Catarina Benoit woke to screams. Terrible, frightening screams that echoed through her bedroom. Her heart pounded and sweat beaded on her body. Her long hair hung around her face in damp strands. She clapped a hand over her mouth to still the cries, her throat raw even as her eyes darted around the room. Searching. Always searching.
He let her go. The moment she was free of his grip, she pulled her arm to her, pushing her wrist up against her body as if she could hold in the heat from his touch. She sent him one look from under her lashes and hurried past him back inside.
She searched the high places first—anywhere he could be crouched. Watching. Waiting to strike. She searched the windows. The glass was covered with bars, but she knew that wouldn’t stop him if he found her. Nothing ever stopped him. He could get inside any house, any building. Anywhere. Rafe Cordeau, the thing of nightmares.
She was safe. She had to be. She lived completely off the grid. Underground. She only came out at night. Her one exception to her night rule was her hour of running just before sunset. She worked in a quiet part of town, in a store no one would ever consider she would work in. Rafe would never figure it out, not in a million years. He couldn’t find her this time. She’d planned too carefully. She’d even stolen enough money to get herself a start. Right out of his safe. The one no one could crack. She’d done that. He wasn’t going to get his hands on her again. Never again.
She fell back against the pillows, drawing her knees into her chest, making herself into a small, protected ball, rocking gently to try to calm herself, to push the terror of the nightmare away. She could taste bile in her mouth.
Drawing in great deep breaths to try to control her wild heart, she felt something else, something inside unfurl and stretch. It terrified her too. There was something in her, biding its time, waiting for a chance to get out and she feared it was a monster. She feared, he’d put it there, he’d somehow made her like him.
She knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. Every window was covered with heavy drapes to block out the sun, but still, she would never be able to go back to sleep. She forced her legs to straighten. That hurt. Every muscle was sore from the terrible coiling in her body. She knew from experience it would be like that all day, her body feeling as if someone had beat her up with a baseball bat.
She sat up and scooted to the side of the bed, first, as she always did, feeling for the gun hidden beneath her pillow. The solid weight of it always made her feel better. She worked out, trained hard, even when she knew she still wouldn’t have a chance against him if he found her. Even so, she lived her life. Held herself still. Kept to herself. Reduced his odds.
She took a shower in the small cubicle. It was a rigged hose with a spray nozzle over the top of a tiny booth with a drain. It didn’t matter. She was safe. She lived in a warehouse not her car. Mostly the warehouse was empty, but her martial arts instructor owned the property and he’d allowed her to rent her space when he realized she was living out of her car. He had barred the windows for her. She had put in the double locks herself.
She had done everything necessary to make herself safe, but then she’d made a vow. She would be happy every single second she was living free and alive. She wouldn’t hide in the warehouse, shut away from the world, she would live. She’d be smart and careful about it, but this time, she wouldn’t be a mouse hiding. It hadn’t done her much good the last time and she wasted that little bit of freedom she’d had. The price definitely hadn’t been worth it then. She was going to make certain it was this time.
Catarina pressed her fingers hard against her temples, unwilling to revisit that moment when he’d last found her and his terrible punishment. Her entire body shuddered. She’d paid dearly but that had only made her all the more determined to escape permanently. She’d been terrified and he thought that terror would work to his advantage. She let him think that and then she’d escaped again.
Her life had really started with her martial arts instructor. Malcom Hardy was in his late sixties and from the moment she’d entered his class, he’d seemed to know something was wrong. He didn’t exactly ask questions, but somehow he found out she was living out of her car and he casually mentioned his empty warehouse. That had been the start of their strange friendship.
Catarina had never had a friendship with anyone before and at first she was distrustful of his motives. It had taken Malcom months to gain her trust enough that she stayed and had a few words privately with him after each class. She hadn’t told him her past, only that she was looking for a job and needed a safe home. She’d used the word ‘safe’ in the hopes that he understood without an explanation—and he had.
When she’d escaped, she hadn’t taken tons of money from the safe because she didn’t want Rafe to have more reason to come after her if by chance he’d given up on her. That meant she didn’t have a lot of money. It also meant, if he had given up on her, he’d send his kill squad after her. Either way she wasn’t safe and she needed to be very careful with her money.
Malcom slowly won her over with his many simple kindnesses. He casually dropped by to put the bars on the windows when she’d mentioned she was a little nervous. He’d also been the one to find her the job after she told him what her dream job would be.
