In His Care by Taryn Williams – Part One

Chapter One

“He’s here again,” her wizened coworker cackled with a truly indecent amount of glee in her tone.

But Liz was too involved in trying to make sure she got the salt actually into the shakers and not onto the counter to even look up when she responded, “He who?”

Wilda snorted. “Like we get men in here every day who can’t take their eyes off of us and leave puddles of drool on the floor,” she cackled sarcastically, then paused. “Well, at least not in my case.”

Barely able to prevent herself from murmuring, “No wonder,” Liz, instead, flicked her eyes up—carefully not her head, so that, if he was looking, he wouldn’t be able to tell that she was aware of his presence. But, of course, they collided directly with his as she watched a slow, all too knowing grin spread over his face.

The intensity of his gaze caused her body to react in the way it always seemed to with him—nipples tightening painfully, the arousal so quick and sharp that it took her breath away, causing her to baptize her panties in a telling gush as he gave her a look that said he knew exactly what he was doing to her.

Dragging her gaze away from his with a herculean effort, she forced herself, instead, to concentrate on the menial task before her, noticing with a depressing sigh that she was being even less successful than before she’d realized that he was within fifteen feet of her, her hand now shaking slightly as she poured, rendering her efforts even messier than they had been.

Still, she persevered, not about to give him the satisfaction of looking at him again. It wasn’t the first time he’d appeared here since she’d come back, and it probably wasn’t going to be the last. He wasn’t doing anything that could get him ejected from the place or that would give her cause to call the cops, but then she’d never really worried about that kind of behavior from him.

He may have been a cowboy, but that wasn’t his style at all.

Having finally finished—and making a mental note to buy the diner a raft of salt to replace what she’d wasted—Liz cleaned up her mess and took up a coffee pot to make the rounds of the four or five tables who were still hanging around even though it was only about fifteen minutes before closing.

The lovebirds were first. They were practically having sex in the booth, but at least her appearance as she inquired with deliberately annoying chirpiness, “More coffee?” had the desired effect, forcing him to climb off her—however reluctantly—with a surprisingly deep blush suffusing both of their cheeks.

“Uh, no thanks. Just the check.”

She was nothing if not prepared for that request, setting it down and thanking them as she wished them a good night, mentally hoping for her sake that he was a much better lover than she’d been given ample evidence of.

The next table, down in back, was Boner, the town drunk. Liz had refrained from ever asking how he’d gotten that nickname, preferring to think that it referred to his skeletal frame rather than anything else that didn’t bear thinking about.

He was shyly grateful for the refill as she smiled softly at him while dropping a couple of creamers on the table.

He was drunk as a skunk, as always, but at least he didn’t smell, and, unlike some patrons, he had never gotten handsy with her, ever. In fact, if she was pressed, Liz would have to say that it was Wilda he was more interested in, not that the viperous bag of wrinkles even bothered to be civil to him. She was much more likely to chase him out of the restaurant with a broom, but Liz was a soft touch and always allowed him the refuge the diner offered, since he always behaved himself around her.

The single woman in the back booth on the other side was busy on her phone, as always, but put her hand over her coffee cup when she appeared, so Liz glided by her to the table she dreaded, which was full of rambunctious teen-aged boys in varyingly egregious stages of puberty—not that many men ever actually slipped its grasp completely. Some of the boys were gangly tall and thin, some shorter and rounder, all with faces ravaged by acne and with less than no impulse control when it came to harassing their tiny, pretty waitress.

But Liz ignored their crudeness, figuring to do otherwise was to invite more of it.

“Can I get you refills or warm up your coffee, boys?” she asked, not looking at any of them.

That caused a collective snicker, and the biggest and boldest of them—Jacob Hawthorne—commented crudely, “I’ve got something else I’d rather you warm up—how’s about you sit on my lap and we see what comes up?” He was closest to her and actually reached an arm out as if to draw her to him.

But it froze in mid-air as everyone in the restaurant heard someone drop his big, booted foot on the floor, then scrape his chair against it, as if to get up.

There was no mistaking the origin of those sounds. The hand was retracted as if he’d reached for a rattler instead, and suddenly, four starkly terrified adolescent faces were demanding their checks.

She had them ready, of course—they’d only gotten sodas and coffee, anyway. “Wilda’ll cash you out at the register, boys. Have a nice night.”

Carefully skirting around—without looking at him—going near where the man she knew would classify himself as her rescuer was sitting, she headed back behind the counter to grab a fresh pot, pouring a mug and adding a dash of cream before bringing it out to him.

He’d switched seats, having moved from a table to the booth in the corner, nearest where she would be working—even after they closed—on cleaning up and doing her best to leave things in a state of readiness for the morning shift, which was something she was in the habit of doing even when she wasn’t going to be there herself.

The boys were all clamoring at the register, being berated for their loudness and demanding tendencies by Wilda as he both devoured her with his look and kept one eye on them at the same time, just in case.

As soon as she appeared before him, he rose gracefully to his full, intimidating height, her name rumbling slowly out of his chest, as low and intimate as if she was lying naked beneath him in his bed.

“Miss Elizabeth.” He actually touched the tip of his hat to her, too, before doffing it and throwing it onto the seat.

She couldn’t deny the fact that the title, “Sir,” was on the tip of her tongue—as it always seemed to be with him—but she managed not to say it.

“Blaid,” she responded as neutrally as her body would allow, still without looking at him.

He sank back into the booth, taking the cup from her and drawling just as softly, “Thank you, darlin’,” effortlessly making her feel as if he was grateful for her having given him a particularly powerful blow job rather than just a cup of coffee made the way he liked it.

“Welcome,” she responded automatically, returning to the remainder of things she needed to do and praying she’d be able to fill her mind with them rather than the uncontrollably naughty thoughts that were flooding through her brain. Like how wonderful he smelled, a combination of leather and undeniable maleness, along with how big he was—easily taking up her entire field of vision, his size making her feel even smaller—as he always had—but in a good way, in a way that she knew meant that he still felt as protective of her as he had before.

As if she’d ever had any doubt.

Her body was firmly in his camp, as it always had been, and she had to constantly fight the urge to run back to the booth and straddle him in front of whatever customers remained as well as the inevitably disapproving Wilda.

But her flesh didn’t much care about anything except renewing its submission to his, as humiliatingly quickly as possible.

When everything had been filled and was ready to be distributed to the tables, she hefted a big tray up on to her shoulder and made her way out to the floor, only to find it deserted except for him, and the weight of it lifted from her as he held it in one hand.

Still doing her best not to look into his eyes—knowing that way lay certain ruin—she murmured, “You really don’t need to do that. It’s not too much for me.”

“I think it is, and it weighs little enough to me.”

She knew just how strong he was at least as well as she knew he wasn’t going to be dissuaded, so she gave in with an exasperated sigh and let him help her, ignoring the derisive snort from behind the counter that came when Wilda noticed what he was doing for her.

But, far from being angry, Blaid just smiled and winked at the old woman. “I’d be doing this if it was you, too, you know.”

“And you wouldn’t much like where I’d be putting the stuff,” she snapped back with a huff at the idea that she needed help from anyone.

When the tray was empty and all of the tables had full napkin dispensers, salt and pepper shakers, ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, jelly baskets, as well as place settings, she took the tray from him without even saying thank you, which was unlike her. Liz was almost obsessively courteous, saying “excuse me”, “please,” and “thank you” to everyone, always.

As she was filling the areas behind the counter with clean glasses and mugs fresh from the dishwasher, Wilda asked loudly, “Will you be all right with that wolf in the dining room if I go home a little early? Henry’s waiting for me.”

She would have said yes even if she didn’t think she would be all right, just so that Wilda wouldn’t get the chance to give her any kind of details about what might be going on between herself and her much maligned “boyfriend”, the mental images of which she’d already been subjected to having already scarred her for life.

“I’ll be fine.”

The older woman scowled—although it was hard to tell, because that was her resting face. “You sure? He’s a pretty big ‘un, and he’s had designs on you since before you were legal. Even more so now that you’re back, I’d wager. He was none too easy to live with while you were gone, in case you didn’t know. Like a bear with a wounded paw. I can stay, if you want me to. Henry’ll keep.”

It was a very generous offer—one she probably wouldn’t make to anyone else on the planet, she knew, but Wilda had a bit of a soft spot—or as close to one as she ever got—for Liz, although she tried not to take advantage of that fact.

“Yes, but I’ll be fine, thanks,” she replied, with more confidence than she felt. Not that she thought she was in any kind of physical danger from Blaid—despite his strict disciplinary tendencies, she’d never felt anything but safe with him.

Liz helped her into her raincoat, then headed out to put the chairs on the tables in preparations for washing the floor as the last act before she left for the evening.

Wilda, of course, couldn’t resist getting the last word in as she deliberately walked by where Blaid was sitting.

“You behave yourself, Blaid Ross,” she growled threateningly in passing.

But her obvious censure didn’t faze the big man in the least. “Yes, ma’am.”

Liz just tried to get on with what she needed to do and not to worry about what was going to happen when she was done and wanted to go home.

As she walked past him to get the mop and bucket, he stood again and caught her wrist—asking rather than demanding, which was a bit of a surprise—when she stopped. “Sit?”

“I need to mop the floor.” She tugged at her wrist, and he only waited a second before letting go, but she felt him watching her the entire time. When she was done, she’d mopped herself into a corner behind the register, where she usually ran the last reports from the ancient NCR while the floor dried.

But not this time.

Instead, she started to realize that he was there, at her elbow, lifting her gently into his arms to carry her back to his booth.

“Wouldn’t want you to slip on the wet floor,” he whispered.

Liz had a hard time not rolling her eyes at that, but then he paused uncharacteristically.

Somehow, she knew that he was debating with himself about whether he was going to put her next to him on the same side, thus trapping her there, or whether he was going to allow her some autonomy and put her down on the cushion opposite him.

