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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 12

ONE LONG NIGHT (OPHELIA)

By the time I make it back to Grant’s house, he’s already home.

Both his truck and patrol car are parked neatly in the driveway.

Nell’s out front, bundled up to her neck against the cold as she kicks her legs on the tree swing. Another nice reminder I forgot to go shopping for a coat yet again.

I’m a little glad Grant stepped in to pick her up.

It almost completely fell out of my head after thinking I saw someone lurking around my car.

Whoops. I hope they won’t be mad.

When I park and step out with a hundred apologies ready for the little girl, though, Nell goes rocketing off the swing and launches herself at me.

“Miss Philia!”

Laughing, I catch her as she glues herself on in a tight hug, burying her face against me.

“Hey, hon.” I ruffle her hair and crouch down. “You have a good day at school? Sorry I missed you.”

“Yeah! I always do,” she announces triumphantly. “I’m the smartest in my class.”

“And not shy on confidence, either.” Grinning, I tug at one of her springy curls. “Where’s your uncle Grant?”

“Upstairs, showering.” She scrunches her nose up dramatically. “He smelled like pig poo. So he was really in a hurry.” Eyes wide, she leans in, whispering to me in the loudest whisper I’ve ever heard. “And I think he didn’t want you to smell him.”

“Well, good.” I laugh again. “I wouldn’t want him to smell me if I was doused in pig stink.”

She brightens. “’Cause you like him a lot?”

I sputter, then sigh. “Because I like him a whole lot. I have for a long time. Maybe since I was as small as you.”

Nell’s eyes go round. “Are you gonna make more kissy-faces at the movies then?”

“Not in front of you, kiddo.” Not to mention everyone else who shows up for a family-friendly film. I stand, idly draping my arm around her shoulders. “C’mon inside with me. It’s getting dark. Did you finish your homework?”

“Not yet,” she pouts, but follows me in without protest.

“Why don’t you settle in and wrap up while I go get changed and say hi to your uncle?” I kick the door shut behind me, already heading for the stairs, but that little imp’s voice follows me.

“You gonna make yourself pretty for Uncle Grant?”

I look back with my eyes narrowed to find her bouncing onto the couch, watching me over the back of it with a wide, knowing grin.

“And if I am?”

“You worry too much,” she announces decisively. “He’ll think you’re pretty no matter what! Even if you smell like pig crap.”

“I—you—” I clam up.

I must have it bad.

If a nine-year-old girl can get me this flustered over a crush and make me blush this hard, I’m so screwed.

“You’re red, Miss Philia. Is that part of your look too?”

I mock-scowl.

“Do your homework, babe, or I’ll feed you to the gremlins.”

“Psssh, gremlins aren’t real.” Totally unfazed, she flips herself around to start digging in her backpack.

Little monster.

Still struggling with my red-hot face, I head upstairs and crest the top of the landing just as the bathroom door opens.

There goes the slightest hope of killing my blush.

Grant steps out, gloriously naked except for the towel wrapped around his waist.

His muscle-bound dad bod is so thick the flimsy towel barely holds the tattooed god underneath, hanging open in a slit over one brawny tanned thigh.

Somebody save me.

He’s added some serious ink over the years and it only makes him hotter.

I haven’t seen Grant this shirtless since he was a teenager—the old family trips to the lake, the beach, his parents and my mom teaming up to drag us all along. Back then, he was strong and golden and toned, but still a boy.

A little lanky. A lot less built. Not filled out by raw power and life and testosterone like he is now.

The beast before me now is all man.

And even if I tell myself to stop, stop—

Lord help me.

His go-to police uniforms and flannels tend to slim him down a notch, masking just how broad he really is.

Now I’m face-to-face with this wall of a man, solid and strong where most guys would probably wear that bulk awkwardly.

Not him.

He’s the perfect balance of rakishly fit and furiously large, a walking sculpture, crafted by hard work and a harder life until everything fits together just right.

Grant Faircross is a natural wonder.

Designed to rip your breath away, not just with his sheer size, but with naked, simple beauty.

I don’t even know if beautiful is the right word.

But he’s too handsome for life, his skin tanned and weathered into a dusky brown. A few scars form paler marks, giving his body character like a mountain and its fault lines.

Thick hair the same deep brown as his beard and hair furs his chest, marching down in a thin line, dusted here and there with the same sprinkled silver appearing everywhere else.

His shoulders are so wide he has to angle to fit through the door.

