Jake Turner glanced around at the gaudy Christmas decorations adorning the interior of Zack’s Bar and Grill and suppressed a grimace.
He motioned for another beer and ignored what his buddy next to him was yammering about. Things were always lively at Zack’s close to Christmas. Jake could never figure out if people were getting out to celebrate the season or if they were all just lonely and searching for another human being to connect with.
“Earth to Jake. Come on, man, you’re in another world over there.”
Jake blinked then scowled at his friend, Colin. “What the hell do you want?”
Colin nodded toward the door. “Isn’t that Ray’s ex coming in?”
Jake’s pulse quickened, and he yanked his gaze toward the entrance. All his breath left his body in one hard rush. What the hell?
His gaze came to rest on Ellie Matthews as she stood just inside the doorway. Only it wasn’t Ellie as he was used to seeing her.
She took a hesitant step forward then stopped and scanned the room, her eyes wide. Her bottom lip worked between her teeth, a sure sign of her nervousness.
Long soft curls spilled over her shoulders, hair that a man would itch to thrust his fingers into as he thrust into other parts of her body.
But what had his blood pressure soaring was her get-up. Despite it being the middle of December, she wore a top barely held up by the spaghetti strings over her shoulders. The neckline plunged, and the material cupped her breasts in all the right places.
Her miniskirt, if you could call the scrap of denim barely covering her ass a skirt, rode so high up on her thighs that Jake knew if she moved wrong, the entire bar would get a glimpse of her pussy.
She had a fuck me ensemble going on complete with ride me hard shoes. He’d never seen her in high heels once, and yet she teetered unsteadily toward the bar in three-inch, fire-engine red heels.
“Jesus, I had no idea she was so damn hot,” Colin muttered.
Jake rounded on Colin with a ferocious glare. “Shut the hell up,” he growled.
Colin raised an eyebrow in surprise but kept silent.
Jake turned his attention back to Ellie, who stood at the bar. The bartender plunked down a shot which she promptly drained before motioning for another.
There wasn’t a single male eye that wasn’t riveted to her. Two men sauntered up to the bar and stood close to Ellie. She smiled at them flirtatiously, and Jake was struck with a sudden realization.
She was taking the plunge.
A surge of red hot jealousy spilled into his gut. She was finally breaking free of the hold Ray had on her, only this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Jake had waited a long time for her. He’d thought she needed more space. He was supposed to be the one she came to when she was ready to take that leap.
He gripped his beer bottle until his knuckles went white. What the hell did she think she was doing? His eyes narrowed when she downed another shot. When she turned her attention back to the crowd of admirers at her elbow, he saw the fear in her eyes.
It was then he understood what it was costing her. This whole take-me-home-and-fuck-me attitude was all a brave act. She was scared to death, and the only way she had a hope of carrying through with it was by getting thoroughly drunk.
Over his dead body.
He was striding across the room even before he realized he’d gotten up from his table. In two seconds flat, he shoved by the group of men panting over Ellie and stood beside her at the bar.
She turned unfocused blue eyes up at him, the fear that shadowed her gaze disappearing as she realized who he was.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Ellie?” he demanded.
Panic flitted across her face, and the fear returned.
Without waiting to hear what she had to say, he bent, pushing his shoulder into her belly. He stood back up, slinging her over his shoulder, his hand resting possessively on her ass.
He turned to glare at the men who’d surrounded Ellie. “She’s mine,” he said in his most menacing voice.
They backed off quickly.
He started for the door, Ellie’s upper body swinging against his back.
“Jake?” she said in a small voice. “Where are we going?”
God, he hated that sound. The fear. The uncertainty. It made him want to put his fist through the wall.
“Home,” he bit out.
He walked outside, the brisk air raising goose bumps on her bare legs. Legs he ached to touch, spread and get between. His hand lingered over the swell of her ass, just where it belonged. His cock was ready to burst out of his jeans at the mere idea of cupping her sweet behind as he fucked her nice and slow.
But he’d waited, and by the look of things, he’d waited too long.
He carried her out to his truck and promptly deposited her into the passenger seat. He carefully buckled her in before circling around to the driver’s side.
When he glanced over at her, she was staring out the window, but he saw the tear that rolled down her cheek. He swore under his breath and started the engine. Seconds later, he roared out of the parking lot.
