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Book XI of the Vampire Queen series, coauthored with Desiree Holt
(No familiarity with series is needed to enjoy this book!

Originally released August 2014; re-released with new publisher/cover January 2016.

Ranch owner Quinn Pedraza has to find someone to run the saloon he won in a bet, but more than that, he needs a woman who can handle his alpha personality…and closet submissive sexual cravings. When vampire Selene Torres arrives on the scene, he gets everything he wants – and learns what he really needs.

Excerpt

© Copyright 2014 - All Rights Reserved

Quinn Pedraza stared at the stack of bills and swore colorfully to himself. He didn’t need this aggravation. The After Hours Saloon had become nothing but a pain in the ass to him. Vendors wanted payment right now and, even though it was crowded every night, the place wasn’t generating the cash he’d hoped.

What did you expect out of a place you won in a poker game? He’d thought it would give him an extra source of income. What a laugh that was.

The office, its tiny space filled with the desk, a filing cabinet and two chairs, was a symptom of everything that was wrong. The floor and furniture were scarred and scuffed, paint was peeling on the walls and it seemed every day he accumulated more trash. He’d even stopped changing from his work clothes before heading out here. What difference did it make if the smell of horses and cattle and everything else still clung to him? The saloon wasn’t much better.

The inside of the building needed work and the bar setup needed a good overhaul, but with the end of summer and work ramping up at the ranch he didn’t have any time to get to it. He’d shut the damn place down, except in Nightfall there wasn’t another spot for people to hang out. That included men and women, ranchers and hands, good people and bums. If he shut down, they’d probably lynch him.

On the plus side, bad as things were going, he was lucky there was no competitor within miles of the place. But working the ranch all day then spending hours here at night was draining him, and not just financially. He’d spent too many years on the rodeo circuit, living out of trailers and tents, crowded into places with mobs of people. Privacy was important to him now. So why did he hang onto this place where he was thrust in the middle of people every night?

His Comanche grandfather, his mother’s father, would have berated him for even having a place that sold alcohol. Which was ironic, because Quinn had kept the place thanks to the advice of another Comanche—Sam.

The Indian who looked as if he was a baked part of the Texas landscape had been in and out of Quinn’s life since his teens, the kind of steady mentor his volatile father never had been. And he had an odd way of showing up at unexpected times, giving Quinn counsel that, while sometimes cryptic, usually steered him onto the right path.

The night Quinn had won the saloon, Sam had pulled one of his unexpected appearances at the game. He hadn’t wanted to play. Instead he propped himself in a chair in the corner, whittling on a stick. Didn’t say a word until Quinn won the saloon. Then Sam looked up, dark eyes meeting Quinn’s. He nodded and rose, leaving the game as if his task was done. When Quinn caught up to him in the parking lot, he mused aloud about selling it, but the Indian shook his head.

“You’ll want to keep this, Quinn. It will bring something good into your life.”

Quinn knew Sam was considered a shaman among his own people. He himself had seen enough in Sam’s company to accept it without a doubt. Though when it came to the saloon, he was starting to wonder if the man had been in a snake-bite delirium. Not that he’d ever say that where Sam could hear him. The shaman might be able to turn him into a coyote or something. Though if he had to deal with this mess much longer, that might start to look pretty appealing.

Leaning back in his chair, his booted feet up on the scarred old desk, Quinn closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, trying to ease the headache that wouldn’t quit. Beyond the closed door he could hear the usual noises of a rowdy crowd, warming up as the evening wore on. He needed to check on Artie. Make sure he was taking care of business out there.

He’d thought hiring a manager and a couple cute local girls to help him bartend and bus tables would keep him from putting in all these hours at the saloon at night. But he’d quickly found out he couldn’t afford a good bar manager, not when the bigger cities had more to offer one. Hiring Artie Sampson had truly been a last resort. The man had been fired from every job he’d ever had, but Quinn was desperate and told himself he was giving the man a second chance. Apparently, some people didn’t deserve second chances. And the girls seemed too busy flirting most of the time to be any help at all.

