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Celeste Rice knew whatever happened tonight would change her life ... for better or worse. She wouldn't know which until she spoke to Deputy Mick MacGilvary.
Warm and unusually humid, the Colorado night pulsed with exhilaration as Celeste and hundreds of other spectators watched and cheered the martial arts opponents battling on the mat. She'd come to this charity event to help the El Torro Sheriff's Department raise funds for a local community center, but as soon as she saw Mick, she forgot everything but how he'd always made her feel.
Hot. Bothered. Ready to do something nasty and illegal.
She worried the hem of her teal camisole blouse. Her nipples beaded tightly against the fabric. She squirmed, her new low-rise denim shorts feeling too tight against the sensitized tissues between her legs.
Sitting in the gym's bleachers, watching Mick perform, she experienced undeniable, jaw-dropping, full-throttle lust. She couldn't squelch her reaction to the magnificent primal male display.
She recognized Mick's opponent as his brother, Trey. Trey had a lean, corded strength not unlike Mick's, but Celeste's eyes were drawn to how Mick's physique flexed, his body a weapon as he jumped high into a kick. Trey dodged, then went on the offensive, attacking with force. Mick blocked the blow, his face filled with ruthless determination.
As applause rose, she joined with others in showing her appreciation. Soon Mick and Trey changed to another form of martial arts. Keysi, the announcer called it, and the sheer brutality and harsh determination showed in both Mick and Trey's faces. Her focus stayed on Mick as he performed each move.
From herposition at the bottom of the bleachers, she heard their harsh breathing, the slap of bare feet on the mat, grunts of exertion. As Mick feinted to the right, his muscles rippled. Caught up in the excitement, she leaned forward until her elbows rested on her knees. She could almost feel the energy, their breathing coming hard, hearts pumping strongly, sweat beading.
Quick and graceful, Mick's moves showed a raw masculine power she felt down to her bones and through every fiber.
His black hair, cut short, curled the slightest bit with moisture. His expression was hardened with purpose. As his navy blue t-shirt strained over his wide shoulders, broad chest, and strong arms, her mouth dried up and her throat constricted. Blue shorts allowed a full view of tan, sturdy leg muscles that surged and bunched. Even from a distance, he was one of the most compelling men she'd ever seen. God he's fantastic.
Yet ten years ago, she'd turned down a chance to discover ecstasy in his arms.
Now she craved him with no-holds-barred desire. She hadn't understood how much she wanted him until she saw him tonight. Now she hoped to rectify her past mistake.
She pulled air into her lungs on a slow inhalation. He was dangerous and she'd always known it. The idea should repulse her. After all, violence had taken away everything she loved. Not that she believed Mick would ever hurt her, but his job was hazardous. Frightening.
She glanced around at the other women watching Mick and Trey. Were some of them wives and sweethearts of the cops participating in this exhibition? How did they do it? How did they accept the danger these men lived with every day?
Even as she wondered how these women coped with the possibility of violence tearing apart their lives, she couldn't deny the appeal of these oh-so-physical men. They were strong, protective, powerful. Energy seemed to pulse around them, drawing her attention to their potency.
Once again, her gaze swung back to Mick. If she could have sex with him once, maybe it would vaccinate her against any deeper feelings, from thinking she'd thrown away a chance at true happiness.
Just once I'd like toe-curling, bone-melting sex.
She could search for raw sex with another man, but her obsession with Mick wouldn't retreat. She'd tried to beat it into submission more than once, and failed.
I'll flush him out of my system once and for all.
Even as she sat among hundreds of people with the lights blazing, sounds of the fight echoing in the huge room, she couldn't deny her arousal. She knew if Mick touched her intimately he'd find her swollen and hot with need. She licked her lips. Oh, God. Yes. Just the thought of such an intimate touch made her close her eyes and visualize. His fingers would slide with a tender touch, taunting her as he stroked ultra-sensitive surfaces and listened to her moan. She'd imagined, night after night, how a heart-stirring intimacy with him would feel. She wanted to be close to him again, to understand his thoughts, his feelings--
No. Intimacy had nothing to do with this. She needed to discover the sexuality she'd denied for so long. She needed to get over the frigidity that threatened every relationship she'd attempted with a man. She trusted Mick to help her find that sexuality and bring it into the light. She knew he would make the experience one for a lifetime.