He clenched and unclenched his hands over the steering wheel as he headed for her house. Damn Ray. Damn himself for never seeing a man he’d counted as a friend for who he really was.
Jake carried a lot of guilt for not seeing the warning signs, for allowing Ellie’s horror to go on while the rest of the world saw what Ray wanted them to see. A nice, successful guy with a gorgeous wife and a perfect life.
The night Jake had found out the truth was a night he’d spent in hell.
He pulled into the driveway of the small house she rented and turned off the ignition. Ellie reached for her door handle, and Jake put his hand out to stop her.
“Stay there and don’t move.”
She trembled against his fingers but obeyed.
He got out and walked around to her side. He opened the door and reached for her.
“I don’t trust you not to kill yourself in those damn shoes,” he muttered.
She didn’t protest when he curled his arms underneath her and lifted her from the seat. He stalked to her door and fumbled with the handle. Damn woman hadn’t even locked it.
He shouldered his way inside but still didn’t put her down. He flipped a switch, flooding the small living room with light. His gaze focused on the coffee table and the bottle of liquor, the half empty bottle of liquor, sitting there, and he swore again.
“Just how much have you had to drink tonight, Ellie?”
She went still against him. “Jake?”
He sighed. “Yes, sweetheart?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
He spit out several more curses as he ran for the bathroom. He threw open the door and managed to deposit her in front of the toilet before she started retching.
The sounds she made were god-awful as she rid her stomach of all the alcohol. He cringed and hovered as he waited for her to finish.
He busied himself wetting a washcloth then gently wiped at her forehead as some of the heaving subsided. She let out a low groan of misery.
“Bet you’ll think twice before pulling a stunt like this again,” he chided.
She opened her eyes and stared up at him. “Don’t lecture, Jake.”
He softened. He couldn’t help it when she stared up at him with those baby blues. He cupped her cheek in his hand and stroked lightly over her skin with his thumb.
“What did you think you were doing?”
She looked down and a tear splashed onto the toilet seat. Then she bent her neck until her forehead touched the rim.
He reached down to pull her to her feet. Sitting here next to a commode full of mixed alcohol and only God knew what else wasn�
�t his idea of a good time. He reached to flush the toilet then swung her back into his arms.
She hiccupped softly against his chest. “Where are you taking me?”
“To bed,” he replied.
He walked into her bedroom and deposited her on the bed. As her head fell back, she moaned and closed her eyes.
“Ellie, don’t you pass out on me now,” he warned. “Ellie?”
He ran a hand through his hair and swore for the hundredth time since she’d walked into the bar. Hell of a note. Passed out cold.
Sighing deeply, he clenched his jaw and put a tight rein on himself as he started to remove her clothing. It was remarkably easy given she didn’t have much on to start with.
He swallowed the knot in his throat as her pink-tipped breasts bobbed into view. Fuck me. He eased the miniskirt over her hips and felt his jeans tighten all over again when he saw the tiny scrap of lace that covered her dark curls. Covered but didn’t conceal.
He left the underwear on then went to her closet and rummaged for something to cover her up. He’d be damned if he was going to torture himself further by having her naked body on display.
When he returned to the bed, he gazed down at her sprawled on top of the covers. She looked so damn vulnerable. When he thought of such a tiny woman standing up to a man like Ray, it made him physically ill. He didn’t know how she’d survived, but he knew one thing. She’d never have to worry about it again.
He bent over and pulled the T-shirt over her head. He lifted her slightly so he could get her hands through the armholes. Then he pulled the covers back and tucked her in. She uttered a small sigh and burrowed her face into the pillow before her easy breathing resumed.
His hand lingered over her hair. He let the curls trail over his fingertips, enjoying the satiny feel. He touched her cheek for the briefest of moments before finally turning and walking quietly out of her bedroom.
In her living room, he dug around in one of her cabinets until he found an old afghan. He dragged out a few throw pillows and tossed them onto the couch. He’d stick around tonight, make sure she was okay in the morning. Then they were going to have a heart-to-heart chat about her little escapade.
Ellie opened her eyes and groaned as a shaft of light skewered her head. She rolled to her side to avoid the sun streaming through her blinds. Her tongue felt heavy and swollen, and God, what on earth was the foul taste in her mouth?