A loud crash jerked him out of the chair. Rolling up his sleeves, he yanked open the office door and stomped out to the saloon, his boots striking the boards loud enough they should have been heard over the noise. The scene he walked into made him want to shoot someone. Or himself.

The blast of the old-fashioned jukebox overrode the hooting cheers of the beer-guzzling crowd, egging on the two men pummeling each other in the middle of the room. As Quinn watched, they rammed into a table, overturning it and shattering the wealth of uncollected empty glasses it had been holding. A chair splintered under the men’s weight as they rolled over it.

Fucking shit. Drawing a breath, Quinn prepared to wade in and yank the two drunks apart by the front of their shirts. But then she beat him to it.

He was sure no one like her had ever walked into After Hours, or any other local bar or saloon he’d experienced. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, but the high heels of the fancy dress boots she wore beneath a pair of snug jeans gave her at least another four inches. Hair like spun gold fell in waves to her shoulders, shimmering as she moved. A thin blue short-sleeved top with a light spray of sparkles across a New Orleans bar logo hugged breasts that would be a nice handful, and Quinn had large hands. A silver pendant that looked like a tiny dagger through a heart pointed right down at the tempting hint of cleavage, a warning and invitation together.

When he pushed himself past the usual focal points to get to her face, he found features like blown glass, perfect and delicate. At first glance, he thought she wasn’t much older than the pair of twenty-one-year-old girls he’d hired for low wages to pour drinks. But a second look said this was a fully mature, sexy woman. Ethereal yet earthy. Her eyes matched the blue of her shirt, the smoky color of an early-dawn sky.

When she stepped between the two men without hesitation, he bit back an oath. He was ten paces away, too far to keep her from getting mashed like Spam between two slapped-together pieces of Merita.

Instead, one slim hand landed on the barrel chest of Howie Gold, a regular, the other on the arm of a drugstore cowboy who’d probably said something stupid to set off Howie. They both had clenched fists and alcohol-induced stupid written all over their faces, but then she leveled that blue gaze on them. “You’re interfering with my getting a drink. And that pisses me off.”

She didn’t raise her voice, but she didn’t need to do so. The impact of her expression turned them into deer frozen in the headlights, waiting for a truck to hit. Those blue eyes held something... Well, he knew how crazy it sounded, given he could have picked her up under one arm, but the word that came to mind was dangerous.

Mesmerizing was a close second, and he meant it literally. Something about her quieted the crowd and held both men in place, those fists loosening into uncertain curls.

In contrast, that sense of danger made Quinn want to keep coming toward her. His cock had hardened, pressing against the denim of his fly and demanding release. No, demanding to be plunged into the tight wetness of her body.

There was no way she could sense his reaction. A handful of occupied tables were between him and her, plus a bunch of people on their feet to corral the fight. He was just one in the crowd. Yet when his cock stiffened, her gaze flicked away from the two men and lasered right to him.

He had a voracious sexual appetite and liked a dozen different kinds of kink. All the women he’d chosen in the past fifteen years—and the rodeo circuit had provided a lot of those--had seemed to enjoy sex with him. He tried to be a generous lover and, without ego, he knew he was the quintessential alpha male, strong and demanding in the right ways. Their willing compliance should have been enough for him.

Yet sometimes, lying awake in the hours before dawn, a sleeping woman next to him, he wondered if they were too obedient. Too acquiescing. And damn it all, that didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t as if they just lay there and waited for him to give them orders. Most of them had had some substance to them, such that a couple had become relationships. Annie had been the last of those, some time ago.

Since then, he’d had the occasional casual fuck, but it was half-hearted. He’d told himself it was because of how hard he was working, but standing here in this moment, he knew that was a lie. Every relationship had lacked some intangible thing he couldn’t put his finger on.

Something which he had the oddest feeling had just put its finger on him.