She heard one of the men groan with effort, and her eyes flew open. With another lightning maneuver, Mick avoided one of Trey's strikes.
Trey backed off the fight. "Uncle."
Mick and Trey patted each other on the back, shook hands and bowed. Bystanders clapped and cheered. The master of ceremonies for the event thanked everyone and the gathering broke up.
Now's the time, Celeste. Though she'd come here hoping Mick would agree to a date, he might also help her with a niggling problem she'd encountered the last couple of weeks. She chewed her lip just thinking about the situation.
As a cop, and member of SWAT, no less, he could tell her how to jettison an ex who didn't understand the meaning of the word no. She would approach him and ask. Simple.
Right. Her stomach did a nervous flip. After the way they'd parted ten years ago, he might reject her. Buck up. She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, cloaking herself in a mantle of confidence she sometimes didn't feel. Not lately anyway.
As Mick left the mat, her gaze riveted on him. She would know Mick's familiar walk anywhere--commanding, self-assured, and with the slightest swagger. Mick laughed at something Trey said, and she noticed two other women not far from her staring at the men with clear interest.
She remembered his no-nonsense, see-through-to-the-heart gaze. He always had the most beautiful, burning eyes. Mick swung his attention toward her. For a minute, he looked shell-shocked, and her surprise kept her from moving forward to greet him. Seconds later, his face transformed into a soul-stirring gorgeous smile. Oh, yeah. A full-fledged, you're-the-only-one-for-me grin. She sucked in a breath as he walked toward her and Trey followed.
I'm in such trouble. Such trouble.
Her legs didn't feel quite stable. She thought she recognized more than one emotion in Mick's eyes. Maybe curiosity--but also a smoldering warmth that sent her female corpuscles into immediate meltdown. The brothers made quite a pair, and a woman would have to be half-dead not to tingle in all the right places just watching them. A wild flush heated her face as she imagined serving as the filling for their testosterone sandwich. She finally found her nerve and left the bleachers to meet them.
Mick strode toward her with purpose. "Celeste? Is that you?"
Hearing her name on his lips and the warm, slightly rough sound of his voice ... well, it did more funny things to her equilibrium. Her super-confident, extroverted best friend Leigh wouldn't hesitate to greet these men head on, but Celeste felt a bit nervous. She decided to tread water and see how to approach.
"Hi Mick. It's me."
When Mick reached her, he slipped his arms around her waist and hugged her close. "God, Celeste. It's been so long. I thought dufus over there managed to get me in the head and I was seeing things. I didn't know you were coming."
Happiness mixed with enjoyment as she snuggled into his embrace. So much for worrying he didn't want to talk to her.
His six-foot-three frame made her five-foot-five feel petite. Well-developed arms clasped her to chest, hips and thighs, and every other inch of his unyielding body. Celeste slipped her arms around his neck and held on like a lifeline. He felt wonderful. Big. Hot. Solid and dependable. He smelled like hot man mixed with sweat.
No doubt about it. Giving in to his embrace translated into heaven on earth.
She drew back far enough to see his face. "A friend told me some of the SWAT team were participating, so I hoped to find you here."
Definite interest ignited in his eyes, and her loins melted with a fluttering response.
Mick drew back, and Trey put his hand out to shake hers. "I'd hug you, but I'm all sweaty. Mick just wanted to get his arms around you."
She smiled broadly. "I can see that."
Trey held her hand longer then necessary, but when Mick threw him a semi-disgusted look, Trey released her.
"It's good to see you. How's it going?" Trey asked.
She gathered her thoughts quickly. "Great. How are you guys?"
"This animal just kicked my ass," Trey said. "I need to work out more or I'll be bounced down the food chain."
Feeling playful, she squeezed Trey's sizable bicep. "Right. You are so out of shape. Not."
Trey's eyebrows wriggled. "See, bro. I told you I'm in fighting shape. Celeste said so."
Mick's mouth tightened into a thin line and he crossed his arms. Disapproval carved his face. "Yeah. You're in such good shape that guy's bullet almost parted your hair last week."
"What?" she asked, concerned.
Pure indignation burned in Trey's face as he stared at his brother, then it vanished as he smiled at Celeste. Trey winked, his whiskey-brown eyes sparkling with a charming mischief. "You could say I had a wakeup call. But I'm good now."
