Authors: Dianne Castell
Befuddled him and inflamed him.
In order to get a handle on things, he had to get a handle on her. He had to convince Beth to admit to her feelings.
He needed time and space to accomplish that.
Thanks to Ben's directions, Levi carried her through the kitchen toward the back storage unit, where interruptions were less likely to occur.
The moment he reached the dark, private area, Levi paused. Time to give Beth a piece of his mind. Time to be firm, to insist that she stop denying the truth.
Time to set her straight.
But then he looked at her, and he forgot about his important intentions. He forgot everything but his need for this one particular woman.
God, she took him apart without even trying.
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Why, oh why, couldn't this be a normal storm? Instead of soft, pretty snowflakes dotting her windshield, wet snow clumps froze as soon as they hit, rendering the wipers inadequate to keep the windshield clear. Even with the defroster on high, blasting hot air that threatened to choke her, the snow accumulated.
Refusing to stop and refusing to acknowledge the headlights behind her, Beth Monroe kept her hands tight on the wheel. Let him freeze to death. Let him follow her all the way to Gillespe, Kentucky.
She'd still ignore him.
She'd ignore everything that had happened between them, and everything she felt, everything he'd made her feel.
Oh God, she was so embarrassed. If only she could have a do-over, an opportunity to change the past, to correct mistakes and undo bad plans. That'd be the most perfect Christmas present ever.
A simple do-over.
But of course, there was no such thing, not even with the magic of Christmas. And there was nothing simple about the current mess of her life, or the complicated way that Levi Masterson made her feel.
Finally, after hours that seemed an eternity, her stepbrother's hotel came into view. Beth breathed a sigh of relief. Now if she could just park and get inside before Levi shanghaied her. Ben knew of her imminent arrival. She could count on him to send Levi packing.
Not that she wanted Levi hurtâ¦or Ben for that matter.
Fool, fool, fool.
Tires sliding on the frozen parking lot, Beth maneuvered her Ford into an empty spot. After shutting off the engine, she grabbed her purse, a tote bag loaded with presents, and her overnight bag. Arms laden, she charged from the vehicle.
Three steps in, her feet slipped out from under her. The stuffed overnight bag threw her off balance and she went flying in the air to land flat on her back. Her bag spilled. Wind rushed from her lungs. Icy cold seeped into her spine and tush.
For only a moment, Beth lay there, aching from head to toe, stunned and bemused. Then she heard Levi's hasty approach.
“Beth, damn itâ”
Determination got her back on her feet. She gathered her belongings with haste and then, slipping and sliding, wincing with each step, she shouted into the wind,
“Go away, Levi.”
Harsh with determination, he yelled back, “You know I won't.”
Daring a quick glance over her shoulder, Beth saw him ten feet behind her. He hadn't even parked! His truck sat crossways in the middle of the lot to block hers in, idling, the exhaust sending plumes of heated air to mingle in the frozen wind.
Good God, he looked furious!
Beth lunged forward and reached the door of the diner attached to Ben's hotel. She yanked it open and sped into the warm interior. The tote bag of presents fell out of her hands, scattering small gifts across the floor. Her overnight bag dropped from her numb fingers.
Several people looked upâall of them family.
Why couldn't there have been crowds of nonfilial faces? An unbiased crowd, that's what she sought. Instead she found Noah and Ben in close conversation at a table. Their wives, Grace and Sierra, sat at a booth wrapping gifts. And her father and stepmother paused in their efforts to festoon a large fir tree situated in the corner.
Upon seeing her, her father's face lit up. He started to greet herâand then Levi shoved through the door, radiating fury, crowding in behind Beth so that she jolted forward with a startled yelp to keep from touching him.
In a voice deep and resolute, vibrating with command, he ordered, “Not another step, Beth. I mean it.”
She winced, and peeked open one eye to view her audience.
Levi obviously had no idea of the challenge he'd just issued, or the uproar he'd cause by using that tone with her in front of her family.
And now it was too late.
She hadn't wanted this. She wanted only time to think, to hide from her mortifying and aberrant behavior, toâ¦She didn't know what she wanted, damn it, and it wasn't fair that Levi refused to give her a chance to figure it out.
Muttering to herself, she dropped to her knees to gather the now damp and disheveled gifts one more time. As she did so, she said, “Hello, Dad. Helloâ¦everyone else.” She tried to sound jovial rather than frustrated and anxious and at the end of her rope.
She failed miserably.
With a protectiveness that still amazed Beth, her stepbrothers moved as one. Noah's expression didn't bode well, and Ben appeared equally ready to declare war. Even her calm, reasonable father stalked forward with blood in his eyes.
Plopping her belongings on a nearby booth, Beth held up both hands. “Wait!”
No one did. From one second to the next, Levi had her behind himâ¦as if to
her? From her
Unfortunately, even that simple touch from him, in no way affectionate or seductive, had Beth's tummy fluttering and her skin warming.
She quickly shrugged off her coat.
Levi took it from her, then asked, “Did you hurt yourself when you fell?”
“No. You can leave with a clear conscience. I'm fine.” She reached for her coat.
He held it out of her reach. “I'm not going anywhere, so you can quit trying to get rid of me.”
The men drew up short. Her father barked, “Who the hell are you?”
Levi turned to face their audience. Positive that she didn't want him to answer that himself, Beth yelled from behind him, “He's a friend.” And she tried to ease backward away from him.
“A whole lot more than a friend,” Levi corrected, and he stepped back to close the distance she'd just gained.
“Where's her fiancÃ©?” Noah asked.
“Busy,” Beth said.
“Gone,” Levi answered in a bark. He reached back and caught Beth's wrist. His thumb moved over her skin, a gentle contrast to the iron in his tone. “For good.”