In her eyes, he saw a deep, reciprocal interest. Deep as in dark and mysterious, a cavern that held unknown hazards. But almost as soon as he registered it, her attention went back to the two would-be combatants. “You can take this outside,” she said. “Beat the shit out of each other in the parking lot. I don’t care. It’s not happening in here. But whether you do that or you stay inside and behave, you’ll go give the bartender an extra twenty for the glasses you broke. That’s only fair, right?”

She wasn’t patronizing or sarcastic, which might set them off again. If anything, her no-nonsense tone reminded Quinn of the way his own mother used to handle problems between him and his brothers.  She had a quiet firmness that convinced them of two things—she loved them, and she would beat the hide off them without remorse when they deserved it. Even when they reached the ages that they towered over her, they respected her the same way. She also stood between them and their loud, domineering father, the only one he seemed to listen to.

This woman gave Howie’s chest a light tap, her fingers tightening on the drugstore cowboy’s arm. “I’m not in the habit of repeating myself, boys. Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Howie mumbled as the other man dragged his hat off his head.

“Good.” She gave them a tight smile, and glanced over her shoulder at Maria, the goggle-eyed waitstaff and bartender on shift tonight. “Charge my tab for one of those pizzas with all the fixings and bring half to each of them with a pitcher of ice water. That’ll soak up some of the alcohol interfering with their better judgment.”

Releasing them, she stepped back. With only a brief shift in expression, she made it clear they were dismissed to do her bidding. Quinn watched in amused disbelief as the stubborn cowhand and dumbass kid both moved to the bar, reaching for their wallets.
Then he had bigger concerns. As the crowd started to wander back to their tables and own conversations again, her gaze came right back to him.

He knew he had features that most women found pleasing—a tough physique, thick brown hair and brown eyes one woman had described like melting in a vat of chocolate when he looked her way. However, this woman considered him from head to toe as if she was watching molasses meander down his bare body. It was the first time a woman had looked at him like he was something she was literally considering eating.

That disturbing thought should have given him pause, but his dick was doing the compass pointing as he drew closer. Since he’d been getting worried about its lack of interest in anything lately, he was kind of glad for the proof otherwise. But now it was time he took hold of himself. Mentally, that is. This was his bar and she’d just handled something that was his job to do. Or his worthless, nowhere-to-be-seen bar manager.

“Thanks, I could have taken care of that. You shouldn’t get in between two cowboys in a tussle.”

She shifted to one hip. The men at the table behind her glazed, suggesting they had an enviable view of her ass working that denim. “You’re such a little thing,” Quinn added, clearing his throat. “You could have been hurt.”

“I’m in more danger from alcohol poisoning from the drinks your poorly trained bartender is over pouring. Or the old cooking grease in your food.”

She had the voice of a black-and-white movie starlet, the words mulled on her tongue like they tasted sweet. She’d taste sweet, for sure. Thank God he’d pulled his shirt out of his jeans while doing paperwork, but as she criticized his bar, he had to resist the urge to tuck it in, try to look more professional. Yeah, that adolescent hard-on I’m sporting would be real professional. Best to leave the shirt out.

What the hell? He’d worked a full day and didn’t have time for this shit. “Thanks for the customer feedback,” he said coolly. “We’ll cover the pizza. Tell Maria the house owes you a free drink. Watered down so you can handle it.”

She arched a brow, blue eyes sparking. Taking a side step, she picked up a full shot of whiskey off one of the tables. The patron sitting there, a gruff ranch hand from the Bar Q, began to protest, but she merely laid a hand on his lean shoulder, stilling his protest as she tossed it back in one swallow. No cough, no eye watering.

When she put the glass down with a decided thunk, a wave of whistles and catcalls came from the other three men at the table and those around them, but her face remained impassive. She never took her eyes off Quinn.

“Put that one on my tab,” she said.

As the men guffawed, Quinn shot them a quelling look. By the time he brought his gaze back to her, she’d stepped in front of him, close enough their conversation was just between them.