She saw the bandage near his hairline. "Thank goodness you're all right."
Trey pushed a hand through his hair--barely short enough for sheriff's department regulation. Wavy and thick, the chocolate-brown length was warmed by red highlights. Many women probably found the tall SWAT Sniper Team Leader as gorgeous as his brothers Craig and Mick.
Mick's rugged features were rougher, less refined, and more defiant than Trey's good looks. Mick's carved cheekbones gave him a slightly exotic appearance she found intriguing. He'd changed over ten years; at thirty-three he seemed more intense, more dangerous. His cerulean eyes held a gravity she didn't see in Trey's gaze, and that bottomless, mysterious glimmer in Mick's countenance made her blood run thick and hot.
Damn, but she liked his edge. Scenarios ran though her head. She'd love him to play cop to her bad girl. Would he handcuff her to the bed if she asked? Would he search her? She wanted to try it all, and she wouldn't wait anymore.
Trey's gaze wandered over her with sincere male awareness. "What brings you here?"
She swallowed hard, nervousness cramping her stomach a little. "Charity, of course. And I think Mick can help me with a problem I have."
Well, maybe two evils, if she spoke honestly. Sex and her ex.
Trey's eyebrows spiked upwards, and a grin parted his lips. "Well, I'm outta here." He smacked his brother on the back. "See you at the office." His warm grin touched her again. "Good to see you, Celeste. Take care."
"You, too. Night," she said.
After Trey ambled away, his self-assured stride taking him into the locker room, she turned her full concentration on his older, sterner brother. Despite the chatter of people milling around the gym, the world fell away and left only the two of them.
A frown creased Mick's brow. He placed his hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to your homecoming party last week."
She shrugged. "It's okay."
"Yeah, well, I'm still sorry I couldn't make it. Work got in the way."
She shivered inside. His career meant danger. Violence. All the things she didn't want to revisit ever again. Yet she couldn't deny how the brush of his skin against hers removed thoughts of aggression. The tantalizing intimacy of his touch slipped over her shoulders, his slightly callused skin reminding her of his masculinity. His fingers trailed down her arms before he released her. Did he have any idea what he did to her?
A rueful smile touched his lips. The grin transformed him from staid guy to heart-melting hunk in a flash. Did he have to be so damned sexy?
"You down here alone?" he asked.
His question jerked her back to reality. "Yes. Why?"
His gaze hardened into what she thought of as scary cop face. He glanced at the big clock on the gymnasium wall. "It's almost nine o'clock on a Friday night. It's dark as hell, and a storm's building." As if on cue, thunder rolled outside the gym. "How close are you parked?"
"I'm practically at the front door." Come on, Celeste, spit out. "When I saw you tonight, I realized you could give me some advice."
He crossed his arms, cop-face firmly in place. "Okay. What is it?"
She looked around. "Can we go somewhere and talk?"
He nodded, but the profound awareness in his expression intensified. Puzzlement entered his eyes. She couldn't blame him. The warm hug he'd given her, though, said he didn't harbor a grudge, something she might have expected considering what she'd done ten years ago.
He wiped his hand over his forehead. "I need a quick shower."
"Of course." Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and heat flooded her face.
Her vivid imagination jumped to Mick standing naked in a shower, suds following every carved muscle. What would he look like naked? She'd seen his bare chest when they were teens, but he'd been skinnier, less developed than now. Her mouth watered. She could almost visualize pressing a kiss to the center of his chest, right between his pectorals. Her belly tingled.
"Where did you want to go?" Again he jerked her from her fantasies.
Surprise filled his eyes. "A bar?"
She smiled. "A friendly, cozy club with music and dancing. But not too loud."
His gaze danced over her in that 'I'm-going-to-find-out-what-you're-hiding' look he no doubt used on criminals. "Sounds good. Meet you out front?"
"Good. I won't be long."
She watched his world-class butt as he walked away. Wow. It looked tight and hard, and she imagined gripping one ass cheek in her hand and squeezing. She smiled. What would he do if she tried it?
She frowned. Other than knowing he was the hottest man she'd ever seen, nothing had changed. He still had a hazardous job, one that sometimes proved more perilous than a regular cop's day-to-day career.