His pecs are like stone slabs, the barrel of his rib cage layered in dense ripples that cascade down to narrowed abs so lethal you could sharpen a knife on their edges.

With his hair wet and slicked back, his beard and his chest dotted with water, his skin still gleaming with steam…

God.

He’s so purely primal it hurts.

The unexpected sight of him awakens something scary.

Something that takes me over until it’s like I’m submerged in molten lava rising to secret places that have been dormant for way too long.

We both freeze, just looking at each other.

Grant caught mid-stride with his powerful calves flexed.

I can’t talk, my mouth bone-dry and my palms sweaty.

Oh God, I can’t help that I’m breathing faster.

I shouldn’t be this turned on just looking at him.

I almost hate how much he affects me.

And I wonder just how obvious I am, when the glint in his eye sharpens.

Just a heated flicker, turning hazel to melted honey. He spears me with a long look until it feels like he’s undressing me with his eyes.

I can feel my nipples peaking, teasing against my bra, my shirt.

My breasts suddenly feel too heavy, too sensitive, too empty, aching for large, rough hands.

I scrub my hands against my thighs, licking my lips and struggling for words.

Finally, he breaks the silence with a slow, heated smile.

“Shower’s all yours,” he says, moving toward his bedroom.

Aaand I’m speechless.

I almost let him go without another word, my tongue too knotted to move.

“Th-thanks,” I manage. “Oh, and I’m sorry you had to get Nell. Mom kept me around longer than I expected.”

Even if my mind’s so far from anything else I can’t even remember why.

“Good thing you did,” he drawls, pausing with one big hand on the doorknob, but all he’s doing is giving me a distracting view of the way his waist dips toward his Apollo’s belt. “I almost forgot you were picking her up and might’ve went out there anyway. Would’ve panicked for a minute trying to figure out where she was.”

I nod.

Concern darkens Grant’s eyes as he tilts his head, studying me. “Did something happen? It’s not like you to forget.”

Um, yeah.

That’s when I remember the shadow, the figure by my car.

The stalker I probably hallucinated.

I don’t want to worry him.

So I just pin on a smile and shake my head, letting that sobering thought drag me back to reality so I can stop drooling like I’m just discovering hot men for the first time.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” I say. “Worrying about Mom and Ros, you know. But I’ll get Nell next time for sure. Have to earn my keep around here somehow.”

“Like hell,” he growls sincerely. “I’m glad you’re around.”

Right.

From the way my heart’s thumping like it’s about to split at its seams?

This new, honest, uncensored Grant might kill me.

Especially with that slow smile, almost like he knows.

“What about you?” I ask.

Somehow, there’s this extra weight in his eyes that wasn’t there earlier when I saw him at the station.

“Can’t complain. Survived another bout of code pink and got into the shower before the smell set in.”

“Lucky man,” I say, snickering. “Are you sure you’re still up for a movie tonight after all that?”

“Gotta take the edge off wrangling pigs some way, don’t I?” He smiles. “Yeah, Butterfly. Wouldn’t miss it for the whole damn world.”

And off he goes.

Before he disappears into his room, a shaft of evening light spills into the hall, kissing every line of his body with lickable gold before it’s gone as the door shuts.

Leaving me marooned, dizzy, and nearly panting and hot around the collar, plus a few other rebellious places.

Oof.

I’ve never had a conversation that felt like foreplay before.

“Gonna faint?” chirps behind me.

I yelp, whirling with my heart skipping a beat.

Nell grins up at me, her eyes far too knowing for such a little girl.

“You look kinda winded, Miss Philia. You got asthma? My friend Sadie does. She’s got a nee-hale-er.”

“Inhaler,” I correct absently, then shake my head. “And no, I don’t. Grant just startled me, that’s all. I’m fine. You didn’t finish your homework, did you?”

She bats her eyelashes. “I’ll finish it after the movie. It’s history tonight, easy as pie. I wanna pick something fun to wear.”

“Uh-huh.” I eye her skeptically, holding out my pinky. “No trying to stay up late to watch cartoons. Homework, then bed. Promise me?”

Nell hooks her pinky in mine.

“Pinky promise one hundred percent.”

Laughing, I tug my hand free and tickle her lightly. “Go on and get dressed.”

She runs off with a messy giggle and disappears into her room. I look after her, feeling a smile spread across my lips.

I don’t know how I fell into this situation.

But it’s nice.

Feeling a little calmer, I shower off quickly, deliberately cranking it to cold before I wimp out and switch it to hot water.