“Your biggest problem is your bar manager is a drunk,” she continued as if the interruption hadn’t happened. “I can smell the alcohol coming out of his pores from across the room, and he eyes the bar like a kid who can’t wait for the candy store to close so he can take his fill. He’s also not ringing up a good percentage of your sales, so he’s stealing from you, during and after hours.”

Quinn’s brow creased, his eyes flicking up to find Artie. He still didn’t see him. Yeah, the bar manager was a screw-up, but stealing? He’d given the asshole the only chance at employment in town. She had to be yanking his chain.

“But let me guess”—she tapped a well-manicured short nail against her full bottom lip—“he was the best the area had to offer, and you figure anything he screwed up, you could step in and fix, because you’re the kind who thinks he can handle anything.”

Quinn set his jaw. He wasn’t going to respond to any of this. He should just walk away before he said something regrettable. But even as she was tearing down his place, he wanted to keep watching her, being near her. His exhaustion was obviously affecting his better judgment.

Her gaze slid over him. “Your attire—and smell—says ranch to me, so you’re trying to run both places.” Stepping even closer, she laid her palm fully on his chest. Not the simple finger tap she’d given Howie. While Quinn was absorbing the impact of the intimate touch, she went from a discreet murmur to a low purr. “Sometimes a man has to learn how to give up control.”

Then she pivoted on her booted heel and left him standing there.

Quinn let out the breath he’d been holding. Aware of people staring at him, he scowled. “Show’s over, folks. Anyone else who thinks about brawling in here better think twice. She asked them nicely. I won’t. Next asshole who tries to break up my place will get his ass kicked into the parking lot, right into the sheriff’s car. You can spend the night in his little hotel for drunk and disorderly.”

There were some half-chuckles, rueful looks and raised hands of acknowledgement, then the noise level started to rise again. They knew he meant it. He’d fought damn bulls and roped stock for years. Tossing out a couple drunks was as easy as pitching hay.

Forcing himself not to look where his intriguing female had gone, he turned his attention to getting up the glass that had been broken, because of course it hadn’t occurred to Maria to do it. He’d have told her to get her ass out from behind the bar, but Artie still wasn’t around and she was serving drinks. Plus, Quinn found himself too disgusted with all of it to even bother. He was tired and needed a drink himself, one he wasn’t going to be getting anytime soon.

Righting the table, he went to find the broom and dustpan. Despite his irritation, he realized the past few minutes was the longest and most interesting interaction he’d had with a woman in quite a while. How pathetic was that? Ever since he sent Annie, his last real relationship, packing, his life had been unremitting work and more work. He was all too aware a great deal of that had been his choice, because he’d just plain lost interest. Every woman seemed the same. Wrong.

“I don’t understand,” she’d said, tears in her eyes. “We’re good together, Quinn. Really good. And I love the ranch.”

Yeah, she loved the ranch as much as she loved rattlesnakes. What she really loved was all the money she thought he had. She’d always been nattering about redecorating the house. Making changes. They hadn’t been good together, no matter what Annie thought.

At forty-two, he ought to be thinking about settling down. What good was building up this ranch, doing everything he was doing, without a wife to share that life with him, and children to pass it along to?

Quinn filled the dustpan as full as he could and carried it over behind the bar to dump it. As he wove his way through the tables, he noted none of them had been bussed in quite a while. Every surface was filled with empty bottles, glasses and mugs. The overturned one probably hadn’t been an isolated incident. Didn’t Artie or Maria ever think to clean the damn tables until the end of the night?

Probably not. Quinn had cleared tables at closing many times, believing Artie when he said they were overworked. But in reality, the people he hired were just lazy. Artie was nowhere to be seen, and he was supposed to be managing the bar when Maria was handling the tables. Whereas Maria had brought some drinks to a table but now just stood there, arms crossed beneath her breasts to show them off and one hip twitched out in a jaunty manner. All while she carried on with the cowboys. It was obvious Quinn’s staff thought working in a bar meant they got to party as much as the patrons did.