So what? This time she wouldn't let that knowledge interfere.
Butterflies danced in her stomach, and she wondered if she could overcome her inhibitions, could learn to trust enough to discover true physical intimacy and ecstasy. With Mick, perhaps she could.
She tucked her hair behind her ears and smoothed her hands over the trendy top. She smiled as she recalled how Trey's gaze had skipped over her with teasing assessment; his attention hadn't set off any three-alarm fires within her. Now, Mick ... She sighed. Yeah, he presented a different story. She shifted and pushed her handbag higher on her shoulder.
She closed her eyes and memories swamped her. She put her hands to her hot cheeks. Oh, yes. She'd never forget his closeness, his breath ticking her forehead as they danced at the party ten years ago. Warmth curled in her stomach as she recollected his hands encircling her waist, his mouth hovering over hers--
No. She didn't want to bring that memory to the fore. He hadn't kissed her. She'd stopped him before he could. She'd been a fool.
Surprised and relieved he hadn't twenty-questioned her, she stepped into the hot city night and a refreshing breeze blew over her bare shoulders. The scent of moisture teased her nostrils pleasantly. Lightning flashed nearby and a threatening rumble followed. She quickened her steps and found her car.
"Celeste, where are you going?"
She froze as surprise jolted up her spine. Serious annoyance followed close behind. She'd know that deep, imperious, and uncompromising voice anywhere. She turned, fingers clutching her keys tight. Sure enough, her ex Darrell stood nearby. He must have lurked near the hedgerows by the gym. God, she couldn't believe it. Vermont to Colorado was a long way.
"Darrell, what are you doing here?"
He didn't speak at first. He stared with a cool superiority that always made her want to grind her teeth. His eye contact was so intense and direct--he didn't soften the unrelenting force of his gaze with the occasional glance away. It was one of the things about him that always made her think something odd inhabited Darrell's psyche. His comments on their few--very few--dates only cemented that impression.
At over six feet tall, he possessed a muscle-bound, wrestler's body. His curly blond hair tossed around his head in artful disarray. He wore a tight t-shirt and faded jeans that strained over strong thighs. His features were almost too handsome, as if the heavens had carved an Adonis. He looked like an all American athlete; few people would see past his fresh-faced appearance and guess he was a psychologist. Of course, when he detailed his qualifications, people soon discovered his legitimacy as a mental heath professional. Women loved him for his looks and intelligence. What more could a woman want?
Most individuals would think him funny, interesting, and normal.
Just as she had when she'd met him a few months back at another charity event back in Vermont.
At least at first.
Several other people left the gym and passed by. She glanced at the door she'd exited seconds ago. She could only guess how long it would take Mick to run through the shower and gather his things. If luck went her way, he'd be fast.
He crossed his arms over his chest, his voice calm. "I've been waiting here for some time."
Celeste placed her hands on her hips. "Why are you here? It's a long way from Vermont."
He took a step forward. "I left you the message on the phone last night. I miss you."
"You were already in Colorado when you called?"
"Of course. I wanted it to be a surprise."
Exasperated, she rolled her gaze to the heavens. "God, Darrell, it's over between us. I moved out here to start a new life."
"You should have come back to me where you belong. That's why I came here. To bring you back."
Lightning forked down from the heavens, thunder crashing, and she startled in response. Is he insane? Her fingers tightened on the keys. He'd never physically abused her, but this behavior went beyond the norm. She couldn't believe he'd come from Vermont to confront her. "I'm not the woman for you. You need to find someone else."
I pity any woman who is bowled over by your initial charm and good looks and your so-called credibility. Any woman who is as much a fool as I was.
He put his hands out, palms up and took a step toward her. "How can you say that? We had a few good weeks together."
"That's it. We had some fun and now it's over." Fun didn't describe their brief relationship, but what else could she say diplomatically?
"It's not over."
"I'm not going to discuss this, Darrell. We talked about this when I told you I was moving back here. I thought you understood I wasn't interested any more and it was over. Darrell, you called me ten times in the last week. That isn't ... I'm concerned you don't understand I mean what I say."
Another few steps brought him off the curb and to within a foot of her. Involuntarily, she stepped back, her body on alert if he tried anything, made one more move. Her breathing quickened, her heartbeat picking up speed. Her fingers tightened around her car keys.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"I followed you. How else?"