Catarina loved her job. The coffee house-slash-bookstore was old, the kind where poets and writers came and read their work every Friday. It was a throwback world that suited her. Books were everywhere and people gathered to talk and read and show off their work. She liked that the place was a tribute to a bygone era and the regulars who occupied it were loyal and definitely different.
She made certain never to stand out. She dressed in loose fitting jeans. A loose fitting shirt. Her hair had always grown thick and fast and got worse the more she cut it. She’d given up on short hair so she pulled her hair back in a ponytail or braid and often wore hats. Since everyone who came to the coffee shop wore berets or felt hats, she wasn’t out of place. Most wore sunglasses, even at night, as well, so she did that too, hiding her unusually colored cobalt eyes.
The coffee-house stayed open nearly twenty-four hours, and she had the shift that ran from seven in the evening until three in the morning, when she closed the shop. The bars closed at two and they got a large influx of people looking to wind down from drinking, dancing and clubbing. She wasn’t fond of that particular crowd, but she’d grown used to it.
She spent an hour on working the heavy bag Malcom had hung for her and another hour doing sit-ups and crunches and push-ups. She dressed in baggy sweats and went running. That killed another hour and put her to sunset. Another shower and she headed for the coffee shop.
She tried hard not to allow her heart to do a little stutter, wondering if the new instructor Malcom had hired would drop by the shop again. She liked looking at him. He was a bonus at the dojo as well as the coffee shop. She’d never found herself looking at a man before—she’d never dared to. But he was special. Everything about him was special.
He’d been at the dojo a month and she’d watched him with that same distrust she had anyone new who came into her world. He was absolutely the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life. He was brutal when he fought, and yet at the same time, graceful and fluid. Sheer poetry. He was light on his feet, very fast, so smooth. He was always, always utterly calm. She couldn’t imagine him ruffled over anything. He embodied the world of martial arts—he lived that way—not just in the dojo but out of it.
Still, she kept her distance, even when he’d noticed her in the dojo and smiled at her a time or two. She didn’t smile back. She didn’t encourage any kind of a relationship, nor did she want one. Not, because she didn’t ever talk to people, but because he made her feel something she’d never felt before. But she liked looking at him. Maybe a little too much.
She didn’t have flights of erotic fantasy or dreams. Her body had never awakened, on fire, burning with need and hunger. Her breasts hadn’t felt swollen and achy, desperate for a man’s touch. Not until she laid eyes on Malcom’s new instructor. Something moved in her. Something took over and unexpectedly, at night, when she wasn’t having nightmares, she had erotic dreams that burned through her body until she couldn’t breathe. Abruptly they’d leave her, and once they were gone her body would settle and she’d be perfectly fine again. He was definitely someone she needed to stay away from, but looking at him was acceptable.
He’d sauntered into the coffeehouse two weeks after starting with Malcom. She’d noticed him immediately. How could she not? When he moved, the roped muscles of his body, even beneath this tight black shirt, did a delicious kind of rippling that drew every feminine eye in the place. Ridley Cromer. The name was as strange and unique as the man.
Catarina stood outside the coffeehouse just staring into the windows, feeling happy. She always made certain she acknowledged being happy. That was important. She woke up in the morning and always, always told herself she would be happy that day.
She froze, the smile fading. The other thing strange about Ridley Cromer was the fact that she never heard him when he came near her. He didn’t make a sound. She heard everyone. She always knew when someone was close to her. The reason why she excelled in martial arts was because she always anticipated her opponents move. It was as if she had a kind of radar telling her where everyone was at all times within her space. Everyone but Ridley Cromer.
She turned her head, holding her breath, her smile fading. Her eyes met Ridley’s and the impact was so strong the air rushed from her lungs as if she’d been punched. He had beautiful eyes. Intense. The way he looked at her was intense. Everything about him was intense. And Zen. Very Zen.
She forced herself to nod out of politeness. She knew if she tried to speak she would squeak like a mouse and nothing else would emerge. Ridley Cromer was fine to look at. Daydream about. Even have night fantasies over, but there was no talking. No interaction. Not ever. If all the rest of the world of women were smart, they’d adopt her steadfast rules with him.
“You working tonight or just looking for company?”
His voice was low and sexy. Her pulse beat hard in her throat. She swallowed hard. She’d never had a crush on anyone in her life, but he was standing right in front of her. Towering over her. His eyes smiled and his white teeth flashed. He should be locked up to preserve all women’s virtues.