In the end, he put her on her own side, although she knew that wasn’t really what he wanted to do, deep down.

And it wasn’t what he would have done before she’d left, either.

Apparently, you could teach an old dog new tricks. Wonders would never cease.

Since she hadn’t been given any choice about sitting there, she felt absolutely no obligation to speak to him, and she didn’t. Nor did she look at him, preferring, instead, to glance at her phone, not that there was anything interesting going on there—until she found it plucked from her hand and placed on his side of the table, well out of her reach unless she wanted to lean most of her top half on the table to try to reclaim it.

And she wasn’t about to expose her butt to him in any way, shape or form, even if it would have been facing away from him. He would have found some way to spank it. She didn’t know how; she just knew he’d manage it somehow.

And she knew she’d still not have her phone, either.

“How’ve you been?”

“Fine, thank you,” she answered primly, staring at her hands and willing them not to fidget nervously.

“Have you gotten settled back at your place?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And Evie, is she okay?”

That got her eyes to dart uncertainly up at his, but then down again. “Yes, she’s fine, thank you.”

“I would love to meet her sometime.”

This time, there was no mistaking the alarm in her eyes at that idea. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not? I don’t care that she isn’t mine. She’s yours, and that’s enough for me.”

Liz snorted. “I highly doubt that. I can’t imagine that you’re in the least happy about the idea that I left here—I left you—and married someone else.” Her expression transformed into one with the slightest edge of apprehension, and it made his gut and his heart ache painfully to see any trace of real fear from her. “In fact, I know you weren’t happy.”

He’d arrived on her doorstep—where she’d settled literally across the country from him—just once, but it was more than enough.

“I’m sorry for that. I was drunk, although that’s no excuse. I will apologize to you for that until the end of my days. You said you forgave me. Is that still true?”

Liz nodded slowly, twisting her fingers together just short of painfully, concentrating on that pain instead of what was brought by the uncomfortable memories he was invoking.

“Yes. I forgive you.” For that, anyway. But definitely not for what happened before that drove her away. Or for the fact that she couldn’t seem to get him out of her mind—despite being married to someone else.

Blaid sighed, feeling more relieved at her words than he wanted to. “You know I’m not the type to pussyfoot around. You’re divorced; I’m single, and I want you back.”

She chuckled derisively. “And that’s all it takes, huh? You want me, so I should come a runnin’?”

He’d been leaning back, deceptively casually, but he sat up quickly enough to make her jump a bit, grabbing her wrists and holding her hands—and thus her—in place as he put his face mere inches from hers.

His warm breath smelled of coffee, with no hint of booze whatsoever.

“It’s more than that, and you know it. I’ve never stopped loving you—never stopped wanting you—not once. Ever. And I never will.”

Liz met his eyes squarely and said to him exactly what she should have known not to say, “The fact that you want me does not in any way obligate me to feel the same.”

There was that wolfish smile, the one that said he knew better—that he knew she was lying—and that she couldn’t continue to meet, trying, instead, to concentrate on extracting her wrists from his hold, with no success.

His tone was deep and intimate, his words curling around her heart and her lady bits with the same potency; the truth that was plain in them not aiding her cause in the least. “Ah, but we both know that those feelings are there, anyway, whether or not you want them to be.”

Still trying to regain her dignity and her autonomy, both of which most of her wanted to surrender to him unconditionally, she answered, “Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t mean that I intend to act on them in any way.”

He suddenly let go of her completely, leaning back again while giving her a considering look. When he spoke, it was soft and firm, but not strident at all, as if he didn’t feel he needed to be. “You’re mine, Elizabeth. We’re destined to be a bonded pair, you and I.”

Her eyebrow rose. “Apparently not, according to what you told me yourself, since I married—and thus fucked—someone else.”

His unabashedly angry growl set her on edge in every possible manner. “That was my fault. My own eagerness to have you ruined what should have happened between us.”

Liz sighed. “Blaid, you know that I don’t believe in any of that stuff—”

His eyes caught and held hers, mesmerizing her for long moments as he had in the past. She was dismayed to realize that she was just as susceptible to it as she always had been.

“To borrow a phrase a lot of religious people use, you don’t have to believe in it; it believes in you. And I didn’t get the chance to prove it to you because I lost control of myself before I could truly make you mine and knot—”

“Stop!” Liz slammed her hands down on the table, succeeding in doing something few others had ever done—she’d startled Blaid Ross, who was always almost excessively in control of himself.

Except with her, apparently, in several different ways.

But then he also leaned towards laconic with everyone but her, too, despite the fact that he had multiple advanced degrees in various languages from some pretty prestigious places.

“I don’t want to hear any more about that stupid Delta/Gamma stuff—”

“Alpha/omega,” he corrected firmly, although he knew she was pulling his leg.

“Whatever,” she dismissed with a wave of her hand. “It’s all in your head.”

Liz wanted to wipe that filthy grin right off his face. “That’s quite a bit north of where it actually resides.”

“Shut up, Blaid. I’m not coming back for desperate want of you, I’m not coming back to you. We’re not going to sleep together again, and that’s that. I’m here because, since Steve is out of the picture, I need to have my family around me in order to be able to make ends meet.” She wished she hadn’t admitted quite that much to him, but it was the truth. “And besides that, I want Evie to know her family—her cousins and aunts and uncles and everyone—and to be raised around them, not thousands of miles away from everyone I know and love.”

He was nodding. “Smart girl. But then you always were, except when it came to me.”

Her eyebrows rose again. She couldn’t really find a reason to argue with that statement. There had always been something about him that had driven her past the ability to think—that had brought her sexuality to the fore from the beginning, to the exclusion of everything else—and that wasn’t a good thing, since it had been proven that she couldn’t trust herself around him. To say nothing of the fact that he used it against her to shore up his argument about their stupid pairing or bonding or whatever.

She really didn’t want to do anything to encourage him along those lines, despite the fact that her body was completely willing—from the start—to buy into every single bit of it.

Liz knew that, when she was within a ninety-mile radius of him, she only had her intellect to rely on. And, in her experience, that wasn’t necessarily enough. Sometimes, it was nowhere near enough.

Gentle fingers looped around her wrist again. “You belong to me—with me, Elizabeth. Just as I do you. And I’m going to prove it to you if it’s the last thing I do.”

She jerked her arm away, somewhat amazed when he allowed her to have it back.

“Stop deluding yourself, Blaid—you’re too smart for that.”

But then she heard it. That agonizingly familiar sound that she’d never heard anywhere else—only ever from him—and that she knew, instinctively, he’d only ever made with her. It was somewhere between a purr and a hum, not quite as deep as a growl and with no threatening undertones whatsoever. It had within it the ability to both quiet and excite her. And it was powerful enough to cause a very physical, involuntary reaction in her as if he’d reached between her legs and stroked a big, calloused finger over her clit.

As his fingertips stroked the sensitive area inside her wrist, over that rapidly rising pulse point, a slightly mournful, slightly distraught whimper—her body’s automatic answer to his primitive call—escaped her lips before she could stop it as her eyes closed involuntarily and she let out all of the breath in her body at once, leaning limply against the back of the booth as the unfettered arousal it stirred within her had its way with her.

Only a few seconds later, Liz tried to force herself to shake it off, to slog through the cocoon of sensuality that he had instantly woven around them merely by him making that terribly private sound, and had only limited success until she opened her eyes to see him looking annoyingly self-satisfied. He was not quite smiling, though, which was a good thing because she might have had to reach across the table and smack it clean off his face.

That would get her into a terrible amount of trouble, and she had no doubt exactly where she’d end up if she did that—being hauled out to his truck to either be thoroughly spanked and fucked there or being subjected to exactly the same fate back at his sprawling ranch.

Very likely, the first scenario was more valid, since he didn’t much believe in delaying punishments.

Neither outcome was to be desired, she kept telling herself as her essence literally dripped down her slit, making her worry that she was going to leave a wet spot on the seventies avocado green pleather of the booth cushion beneath her, which would only encourage him if he saw it.

And of course, he would see it. He had eagle eyes for everything about her; the intensity that radiated from him was one of the reasons she’d left, not figuring she could handle him.

Knowing she had to get away from him, Liz stood suddenly, saying, “I have to get home,” making her way hurriedly out of the booth, as is she was afraid he might change his mind at any minute and decide to sweep her up into his arms as he had before.

And if he did that, she’d be lost.

But he didn’t. He did rise behind her, but remained where he was. “I’d be glad to take you home.”

“I have my car, thank you,” she replied as neutrally as her full-on arousal would allow.

“All right. I’ll see you to your car.”

She struggled into her coat, but then he was right there to help her as he followed her out. “You don’t need to do that.”

“I know I don’t, Elizabeth.”

But he was going to, anyway.

It wasn’t as if Rossville was a hotbed of crime. She’d never been scared to close by herself. The parking lot was well lit, and the diner was in the middle of town. All she’d have to do is get one good scream out and the entire town—the majority of which rolled up its sidewalks at five in the afternoon—would be awakened.

She locked up behind them, if clumsily, with him standing entirely too close to her, feeling him put his big hand all too familiarly on the small of her back as they walked towards her tiny, beat up car and his big truck. It had felt as if he was branding her as his whenever he’d done that in the past, and it was even more so now, for some reason.

He took her keys from her and opened the car door, then handed them back to her. “I wish I’d thought to come out and turn the car on for you so it would be warm for you to get into. I’ll remember next time.”

It was very like him to think of things like that—to think of her comfort and safety and wants and needs well ahead of his own, as no one in her life ever had.

“There isn’t going to be a next time, Blaid,” she wasted her breath telling him.

She thought she was going to get away cleanly, but then, she should have known that he would never allow that to happen—especially after he’d seen the results of her very primal response to him in the diner.