A tingle of dread trickled up her spine. That meant he had tracked down where she lived in Gold Rush and must have lurked outside her house and followed her here.
Definitely not normal behavior.
What had seemed annoying and strange at one time had turned into disturbing when he'd left those ten messages on her cell phone, demanding she return his calls. Yet it had taken the phone calls before she realized she needed to ask someone for advice.
Desperation didn't fill his eyes, but a strange, possessive light did. As if he knew he had her--as if he was one hundred percent assured of success. "I love you."
Darrell never declared love before, and instinct screamed the situation could explode out of control in seconds. She glanced around. There wasn't a soul in sight other than him.
"Darrell, you're a mental health professional. I would think you would recognize your behavior as unusual and obsessive."
"My behavior is fine. It's yours that's questionable." He grinned, but the smile left warmth and sincerity in the dust. Had he always smiled this way, and she'd missed it before now?
"You're stalking me."
The smile in place he crossed his arms and shook his head. "You are delusional, Celeste. That's why you need expert care and advice. I'm the only one who can assist you."
Fresh anger welled inside her. "I broke up with you, I moved away, and that's the end of it. Goodbye."
He cocked his head to the side, his penetrating green eyes telegraphing a cold serenity that belied his words. "It isn't over until I say it is." He reached for her wrist, clamped on tight, and started to walk away with her. "We need to talk."
Fear bolted through Celeste, and she dug in her heels. His grip tightened. "Ow! Let me go! No."
Her sandals slipped on the asphalt. A small cry escaped her throat as he released her, and she landed on her butt with a painful jarring. She gasped in pain.
"Hey!" The angry, deep voice came from behind her. Seconds later Mick stood beside her, his feet planted firmly apart. "What the hell is going on here?"
Oh, damn. Memories of a time long ago assaulted her. She'd only been fifteen when an inebriated teenager had attacked her at a party. Mick had heard her scream and come running, just as he did now. Only then, Mick had done something that had changed both her life and his.
"I'm her boyfriend," Darrell said, voice still implacable, eyes ice chips of indifference to the threat.
She scrambled to her feet and reached for Mick's shoulder. "No, Mick. He's my ex, and I don't want anything to do with him."
Mick didn't take his attention away from Darrell, and his face showed unmistakable anger. His jaw muscles clenched and released. "You heard her. I'll give you ten seconds to get your ass out of here."
Darrell tilted his long nose upward slightly. "Who the hell are you?"
Mick took a step forward, his stance intimidating as he matched gazes with Darrell. Mick topped Darrell by a scant inch. For a second she worried the men would fight.
"First, I'm an El Torro County Deputy. Second, I'm with her now." Mick glanced at her. "Do you want to press assault charges?"
Startled by Mick's statement that they were a couple, she stumbled over her next words. "No, I--just leave, Darrell."
Darrell pointed at her, his face transforming from arrogance to a flash of impatience that gave him a quick, ugly mask. Immediately his features returned to peaceful, and she could almost believe she'd imagined that abhorrence in his face. "This isn't over, Celeste. We have things to talk about."
With that pronouncement, Darrell stalked away. Once he disappeared around the side of the building, Mick turned to her. A light, cool breeze blew over her skin. She rubbed her arms as potent emotions danced inside her like ping pong balls. Fear. Uncertainty. Anger.
Raw male aggression flickered through his eyes, as if he couldn't shake the fury. "How did you get hooked up with that asswipe?"
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I thought I'd left him in Vermont." A violent quiver shook her body.
Worry pushed rancor from his eyes. His hands came up to cup her face. Warm and comforting, his touch settled remaining fears. "Did he hurt you?"
"I'm fine. He just scared the crap out of me."
"You're trembling." His voice went soft and husky.
Before she could take another breath, he gathered her close. Deep satisfaction enveloped Celeste as his arms anchored her to his chest. Her hands moved involuntarily over his chest, her fingers encountering unyielding pectoral muscles. When her touch accidentally brushed over his nipples, he trembled in reaction. So hard. So hot. She felt feverish and out of control. Celeste had never experienced this alignment of sheer fear and stark excitement rolled into one response.
She slipped her arms around his waist. He felt so invincible Celeste almost believed nothing bad could ever happen to her if this man held her. He laid his cheek down on the top of her head and tucked her closer.
