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Ethan Winters jerked awake with a start. His heart slammed into his ribs, his head ached, his eyeballs felt gritty and his mouth tasted like sawdust. Still, despite all that, he realized several things at once.
Most noteworthy was the woman in his bed. Yep, that very shapely slim leg draped over his belly was definitely of the feminine variety, not to mention the small, delicate hand resting over his heart. Ethan looked at that hand, but with his eyes so fried, it didn't look like any particular woman's hand. Just a hand. A female hand.
Yeah, okay, so he was in bed with a woman. No big deal. He'd figure that one out soon enough. Since he wore no shoes and no shirt, only slacks that were unsnapped and unzippedhe knew that because he could feel her warm thigh on his skinit stood to reason that the female was only half-dressed, too. That could mean several things, but likely only meant one thing.
So what? He was thirty years old, single, free to do as he damn well pleased, never mind that he didn't remember what the hell had pleased him.
With the sun so bright through the window, he realized it had to be midmorning. A quick glance at the clock showed it to be eight-forty. What time had he gotten into bed? the incessant pounding on his front door, now getting louder, had probably awakened him, not the soft woman clinging to him.
Groaning with the effort, Ethan raised his head off the pillow to look at her. All he could see was a luxurious tangle of silvery-brown hair. She had her nose stuck close to his side, practically in his armpit, and she wore his uniform dress shirta shirt that didn't quite cover the satiny peach panties stretched over a very fine ass.
He didn't remember giving her his shirt and he sure as hell didn't remember either of them undressing. He reached for her hair, ready to brush aside the heavy mass so he could at least figure out her identity, when the pounding on his front door started again. The woman stirred, then stretched awake, arching her body into his, raising her hands high above her head. Ethan stirred, too, despite being horribly hungover and in pain. Whoever was at the door could just damn well wait. He smiled down at the woman, anxious to see her, to have the mystery solved.
She rolled onto her back with a sleepy little moan.
Ethan leaped out of bed so fast his head spun and he nearly dropped to his knees. No. Hell, no.
His shaky legs continued to try to give out on him and his heart shot into his throat, making him dangerously close to barfing. He grabbed the footboard for support, swallowed hard, found his voice and shouted, ''What the hell. Rosie!''
The smile faded off her face. Very slowly she peeked open one smoky-blue eye and groaned. ''Shut up, Ethan. My head is splitting.''
He sputtered, heard the continued noise at his front door, and nearly panicked. ''Get out of my bed.''
The look she sent his way wasn't nice. Rather than obey, she rolled onto her stomach and nestled into the pillows. ''I need coffee.''
Unbound, her hair was glorious, but it wasn't long enough to cover her rump. Ethan stared.
Oh, God. What to do? Rosie. His Rosie. His longtime friend, a woman he'd grown up with, his ex-best friend's little sister
Damn she looked good.
No. No she did not. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the view of her sprawled in his bed, the sight of her plump bottom turned up for him to see, the long length of those legs. He'd seen her legs before, of course. She wore shorts, even the occasional swimsuit. But he hadn't seen her legs in his bed. Not once. Not ever.
Surely he hadn't Of course he hadn't. Ethan snorted. What a ridiculous thought. Why, if he'd done anything with Rosie, he'd remember it, and besides, he wouldn't do anything with Rosie. She was practically like family. Practically. Not quite, but close enough.
Reassured with his own thoughts, he opened his eyes againbut to be safe he didn't look directly at her. ''Stay put.''
Rosie grunted but otherwise didn't reply.
Ethan slipped out of the bedroom on unsteady legs and pulled the door shut behind him. Whoever loitered at his front door was making a horrid racket and if he woke up all the neighbors, they'd give Ethan fits.
He crossed the living room, jerked the door open and was met with the sight of Riley Moore, Harris Black and Buck Bosworth. Without being invited, they pushed their way in. Ethan cast a quick glance at the hallway, but all was secure. The very last thing he wanted was for the guys to know Rosie had spent the night.
They wouldn't believe that nothing had happened. Hell, he wouldn't have believed it. ''What do you guys want? As you can see, you've interrupted my beauty sleep.''
Harris snickered. ''You'd need to hibernate for a whole winter to improve that mug.''
Buck shook his head pityingly. ''i knew you were crocked last night, but you must have really fried the old gray matter if you don't remember our fishing day.''
Fishing. Oh, hell, he didn't want to fish. Ethan held his splitting head and took two deep breaths. ''i've gotta pass today. I can barely stay on my feet.''