She shook her head and reached for the door handle. He reached at the same time, his hand settling around hers as she grasped the knob. A shiver of absolute awareness slid down her spine. Curled in her belly. There was a sudden tingle in her breasts and she felt heat gathering in her very core. Not like her night fantasies, where her body burned up, but still...
He didn’t let go of her hand, and she couldn’t remove hers from the doorknob. His touch was light. Gentle. She should have pulled her hand way but she was frozen to the spot. He stepped closer, so close she could feel the heat of his body seeping into hers. He was hot. He radiated heat. His breath was warm on the nape of her neck and for the first time she wished she’d left her hair down to protect herself.
“It’s Cat, right? Malcom calls you Cat. You’re his favorite student. I’ve never known him to have a favorite. I’m Ridley Cromer.”
She closed her eyes briefly. Thunder roared in her ears. Her brain short-circuited. His voice was pitched so low that it seemed to slide beneath her skin and find its way directly into her bloodstream like some strange new drug. No one touched her. No one dared. He had broken that taboo. She didn’t know how to feel about it.
“You’re quick. Very fast,” he went on as if she wasn’t the rudest person in the world not answering him. “I couldn’t help but watch you sparring the other day. You were wiping up the floor with men ranked much higher than you. Men with a lot more experience. It was a thing of beauty.”
A thing of beauty. She would hold that close to her and think about it when she was alone. A compliment. Coming from someone who clearly could best anyone in the dojo, probably including Malcom, it was very high praise. Still, she couldn’t stand there being an absolute idiot.
She finally found her wits and gave the door a desperate twist, flashing what she hoped was a careless smile of thanks over her shoulder at him. She yanked open the door, but found when she stepped back she stepped right into him. Right into him.
His body was as hard as a rock. It was rather like smashing herself against an oak tree. His arms came around her automatically to steady her. The heat radiating from him nearly burned right through her clothes.
To her absolute horror, she banged the door closed again as she threw herself forward and away from him. She nearly ran into the heavy glass but his hands were suddenly at her waist, gently moving her away from the door.
One moment she was heading for danger the next he had literally lifted her and put her a foot away from the door.
“Kitten, you’d better let me get that.”
Color rushed up her neck into her face. To her everlasting mortification, she could hear male amusement in his voice. She was an idiot. A tongue-tied idiot and he’d think she was crazy. Still. She gulped air. That was for the best. He’d just dismiss her, hopefully never look at her again. Not with those eyes. Those beautiful, antique gold eyes. Who had eyes that color?
He pulled the door open and held it, waiting for her to go through. Thankfully she found her legs and moved passed him, once again, throwing a small, hopefully thankful smile at him over her shoulder. She walked stiffly to the counter and shoved her things beneath it on the other side.
She was absolutely certain someone needed to file away books in the back where no one could see her. Someone else could make the coffee tonight and she’d just go hide.
“Cat, great, you’re here.” David Belmont, the owner of the Poetry Slam, threw her an apron. “Get to it, hon. Everyone’s been complaining because apparently my coffee doesn’t taste like yours. I’ve watched you a million times and I do exactly the same thing, but it never comes out like yours.”
“You don’t like making coffee, David,” Catarina replied and put on her apron. Which she found hilarious when he owned the coffee shop.
The moment she was behind the coffee machine, David moved into position to take orders and money. Clearly there, he was in his element, chatting up the customers, remembering their names, talking them into some of the bakery goods sold with the coffee. He even remembered the poetry or short story they wrote. He was awesome with the customers and she was awesome with the coffee. They made a great team.
She didn’t look up when anyone ordered. It was part of her strategy to keep in the background. The mouse in the coffeehouse. Unfortunately, because she was great at making any type of coffee drink, the customers were aware of her. She was the reigning barista and the customers had begun to fill the coffeehouse nightly.
She had worked hard to learn what she needed to in secret. She read, watched countless videos and committed coffee books to memory. Before that, she’d had to learn to read. She was a little smug about it. Rafe would never ever think to find her in a bookstore/coffeehouse. Never. She was poor little illiterate Catarina.
She kept her eyes on the espresso machine when she heard Ridley give his order in a soft low tone that set a million butterflies winging in her stomach. She already knew exactly what he wanted, just as she did most of the regulars. He hadn’t been coming all that long, but she was aware of every breath he took—just as the other women were. She certainly remembered what he liked for coffee.
