She moved quietly into the living room and saw Ethan standing, gazing through the screen door. She had an instant of panic. He wasn't going? He couldn't be leaving. Not now. Not before…

"Do you want some coffee?" she said it quickly, her voice rising before she could control it.

"No, thanks." He turned. "She sleeping all right?"

"Oh, yes, she's fine."

"She looks so much like you."

"Do you think?"

"Especially when she smiles. Grace…"

He watched her eyes fix on his, glow in the low light of the lamp. For a moment it seemed to him that nothing had come before, nothing would come after. It could be the three of them, there together on quiet nights just like this, in the little dollhouse. It could be his future. He wanted to believe it could be his life.

"I'd like to stay. I'd like to be with you tonight, if you want."

"I want. Of course I want." She thought she understood. He needed to show her love first. More than willing, she held out a hand. "Come to bed, Ethan."

He took care to be tender, to stroke her gently to peak. Holding her there, holding until her body bowed up, a trembling bridge of sensations. To make her float and sigh. He watched the moonlight dapple her skin, followed its shifting shadows with his fingertips, with his lips. Pleasured her.

Love surrounded her. It cradled her. It rocked her with a rhythm as gentle as a quiet sea. Gliding on it, she offered it back to him, a shimmering reflection.

His tenderness moved her to tears. She knew now that his needs could be ripe and raw and reckless. And that thrilled her. Yet this part of him, this compassionate, sensitive, and most generous part of him touched her heart at the core. She fell fathoms deeper into that wide well of love.

When he slipped into her, when they were joined, his mouth moved over hers to capture each sigh. She glided up, trembled on that silk-covered peak, holding, holding until he was trembling with her and they could catch each other on the slow tumble down.

After, he shifted her so that she curled into the curve of his arm. And stroked her. Her eyes grew heavy. Now, she thought as she began to drift. He would ask her now while they were both still glowing.

Waiting, she slid into sleep.

he was ten, and the last beating she'd given him had left his back a maze of purpling bruises and scarlet pain. She never hit him in the face. She'd learned quickly that most clients didn't care to see black eyes and bloody lips on the merchandise.

She'd stopped using her fists, mostly. She found a belt or a hairbrush more effective. She liked the thin, circular brushes that were all hard bristles. The first time she'd used one on him, the shock and pain had been so unspeakable that he'd fought back and it had been her lip that had been bloody. She'd used her fists then until he'd found escape in unconsciousness.

He was no match for her, and he knew it. She was a big woman and strong with it. When she was drunk, she was stronger yet and more ruthless. It didn't help to plead, it didn't help to cry, so he'd stopped doing both. And the beatings weren't as bad as the other. Nothing was.

She'd gotten twenty dollars for him the first time she'd sold him. He knew because she told him, and promised to give him two dollars for himself if he didn't make a fuss about it. He hadn't known what she was talking about. Not then. He hadn't known, not until she left him in the dark bedroom with the man.

Even then he didn't know, didn't understand. When those big, damp hands were on him, the fear was so blinding bright, the shame so dark, the terror so loud, as loud as his screams.

He'd screamed until nothing could crawl through his throat but a guttural whimper. Even the pain of being raped couldn't push more out of him.

She even gave him the two dollars. He burned it, there in the dirty sink in the horrible bathroom that stank of his own vomit, he watched the money curl up black. And his hate for her was just as black.

He promised himself, staring at his own hollow eyes in the spotty mirror, that if she ever whored him again, he would kill her.

"Ethan." Her heart tripping in her throat, Grace scrambled onto her knees to shake his shoulders. The skin under her hands was like ice. His body was rigid as stone, but trembling. It made her think wildly of earthquakes, volcanoes. Boiling violence under a hard layer of rock.

The sounds he made had wakened her. They'd made her dream of an animal caught in a trap.

His eyes flew open. She could see only the glint of them in the dark, but they looked blind and wild. For a moment she was afraid that the boiling violence she sensed would break through and batter her.

"You were having a dream." She said it firmly, certain that that was what was needed to put Ethan back into those staring eyes. "It's all right now. It was a dream."