Riley, the most serious of the three, gave an aggrieved sigh. ''i told you last night to quit drinking. I told you to give it up and get over it. But, no, you wouldn't. So now you have to pay the consequences. Go get dressed. We're not leaving without you.''
Ethan stiffened. He couldn't credit Riley's nerve, bringing up such a touchy subject. They all knew he didn't want to talk about it. ''Go to hell. Me, i m going back to bed. He winced at his own statement. Rosie was in his bed.
''Nope. Riley sat and propped his big feet on the cluttered coffee table, knocking a newspaper and a Chinese food container to the floor. ''I'm sick of you feeling sorry for yourself. It's been well over a year. Enough already.''
Buck and Harris, both silent, both cautious, looked back and forth while following the conversation.
Ethan clenched his teeth. ''Drop it, Riley.'' ''I will when you do.''
''It's none of your damn business.'' Ethan didn t mean to shout, and, in fact, immediately regretted it when his brain throbbed in pain and his stomach pitched. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to convince himself he could physically throw Riley out without puking, when a feminine voice suddenly intruded.
''They're your friends, Ethan. Of course it's their business.
Riley's feet hit the floor with a thud. Buck's and Harris's chins almost did the same. Ethan groaned. Through his fingers, he looked at Rosie.
Bless the supreme powers that be, she d had the foresight to at least wrap herself in a sheet.
His shirt covered her upper parts and her lower parts were covered by toga-wrapped linen. Her hair was wild, though, her blue eyes heavy, her cheeks still flushed with sleep.
All three men turned to stare at Ethan. Their expressions ranged from censure to appalled fascination to extreme curiosity.
That was all it took.
''Excuse me a minute, will ya?'' Hoping to preserve what little dignity he still possessed, Ethan forced himself to walk to the bathroom, slam the door and lock it. He needed privacy for the next fifteen minutes while he worshiped the porcelain god, praying it was a dream, hoping against hope that when he emerged everyone would be goneespecially Rosieand his brain could stop pulsing long enough to let him catch his breath.
He was hanging on to the toilet, his head spinning, when he heard footsteps outside the door. ''Ethan?''
He sat back on the cold ceramic-tiled floor and propped himself against the side of the tub, eyes closed. Breathing was a chore, thinking more so. He did not want to talk. ''Go away, Rosie.
He expected a sharp comeback, a refusal. Hell, he half expected her to knock the door down.
Through the years he d known her, Rosie had shown a knack for doing just as she damn well pleased without unnecessary consideration for what anyone else thought. She was headstrong, opinionated, independentand she'd been in his bed.
After a few expectant moments when nothing happened, Ethan tensed with new foreboding. His eyes opened and he stared at the locked door. Rosie hadn t done anything. Had she actually left when he d asked her to? Or rather, when he d rudely ordered her to? Had he hurt her feelings?
Had he had sex with her?
His stomach more unsettled than ever, Ethan pushed himself upright and stuck his head out the bathroom door. He didn t hear a single sound.
Ten seconds passed, then, ''What?'' Riley leaned around the hallway, looked Ethan over, and made a disgusted face.
''Did Rosie leave?
''She s making breakfast.
''Oh.'' That figured. If he wasn't so hungover, he d have remembered that Rosie wasn t a sensitive girly-girl. In fact, she was pretty damn tough. . . for a female. So of course he hadn t hurt her feelings.
He hadn t slept with her, either.
''It's not what you're thinking,'' Ethan mumbled to Riley, who continued to look at him as if he was lower than a worm. ''Get your mind out of the gutter, will ya?
Riley crossed his arms over his chest and flattened his mouth. ''She said for you to shower and join us.
And Rosie being Rosie, she fully expected to be obeyed. ''Yeah, all right.''
''She said you have ten minutes.
Annoyed, Ethan slammed the door. He'd take as long as he damn well pleased, and that was that. Hell, the woman didn't own him. Just because she d awakened in his bed didn t mean she could start thinking about bossing him around.
Course, she always bossed him around. And most of the time he let her. Though she was four years younger, they d been friends forever, through high school and college. They d remained close friends through the death of her parents, through his long engagement.
They d even stayed friends after her brother had run off with his fiancée, leaving him literally stranded at the altar nineteen months ago.
Naked, Ethan stepped beneath a stinging spray of hot water and clenched his teeth against the surge of discomfort that radiated to his limbs. He braced his hands on the tiled wall, dropped his head forward and closed his eyes.
God, if he d had sex with her, he didn t know if they could remain friends. Rosie was a marrying kind of woman, not a one-night stand. And he would never consider marriage again.