She knew exactly where he sat without looking up. He always pulled out a book, usually on mediation or essays from a Zen master while he drank his coffee. He savored coffee. She’d watched him, sneaking looks of course, and he always had the same expression on his face. She knew she put it there. She might not be a conversationalist, but she made spectacular coffee.
She forced herself to make fifteen more coffees before she looked up. Her gaze collided with his. All that beautiful, perfect, molten gold. She almost fell right into his eyes. She blushed. She knew she did. There was no stopping the color rising into her cheeks. He gave her a faint, sexy smile. She looked down without smiling back, concentrating on her work.
One look and her stomach did a crazy roll. What was wrong with her? She didn’t have physical reactions to men. It was just not okay. She couldn’t ever be stupid enough to wish for a relationship. She’d get someone killed that way. In any case, she’d be too afraid. She didn’t even know what a relationship was.
But he was darned good to look at, she acknowledged with a secret smile. Darned good. The familiar rhythm of the coffeehouse settled her nerves. The aroma of coffee and fresh baked goods swept her up into the easy atmosphere. Once the poetry slam started, darkness descended. There was usually little joy in the poems, but she enjoyed them all the same.
Bernard Casey, a regular who was usually first up at the microphone accepted his
Carmel Macchiato from David, took one sip and pushed his head over the counter the way he did each evening.
“Hey. Coffee woman. Heaven again.”
She shot him a smile. It was safe to smile at Bernard. He loved coffee, his poems and little else. “Hey coffee man, glad you think so.” He only looked at her once a day and that was when he gave her the nightly compliment.
It was their standard greeting. Bernard waved and settled at his usual table right in front of the microphone, making certain he would be the first and last poet of the night.
Ridley observed Catarina over the top of the book he no longer had any interest in. She was beautiful and she was scared. Very scared. She thought she’d managed to downplay her looks, but a man would have to be blind not to see through her baggy clothes and attempts to tame her wild hair.
Her sunglasses didn’t hide the perfection of her skin and when she took them off and looked at a man with her exotic cobalt blue eyes, the color a deep intense violet at times, ringed with those long dark lashes—well—the punch was low and it was just plain sinful.
And then there was her mouth. Full lips like a cupid’s bow. Turned up at the corners just slightly. Her lower lip could make a man go to his knees and fill his nights with erotic fantasies. When her lips parted and she gave a small, distracted smile, the one that meant she wasn’t seeing you, any man worth his salt couldn’t help but take on that challenge. When she smiled, like she’d just done to Bernard, the strange poet who poured out his feelings for her through his poems, Ridley knew a man would kill for her.
She was nothing at all like he expected her to be. He watched her at the dojo with Malcom during her lessons and training sessions. She was focused. Intelligent, which when fighting, was important. She was quick, her reflexes good and she moved with a fluid grace that took his breath away. He wasn’t the only man in the dojo who stopped what he was doing to watch.
He expected her to be a man killer. She should have been. She had the face and the body. She had the voice. She had a soft drawl, barely there, the kind of drawl that reminded him of drifting down the bayou on a lazy summer night with the sky above him dark and a thousand stars shining overhead and a woman, naked in his arms.
She should have had all the confidence in the world. She had confidence when she sparred with any man Malcom put her against and so far she’d wiped up the floor with them no matter their rank. She was that fast. She had confidence behind the espresso machines and she had every reason to be. She had confidence when she walked home at three o’clock in the morning and she shouldn’t.
But she didn’t look at men. She didn’t talk to them. There was no flirting. He’d never seen her flirt with anyone. Not a man or a woman. She was definitely a puzzle and one he wanted to solve.
He’d deliberately stepped up close to her, crowded her space, to see what she’d do. She hadn’t defended herself. She hadn’t told him to get the hell away from her. She froze. Breathless. Terrified. She’d confused the hell out of him and that didn’t happen very often. She’d intrigued him and that happened even less often. She’d also done something insane to his body.
He was a man always in control. Always. Control defined him. He was a man and lived his life as a man. He was tough and liked things his way and he always got what he wanted. He was single-minded that way. Women, especially man-killers, didn’t do a thing for him. But Catarina... The moment her soft body had come up against his, the moment he’d touched bare skin, everything hot and wild and hungry in him responded. He wanted her. And he wanted her for himself. Exclusively. That had never happened before.