Oh, yeah. I could get used to this.
"Why did you say that you're my boyfriend?" she asked.
"I thought it would help defuse the situation. And if he thinks I'm your boyfriend maybe he'll back off."
His hands roamed over her back in a soothing motion, and then his fingers slipped under the hair at the back of her neck and massaged tense muscles. Her nipples tightened into hard, achy points, and she barely stifled a moan.
"You're safe," he said.
When she tilted her head back and looked into his eyes, his long lashes barely veiled sexual awareness. His pupils dilated in the dim light, and his lips parted.
He drew in a deep breath, pulled back, and held her at arm's length. "You all right now?"
"I'm fine." She managed a weak smile. "Thanks for coming to my rescue. Again."
One corner of his mouth curled upward in an almost boyish grin. "At least the outcome is better than the last time."
She nodded. "No kidding." Celeste thought she could almost see the memories flickering through his eyes. "This time you're on the right side of the law."
His mouth thinned into a hard line. "Damn straight. So what's with this jerk-off harassing you?"
Once more, the heavens answered with a flash of lightning and a loud rumble. "He's my ex-boyfriend, like I said. Let's get to Delio's before it rains."
He released her. "I'll follow you."
Rain pelted the earth as she jumped into the car and another lightning flash carved a sharp, bright knife through the air. Suitable weather for what may lie ahead.
During the drive, she glanced into her rearview mirror a couple of times and felt reassurance as Mick's SUV followed her. Maybe she'd done the smart thing to consider asking his advice. Now, if she could rein in her crazy libido and calm down.
When she pulled into the huge parking lot at the hip bar, the excitement rocketing through her system went into overdrive. Despite the ultra-modern chrome and glass façade, the restaurant and bar attracted people on all levels who craved rock and roll loud but not too earsplitting. She hopped out of her car and saw his SUV pull into a spot nearby.
Mick joined her on the sidewalk and they remained silent as they entered the packed establishment. Noisy laughter and talking filled her ears. An old rockabilly song pumped through the speakers. As they followed the host, patrons at a few tables recognized Mick and he waved and smiled at them. They nodded to her, curiosity outlined on their faces.
The host found a secluded horseshoe shaped booth in the back, barely illuminated by a single tea light candle in the middle of the table. Seclusion appealed to Celeste, as well as dim lighting. Intimate and cozy, the bar and restaurant sported a variety of antique items hanging from the warehouse-high ceiling. The two-level dance floor nearby was already jammed with people gyrating to tunes.
When Celeste sank onto the red leather seat and scooted to the middle, Mick did the same. He sat so near she could smell his warm, delicious musk scent and her stomach flipped with renewed nerves and exhilaration at what might come later. She emphasized might in her mind.
His gaze held the secrets of the sea as it did a quick, sizzling pass over the bodice of her top, then met her eyes. "Something wrong? You look nervous."
Damn. She didn't want her edginess to show, but she never lied well, so she didn't try. Besides, ole eagle eyes always had an excellent built in bullshit-o'meter. "I am. A little."
His frown caused creases between his eyebrows. When he shifted on the seat, his knee bumped hers. His disconcerting concentration played over her face, as if memorizing every detail. Criminals doubtless turned into blathering idiots around him. She couldn't think straight when he positioned that laser-sight stare on her.
There was a profound difference in the way his gaze made her feel excited, unraveled and cared for ... whereas Darrell's soulless verdant eyes chilled her to the core.
A server stopped by the table and gave Celeste a few seconds reprieve as the woman took their drink orders. Celeste chose a diet cola and he decided on iced tea.
When the woman walked away, Celeste knew she had to answer Mick's curiosity. "As you can see, Darrell is a loose cannon. I wanted your advice on what to do."
"What is this Darrell character's last name?" he asked.
"You knew him back in Vermont?"
"I met him at a mutual friend's house two months ago. We hit it off at first, and I agreed to a date. I only knew him three weeks before things started getting weird."
She pushed her fingers through her hair and sighed. "He called me every single day, which would have been flattering if I was that into him--but I wasn't. We had three dates in those three weeks. He tried to push a sexual relationship, and I wasn't comfortable because I didn't feel any ... you know..." Heat rose into her face.