He was rumbling in that very particular—very peculiar—way, even before he reached for her, turning her away from the seat she was attempting to claim and holding her flat against him. Some men might have tried to steal a kiss from her as quickly as possible at that moment, being grabby and fumbling and simply trying to achieve their goal.

But not Blaid.

Even if he hadn’t had that terribly enticing bass trill of his, he wouldn’t have been like that. He might have grown up in a small town in Texas, but he was no hick, and he was far from inexperienced—although he had nowhere near as much of it as he wanted with her.

Still, he forced himself to take his time, watching the effects of the vibrations that started in his chest as they soothed and settled her while further awakening her body to him, even against her will.

It was yet another reason why he knew—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that she was his.

He’d never purled for anyone else, but it was instinctive to do with her, and no other woman had ever responded to him quite the way she did.

Only Elizabeth.

One hand cupped the back of her head, where her challengingly neat bun was—which he desperately wanted to ruin in order to see those auburn locks fanned over his arm—the other resting partly on her hip, partly on her backside as he brought his lips to rest against hers while just slightly increasing the volume of his crooning. For long moments, he teased her with his tongue, licking at and outlining her lips with the tip until Elizabeth could bear it no longer, grabbing him, pressing herself more fully against him, and initiating the kiss he’d been withholding from her, herself.

His soft chuckle at her actions was much more annoying than soothing, but she couldn’t think about that now. He was kissing her, finally, having appropriated control of the kiss immediately—not that she cared.

She was good as long as he didn’t stop.

She never wanted him to stop, especially when he bent her back over his arm, thoroughly claiming her mouth with his, his hand just beginning to wander towards her breast as a car drove by, bathing them in their headlights brightly enough to drag her back to her senses.

It was a testament to his strength of will that, the moment she began to struggle, he stopped, setting her back on feet that were—at first—unsteady without his support, so he kept her safe until she felt she could take a step away from him.

With one last, inappropriately longing, ragged-breathed look at him, she ducked into the driver’s seat and he closed the door, warning sternly, “Drive carefully, little girl.”

And, to her horror, she did drive more sedately than she usually did to her little flat in a converted Victorian on the edge of town, knowing that the fact that he was behind her had a lot to do with that.

He pulled over and shown his lights on her door, obviously wanting to assure himself that she got home safely, not leaving until she’d done so.

The bastard, she thought, completely devoid of anger.

By the time she made sure that Evie was okay, got her mom settled in her own apartment, and crawled between the cool sheets of her own—now lonely-seeming—bed, she was surprised to hear the beep of her text tone.

Sleep well and dream of me, Miss Elizabeth. I can still taste you on my lips.

Several responses to that—the majority of them flippant to downright insulting—floated into her mind, but then she decided that, much like the adolescent boys in the diner tonight, any kind of response would encourage him, so she, instead, chose to simply ignore it and go to sleep.


Chapter Two

Unfortunately, her unconscious took what he’d said to heart and she had dreamt about him all night, and every single one of them was sexual in nature, such that she woke up in a hornier condition that she’d gone to sleep in.

She didn’t think she’d ever felt quite this horny in her life—at least, not since she when she was around Blaid before.

She had the mid-day shift at the diner, so she didn’t have to get up too early, knowing that her mother would take care of Evie so that she could sleep in a little, but that’s not exactly what she did with the extra time.

Her body wasn’t going to let her time with Blaid go unsatisfied, one way or the other. And since he wasn’t there, Liz found she couldn’t convince herself to ignore the compulsion, and, with an impatient, somewhat disappointed-in-herself sigh, she reached for the pump bottle of lube she kept tucked in the back of the top drawer of her nightstand, although she knew she probably wouldn’t have much need of it.

Just as she was about to squirt a dollop of the stuff onto her waiting fingers, she heard her phone again.

I dreamt of fucking you all night. Woke up humping my pillow and wishing it was you.

The man went to Oxford, for crying out loud!

Knowing she shouldn’t engage with him, she couldn’t resist sending Aw, Shakespeare—you’ll turn my head!

“I humbly do beseech of your pardon, for too much of loving you.”

Okay, she obviously had to revise her opinion of the quality of his education. Jesus Christ, it’s seven in the morning and you come up with a quote like that off the top of your head!

I’ll not apologize for quoting the Bard to you. You deserve that and much more from your mate.

She could hear him saying just that in his slow Texas drawl—whispering it into her ear just before making love to her, although she knew that he could mimic nearly anyone and could have probably said it to her as the man himself would have—he’d done a spot on English accent for her before, when she’d agreed with friends that it was, by far, the sexiest of accents.

The thought of him saying anything like that to her while in bed with her made her moan out loud, squeezing her legs together in frustration.

The phone chimed several other times, but she ignored it in favor of pursuing her original goal.

Within the privacy of her room, of her own consciousness—in a situation that she considered to be guilt free and allowed herself to think about anything since it was unreality—she brought to mind her favorite fantasy, which was kind of an amalgamation of times when he’d let go of the reins of his very obvious passion for her—to a point, anyway.

Until that last time, he had held himself in very tight check, preferring to concentrate on her and her pleasure, driving her crazy with it within the safety of his arms, bringing her to peak after peak, then depositing her back on her doorstep without having found his own release.

She had no idea why, and he’d refused to answer her questions about his strange behavior—not that she was objecting that hard, though.

Her fingers reached up, under her comfy old flannel pajama top to brush delicately over her breasts, teasing nipples that had been painfully peaked and aching since, well, since she’d met him, really.

They were very sensitive and didn’t respond well to rough handling unless she was well along the path, which was something she’d been impressed that he’d realized about her almost immediately, but then he had never hesitated to focus himself entirely on her, and that was one of the areas where that had paid off in spades.

He was such a big guy, his enormous hands made rough from years of manual labor, but his touch was always—at least at first—incredibly gentle as he took the time, every time he brought her into his arms, to learn exactly what she liked. Her breasts had fascinated him; he cupped them—and they filled his palms nearly to overflowing—with exquisite care, brushing the sides of his big thumbs over nipples that he had been gratified to know were hard even beneath her clothes, becoming more so as he touched her, his crooning intensifying naturally as she writhed and panted before him.

She loved the fact that, although he always started out treating her with incredible delicacy, he seemed to know instinctively that her needs changed as he began to gentle her to his hands, and that later on in their lovemaking, when he had brought her closer to those exquisite heights it seemed only he could, she wanted more, wanted to ride the edge between pleasure and pain.

And Blaid was only too happy to provide that. Often, she was very nearly there already because he’d spanked her, as he often did for one transgression or the other, and she was almost always beneath him, lying on those stinging, sensitized cheeks, sometimes with him pinning her arms over her head so that she couldn’t even touch him, although she craved very much to do so.

“Please—please let go of me—I want to flick your nipples and run my hands over your chest and…” she breathed raggedly.

But he didn’t relent—except for that once. Instead, he’d lean down and suck a nipple into his mouth in a torturously slow manner, releasing it long moments later to say, “If I let you touch me, this will be all over long before it should be.” He smiled softly up at her to soften his denial. “Besides, I adore having you helpless like this. I think I shall have to find you some pretty leather cuffs for your wrists…” He trailed a finger down the midline of her body to just above a pair of swollen lips that hid the extent of her desire for him—for the moment. “And those beautiful ankles of yours, too, of course.”

It never took much more than that to get her to where she wanted to be. Just replaying what had already happened between them, rarely even getting to the main event before her body ran away with her, causing her to cry out. Though, this time, before she could stifle it, her entire body clenched and spasmed and throbbed as she teased and tortured herself while writhing on the bed, desperately wishing that it was his finger—or better, his mouth—that was between her legs—

“You okay?”

God damn it! Her mother had heard her moan, of course. Luckily, she would never attribute the cause to what it really was.

“Fine, Ma,” she barely squeaked out.

“Probably ought to get up now—Evie’s had her breakfast, but I kept yours warm in the oven.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re welcome, Lizziebeff.”

She took a few more minutes, indulging herself a bit in the afterglow. Even if it had been a bit interrupted, it was just what she’d needed to take the edge off and to help her face Blaid, who was very likely to “drop in” at some point during her shift and send her hormones into a rage just by his mere presence.

If she wasn’t careful, she was going to end up in the same place she’d been when she’d left.

And damned if she wasn’t starting to think that that might not be such a bad thing.

She squelched that thought with a steaming hot shower, but it didn’t help at all that her body seemed to have been left more sensitive than before she’d tried the only solution she really had for the situation, besides surrendering herself to him, which was exactly what she knew he wanted.

And what she knew she couldn’t afford to do.

* * *

“Marti, do you think you could watch Evie for me? My mom’s not feeling well, and I don’t want to impose on her—”

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry—you know I want to do everything I can to help now that you’re back, but I’m heading out to my own mom’s in Tampa this morning—she’s not doing well, either.”

Elizabeth flopped back in the booth she’d appropriated to make an emergency phone call, looking for someone—anyone—to stay with Evie. She was working the late shift, and her mom had taken the child, who was recovering from a stomach flu, but called only an hour after her shift started, saying she couldn’t keep her any longer because she was sick, herself.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. My mom’s just got the flu, but it sounds like you might be dealing with something more serious.”

Marti sighed. “Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

“Well, if there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know, and I’ll be sending my love with you. Please pass it on to your mom. She was always so good to me when I was constantly underfoot at your house while we were growing up.”

Liz was horrified to hear her friend choke back a sob at those memories. “Y-yes, I will. Thanks, Lizzie. Sorry I couldn’t help.”

“No problem. Lots of other candidates on whom I can impose. You concentrate on getting your mom better.”

“Love you!”

“Love you, too, Mighty Marti! Call or text any time, if you want to talk. And I mean that! Anytime!”

“I know you do, and I will. Bye.”