He looked down at his arms, at the tattoos he’d so painstakingly over the years acquired. He looked rough and mean. He knew that. It served him well to look that way. He wore his hair longer than most and it was deliberate. He served notice to other men just who he was and what he was capable of. Men got the hell out of his way when he was after something. Especially a woman.
Women were easy for him. He didn’t have to work hard at all and that was okay, but it never lasted more than a night or two—not for him anyway. But this woman... She’d burn up in his arms and it wouldn’t be enough. He got that already just by looking at her. So did every other man who came near her. The difference was, most of them would step back and wait for a signal that was never going to come. That was definitely not the way to handle a woman like Catarina. A man had to take over and be decisive about it.
Catarina felt the weight of Ridley’s gaze on her. She knew he was watching her without even looking up. Her body responded just as if he was standing in front of her. For one moment she felt restless, achy, in need even. That something wild crouched inside of her stretched. Her skin itched. She couldn’t breathe and her skull felt too tight. For one terrible moment, her skin went hot and that terrible burn began between her legs. She could barely breathe with the need and hunger.
Horrified, she dragged off the apron and tossed it to David. “I need a break, just a short one.”
Even here in her sanctuary, the one place she could go and be around others, her past tried hard to drag her down. She was aware of Ridley’s attention settling on her instantly, alertly, but she didn’t so much as glance at him. Her past was too close. Even from a thousand miles away, he was controlling her. She couldn’t look at another man without something inside of her turning ugly.
The book aisles were narrow, the stacks rising from floor to ceiling. She wound her way through them to the back door and pushed it open. The night air hit her face, cool and refreshing, enfolding her in its blanket of darkness. She drew in several deep breaths and stepped outside. The cool air felt good on her skin. She dragged the hat from her hair and sank down onto the steps leading to the back door.
Strangely, she’d always had great night vision and this last month she’d noticed it had gotten even better. She liked that she could see in the dark. She loved the night. There was an entirely different world going on at night and she was part of it. That made her part of something. And Rafe couldn’t take that away from her.
She had to stifle a scream as she twisted, nearly throwing herself off the stairs. Ridley stood behind her, in the doorway, his tall body solid, both terrifying and safe. He stepped next to her and closed the door, sinking down onto the step beside her.
“Are you all right? You went very pale in there.”
His voice could mesmerize. At least it was mesmerizing her. She nodded, because his eyes refused to leave her face, drifting over her intently.
He frowned suddenly “Are you afraid of me? All this time I just thought you were shy, but you’re afraid of me.” He made the last a statement.
She looked away from him. Thankfully whatever was inside of her, threatening to burst free had subsided along with the terrible need to feel Ridley’s hands and mouth on her body.
His fingers settled gently on her chin and he turned her face toward him. “I wouldn’t hurt you. You don’t know me, but I would never harm a woman. I’m not like that. I’m new in town and you’re at the dojo and make fantastic coffee, that’s all. I wanted a little company. Just to talk to, Cat. That’s all. End of story.”
It was impossible to look into his eyes and not believe him. Up close she could smell him and he smelled nice. Very nice. Very masculine. His lashes were long and thick, framing his incredible golden eyes. His tattoos were just as intricate and intriguing as he was. They crawled up his arms, drawing attention to his amazing and very defined muscles.
He was still looking at her and he hadn’t blinked once. He fingers remained firm but gentle on her chin. She’d forgotten that she’d been so mesmerized by his eyes. Catarina forced air into her lungs and smiled. Before she could speak he shook his head.
“I saw the genuine thing, Cat. You smiled at Bernard. You gave him the real smile, the high voltage one that can knock a man off his feet at two hundred yards. I don’t want a pretend smile. Give me the real thing or don’t smile at me at all. I’m telling you again, I don’t hurt women.”
His voice was pure velvet. She shivered, his tone smoothing over her skin. “I’m sorry. I’m not afraid of you.” A blatant lie. “I just don’t talk much.” That was lame. More than lame. She was a total idiot, but maybe that would save her.
Ridley’s fingers slid from her chin. He didn’t move, his thigh tight against hers on the narrow steps. “Unfortunately for you, Kitten, I am very adept at knowing a lie when I hear one. I’ve done my best to reassure you, but talk is cheap. I guess I’ll just have to show you I’m a nice guy.”
