Authors: Desiree Holt
Tags: #Western romance, #erotic western romance, #contemporary western romance
The thought was more than unsettling. Tomorrow, first thing, she would call a locksmith and have all the locks changed. She knew it was the weekend, but she’d pay double-time for this. She’d never sleep, knowing there was a stranger out there who could enter the house at will.
She stood under the shower a long time, letting the water wash away the day and its troubles. Then, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, she headed downstairs. Too edgy to sit, she stood at the counter, eating a sandwich with ice cold milk to wash it down.
The laptop she’d brought with her stared back at her from the kitchen table, and she thought about plugging it in, but the effort of booting it up seemed more than she could handle. She could go through her mother’s room, but she needed a good night’s sleep to tackle that. At last, with nothing else to do and not feeling in the mood for television, she decided to sit out on the back patio for a while.
“I figured you’d be out here sooner or later.” Griff’s voice was like warm velvet in the darkness. As dark as it was, she hadn’t noticed the figure in the big lounge chair until she was almost next to it. “Sit down, Cassie. You can’t run away from me in your own house. We have things to talk about, and, by God, we’re going to do it now.”
Cassie’s throat tightened, and her stomach recoiled. Too many emotions battled inside her—anger, apprehension, desire, and the one she’d buried so deep she didn’t think it would ever surface again. Love. She couldn’t make words come out of her mouth. She turned to run back to the house, but he was out of the chair like lightening, gripping her arms with incredible force.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Griff said, his tone harsh, “Not this time. You’re going to sit in that chair and listen to me if I have to tie you down.”
He forced her onto the lounger he’d just vacated and sat down on the edge beside her. One arm stretched across her body, pinning her in place, with no wiggle room.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get up this instant.” She put every bit of the cold fury she felt into those words. “And get away from my house.”
“Not until you hear what I have to say. You can scream if you want, but think of the explaining you’ll have to do when someone shows up to rescue you.”
He was so close≈ she could smell the mixed scents of soap and aftershave on his skin, clean and earthy and male. There was just enough light from the moon to give her a good view of his features. His face still had that wicked, sexy look, and his eyes, no longer hidden behind sunglasses, burned into her. But the laughter that always danced in them was gone. Instead, they looked like two dead pools of navy, reflecting no light at all. Still, his gaze could make hot-and-cold flashes chase themselves over her body.
Her heart squeezed at the painful thought of all they’d lost. She clenched her fists, digging her nails into her palms.
“If I agree you can have your say, will you let go of me? And then will you go away?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “But you have to listen to everything.”
“I cannot imagine what you think I want to hear.”
She held herself rigid, trying not to touch any part of him. If she did, all the stored desire, the remembered passion, would come flooding back, and she’d be powerless to refuse him anything.
“I have plenty to say, whether you want to hear it or not. Are we clear on this?”
She nodded, but when she looked into his eyes, she was shocked by the incredible pain she saw.
“How can I make you understand it all,” he asked her, “when I still have trouble with it myself ?”
“What can there even be to understand?”
“God, I don’t even know where to begin here.” He looked away for a moment, his eyes distant. “If I tell you that no matter what you saw or heard, you were the one I wanted since high school, I know you won’t believe me. Why should you? But it’s the truth. That night on the porch, when I told you I was waiting for you? You thought it was a line, but that’s just what I was doing. Just as I’d done a lot of other nights. Waiting for you to walk by.”
“Bull,” she said. “Diane was always the one you wanted. Not me. I wasn’t loose enough for you and your friends.”
And Diane was the one he’d married.
“You’re right about that. Even in high school, you were the ice queen. You could destroy guys with just that cold, frosty look of yours. Did you know that? Everyone was afraid to approach you.” His voice dropped a little. “Me more than anyone. It took a lot of guts to do what I did that night.”
“I don’t believe you.” Was that why she had so few dates in high school? She’d deliberately kept everyone at bay, unwilling to be painted with the same brush as her sister. Still, there hadn’t been anyone who’d interested her enough to make her drop her guard.
