As she shut off the engine of her truck, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. He came out of the same bushes where he’d disappeared into the last time she’d seen him. He wore a black tee shirt that clung to his body, the sleeves rolled up reminiscent of the fifties. His black jeans fit his thighs like he’d been poured into them. And the midnight hair that she wanted to run her fingers through curled over his forehead in unruly waves. She hadn’t noticed how devastatingly handsome he’d been before. But she did now. Until she reached his eyes. And those, she remembered well. His face was just as hard. His mouth just as rigid. His anger just as wild and raging.
“I don’t have time to play nice, I’ve got too many other things to do and you’ll just be in my way.” He walked up to her and bent his head toward her until his nose nearly met hers. “I don’t need any interference from you or anyone. I’ve come too far for you to ruin what I’ve accomplished. It’s all I need to have someone like you poking their nose in something that doesn’t concern them.” He drew away now, his mouth drawn down into a cruel line in his face. “I’ve had enough from do-gooders like you who can only see two inches in front of their faces and not a damn thing that goes on around them.”
Stephanie looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Well, excuse the hell out of me but I happen to own this place. If anything, it’s you who better get their ass off the premises or I’ll have you charged with trespassing.” She’d be damned if she’d look away, no matter how hard it was to keep her eyes locked on his. He disturbed her in more ways than she cared to think about. There was a latent violence simmering just below the surface that was a little unsettling.
Batiste snarled a curse. “You don’t belong here in this place, fancy pants. Go back to the big city where you’ll be pampered and won’t get your lily white hands dirty.”
She was seething, moving forward until their toes met. “Has anyone ever told you what a dickhead you are?”
He smiled coldly. “Not lately.” He lifted his head sharply then said, “if you are, though, I’ll take it as a compliment.”
She threw her arms into the air and let them fall to her sides and backed away. “How can one man be so damn obstinate and infuriating!”
Batiste bore down on her, reminding Stephanie of a panther on the prowl. He bared his teeth and glared down into her face. “Do yourself a favor and follow my advice before anything happens to you. This place is not the same as you left it.”
She sucked in her breath at the threatening look in his eyes and moved backward. She hit the post where a protruding nail pricked her skin through her shirt. That was enough to straighten her spine. “I don’t take kindly to threats, Batiste,” she hissed through clenched teeth. She’d be damned if he was going to terrorize her in packing up and hitting the road. “It would be in your best interest to leave here and not come back. You’re not wanted or needed here and I believe you’re overstepping your bounds to suggest otherwise.”
“There’s stuff going on here you don’t want to know about!” he shouted, sending her a look of venomous proportions. “Your property has lain vacant so long that you have no idea what’s going on right under your nose.” To emphasize his words, he tapped her on her right temple with a fingertip. “There are no ivory towers here. No iron fences or brick walls to keep out the predators.”
His words, however, only served to send her into a boiling rage. She poked him in the chest. “I can take care of myself, slick. I don’t need you to tell me what’s going on. I’ll find out in my own good time. Get this through your head.” She stepped forward, stood on her tiptoes and glared up at him. “I am not leaving. I am here to stay.”
She watched in fascination as his nostrils flared and the muscles in his jaw worked furiously. It didn’t matter she wasn’t backing down. Not now. Not ever.
“What’s the use,” he snarled, then started walking away.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“As far away from you as I can get,” he ground out. “It’s your ass.”
“Yes, it is and you need to remember that,” she flung back.
He swung back, his face so lined with rage it was turning a peculiar color. His hands were clenched at his sides. Keeping them there instead of reaching out and throttling Stephanie Easton was a test of his inner strength. “I surely will. I have my own agenda and taking care of a spoiled woman is not on it.”
Stephanie began to sputter, so outraged that for a moment she couldn’t speak. “For your information, I’m not spoiled. I’m an ordinary woman with her feet firmly planted in the ground. I know full well where I come from so if you have issues with that, well, that’s your problem, not mine.”
“And, I know where I come from. I come from here, from this piece of dirt that my mother and father tired to making a living on. Issues? Yeah, you’re damn straight, I’ve got issues. You haven’t been back for how long? So, that makes you an expert on what goes on around here?”
He made a good point there, she thought. Since high school, she’d rarely visited. But that didn’t mean her heart wasn’t here. And, if she remembered the information Cameron had given her, neither had he.
“So we both have issues,” she stated grimly. “Believe me when I say I’m here to stay. You’ll have to accept that we’re going to be neighbors and deal with it. You stay on your side of the boundary lines and I’ll stay on mine.” She gave him a mutinous glare. “So, that said, you need to be on your way to do whatever is on your agenda. I have a priority list of my own and you are definitely not on it.”
