Authors: Linda Cajio
He was easy to talk to, and she liked that even as she wished she didn’t. Another chicken piece was cleanly severed. But he would not be an easy man over the long haul. In fact, she had grave doubts he would even be there for a woman. Just because he was giving her some golden opportunity at work did not mean she had to fall on her knees in gratitude. A perversely honest part of her brain reminded her that he’d never ever done or said anything that even hinted he expected such a thing. She absolutely believed that any refusal from her on the personal side did not affect her job at Wayans. She knew
harassment when she heard it. He didn’t make lewd or suggestive remarks. He just told her he wanted to see her, asked her several times to change her stance about dating men from work. She had to admit that what he said was true, about the workplace being the number-one territory for men and women to meet. The thigh meat was reduced another quarter inch by the black-belt-in-karate cleaver.
Okay, so he wasn’t a macho ogre either. But she was in no mood for logic to interfere with the ripe anger she was whipping up. Jake was not someone she should ever get involved with. If she had known then what she knew now, she would have run for her life the moment she spotted him in the woods that night.
But none of that negated one fact. She wanted him. When she went to bed at night, he was the last thing she thought of. When she woke up in the morning, he was the first. She could taste his mouth on hers nearly continually, feel his arms around her, his body taut under her hands. The scent of cologne and man lingered far too long in her senses, and wisps of his voice, low and sensual, were constantly in her ears.
And if she were completely honest with herself, she’d have to admit she was giving him mixed signals. That was because he made her feel so mixed up inside.
The doorbell rang. Charity blinked, then glanced down at the chicken she’d been cutting up. It was reduced to small chunks.
“I guess it’s stir-fry for the rest of the week,” she murmured, shaking her head. Her great bargain was
a disaster. She washed her hands and, wiping them dry, went to answer the door.
Aggravation from Hell stood on the other side of the threshold. Trepidation shot through her as she wondered if all her thoughts had “called” him there.
“Help” he said, though she thought he looked more bemused than frantic.
“You and my chicken. Go home, Jake.”
“Charity, you’re the only sane person in this town. I think I’ve got a problem.”
“I’m not sane,” she said. “I’m standing here talking to you, aren’t I?”
“Dammit, woman. I need to talk to someone who uses some sense.”
She sighed, but didn’t open her door wider. First, she didn’t trust herself. He looked too good in casual clothes. The white rugby shirt clung to his torso, emphasizing the long line of his body. There should be a law against his wearing it. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did Gwen blow up the archive files?”
“No. I had that meeting with the men today, remember?”
“Oh, yes.” Charity leaned forward, suddenly intensely interested. “And?”
“And I explained what I had explained to them before.” He shook his head. “Charity, they went from machismo to weeping jelly in five minutes.”
She snorted, trying to hold back her amusement. It didn’t work as she imagined Dave and the others bawling like a bunch of two-year-olds. Laughing helplessly, she clung to the door for support.
“It’s not funny!” Jake snapped, pushing the door open and entering her apartment. “I was explaining
how fathers are not passing on their knowledge to their sons, this being the basis for what we’re missing in our lives. I was trying to emphasize that they needed to do that with their own children, to reverse the process. The next thing I know, they’ve got it all wrong and it’s a sins of my father free-for-all. Some of those guys wept worse than Scarlett O’Hara.”
“Scarlett wasn’t a weeper.”
“Whatever. I think I opened a can of worms.”
“Think!” she exclaimed, laughing again. “I can’t wait to see what they do when you take them dancing in the woods!”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she desperately wanted to call them back. He gaped at her.
“Ahh …” She tried desperately to think of something that would cover up her blooper.
“Ahhh what?” Jake asked, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. “What do you know about dancing in the woods?”
?” she tried hopefully.
“Buzz. Wrong. Try again.”
“I saw it on TV?”
“Sorry.” He stepped closer.
She stepped back.
“You saw me that night, didn’t you?” he demanded.
“That’s an understatement,” she muttered.
He turned the air blue with curses.