She was certain he was not. Oh, not like Rafe Courdeau. Not like that. But he was dangerous. She knew dangerous men and this one sitting beside her was no domestic kitty cat. He was a tiger, all raw power and razor-sharp focus. But he wasn’t bad dangerous. He was just plain scary dangerous. And a heart-breaker.
She sighed hating that she actually felt the loss of his fingers on her skin—hating that every single cell in her body was aware of him. He was a good ten years older in years and experience. There were scars. There were the tats. There was the cool confidence and the lines in his face that only seemed to add to his masculine beauty.
She knew what he saw when he looked at her. She’d always looked young and she was barely twenty-one. He would consider her someone he had to look after, just as Malcom did. That was safe. She needed safe especially around this man.
“Maybe I am a little afraid of you,” she forced herself to admit. “I’ve seen you in the dojo and you’re rather terrifying.” That much was true and if he really were as adept at reading lies then he’d have to hear the sincerity in her voice.
“That’s a place of practice. This is a coffeehouse. Unless you’re going to stand up in front of that mic and read off some really bad poetry, I don’t think you have a thing to worry about,” he assured.
There was a drawling amusement in his voice, one that made her want to laugh with him, but it was as sexy as all get out and she couldn’t make a noise. Not a single sound for a few seconds. She cleared her throat. “I’m not good at talking to people.”
“You talk just fine to Malcom. In fact you laugh when you’re with him. It’s the only time I’ve seen you actually laugh.”
Her heart jumped. She tensed and knew he felt it. Still, as hard as she tried she couldn’t relax. Had he been watching her? Why? What did that mean? She bit down on her lower lip a little afraid that she was so paranoid even such a simple statement could make her want to run.
“Malcom isn’t people.”
“I know he’s your friend,” Ridley conceded. “He’s very closed-mouth about you and protective.”
She turned her eyes on him. Fixed. Focused. Alert. “Were you asking him questions about me?”
“Of course I was. You’re beautiful. Mysterious. A turn-on in the dojo. When you move, honestly, Kitten, I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re fast and fluid and hot as hell. You put James Marley down with one punch. One. You hit him exactly on his weak spot and dropped him like a ton of bricks. Your eyes are amazing and so is your hair. You have the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. Are you telling me Malcom doesn’t get asked about you regularly? Women like you don’t walk the streets alone at night. That’s just asking for trouble.”
Her breath slammed out of her lungs. “You followed me?” That couldn’t be. She would have known.
“Every night that you lock up and walk back to the warehouse. Did you really think I’d let a woman walk alone that time of night? Any woman? But especially a woman like you? No fuckin’ way.”
Something in his eyes made her shiver. Hot. Angry. A flash no more and then quickly suppressed. He really didn’t like her walking alone at night.
He had been at the coffeehouse every night the past two weeks until three A.M. But she hadn’t seen him or heard him or even felt him following her. And that was bad. She couldn’t afford to miss a tail. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing and he had followed her every single night.
“I can take care of myself.”
“Cat, even Malcom will tell you that you aren’t being realistic. You’re good, there’s no question about it, but you’re small. A man gets his hands on you and you’re done. You’re smart enough to know that. You can defend from a distance, but if he knows what he’s doing he’s going to get past that guard and tie you up. Why don’t you drive your car? That would be much safer.”
She wasn’t about to tell him gas cost the earth. He didn’t need to know her personal finances, but she wasn’t wasting precious gas when she could walk to and from work. It just wasn’t that far.
“It isn’t any of your business,” she said and knew she sounded uptight and stiff. Well, she was uptight and stiff. And it wasn’t any of his business.
The same flash was there in his eyes. Hot. Angry. Pure steel. Her stomach did another flip. He was both scary and sexy at the same time, a combination she wanted no part of.
“I’m making it my business, Kitten, whether you like it or not. After hours, half the men in here are drunk. Why do you think they’re in here?”
“I make a mean cup of coffee and word has gotten around. It sobers them up a little. Coming to the Poetry Slam gives them some time to wind down.”
He made a sound in the back of his throat that alarmed her. A rumble. A growl. The sound found it’s way to her heart, kick-starting her into flight mode.
“You can’t possibly be that naÃ¯ve, woman. Just in the two weeks I’ve been coming, the traffic between midnight and three has doubled. Mostly men. They come here because they’re hoping to get lucky. They spend the entire time staring at you and trying to think of ways to get you in their bed. A few of them may have figured out that you walk home and they may make plans you aren’t going to like and can’t do anything about on your own.”
