Authors: Laura Moore
He parted her and brought his mouth to her clitoris and kissed it, lavishing it with strokes of his tongue.
Her fingers raked his hair, then clenched, grabbing strands as the pressure built and built. A deft flick over the straining nub had her exploding with pleasure, sparks shooting through her.
He rose, one hand gripping her hip, steadying her so she wouldn't collapse in a boneless heap. The other dug into his pocket, pulled out a foil packet, and tore it open with a flash of white teeth.
On fire, she grabbed the condom from him and then zeroed in on his jeans, yanking at the buttons and shoving his jeans and boxers down.
He sprang free, and a second wave of need hit her. With shaking hands she rolled the condom over his rock-hard length, his heat penetrating the latex.
His erection was a glorious thing, and she wanted it inside her. Desperately. A whispered “Please” tumbled from her lips.
His grip on her hips as he lifted her was a little rough, a lot delicious, and supremely exciting. She knew what to do now, how to wrap her legs around his hips and guide him inside. Knew to drag air into her lungs when she felt the blunt head of his penis breach her, because when he pushed inside to the hilt, he would make her forget everything but moving to the rhythm of their bodies.
The things she'd learned. The very best kind of tutor, Ethan had given her an education of the senses, sharing his knowledge with brilliance. Inspired, she eagerly absorbed his lessons in passion, soon growing confident enough to offer her own so that together they experienced something as wondrous and ever-changing as the cosmos.
Today she reveled in his unbridled passion: the strength of his arms as he held her pinned against the wall's grooved planks. The pump of his hips, fierce and perfect in the arc of pleasure it followed, unerringly finding the spot that made her gasp, shudder, moan. His restless mouth that devoured as if maddened for the taste of her. His hoarsely whispered words that made her clench and writhe against him.
She was so close.
Ever watchful and attuned, he knew her body, sensed it quickening in their race to promised ecstasy. His large hands cupped her rear, squeezing and drawing her down as impossibly he drove ever higher with a grinding shimmy of his hips that had her clutching at him, whimpering as the pleasure pierced almost painfully sharp.
The hot wind of his breath teased the shell of her ear. “Come for me, Quinn. I want to feel it.”
Her body obliged his command; the orgasm swept through her.
The aftershocks continued, Quinn's inner muscles milking him even after Ethan had come, too, with a final powerful thrust of his pelvis and a low groan that sounded as if it were ripped from deep inside.
Her eyelids were too heavy to open, even when she heard a soft thud as his forehead hit the wall next to where hers rested. She could only smile weakly at the rapid rise and fall of his chest while he struggled to calm his heart. She loved what they did to each other.
Minutes passedâshe thoughtâas they drifted along in some altered state.
Definitely a Marvin Gaye moment,
she mused dreamily.
He moved, shuffling backward with her still wrapped around him and his jeans halfway down his legs, a feat almost as impressive as the blistering hot sex against the wall he'd given her. When the backs of his calves bumped the bed's wood frame, he dropped down, bringing her with him so that she landed sprawled across his chest. The most amazing thing of all? He was still inside her and his hands were still covering her butt.
She liked that. A lot. Who'd have known? A week ago the mere thought would have sent her screaming in a flat-out run to the door.
“You okay?” he asked, his hands tightening again. He lifted his head to kiss the hollow below her clavicle and then make the journey up the side of her neck.
She shivered as her nerves danced. “Yeah. What was all that about?”
“You mean just now?” he asked.
A pause and then he met her gaze. His gray eyes were cloudy, dazed from passion. “Honestly? I'm not sure. I just really wanted you.”
Inside her socks her toes curled.
she thought. She wasn't alone in her wonder at the intensity of what they shared.
Keep it light,
she told herself. “Well, it's good to be wanted.”
His mouth quirked in a funny and ridiculously boyish smile. “And I think I'd been fantasizing about taking you against the wall of my cabin for so long, well, I just had to make it a reality. The real thing's pretty good with you, Quinn.”
And she fell just a little deeper.
THAN WAS MAKING
a serious effort not to think. He'd gotten good at itâavoiding reflectionâand lying here, with his arms full of Quinn, with his brain pleasure-fogged from sex, blocking any kind of introspection should have been as easy as rolling off a log.
And yet his thoughts persisted, traveling in increasingly narrow circles, zeroing in on a central theme. Permanence. And Quinn.
Good sex was nothing to sneeze at. Great sex, the kind that was a pleasure so acute the sweat poured off you and lightning danced up your spine as you came and came, emptying yourself in a hot rush, and when it was over you were so wrung out that your muscles were like putty and deep down in the marrow of your bones you felt a happiness as extraordinary as a four-leaf cloverâwell, a man would be a rank fool to turn his back on anything that rare.