Well, that was another contact figuratively crossed off in her contacts list. She was getting to the very bottom and was worried that she was going to have to end up leaving work, herself, which was the last thing she wanted to do. Moving had been expensive, and she needed every penny she could get.

“I keep telling you,” Wilda piped up from behind the counter. “I’m off in an hour. I’ll take care of the kid for you.”

A fate worse than death, as far as Liz was concerned, not that she was going to convey that to Wilda, of course. But she also had to baldly acknowledge that Wilda was her ace in the hole, although she fervently hoped it didn’t come to that, for Evie’s sake.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose on you like that, Wilda. I know kids aren’t your favorite.”

Surprise, surprise.

Wilda rarely had a good word to say about anyone, much less some little ankle biter, as she called them, who was likely to be allowed to run willy-nilly through her restaurant, screaming at the top of his or her lungs while breaking things.

“It’s not usually the kids I hate; it’s the parents,” she grumped.

“It’s the everybody,” Liz corrected with a smile, although she hardly thought she needed to soften that blow.

Wilda knew she was a bitch and a half.

“Can’t argue with that logic.”

“Good Lord, don’t let Wilda babysit. You’ll have a baby serial killer on your hands.” The comment came from just behind her.

The older woman snorted loudly at that supposition.

“I’ll watch her for you,” he declared autocratically, as if that settled the matter once and for all.

She didn’t know how she’d done it, considering how hyper aware she usually was of him, but she’d somehow managed to forget that he was there. Perhaps motherhood trumped sexuality—not that the usual buzz of attraction wasn’t still there, but it had been relegated to the background until her motherly duties were seen to.

She’d never had any kind of conflict like that at all with Steve, but then the attraction between them was much more intellectual than physical—and in the end, it hadn’t been anywhere near enough to keep the marriage together.

But would sexual compatibility be enough, either?

Somehow, she doubted it. But even though she was undeniably attracted to his size and those blue eyes she could just drown in, to say nothing of his dripping sex voice and even the shorter black haircut he was currently sporting, it was more than that.

He made her feel desired and safe and protected in a way no one else had ever been able to match. Granted, it was the overwhelming intensity of those very feelings that had sent her fleeing from him in the first place—along with his absolute insistence that she was his rightful mate—but now…

Liz mentally shook her head, trying to clear it, with little success. She didn’t need to be thinking about him at the moment—she needed to see to her child.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Liz stated firmly, picking up her phone again to go on to the next friend she never wanted to hear from again.

He didn’t take her phone away from her, but he did force her to put it down as he took his place across from her in the booth—not at all unexpectedly.

“Why not? It makes sense. I have the time and the inclination.” His gaze narrowed, making her feel a bit uncomfortable. “You do trust me to take care of her, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course.” He was truly wonderful with little ones—considerably better than she was, if it came down to it. She’d seen him with his friends’ kids or children of the hands who lived on the ranch his family had owned for generations. From biggest to littlest, they all ran to him—he always seemed to have some sweet or other in his pocket, as well as encouraging words for all and would always join in whatever games they were playing, no matter how silly it might make him appear in doing so.

One of her most cherished—and painful—memories was of him holding Marti’s newborn son—just a day old—in his arms in her hospital room. He might have looked ridiculous—a giant with a tiny blue bundle in his arms—but instead, he looked incredibly natural, talking to the baby in a low, comforting tone, telling him about his parents and himself and making his stuffed animals talk to him in funny voices.

The man should already have children of his own, she realized starkly, and the idea that some other woman might just do that for him made her blanch mentally.

And the bald truth was that he would be the ultimate sitter for Evie—more loving, more caring, more protective than anyone else, perhaps even than her mom—specifically because Evie was her daughter.

“Well then, that settles it.” He held out his hand expectantly.

“What?”

“I need the key to your place.”

“I don’t think so.” She wanted to continue arguing, but she was on her last friend’s name, and she didn’t think that Zack, who was a guy she’d dated in high school just to piss the man who was sitting in front of her off, would want to take the job. Sighing audibly, she said, “I’ll go there and let you in.”

He looked downright insulted. “You won’t give me a key? What do you think I’ll do, get it copied and come into your apartment in the middle of the night sometime?”

No, not really. He was just so intense sometimes that he made her feel knee-jerk protective of herself.

“Of course not.” And, just like that, she’d let herself to be manipulated into allowing her ex, her first real ex—someone to whom she was still terribly, uncontrollably attracted to—to take care of her daughter and have a key to her place.

Smart, Lizzie. Really, really smart.

“She’s just getting over the stomach flu that my mom now has, apparently, so only bland foods. She’ll want spaghettios or mac and cheese, but she’s not allowed to have them at the moment. You’ll find applesauce and mashed bananas in jars in the cupboard—”

His hand covered hers as she was just about to spin out all of the things she felt he needed to know. “Elizabeth.”

He almost always called her by her full name, and the way it bubbled roughly out from deep in his chest always caught her attention to him, no matter how stressed or upset she was.

“I know that the Dorsey women need a firm but loving hand.”

“She’s not a Dorsey, she’s a Reynolds,” Lizzie corrected firmly.

He seemed somewhat taken aback at that, as if he’d thought for some reason that her daughter wouldn’t have her father’s last name. The fact that her so-called father didn’t much care whether or not she had his last name was neither here nor there. But he didn’t let it deter him for long.

“Does she have any allergies or chronic illnesses?”

“No.”

“Her doctor’s name and number somewhere in the apartment?”

“On the white board on the fridge.”

“Does she take any meds?”

“No.”

“Nap?”

“If you can get her down, yes, an hour or two mid-afternoon.”

He raised an eyebrow, as if affronted at the idea that he wouldn’t be able to get her to take her nap. “Bedtime?”

“Seven.”

“Favorite story?”

Liz groaned. “Frozen, Frozen, and then, for variety, more Frozen.”

He chuckled. “No problem. I think I can do a reasonable Olaf.”

He stood, his hat making him look just that much taller and more imposing. “Well, your mom is downstairs if need be, and I have all of your pertinent information. She’s in good hands.”

“I know that, or I would never let you stay with her.”

Blaid winked at her. “I know, and I’m duly honored that you trust me with her.”

Having gotten what he wanted from her—as usual—he turned and headed for the door.

“I’ll come home right after my shift, so, a little after eleven,” she called after him.

He paused by the door to look back at her. “Take your time, sweetheart.”

Then, on impulse, he strode back to where she was now standing by the counter to wrap an arm around her waist and haul her to him, planting a short yet passionate kiss on her lips then turning her loose and heading out the door this time while humming a self-satisfied tune that made her want to smack him—

And run after him, tackle him to the ground, and beg him to take her, regardless of their entirely too interested audience, who had already gotten quite enough of an eyeful for the day.

* * *

Target acquired.

His text made her chuckle out loud. That does not inspire confidence, you realize.

Next, she received a picture of her tiny, elfin, just over three-year-old daughter, sound asleep on what was—she knew from personal experience—a surprisingly comfortable bed.

Target has been changed (the road to potty training is filled with minefields—literal minefields), fed, changed again—by herself, with almost no help from me, into a pull up—amused, then promptly fell asleep on my chest.

Amused?

I threw her up in the air several times, head over tea kettle, while spinning around, doing splits, and humming Rubberband Man. Never fails to tucker ’em out.

She laughed so hard at that that everyone in the place turned to look at her.

Even more confidence inspiring. NOT.

Moments later, She’s incredibly smart and unbearably adorable, just like you. I knew she would be.

Hopefully she’ll be smarter than I am!

Elizabeth.

His steel trap mind had intimidated her a bit—especially at first—and he had been very emphatic—impressing his stance on certain parts of her anatomy in particular several times—that he would not stand for her running herself down.

You know she’s adopted, right?

What difference does that make?

Well, none, to me.

Same here. She’s your daughter. You love her as your own. I love you as my own. Therefore, I love her as my own, too. I am as utterly committed to her as I am to you.

Liz was stunned that he could just say it like that—with such unwavering conviction. He’d said it to her before, but not since she’d left.

Stop that.

Not a chance, my darling. Not even once you’re living with me, wearing my last name, and getting your little bottom thrashed regularly—as you so desperately need to—crying out my name as I make you come helplessly.

For some reason, Liz’s eyes filled with tears at that pronouncement, especially since she knew he meant every word of it.

I’ll never get enough of you. Never. Not as long as we live.

* * *

More pics and texts and videos arrived regularly throughout the evening—a video of Blaid and Evie having a tea party with her stuffies while he did posh British accents for each one of them, as well as adopting one for himself, a picture of what Liz knew had to be Evie having a bit of a tantrum, with big tears rolling down her angry, scrunched up little face—probably the result of no spaghettios or mac and cheese—and him pulling a face that looked just as bereft and unhappy as hers did, somehow.

Another video came later, showing her carousel clock striking seven and that she was snuggled under the covers of her big-girl bed, with him lying next to her, reading Frozen aloud to her and doing all of the voices for it perfectly. Well, almost. His voice was naturally too deep to do the girls well, but he made a valiant attempt, anyway.

But Evie adored it, clapping at the end every time and saying, “Again! Again!”

He did read it two times, but then he very firmly told her that the third time was the charm, and afterwards, there wasn’t going to be a repeat performance and she would be going to sleep.

Liz watched her nod solemnly but figured Blaid was in for a comeuppance after he read the last page for the third time.

But it didn’t happen.

Instead, he got up, put her railing in place so she wouldn’t fall out of bed, and leaned down to give her a loud smooch, after which he made a loud popping sound as he removed his lips from her temple, which made her giggle.

“Night, squirt. Sleep tight.”

“Nigh’, Unca Baid.”

He left her door open halfway, having turned the camera back to himself.