He could hear his breath rasping. More than a dream, he knew. It had been the cold-sweated flashback he hadn't had in years. But the result was the same. Nausea curled sickly in his stomach, his head pounded and swam with the pathetic echo of a young boy's scream. He shuddered once, violently, under the gentle hands on his shoulders.

"I'm okay."

But his voice was rough, and she knew he lied. "I'll get you some water."

"No, I'm okay." Not even water would settle on his jumping stomach. "Go back to sleep."

"Ethan, you're shaking."

; He would stop it. He could stop it. It would only take a little time and concentration. He saw that her eyes were huge, more than a little frightened. He was both sick and furious that he had brought even the memory of that horror to her bed.

Dear God, had he let himself believe, for even an instant, that it could be different for him? For them?

He forced himself to smile. "Just spooked me, that's all. Sorry I woke you."

Reassured because she saw a shadow of the man she loved come back into his eyes, she stroked his hair. "It must have been awful. Scared both of us."

"Must've been. Don't remember." The next lie, he thought, abominably weary. "Come on, lie back down. Everything's all right now."

She snuggled up beside him, hoping to comfort, and laid a hand over his heart. It was still racing. "Just close your eyes," she murmured as she would have to Aubrey. "Close your eyes and rest now. Hold on to me, Ethan. Dream of me."

Praying for peace, he did both.

when she woke to find him gone, Grace tried to tell herself that the weight of her disappointment was out of proportion. He hadn't wanted to disturb her so early, so he hadn't said good-bye.

Now that the sun was up, he would already be out on the water.

She rose, slipped on a robe, and padded in to make coffee and to grab those few minutes of alone time before Aubrey roused.

Then she sighed and stepped out on her little back porch. She knew her disappointment didn't stem from finding him up and gone when she woke. She'd been sure, so sure he was going to ask her to marry him. All the signs had been there, the scene set, the moment perfect. But the words hadn't come.

She'd all but written the script, she thought with a grimace, and he hadn't followed it. This morning was supposed to begin the next phase of their lives. She'd imagined running over to Julie's and sharing the joy of it, of calling Anna and babbling, begging for wedding advice.

Of telling her mother.

Of explaining it all to Aubrey.

Instead, it was a quiet morning.

After a beautiful night, she scolded herself. A lovely night. She had no business complaining about it. Annoyed with herself, she went back inside to pour the first cup of freshly brewed coffee.

Then she began to chuckle. What had she been thinking of? This was Ethan Quinn she was dealing with. Wasn't this the same man who'd waited—-by his own admission—nearly a decade to so much as kiss her? At the rate he took things, it could be another one before he brought up the subject of marriage.

The only reason they'd moved from that first kiss to where they stood now was because she… well, she'd thrown herself at him, Grace admitted. Plain and simple. And she wouldn't have had the guts to do that if Anna hadn't shoved her along.

Flowers, she thought, turning so that she could smile at them, bright and pretty on her kitchen counter. Candlelight dinner, moonlit walks, and long, tender lovemaking. Yes, he was courting her—and would likely continue to do so until she went mad waiting for him to take the next step.

But that was Ethan, she admitted, and just one of the things she adored about him.

She sipped coffee, bit her lip. Why did he have to take the step? Why shouldn't she be the one to move things along? Julie had told her men liked it when a woman took the initiative. And hadn't Ethan liked it when she finally worked up the courage to ask him to make love with her?

She could do some courting herself, couldn't she? And she could move it along at a faster pace. God knew she was an expert at getting things done on schedule.

It would only take the courage to ask him. She blew out a breath. She'd have to find that, but she would dig inside herself until she did.

temperatures soared, and the humidity thickened in a syrupy morass that Cam not so cheerfully dubbed "fumidity." He worked belowdecks, trimming out the cabin until the heat sent him topside desperate for fluids and one stingy breeze.

Though he rarely complained about the working conditions, Ethan was—like Cam—stripped to the waist. Sweat poured as he patiently varnished.

Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance