Uh-oh. She was in trouble now. A quick glance in her rearview mirror confirmed the strobing red-and-blue lights of the unmarked police cruiser behind her, a black Hummer H3 Alpha, powerful and forbidding, with a slight air of menace. Just like its occupant.
Sarah’s throat thickened and she suddenly couldn’t breathe. She shut her eyes, trying to calm herself, but her nerves felt like stinging nettles burning her skin. Why hadn’t anyone told her that the newly hired chief of police she was scheduled to meet with today was Jesse Colter? She’d fled from work the moment she heard his name, desperate to avoid this very encounter. I’m not ready, she thought, pushing against the panic that threatened to overwhelm her at the thought of seeing him again after all these years. I’ll never be ready!
Blowing out her breath, she wiped her sweating hands on her skirt. Her belly clenched as hot juice gathered in her feminine folds. How could he still affect her like this? She hadn’t seen him for eight years. Not since he’d abruptly disappeared the day of her eighteenth birthday.
At least, she hadn’t seen him in person.
But she had seen him nearly every night of those eight years. In her dreams. She’d seen him and tasted him and felt him as if he’d been real. As if he’d been there. She’d seen him rising over her, preparing to enter her. Tasted his full, moist lips and thrusting tongue. Felt his massive cock stretching her, filling her until she was sobbing and screaming out his name—only to wake up on the edge of an explosive orgasm that melted away even as he melted away, like a chalk painting in the rain. Her dreams of Jesse were just that. Dreams.
Eyes riveted to the side mirror, she watched, dry-mouthed, as he unfolded himself from the interior of the Hummer and rose to his full height of six feet three inches. He stood without moving, just staring in her direction, eyes hidden behind his mirrored aviators.
God, he was even more gorgeous than she remembered. Gypsy-dark, panther-lean, his magnificent body was taut with the unyielding ripple of tempered steel. Her eyes roamed hungrily over his beloved face, with its strong, square jaw, hawk’s beak of a nose and sensuous, almost cruel lips. And those killer cheekbones—Lord have mercy. To Sarah’s eyes, there had always been something raw and untamed about him.
There still was.
She stared into the mirror, unable to tear her gaze away from the powerful muscles bunching and rippling beneath the snug material of his black cargo pants. The soft cotton of his black T-shirt, with its Marshal’s Creek Police Department logo, stretched tautly across the sculpted ridges of his chest and abs, accentuating rather than concealing the power beneath. His forearms were deeply tanned and corded with heavy veins. His thick black hair, cut shorter than she’d ever seen it, feathered neatly across his forehead. Biceps flexing and bulging, he reached back inside the car, lifted a black Stetson to his head and closed the door.
Her chest constricted as she watched him stride toward her, purpose in every step. He looked so good, so good…exactly the way she remembered. Except completely different.
So much bigger than he had been. So much broader. So much harder. So much…more. He had been sexy. Now he was positively lethal.
With supreme effort, she kept herself from moaning aloud. No longer dry, her mouth began watering like Niagara Falls. God, she’d missed him so much. She hadn’t realized just how much until this minute. Heart thundering in her ears, she waited until he drew even with her before lowering her window. She turned her head to look up at him, ready with what she hoped was an impersonal, self-confident smile.
Except he wasn’t smiling. His expression was blank, almost scowling. Her own smile slid away as the breezy greeting she’d prepared died on her lips.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” The rough grit of his deep baritone voice was still there, but his tone was flat and impersonal. The soft southern drawl she’d loved so much was edged with steel.
She stared up at him, trying to jump-start her brain. That’s it? After eight long years, that was it? No “Hello, Sarah, how’ve you been?” No “Nice to see you”? Just “license, registration, and proof of insurance”? Her lungs froze; she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She felt hot and cold all at once, goose bumps racing like fire across her skin. Here she was, creaming her panties at the very sight of him, the very thought of him, and he was acting as if he didn’t even recognize her.
“I—I beg your pardon?” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, biting down hard. God, Jesse, why did you have to come back here, stirring up all these unwanted emotions? Why couldn’t you have just left me with my dreams and fantasies?
“You heard me, Ms. Marshall. License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
She recoiled as if he’d struck her. Ms. Marshall. Not “Princess,” or “darlin’ girl,” or “sugar,” or any of the other pet names he’d called her over the years. Not even Sarah. She might have been any stranger he’d pulled over on the highway for speeding. Her throat closed up. Wrenching her gaze away from him, she snatched her purse up off the passenger seat and pulled it into her lap, groping blindly inside to grab her wallet. “I—I—just a minute, I have them right here…”
Pride stiffened her spine, but nothing could stop her hands from shaking as she tried to pull the requested items from their slots with fingers that suddenly felt as thick as sausages. She struggled to make sense of his attitude. Was he angry because she’d skipped out on their appointment? If anything, she was the one who should be angry. After all, he was the one who’d walked out on her eight years ago. He was the one who’d taken her father’s payoff money and disappeared with no word of explanation or good-bye.
Jesse…It was a silent cry of anguish, ripped from her heart. Why did you leave me? Why couldn’t you love me? Why—
Abruptly she clamped down on her traitorous thoughts, but could do nothing about her body’s traitorous reactions. Feeling his eyes on her like a caress, she couldn’t prevent her breasts from swelling within the lacy confines of her bra. Her nipples hardened into tight, achy peaks, throbbing with need, as if they could still feel his mouth upon them, licking, suckling—she swallowed painfully. Feelings she’d thought long dead and buried came spilling like a tsunami from someplace deep inside her, wiping out the past eight years in an instant. All of a sudden, she was eighteen again, loving him with all the desperation only eighteen-year-olds are capable of. Wanting him. Needing him. Craving him with a hunger that threatened to consume her.
A hunger, she now realized, that had never abated. Never stopped. A hunger that was even now thundering through her body like a herd of stampeding buffalo. And suddenly her hands weren’t the only things that were shaking. She was shaking all over. How dare he do this to me? How dare he come back into my life after eight long, silent years and treat me like this—like some stranger he’s never laid eyes on before? Just—just—how dare he?
She lifted her chin defiantly. Damn it, she was not going to let him do this! She was not eighteen anymore. She was twenty-six, a grown woman, for God’s sake! And she certainly did not need Jesse Colter messing up her well-ordered life. She refused to need him. Her life was perfectly fine exactly the way it was, thank you very much—no strings, no commitments, and no hassles. He’d walked out on her eight years ago, leaving her crushed and hollowed out with grief. Damned if she was going to let him just walk right back in and act as if nothing had happened.
Not that he wants to just walk right back in, she reminded herself acidly. If he did, he would have contacted you somehow—letter, email, postcard…something. And he wouldn’t be treating you like a complete stranger now.
With one last, supreme effort, Sarah finally managed to jerk her license out of its tight slot. Blinking back a rush of tears, she shoved it out the window, along with her insurance card and registration slip. As Jesse’s long, hard fingers brushed against hers, the heat from his skin seared into her body, crackling and snapping as if lightning had jolted between them. Swallowing a gasp, she jerked her hand away, curling it tightly in her lap.
“Wait here,” he snarled, turning on his heel and striding back to his car, his long legs making short work of the distance. He jerked open the door and sank into the driver’s seat.
She waited, numb and miserable, her addled brain only registering his return when the bits of paper and plastic fell through the open window into her lap, as if he couldn’t bear to touch her. She didn’t even try to stuff them back into their proper slots, just dropped them loosely into her purse. She’d put them away later, when her hands weren’t trembling quite so badly. “Are we done here?” she asked stiffly, staring straight ahead, her jaw muscles working as she clenched and unclenched her teeth. She wanted to scream with sheer frustration. She wanted to hurt him for all the pain he’d caused her.
But mostly, she just wanted to cry.
Without answering, he held out a clipboard, careful to avoid touching her as she automatically reached up to take it from him.
“What’s this?” She glared at it as if he’d just handed her a live, wriggling snake. He’s giving me a ticket? “You’re giving me a ticket? What for?”
“For failing to signal a right-hand turn.” He waggled his index finger in the general direction of the clipboard. “Just sign where I’ve indicated at the bottom.”
“Is this a joke?” She stared uncomprehendingly at the citation she was holding. “This is a joke, right?”
“Your signature is not an indication that you agree with the charge,” he recited in a singsong voice that irritated the hell out of her. “It merely acknowledges that you received the citation. If you wish to fight this in court, you still must pay the fine within thirty days or risk having your license suspended.”
She gasped. “You’re giving me a ticket?” She knew she was practically screeching, but couldn’t seem to help herself. Nor could she help the sudden explosion of fury that punched through her. “Why, you arrogant son of a bitch! I was in the Right Turn Only lane, what more of a signal do you need?” Both her voice and her expression hardened as she struggled to speak around the painful thickness in her throat. “This is nothing more than harassment, Chief Colter.” She practically spat his name. “And I intend to file an official complaint against you with the Town Council first thing tomorrow morning. You can count on it.”
“And the next time you duck out on a meeting with me, Ms. Marshall, you will not like the consequences. I can guarantee it.” His voice was a steel blade, carving wounds into her soul.
Grabbing the pen he held out to her, she signed her name jerkily, then threw both items out the window. While he was juggling awkwardly to keep them from clattering to the ground, she drove off, tires squealing. When she got to the corner, she found herself risking one last glance back at him in her rearview mirror.
He was standing where she’d left him, watching her retreat with an expression on his face she could only describe as…bleak. Her chest tightened, squeezing the breath from her lungs. Hot juice gushed from her core into the already wet crotch of her pink lace panties. She closed her eyes, helpless against the tide of arousal swamping her. What was there about this man that destroyed her so? That made her go from despising him one minute to wanting him the next? To needing him with a hunger so ferocious it vaporized all her resistance and left her a mindless wreck?
She hated her body’s response to him. He left you, she reminded herself ruthlessly. He took your father’s money to stay away from you. He didn’t want you then, he doesn’t want you now. Otherwise, why would he have stayed away for eight years? Why would his first interaction with you be so cold and unfeeling? Why would he have given you a goddamn ticket?
Letting out a low, guttural growl of impotent frustration, Sarah turned onto the main highway. In spite of the car’s air-conditioning, she was sweating as if she’d just completed the Death Valley marathon. And she was aroused as hell. Her breasts were swollen and heavy, her nipples tight, aching knots. Her skin sizzled, as if being brushed by Fourth of July sparklers. Her pussy was leaking all over the crotch of her panties. The entire car reeked of her scent, sharp and pungent.
No one but Jesse had ever gotten her this hot, this turned on. Not even her ex-fiancé, Phillip Nugent, had affected her like this. No. No! She shook her head, clamping down on her unwelcome thoughts. She was so not going there. Phillip Nugent was over with. Done. Past. He would never harm her again.
As for Jesse…
Her lips thinned. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t let it matter, because Jesse didn’t want her. “Damn it, he doesn’t want you!” she shouted into the silence of the vehicle, as if saying the words out loud would make them more real. He would never belong to her. Not as she needed him to, body, heart, and soul. Not as she, already, belonged to him. As she had belonged to him for the last eight years. As she would still belong to him eight years from now.
Because no matter what had happened between them, no matter how cruelly he’d treated her, no matter how long he’d stayed away, she loved him to the bottom of her soul. And she’d never be whole without him. She knew it now, with a certainty that made her want to howl in anguish. She hated it, but she could no longer deny it. Her heart, her love, her very soul belonged to a man who, if today were any judge, wanted nothing to do with her.
No, she concluded miserably, she was better off with no man at all than with the wrong man. Her disastrous engagement to Phillip Nugent had proven that. When she’d finally come to her senses and dumped him, after months of escalating abuse, she’d sworn off men entirely. A decision which, up ’til now, she’d had no cause to regret.
She was content with her life exactly the way it was, thank you very much. No men. No sex. No—who needed sex anyway? It was wet, noisy, and messy. To say nothing of vastly overrated, even though she’d only actually experienced it with one man. Phillip Nugent. And that had been a fiasco from the start.
Oh, she knew what it should be like. What she wanted it to be like. An act of complete and utter passion and lustful abandon that ended in mind-blowing pleasure for both parties. She also knew instinctively that sex with Jesse Colter would be exactly like that. Because on that last day, before his final betrayal of her, she’d had a tiny glimpse of his sexual prowess. Near-sex with Jesse eight years ago had spoiled her for actual sex with anyone else.
Including Phillip Nugent. Because it hadn’t been Phillip’s face she’d conjured up, lying there in the dark night after night, alone and unfulfilled after he’d emptied himself and rolled off of her with a satisfied grunt. It had been Jesse’s. Jesse smiling. Jesse laughing. Jesse looking at her the way he’d looked that day eight years ago, his expression wrought with hunger and need, lust and love.
Pulling in a deep breath, she let it out slowly as she wound her way up the long, curving driveway to Marshall’s Hill, the sprawling, antebellum plantation house that was her ancestral home. Her insides felt bruised, battered by the rawness of her response to a man she’d truly never expected to see again. A man she should rightfully hate.
Aching all over, she circled the massive central fountain surrounded by flower beds and pulled into her usual parking space in front of the five-car garage. She walked to the back door, her movements stiff and ungainly. God, what was wrong with her? Had she been run over by a truck? Fumbling with the keys, she dropped them twice before finally managing to force her nerveless fingers around the correct one and insert it into the lock.
Dropping her purse and laptop on the granite-topped island, she went to the refrigerator to retrieve the grilled chicken Caesar salad she’d made that morning. She poured some dressing over the greens, got a fork from the silverware drawer, and sat down at the counter to eat her lonely meal.
She’d been living alone in this white elephant of a house for the past year, although, initially, she’d only planned to stay a couple of months—just long enough to put it and the five-hundred acres of prime farm land that accompanied it on the market. As an Honors graduate of Harvard Law, she had a new job waiting for her in Boston, at one of that city’s most prestigious law firms. Staying in Marshall’s Creek had simply never occurred to her—until members of the Town Council had approached her. The current Marshall County Attorney had just been indicted for hiring a hit man to kill his wife. Would she be interested in taking on the role of Acting County Attorney? It would be temporary, a year at most. Just until they had a chance to search for a permanent replacement. After all, her father would be so proud of her.
Yeah, right. Her father had never been proud of her. In fact, after a lifetime of being controlled and manipulated by Judge Arthur Chamberlain Marshall, she’d felt nothing but a profound sense of relief at his death thirteen months ago. She hadn’t even come home for his funeral, fully expecting to hear from his lawyers that she’d been disinherited and the entire estate had been left to various charities. After all, hadn’t he threatened to do exactly that the day she’d discovered that he’d paid Phillip Nugent a million dollars to marry her? The day she’d finally come to her senses and severed all ties with both of them.
Suddenly losing her appetite, she pushed the uneaten salad away. Phillip Nugent was over, done with. But Jesse…That was another story altogether. Propping her elbows on the countertop, she lowered her head into her hands with a groan, still shaken from her disturbing encounter with Jesse Colter. Her shoulders slumped as all the energy drained from her in a whoosh! Struggling against the tears threatening to overwhelm her, she shook her head back and forth slowly. Damn it, what was he doing here in Marshall’s Creek? Why had he come back to a place he’d obviously hated? Why—Damn it, stop thinking about Jesse! You’re not a hormonal teenager anymore, you’re a mature woman. Get over him, already. Go upstairs, take a nice hot shower, curl up in bed, and read that book you’ve been putting off reading for the past six weeks.
Appetite gone, she stood abruptly. Dumping the unfinished salad in the garbage can, she put the dishes in the dishwasher and went upstairs to her bedroom. Kicking off her shoes and shedding clothes as she went, she walked through the cozy sitting area into the en suite bathroom.
Turning on the water, she stepped under the hot, soothing spray. She stood there rolling her neck and shoulders, feeling the stiffness gradually ease beneath the heat and massaging action of the water. Clouds of steam roiled around her, stirring up unbidden memories. Memories so vivid, she could swear she saw Jesse’s face reflecting off all the shiny, wet surfaces surrounding her.
Jesse…The way he’d looked that long-ago summer, before life and her father had conspired to rip them apart.
Jesse…Her savage warrior. Her knight in shining armor. Her hero.
Jesse…Who’d brought everything magical and wonderful into her lonely, isolated world. Who’d brought fairy tales to vivid and fanciful life and had made happily ever after seem possible.
Gulping back the tears, she put up her arms as if trying to stop the devastating memories that were barreling toward her like a gigantic mudslide. But they were unstoppable, so she just sank down onto the marble shower bench, dropped her head in her hands, and let them slam into her.
* * * *
Thirteen years ago
“Help!” The startled shriek burst from her as the dead branch she was sitting on split from the trunk with a deafening cr-r-rack!, crashing down onto the branch below. Grappling frantically for something to hold on to, she swung her legs around the secure branch just as the broken one rolled across her knees, gouging her flesh painfully. “Oww—w-w! He-e-e-lp!”
“Hang on, Princess, I’m comin’!”
Heart in her throat, she watched a young man flying toward her across the grass. “Hurry, please hurry! I‘m going to fall!”
“No, you’re not, baby, just stay real still, okay? I’m comin’ to get you.” Muscles straining, the young man grabbed the lowest limb of the forty-foot sycamore and pulled himself up, clambering swiftly from limb to limb until he was sitting astride the very branch she was hanging from, a good thirty feet above the ground.
“Oh, God, please hurry!”
The young man scooted forward and grabbed the broken branch, lifting it up off her legs and giving it a sharp push. For a long minute, it just hung there, held in place by its dead limbs and twigs, all gnarled and tangled with the living ones of the branch they were on. Swiftly lowering his upper body, he extended his right arm down through the tangled maze of interwoven limbs. “Hurry, Princess, grab my hand.”
She reached up blindly just as the broken branch jackknifed sharply, ripping her hands out of his reach. She screamed.
“Jesus!” With a last-ditch, superhuman effort, he slid his hips sideways, extending his reach just far enough to grab her wrist. She gasped in pain as he yanked her up through the whippy limbs, just as the dead branch finally managed to free itself. In slow motion, it arced away from the tree and toppled end over end to the ground below, landing with an earth-shaking thud. As if released by the sound, Sarah began to cry, huge, gulping sobs that shook her entire body.
The young man pulled her against him and held her tight. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he murmured soothingly, rubbing his hand up and down her back. “You’re safe now, baby, I’ve got you.”
Sarah threw her arms around him, pressing her face against his chest as sobs continued to wrack her slender frame. When she finally quieted, he moved his hands to her upper arms and pushed her back. She was literally covered with blood from scratches and deep gouges all over her face, legs and arms. Quickly removing his shirt, he wadded it up and gently began dabbing at her wounds. When he was finished, he looked up to find her staring at him unblinkingly, her face streaked with blood and tears.
“Hi,” he said with a disarmingly crooked smile. “I’m Jesse.”
Nothing in Sarah’s life had prepared her for Jesse Colter. Motherless since the age of eight, the only child of a distant, controlling, mostly absent father, she’d had very little contact with the world beyond the gates of Marshall’s Hill, her family’s estate. Raised mainly by tutors and nannies, she’d had no idea people like Jesse Colter even existed outside the world of fiction. Everything about him called to the deeply romantic nature of her soul. He was every brooding, enigmatic hero in every book she’d ever read. He was her Heathcliff. Her Ivanhoe. Her Aragorn.
Rough and raw, even at the age of nineteen, Jesse Colter was tall, broad shouldered and arrestingly handsome, with straight, shoulder-length black hair and killer cheekbones that hinted at some exotic DNA in his background, full, sensual lips, and eyes so dark they were almost black.
Newly hired as a part-time gardener’s assistant, he became her entire world that summer. She became his shadow, following him everywhere. She helped him with his yard work, read aloud to him from her current favorite book, Watership Down. She chattered ceaselessly, asking his opinion on everything, from global warming to politics to ghosts and UFOs.
Every day he smuggled in some innocuous pop culture item that had been forbidden by her stern, unloving father—nail polish, eye shadow, Slime, bubble gum, the latest teen magazines, flavored lip gloss—which she’d promptly applied to both her lips and his. He gave her an old deck of cards and taught her to play Gin Rummy and Texas Hold ’Em. She taught him how to play tennis. They fished, frolicked in the pool, hunted for salamanders down by the creek, and caught fireflies.
They’d made an odd twosome that long-ago summer, she being thirteen going on forty, he being nineteen going on eleven. It had been a summer filled with laughter and discovery. A summer shimmering with magic and endless possibilities. A carefree summer that had allowed both of them to be something neither had ever been before—children. And to have something neither had ever had before—a friend.
That fall, at the urging of her tutor, her father had allowed her to enroll in public school. Marshall’s Creek Junior High was an environment so incomprehensible to her, she felt like she’d been dropped on an alien planet. But she eventually adapted, acquiring a new, breezy maturity and an edge of brittle insouciance, losing her reserved, formal way of speaking and peppering her speech with all the latest slang.
For the first few days of work the next summer, Jesse had simply stared at her as if she were the alien who’d been dropped on this planet. And when she’d asked him what he was staring at, he’d just smiled and muttered, “Who are you and what have you done with my friend Sarah?” Her response had been to roll her eyes and say in a world-weary tone, “Whatever.”
At age fourteen, she had finally entered puberty, dramatically altering the dynamic between them. His raw, smoldering sexuality confounded her awakening hormones, even as it called to them, making her painfully shy and tongue-tied in his presence. Although she still helped him with the yard work, she mostly just found herself staring at him hungrily when she thought he wasn’t looking, her mouth watering at his broad, hairless chest, at the way his muscles bunched and flexed beneath the bronze satin of his skin as he maneuvered heavy bags of mulch and fertilizer. Gone was the easy camaraderie, the laughter, the carefree feeling that they were buddies, rather than separate individuals from two unique and very different backgrounds.
By the next summer, she had developed curves in all the right places, including breasts and hips that could only be described as voluptuous. Eager to explore her newly awakened sensuality, she waited on pins and needles for Jesse to show up for work. Mouth dry, stomach churning, palms sweating, she waited. Until long after dark, she waited. Through the next day, she waited.
She wanted to ask their gardener where Jesse was, but didn’t want him to know she was interested. She couldn’t bear it if he teased her. Or, even worse, told her father. Somehow, she knew instinctively that Judge Marshall would not be pleased with her interest in Jesse Colter.
By the end of the week, she was finally able to admit to herself that he was never coming back and she was devastated. She cried for days, eating little, sleeping less. Withdrawing into herself, she spent the entire lonely summer nursing her bruised and aching heart.
She didn’t see him again until that November. Cheerleading practice had just let out and she was sitting on a swing in the playground, twisting the chains back and forth as she waited for Sykes, the family chauffeur, to come pick her up. He was late, as usual, and she was pissed. There was a nip in the air that hadn’t been there that morning and her skimpy cheerleading outfit was no match for the biting assault of the wind. She was shivering so hard her teeth were chattering. When three young men entered the playground, bouncing a basketball back and forth between them, she stilled, unsure what to do. She didn’t actually know them, but she knew of them—Ryder Malone, Tucker Blanchard, and Jacob Rendell, sons of three of the town’s leading citizens.
They had a reputation for being punks. At first, when they approached her, she ignored them. But they laughed and teased, and just goofed off in general, which made her laugh. And when Malone offered her his jacket, she took it, grateful for its warmth. Before she knew what was happening, they had closed in around her and were taking turns touching her in increasingly intimate places.
She slapped at their hands, backing away from them, yelling at them to stop and leave her alone. To no avail. What had started out as innocuous teasing quickly deteriorated into something much more sinister as they pinned her against the fence, insisting on giving her a ride home. She tried to push them away, but there were three of them, each one easily outweighing her by a good fifty pounds or more. Then, at an unseen signal from Ryder Malone, they grabbed her arms, force-marching her across the playground toward the gate. Malone’s old, battered pickup truck was parked at the curb. They’d just opened the passenger door, getting ready to push her in, when out of nowhere, a motorcycle came roaring up the sidewalk straight toward them.