Sweeping the broken glass into a pile, he got it up and banged the dustpan against the inside of the trash can to get all the glass debris from it. When he straightened, he made himself think past his ego about what his five-foot-tall unlikely bouncer had said about his bar. Though it had riled him, she hadn’t been shooting off her mouth. She’d sounded like a woman who knew exactly what she was talking about.

He glanced up, toward the bar. Just in time to see two of his so-called customers leaning over the service station, helping themselves from the beer taps. Shit. 

Putting the dustpan and broom aside, he strode behind the bar, sending those customers skedaddling with a fierce look before he stomped back into the kitchen area. “Damn it, Artie. Where the hell are you?”

He was practically shouting, at the end of his rope. Then he noticed the cracked back door and smelled tobacco. Taking an hour-long smoke. Of course.

Artie slid in, crushing the butt out in the doorframe. “Yeah, boss?”

Quinn pinned him with every bit of pissed off he could level on him. “We’ve got customers out there serving themselves while Maria is flirting like she’s turning tricks. Get your ass in gear.”  

Had the man always been such a disgrace? As Artie hurried past, Quinn noticed how the man’s T-shirt was covered with unidentifiable stains and his jeans had spots worn through. Quinn paid the man enough he could buy himself some decent clothes. But she’d been right. He smelled like an alcohol-soaked sponge.

He knew Artie had a drinking problem, but…aw, shit. He could keep telling himself the barn was clean enough, but every day the manure was rising higher and higher. Eventually he wouldn’t be able to avoid having it right in his face.

Quinn took a deep breath, calming himself down. He’d get through tonight, then maybe he’d do some hard thinking after closing. Sam’s wisdom aside, it might be time to call it quits on this.

For now, he returned to the floor and made one more pass at the shattered glass on the floor. Grabbing the big serving tray from behind the bar, he started bussing the closest tables. But as he carried the empties to the bigger trash bin, his attention was caught by a customer coming up to pay his tab. Narrowing his eyes, Quinn gripped the dustpan hard as he watched Artie open the drawer—without ringing up a sale. He gave the man waiting with beer bottle and cash in hand whatever change he was expecting.

She was right. The motherfucker was stealing from him.

Maybe it had been happening for a while and her pointing it out had taken off the blinders. Either way, he saw red. He considered himself a civilized man, but at the end of the day there was a code for dealing with this kind of shit. And it didn’t involve lawyers or calling the cops.

In the time it took to blink, he’d crossed the floor, slammed the dustpan and tray on the end of the bar and lifted Artie from the spot where he was standing. He shoved him against the wall.

“Not only are you lazy and a slob,” Quinn spat, “but you’re a goddamn thief. How much of my drawer goes into your pocket every night, Artie? How the fuck much?”

“B-B-But, Quinn,” the man blubbered.

“But nothing, you ass. I should—”

Quinn broke off. He realized he was honestly mad enough to do the man real harm, his hands just itching with the need to break and bludgeon. It was then he found out where the delicate-looking woman with steel blue eyes was sitting. At the table right next to where he had Artie pinned.

She’d picked the spot that had a full view of the floor and the door, and was backed up to a corner. It was the table the sheriff preferred when he came to drink, and any of the active military guys on leave.

When Quinn glanced down and to the left, she was less than two feet away. Even so, she hadn’t vacated her seat. She didn’t seem flustered by the fact he’d slammed Artie against the wall hard enough to make it vibrate right behind her head. She had her gaze on Quinn, and what he saw in those eyes steadied him.

Cool understanding.

Reaching out, she hooked her slim fingers in Quinn’s jeans pocket, giving his hip bone an intimate stroke. She tilted her head, a subtle shift toward the door that said volumes.

He’s not worth it. Kick him to the curb and be done with it.