Confused, Ben asked, “You mean dead?”
“Far as Beth is concerned, yes.”
Oh, for crying out loud. Knowing she couldn't let this continue, Beth yanked her wrist free and, without quite touching any part of Levi's big, hard body, went on tiptoe to see beyond him.
The masculine expressions facing her didn't bode well.
She summoned a smile that felt sickly. “Hello, Dad. Brandon is fine, but we're not engaged any more.”
Kent Monroe brought his brows down. “Since when?”
“Since she's with me now instead,” Levi told them.
“No,” Beth corrected sweetly, “I'm not.”
Levi half turned to face her. “Wanna bet?”
His challenge got everyone moving again.
Oh God, she had to do something. “Dad,” Beth begged, “I don't want him hurt.”
Her father stopped in his tracks. Noah and Ben did not.
But her lovely sisters-in-law took control.
“Noah,” Grace called from across the room. “You heard her.”
Frowning, Noah paused about three feet from Levi. “I also heard him.”
Sierra, a little more outgoing than Grace, raced up to Ben's side and thumped his shoulder. “Knock off the King Kong impersonation, Ben. You're embarrassing me.”
“You'll survive.” Keeping his eyes on Levi, Ben crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
For reasons that Beth couldn't begin to fathom, Levi stood there as if he'd take all three of them on at once. Idiot.
Determined to gain control, she chanced touching him long enough to give him a good pinch. “They're my
He nodded, but didn't relax.
Fed up, Beth moved around him. “I'm sorry for the dramatic entrance everyone. Levi is a friendâ”
“Damn it, Beth, we left friendship behind days ago.”
Beth let her eyes sink shut. She'd kill him. She'd never speak to him again. She'dâ
His hand caught her shoulder and he turned her to face him. As if they stood alone, as if he had no concept of privacy or manners, Levi lowered his nose to almost touch hers.
In a voice that carried to every ear in the room, he ground out, “I've had enough, Beth. I mean it. We're both adults, both healthy, and finally we're both single. It's ridiculous for you to be embarrassed just becauseâ”
But her warning came too late, and Levi had already said too much. Silence reigned as everyone absorbed his meaning.
Then she felt it, the smiles, the amusement, the awful comprehension.
It took three breaths before Beth could speak.
Eyes narrowed, she nodded at Levi, turned to face her family, and announced, “I've changed my mind. Hurt him all you want.”
And with that, she literally ran away.
Noah and Ben kept Levi from following.
In rapid succession, a dozen different emotions zinged through Levi's mind. Damn it, he'd loved her forever, he'd finally had her, and the reality far outshone the fantasy.
But she was ashamedâof him, and of what they'd done. It didn't matter that he'd given her a dozen mind-blowing orgasms. It didn't matter that she'd taken everything he'd offered and begged for more.
Some ridiculous prudish streak now had her denying her own feelings.
One way or another, he'd get her to accept him, and to trust him and her own basic nature. Because one way or another, he planned to have herâfor the rest of his life.
But when Levi started to go after her, two large muscled bodies got in his way. Why hadn't Beth told him that her brothers were enormous? Well, at least one was enormous. Noah was a big brick wall of a guy. But Ben, no slouch, stood on a par with Levi.
Together, they looked pretty invincible.
Removing his coat, too, Levi told them, “This is none of your business,” and he knew that somehow, if necessary, he'd walk right through them. He would not let Beth keep dodging him.
Noah grinnedâwhich only made him look more imposing. “It's our business now.”
Levi glanced beyond the hulks, but the more reasonable women were nowhere to be seen. Damn.
“Forget it,” Ben told him, knowing the direction of his thoughts. “They went after Beth to find out what the hell you did to upset her so much.”
“She's not upset,” Levi argued. “She's embarrassed when she has no reason to be.”
“Says you,” Ben remarked right back. “She thinks differently.”
“She's in denial,” Levi explained. “She's uncertain, and she's surprised. That's all.”
First, he'd strip Beth naked and get her in bed, and then he'd hash out the future with her. He'd found that the more he touched Beth, the more reasonable she became.
Noah's grin widened. “I wonder why she's embarrassed. I don't suppose you plan to tell us?”
“Doesn't matter,” Noah said. “I already have an idea what's going on.”
“Me, too,” Ben said. “But given Beth's reaction, you must not have handled it right. If you had, she wouldn't have come back to us.”
Levi stiffened. “I'll straighten out everything. I just need her to listen to me.”
Another voice, thankfully less provoking, intruded. “Quit crowding him, boys. He doesn't look like he's about to back down, and regardless of what Beth said, I don't think she wants him mangled.”
Levi didn't think so either, but it surprised him that her father might be an ally. “Thanks.”
The older man nudged Noah out of the way. “Let's all take a seat.”
Levi shook his head. “I need to go after her.”
“Not just yet,” he was told. “Ben, could we get some coffee, do you think?”
Ben grumbled, but agreed and took himself off. Noah stepped farther to the side, giving Levi room to move and the opportunity to address Beth's father.
Pulling himself together, Levi eyed the man before him. He had Beth's blond hair and piercing blue eyes, but where Beth was delicate in the most delicious ways, this man looked solid and hard.
On the best of days, Levi hated meeting dadsânot that he'd often been serious enough about a female to warrant the need of parental approval. In fact, since meeting Beth, no other woman had held his attention long.
Now, under these conditions, it really sucked to await judgment by Beth's father. The man knew she'd been engaged to a doctor. By comparison, Levi had to be one hell of a letdown. Brandon could have set Beth up in style. Lots of luxury. Guaranteed security.
All Levi had to offer was fidelity, devotion, and a job that barely paid middle-class wages.
Seeing no help for it now, Levi stuck out a hand. “You're Beth's father.”