She sat up, licking her lips to try and inject some moisture. Bits and snatches of the previous night danced around in her head like a bad B movie.
Oh, dear God. Jake had brought her home. No, he’d carried her home. Could her humiliation be more complete?
She struggled out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom. She made a grab for her toothbrush and lobbed a clump of toothpaste onto it before going to town on her teeth. Anything to get rid of the taste of alcohol and vomit.
The brush still dangling from the side of her mouth, she reached in to turn on the shower and waited for the water to warm. When a curl of steam rose from the stall, she gave her teeth a final scrub and rinsed her mouth in the sink.
As she started to strip, she paused and looked down at her shirt. She hadn’t worn this last night. She remembered that much. How the hell had she gotten out of her clothes and into this?
She pulled the shirt off and climbed into the shower. As the hot water sluiced over her, she leaned her forehead against the tile wall and closed her eyes.
So her plan had been a complete and utter failure. She’d taken two steps into the bar and chickened out. Oh, she’d tried to flirt and smile, prepared to pick up some guy and have sex, but as soon as they’d closed in around her, she’d panicked.
Thank God Jake had been there. Damn Jake for being there.
An uncomfortable wave of embarrassment tightened her cheeks, adding a pinch of heat to her face. Why he always managed to see her at her worst, she’d never know. Just once she’d like him to see her at her best.
She finished showering and quickly dried off. She shuffled back into her bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, foregoing a bra.
Then she headed for the kitchen, wanting nothing more than a glass of cold water and a couple of Tylenols. She rounded the corner from the hallway and heard a clang. She stopped when she saw Jake moving awkwardly around the kitchen, his large frame dominating the small space.
So much for him ever seeing her at her best.
He looked up and saw her. “’Bout time you got up.”
She faltered at the raw possession she saw in his eyes. It was always there, swirling and building just beneath the surface. Jake was a force of nature she wasn’t prepared to contend with. Especially this morning.
She feared men like Jake. Oh, she wasn’t afraid that Jake would hurt her. Not intentionally. But she feared the way she reacted to him when she was in the same room with him.
Already, every muscle, every nerve-ending in her body was taut, stretched almost painfully. Her nipples tightened to throbbing points, stabbing at her T-shirt, begging for him to close his lips around them.
There wasn’t another man like Jake, that much was for sure. Tall, well over six feet, he wore self-assuredness like a mantle. He walked and talked like a man who knew precisely what he wanted, a man who’d do what it took to get it.
He had a stocky build, his body ripped with muscles from the years he’d spent playing professional football and honed to perfection in the three years he’d worked as a building contractor with his partner Luke Forsythe. He didn’t just oversee the projects. He worked every bit as hard as his hired crews.
He wore his hair short. No fuss, just like him. It spiked on top and was clipped close at his neck and over his ears. A shadow lurked along his jaw, a testament to the fact he must have spent the night on her couch and hadn’t yet gotten to shave.
“Jake, what are you doing here?” she finally asked, admiring the calm with which she said it.
“Fixing you breakfast.”
He turned back to the stove and pulled out a pan of biscuits.
He shot her a disgruntled look. “I can take biscuits out of a can and slap them on a cookie sheet.”
She plopped down on a barstool at the alcove separating the kitchen from the small dining area. “But why are you here cooking me breakfast?”
He ignored her and set to work arranging the biscuits on a plate. Then he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the butter and a jar of jelly. He moved over and plunked the items down in front of her then went back for the plate of biscuits.
A few seconds later, he took a seat across the bar from her and slid a plate to her. “Eat,” he directed.
She stared at him in complete befuddlement. And to her annoyance, she followed his order and began picking at the warm biscuits in front of her.
They ate in silence until she felt the weight of Jake’s stare. She looked up to see his plate cleaned, and he was giving her his famous Jake look. Great.
“Just what the hell did you think you were doing last night, Ellie?”
“What do you think I was doing?” she mumbled.
Jake’s green eyes glittered in anger. He leaned forward until she had no choice but to look back at him. “I will fucking take apart any man who gets within six inches of you, Ellie. Maybe you ought to take that into consideration the next time you wag your little ass into a bar looking for cock.”