Like an avenging angel, the helmeted rider grabbed Sarah’s arm and yanked her unceremoniously onto the bitch seat behind him. Jesse! Oh, my God, it was Jesse! With a muffled sob of relief, she threw her arms around his waist and held on tight as they roared off down the street. Taking her to the nearest park, he practically pushed her off the back of the Harley, giving her an excoriating lecture for even thinking about going off with three strange men. Telling her to forget about him—he never wanted to see her again. Then he’d just ridden off, leaving her standing there, shaking and sobbing and alone.
She should have hated him after that. But she hadn’t.
She should have forgotten him after that. But she couldn’t.
Jesse Colter had invaded the very fabric of her existence and neither his reprehensible behavior that day nor his ultimate betrayal three years later had been enough to drive him out of her mind and heart.
* * * *
Eight years ago
Smiling at the laughter and happy shrieks coming from the swimming pool, she picked up the fresh pitcher of ice-cold lemonade and pushed through the kitchen door. She’d only gone two steps when she saw Ryder Malone, Jacob Rendell, and Tucker Blanchard come sauntering out onto the pool deck.
Stopping dead in her tracks, she watched as Tucker led a laughing Heather Johnson toward the cabana. Jacob, with Sandy Borowski on his lap, was untying the bows holding up her bikini bottom. A leering Ryder Malone was squeezing Ginger Morton’s suddenly naked breasts.
Sarah must have made some sound, because all of a sudden Ryder turned his head, focusing on her like a laser. Instantly releasing a startled Ginger, he started toward Sarah, a lascivious grin splitting his lips.
The breath whooshed from her lungs as she turned and ran, dropping the heavy pitcher in her terror. It shattered on the brick walkway, flinging jagged shards of glass and sticky lemonade in all directions. Wrenching the screen door open, she ran through the kitchen toward her father’s study, the only room in the house with a locking door and a telephone. Ryder’s heavy footsteps pounded behind her. She was only halfway down the hall when a hand grabbed her hair. She let out a shriek as she was jerked painfully backward against Ryder’s hard body.
He’d been drinking. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, sour and nauseating. Her stomach lurched. Bile rose into the back of her throat. She kicked her legs, trying to jerk away. “Let go of me, asshole!” It was a word she’d never used before, but she had no trouble using it now.
“Shut up, bitch. You and me, we got some unfinished business between us.”
Anchoring her to him with his left arm around her waist, he released her hair, thrusting his right hand inside her bikini bottom, down over her mound into her slit. “Oh, shit, your pussy’s shaved! Christ, I gotta have me a taste of this!”
She screamed, twisting and pushing at his arms, kicking frantically as she tried to break his hold.
“Scream all you want, bitch, this time nobody’s gonna rescue you.” He bit her ear and she screamed in pain as he fell to his knees in the middle of the hallway floor, effectively forcing her to hers. He bent over her back, breathing heavily. “I been waitin’ three years for this.”
“No! Let me go, damn you!” She twisted violently, but he settled more of his weight over her, crushing her down onto the rough carpet. “Stop! Oh, God, please stop!” Blackness shimmered around the edges of her vision and she knew she was on the verge of passing out.
Shoving his thick, grease-stained fingers through her slit, he fingered her roughly, searching for her opening. “Stop,” she sobbed, continuing to struggle, even though she knew it was futile. “Please. Think about what you’re doing! Rape is a crime. My father’s a judge! You’ll go to prison!”
“Oh, yeah?” he smirked. “You gonna testify against me?” The smirk turned into a laugh, a harsh, ugly sound. “I’ll just say it was consensual. Who do you think they’ll believe, huh? The judge’s daughter who’s been sleepin’ with that half-breed bastard, Colter? Or the son of the Town Council President? You got away from me once before, but not this time. This time I’m gonna fuck every hole you got, includin’ that hot little mouth of yours. But first—”
His rough hand left her pussy. She heard a tearing sound as the string ties on her bikini bottom were ripped away. She heard the rasp of a zipper; the rustle of clothing as he shoved his jeans down, freeing his cock. She heard her own deep, guttural sobs as he jerked her ass higher in the air before pulling her hard against his now-naked groin.
Oh, God, this is actually happening! He is going to rape me!
She felt the hard length of his penis sliding between her buttocks as he bent to whisper in her ear, “First, I’m gonna fuck this sweet little ass, bitch.”
She screamed, long and hard, lifting her head and twisting her shoulders, trying to roll over, struggling desperately to pull free of his hold. But he was a foot taller and over a hundred pounds heavier and all she succeeded in doing was hurting herself and making him harder and bigger.
He chuckled and she knew it was a sound she would hear in her nightmares for the rest of her life. “Yeah, bitch, you can fight me, but you’re gonna give it to me. Just like you been givin’ it to that Breed lover of yours for years.” He shoved her head down violently, scraping her cheek against the rough carpet. She screamed again as he pulled his hips back, preparing to ram into her.
There was a muffled grunt behind and above her and then, all of a sudden…nothing. Ryder was no longer holding her. In fact, he was no longer even there.
Realizing she was free, she scrabbled across the carpet on her hands and knees, sobbing with relief. With a tremendous effort, she staggered to her feet. Trying to cover herself with her hands, she turned around and let out a gasp. “Jesse!” Oh, my God, Jesse! Where had he come from? How had he known?
“Call 9-1-1,” Jesse ordered without turning to look at her, his voice sharp as a blade. His powerful arm was around Ryder’s neck, slowly squeezing the breath out of him. Ryder was gurgling, his now-limp cock hanging out of his open jeans. “Tell them you have three intruders. Tell them one of them is dead.”
“No, Jesse, don’t kill him!” she cried tearfully. “You’ll go to prison! He’s not worth it.”
“The fuck he’s not,” Jesse retorted. “This is the second time he’s tried to rape you. How many more shots you gonna let him have?” His arm tightened. With one last wheeze, Ryder went limp. Dropping him like a sack of potatoes, Jesse stepped over him, moving toward her, his expression fierce. He grabbed Sarah by the upper arms, pulling her hard against him.