“Now, Jake,” she said, hoping to calm him down. “You have to expect these things when you’re half a block from the center of town.”
“I was not a half a block from the center of town!”
“Two?” she suggested, grinning.
“Was I really?” he asked sheepishly.
She started laughing all over again.
“Thanks a lot. I’m naked and you’re laughing. You do wonders for my ego.” His face turned red.
The blush was unexpected. In fact, it was rather touching to see a man like Jake blush. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her amusement.
“You never said a word,” he complained.
“What could I say?” she asked, not quite looking at him. She’d managed to relegate the incident to the back of her mind in order to work with him. Now it was smack in the forefront again.
“It was an important ritual,” he said, glaring at her.
“I’m sure,” she said. “I think the chipmunks sang about it.”
“No, the chipmunks did not sing about it. We have to vent our ancient selves.”
“You really aired yours out.”
“You have no sympathy for the humiliated.”
“Men weren’t allowed to laugh when women burned their bras.”
“You guys were too busy staring lasciviously.”
He grinned. “True. So what did you think when you saw me nude? Did you stare lasciviously?”
“No,” she lied.
“Liar.” He leaned forward. “I could feel eyes on me that night, watching. Now I know it was you.”
Something that had been funny had acquired a feeling of intimacy—between them. Her chuckles faded, and she was unable to look away from him.
“We’ll let that go for the moment,” he said. “Now that you’ve stopped laughing, maybe you can tell me what to do with these guys. One of them even cried
because his father tricked the family dog into liking him best.”
“That must be Bill Williams,” Charity said. “He tells that story every chance he gets.”
“This time he had a rapt audience.” Jake ran his hand through his hair. “Catharsis is good, but this is ridiculous. What’s wrong with this town?”
“What are you asking me for?” she asked. “I’m not the one who’s the expert on the men’s movement.”
Leaving him with that piece of truism, she turned around and walked back into the kitchen. Jake followed.
“I knew you’d make me feel better,” he said dryly, then stared down at the chopped chicken. “Did a cleaver go berserk in here?”
“Haven’t you seen stir-fry before?” she asked in a haughty tone.
“Not like this.”
“It’s Balinese,” she said, and shrugged as if to say she couldn’t help his international culinary ignorance.
“It’s something all right. I’d suggest taking you out to dinner, but you’d say no.”
“I would,” she said, half wishing he would ask anyway. The chicken looked worse than before.
“It’ll look better once you fry it,” he said.
“I was going to broil it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “The Balinese have broilers?”
He nodded, accepting her word for it.
“So what should I do with the men?” he asked, leaning against the counter.
“Take them out and shoot them and hang them?”
She shrugged, then opened the refrigerator to rummage around for vegetables to add to the chicken. “I don’t know. Tell them that was good for their souls and now they can be men?”
“I …” His voice trailed away.
Charity rose from her bent-over position and turned to him quizzically. He was standing as still as stone, staring at her.
“What?” she asked, puzzled by the intense expression in his eyes.
“Don’t bend over in a man’s presence again,” he said, his voice hoarse. “It makes funny things happen to them.”
“Oh, so now you’re going to tell me you can’t control yourself.” She made a face, thinking that he wasn’t different after all. “The age-old complaint of men. Blame the women for their lack of control.”
“Men can control themselves,” he said, smiling slightly. “The problem is, you give them impulses that they have an overwhelming urge to follow. At least, you give them to me. Like the impulse to reach out and touch your hair.”
He reached out and touched her hair, tucking behind her ear the strands that had come loose from her ponytail. She shivered as his fingers curved around the sensitive tip of her ear. She couldn’t remember a time a man had touched her this gently and caused such a reaction.
“And if I say not to touch my hair, what will you do?” she asked, gazing at his face. His cheekbones looked more prominent, and his eyes, usually a light brown, had darkened. Sometimes she couldn’t look at him at all because he did funny things to her
insides or she felt extremely shy. And other times like this, all she could do was stare.