“Shut up and let me finish” His words were sharp and clipped. “I meant every word I said to you those two nights. Everything. I was more than ready to stop running with that crowd. I thought, when you came back from your trip, maybe we’d see what kind of relationship we could build.”
Cassie could still remember the shock when her mother broke the news of Griffin and Diane’s marriage. Afraid she’d fall apart on the spot, she’d greeted the news with a stiff smile, then locked herself in her room. Unwilling to face anyone and listen to the painful details, she’d endured hammer blows to her heart and shut out the world.
“You must have run out of patience because, when I came back, there you and Diane were, the happy couple. No doubt having a good laugh at my expense.”
Griffin grabbed her so hard, his fingers bit into her flesh so hard they hurt. He shook her until her head snapped back and forth. “Did you think I wanted you to walk out of my life?” Deep grooves etched his face. “Do you think I wanted to marry Diane? Is that what you thought I had in mind? We might have had our fling, but Diane had a fling with just about everyone. You didn’t marry girls like her. You only took them to bed.”
“I didn’t know what to think,” she whispered, shaken by his fury. “I-I thought you’d just amused yourself with me, for some reason.”
And burned me in the process.
His eyes blazed into hers, like twin lasers. His fingers pressed her flesh even harder. “She was pregnant.” He spit the words out as if they tasted bad. “Diane was pregnant.”
“What?” Cassie felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. “She was what?”
“You heard me. She was pregnant. She swore it was mine.” He raked his hand through his hair. “I’m a lot of things, Cassie. I know what my reputation is, and I’ve sure done everything to deserve it. But this was my responsibility, and I wasn’t going to opt out of it.”
“You didn’t have to marry her.” But she knew those were empty words. Griff was right. He’d accepted responsibility for his father, and he would have done no less for the supposed mother of his child.
“Is that how little you think of me?” He shook his head. “I know you always looked at me as just another piece of trash, like everyone else in this town did. But believe it or not, I have some sense of accountability for what I do. Especially when it involves another person. A child.” He continued gripping her arms, holding her in place. “Besides, I didn’t think a child should have to suffer for an irresponsible act.”
“My folks must have had a fit.”
“They didn’t know. No one did but me. I thought they’d have a hemorrhage over the runaway marriage, but Diane was twenty-two, so there wasn’t much they could do about it. Besides, no matter what she did, they were always accepting of it. I never could figure that out.”
“Diane drew people like moths to a flame,” Cassie said, her voice bitter. “She had our folks wrapped around her little finger. And everyone else, too, it seems.”
“I tried to see you when you got back,” he went on, “but you were here one day and gone the next. I didn’t know how to find you, and I couldn’t very well ask your parents.”
“I got out of town as fast as I could.” She tried to shift to get more comfortable, but Griff’s position made it next to impossible. “I spent the summer with my roommate. Did you think I wanted to stay around and watch you and Diane play house?”
“I was desperate to explain it all to you.” He looked away from her. “I didn’t know what the hell to do. My dad was drinking himself to death, and I had a wife who only wanted a name for her child and someone to pay the freight.”
“I’d have thought she would get an abortion,” Cassie said, hating her bitchy tone. “A baby would have cut into her playtime.”
“I asked her about it, you know. God knows I wanted her to, whatever that makes me. Having a child with Diane was never in my plans. She said she was afraid of them. That something might go wrong. So there we were, pregnant Diane, drunken Dad, and me, all in the house down the street.” His words held the sound of bricks hitting concrete. “Can you think of a more fun scenario?”
“What did you think I would do?” she asked. “Play the doting aunt? Or didn’t that even cross your mind?”
“I didn’t think at all, Cassie, and that’s the God’s honest truth. Fuck. I was just trying to take it one day at a time.”
“And then Diane was killed.”
“Yes.” He exhaled heavily. “Then Diane was killed. But I can tell you, the ink wasn’t even dry on the marriage license before she was out running around again. I wanted her to settle down because of the baby, stop drinking, take care of herself, but you know Diane.”
“Better than I ever wanted.”