He smiled. One of those full-fledged, sultry male grins that probably enticed females to drop to their knees and beg to have his baby. "No I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"
She shrugged. "I didn't feel any spark. No fire. Most of the time he made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn't explain. Darrell fooled me for a while because I didn't listen to my instincts. I mentioned to some friends that he made me uneasy, but they said he was a great guy and that I was overreacting. There's something strange going on with him I can't pinpoint. More than once he had me convinced I was being dramatic, and I started to doubt my own ability to tell what was real and what wasn't about him."
"He has strange eyes. He doesn't blink much and hardly every looks away like normal people do. As if he could see through to your soul and know every secret."
She sighed in relief. "You noticed that, too?" She shivered. "It's the creepiest thing I've ever experienced."
"And your friends know him well?"
"They've known him for a few years. He's a rich man and a well-respected psychologist."
Mick's eyebrows lowered as he frowned deeply. "I see. So your friends think because he's a psychologist he must be okay?"
"Exactly. How many psychologists do you know that are disturbed?"
She pointed at him. "Exactly again."
He grunted. "He made everyone doubt you, rather than the other way around. I wouldn't swear on a stack of bibles, but the little you've told me makes me wonder if he's a sociopath. Not crazy. Just remorseless. No conscience."
She put her hands to her cheeks for a second. "Oh God. I never thought of that." Amazed at his insight, she said, "Everyone started looking at me as if I was nuts for not liking Darrell anymore. And after my aunt died and I learned I'd inherited the house, I reassessed my life. When the school year ended I decided I missed Colorado and wanted to move back. When my dog Jessie died..." Her throat tightened as she recalled the sweet Yorkie. "I'd had Jessie three months and one day he just disappeared out of my back yard. A few hours later I found him by a creek. He'd been run over by a car."
"Damn. That's horrible. How did he get out of your back yard?"
"I don't know. The only thing I think of was that someone took him out. Maybe they deliberately ran over him." Her throat tightened as emotion punched her in the gut. She swallowed hard.
She nodded. "It was perfect timing to leave Darrell and start a new life."
"Just like that?"
She decided not to tell Mick that thoughts of him had influenced her to move back to Colorado as well. "Just like that."
"Did you have a job lined up here?"
"I heard about year-round grade school and that they need a teacher, so I gambled on it. I have an interview next week."
"What happened when you told Huntley you were moving back to Gold Rush?"
"He wanted to come with me."
Mick's eyes widened. "He didn't know you very long to make that kind of commitment."
She wondered if Mick had ever fallen hard and fast for anyone. The thought he might have sent a tiny tremor of jealousy straight through her. If he fell in love, would he turn on a dime to make a sacrifice for a woman?
Get a grip. I haven't seen him in ten years. A lot can change in that time. Just because I'm still so damned attracted to him doesn't mean anything. I don't know him anymore.
"I realize people can fall in love quickly, but there was no way I could return his feelings. After I broke it off, he started calling me at all times of the day and night. Some of the time, he'd talk to me, other times he'd stay silent. It was weird."
"Scary stalker material."
"Exactly. I hoped when I moved back here that would be the end of it. I haven't seen him for a month. Then this last week he left messages on my cell phone. Ten of them. I didn't call back, figuring he'd get the message. When he turned up tonight it shocked me."
His gaze hardened. "When I saw him dragging you along and you fell, I wanted to rearrange his face."
She gave him a feeble smile. "Shades of the old Mick I used to know?"
He sighed. "Yeah."
What else could she say? Though Mick had sworn to uphold the law now, maybe a smidgen of the juvenile delinquent still commanded him. She wanted to see that wildness unleashed in a deep kiss, an intimate caress. To experience a complete sexual experience.
He rubbed a hand over his chin, and she imagined his five o'clock shadow sliding over her breasts, across her belly. His mouth finding hot, intimate secrets.
"I wonder if I should get a restraining order?" she asked.
When he didn't answer, she prompted him and he finally replied. "There may be a problem with that at this state in the game. He hasn't done anything a judge would say is threatening enough. Plus, restraining orders can sometimes aggravate a stalker into escalating."
Apprehension settled over her like a cold front.
Mick's serious gaze caught hers and held. "He's going to have to do a lot more than harassing phone calls and showing up to talk to you."
