Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
Sam shifted in the passenger seat of Ethan’s BMW. “When you said dinner, I erroneously thought you meant a restaurant.”
Ethan glanced across the car. A bag of takeout sat in her lap, a six-pack of beer on the floor at her feet. The worry lines wrinkling her forehead weren’t only cute but sexy as hell. Especially with all that curly hair flitting around her shoulders. He’d been happy when she’d pulled the clip from the nape of her neck after climbing into his car. More pleased than he’d let on that she’d said yes to dinner with him in the first place.
“Picnic.” He grinned. “More fun.”
And more relaxing—away from probing eyes, a chance to get a few minutes alone together. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her all day, even during his meeting with Thomas. Maybe he should have gone home but spending the evening with her was way better than stressing over seeing Will Branson again and wondering if the man had any recollection of him. Or thinking about everything still happening around the investigation into Samantha’s room and Thomas’s possible connection.
He pushed thoughts of Thomas and Branson aside as they passed the high school again and told himself to focus on the right now.
Samantha sat up straighter. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
He drove onto campus and pulled into the parking lot near the dark football field. The team had an away game tonight, and the place was empty. Surprise flickered over Samantha’s features as he eased through the open gate and parked near the edge of the track encircling the field.
“Groundskeeper must have forgotten to lock the gate,” he said.
“Yeah.” She glanced his way with narrowed eyes. “Like that ever happens.”
Smiling, he reached behind her into the backseat and grabbed a football and two sweatshirts. “Come on.”
He popped the door open and climbed out, keenly aware of the way she watched him through the windshield as he walked around the front of the car. When he reached her side of the car, she sighed and pushed her door open.
“What, exactly, are we doing here, Ethan?”
The warm glow from the car’s headlights spilled across one end of the field, illuminating the yardage lines and goalpost. “Having a picnic. Here.” He handed her a sweatshirt. “It’s a little chilly.”
A bemused expression crossed her pretty face. “On the football field? Are you nuts?”
“No. Trust me, I’d know.” He tugged on his sweatshirt. “I’m a trained professional, remember?”
The smile she tried to hide warmed his blood. Walking out onto the field, he tossed the ball in the air and caught it as it came down. Samantha stared after him for several seconds, then finally pulled on her sweatshirt and followed him onto the grass. “I don’t see a blanket or even a picnic basket.”
The shirt was way too big for her. The hem fell to her hips, and the sleeves covered all but her fingertips. But she looked cute as hell in his clothes, and he wondered if it would smell like her when she took it off. He sort of hoped it would. “Ever play football?”
“Of course. Who hasn’t?”
He pitched her the ball. She caught it with wide eyes, then furrowed that cute little brow all over again. “I’m not playing catch with you.”
“Because these are hundred-dollar shoes, that’s why not.”
A practical woman. He liked that. “Kick ’em off.”
She eyed him like he’d completely lost his marbles. Several seconds passed, but she finally toed off her shoes and sighed. Hot-pink-painted toenails peeked out from beneath her blue linen slacks.
Ethan hadn’t pegged her for pink, but he sure did like it. And that glinting silver toe ring that made him wonder what other surprises she had hidden under all that fabric.
They tossed the ball back and forth, and he stepped away a few yards at a time, widening the throw. To his surprise, she had a strong arm, not weak and girly like most.
“Did you play in school?” she asked.
“All four years.”
“What position?” She stepped to the side and caught the ball with two hands.
“Quarterback. Alec, my brother, was wide receiver.”
“You have a brother?”
“Two.” He jumped to catch the wild toss she threw over his head. “And Rusty was a running back.”
“Three boys? Your mother had her hands full.”
“And one girl. There are four of us.”
“Correction, she’s a saint.”
“Not quite, but close.”
“Who’s the oldest?”
“Me. By one month.” When her brow wrinkled, he shrugged. “We’re all only a few months apart.”
She caught the ball again but this time held it. “Really? How—?”
“All except Kelsey. She’s a couple years younger. We’re all adopted.”
“All of you?” When he nodded, she seemed to ponder that a moment, then said, “Did your parents plan it that way?”