Ethan didn't consider himself a fool.
And yet he was amazed to have found that kind of physical ecstasy here, at Silver Creek Ranch and with Quinn Knowles, who for all these years had lived in his memory as a pigtailed kid barely taller than two stacked hay bales.
He no longer had anything close to resembling a life plan, so why not stick around the ranch and see where things went between them? He was pretty sure he could convince Quinn that he wouldn't be needyâno matter how much in fact he did need to lose himself inside her, and hear the sweet catch to her voice and see the light shining in her blue eyes as he made love to her.
His cellphone sounded, a reminder of everything in his previous life. He tightened his hand around Quinn's waist.
“Who's that?” she asked, reasonably enough given the unusual ring tone. That's what he got for playing with his phone apps during an airport layover.
“My editor. Erin Miller.”
“Grim ring tone.” Quinn's chin was propped on his chest. As she spoke her chin dug in, prodding himâexactly what Erin intended to do as well.
He managed an even, casual tone. “That's Wagner's âRide of the Valkyries.' It suits her.” He made no move to grab the phone from where it lay on the floor.
“So, a force to be reckoned with?”
He gave a noncommittal, “Mmm.” Erin came from a family of writers and journalists. She was tenacious as hell when a project caught her interest. His had.
“So what does she want?”
“My photographs. Erin wants to publish them. She's having a hard time accepting the word
Quinn's chin moved a couple of inches sideways. It wasn't hard to guess where her gaze had shifted: to the corner where his camera equipment was stowed. He hadn't gone near the black and metal boxes, hadn't unlocked them, hadn't picked up his cameras to cradle them in his hands or dust them off and painstakingly wipe the lenses clean in a ritual as careful and loving as a mother bathing her infant. The memory cards, the rolls of 35 mm film he used for his ancient Leicaâthe first camera he'd ever owned, bought for him by his parents when he graduated from high school and which traveled with him everywhereâsat equally neglected. Only one of his cameras was missing. The Nikon. He'd had it with him on the way into Kandahar. It was gone, destroyed in the explosion. At least that was a fitting loss, unlike the loss of human lives. Nothing he could do would ever make up for those deaths.
He realized that Quinn's gaze had been fixed on the equipment cases for far too long. Tension invaded his body, chasing away the post-coital mellowness. Damn it all, he'd come to Silver Creek to forget his photography and shut out everything that had happened in Afghanistan.
“I'm not surprised your editor wants your pictures. Why don't you talk to her?”
“Because we've said everything that needs saying. There's nothing she can add that will change things or make me change my mind. I told my agent to return the advance we negotiated, with interest. She hasn't lost out,” he said flatly, so that Quinn would understand that was the end of it.
She ignored the message. “Not monetarily, perhaps, but she's lost out on sharing your work and what you saw in Afghanistan with the world. You must have taken a ton of photographs. What will you do with them all?”
His molars hurt. Consciously he unclenched his jaw. “Nothing.”
“Nothing? Ethan, you're a gifted photographer. Your work has appeared in magazines. You've been documenting an important period in American historyâ”
If there was a being even more tenacious than Erin, it was the woman lying on top of him. Talking would do no good, either with Erin or with Quinn. To make them understand why he couldn't look at those images would involve telling them what had really happened that afternoon with its horror, pain, and deathâ¦all of which would have been avoided if not for him.
Talking was like probing the wound with a hot poker. And his scars hadn't healed. He didn't expect they ever would, but he'd learned to leave them alone, just as he left his camera equipment and all the images stored on memory cards and film locked tight and stowed away in the corner of his cabin.
Instead of answering he dug his fingers into her thick hair and tugged, drawing her down until her lips met his. His tongue teased the curved seam of her lips.
She pulled back a fraction to look at him. “Is this by any chance an attempt to distract me?”
But this wasn't simply about redirecting Quinn's attention. He wanted to recapture that sense of rightness that her touch alone could provide. He'd come to crave it.
“I'd like to do a lot more than distract you, sweetheart,” he said with a grin, capturing her lips again. This time he deepened the kiss until their breaths turned ragged and their hands roamed, impatient and greedy, and her body softened, melting into his. Damn, but he loved how she responded with such open and immediate generosity.
The honesty of her response had him relaxing. Giving her a final kiss, he whispered, “I think we could make both of us forget our own names in a few short minutes, but I figure you and Sooner want to show off your herding commands to me and Bowie while there's still light. Later, though, after Alfie is tucked away for the night, I intend to test my hunch to the max.”
Seeing the blush that stole over her cheeks, his grin widened.
“Well, it just so happens I've been thinking that Alfie might benefit from an earlier bedtime.” She sat up and stretched, and he took a moment to look his fill at the creamy globes that rose enticingly when she arched. “So, you ready to learn from a master? Because Sooner puts all other herding dogs to shame.”
