Authors: Tina Donahue
In a softened voice, he asked, “How’d it go today?”
Wanting to tease, unable to stop herself, she said, “Better
than you expected?”
He laughed. “You do good work.”
She grinned so hard it hurt her cheeks. His praise meant
everything, more than he would ever know. It moved her like a baby’s first
smile for its mother. It filled her as no food or drink could. She recalled her
father’s approval, still missing it after so many years. Reluctant to allow
those sweet memories to bring back all the others, ones she’d buried for too
long, she teased, “Yeah, I know.”
Zach’s smile brightened briefly at her sass, then fled with
his questioning look. “So what now?” He regarded her grease-and-oil-stained
Uncertain as to what he meant, not wanting to ruin anything
in case she’d read him wrong, she joked, “You pay me for a day’s work? And
while you head out, I clean up here and see you in the morning?”
“Where are you planning on staying tonight, Toni?” He looked
at her, his expression serious. “Were you thinking of crashing in my office?”
A wave of heat surged to her throat and face at him guessing
her thoughts. He had a reasonably comfortable sofa in there that looked as if
he’d spent more than a few nights on it. “I won’t take anything,” she promised,
her voice laced with embarrassment. “I’m not a thief.”
“No one said you were.” He pushed away from the cabinet and
went to the wall switch, flipping the controls for the bay doors. He spoke loud
enough so she could hear him over the rattling metal. “Finish up, then come
into my office.”
As he moved toward it, Toni’s heart beat painfully in hope
and worry. Hope that he’d let her stay in there. Worry that he’d changed his
mind about her employment, intending to terminate her because she was still
essentially a stranger. “Why?”
He stopped and looked over. The doors reached the floor,
thwacking it. “So I can take you home.”
Stupidly, she stared at him. “What?”
He turned to face her. “You don’t have any money to spend on
a motel room and you’ve already said you won’t be going back to the shelter. So
I’m offering you a place to stay.”
Not understanding, Toni shook her head. “With who?”
His gaze roamed her. “Me.”
Her heart stumbled on several beats at his answer and the
renewed intensity in his eyes.
As their silence lengthened, his demeanor shifted back to
the forced restraint she’d seen earlier. “Don’t worry,” he said, his voice
neutral, subdued. “I know how to handle myself.” He headed for his office
Without thinking, she called out, “I know that.” She could
see and hear it.
Once more, he stopped and looked over.
“And I’m not worried,” she added.
Without warning, something dark and dangerous flared in his
eyes, telling her she should be. He wasn’t a man to be toyed with. If a woman
desired him, he’d enjoy her any way he chose, and once he started nothing would
stop him. He’d take what he wanted while providing equal pleasure.
Desire weakened Toni’s legs. She leaned against the cabinet,
needing it for support.
“Don’t make me wait,” he said, domination and a hint of
pleasure in his voice. Not giving her a chance to respond, he went into his
Moments later, she heard him tossing clipboards from his
desk to the file cabinet next to it.
Gaze turned inward, she tried to picture his place, an
apartment surely, just large enough for two. Would he offer her his bedroom or
would he tell her to sleep on the sofa? During the night, would he come to her,
unable to stay away, his big body trapping hers against the cushions, one hand
holding her wrists above her head while his other roamed?
Her lids slid down on a lusty sigh.
She swallowed at the thought of his rigid cock pressed
against her mound, showing her his need as he pulled her top away, baring her
breast, lowering his mouth to it, pulling the stiffened nipple inside.
Her cunt clenched in arousal, delivering a rush of moisture
at the image of his hot, soft lips surrounding her areola while his bristly
cheeks scraped the delicate swell of her breast. Of him wanting no woman except
Had he ever loved anyone?
Even if he had, Toni sensed he didn’t now. He wouldn’t be
bringing her to his home if he had a girlfriend he cared about. He wouldn’t be
offering her a place to sleep. He wouldn’t be crossing a fragile line separating
employer from employee, man from woman, stranger from lover.
