Authors: Laura Moore
He was a handful, but she loved his spirit all the more since someone had tried to beat it out of him. It didn't bother her that Tucker had probably taken a good ten steps backward in terms of his training. If he didn't colic again, they'd get to where they needed to be eventually.
She hand-walked Tucker for a half hour, and by the time she'd put him back in his box stall, stuffed his hay into a hanging net, and kissed him good night on his blaze, the sky was pitch black. “Sleep tight, big guy,” she said as she closed his stall door.
“Still talking to your animals?”
She jumped. “Oh, hey, Josh.”
“Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. You going to the staff holiday party?”
“Wouldn't miss it.”
“So, you two are together, right?”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Yeah.”
“That's good. Real good. I felt kind of bad about Thanksgiving.”
The image of Josh and Maebeth pretzel-locked in a hot embrace flashed before her. How weird. She was so wrapped up in Ethan, she hadn't thought about that awkward moment once.
“How are things going with you and Maebeth?”
“Super. She's a real sweet gal. I'm picking her up in a fewâPete said it'd be fine if I brought her as my date.”
“It seems like we both ended up with the right person, don't it? I knew Ethan was into you even when he said he wasn't, talking about how he babysat you and all. I figured it out when Tucker came down with colic.” Her confusion must have shown, for he added, “I mentioned to Ethan that I didn't think it was a good idea to spend all that money on the operation for Tucker. Ethan told me I shouldn't repeat that to you if I wanted a chance with you. I could tell it was killing him to give me advice like that. So I'm glad it worked out for you guysâand it's great Tucker's doing well, though I still would have tried to argue you out of that decision if you'd been my girl.”
“You could have tried. You wouldn't have succeeded. Whenever I adopt or rescue an abandoned or mistreated animal, it's with the knowledge that I'll do everything I possibly can for it.”
He gave a slight nod that was more like a thrust of his squared chin. “Like I said, it seems like we're with the right people.”
“True.” Her smile contained all the relief she felt at having been spared the colossal mistake of not seeing Josh clearly. Sure, he'd praised and admired Domino. Who wouldn't like her striking Appaloosa, whose gaits and transitions were smooth as cream? Who wouldn't appreciate a cutting horse that could turn on a dime and had speed and stamina to spare? But it struck her only now that he'd never asked after Tucker post-operation, and never once stroked her nanny goats' noses or attempted to tell them apart. None of this meant that Josh was a bad guy; he simply was someone who would never understand her. Or want to.
She wondered at Ethan's comment to him but then remembered that earlier on the night Tucker came down with colic, he'd seen Josh and her kissing. Later, while walking Tucker in the barnyard, he'd quizzed her about Josh, and she'd hid any ambivalence she was feeling. Perhaps she'd done a good enough job that he'd believed she wanted Josh. In advising Josh to keep his opinion about Tucker to himself, he'd done what he could to give her what she wanted.
He was a good man, she thought. Even if Ethan couldn't find it in himself to forgive her when he discovered what she'd done, at least she'd given her heart wisely.
Quinn opened the door to her house to the blare of elephants trumpeting. Ethan must be entertaining the animals with the National Geographic Channel. Even so, Sooner was there to greet her as she shrugged off her jacket and quilted vest. Bowie arrived in time to sniff at her socks as she toed off her cowboy boots. She'd all but given up entering by the back door and using the mudroom to shuck off her outerwear and boots. The only recent rain to fall was a few frustratingly brief showers. Not enough to fill a teacup. As Mia had said to her the other day, Mother Nature could be generous and bountiful. She could also be a teasing bitch.
The sofa was empty, but there were clanking noises coming from the kitchen. “Ethan?” she called, moving toward the sound and for the moment ignoring the screeches that erupted from Alfie in the study.
“In here. I'm making the dogs' dinner.”
She stepped into the kitchen to find him pouring kibble from a measuring cup into a stainless steel dish. A second one was already full. He'd taken off his sweater and was barefoot. “How domestic.” She grinned.
“Necessary,” he corrected. “Bowie was drooling on my shirtsleeve.”
“He must've worked up an appetite running circles around Bruno.”
“Or he's figured out that your brand of dog food is as good as caviar.” He told both waiting dogs to sit, deposited their bowls a couple of feet apart, and then gave them the hand signal to release them. For once Bowie beat Sooner.
“He's a hungry boy,” Quinn said.
“He's not alone.” A husky note entered his voice. “Come here, Quinn,” he said, crooking his index finger.
She approached, trying and doubtless failing to keep a goofy smile off her face. She loved so much about him. “That right? You're hungry, too?” she said, stopping inches away.
He reached out and put his hands around her waist, lifting her onto the counter and then stepping between her legs. “Yeah. Definitely in need of a little something.” His hands settled on her hips and she felt the strength and heat in them through her jeans.
Wanting more, she crossed her ankles around his legs, drawing him closer.
For a second his lips hovered inches from hers as his gaze traveled over her face. Afraid of what his too-perceptive eyes might see and wonder at the turbulent mix buffeting her, she leaned in and caught his lower lip between her teeth and tugged, releasing it only at his low growl of arousal.
“Now that's what I'm talking about,” he whispered as he closed the sliver of distance between them and kissed her, his tongue thrusting inside to slowly rub against hers. His hands slipped beneath the layers of her wool sweater and long-sleeved Henley, and her stomach muscles jumped in response. Reaching her breasts, he cupped them, squeezing lightly as his thumbs played with her puckered nipples. With a gasp, she arched into him, asking for more.
His head dipped so his mouth could trace the path from her jaw to the base of her neck, where he'd unerringly find every nerve to set her shivering and trembling in his arms. Aware that within minutes he could have her jeans off and her body and heart exploding from pleasure, she reluctantly pushed at the shoulders she'd been grasping. “I wish we could continue this but I have to wrap my Secret Santa present and give Alfie some TLC before we head up to the lodge. I need a shower, too,” she explained.
His fingers made another sweep over her breasts. “How about we meet in the shower then?”
“And engage in some multitasking?”
“Never a task with you, Quinn.” He lowered his hands and eased her off the counter in a slow slide against his hard body. “Never,” he repeated huskily.
Quinn hesitated a few seconds, tormented by the sound of the shower on full blast and the sight of Ethan's cell phone sitting on the nightstand by the side of the bed. She had to act fast and she had to act now if she hoped to set her plan in motion to coincide with their trip to New York. But taking this step, picking up a phone that didn't belong to her and copying down strangers' numbers, wasn't only repugnant, it was also jeopardizing her chance at love. Then she forced herself to remember the terror of his nightmare, the anguish in his voice when he'd told her about the soldiers' deaths. To do nothing would allow his guilt to fester like a cancer. And knowing that she wasn't brave enough to confront him would eventually destroy their relationship. If it was doomed either way, she preferred to live with having tried to help him.
Grabbing a pen and a scrap of paper that was lying next to the lamp, she picked up the phone and turned it on. As she suspected, it was unlocked. Going into his contacts, she thought,
I'm so sorry, Ethan.
Ethan whispered before he pressed a kiss to Quinn's lips.
Her mouth answered him, her soft lips opening, moving beneath his. He released them and watched her lashes flutter and then open. She blinked and then smiled as she stretched in a move that shoved her arms under the pillows and arched her back. It was a beautiful sight.
He had a moment to appreciate the mounds of her breasts beneath her navy tank top that had
WHISKEY AND YOGA
emblazoned across the front before she settled back against the mattress.
“Merry Christmas,” she replied in a husky, pre-coffee voice, adding, “FYI, my internal clock is telling me it's nowhere near time to wake up. It's infallible.”
“Got a couple presents to give you before we head over to your parents' place.”
“Wait a second. We took them over to my parents' place yesterday so that Reid could do some one-stop snooping.”
The Knowleses were having a family celebration this morning before Tess and Ward took off to the airport for New York, where they'd celebrate with Tess's parents and visit her brother Christopher, who lived in a facility that cared for adults afflicted with severe autism.
“Yeah, well, I held a few in reserve.”
“Did you, now?”
“Yeah. I'm feeling indulgent, moved by the holiday spirit and all that.” “All that” being the way his heart seemed to expand whenever he looked at Quinn, or thought about her.
“Well, then, bring 'em on, bud.”