What the hell had he done?
''How many eggs do you guys want?''
''Rosie, Riley said with a long, exaggerated sigh, ''what s going on?
Rosie Carrington glanced over her shoulder at Riley. He was a big man, so she cracked three eggs for him, same as Harris. ''I m just making breakfast, Riley. No big deal.
''Yeah, right. Just making breakfastat Ethan's, dressed in his shirt, probably on the proverbial morning after.
''You re too smart to make assumptions, Riley.
Harris and Buck looked at each other, then snorted. Oh, they d made plenty of assumptions, all right. Not that she blamed them. It was a rather damning situation.
Riley paid them no mind. ''Okay, so what are you doing here? Last I saw Ethan at the party, he was flirting with that sexy redhead and you were fuming mad at him for, as you put it, acting like an ass again.
Rosie concentrated on not overcooking the eggs. Last night. . . well, she had been fuming mad. Come to that, she was still a little peeved. Most of the time Ethan was the best man around, easy to respect, easier to love. He was hardworking, levelheaded, conscientious. A firefighter with a moral code bone-deep. True, he d become something of a hound dog, but a good-natured one nonetheless.
Yet whenever people brought up his ex-fiancée, he went from being a great guy to a shallow, chauvinistic jerk who grabbed the first available woman. Rosie assumed he did that to prove to everyone that he was over his fiancée, that he'd recovered. The opposite was true. It showed that he was still hurtingand that hurt her.
It had been over a year and a half, for crying out loud. She d had enough. It was time to take matters into her own hands.
Rosie knew the men were uncomfortable to have found her here. If all went as she planned, they d just have to get used to it. Besides, she was now decently coveredsort ofin a ratty old housecoat that she'd located in Ethan's closet.
''You re being evasive, Rosie.
''Gee, Riley, I m twenty-six years old. I thought that meant I didn t have to answer to anyone for my personal life.
Harris scratched his head, making his black hair more disheveled than ever. ''You and Ethan have a personal life?
She ignored him as she poked a fork at the pound of sizzling bacon in the cast-iron skillet. Four men, all of them big bruisers, needed a lot of food to maintain their energy levels. ''You know, I'm amazed you guys planned to go fishing all day without breakfast. It s the most important meal of the day. You shouldn t skip it.
The men smirked at that ludicrous comment. As firefighters, Ethan and Harris kept in the peak of health. Their jobs allowed nothing less. Buck owned a lumberyard and physical labor was part of his daily work week. He had muscles on his muscles.
And RileyRosie peered at him again. Riley was an evidence technician for the police department. A former member of the SWAT team, he now owned a self-defense studio where he taught sparring, grappling, Jeet Kune Do and Silat knife fighting.
Next to Ethan, Riley was the most intriguing, appealing man she knew. He could break a person in two without effort. But more often than not, he was as gentle as a lambespecially where women were concerned.
There wasn't much call for a SWAT team in the small city of Chester, Ohio, thank God, but Riley had only lived here about five years. Before that, he d evidently suffered some bad times, not that he ever spoke of it much. He tended to be a very quiet man.
Except for now, when he chose to badger Ro-sie.
''I think we'll all survive fishing on an empty stomach. Riley s voice was dry, teasing.
''Now you won't have to.''
Harris leaned forward, sniffing the eggs. ''This ll be better than the pork rinds Buck packed.
Buck shoved him in the shoulder. ''I ll just eat them all myself then.
''Hey. Harris acted wounded by Buck s selfishness. ''You know I was just placating Rosie.
After wrinkling her nose at the lot of them, Rosie began toasting bread. She had half a loaf out and hoped that'd be enough. Ethan wasn't much on domesticity and therefore didn t have an abundance of groceries. His apartment was a pigsty, his kitchen a disaster and his cabinets all but empty.
She glanced at the clock. She d give the big coward two more minutes tops, then she d drag him out of the shower whether he wanted to face them all or not. If he was still naked and wetwell, she wouldn t cavil. In fact, the idea appealed to her.
Dragging him out proved unnecessary when not five seconds later Ethan appeared in the doorway. His mellow brown eyes were bloodshot, his blond hair still wet and only finger-combed, his feet bare. He d pulled on clean jeans and a gray T-shirt, and to Rosie, he looked better than breakfast.
Her heart felt full to bursting. ''You okay?
He sent her a cautious sneer, hooked a chair, yanked it out from the table and dropped heavily into it. ''I ll live, if that s what you mean. His mean, red-eyed look moved around the room to encompass each of his friends. ''I m not going fishing today.''
''Of course not.