“Fed, bathed, pottied herself, I might add, so she’s in a nighttime pull up, in bed, on her way to sleep by…” He looked at his watch. “Seven-fifteen. Not bad, if I do say so, myself.” He sat down on her couch, making her cringe at just how shabby it looked. “I’m going to get some work done while I’m here. I hope you’re having a good shift. Drive carefully, and I’ll be eagerly waiting for you to get home.”

That was exactly what she was worried about, Liz thought as she sent a heartfelt thank you back to him, then greeted and seated several customers, trying unsuccessfully to put the thought of him in her small apartment out of her mind.


Chapter Three

Since he had her key, Liz raised her hand to knock on her own door but found it opened before she got the chance.

It was so strange to step into the apartment with him in it again. It was the same exact one she’d had before she’d left, so he’d been in it many times before. The only real difference was that her furnishings were just that much older.

She reached to take her coat off, but he was there already, unknotting the belt, unbuttoning the buttons, then moving behind her to take it from her, hanging it on the hall tree by the door as if that was something he did every night of his life.

He then surprised her by dropping to one knee and removing her shoes, which he knew was always the next thing she did when she got in the door, but it was much too intimate a thing for him to be doing for her, not that she could find the voice to say anything to stop him as he slipped her bared feet into the pair of comfy, fuzzy slippers she kept handy by the door.

“Can I get you something? Your liquor cabinet could use some serious restocking—”

“You know I don’t drink much, and I’m not about to spend what little money I have filling it. There are too many other things that I actually do need or want.”

He was frowning at that pronouncement, saying, “I know. But I saw that you have gin and a bottle of tonic in the back of the fridge, if you’d like one.”

“No, thank you.”

“Well then, shall we soothe your no doubt worried maternal mind and check on the little darling?”

He knew her much too well.

He accompanied her down the short hall to the baby’s room, sneaking in stealthily to peer down at the little girl, who was fast asleep.

Blaid was standing directly behind her as she did so—much too close for her comfort. It was an entirely too domestic a scene—as if they were looking down at their own daughter—so she got out of there as quickly and quietly as she could.

“Thank you for taking such good care of her, and I’m sorry to have to impose on you so.”

They were in her small living room, his hands in his pockets as he stared down at her, compounding the nervousness that came over her suddenly when she realized that she was, in essence, alone with him, and that her bedroom was only a few feet away.

So, on impulse, she almost sprinted away from him, reaching for her purse. “How much do I owe you?”

He snorted loudly. “Are you kidding me? You don’t owe me any money.”

Liz didn’t see the incredulous look on his face descend into an annoyed one as she continued to root around in her purse for her wallet. “No, I pay my mother to take care of her for me. Granted, not as much as I’d pay a day care, but then, she’s not got the overhead a day care has, either. I would have paid Wilda if I’d had to use her—God forbid.”

Finally, she managed to dig into her billfold. “Here’s forty bucks. It’s all I have on me at the moment.”

She held the money out to him for a while, not looking at him, but then she snuck a peek, wishing immediately that she hadn’t at the darkly unhappy expression on his usually handsome face.

“Unless you would like to find yourself over my lap getting a thorough spanking for deeply insulting me, little girl, I suggest you put that money away right now.” His last word was threateningly soft.

But some people never learn to heed a warning when it’s given.

Instead, she actually shook it at him. “Really, take it, Blaid. I know your time is worth a helluva lot more than that, but I really appreciate your help.”

Liz really didn’t know what was happening—and was still clutching the money—until she ended up over his lap on her own couch, where she’d been before, and she was much less interested in being.

She kept telling herself, anyway.

And she wasn’t wrong. Being spanked by him was not something to be wished for, although she had enjoyed the intimacy of it—before, even during, and especially after.

“Stop this immediately, Blaid! Let me up!”

All he did was chuckle in a way that only heightened her concern, keeping her in place easily with a hard arm around her waist. “That’s always worked on me, hasn’t it? Whenever you’ve asked me to not spank you, I’ve, of course, not spanked you?”

“We’re not together,” she ground out from between tightly clenched teeth as she could feel him raising the dowdy skirt of her too big uniform and lowering her panties as soon as they were revealed, leaving her backside bare.

He paused, hand covering the majority of her rear, such that she was terrified to move, lest it end up in a place she wanted it to be even less than on her butt.

“Be that as it may, I expect you not to deliberately offend me by offering me money for doing a favor for someone I consider to be much more than just a friend. And you can’t say I didn’t warn you, Elizabeth, because I did. Did you really make the mistake of thinking that I wouldn’t spank you when you needed it?”

She refused to dignify his question with an answer.

Besides, it was as awful as she’d remembered it to be, and she couldn’t have thought of an answer if her life depending on it from the moment his palm first collided with her cheeks.

In fact, it was way worse than years ago, because, this time, she had to be as quiet as she could so that she didn’t wake the baby, and considering the gusto with which he delivered each devastating swat, she was hard pressed not to be screaming from the very beginning.

Lord knew she was crying from smack number one, having forgotten just how hard he spanked—kind of like how women forget labor pains, she guessed—begging him to stop in fervent, tear-filled whispers that she knew weren’t going to accomplish anything but make her feel even more humiliated, but she couldn’t seem to stop doing it.

He wouldn’t stop until he felt she’d surrendered completely to him, until she’d stopped fighting the discipline he was subjecting her to, and that was proving much harder for her to do, for some reason, so she probably made it worse on herself than it might have been. But Blaid kept to his rule, raining devastating spank after spank until he felt Elizabeth go limp. She lay over his lap, no longer asking him to stop as he continued to spank her past that stage, when he knew she would truly learn the lesson he was trying to teach her.

The moment he stopped, Liz found herself gathered into his arms and held tightly on his lap, her head on his chest, his lips pressed to the top of her head as he stroked her hair while she sobbed miserably.

Disciplining her never got any easier for him. Oh, he enjoyed it on several levels, and he would spank until he was no longer physically capable of doing so. Doing so brought him a weird, conflicting sense of satisfaction—a feeling that he was doing for her what he was absolutely meant to, but also a kind of remorse—if a distant one—that he was causing her pain that he felt the immediate need to soothe—not physically, but emotionally.

Seconds later, she both felt and heard it as his chest began to vibrate beneath her ear in that particular pitch he reserved for her, and she found herself beginning to calm down almost against her will.

She had been angry throughout the spanking that he was being so autocratic with her when he no longer had the right to be, and she had intended to give him a piece of her mind when it was over, even to the extent of trying to throw him bodily out of her place, if necessary. Although she wasn’t exactly sure whose army she was going to employ to get that accomplished, but she was going to try, anyway.

But that low thrumming of his robbed her of that anger, making her feel warm and safe and cared for, instead, as he held her within the safety of his arms, even as her bottom stung abominably.

“I’m sorry I had to spank you,” he whispered, “but you don’t ever have to pay me to take care of Evie, and I truly am insulted that you tried to. Even if you weren’t mine, I wouldn’t take money from you to do that.” He tipped her chin up so that their eyes met, hers much more reluctantly than his, and still dripping the occasional tear. “Understand?”

“Yes, S—Blaid.”

He smiled at her slip. “Why don’t we figure that I’ll take her for the rest of the week, hmm? Your mom looked like death warmed over when I collected Evie from her. I don’t think she’s going to be over this in a few days.”

“But I don’t want to im—”

His hand found her singed behind again, patting it firmly. “I would think carefully about whether or not you want to finish that sentence, young lady,” he threatened sternly.

“Oh, all right,” she said ungraciously.

But he just laughed. “Why, thank you very kindly, Miss Elizabeth, for allowing me the honor of doing you such a favor.”

She grunted, but it just made him chuckle at her.

Then he was humming again, and she began to melt against him, knowing she was in grave danger of losing herself to him entirely. She didn’t have many defenses that worked on him in the first place, and against him and his infernal humming, she had essentially none.

She was saved by one thing and one thing only—the only thing that could have saved her—at least for the moment.

“Mumma?”

Liz was off his lap in a flash, awkwardly trying to get to her baby and pull her panties up at the same time. But he came to the rescue, stopping her to pull them up himself from behind her, whispering, “Aw, poor baby!” when she hissed at the contact with her ravaged bum.

He came into the room with her, and again, it felt entirely too much like a scene out of a fifties sitcom to have him standing there with her.

“Go back to sleep, love bug,” she encouraged. “I’m home.”

“I godda twinkle.”

Liz held out her hand to walk her to the bathroom down the hall, but she withheld hers, looking past her to Blaid, instead.

“I wan’ Unca Baid, insead. I wan’ Unca Baid!”

Blaid stepped out without a moment’s hesitation, and the sight of the two of them—the large, lumbering cowboy and the delicate little girl—walking out of her bedroom together was just about enough to make her heart burst.

It was what she’d wanted life to be like with Steve, but that had never happened. He hadn’t bonded much with Evie—or with her, for that matter—certainly not as she’d envisioned.

Granted, she’d had those visions through Blaid-tinted glasses, and thus, the poor man never quite measured up.

When they came back, he whispered, trying not to sound too excited, “Somebody had a dry pull up, so I told her I owe her a treat of some kind, tomorrow, if she wakes up dry, too.”

Liz sighed, knowing she had lost the battle about finding anyone else to take care of Evie, probably before it had even begun.

They put her back to bed together, and she tried to wheedle another story time out of him. He wasn’t having it, although he did sing softly to her—the bass, baritone-like version—of Stay Awake, from Mary Poppins.

When they were back in the hallway, Liz whispered, “All right, you can give her a treat, but nothing extravagant, okay? Nothing over a couple of bucks, if that.”

He didn’t balk at that edict as she’d expected him to. “All right.”

She looked back at him as she walked towards the door to her apartment. “I mean it—she won’t know or care if you got her a mink teddy bear or one from the dollar store. If you really want to treat her, wrap whatever it is up—she loves to unwrap things.”

“What’s her favorite food, besides spaghettios and boxed mac and cheese?” he asked from where he was comfortably ensconced on the couch.