She jumped up fast, but he was faster, his long fingers settling around her wrist, shackling her to him. He stood too, towering over her. His fierce golden eyes stared down into her blue ones, just as intense as she remembered, more so even. His gaze cut right through her until she feared every secret she had was laid bare in front of him.
“Don’t run from me. I’m telling you the truth. Clearly you’re living in a dream world when it comes to men and their intentions.”
She tilted her head to one side, forgetting to keep her attitude in check. “Would you like to tell my what your intentions are?” She challenged.
His eyes changed and she knew immediately she’d made a terrible mistake. His eyes went liquid gold, focused and unblinking, locked onto her and this time there was interest. Real interest. Before she’d been the one locked onto him, playing in her head with silly fantasies, but his motivation for following her had been actually watching out for her—she could see that now, at least she thought she could. Until that moment. That second.
She’d put too much sass into her tone. There was no back-tracking from that, not with the stark speculation in his eyes. She forced air through her burning lungs and tugged at her hand to try to get him to release her.
His thumb slid over her wrist, right over her pounding pulse, a mere brush, but the stroke sent hot blood rushing through her veins. She wanted to look away, but there was no getting away from the piercing stare of his eyes.
“Now I’m seeing you, Kitten. And you’ve got a little bite to you.”
“Enough to handle myself if someone decides to attack me on my way home.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said and tugged at her hand again.
His hold didn’t loosen. He wasn’t hurting her, in fact the pad of his thumb sent waves of heat curling through her body as it continued to brush little strokes over her pulse.
“It matters to me.”
“It isn’t your business.” Now he was back to scaring her. He couldn’t follow her around. Especially not to her home.
She was usually adept at spotting and shaking a tail. She practiced. He couldn’t see her practicing. He’d wonder what she was doing and why. She desperately tried to remember if she’d done such a thing in the last two weeks. Usually, after working a full shift, she was exhausted and didn’t take the extra time.
“I’ve decided to make it my business.”
His voice was so low she could barely catch the sound, but the tone vibrated right through her body, disturbing her balance. She almost felt as if she was caught in a dream, waking up for the first time, suddenly aware of what real chemistry between a man and a woman was. She was certain she’d been the only one to feel it, and even then, it was just an awareness, not in the least harmful—like her silly daydreams of him.
This was altogether different. Her awareness of him, her reaction was so strong, almost feral, female reacting to a male on the hunt, wanting him, yet wanting to run. Maybe needing the chase to prove something to both of them. She saw the answering challenge in his eyes. It was impossible not to see.
She shook her head and took two steps back, trying to put distance between them despite his fingers around her wrist. In spite of the fact that she couldn’t look away from him. What was wrong with her? Her lack of control was frightening. She couldn’t blow this. She didn’t dare.
“I have no interest what-so-ever in a relationship with anyone. I don’t do one night stands and I don’t date. I don’t want attention from you or any other man. I’m asking you politely to let go of my wrist.”
She could barely get the words out. There was something, a part of her she’d never known existed, a part of her that didn’t want to walk away from this man. He was beautiful. Sexy. Intelligent. And Dangerous. Everything a woman might find attractive in a man. Everything she found attractive when she hadn’t even known she could be.
He didn’t release her right away. His amazing eyes searched hers for a long moment. His face softened and the male challenge was gone from his hard features as if it had never been there. Instead, he looked gentle. Still holding her wrist with one hand, he retrieved her hat with the other and gave it to her.
“You really are afraid of me, aren’t you? I’m not going to hurt you, Cat. No matter what you think, I won’t do that to you.” His voice was pure velvet, stroking over her skin, low and vibrant and all male, almost a purr. His eyes hypnotized her all over again. They hadn’t blinked. Not once. She was watching to see. He was absolutely, entirely focused on her and her alone.
Her belly did a slow roll and her breasts ached. Each separate spot where the pads of his fingers touched her bare skin felt as if he burned a brand right through her skin to her bones.
She hated that she was so susceptible to his voice. To his eyes. She retreated back to the character that always served her so well. She let her eyelashes fall, and nodded as if she understood. She couldn’t handle a man like Ridley. She knew that. She didn’t dare chance becoming his friend. She wouldn’t know what to do with him.