She went with a sob, throwing her arms around his waist, burrowing her face into the hollow between his chest and arm. She heaved air into her lungs, inhaling his scent, exhaling in ragged little gasps. She didn’t know what miracle had placed him there. She just knew she’d never been so happy to see anyone in her life.
“Christ, Princess.” His voice was barely audible. It sounded strangled. “When my cousin Matt told me he’d overheard the three of ’em talkin’ about comin’ up here and startin’ some trouble, I didn’t believe him. But I followed ’em anyway, and when they turned into your driveway, I nearly shit a brick.” He pushed her slightly away from him. “Are you all right, baby? Did he—did he—?”
“No!” Her hands came up to frame his face—that beloved face she hadn’t seen for three years—except every night in her dreams. “I’m all right, Jesse, he didn’t do anything. You got here just in time. Thank God for you, Jesse.” Unable to stop herself, she rose on tiptoe and kissed her way across his smooth, square chin before placing her trembling lips against his. God, he tasted so good. His lips were so soft, so…“Where have you been?” she asked against his mouth, moving her head back and forth, brushing kiss after kiss against the moist fullness of his lips. “Why did you stay away from me? God, Jesse, I’ve missed you so much.”
“Sarah! You’ve got to stop this—”
But she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. She needed his kiss with a desperation that terrified her even as it turned her on. She needed him just as much as she needed the very air she was breathing.
And evidently he needed her just as badly. Against the softness of her belly, she could feel his penis harden and jerk behind the zipper of his leather pants. With a groan, he tightened his arms and lifted his head. For one brief, sizzling moment, he stared into her eyes, his own black and glowing like fiery hot coals.
Her breath seized in her lungs. “Jesse…” It was a whisper, barely audible, yet it seemed to hang, shimmering, in the air between them. She licked her lips with the pink tip of her tongue and saw him wince as his erection tightened even further.
“Jesus, Sarah, I have to kiss you. God forgive me—I can’t wait any longer.” He slanted his lips over hers, claiming not just her mouth, but her soul, kissing her with a desperation matched only by her own.
Forcing her jaw open, he thrust his tongue inside the moist cavern of her mouth. Her tongue tangled with his, the wild taste of him bursting through her like a song. The breath shuddered from her lungs and suddenly she was doing what she’d been longing to do, what she’d been dreaming of doing for three long years. She was kissing Jesse Colter. And, as first kisses went, it was devastating.
A low moan ripped from her throat as she arched into him, crushing her voluptuous breasts against his chest. Her nipples poked through the fabric of her bikini top, hard and aching for his touch. His hands came up to cradle her head, holding her still while he ravaged her mouth with his tongue, lips and teeth, biting, suckling, licking. She melted against him, flowing over him like molten lava flowing over the sides of a volcano. “Jesse,” she whispered into his mouth. “God, Jesse, I love you so much. Please tell me you love me, too. Please tell me we can be together.”
Releasing her mouth, he bent and swung her up into his arms. A quick glance at Ryder’s unmoving body confirmed that he was still out for the count, so Jesse left him there, sprawled in a heap on the floor. Carrying her easily, as though she were weightless, he strode down the hall and entered the judge’s study. Kicking the door shut behind him, he turned, tilting her so she could lock it. Then he deposited her on the leather sofa and stood looking down at her, his eyes half-shut, his expression hard with need and a towering hunger he could no longer disguise. A flush darkened his face, shadowing his strong cheekbones, stretching his dusky skin tight with lust.
“Jesse…” She licked her lips and slowly, deliberately let her legs fall open, revealing her moist pink slit to his hungry gaze. She was trembling, shaking like an aspen leaf in a gale. Every wet, secret place deep inside her body was throbbing, aching, on fire with a craving that stole her ability to do anything but want. She had done this a million times in her dreams. Now she wanted the reality. Her clit was burning with hunger and need. Need that only Jesse could fill.
The way he was looking at her sent fiery chills racing up and down her spine. No one had ever looked at her like that before. She swallowed convulsively, breathing in short staccato bursts, as a low moan feathered past her lips. “Touch me, Jesse. Love me. Please…” The words ripped from her throat just before it closed up completely.
Jesse’s rough breaths sawed in and out of his lungs. “Jesus, Sarah, you don’t know what you do to me. I know I should stop…but I can’t, I want you too badly. I need you too much—Christ, I’m starving for you.”
With a groan, he fell to his knees in front of her. Placing his hands beneath her buttocks, he pulled her hips forward to the edge of the sofa. He was staring greedily at her hot, slick pussy, licking his lips in anticipation. Gently he lifted her thighs and spread her legs farther apart. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered reverently, unable to take his eyes off of her swollen flesh. “So fuckin’ beautiful…And so goddamn wet.”
He leaned forward, inhaling her sweet scent deeply into his lungs. “Jesus Christ, you smell delicious. God forgive me, Sarah, I can’t help myself. I have to taste you. I have to taste your sweet syrup—” Then his mouth was on her, tonguing and licking and suckling as if he were a starving beggar allowed to partake of a particularly sumptuous feast.
She let out a yelp and arched her back, driving her hips upward to grind against his face with mindless desperation. The heat of his mouth burned her skin. No, deeper than skin. Deeper than flesh. Deeper than bone. It burned all the way to her soul, consuming her in blazing fire. She was swimming in sensation. Drowning in pleasure. Truly alive for the first time in her life.
And she never wanted it to end. “Yes, Jesse, yes!” she shrieked. “Oh, God, that feels so good!”
The breath shuddered from her lungs as she reached out and gripped her fingers in his crisp black hair, holding his head hard against her throbbing pussy. Pleasure knifed into her, blade deep, hot, and sharp. She writhed and moaned as his tongue rasped against her swollen clit and she nearly fainted with the furious pleasure he was giving her with his wicked mouth. Pressure coiled inside her, winding like a spring, tightening her inner core until she was ready to snap.