She ruminated. "You probably scared him off."
He reached into his back pocket and retrieved his wallet. He pulled out a business card and scribbled phone numbers on the back, then handed it to her. "That's my work phone on the front, cell and home numbers on the back. If he contacts you again in any way, you call me. I'll put the fear of God into him. I don't care what time of day or night it is, call me."
His declaration, spoken in his deep, husky voice, sent a new thrill racing across her body. So his protective streak continued after all these years. Yet she couldn't believe it was just for her. The cop in him truly believed in the phrase "to serve and protect." He'd do the same for any woman as an officer of the law.
Mick sat forward, even closer than he'd been seconds before. "Why didn't you sell your Aunt's house? Why did you decide to stay in Gold Rush?"
Celeste had to think--really think why. "The house is beautiful. My best years were there."
"The best? What about Vermont?"
"My time there was good but pretty ordinary. I'm looking for more."
A new silence overlaid the air between them, until he spoke again. "Your aunt was a fantastic lady."
She sighed. "That's for certain. I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't taken me in after Dad and Mom..." Even now she didn't like recalling that time. She shrugged. "After Dad gave up on everything, she helped me back to a happy life. If I would have tried to deal with Dad alone, I don't think I could have managed."
"You're strong. You could have done it. But it would have stolen your teen years from you."
She nodded. "She wanted me to leave here after the boy ... assaulted me. I told her I wouldn't leave until I'd finished high school and knew which college I'd attend."
"Six months of my life went down the drain after I beat up that jerk. And you know I'd do it again."
Her throat tightened. She knew he spoke the truth. "You'd lose your job."
"Yeah. I would."
Old guilt twisted inside her. "I'm sorry you were sent away back then."
"Don't be. I'm not sorry I pulled that kid off you. If I hadn't--"
"I know. If you hadn't come looking for me, he would have..."
Even years later, she sometimes couldn't force the truth past her lips.
Tears filled her eyes as she recalled what Mick had sacrificed for her. Damn, she hadn't realized how emotional she'd become seeing him once more. She broke the silence. "You remember ten years ago when I came back from Vermont for Christmas and to visit my aunt?"
"All of it?"
"Yeah." As an old Foreigner tune blared over the speakers, he edged closer. His voice lowered. "I never forgot one single moment of what almost happened."
The melting sensation in her stomach almost unraveled her one thread at a time. "It was quite a night."
"You telling me you want a repeat?"
Her breath caught in her throat as apprehension mingled with excitement. Could she do this? Could she take the next step to bring him closer? "I want to find out what it would have been like if I'd let you kiss me. Show me what would have happened, Mick."
Her heart thumped as she dared gaze into his eyes and absorbed the building responsiveness she saw there. She licked her lips and plunged into the deep end, hoping the water wouldn't turn icy. Her throat turned as arid as the Mojave.
"What if my job interferes? Are you going to run from me? Now that I'm SWAT, I'm on call twenty-four hours a day."
Right now, when she wanted his arms around her so desperately, he could get a call and leave. Head into the perilous, unpredictable world she so hated. "I know."
How would she react? She didn't want it to come between them again. Confusion entwined with desire.
A new song, this one sounding vaguely country, throbbed over the speakers. Voices around her seemed too loud.
His hand slipped down and covered both of hers, which she'd clutched in her lap. She stiffened at the feel of his warm flesh. Before she could speak, the server came back with their drinks and asked if they wanted to order food. They declined and the server departed. All the time, his hand stayed over hers.
Mick turned back to her, and his gaze held that limitless, incredible concentration that had always filled her with need. He stayed silent, and their stare-down ended with her looking at their hands. His fingers had a few scars, the dark hairs along the back catching her attention. Long fingers, broad palms. Beautiful structure. She imagined them coasting with eagerness over her breasts, learning her body in ways a man never had before.
She couldn't stand the silence. "When I walked away from you that night ten years ago, I regretted it. But I was afraid."
Mick's arm slid around her shoulder, and the other hand cupped her face. His big fingers and palm brushed her skin. "Not of me, I hope."
"Not of you. Of what I felt. Of what I wanted to do."
She sighed. Warmth tingled from where he touched her. She wanted this more than she could have imagined. His gaze glittered with intent.
"Easy fix," he said.