He wouldn’t be telling her not to make him wait with a hint
of danger in his eyes.
Zach eased his black Ram through the town’s historic
section, picking up speed as he headed toward the newer area.
Unable to think of any small talk, Toni kept waiting for him
to say something. He did not, seemingly content to listen to the Garth Brooks
song on the radio, or perhaps he was lost in thought, wondering why he’d
offered her shelter for the night.
And not in any apartment.
Sucking her lower lip, she watched him pass the few
complexes dotting the landscape.
A retirement village came next, followed by a new housing
development and a strip mall boasting a convenience store and beauty parlor
called Pat’s Place. Beyond it was open country with towering trees crowded
together in clumps, their branches thick with leaves that grew all the way to
the ground. Behind the foliage were gentle hills tinted a dark rose, their mild
contours dotted with thirsty-looking shrubs and patches of cacti.
“You live in a trailer?” she asked.
Zach turned down the radio’s volume and looked over. “Nope.”
She hazarded a guess. “A tent?”
Smiling, he shook his head and pointed. “Up ahead.”
She turned to the front windshield, seeing a series of
billboards for animal feed, liquor and real estate for sale, showing a photo of
a Victorian two-story. Just past it was a paved road snaking off the main one
before disappearing within a group of trees. “You have a log cabin?”
“Not even close.” He slowed his pickup and made a right on
Leaning forward, Toni glanced at the canopy of branches
overhanging the drive. It continued up the side of one of those meek hills. The
trees thinned out at the top to show an expansive front yard with bright green
grass, colorful flower beds and the billboard’s beige-and-white Victorian,
certainly historic and lovingly restored.
White gingerbread graced the overhang of the wide porch and
the inverted V of the roof. A beige gas lamp with four white globes stood next
to the front steps. At two stories, the place had to have at least three
Toni’s gaze inched up to a room at the top. Through the
spotless panes, she saw the edge of lacy white curtains. Brows lifted, she took
in the rest of the place, noticing a “for sale” sign hanging from the porch
rails to the left. Placed there just in case someone missed the billboard?
“You’re selling your house, huh?” She swung her head from it
to him. “This is your house, right?”
Turning off the engine, Zach nodded. “I’ve been trying to
get rid of it for nearly a year. In this crappy economy there haven’t been any
takers.” He popped his door and came around to her side.
She stopped hauling her saddlebag from the cab’s floor and
stared at his hand, offered to help her out. His warm, dry palm and gentle
strength made Toni feel fragile and clumsy at the same time.
The moment her feet hit the ground, any other man would have
released her hand. Zach did not. Eyes meeting, they stared at each other. With
a mind of their own, her fingers curled over his.
She saw the effect on his face, the spark of desire in his
eyes. She eased closer.
Out of nowhere, a group of birds flew to her right,
squawking, their wings rustling, their noise interrupting the moment.
Zach’s head tilted to their hands, her proximity. Releasing
her fingers, he leaned into the cab to collect her jacket and helmet.
Saddened at the loss of his touch, Toni dragged her gaze
over his tight ass and powerful thighs, her own tensing with need.
Wearing a mask of nonchalance, completely at odds with her
accelerating heart, she asked, “Did you buy this place as an investment?”
He draped her jacket over his arm, propped her helmet
beneath it, then inclined his head to the house. “This way.”
Toni followed him into a small foyer that smelled of lemon
furniture polish and the lingering scent of bacon, no doubt from his breakfast.
She regarded the gleaming hardwood floors and the white wainscoting beneath the
pale yellow walls. A pair of antique-looking chairs with needlepoint backs and
seats flanked a mahogany accent table. On it stood a brass lamp with a
gold-fringed shade. Gracing the walls were landscapes painted in delicate
Was he divorced? Had his ex-wife decorated this place, then
allowed him to keep it as part of the settlement?
Toni turned away from the paintings, noticing Zach had
already left the foyer and was now yards away, waiting for her at the bottom of
As she passed a doorway to the left, she snuck a look at
what appeared to be a formal living room, complete with a stone fireplace and
Victorian-style furniture upholstered in rose brocade to match the color of the
She reached him. “This is a really nice place.”