“Plan on three rowdy teenage boys and a skittish ten-year-old girl? Not exactly.”
Her curious expression said she wanted to know more, but instead of asking, she passed the ball back to him.
“What about you? Any siblings?”
“Nope. What you see is what you get.”
Something about her quick answer made him think there was more to it than that. But the way she suddenly wouldn’t make eye contact told him to be careful what he asked at this point in their relationship. Family, apparently, was a sticky subject.
Lightening the mood seemed like the best idea all around. He underhand pitched her the ball. “Okay. Try to get by me into the end zone.”
Her lips curled up at the edges. And the sparkle he’d seen earlier—when he’d shown up at the school unannounced—flashed in her eyes once more. “You do not want to take me on.”
“I deal with juvenile delinquents on a daily basis. Trust me, I can handle one little chemistry teacher.”
She pursed her lips. Tucking the ball under her arm, she darted to the right. He blocked her path near the ten-yard line, and she skirted left. When she tried to brush by, he grabbed her around the waist, picked her up, and twirled her in a circle.
Sweet, feminine laughter echoed from her chest, warming his chest in a way he hadn’t expected.
He dropped her on her bare feet and stepped back. “Try again.”
Smiling, she eased back to the ten-yard line and started over. This time she made it to the three before he grasped her.
“My turn,” he said, releasing her.
“No way. Third down. You’re trying to jip me here.”
“Okay, fine.” He waved her back. “Try again.”
A devious smile curled her mouth. Her top teeth sank into her bottom lip as she contemplated which direction to go. Finally, she darted to the right, but he anticipated the movement and blocked her path. She swiveled the other direction like an NFL pro before his momentum could correct itself, and sailed past him into the end zone.
Samantha spiked the ball into the grass, lifted her hands above her head, and did a little victory dance that sent a wicked shot of arousal straight to Ethan’s groin. Muscles flexed in her thighs beneath the linen slacks as she turned in a slow circle. And even through the baggy sweatshirt she wore, he could see the swell of her breasts pushing against the gray fabric.
Damn, but he wished she’d get hot and take off that sweatshirt so he could see the rest of her. Wished he could take off what was below it as well.
Clearing his throat, he somehow managed to say, “My turn.”
“Twenty-yard line.” She picked up the ball and pitched it to him, that cocky grin of hers lighting up her entire face. “No cheating.”
And, oh man. Yeah. He was in trouble here. Because he
liked that commanding teacher voice of hers, telling him what to do.
Ethan eased back, slapped the ball, and took off running. Samantha shifted forward, shuffling to the side to block him. Out of nowhere she charged, lowered her shoulder, and hit him square in the chest.
The air whooshed out of his lungs. He sailed back and hit the ground with a grunt. His hands fell out to his sides. The ball rolled from his fingers across the cool grass.
“Oh my God.” Her adorable laughter echoed in the air. She crawled across the grass until her face hovered just above his. Tantalizing curls tickled his cheeks while the arousing scents of lavender and vanilla floated around him. “Are you okay?”
His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He felt like he’d just been hit by a truck. A really sexy truck.
“Am I . . . dead?”
“No. Do you feel dead?”
“I’m not sure. Angels are supposed be gentle.” He blinked several times. Was pretty sure he could see stars, and not just from getting the wind knocked out of him. “They aren’t supposed to knock you on your ass.”
“The blow obviously didn’t knock that charming wit out of you.” She eased back and reached for his hand. “Here, let me help you up.”
Her palm slid against his, and warmth encircled his fingers everywhere she touched.
“Sorry,” she managed between victorious giggles. “But I warned you not to mess with me.”
She had, hadn’t she? His gaze swept over her face in the lights from his car. This woman was reorganizing his priorities, making him think of things other than the reason he was in this town. And even though something in the back of his mind said that might not be a good thing, he didn’t want to listen. He just wanted to get to know her better.
“Next time I’ll listen.” He pushed up off the grass. “I think I need to rest and reclaim my manhood. You hungry?”