“Scoot yourself up first. Here,” he said, grabbing the pillows he'd slept on and placing them behind her back. Once she was upright, he leaned over and picked up the wooden tray. Setting it across her lap, he plucked off the dish towel, revealing a freshly brewed extra-strong espresso in her favorite mug, which had two goats butting heads on it, and a sticky bun that he'd reheated according to Roo Rodgers's instructions.
“Oh man, I thought I'd just dreamed the scent of coffee and sugarâtwo of my favorite smells.”
“Nope. Christmas breakfast in bed.” He grabbed his own cup and sat beside her on the bed.
“Wow. This is great. Thank you.” She took the time to look at her tray in appreciation. Then she lifted her cup and, cradling it between her hands, inhaled deeply. “You know, I've never been given breakfast in bedânot since I was, like, twelve or something. I think I had the flu. Mom brought me up some buttered toast with grape jam and a big glass of orange juice.”
“Funny thing to have missed out on, considering you live at a high-end guest ranch,” he said with studied casualness. Once more a fierce possessiveness had seized him. There were countless things he wanted to be the first at when it came to Quinn.
Her first and only,
he added silently.
She took a sip of her coffee. “Mmm, strong, sweet, and hot. Exactly how I like it. And I get a sticky bun, too?”
He grinned. “Only the finest for you.”
Her glance slid sideways then lowered to the tray. “Not sure I deserve it.”
“Been a naughty girl, huh?”
Instead of answering, she raised her cup and swallowed the remaining coffee. “That was delicious,” she said quietly. “Thank you. This is a perfect present and a really nice way to start Christmas.”
He'd expected a snappy response. She was so good at them. He wondered at her somber tone, too. She seemed subdued. Sad, even. Maybe the holiday was making her emotional. Some extra sugar might help.
“Have some of the bun,” he suggested. “I followed Roo's reheating instructions to the letter.”
She picked it up, tore a piece off, and made a sexy sound of pleasure as she chewed. “So what have you been up toâother than making excellent espresso and reheating exquisitely gooey sticky buns?”
Deciding he'd been imagining her melancholy mood, he clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back against the headboard. “Oh, the usual. Let the dogs out, fed them and Pirate. Alfie's still dozing under his blanket, no need to rouse the feathered devil yet. Called my parents.”
She stilled. “You did? I bet they were really happy to hear from you.”
An understatement. Both his mom and dad had gotten on the line, and he'd heard his mother sniff back tears at the news that he'd be seeing them at the wedding in New York. The only Christmas present a mother could want, she'd answered shakily. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat when he thought about all the soldiers who wouldn't be seeing their families or loved ones this Christmas.
Clearing his throat he said, “Yeah. When I told them I was coming to Tess and Ward's wedding, my mother got pretty emotional.”
“I can imagine. Another excellent Christmas present, then. You're batting a thousand. Here, have a bite.”
Lowering his arms he leaned forward to meet her fingers and opened his mouth for her to feed him. “Oh, yeah, that is good.” When she made to lower her hand, he caught her wrist and held it. “This is even better,” he said. Slowly he sucked her fingers, cleaning them of every trace of brown sugar.
Her breath hitched and her eyes widened in a brilliant blue flare before her lids, heavy with arousal, lowered.
“Know what? I believe it's time for your next present, Quinn. Are you ready for it?”
Her smile teased and seduced. “I can't imagine what could top a sticky bun.”
“I'll do my best to rise to the challenge.”
“Aren't you a cocky one?”
“Thanks to you, definitely.” He grinned. “Shall I show you?”
The pulse beneath his fingers jumped and then began pounding. He could feel his own blood pumping as desire rode him hard. But he ignored his rising need. He wanted to go slow and savor every moment with her.
He removed the tray from her lap, set it on the floor, and then rolled onto his side, facing her.
“You're beautiful,” he said. “Effortlessly, marvelously beautiful. Inside and out.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he wouldn't let her, not when he knew he spoke the truth. He kissed her and tasted coffee and cinnamon and sugar. Most potent of all was the unique flavor of the woman who'd come to mean so much to him. It was a taste he'd never get enough of.