He gave her an amused smile. “Want to buy it?”
“Give me a raise and I’ll consider your offer.”
Brow cocked, he climbed the stairs without comment, leading
her down the narrow hall to the first door on the left.
She stopped in the center of the room, her head swinging
right, left, her gaze unable to take in everything quickly enough. A brass
queen-sized bed dominated the snug space, its crocheted comforter and pillow
shams an ecru shade dotted with pink rosettes. Gauzy ivory curtains decorated
the tall window. A dressing table with a circular mirror graced the wall to the
right. To the left stood a display case with numerous dolls wearing vintage
clothes identical to the little girl in that ancient movie
A flood of memories bore down on Toni, along with longing so
fierce it stole her breath. She remembered being a little girl, having a
bedroom as feminine and welcoming…as safe as this. She recalled the comfort of
her father’s arms surrounding her, telling her she was precious, wanted,
welcomed, loved. He’d always be there to protect her.
She could still taste her hopelessness when he’d died.
Zach came up beside her, the wood floor groaning beneath his
weight. Quickly, Toni turned her head away, blinking her eyes to clear them.
“Is it all right?” he asked.
Forcing down a swallow, she nodded and pushed all emotion
from her voice, all yearning for the past from her heart. “It’s beautiful.” She
went to the bed, putting her saddlebag on it, and ran her fingers over a
rosette, determined to concentrate on the here and now. “You live here all
Zach draped her jacket over the brass footboard and put her
helmet on the mattress. Backing up, he went to the door. “The bath’s in the
hall. Everything you need is in there.”
Not true. She needed a lot of years back, a place to call
home and, if she were very lucky, a guy like Zach. Defenseless against her
thoughts, Toni turned to him.
His tee fluttered with his deep, full breath, his gaze
traveling her features. He seemed to want to ask her something.
Toni ran her thumbnail down her cutoffs, barely able to hide
Zach’s attention moved to her hand and legs. “I was going to
grill steaks for dinner. That okay with you?”
For the first time in a long time, food wasn’t what she
wanted. Toni knew he didn’t crave it either. Even so, it was his home, his call
as to what they did. “Sounds good.” She crossed the room to him. “Anything I
Zach glanced past her at the bed. His expression grew
distracted, wanting, his Adam’s apple bobbing with his swallow. He turned his
head to look down the hall. “Get settled.” His voice sounded strained. “Freshen
up if you want. I’ll see you downstairs.”
Backing into the hall, he left.
With one shoulder against the fridge, Zach tilted his head
back and took a long sip of his Coors.
Upstairs, water pounded in the tub with Toni’s shower.
Lowering the bottle from his lips, Zach’s attention drifted
to the ceiling. A bead of perspiration rolled from his neck to his chest. He
pushed his free hand down his thigh to dry his palm.
Images kept rolling across his brain, provocative, taunting.
Toni stripping off her stretchy tank top and bra, her full breasts wiggling
prettily as she dropped her garments on the floor. Her slender fingers
unbuttoning her cutoffs, the strings dangling over her knees and calves as she
pushed them off her, stepping out of them and what he guessed—or hoped—was her
With her pale flesh bared, the only color would be her rosy
nipples, the dark thatch of curls between her legs and her polished toenails.
He swallowed at his memory of her toe ring.
Did she take it off to bathe?
One of the pipes rattled.
Zach pressed the chilled bottle to his forehead, much as she
had done with the water he’d given her this morning.
You live here all alone?
For almost two years. Not that it had been anything close to
normal living. More like getting through each day. Working. Sleeping. Eating.
And occasionally dating women he liked but could never love.
No one had to tell Zach he feared risking his heart again
and because of it he’d held onto this place for too long, as if keeping it
would change the past. It couldn’t, of course. No more than he could flap his
arms and fly.
And now Toni was here, at least for a brief while.