Liz put her hands on her hips. “Hands down, ice cream. But even then, she’s fine with the grocery store brand as opposed to, say, Ben and Jerry’s or whatever. Her favorite flavor is maple walnut.”

He looked grossed out, which was her reaction to that flavor, too. “Really?”

“Yeah, I blame Steve for that. It was his favorite, too,” she explained, suddenly quiet and subdued, arms now crossed over her chest protectively, and it made him want to wrap her in cotton so that she would never be hurt again.

Instead, he put out his hand to her. “Come to me, Elizabeth.”

It was half purr, half command, and all potent.

She would swear he’d made her contract from across the room with that voice of his.

“No, Blaid, you—I have to get to bed.”

“Okay,” he agreed all too readily, standing up, but not moving towards her.

“Alone.”

He put his hand out to her again, palm up. “Are you sure about that, Miss Elizabeth?”

That slightly stern, slightly scolding tone was going to be the death of her.

She hugged herself tightly, rather than going to him, which was what ninety-nine percent of her wanted to do.

“Yes, I’m sure, and no, I’m not going to come over there.”

His expression and his tone remained the same, and he continued to hum very softly in the background. “How’s your bottom feeling, my darling?”

That was a cheap shot, calling her attention to it like that.

Tightening her arms around herself, she whined, “And would you please stop that infernal rumbling?”

Ignoring her request completely, he continued softly, “What you need to decide in the next few minutes, little girl—before you get yourself into even more trouble because you’ve made me come get you—is whether or not you want that beautiful backside of yours to feel even worse than it does right now.”

She was twisting herself back and forth, biting her lip and her nail and looking a bit shocked and a lot forlorn as he laid out the decision before her in very stark terms.

“Whether or not you want to be able to sit down comfortably across the breakfast table from me, tomorrow morning.”

She looked as if she was weakening, and he increased the volume of both his words and his call to her.

“Whether or not you want to gasp in pain when I lay you beneath me a few minutes from now, to take my rightful place between legs you’ve parted for me.”

Her eyes went very round, but he wasn’t fazed in the least, because she didn’t look angry—just a bit affronted.

Then he tailored his volume back down again, so it was barely more than a whisper. “I’m not going to wait forever, Elizabeth. I’ve already waited longer than I probably ever will again for you to obey me. You know you want to do as I’ve said—it’s natural for you to want to obey me. It is the way of things between us—it always has been, and it always will be. And, tonight, I’ll show you why.”

When he would have taken a step towards going to get her, she launched herself at him, and when she got to him, he lifted her into his arms as she wrapped her legs around his waist.

“There you are,” he breathed, gazing up at her adoringly, easily holding her with one arm beneath a bottom that was still hot and painful as the other hand brushed her hair away from her face. “I graduated from a very prestigious school. I speak four languages fluently and I’m conversant in another five or so. But there are no words, in any language, that can truly convey just how much I’ve missed having you in my arms, my darlin’.”

With that, he walked them into her bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Liz’s last coherent—if self-deprecating—thought before she lost herself entirely to the spell that Blaid was so expertly weaving around them was that she’d vowed to him that she was not going to sleep with him, and that vow had lasted just about one night.

Way to stand your ground, Liz!

* * *

The next morning, she awoke alone in her bed, although she knew for dead certain that he hadn’t left last night. As he’d coaxed yet another thrilling, almost unbearably pleasurable climax from her, he’d held her to him in the afterglow, encouraging her to fall asleep and not hesitating to promise a surprisingly insecure her that he wouldn’t leave her.

Uncharacteristically, she had clung to him, feeling like a raw, exposed nerve after all of those long hours together, having learned the utter truth of what he’d been saying to her all along—the very possibility of which had sent her running from him, years ago, and into the arms of another man.

And she was surprised to find that those feelings—the absolute need to flee—hadn’t been magically transformed by what had happened between them last night as she felt she had been on a very elemental basis.

They were still there; she could still feel them—all of those thoroughly rebellious impulses—only now she also recognized just how impossible it would be to do that.

She slowly realized that she was getting antsy because he wasn’t in her line of sight, which she didn’t like one bit, causing her to lie in bed much longer than she might have, had she given in to the almost overwhelming urge to go find him and make him put his hands on her, to soothe the anxiety she was experiencing—that was his fault in the first place—in that special way he had.

He had talked about pair bonding and mating—a term which she hated—along with knotting from the moment they’d begun dating, she’d put it down to some kind of fetish he had that she didn’t understand.

There was no question—in the mind of anyone who came in contact with him—that Blaid was a dominant man. He was quiet about it, not given to shouting or rage or anything like that, but he was most definitely a leader among men, and now he was her leader, too.

That thought still alarmed parts of her brain, but they were stifled by the overarching feeling of wellbeing and peace that knowing that she belonged to him—and he to her—brought her.

The unfettered dominance in him had brought to the forefront her own submissive nature—one she hadn’t been much interested in assuming, considering it to be a true weakness—a character flaw.

Compared to the Rosses, the Dorseys didn’t have much, but they worked for what they did have. Her father had died when she was young, but her mother, June, had always encouraged her daughter to be self-supporting and self-sufficient. No one who knew Liz would have pegged her for a submissive.

But that was exactly what she became whenever she was around Blaid, and that had frightened her more than he reckoned, and he had lost her, in part, because he’d misjudged that about her.

He was quite determined that that wasn’t going to happen again, and this time, he got everything right.

She’d been sweetly nervous with him when he’d put her down in her small bedroom, looking at her double bed and chuckling, “I think my feet are going to hang over the edge!”

Liz hadn’t laughed. She was too tense, her mind—as always around him—at war with the rest of her. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t. She was right back where she’d sworn she wouldn’t allow herself to be and in a truly embarrassingly short amount of time, too.

But when he took her into his arms again as she mewled in a manner she found unbecoming of a grown woman but couldn’t seem to stop, answering her tremulous call with a deeply resonant one of his own, she found herself involuntarily mollified.

And then he began to touch her, and nothing else in the world seemed to matter. In fact, what he was doing to her was so all-consuming that she was horrified to realize that she hadn’t thought of Evie once from the moment he carried her into the bedroom!

How could she not? Although she knew that he was getting at least as much out of it as she was—perhaps more—literally everything he did from the moment he closed the door behind them was designed to do nothing more so than to heighten her arousal.

And everything did.

It seemed the very air around them was charged, making her skin just that much more sensitive to his lightest touch, which he used until very near the end, when she got more of a taste of the true strength of an Alpha male.

Her Alpha male.

She’d begun to undress herself, but he had gently moved her hands away. “Let me do that for you.” Then he grinned down at her. “I like to unwrap presents, too.”

Throughout her disrobing, about which he took his sweet time, claiming and kissing each new area he revealed, he would issue that low thrum occasionally, whenever he saw that she was on her way to becoming fretful or nervous. It never failed to soothe her, often eliciting a whimper from her that she found she couldn’t really hold back and that—every time the sound reached his ears—made his nostrils flare and his hold on her tighten, as if he was fighting back the urge to thrown her down on the bed and simply have her and be done with it.

But Blaid wasn’t about to do that. He was going to make damned good and sure that she was ready for him, and he was damned well going to keep himself in check enough to ensure that it was a proper mating, which he had been unable to do the last time they had attempted this and for which he blamed himself squarely.

He was her Alpha, and she was his omega. With this act, she would finally be putting herself completely into his care, and he would lay down his life to keep her—and Evie—safe. He’d felt their connection much sooner than she had, and letting her go—letting her marry someone else—had nearly killed him, but he wanted her to be happy, even if it wasn’t with him.

But once he’d heard that their marriage was over, he’d had to physically restrain himself from going to get her, to assert his dominance over her and bring her back and make her his whether she wanted him to or not.

Blaid wasn’t proud of those thoughts, but he hadn’t acted on them—yet, before she came home of her own—but he badly acknowledged that he did have them.

And he intended to inspire her to feel the same bone deep, undeniable pull towards him.

So, he took his time, wanting everything to be just right, knowing that if he screwed it up this time, he wasn’t likely to ever get the chance again—not that he’d blame her if that was what happened. If it didn’t happen as it was supposed to during this unbelievable second chance, he could hardly call himself much of an Alpha, could he?

Concentrating on Elizabeth and her responses tamped his own down a bit, although not by much, because those very responses—the sighs, the moans, the gasps—made him so hard, he thought he would break right off at the root.

When she was beautifully nude, he saw that her hands had drifted over her mons.

“Shy of me, lovely?” he asked with a soft smile.

“Yes, but…”

Her blushes were so sweet. “But what?” Blaid wrapped his arms around her, having hastily shed his own clothes.

“I-I haven’t, uh, neatened myself…down there in a while.”

A finger tipped her chin up as he captured her mouth for a deep, soulful kiss that left her weak kneed when he finally lifted his lips from hers. His hand was in her hair, grabbing a careful handful as he held her head back. “I prefer you natural, anyway.” As if to prove it, he brushed her hands aside and cupped her there. “Spread your legs for me, Elizabeth. I would hold even more of your sweet pussy.”

She didn’t know why, but the way he always used her full name only made her feel as if she was drowning in her submission to him, the just slightly stern timber of his voice in direct contrast with the other ways he was calming her.

Her hesitation was genuine, although she wasn’t quite sure why she felt the need to—she’d been a married woman, for Heaven’s sake!

But this was different.

This was Blaid.

The crack of his hand against first one still very sore cheek, and then the other, was more than enough of an impetus for her to leave behind her modesty and do as he asked.

“Good girl,” he whispered against her neck while nibbling hungrily, causing her to shiver violently in his arms as she felt him put his nose just behind her ear and take a deep breath, as if he was inhaling her essence.