Unbelievably, his cock had sprung right back into a hard jam against his fly, just from that brief contact. But his reaction to her was more than physical. Though the touch aroused him, it also settled that enraged core that was about to do something he couldn’t undo. She held him until he steadied, gave her an answering nod. Then she leaned back, letting him go.

Looking at the sniveling mess he was holding, Quinn dropped the man from his grip. “You’re fired. Don’t ever let me see your miserable face again.”

He made sure of it, marching Artie to the door amid applause and grating comments like “about damn time”. In the parking lot, Quinn stood there, arms akimbo and legs braced, watching Artie climb into his junker truck, grind the engine into gear and trundle out onto the road. As the dust settled, Quinn dropped his head back, stared up at the night sky. What a fucking mess. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he massaged, closed his eyes.

Okay. Get through tonight.

But when he turned to face the double doors that would take him back into After Dark, Quinn realized the only thing that made him want to go through them ever again was the woman sitting in that back corner.

Yep, he wanted to go right back to her, but there was no time for that. Maria couldn’t handle the rest of the night on her own. Hell, Quinn wasn’t sure he could trust her to close out the cash register properly.

But what if the woman disappeared during that time? She was definitely not a local. Probably on her way to one of the big cities, someone he’d never see come this way again. He didn’t like the idea of that. But he couldn’t think of a single thing to say to keep her sitting at that table until closing time. Nothing that wouldn’t come off crazy and drive her away faster.

When he came back in, he found it wasn’t an issue. She wasn’t at the table. Feeling a spurt of panic, he looked around, gaze darting here and there, feet itching to run him back to the parking lot before she drove away. Then he saw her.

Working.

She was acting as if he’d left her in charge, instructing Maria to bus the tables with the tray he’d dropped while she took point behind the bar. She was in the middle of mixing what appeared to be three different drinks, her head cocked to listen to other orders coming in. With a professional warm smile, she responded to one of the patrons, popping the top of a couple beers and sliding them his way. Then she rang up two sales, a cash and a credit transaction.

Anyone else, he would have been over that bar, demanding an explanation for what the fuck she was doing, but her competence was as obvious as a veteran cowhand working stock. He was looking at a woman who’d worked in a bar for a long time. Or a lot of different bars.

Fine. Yeah, she might present herself better than Artie, but that didn’t mean he was going to just let her take over without knowing what she was about. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know his cock was interfering with his judgment. He needed to engage his other brain, the supposedly higher-functioning one, and take a good hard look at this situation.

And how he wished he hadn’t used the word hard, because that just made it more difficult to keep that part of him in check.

Libido aside, he had to admit it was difficult to argue with the proof in front of him. He’d only been out in the lot ten minutes or so, yet everyone sitting at the bar had drinks and Maria was quickly finishing up the table bussing, Quinn’s sexy sprite giving her the direction Artie never had. It made Quinn rethink whether or not the barmaid was truly lazy. She and Carol, the other one he’d hired, were barely kids, after all. Maybe they just needed more supervision, like what he was witnessing.

The woman was ringing up another sale when his muscles finally unfroze.

“Hey, Quinn,” someone called as he strode behind the bar. “Nice to see you finally got some class in this place.”

Quinn forced a smile and nodded. “Just for you, Mike.”

The register rang again and she handed back change, but before she could reach for another empty to refill, he clamped his hand around her wrist, turning away from the patrons so they couldn’t hear him. He jerked his head at Maria to take over as he drew the woman toward the back wall. The position brushed her shoulder against his chest, and put her close enough he could inhale the scent of her hair. The scent of her, period.

She smelled like cool things. Freshly turned earth in the shade of an old oak, churned butter pulled from his grandfather’s icebox, and rain in the fall. All things he liked. “No offense, but I just tossed one guy taking advantage of me, so what are you doing behind my bar? Where the hell did you come from? Do you have a name?”