“I knew she was still sleeping around.” Hostility edged every word. “Hell, Diane could never be faithful to anyone. It wasn’t as if I cared one hell of a lot, except I didn’t want her to hurt the baby.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “I’d already planned to divorce her as soon as she gave birth and file for sole custody. The Barbours’ dog was a more fit parent than she was.”
“I understand you were the one suspect they had,” Cassie murmured.
“You got it.” He shoved his fingers through his hair again, a gesture of pure frustration. “I know I haven’t always been a nice person, Cassie, but murder is a little out of my league. No matter what the circumstances.”
“They never found out who did.” She spoke so low, she didn’t know if he could hear her.
“No. No, they didn’t. I’m sure half the town still thinks it was me.”
“But you have a business,” she protested. “And it seems everyone hires you.”
“As long as I stay in the yard and don’t come in the front door, they’re very happy to pay me for my work.” His lips twisted in an ironic imitation of a smile. “I guess it’s okay to hire a murderer if he hasn’t killed someone close to you.”
There was such pain in those words her heart ached for him. Don’t do this, Cassie. Don’t play with that fire again. Let him talk and then tell him to go.
“Okay.” She forced the words out. “I’ve heard what you have to say. Now you can go.”
think I killed her? How about it, Cassie? Do you see me as a killer?” His tone was flat, his eyes hooded as he waited for her answer.
“No.” She whispered the word. “No, I don’t.”
He leaned closer, his face so near she could feel his breath on her skin.
“Griffin….” She tried to push her head back into the chair, away from him.
“I never got to tell you that night that I love you, Dewdrop,” he said, his voice quiet. “Even though I gave you my heart. I figured we’d have plenty of time for that later. I wanted you to get to know me as a person, not just by my reputation.”
Cassie’s heart almost stopped. Whatever else she might have said caught in her throat. Of all the things he could have told her, this was the last thing she’d expected. And the name. His nickname for her. The sound of it made her heart crack open.
“Say something,” he prodded. “Tell me to leave right now, or I’m going to kiss you.”
Cassie couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t let him touch her. Part of the reason for her return to Stoneham was to get him out of her system once and for all. She wanted to make him pay for the hell he’d put her through. If she let him touch her now, she’d be his again.
She willed herself to jerk away, to get up, but her muscles wouldn’t obey her command. Then his mouth was on hers, parting her lips, probing gently with his tongue.
The kiss started out easy, tentative, but then Griff’s hand tangled through her hair, pulling her head to him, holding her in place. The kiss deepened, and she couldn’t fight it. without even thinking she reached her arms around him , holding him to her. The kiss went on and on, his tongue making an erotic sweep through her mouth, teasing and tasting everywhere it touched. She didn’t have the strength to break the contact.
When Griffin lifted his lips, he looked at her, hard. “It’s still there, isn’t it, Cassie? This thing between us. You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to me.”
Then he was kissing her again, feeding from her mouth, ravaging it with his tongue. He held her to him so tight she almost couldn’t breathe.
“This won’t go away, you know. I still love you.” His words were thick with emotion. “God, how I love you. And admit it or not, you feel the same way.” He sat back, releasing her, and brushed one cheek with his fingertips in a single gentle stroke. “You haven’t married, have you? Or found anyone to get serious with? I thought not.”
“I had my reasons,” she whispered.
“You don’t have to tell me what they are. The kiss says it all. You gave me a precious gift, Cassie. I didn’t take it lightly, whatever you think. I didn’t have a real choice in what happened before. I won’t let you run away from me this time. You can take that to the bank.” He touched the locket around her neck. “What’s in there, Dewdrop? A picture of me?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not.”
“You still own my heart, Dewdrop. Nothing ever changed.”
And just like that, like fingers brushing away a magic curtain, six years disappeared as if they’d happened yesterday. The memory of his sleek, muscled body, the golden curls on his chest, the feel of his fingers on her, in her, was like a drug in her system.
He stood up, towering over her.
“This yard hasn’t been touched in forever. I think your mother just kind of gave up on everything. I don’t have anything scheduled for tomorrow. I’ll be back in the morning and get to work on it.”