Soft and deliciously tender, her mouth moved beneath his, her tongue matching his probing cadence as their breathing grew heavy. His hands gathered up her tank top, fingers drifting over the silky skin of her stomach. Raising his head only to pull the garment over her tangled head of hair, he lowered his mouth again, this time tasting the sleep-warmed skin of her collarbone.
He'd come to know her well. Understood the things that made her smile, gasp, shudder, and clasp him with feverish strength. He loved her responsiveness and how confident she'd grown in her sexuality. Her pleasure mattered to him, more than it had ever mattered with anyone else. And while he'd learned the secret places on her body that if he licked or grazed with his teeth or caressed with an open palm or teasing fingers would make her arch and sigh, he'd come to recognize that he would never tire of searching them out or discovering new ones.
It was love that changed everything. And trust, too. After the night when he'd shared what happened in Afghanistan, he'd expected her to recoil from him; she'd seen the darkness that shadowed his soul. Yet she accepted him, told him she loved him, and welcomed him into her body. Amazing. He didn't deserve someone as good and generous as Quinn, but damned if he was going to let her go.
His mouth and hands traveled, taking time to indulge in the taste and feel of her, to breathe in her scent, to admire her sleek, athletic shape. Happiness filled him as she writhed and arched beneath him.
His hand slid beneath her panties, smoothing her nest of curls. His fingers parted her folds. She was wet for him. His cock grew harder, straining against his zipper. Ignoring his aching erection, he focused on rolling the silk scraps off her hips and down her thighs. She helped by wriggling out of them, a splendid move that caused her breasts to jiggle and her hips to rock into his fingers so they glided down her cleft to dip into her tight core.
A line of sweat trickled its way down his spine. He was surprised it didn't sizzle.
He slid two fingers inside her, loving the hot squeeze of her flesh. He watched her face as he moved in and out while his thumb played with her clit, making her pant and moan, “Yes, thereâ¦Oh God, more, Ethan, harderâ¦” Sweet, crazed commands he was only too willing to obey.
He brought his mouth to her as his fingers moved faster and deeper, bringing her ever higher. Her inner muscles clenched him fiercely. Pressing his mouth against her, he sucked and then lightly grazed her sensitive flesh with his teeth. She came with a shattering scream, bucking wildly against him.
Christmas was off to a good start.
He eased the rhythm of his fingers while she rode the waves of her climax. Kissing her softly on her inner thighs and then on her mound and hipbones, he rested the side of his face in the cradle of her hips, his breath as harsh as hers.
Jesus, what her orgasms did to him. His heart felt close to bursting. His cock was painfully sensitized.
Her fingers dug into his shoulders, grabbed at his T-shirt. He looked up.
“I need you,” she whispered. “Come inside me, please.”
That hadn't been part of his plan; the orgasm had been for her alone. But he couldn't say no. He needed her just as much.
He whipped his clothes off, grabbed a condom, and, gritting his teeth, smoothed the latex over himself. He was so close already. It was possible he'd come as soon as he was inside her, and he wanted to prolong the pleasure. Give her more, give her everything he had.
Determined to take it slow and build the intensity between them, he positioned himself and sank into her slowly, inch by inch, his eyes locked on hers until he was embedded.
He held himself there, his arms trembling, his heart racing as he throbbed and her muscles clamped around him like a velvet fist.
“Ethan.” She breathed his name as she wrapped her legs about his hips, bringing him even deeper.
“Jesus, Quinn, you feel so good. So incredibly good.”
Bracing himself on either side of her shoulders, he rocked against her, withdrew, then drove back to where he most wanted to be. She met him thrust for thrust.
It was unbelievable, their joining, a pleasure so sharp and so exquisite, a happiness so profound and complete. It pierced him, freeing the words he'd held in his heart. “I love you, Quinn.”
Her eyes went wide with surprise.
For a split second he wondered how she would react to his words. He'd changed their relationship, no longer willing to pretend that this was all about bringing Quinn up to speed sexually. She deserved to know that his heart was involved, too. A heart that squeezed tight when she blinked and tears escaped from her eyes.
“Don't stop, Ethan. Please don't ever stop.”
Linking their fingers, he answered her whispered plea with a promise. “Never.”