"I saw that sonofabitch go flying out of here like a bomb was ticking." Ethan intended to have a nice long talk with Steve as well. Soon, he promised himself grimly as he pushed Grace into the truck.
"Mollie—she called. She's in labor. I told him to go."
"You would. Damn idiot woman."
The statement, delivered with such bubbling fury, stopped the trembling that had just begun, cut off the babbling gratitude she'd been about to express. He'd saved her, was all she'd been able to think, like a knight in a fairy tale. But the thin, romantic mist that had been shimmering over her still-reeling brain evaporated.
"I'm certainly not an idiot."
"You sure as hell are." He whipped the truck out of the lot, spitting gravel and knocking Grace back against her seat. His rare but formidable temper was in full swing, and there was no stopping it until it had blown itself out.
"That man was the idiot," she shot back. "I was just doing my job."
"Doing your job damn near got you raped. The son of a bitch had his hand under your skirt."
She could still feel it, the way it had groped at her. Nausea bubbled up to her throat and was ruthlessly swallowed down. "I'm aware of that. Things like that don't happen at Shiney's."
"It just did happen at Shiney's."
"It doesn't draw that kind of clientele usually. He wasn't local. He was—"
"He was there." Ethan swung into her drive, hit the brakes, then shut the engine off with a hard flick of the wrist. "And so were you. Mopping up some bar in the middle of the goddamn night, by yourself. And what were you going to do when you were done? Walk almost two damn miles?"
"I could have gotten a ride, except—"
"Except you're too stiff-necked to ask for one," he finished. "You'd rather limp home in those mile-high heels than ask a favor."
She had sneakers in her bag, but decided it wouldn't help to mention it. Her bag, she remembered, which was back at the unlocked pub. Now she would have to go back first thing in the morning, get her things, and lock up before the boss checked.
"Well, thank you very much for your opinion of my failings, and the lecture. And the damn ride home." She shoved at the door, only to have Ethan grab her arm and yank her back.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"I'm going home. I'm going to soak my stiff-neck and my idiot-brain and go to bed."
"I haven't finished."
"I've finished." She jerked free and jumped out. If it hadn't been for the blasted heels, she might have made it. But he was out the opposite door and blocking her way before she'd taken three strides. "I have nothing more to say." Her voice was cold and dismissive. Her chin was high.
"Good. You can just listen. If you won't quit at the pub—which is just what you should do—you're going to take some basic precautions. Reliable transportation comes first."
"Don't you tell me what I have to do."
She did, but only because she was stunned speechless. She'd never, in all the years she'd known him, seen Ethan like this. In the moonlight she could see that the fury in his eyes hadn't dimmed a bit. His face was like stone, the shadows flittering over it making it seem harsh, even dangerous.
"We'll see that you get a car you can trust," he continued, in that same edgy tone. "And you won't be closing on your own again. When you finish your shift, I want somebody walking you out to your car and waiting until you lock it and drive off."
"That's just ridiculous."
He stepped forward. Though he didn't touch her, didn't lift a hand, she backed up a pace. Her heart began to pound too fast and too loud in her head.
"What's ridiculous is you thinking you can handle every damn thing by yourself. And I'm tired of it."
She sputtered, hating herself. "You're tired of it?"
"Yeah, and it's going to stop. I can't do much about your working yourself half to death, but I can do something about the rest. You don't make arrangements at the pub to see you're safe, I will. You're going to stop asking for trouble."
"Asking for it?" Outrage gushed through her in such a boiling wave, she was surprised that the top of her head didn't simply blow off. "I wasn't asking for anything. That bastard wouldn't take no for an answer, no matter how many times I said it."
"That's just what I'm talking about."
"You don't know what you're talking about," she said in a furious whisper. "I handled him, and I would have kept handling him if—"
"How?" There was red around the edges of his vision. He could still see the way she'd been pressed up against the bar, her eyes wide and frightened. Her face had been ghost-pale, her eyes huge and sheened like glass. If he hadn't come in…
And because the thought of what could have been scraped raw at the center of his brain, his already slippery control shattered.
"Just how?" he demanded, in one quick move yanking her hard against him. "Go ahead, show me."
She twisted, shoved. And her pulse began to race. "Stop it."
"You think telling him to stop once he's got your scent's going to make a difference?" Lemons and fear. "Once he feels the way you fit?" Subtle curves and long lines. "He knew there
was no one to stop him, that he could do anything he wanted."
Everything inside her was in a mindless rush—her heart, her blood, her head. "I wouldn't—I would have stopped him."
He meant it. A part of him wanted desperately for her to stop him, to do or say something that would hold the wildness in check. But his mouth was on hers, rough and needy, swallowing her gasps, inciting more and reveling in her fast, hard trembles.
When she moaned, when her lips yielded, parted, answered his, he lost his mind.
He dragged her onto the grass, rolled with her, atop her. The thick bolt he'd kept locked on his desires exploded open, and what poured out was reckless greed and primal lust. He ravaged her mouth with the single-minded hunger of a starving wolf.
Swamped with needs so long buried, she arched against him, straining center to center, core to core. Her system stuttered with shocked pleasure, then roared into full raging life. Pumping heat, strangled moans, quivering delights.
This was not the Ethan she knew, or the one she'd dreamed would finally touch her. There was no gentleness, no care, but she gave herself to him, thrilled at the sensation of being swept away.
She wrapped long limbs around him to bind him closer, let her fingers dive into his hair, grip there. And shivered with the dark delight of knowing he was stronger.
He feasted on her mouth, her throat, while he tugged at the low, snug bodice. He was desperate for flesh, the feel of it, the taste of it. Her flesh, her flavor.
Her breast was small and firm, the skin smooth as satin against his wide, hard palm. Her heart jackhammered under it.
She whimpered, stunned at the sensation of that rough hand cupping her, kneading her, churning an echoing tug between her legs, where muscles had gone liquid and lax.
And sighed his name.
She might have shot him. The sound of her voice, the hitch of her breath, the shivers on her skin, slapped him back cold and hard.
He rolled away, onto his back, and struggled to find his breath, his sanity. His decency. They were in her front yard, for God's sake. Her baby was sleeping inside the house. He'd nearly, very nearly done worse than the man in the pub. He'd very nearly betrayed trust, friendship, and vulnerability.
This beast inside of him was precisely the reason he'd sworn never to touch her. Now by loosing it, he'd broken his vow and ruined everything.
"I'm sorry." A pitiful phrase, he thought, but he didn't have any other words. "God, Grace, I'm sorry."
Her blood was still flowing hot, and that wonderful, terrifying need aroused to screaming. She shifted, reached out to touch his face. "Ethan—"
"There's no excuse," he said quickly, sitting up so she wasn't touching him—tempting him. "I lost my temper and I stopped thinking straight."
"Lost your temper." She stayed where she was, sprawled on the grass that now seemed too cold, her face lifted to the moon that now shone too bright. "So you were just mad," she said dully.
"I was mad, but that's no excuse for hurting you."
"You didn't hurt me." She could still feel his hands on her, the rough, insistent press of them. But the sensation then, the sensation now, wasn't one of pain.
He thought he could handle it now—looking at her, touching her. She would need it, he imagined. He couldn't have lived with himself if she was afraid of him. "The last thing I want to do is hurt you." As gentle as a doting parent, he tidied her clothes. When she didn't cringe, he stroked a hand over her tousled hair. "I only want what's best for you."
She didn't cringe, but she did, suddenly and sharply, slap his hand aside. "Don't treat me like a child. A few minutes ago you were treating me like a woman easy enough."
There'd been nothing easy about it, he thought grimly. "And I was wrong."