“Then I would follow my second impulse and touch your cheek and find the skin like velvet.” His finger traced along her jaw. The slight coarseness of his skin contrasted with the softness of hers.
She knew she ought to stop this, but she couldn’t muster the strength. A craving swirled through her, and she had to indulge it for just a few more seconds. After all, it was only a touch. Surely that couldn’t hurt anything.
“Now, of course,” he went on, “I would follow my third impulse. And that’s to kiss you.”
His hand cupped the side of her face. Charity wanted desperately to curl herself into his hand, into the warmth and strength radiating from it.
“But I won’t kiss you …”
Her stomach dropped sickeningly at his words.
“I won’t,” he repeated.
She told herself she was grateful he wouldn’t.
He gazed at her, his jaw tightening visibly. “The hell I won’t.”
His lips came down on hers in that sure and perfect way he had. Charity went straight into his arms without thought, until her body was tight against his. Need burst along every inch of her flesh. His shoulders were hard and solid, and she dug her nails into them, anchoring herself in the storm already pulling her into itself. His mouth twisted and turned, and she followed with hers, reveling in the gentle intensity.
His tongue enticed hers to join in an ancient mating, swirling together over and over, sending her senses spinning into soft gray depths of nothingness.
She could taste him, hot and sweet and male. She could hear his breath coming deeper and more ragged with need, more seductive than any words could ever be. His hands smoothed their way up her spine, the palms flat and hot against her thin shirt. The friction sent out shivers everywhere, and she hungered for more of his touch. It was as if her skin had been deprived of a basic need and was now being nourished back to life. She realized dimly that she hadn’t been touched by a man like this in years, but it wasn’t just any man who could produce this response in her. It was Jake. And she wanted more.
His hands slid down her back and curved around her derriere. She moaned as he lifted her into him, their hips pressed intimately together. The kiss burned out of control, like a blaze raging through a forest. The hunger turned ravenous, and she met him move for move and touch for touch as desire flowed through her in a slow white heat.
He hauled her up higher, burying his lips at her throat, nipping and sucking in tiny love bites. She arched her head back, reveling in the sensations his lips created. The kisses dipped lower and lower along the open neck of her blouse, until he reached the cleavage of her breasts. He traced it with his tongue. She moaned and half wrapped her dangling legs around his as emotions long suppressed inside her were unleashed. He pressed her back until she was braced between the counter and the refrigerator. His weight leaned into her, so satisfyingly that she made little noises in the back of her throat. His mouth trailed kisses along the upper curves of her breasts. It was like having hot fire and cool ice on her skin at the same time.
She gripped his hair at the nape of his neck, the thick strands threading through her fingers, and bent her head over his, her mouth against his temple. He dipped lower, nipping at her nipple through her shirt and bra. An ache coursed from the hard nub, pouring through her body as he thrust his tongue rhythmically against it. She couldn’t stand it. But she’d die if he stopped.
Jake teased her flesh through the barrier of clothing, feeling her nipple come to a hard point. His mind reeled at her sensual response, and he dug his fingers into the curve of her hip and thigh, hanging on as his body rocked with its own response. Running his hand down her thigh, he felt the firm flesh almost gripping his palm. He pulled her knee higher around his hip until she cradled him into the most intimate part of herself, hard, hot, tight even through her slacks. The feel of her enveloping him rocketed through him, pulling him under the passion. Her hands were kneading his shoulders and back, practically tearing holes in his shirt to get to his skin. He dragged his mouth back up to hers for a devastating kiss that spun him out of control. The taste of her was an addiction already, seducing him with a craving for her uniqueness.
Charity was honest in her need, meeting his with everything she had. He wanted her more than he could ever have imagined. He could feel her warm breath at his hair. His blood thickened and pumped through his veins at her every moan of pleasure. He wanted to kiss her everywhere at once, so hungry for her to be skin to skin with him. Every wall between them had been stripped away until it was just them, only them giving to each other in an age-old way. She
couldn’t deny it … she wasn’t denying the passion between them. She was meeting it, taking with her even as she gave to him.