She was perfect. In bed and out of it.
Permanence had never been especially important to him. He'd lived as a nomad with a camera on the hunt for that perfect shot. In such a life, women came and went. Just as he did.
The loss of his photography was an unrelieved ache, but Ethan knew that were he to raise his camera and look through the viewfinder, all he would see would be the ghosts of men who'd become his buddies. The pain would slice straight to his heart.
The closest he came to a sense of wholeness was when he was with Quinn. He'd never expected to feel anything like it, and he was damned if he was going to lose that, too.
Permanence was looking awfully good.
Quinn let it slide, or pretended to at least. She'd seen the way Ethan had withdrawn when she asked about Erin Miller. He wouldn't answer his editor's calls, refused even to contemplate returning to his photography.
As Quinn dressed and dragged her fingers through her hair to comb out her tangled locks, her gaze strayed again and again to the cases containing his camera equipment. Those boxes held such promise. And so much pain.
It scared her that Ethan was still hurting from his time in Afghanistan because she knew the strength in him. His inability to speak about what happened there only underscored how harrowing it had been. If he couldn't handle discussing it, what made her think she'd be able to hear about it? The cocoon that protected her and protected so many who had no loved ones, friends, or family serving and risking their lives would be revealed for the wispy, flimsy thing it was.
A part of Quinn wished she could continue the pretense and act as if she weren't aware that Ethan was still hurting, still haunted. She could see herself ignoring his wounds as determinedly as he did and the two of them falling into an easy routine in this beautiful and peaceful setting, so far removed from the horrors he'd experienced. She sensed Ethan might even be hoping that she'd begun to spin dreams of a future with him so as to provide him with one more excuse to remain here rather than deal with his past.
But while Quinn had grown up protected, she wasn't naive. If Ethan didn't address his problems, then staying here at Silver Creekâtrying to have a real and lasting relationship with herâwould only work for the short term. Even loving him as she did, she knew it would be a Band-Aid where open-heart surgery was required.
That was the trouble with loving. His pain had become hers. And whatever she and Ethan had could never thrive, might not even survive unless she did everything she could to heal him.
The question was how to convince Ethan to confront the demons that haunted him, knowing that even if she succeededâand that was a stretchâhe might never forgive her interference.
The sky was streaked with orange, rose, and gray when Quinn called a halt to the training session. She and Sooner had begun it by demonstrating to Ethan how to signal Bowie to “come bye”âcircle in a clockwise directionâand then move “away to me,” where he'd proceed in a counterclockwise direction. It took a few attempts, but then something clicked between man and dog. When Bowie switched directions three times in a row while trotting around the wooden picnic table in Quinn's backyard, she knew it was the optimal time to stop and end the day's training on a high note.
“We'll be able to have Bowie working the young sheep by the end of the week,” she predicted to Ethan.
“Really?” he said. His tone reminded Quinn of the day Ward had been handed the keys to their dad's car.
“Yeah. You know, I hadn't expected Bowie to catch on so fast.” With a grin, she teased, “Trying to show Sooner and me up, are you?”
Ethan's arm snaked about her middle, pulling her close. “It's in my interest to get these moves down quickly so we can go back inside and work on some others.”
“What could we possibly do inside that we can't do here?” she asked innocently.
“How quickly the girl forgets. I guess a refresher course is in order.” His arm tightened, drawing her flush against him. His first kiss tickled the corner of her mouth. His second nibbled on her lower lip, and when, with a soft moan of invitation, she opened her mouth, he entered with a bold sweep that had her toes curling in her cowboy boots, her hands fisting around his neck, and her body arching into his lean length.
His taste and scent flooding her, she rose on tiptoes, pressing even closer as her mouth opened wider beneath hisâ¦only to jump back with all the elegance of a startled stork when a woman's voice called, “Hey, Quinn, are you out here? Oh, sorry!”
Though Quinn's muscles kind of worked, her vocal cords were paralyzed. At least it was Tess who'd surprised them. Had her brothers or, heaven forbid, her mother, come upon her and Ethan necking, Quinn would never hear the end of it.
Tess broke the short silence. “I didn't mean to barge in and interrupt,” she said in a voice that held more than a trace of amusement. “I only came by to remind you of tomorrow's dress fitting.”
“Right! Looking forward to it,” she said brightly, which only made Tess grin, since Quinn never expressed enthusiasm for anything wedding related. “Mia's coming?”
When Mia and Reid announced their engagement, Tess had immediately asked Mia to be a bridesmaid along with Quinn and Anna Vecchio, Tess's oldest friend. That kind of spontaneous generosity and kindness was why Tess was going to be a wonderful wife and a really great sister-in-law.