Copyright © 2011 N.J. Walters
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Ryan stayed her hand before she could touch her mug. He laid his own cup on the counter. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. He raised one eyebrow in question and she sighed. “Really. I didn’t sleep well and I wasn’t expecting to have to work today.” She offered him a weak smile and reached for her mug again. She really needed to put some space between her and Ryan. Work beckoned like a lifeline.
Ryan raised his hand and cupped the side of her face, freezing her in place. “Bad dreams?”
Esther felt all the blood drain from her face. How could he know? She stared up at him, lost for words. He was watching her expectantly, almost as if he wanted her to tell him about her dreams. But he couldn’t possibly know about them. No one did.
Common sense finally kicked in. He was just making conversation. He couldn’t know about her dreams. And thank God for that. It was nothing more than a polite question. “I’m fine.” For some reason she couldn’t bring herself to lie and say that she hadn’t had any dreams.
“I have dreams.” His voice, low and intimate, sounded so much like the one he’d used in her dream that her core began to throb.
Ohmigod. This wouldn’t do. This wouldn’t do at all. She could not stand here and talk to him any longer. Her panties were damp. It was humiliating, the effect he had on her without even trying. The only consolation was that there was no way he could know what she was feeling.
“Don’t you want to know what my dreams are about?”
“No.” She kept her voice crisp and firm as she grabbed the handle of her mug, sloshing some of the brew over the sides.
Ryan shifted behind her, placing his hands on the countertop. His heat surrounded her, enveloped her. She wanted to lean back into his arms and feel his chest against her back. Even though he wasn’t touching her, she knew he was aroused. How she knew this, she didn’t know. Maybe it was the tension emanating from his body. Or maybe it was the heat rolling off his skin. It didn’t really matter. All she knew was he wanted her.
Her own body was jumping. Her nipples tightened, her breasts felt full and heavy. It took all her willpower not to let her head fall forward. She could almost feel the brush of his lips against her nape just as she had in her dream. Her sex clenched hard with need, sending a fresh trickle of cream to coat her panties.
“Esther.” His voice was ragged with need.
She shook her head, refusing to answer him.
“I dream about you. About us.” Not one part of their bodies was touching, but Esther felt as though her flesh was on fire.
“I don’t want to know.” It was cowardly, but she released her hold on her mug and placed her hands over her ears.
His fingers wrapped around her wrists, tugging her hands away. “You have to listen, Esther. We need to talk.” She could hear the urgency in his voice and it frightened her.
She knew Ryan would never hurt her, not physically. But she knew in her soul that he could shatter the fragile barrier around her heart and lay her bare. She couldn’t allow that to happen.
Her family history was riddled with relationships that ended tragically due to fire. Her mother had given her heart to her father, her ancestor had given her heart to James, and what had that gotten either of them?
Pain and heartache.
Marshalling her defenses, she turned and faced him. His large body loomed over hers, almost protectively, as though he wanted to make sure that no one or nothing ever hurt her. That was ironic since he was a bigger threat to her than anything else. “Ryan,” she began, not quite sure what she wanted to say.
He laid a finger over her mouth. “Shh. Don’t be afraid.” He smoothed his finger over her upper lip before skimming it over her lower one.
She felt that tiny touch deep in her core. Her lips tingled and she longed to lick them, to see if she could taste him on them. “Ryan,” she began again.
He didn’t say a word, but he shifted closer. His golden-brown eyes watched her carefully as he leaned toward her. He filled her vision, blocking out all else. She knew he was going to kiss her and she was powerless to stop it. She had to know what it would feel like.
The moment his mouth touched hers, she was lost. Her eyelids flitted down, closing out the world around her. Nothing else existed but Ryan’s lips against hers. They were firm and warm as he skimmed them back and forth, demanding nothing.
Curiously, it was his lack of demand that made her want to give him more. She parted her lips in invitation. His tongue barely skimmed the inside of her mouth before retreating. Esther made a sound of distress deep in her throat. She clutched the front of his shirt for support, fisting it in her fingers.
Brazenly, she snaked her tongue out, invading the deep cavern of his mouth. He tasted of coffee, strong and rich. She usually didn’t like the taste of coffee, but mixed with his unique flavor it was better than any aphrodisiac. She heard herself whimper slightly as she tasted him again and again.
His hands smoothed down her back, landing at her waist, supporting her as they kissed. He groaned and tilted his head to one side, deepening the contact between them. She could feel the stubble on his jaw abrading her cheek. The roughness emphasized the differences between them, the distinctions between a man and a woman. Esther found the contact extremely arousing. She longed to rub her swollen nipples against his chest, but restrained herself. Barely.
She no longer felt like herself. Where was the sensible woman who avoided emotional entanglements? She thought about pulling away, but just then Ryan’s tongue surged into her mouth, laying claim to it. Her breath caught as he consumed her with his kiss, tasting her, exploring her.
His touch, his kiss, were so familiar. Like an elusive dream she couldn’t quite touch.
Esther jerked away. Panting for air, she desperately tried to recover from the devastating kiss. What in heaven’s name was she doing? This was no dream. She was at work and she was kissing Ryan Jamieson, the one man she needed to stay away from.
They stared at one another for what seemed like forever, but what she knew in reality was probably a matter of seconds. “That can’t happen again.” Her voice was rough with emotion.
“Yes, it can and it will.” There was a stubborn expression on Ryan’s face she’d never seen before and it boded ill for her peace of mind.
“No. It can’t.” This was as much her fault as his. She’d been a willing participant here, just because she’d had to know what he tasted like, what he felt like. Well, she sure as heck knew now, and she had a dreaded feeling that this knowledge would haunt her dreams for a long time to come.
“Esther,” he began and then broke off. He raked his fingers through his thick brown hair and took a deep breath.
She sensed his frustration, but there was nothing she could do about it. Correction. Nothing she was willing to do about it.
“Let me take you to dinner. Just to talk.” Ryan might honestly believe that, but she knew better. The two of them together were like putting a match to gasoline—explosive. If they had dinner things would go much further than simply talking.
“I can’t.” She bit her lip to keep from blurting out an acceptance. Never had she been so tempted to give in, to accept a date from a firefighter, and many of the single ones, both in Burnt Cove and back home in Baltimore, had asked at one time or another. Ryan was the only man she’d ever met who threatened all her defenses and good intentions.
“You can,” he countered. He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel his eyes on her like a physical caress.