Batiste gave her an odd look. For a moment, he wanted to be on her list. He shrugged that unwanted notion away and tucked his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans. “I suppose you think this is all so sexy and feminine. You standing here taking on the big bad man and all.” His smile was deadly. “You’ve got balls. I’ll give you that. Not many men would. Some seem to think I’m a dangerous man, that I wouldn’t think twice about shoving a knife in their gut or laying their throat open with my fine thin stiletto that I carry. Those men know when to back off and you’ll learn a very valuable lesson if you follow their lead.” For effect, he slowly pulled his knife from his pocket and touched the button, releasing the deadly blade that lay within. “Know what I mean?”
She was not going to give him the pleasure of seeing how frightened she was. She didn’t like knives, didn’t like weapons of any kind. “Put your toy away, Batiste. Your tactics aren’t going to work with me.”
He only smiled. One that was cold and deadly. One that told her she was treading on dangerous ground. “They aren’t tactics. Around here, it’s the way of things. A way of life.” He raked his gaze over her, traveling downward, lingering before making his way back up and meeting her eyes. “You just might due after all, Miss Stephanie,” he said smoothly, turning his back and disappearing into the trees.
She watched him go as she climbed the steps to the porch, pondering what made up a man like Colton Batiste. She closed her eyes and breathed in the rustic smell of moisture-laden air. As she opened them again, leaves stirred from an approaching storm. She liked afternoons like this, the rumbling of thunder and rain falling off the roof. She settled into a rocking chair and waited. As the promised rain fell, she mulled over her altercation with Batiste, kicking off her shoes and wiggled her toes. Curling her legs beneath her, she pulled her braid apart with her fingers, relaxing, letting the afternoon’s squall soothe her.
Eyes closed, she let a sigh of contentment escape her lips as the rain ceased and the sun came out again, ready to dry up the water with its rays. She was too immersed in the first inner peace she’d felt in a long time to notice she was no longer alone. She screamed when warm fingers touched her skin.
“There’s more I have to say,” Batiste said huskily, water dripping off his hair that had been finger-combed into place without results.
It dropped onto her skin, leaving small pools of droplets with each movement of his head. His black shirt, now soaked from the brief shower, clung to him, outlining his form, defining his form muscular chest. Stephanie watched in fascination … until she met his eyes that gleam with hazard glints of fire.
“I don’t think you understand how dangerous it is for a woman alone.” He shook his head and drops of water went flying, reminding her of a dog flinging off excess water off his coat.
“I can take care of myself, Batiste.”
He flicked his eyes over her insolently then slapped a hand on each wrist splayed across the wide rocker arms then bent his head until she felt his breath on her skin. “You couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag.”
What the hell did he think he was doing? she wondered. Had he lost his mind? From the crazed way he was looking at her, she’d bet on it. “Get out of my face, Batiste,” she sneered. She jerked her arms but he held fast, his eyes not leaving hers. A light breeze blew across the porch as she struggled, saturating their skin with a fine mist, releasing the essence of a woman’s perfume and a man’s cologne. Every breath she took in had her heart tripping. He was too close, his breath too warm, his scent too male, the man too dangerous. “Let me go, asshole.”
Suddenly, he became aware of how close they were and let his gaze wander over her face, lingering on her lips that were not quite closed. “Take me advice,” he murmured softly. “Go back to that big city life you’re more cut out for.” His own mouth opened as the urge to press his lips against hers grew stronger. “You don’t belong here, Stephanie. I can’t guarantee your safety if you stay.”
“I can take care of myself,” she insisted. The heat from his hands penetrated her skin, his scent was like an assault on her senses. She was at odds with what she wanted him to do. She was aware of all his attributes. Fine lines fanning outward at his eyes. Specks of gold his eyes. A generous mouth that was very close to her own. More than anything she’d like to moved forward and find out just how it felt against hers.
She jerked again but his grip was unrelenting. “Let me go,” she seethed, knowing she had to go something to get herself out of this volatile situation.
With one furious jerk of his arms, she was pulled out of the rocking chair and into his arms, wedged so tightly against it was useless to fight him. “Didn’t you hear one word said? You think stink ain’t gonna land on you if you get close enough?” One hand moved across her backside, pressing her into him while the other traveled up her shoulder blades and onto her nape. “This place ain’t the same as you left it. There are factors at work here you know nothing about.”
Stephanie was motionless against him, partly frozen, partly spellbound. The blood had drained from her face and it was a struggle to force air into her lungs. Berg and Dud’s words came back to her. “Dangerous mean.” She believed it. It was dripping from him like rain down a windowpane. She could feel the violence in his body, in his touch, the angry gleam of an internal storm in his eyes, felt the trembling of rage in his hands. His fingertips were dug mercilessly into her flesh until tears sprang into her eyes. She closed her eyes and turned her head to hide it. Everything stilled. It was almost as if the world stopped turning and faded away, leaving only them.