He’d intended to sound gruff and demanding, but as she lifted long-lashed eyes to study his face, her head barely reaching his shoulder, he knew he was more curious than anything. She wore a light covering of lipstick, a coral pink that looked good against her fair skin. That glossy sheen suggested moist invitation. When she spoke, he smelled mint and the faint flavor of the Jack. It really was uncanny, how young and old she seemed. If he was only going on her looks, he’d guess she was at least ten to fifteen years younger than him. But her eyes said she was quite a bit older.

“Selene Torres,” she said. “I came in from the road for a drink. And I didn’t say it was okay for you to touch me yet. Let go.”

Yet? It was funny how a man could latch onto one word like a steer’s horns and let the beast drag him right off the cliff. But she wasn’t being coy. She had the same set to her mouth she’d had when she’d dealt with Howie and his potential punching bag. She wasn’t intimidated by the difference in their sizes or Quinn’s tone of voice. Appearances certainly were deceiving.

Selene. A beautiful name to go with a fascinating woman. She affected him, no question. Though he loosened his hold, he didn’t let go, wanting to see what she’d do about it. He craved her response to a challenge, enough that his need for it made him uneasy.

A blink later, he discovered she could call enough fire in her eyes for someone twice her size, but the heat of it was something he’d willingly embrace.

“Don’t test me right now,” she said. “We can discuss that later.”

She removed her hand from his grasp with a deft twist that surprised him with the subtle torque. Almost as much as how she reversed it, her fingers now resting on his forearm, her index finger making a light pass over his wrist bones before she took that distracting touch away.

“Your skin is sun drenched,” she observed, gaze sliding over the tanned expanse of his face, his throat, back down to his arms, revealed by his rolled-up shirt sleeves. “But…” She wet a finger, giving him a quick glimpse of the tip of her tongue before she rubbed the pad of that forefinger over his wrist. “You have an ink mark there.”

Quinn stared down at the crown of her head. He wanted her. Not like a buckle bunny, a quick fuck against the wall, though he could easily see that happening. He wanted her in so many ways it was like a crazy film reel shooting images through his head so fast he couldn’t list all the things she was making him want. 

“Hey, Quinn.” One of the men seated at the bar called down to him. “Don’t take her head off. In ten minutes, she’s run this place better than that asshole you just threw out ever did. And she’s a damn sight better to look at.”

Agreement traveled down the bar like the wave at a sporting event, but Quinn’s attention remained glued to her. When she lifted her gaze again, she didn’t break eye contact. Out of all the captivating things about this woman, that was what he kept noticing the most. No blinking, no wavering. It was the most direct stare he’d ever experienced, as if she could do it for hours without twitching. There was an odd stillness to her. Funny how he’d never noticed how much people moved even when they didn’t seem to move. But she didn’t.

Her thumb stayed pressed over the small spot of his skin tingling from her moist care while the rest of her fingers wrapped around his wrist, holding him. As she tightened that grip, he had a sudden vision of himself on his knees, lifting both hands to her as she ran a rope in figure eights around his wrists, over and over.

The thought startled him so much, he almost pulled away from her. He’d never had a single woman in his bed he would have let tie him up. He thought of his earlier discontent with former lovers, how they’d almost seemed too compliant. In this woman’s eyes, he saw so many fantasies he’d never pursued, but which had drifted in his subconscious, permeating early morning erotic dreams he pushed away at dawn. With her, he wanted to bring them to life, and it scared the shit out of him.

Fuck, he was in a bunch of trouble here. Focus on the bar, asshole. Stay away from anything else.

“We should talk,” he said. “Will you stay until closing?”

During the bated moment before she answered, he found himself trying to understand why he anticipated her answer so much. Leaning in, she braced herself on his chest once more, lifting up onto her toes so she could put her nose close to the pocket of his throat. The current between them was electric as she inhaled, her breath caressing his skin through the open collar of his shirt.

“Sun drenched,” she murmured again. “Yes, Quinn. I’ll stay until closing.”

Sliding down his body as she put her heels back on solid ground, she turned away and left him.

 


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