She rose and followed him across the field toward the car. “I think I worked up an appetite.”
Ethan opened the driver’s side door and flipped on the stereo. Music wafted through the open windows, the strum of a guitar drifting in the air. He grabbed the bag of deli sandwiches, popped the top off two beers, and joined her near the hood.
Her cheeks grew pink as he handed her a bottle. “We can’t drink on school grounds.”
That shocked and prim voice, in direct contrast to the domineering teacher voice he’d heard her use earlier, sent heat careening through his whole body. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He took a long pull from the bottle, set it at his feet, and handed her a sandwich as he leaned against the car, waiting for her to join him.
“I could get fired for having alcohol on campus.”
He glanced around the empty field and parking lot. “I don’t see anyone but you and me.” When she only continued to stare at him, he tipped his head. “Ever cheat on a test in school, Samantha?”
“Of course not.”
Of course not. Silly question. “Sneak out of your parents’ house late at night?”
She shook her head.
He couldn’t help but smile. He’d never been attracted to a woman as straightlaced as Samantha Parker. “Get caught buying alcohol with a fake ID?”
When she pinned him with a look, he laughed. “Honey, you’re with the wrong guy.”
“You did all that?”
“And way worse. I was a class-A juvenile delinquent. Why do you think I’m so comfortable around kids like Thomas?”
She leaned against the hood next to him. He didn’t miss the fact that she set the bottle at her feet, as close to being under the car as possible should anyone venture their direction.
“You look like you turned out all right.”
Her face was cast in shadows as she took a bite of her sandwich, but her eyes danced in the dim light. Something in his gut tightened under her watchful gaze, something other than lust. He lifted his beer for a deep drink. “I was reformed. A lot of kids like me don’t get a second chance.”
“Is that why you became a juvenile counselor?”
“Partly.” Ethan debated how much to tell her. He didn’t want to scare her off, but at the same time, if he wanted her to open up to him, he knew he needed to take the first step. “I told you my siblings and I were each adopted. My father’s a psychiatrist; my mother’s an ER doctor. I don’t know if it was their need to help others or what, but when they couldn’t have kids of their own, they decided instead of adopting a baby, they’d help some of the kids they see walk through their doors on a daily basis.”
“Did one of your parents treat you at some point?”
“Sort of. I met Michael McClane after I got into some trouble. I’d kind of bounced from foster home to foster home before that. He was the first person who actually gave me a chance.”
“Huh.” She looked down at her feet.
“Nothing, it’s just . . . your background sounds a lot like Thomas’s.”
It did. Ethan knew that was probably the reason Judge Wilson had asked him to take this case. There was just one minor difference. Thomas hadn’t gotten himself into the same kind of trouble Ethan had. Not even close.
He wasn’t ready to explain that whole ordeal to Samantha—wasn’t sure he ever would be—so he decided to change the subject. “The other reason I’m a child psychologist is because I like working with kids. Keeps me young.”
A wry smile toyed with the edge of her lips. “They definitely keep you on your toes. The kids are the one part about my job I really like.”
“Where did you teach before?”
“I didn’t. I was a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company in California up until a few months ago.”
“Really?” When she nodded, he said, “What brought you to Hidden Falls?”
“My mother was sick. I came home to help take care of her. It was only supposed to be temporary. Some things . . . ” She looked out over the football field, her gaze growing distant. “Some things just never go as planned, you know? I guess all you can do is adapt and move on.”
The emptiness in her voice touched him in a way he hadn’t expected. She was an intricate puzzle, feisty one minute, sweet the next, reserved and outspoken and mysterious all at the same time. And he wanted to know why. Wanted to know what had happened in her life that had shaped her into the woman she was today. Wanted to know everything about her.
He took the sandwich from her hand and set it on the hood of the car. She glanced up with wide eyes as he grasped her hand and pulled her away from the vehicle.
“What are you doing?”
“Enjoying the moment.” He slid one arm around her waist and drew her close. From the speakers, some country singer’s deep voice crooned about the lost days of youth. Soft rays from the headlights washed over them as he turned her in a slow circle.