She flushed, embarrassment rushing to her cheeks. Jake stood and collected the dishes before setting them down in the sink with a clank. Then he stilled and turned back to her.
“I wasn’t looking for c-cock.”
“The hell you weren’t,” Jake growled. He folded his arms over his chest. “There wasn’t a man in that bar that didn’t know you were on the prowl. The fuck-me clothes. And the shoes. Jesus, Ellie, were you trying to break a leg?”
“Don’t lecture me, please, Jake. I’m
already embarrassed enough.”
He started to open his mouth then closed it again. He took a deep breath and leveled a hard stare at her. “I’ve waited a long time for you to get over the issues you had with Ray. A long damn time.”
Ellie dropped her gaze. Jake never hesitated to speak frankly about her ex-husband. On one hand, she appreciated it. She didn’t have to pretend with him. But it still made her cringe that Jake knew so much about her disastrous marriage.
Jake’s hand closed over her shoulder, warm and comforting. How had he gotten over here without her knowing? His fingers feathered over her cheek, and he took her chin between his thumb and forefinger. With firm pressure, he tugged until she was forced to meet his eyes.
“There’s not going to be any other man, Ellie. There’s only me. You know it, and I know it. What you did last night was stupid and dangerous as hell. The very fact you had to get three sheets to the wind to even work up the nerve tells me you should have stayed your ass at home.”
She licked her lips nervously. “I’m scared.”
He snorted. “Don’t give me that bullshit. You’re not afraid of me. You know damn well I won’t hurt you. You’re afraid of yourself and you’re afraid of what you know to be an unshakable truth. You are mine and I’m going to take you in every imaginable way. When you get tired of running. When you get tired of looking over your shoulder afraid of the shadows, I’m going to be there. Waiting. And when I claim you, I’m not ever letting you go.”
Her eyes widened at his proclamation. He’d never come out and said it. He’d been there, always there, but he’d never said anything so forceful to her.
“That’s right,” he said huskily. “I’m staking my claim. But you’re going to have to come to me. I’m not pushing you into something you’re not ready for.”
He drew away and continued to stare at her. “Think about that, Ellie. Think long and hard about what you really want. And when you decide, you let me know. But if I ever catch you doing what you did last night, I’ll turn you over my knee and tan your ass.”
He tossed down the dishtowel he’d picked up and headed for the door. Then he simply walked out and shut the door behind him with a bang.
Ellie wilted against the bar, burying her head in her arms. God almighty, what a bomb for Jake to drop on her.
She wasn’t a complete moron. She knew he watched her. Knew he wanted her. But she’d had no idea the extent of his desire. It thrilled her and scared the shit out of her all at the same time.
After Ray, she couldn’t even look at a man the same. Gone was her carefree lack of self-preservation. Replaced by a wary, cautious reserve that sheltered a frightened, vulnerable woman.
Last night…last night was supposed to be her flipping her middle finger at Ray and the insecurity that had gripped her since her divorce. Last night was supposed to have been the first step in going after she wanted. And she wanted Jake.
She raised her head and stared glumly at the door he’d walked out of. She knew she couldn’t have just gone to him and offered herself up like a sacrifice. He would have shoved her away so fast her head would spin. No, somehow she had to convince him, and herself, that she was past her fear.
Yeah, last night was a mistake. Going to bed with a complete stranger wasn’t going to satisfy the desire she had for Jake. Nor would it be some miracle cure that would enable her to go to him a whole woman. And she really didn’t fancy getting kicked out of his bed.
“Dumbass,” she muttered. All she’d managed to do was get a very large, very brooding man pissed off at her.
Butterflies danced in her stomach as she processed his parting words. He’d made it so she’d have to come to him. She couldn’t even begin to count the ways that terrified her. Making the moves was so out of her comfort zone it wasn’t even funny. She hadn’t even known what to say last night when she’d hatched her grand plan of picking up a guy.
She wasn’t flirty or cute, and she didn’t have a repertoire of clever, witty things to talk about. All she knew how to do was tell the truth. And that truth was that she wanted Jake.
“Well, girl, it’s your move, and you have two choices. Let him keep on walking or go tackle his ass and make him yours.”
She groaned again and flopped her head onto the bar. She was gonna need a day or two to think about this one.