Why that particular turn of phrase should make her flush with pleasure, she would never know, but it always had, and it did again, now, as she felt his long fingers conforming themselves to the intimate shape of her, the tips dipping inevitably into the source of her slickness.

“Oh, my darling,” he growled upon finding himself fairly drenched in her body’s generous gift to him.

With that, he lifted her high into the air as if she weighed not a pound, laying her gently down on the bed crosswise, his hands on her bent legs to keep her in place, with her hips hanging a bit off the edge, so that he could hold the bottom he had so recently reddened, keeping her in just the right position for what he second most wanted to do to her tonight.

And, unlike her, he wasn’t in the least shy about taking what he wanted, either. As soon as he had her where he wanted her, Blaid placed a well-muscled arm across her hips to keep her there and practically dove between her legs and those oh so softly swollen lips. Before he did anything else, he pressed his entire face against her, taking another deep breath that caused his big body to shudder violently, rubbing his face all over every inch of her, wetting himself with her juices from hairline to chin, leaving splotches of her on his skin like war paint as he groaned and growled savagely in the back of his throat.

Then, gently but insistently, he pushed two crossed fingers against her entrance—which he found to be delightfully tight—working them in slowly and reveling in every instance he saw of her biting her lower lip, every incompletely stifled groan, every gasp that escaped her considerable will to suppress them.

He enjoyed driving her past her ability to control herself.

In fact, he considered that to be his job.

Blaid loved how independent and hardworking and self-sufficient she was.

But with him, she didn’t need to be any of those things.

In fact, she would begin to naturally subvert those tendencies, to submit herself to him and cede control to him completely, most especially in the privacy of their bedroom, trusting that he would see to it that she had everything she needed, be that pleasure or pain.

Or, more likely, a very powerful combination of the two.


Chapter Four

Liz was being driven slowly crazy. He was steadfastly maintaining one pace and one pace only—slow. Deliberate. Plodding, almost. He refused to quicken the movements of those teasing fingers within her, nor the lazily dedicated way he was devouring her clit.

Until, suddenly, he did. As if a switch had been flipped, she was suddenly being fucked hard by not two but three fingers—which had her yelping as he jammed them into her—while his lips and tongue worried that excruciatingly swollen pebble of flesh relentlessly.

And, when he knew, somehow, instinctively, that she was very near the edge, very close to the point of no return, he stopped, standing to flip her onto her tummy, lifting her hips until her butt was nudged up against the intimidating reality of the size of his throbbing cock. “Cheek to the mattress, Elizabeth, and you might want to find something to bite on.”

What? she thought, lost in the sensual haze he’d created around them, but all of a sudden having to worry about biting something? She did reach for a pillow, though, without really consciously thinking about doing it and was suddenly glad she did when she felt the bulbous head of him poised to claim her.

He hadn’t really even begun yet and she already felt stretched! By the time he actually began to nudge himself into her, she was panting, trying to force herself to relax and reminding herself that her body was built to receive him there. She was already sloppy slick, and that helped, but he was incredibly, imposingly large.

Blaid began to hum before he even knew he was doing it, and it was her answering frets that seemed on the verge of distress that awakened him to the fact that she was becoming afraid in her struggle to take him. He deepened the tone and volume, feeling her body almost instantly relax in response and begin to accept him more easily, although it was still a somewhat uncomfortably—if amazingly—tight fit for her.

Liz felt so full of him that she was going to burst open, the stark sensations the very epitome of a painful pleasure that she couldn’t escape. When his heavy balls met her lips, he occupied what she thought was every inch of her and then some, the head of his length nudging boldly against her cervix.

But that was just the beginning.

He was more than tall enough to bend over her, cocooning her with his body, sweeping the hair away from the back of her neck with one hand as the other found a clit that had nowhere to hide any longer. She was stretched too wide and was about to be more so.

His purling to her became just that much louder. It was all she could hear—her mind full of it—as she felt him simultaneously begin to fuck her and bite down on the back of her neck, none too gently, at the same time to hold her in place. It kind of paralyzed her—out of fear or shock, she didn’t know—but she knew she couldn’t really move.

Liz knew with a startling realization that she was totally at his mercy, held still to receive him. After only a few strokes, she could barely believe it when she began to feel him beginning to grow within her, swelling dramatically at the base of his cock, forcing her to stretch painfully around that large mass.

It hurt so much that she was keening loudly and on the verge of tears, but his fingers were too skilled—and too insistent. The combination—feeling so terribly, uncomfortably full of him, her clit being adroitly teased and brushed and rubbed and even pinched lightly, how his vibrato allowed her to both accept his invasive presence within her and made her want to submit to him even further—was too much for her to be able to contain her responses, and she began to come, each violent contraction around him only serving to increase the incredibly pleasurable and incredibly painful sensations he was subjecting her to at the same time.

She tried to writhe, tried to wiggle, tried to arch herself away from the pain, but literally couldn’t. He controlled everything about their mating—and it couldn’t be accurately described any other way. Her body was his to use more thoroughly than it had ever been anyone else’s, including her own.

Instead, she gave over to what her body was telling her to do—making her desperately want to do—surrendering herself to him completely, learning, at least for the moment, to settle for what he did allow her to do, which was to come, long and hard and violently, exhaustively, continuously, as he did the same, pulsing within her, moving in ways that hurt her—constantly, relentlessly trying to get further into her—yet still contributed to her ongoing ecstasy, somehow, too.

It seemed that every spasm that splashed his seed within her caused another orgasmic contraction within her, as if her body was encouraging him to give her every bit of come he had, to drain himself into her utterly.

Liz had no idea how long they remained locked like that, but even when he finally did let go of her neck, he whispered raggedly, “Don’t move.”

And she obeyed him—without comment or question, staying exactly still as he carefully eased himself out of her. Her keening mewl of pain his detachment from her caused had him rubbing her back gently.

She could feel him dripping out of her, but still didn’t break her position, partly because she wasn’t sure that she could, but mostly because she felt a deep need to obey him that hadn’t been there before, and she wasn’t at all sure she liked its presence now.

“Blaid?” she whispered anxiously.

“I know, baby girl, and I’ll take care of it,” he reassured calmly.

He knew that she was worried about causing stains on the bedspread, so he cleaned her up, finally putting a pair of panties on her with a big bulk pad that he’d found in the bathroom, under the sink. “This’ll help, although it’s hardly romantic. Just give me a few more seconds and I’ll spoon the ever-loving crap out of you, okay, my darlin’ love?”

If she had still been human, she might have laughed at that, but she was too shattered to find the humor at the moment, and he noticed that, too, which spurred along his efforts at cleaning the both of them up.

He left the room for just a second, to assure himself that Evie had slept through it all—although he couldn’t imagine how she could have—but she was dead to the world, thankfully.

When he returned, Liz was whimpering anxiously but remained as she had been told to stay. “Good girl for obeying me, Elizabeth. Shh-shh-shh, sweetness. I’m right here. I just peeked in on Evie—she’s fast asleep.”

Finally, he lifted her into his arms and tucked them both under the covers, setting her against him so that her ear was on his chest, where she could both feel and hear his reassuring purr.

Unable to curb the impulse, he ran his hands all over her, asking in a worried tone, “Are you all right?”

Her “yes” was soft and weak and somewhat tentative. She sounded shell shocked, which was no worse than he felt. It was the first time he’d really mated with his omega, too, and it had knocked him to his knees. If he hadn’t had her to take care of her, he’d probably be in a ball in the corner, himself.

But taking care of her—seeing to her needs—made him feel a thousand times better. Feeling her curled up on his chest after they’d just mated so powerfully made all of him—even parts he was surprised were still capable of it—swell with pride.

The truth was that he wanted her again—bathed in her scent as he was, he couldn’t conceive of a time when he wouldn’t want to be buried deep within her, feeling her body submitting itself to him, his passion feeding off that submission.

But she needed rest.

And he hoped he could be a good enough Alpha to let her get some, although he wasn’t at all sure that that was going to be the case.

Blaid made as if to turn her in his arms to spoon her as he’d said he would, but her arms wrapped around his neck as she buried her face there, too, begging him not to move her. He again felt that surge of, well, passion, but more than that as she deferred to him in even this small decision.

“All right, my love. If this is what you want, this is what you shall have. Try to get some sleep.”

She did—they both did—but it was a long, and in some ways, grueling night, because neither of them seemed to be able to keep their hands off each other.

* * *

Now, when she stretched, she felt the wages of their—multiple—sins. Every muscle in her body hurt, but mostly the ones below her non-existent belt. She felt as if she’d been ridden hard and put away wet—and that was no euphemism; it was, rather, an exact description of her state at the moment.

And although she knew he was there, in the apartment somewhere—she could somehow sense his presence close to her—she absolutely had to lay eyes on him with an unsettling desperation, so she threw on a loose nightgown, divesting herself of that nasty diaper thing he’d given her last night to absorb some of his truly voluminous amounts of semen, wrapping a worn robe around herself and venturing into the kitchen, where someone was making breakfast.

Horrified that she had to force herself to do so, she gave Evie a loud good morning smooch, which set her to giggling, then glued herself to his broad back in a display she might not—in other circumstances—have chosen to make in front of her daughter, but she didn’t feel as if she had much choice in the matter.

“Good morning to you, too, my Elizabeth,” he greeted warmly, hugging her to him and kissing the top of her head. “I’m cooking, though, and I don’t want you—or me—to get burned. Please go sit down at the table and I’ll bring you some breakfast.”

Cooking or not, though, she didn’t want to move away from him.

But Blaid wasn’t going to let her get away with disobeying him. His, “Elizabeth,” was almost too serene.

With severe reluctance, she did as he’d asked and was rewarded seconds later when he gave her a plate full of sausage and onions, with a generous side of scrambled eggs with melted cheese, but the best part of it was when he sat down next to her, close enough so that their thighs were constantly touching and she could feel the rough hair of his next to her smoothness.