She’d known it was going to be good. She’d been masturbating for years, pleasuring herself with her fingers. But nothing she’d ever done to herself had prepared her for the sheer ecstasy that was racing through her at that moment, threatening to rip her apart.
“God, Jesse, don’t stop. Please…”
Jesse’s lips and teeth scoured her slit, suckling her throbbing little nub, while he thrust his tongue in and out of her vagina, fucking her with it. “Christ, Sarah, I can’t believe how good you taste.” He pulled out his tongue and swirled it around and around her hard little clit. He sealed his mouth around the entrance to her vagina and sucked hard, as if he were sipping soda through a straw. She shrieked, feeling the pull all the way up to her belly button. Her back arched and went rigid with pleasure.
She felt one long finger slide through her wet furrow, lubricating itself and circling her portal before seeking entry into her virgin body. She gasped and sucked in her breath, holding it until she thought her lungs would burst.
“That’s it, baby,” he crooned against her slick, swollen flesh, stroking her with his finger. “That’s it, let me in.” Slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, he penetrated her with his finger, pushing it in slowly until it met her virgin body’s built-in resistance, then pulling it back out with a slurping sound as the tight muscles of her cunt clutched at him.
“Jesus, Sarah, you’re so fuckin’ tight. And so hot, you’re burnin’ my finger!”
She cried out, a broken, breathless little sound as he invaded her body again, curving and twisting his finger to scrape along the nerve-rich flesh. She pulsed around him, her slick walls sucking at him, pulling him in as far as he could go without rupturing the flimsy membrane of her hymen.
She moaned as he pulled back out, only to gasp in pleasure as he added a second finger, pushing both of them inside. The muscles of her sheath fisted around them, gripping them tight. She could not stop the ragged little mewls of pleasure ripping from her throat.
He rose over her, his fingers making a wet, slurping sound as they continued their shallow thrusting in and out of her dripping channel. Lowering his head, he closed his mouth over one hard, pink nipple and she let out a shriek of pleasure as the exquisite suckling pull sent flames streaking through her body straight to her clit. Her breasts were swollen, heavy with need, and he feasted on them as if they were succulent pieces of fruit. The rasp of his tongue flicking across her nipple was so excruciating she didn’t think she was going to survive.
She was trembling, her breathing labored, her body coming apart cell by cell from a pleasure she couldn’t control. She had never been so aroused, so overcome with lust and need. It rampaged through her veins, white-hot and destructive, assaulting her senses.
This was Jesse! The man of her dreams. He was here and he was real! And he was making love to her! Frantically. Passionately. As if he couldn‘t get enough of her. As if she were something special, belonging only to him, a treasure to be cherished and loved. A low moan ripped from her throat as she arched up toward him. “Jesse…Jesse…Oh, God, Jesse…”
Releasing her nipple, he scooted back down her body until his face was mere inches away from her slippery folds. He held his fingers still as he stared at her through half-lidded eyes. The look on his face was reverent, almost…worshipful. “Christ, Sarah, you are so beautiful here. All soft and pink and shiny.”
She could feel the warm gust of his breath on her wet, sensitive skin. “Jesse,” she sighed as he touched his lips once again to her throbbing clit, sucking the little nubbin between them, pulling on it until she cried out in ecstasy. He feasted on her, devouring her sweet juices, savoring the rich taste of her arousal as it erupted over his tongue, coating him with her thick, creamy syrup.
Flinging her head back and forth against the sofa seat, she bucked her hips against his face, tightening her inner muscles around his invading fingers. The needs raging inside her were dark, furious, pounding through her with every hammering beat of her heart as she strained toward a release that was going to annihilate her.
And then she screamed, arching her back in a rigid bow, as her body exploded in an orgasm so fierce, so shattering, it roared over her like a rogue wave. As she convulsed and spasmed, gasping his name over and over, Jesse continued to lick and suckle her, prolonging her pleasure until she exploded again in a starburst of swirling colors and flashing lights. She bucked and writhed as pleasure splintered her into a million shards of scintillating bliss. Then she collapsed back onto the sofa, sobbing weakly, fighting for breath as aftershocks rolled through her, making her shudder and gasp and moan.
Jesse was breathing harshly, and when he finally raised his head to look at her, his mouth was wet and shiny with her juices. Her belly clenched as she regarded him steadily, her eyes glazed with lust and a need so intense she was shaking with it. “God, Jesse, that was so awesome,” she whispered. “Even better than I dreamed it would be. But I want you inside me. I want you to make love to me.”
“Christ, Sarah, I—you—” His throat closed on a deep groan as he struggled to his feet and staggered back away from her. “Jesus, what have I done?” He stared at her, aghast, his face white with anguish. “You’re a child! I could go to jail for what I just did to you.”
“I’m not a child! I’m eighteen!”
“You’re still a virgin, for chrissakes! And I want you so fuckin’ bad I can’t keep my hands off you!” He raised his hands, staring at them as if he’d never seen them before. “Christ, Sarah, how could I have lost control like that? I’m a Dom, for chrissakes! I’m always in control.” His shoulders slumped as he half turned away from her, lifting one hand to rake through his hair. “Jesus, how could I have allowed this to happen?”
She struggled to sit up. “You didn’t allow it,” she cried mutinously, “I participated as much as you did.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why can’t you finally admit it?” she demanded angrily. “Why can’t you finally admit how you feel about me? You love me, just as I love you. And now that I’m eighteen, you can have me. We can finally be together.”
“Together!” He spat the word venomously. “Are you that naïve, or just plain stupid? Your father would never allow us to be together!”
“My father would have no say in the matter,” she retorted. “I’m an adult, I can do whatever I want! And I want to be with you!” She stared at him defiantly until slowly, gradually, her face began to crumple and tears filled her eyes. “God, Jesse, I’ve loved you for so long, I—”
Ear-splitting sirens had both their heads jerking around.
“Cops!” Sarah frowned up at him. “What are they doing here? I didn’t call them.”
“Jesse!” Sarah shrieked in panic, coming up off the sofa like a shot. “I—I’m naked! I can’t let them see me like this!”
