowing full well it wasn't his own reputation that was respected and admired enough to earn favorable treatment from the police.
“Either way,” she told him. “In the morning, you tell the police he was turning around. Lifting a gun, as if to fire back at you. That's when you shot. I'll say I saw the entire thing from the bedroom window.”
He closed his eyes. “Jax was there. She saw what I did.”
“It was dark, Ethan. She couldn't have seen too clearly. And what would she have to gain by hurting you? Did they find poor River lying out there somewhere? I didn't see an ambulance.”
“No. No, he got away.”
“Well, there you have it. How badly could he be hurt if he got away?”
He sighed, nodding slowly. “He could be all right. I guess.”
“He's all right. There's no point in you being arrested and investigated and all of that when he's probably fine and you never intended to hurt him. Is there?”
“Then tell them just what I told you when they come back tomorrow. This Jax personâshe won't contradict you. I'm sure of it.”
* * *
River hadn't expected Jax to turn the conversation the way she had, and he still wasn't sure if she was serious or only teasing him when she came back down the stairs, her arms stacked high with blankets and pillows.
He'd limped to the fireplace in the meantime, tossed in a few more logs. She didn't bring the blankets to the sofa. Instead, she dropped them in a pile on the floor in front of the fire. He would have started making them into a bed but he couldn't stop looking at her. And he was damned if he knew why. She wasn't wearing anything particularly sexy. A hockey jersey. Period. But there was something about how big it was around her, about her long legs and bare feet, about the way her hair was down and loose, that made himâ¦Damn.
She ignored his hungry eyes, though he knew damn well she noticed him looking. Instead of making one of her trademark smart-ass comments, she just started unfolding thick blankets on the floor. “You gonna sleep in your clothes, River?”
She arranged the pillows, spread more blankets. By the time she finished, she'd created a nest on the floor that looked
more inviting than any bed River thought he'd ever seen. And the fire had taken off nicely, was throwing enough heat to make him lazy. Rex lay close to the fireplace, snoring. River sat on the edge of the couch and managed to work his way out of the scrubs her father had loaned him. His jeans had been beyond redemption. Then he tugged the sweater off over his head. He didn't have a T-shirt on underneath, and he wondered if he should find one.
But she was already pulling back the covers. She'd stacked a couple of pillows up for him to use as a prop for his leg. “Here,” she said. “Dad said to keep it elevated, so this is your side.”
River wanted her. He wanted to fold her up in his arms in that soft nest, and make love to her all night long. He wondered if she had any idea how much he wanted that. But casual sex wasn't easy for him. Never had been. He was a hopeless romantic, and he was halfway in love with her already. That first nightâhell, it had sent him over the edge of ecstasy, given him a heartful of longing for things that could never be. Making love to her again would beâit would be a disaster. She wasn't a hearts-and-flowers kind of woman, didn't want any part of that sort of thing, especially with a loser like himâbusted up brain, blackouts and declared legally insane by the state of Vermont. And possibly a killer to boot.
Hell, he was surprised she was even willing to let a man like him touch her.
He sighed and limped to the bedding, crawled inside. She crawled right in beside him, almost before he got settled down, and then she was leaning over, fluffing the pillows underneath his thigh, positioning his leg more comfortably.
He put a hand over hers on his leg. “It's fine.”
“It could have killed you,” she said. “If he'd aimed higherâ”
She lay down beside him, one hand on his chest, her head
tucked near his shoulder. “I was kidding, before,” she told him. “You can relax, River, I'm not going to jump your bones tonight.”
He looked down at her. “Then maybe you could turn your head just a little?”
She frowned, lifted her head and sent him a questioning look.
“Your breath is wafting over my neck. And you smell too damn good to resist.” Her face changed, but before she could say another word, much less move away, he muttered, “Damn. Too late.” He cupped her nape, drew her close and kissed her. And he kept on kissing her, kept on holding her, and wondered why he'd thought even for a minute that he would be able to sleep with her and do otherwise.
She responded to his kiss, parted her lips and twisted her arms around his neck to hold on tight. He felt her body heat, and the way she arched against him. But he pulled back slightly, breaking the kiss and staring at her in the firelight. “Not so fast, hmm?”
He didn't say anything. Instead he sat up and reached down to the bottom of the hockey jersey she wore. Half expecting her to slap his hands away, he lifted it slowly and pulled it over her head. She wasn't wearing anything underneath, and he almost smiled, knowing she'd been hoping for another round.
He looked at her for a long moment. Let his eyes roam the length of her, from her thighs to her waist to her breasts. And he saw the way she squirmed and started to get impatient. Before she got around to barking at him, he touched her. He put one hand on her foot. Caressed it slowly, lifted it in his hand and bent to press his lips to it. He kissed the top, and then the ankle, and the sole, and then each toe, one by one.
She shivered, but pretended not to. “Into feet, are you?” she whispered.
She jerked her foot away from him so fast it startled him. And then he looked into her eyes and knew why. She didn't want him to care. She wanted it fast, sexual but not personal. She wanted it meaningless but good. He didn't think he could give her that. He didn't freaking want to.
He clasped her foot and lifted it to his mouth again, this time caressing her ankle and kissing his way along her calf, all the way to the hollow behind her knee, where he licked, tasting her salt, her skin.
She sat up a little, one hand on the back of his head. “Hell, River, what are youâ¦”
“Just relax,” he whispered. “Relax. Lay back. Close your eyes.”
“But I don'tâ”
He turned his head so that his mouth touched her hand, and then he kissed her fingers, her knuckles. He used his free hand to caress her other arm, and then her waist, and her rib cage. He turned her palm up and tickled its center with his tongue, before moving to her wrists, up her inner arms.
Her breath whispered out of her. A little of her tension eased, and by the time he reached her neck, she was tipping her head to one side to give him access. He used it, catching the skin of her throat in his lips, suckling and even nipping a little, while feathering his fingers on her nape.
And then he kissed her collarbones, and moved lower, making his way toward the rising mound of her breast, and all around it, kissing and tasting, darting his tongue over every part except where she wanted him to. He watched her nipple harden and lengthen as if reaching out for his touch, for his kiss. He worked slowly, lazily, loving the looks that crossed her face and the way her body was beginning to quiver as her breaths grew shorter, more shallow.
With his hand on her other breast, he flicked his fingertips over the nipple, keeping his eyes turned upward to watch her
face. She caught her lower lip between her teeth. He kept watching her as he lifted his head slightly, just enough to let him slide his tongue over her nipple, in a long, slow lap. And then again. And then he flicked it back and forth rapidly.
She whispered a cuss word and clasped a handful of his hair in her fist. His arms were wrapped around her waist, helping her arch toward him, thrusting her breasts upward for easy access. He finally sucked her nipple into his mouth, drew on it hard and deeply, then he bit just a little, and then a little more until she whimpered and told him to take her, hard and deep and
“In a minute,” he promised as he slid his arms from around her waist, found her hands with his and guided one of them to each of her breasts. He covered her fingers with his own, guiding them to her nipples, and squeezing them hard, so she pinched herself. Then he let go of her hands, pleased when she didn't move them away, and he mouthed her belly, and her navel, and lower, lower. He pushed her thighs wide and ran his hands up and down the insides of them, and then he pressed his face to her mound, her center, kissing, teasing, waiting, feeling her responses and listening to the sounds coming from her lips. He kissed her hard, and her knees bent, rose and fell wide, her lips opened to him.