His close presence allowed her to calm down considerably.

It was as if they ate breakfast like this every morning. Blaid had fit himself perfectly into their little household, devouring most of the food but very carefully—and persistently—coaxing his womenfolk to eat more as he kept a weather eye on both of them, having never felt quite so satisfied in his life as he did at that exact moment and in every possible way.

Well, except for one possible way. He was amazed that he was even capable again so relatively soon, considering just how much fluid he’d lost already, but he was raring to go, as always, it seemed around her.

When she was finished—after not eating nearly as much as she should have, as far as he was concerned, even though he warned her with a wink that she was going to need her strength, and not for work—he sent her back to bed. “Your shift is at one this afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“Well, why don’t you see if you can get a few more hours of sleep? I’ll take care of Squirt here.”

“But you don’t have to do that…” She trailed off at the look he gave her.

“I know I don’t. I want to, and I don’t want to hear another word from you about it, either, Elizabeth. I’ll take care of Evie until your mother gets better. Am I making myself understood?”

Various parts of her tingled in response to his tone, and she desperately wanted to fidget in her chair, but instead, she answered dutifully, “Yes, Blaid,” receiving a blinding smile of pure adoration for her efforts.

“Are you done with your eggs there, missy?”

“My name’s not Missy, it’s Ebie!”

Blaid frowned darkly. “Are you sure? I think mebbie you’re a Fred. Or a George. Or a Bobby.”

His silliness sent her into gales of laughter. “No, I’m Ebie!”

“Well, Ebie, why don’t you go wash your face and hands and start getting dressed while I take care of these dishes?”

To Liz’s surprise, that was exactly what her usually stubborn little daughter did. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth! I’m going to check!” he warned after her.

Then he turned his attentions to Liz. “I thought I told you to go back to bed, Miss Elizabeth?”

What she said sounded downright pathetic, even to her, but she couldn’t not say it, anyway. “But I want to stay out here with you.”

Blaid smiled warmly at her. “I know you do, but we can’t spend all day in bed together, much as we want to. You got yourself used pretty hard last night,” he rasped, grinning at the blush that rose in her cheeks at his words. “And you didn’t get much sleep. So, I want you either back in bed or over my lap getting a spanking. Your choice.”

Some choice!

Liz rose slowly to hobble back down the hall and into her own bedroom. To her surprise, moments later, Blaid—her Alpha, she realized, turning those words over in her mind however sleepily—appeared to tuck her in, a loving gesture that felt better to her than she wanted it to.

“I want to talk to you about…about us and…more than us.”

“Yes, my love, we’ll talk tonight, after Evie goes to bed.” He got the covers right where he knew she wanted them, up around her neck, then patted her bottom gently, rhythmically, in a terribly intimate gesture that nonetheless had the desired effect of making her feel safe and warm and loved. “I don’t want you to worry about any of that right now, though. Get some sleep. I’ll wake you at eleven.” He’d been rumbling the entire time, on a hunch that it might help her to get to sleep, and it did.

* * *

It was the hardest shift Liz’d ever lived through in her life.

She was terribly scatterbrained from the moment she got there, which was the exact opposite of her usual efficient self. By the time her lunch break rolled around, she’d dropped a stack of plates, inadvertently pissed off a customer whose order she completely forgot to take, and screwed up two orders she had taken, delivering the wrong food to the wrong tables—twice.

It was him—it was all his fault. He was all she could think of. She was jumpy and jittery and her entire body spasmed pleasurably in remembrance of the blissful state he’d kept her in all night every time she thought about him.

And it didn’t get any better when he appeared there with Evie and a bagged lunch.

“I thought you might want something other than diner food.”

What he’d brought was a sack full of delicacies she would never have bought for herself, mostly because she couldn’t afford them. He obviously shopped in the health food store and only bought the best, but then, as a member of the family for whom the town was named, he’d never really experienced any money problems.

There was a quinoa salad, with more ingredients in it that she didn’t recognize than she did, a cup of key lime yogurt from a brand she’d never even seen before and that tasted like Heaven, and a big fresh fruit salad, along with a bottle of lemonade and iced tea mix that he knew she liked.

“Like I said before, you need your strength.” His wink was unashamedly lascivious from where he sat across the booth.

Wilda stopped by—completely ignoring him—to bring Evie a small plate of shoestring French fries, which got her a hug that Liz would swear had the old woman blushing.

“Go on with you now, brat,” she said, but not unkindly as Evie munched on her unexpected treat. “I have to get back to work.”

His eyes sharp on her, taking in the dark circles and worn look, Blaid covered her smaller hand with his.

And that was a mistake.

Instead of comforting her, as he’d intended, she gasped and went completely rigid, and he knew, somehow, that she had just come, right there, in broad daylight, in front of, well, if not God, then definitely most of Rossville, TX, which was bad enough.

So much so that she fled to the women’s bathroom, causing Evie to ask a bit worriedly, “Where’s Mumma goin’?”

“I think she had to do an emergency twinkle,” he said in a funny voice, which had the exact effect he’d hoped in calming the little girl’s fears, but he’d heard his mate throw the bolt on the door, and that had him frowning deeply.

“‘Mergency twinkle?” she repeated back to him.

“Yup,” he answered somewhat distractedly, his eyes on the door to the ladies’, willing her to come out again.

But she didn’t, and the longer she was in there, the more concerned he became. Her distress was palpable to him, an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unacceptable thorn in his head and his heart.

For her part, Liz was busy bawling her eyes out behind the relative safety of the locked door. But she should have known him better than that.

“Elizabeth?” He rattled the door in a manner that was more than a bit ominous. “Honey, let me in. I need to make sure that you’re all right.”

Grabbing a handful of cheap, rough paper towels, she wiped her eyes and blew her nose in preparation for the inevitable, because, one way or the other, Blaid Ross was going to come into the women’s room, whether she wanted him to or not.

And his tone of voice when he spoke next let her know that she was right, even though his words were very soft and even. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking, Miss Elizabeth, that I won’t break this door down to get to you.”

Sighing and sobbing, she flipped the lock, and he came in.

Although everything in her wanted to throw herself into his arms, she forced herself to remain where she was, across the room from him, although it took nearly everything she had to do so. “Who’s with Evie if you’re in here with me, where you don’t belong?”

His face set firmly. “Watch your tone of voice with me, Elizabeth. I turned her loose in the street with a puppy and an all-day sucker, of course.” Blaid sighed heavily, running his hand through his hair before settling both of them on his hips. He wanted to reach out and haul her into his arms, but she looked terribly fragile and unhappy, and he didn’t want to compound it, although he supposed his flippant words had already done that for him. Straightening, he answered, “Henry came in. She’s sitting happily with him, being more amused than anyone else in town has ever been about his ancient magic tricks—”

It was the whimper that escaped her lips just before she began to sob again that broke him, causing him to consign his caution to the winds, his hands reaching out and claiming her, pulling her into his arms and wrapping them around her very tightly before he really even knew what he was doing.

“Shh-shh-shhhh,” he soothed, rubbing her back and rocking them both slightly. “Tell me all about it. What’s got you so frazzled, hmm, dearest heart?”

Dear God, it felt frighteningly good to be back in his arms.

“Having a terrible, horrible, rotten, awful day?”

She nodded emphatically against his chest. “Big lot of broken plates I’ll have to pay for. Angry customers. Screwed up orders. Lucky if I don’t get fired.”

“Please, woman,” he chided gently. “Wilda knows what she has in you—no one comes in here to get chewed on by her.” He began to press tiny kisses to her damp cheeks. “No, everyone comes in here because you’re the absolutely perfect waitress. You’re attentive and kind and you almost always do everything exactly right.”

“B-but—when you touched me…” Her face lit brightly and he had to fight the urge to take her right then and there. “I-I—”

He kissed her gently. “It’s pretty powerful, isn’t it? This thing between us?”

“Yes! I don’t know if I can stand it! I want you inside me all the time, even though it’s terribly uncomfortable,” she whispered.

Before she spiraled the both of them completely out of control, he interrupted her. “I know, baby. I know. I take it as a huge compliment, but I know that all of those feelings are very raw right now—for me, too—and I’m sorry it’s so hard on you. But the rest of the afternoon will be better, I promise. I’ll take Evie away and we won’t see each other until you get home tonight, which I think will probably help things. I hadn’t realized that coming here was going to make things worse for you, or I wouldn’t have come.”

Blaid tipped her face up to his. “Okay? We’ll talk tonight—after I’ve had my way with you a few times, to take the edge off, and we’ll settle some things that I think need addressing.” That caused her blush to brighten endearingly. “Can you do that for me, love? Finish the rest of your shift? Or would you like to tell Wilda to take her job and shove it while I carry you out of here, in my arms, Officer and a Gentleman style? Because you know I will,” he promised with a wink, drawling, “You just say the word, darlin’.”

She discounted his outrageous offer immediately, and, as much as she didn’t want to let him out of her sight, as much as she knew that she would miss him every second, she knew she had to.

When Liz pushed back against his chest, he let her go, although she could sense his reluctance to do so.

“No. I’ll finish my shift,” she said, swiping her hand across her eyes, then down her face. “I’m sure I look a mess.”

“You’re gorgeous. You’ll always be gorgeous to me,” he whispered, pressing his lips tenderly to her forehead before taking her hand and leading her out of the bathroom.

“Hey, Blaid, is there something we need to know, since you’re using the ladies’ room?” someone commented from the peanut gallery in the back.

“At least I’m not hanging around them trying to pick up women, Neil,” he retorted laconically.

“Looks like you were successful, anyway,” the man gave as good as he got.

Blaid’s arm snaked around her waist as he pulled her to him for a showy smooch. “No, this one’s been mine for quite some time.” Then he released her and turned to Evie, who was chock full of French fries by this time. “Let’s go, Poppet. We’ve got things to do.”


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