She seemed to be floating on a softness that she couldn’t identify. Everything seemed to be a long way away.
“Damn you!” he swore, loosening the painful grip on her body but still not releasing her from the circle of his arms, his forehead touching hers. She opened her eyes now and his mouth came into view. She drew back, frowning, taking in his troubled eyes, the mouth that was closing in on her own. His kiss was feather-light but ignited a yearning in her like a brush fire. “Damn you,” he murmured again. “Damn you all to hell.”
His mouth covered his a warm wet kiss.
It changed, deepened, assaulted. He captured her mouth in one smooth movement, a punishment that promised retribution, vengeance but did so with all the skill and proficiency he possessed. He shifted, repositioned as she tried to regain her senses, opening her mouth in a gasp for air. When she did, he pressed his advantage. She was thrust into a world of passion that overwhelmed her senses. She started fighting then, realizing his sensual attack was meant as a reproof rather than a tribute to her sensuality. But she found, she was becoming immersed in his brand of sexuality, was weakened by the heat penetrating her body, felt herself coming undone by the potency of his lips as they ground against hers.
It took more time to aright herself than was normal, still in shock from his bruising kiss. When she did, she realized he was pushing her backward, realized that he was no longer trying to punish but was now trying to seduce. He was no longer holding her against her will but caressing her skin like a lover would, his hands moving and traveling in never-ending circles on her back. She held back the moan of pleasure but came nearly undone by his. As his tongue swept across her lips, moistening them with in one smooth movement, licking, savoring, taking pleasure in sensation as if he’d expire if he stopped. She shocked herself as she clung helplessly to him, shivering with delight. When he became aware of his response—and hers—he drew a ragged breath and body-pressed her against the house, his heated arousal thrusting against her own awakening excitement.
Stephanie nearly wept with the pleasure of this tempestuous sensation swamping her senses. Her marriage to Oliver never produced this kind of sweeping assault that went on and on and on. He worried her bottom lip with his teeth then probed her mouth as he rotated his hips against her. He moved closer on a thrust, raising her right leg to curve it around his hips. The movement shocked Stephanie, nudging her back with a sharp slap of reality.
She gasped in horror at what she’d allowed him to do. It was brazen and she was shameless. With disgust at herself, Stephanie began fighting him, pummeling his chest with her fists, thrashing about with her body until he released her.
“Get your damn hands off me,” she screamed. She stumbled away from him, her face white, her hands grabbing her shirt and rubbing her mouth hard to wipe away his taste.
She ran like the wind around the wraparound porch and out the back gate, heading for the barn to get away from him. She leaped across the walking bridge, her bare feet making a slapping sound on the wooden slats. She wrenched open the door, hastily shutting it behind her and slammed the latch in place, hiding herself away from her pursuer.
Batiste was close on her heels, rattling the door that separated them.
She heard his snarling curses, heard his footsteps round the side of the building. “Open the door or I’ll kick it in,” he roared, lashing out with a booted foot. “We need to get a few things straight!”
Strangling with an unaccustomed fear, she ran to the other end of structure where the equipment was kept, intent on finding something with which she could defend herself with. “Get off my property, Batiste,” she shrieked.
It didn’t bear thinking about—the things he’d done to her. Kissing her, manhandling her, thrusting against her … there. She was scared right down to her toes. She’d allowed him to touch her when he had no right. Now, she was out of control. The tremors that racked her body made her teeth rattle.
“Go away, Batiste, you’re not wanted here!” She heard him kick the building again and clamped her hand over her mouth, stifling the scream that was bubbling up her throat.
Her breathing was ragged. Her heart was pounding so hard her chest hurt. She slid down the side of the wall, closing her eyes and tried to calm herself.
She became aware that all sound from outside had ceased and listened intently, hoping Batiste had given up and was gone. She couldn’t believe he’d accosted her. And, worst of all, she couldn’t believe she’d allowed it! She was still in shock from his assault.
The barn was completely quiet now, nothing stirred and she rose from the floor to venture to the center, turning in a complete circle, stopping to check for noises in each direction she turned. It was a mistake to close her eyes. The taste of him remained on her lips. The scent of him remained in her nostrils. The imprint of him remained on her body. All of it unwanted. Berg and Dud were right. He was dangerous mean.
It was dark when Stephanie felt it was safe and she ventured out of her safe harbor. She hurried to the back door, unlocking it and ran in side, feeling as though Batiste was breathing down her neck.
She didn’t bother turning on a light. She stripped down and lay shivering in the dark.