“I know, I know, just…gimme a minute, here, okay?” Striding over to the door, Jesse unlocked it and thrust his head out into the hallway to check on Ryder. The big man was still on the floor in the hallway, groaning and struggling to pull himself up into a sitting position. “Run upstairs and put on some clothes. I’ll let the cops in.”
By the time Sarah came back downstairs, her body still humming with residual pleasure, the hallway was milling with cops, bikini-clad cheerleaders, and men in handcuffs—four of them—including Jesse!
“No! No!” Sarah ran right up to him, putting her hand on his arm and glaring at the uniformed officer holding him by the elbow. “You take these off him right now!”
“Sorry, Miss, no can do. He’s under arrest.”
“But he didn’t do anything! He saved me!” She pointed at Ryder. “That’s the asshole who attacked me!”
“Stupid bitch,” Ryder gave a nasty laugh. “You wanted it. You were asking for it.”
“Liar!” she shrieked. “You tried to rape me, you—you—”
Two cops were frantically trying to pry her away from him just as a furious Judge Arthur Chamberlain Marshall came striding down the hallway. “What the hell is going on here?” he demanded in his most authoritarian voice. “Somebody better have an explanation for this, and it better be a goddamn good one.” He glowered at her. “Sarah, what have you done now?”
All eyes turned to her. Red-faced with humiliation and shaking with anger at her father’s unjust assumption that she was somehow at fault, she described in painfully halting sentences both Ryder’s attack and Jesse’s subsequent rescue. In spite of her tearful entreaties, she was unable to keep the cops from hauling Jesse off to jail with the rest of the culprits. “Just till we get this all sorted out,” they had explained.
The next day Jesse was gone. Totally, completely gone, along with the twenty-five-thousand-dollar check her father had given him, leaving Sarah to struggle with a grief so huge, so…monstrous, it burned through her like acid, eating away at tissue and bone until there was nothing left of her but an empty, hollowed-out shell. This time her heart wasn’t just battered and bruised, as it had been three years earlier. This time it was broken, along with her spirit.
* * * *
The water pelting her skin had turned ice cold, like pellets of wind-driven sleet. Turning off the water, she opened the shower door and grabbed a towel, twisting it around her head.
Wrapping herself in a second towel, she stepped out onto the bath mat. As she dried herself off she considered her options. Evidently, she only had two. Staying…or leaving.
Staying would most certainly involve interacting with Jesse on almost a daily basis, hearing the sexy rasp of his voice, seeing him with other women. According to rumor, there had been plenty of those, although she, herself, had actually only seen one. It had been a week after Malone, Blanchard, and Rendell had almost kidnapped from the playground. She’d been in the limo on her way to school, when the distinctive throaty roar of a Harley-Davidson pulling up beside them at a red light had sent her scooting forward in her seat to look out the window. Jesse was there, dressed in his customary worn jeans, black T-shirt, and kick-ass biker boots. In lieu of a helmet, he’d tied a blue-and-white bandanna around his head, a look that upped his sexiness quotient by about a million. Fingerless leather gloves and mirrored aviator sunglasses completed his bad-boy biker look. Heart racing, mouth watering, she’d stared at him hungrily as everything inside her softened and melted away to nothing, like hot wax.
Then she’d noticed the woman on the bitch seat behind him. A platinum blonde—bleached, Sarah had thought uncharitably—whose black roots were in desperate need of a touch-up—eight months ago—her enormous breasts—implants—were practically falling out of the tube top and denim cutoffs she’d stuffed herself into—fat cow. The woman’s skin was the color and texture of a cowhide sofa. Seriously, hadn’t she ever heard of sun block? And, Holy Moley, who did her makeup, Ringling Brothers’ Clown College?
Dismissing the woman as unimportant, Sarah had turned her gaze back to Jesse. God, he was just so…yummy! All bunching, rippling muscles and savage outlaw attitude.
Right before the light changed to green, he’d turned his head and looked directly at Sarah. Pinioned by his gaze, like a butterfly stuck on a pin, she could only stare in mounting horror as, without taking his eyes off of her, he’d deliberately reached back, pulled the blonde bimbo’s head forward roughly and ground his mouth against hers in a brutal, open-mouthed, tongue-tangling kiss that had shocked Sarah with its raw carnality. Jealousy had boiled through her veins, leaving her gasping and shaking with outrage. How dare that woman even touch Jesse. He was hers, damn it. She’d actually growled as she’d watched them take off, her hands clenching and unclenching against the smooth pane of glass. She’d wanted to scream. She’d wanted to beat him with her fists. But mostly she’d just wanted to curl up and die.
Because it hadn’t been her on the back of that Harley, being kissed by Jesse Colter.
The rest of that school year she’d ridden to and from school with her nose in a book.
Giving herself a mental shake, Sarah hung up her towel, took her nightgown from its peg and worked her arms through the straps, shivering as the waterfall of cool, silky material cascaded down over her body. She just stood there, staring sightlessly at her reflection in the vanity mirror. Okay. So. Staying had been eliminated from her list of options. Loving Jesse the way she did, she’d never survive the pain of seeing him every day knowing he’d never love her back. So that only left…Leaving. Going back to Boston.
C’mon, it won’t be all bad, she reasoned with herself, you still have lots of friends there. Good friends, whom she’d missed terribly over the past year, in spite of a continual stream of emails, text messages and phone calls. And, as an Honors graduate of Harvard Law, she’d have no trouble finding a job. Shivering uncontrollably, she stood abruptly, knowing what she had to do. She had to leave Marshall’s Creek. She had to say good-bye to Jesse Colter. She had start living her life in the present instead of the past. End this morbid obsession for the one man she could never have.
A sense of excitement shivered through her along with the chill in the air. Could she actually do this? Could she finally take herself in hand and get her life on a better track? Could she quit secretly yearning for something that she now realized was never going to happen? Quit waiting for a man who obviously didn’t want her?
She was smart, attractive, young—hell, she was only twenty-six. Surely there was a man out there for her. A man who could melt her panties and make her heart sing. A man who would love her as much as she loved him. A man who was not Jesse Colter.