When I’m done, I wrap myself in a towel and bolt for the guest room, skittering past Grant’s door.

If he ever sees me naked, I can’t be looking like a wet cat with my hair jabbed out everywhere.

If, huh?

Getting awful hopeful there, girl?

Shut up, brain.

Flushed, I shut myself in the guest room and lean back against the door, pressing a hand over my fluttering heart.

Holy hell, just what am I hoping for tonight?

I shake myself from my thoughts and rummage through my things until I find a pair of low-rise jeans that aren’t too low for a family film. They’re comfortably snug but not skintight and a few little rips over the thighs could be innocent or double as a subtle tease.

My white silk camisole hangs loosely, paper-thin when it catches the light. I pair it with an open-knit cardigan that ties across my breasts, a sunny yellow shade. Like that’ll convince the thin thing to actually keep me warm tonight.

Everyone and their grandma keeps distracting me from getting that coat.

I pull on a pair of cute brown leather ankle boots and step out to meet them.

He’s waiting at the bottom of the stairs with Nell, who’s dressed up in pink, complete with a pair of strap-on butterfly wings. She has Mr. Pickle tucked under her arm, while Grant—

Oh my God.

I don’t think I’ve seen him clean up so nice since he went stag to his senior prom with Ethan.

I don’t know where he even finds clothes that fit him, but his button-down shirt fits like it was tailored just right, skintight with the buttons straining over his chest.

The pale blue brings out the swarthiness of his skin and the rich darkness of his hair.

His dark blue boot-cut jeans look sharp, well worn and casual, clinging to his hips and strong thighs. The black leather of his belt completes the look with the same coarse pattern as the leather of his boots.

He looks like a rough and tumble rancher ready to ride out with six-shooters at dawn, a gunslinger’s dream.

Especially when he has Ethan’s hat again, clasped against his chest as he tips me a polite bow.

Oh, my.

…it wouldn’t be a night out with Grant without a little hint of heartbreak, would it?

“Ophelia,” he says.

It does weird things to me—him saying my name with that hat clasped in hand and that look on his face that says he’s only seeing me.

I try not to go to pieces as I pause on the stairs, drinking him in before I force myself to look away and refocus on Nell as I descend.

“So this is your prettiest outfit, huh?”

She smiles so wide I see the gaps in her teeth. “My absolute princess-est outfit ever.”

I give Grant a skeptically amused look.

He only shakes his head.

“Don’t try to argue. She’ll strip and streak down Second Avenue if you make her change.”

“…let’s avoid that. I—”

I stop cold as Grant holds out his arm.

Oh, crap, it’s happening.

This really is a bona fide date, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s a family date, sure, but it’s a date.

Swallowing my nerves, I slip my hand into Grant’s arm—and suddenly find my other hand occupied with a tiny set of fingers.

The trust in the gesture melts me like butter.

Together, we start toward the door until Grant stops at the coatrack, frowning.

“You still didn’t buy a jacket, did you?”

“Um, I forgot?” I press my lips together, trying not to smile.

Grant gives me the fiercest look.

While Nell watches us with a giggle, her uncle yanks his fur-lined leather jacket down from the coatrack and pulls it open for me with a commanding glare.

Wear it, he tells me without words.

I blink at him.

Welp. I’m never going to stop blushing at this rate.

After a moment, I let go of Nell’s hand and slip my arms into the jacket sleeves, letting Grant wrap it around me.

Wrap him around me, his leather and scent enveloping me as I tilt into his arms.

That heavy coat is so large it dwarfs me and I don’t mind one bit.

Then he pulls back.

“What about you?” I finger the collar, turning to face him shyly.

“I’ve got my police jacket,” he says gruffly, tugging it down from the hook and sliding into it with a flex of his chest so strong it looks like he could snap the buttons right off. He gives me another fierce, guarded look that sets off butterflies. “Let’s go.”

No argument here.

Nell and I exchange an almost conspiratorial look.

She slips her little hand into mine, and I slide mine into Grant’s arm again. We step out into the night like this is the new normal.

Our normal, period.

Like somehow, it’s just this easy, falling into this patchwork family.

I try not to think too hard about what that might mean.

The ride to the restaurant—a local steakhouse—is quiet and comfortable.

Nell carries on a conversation with Mr. Pickle in the back. Apparently, she doesn’t want us knowing his business, frequently bending and whispering in the unicorn’s ear.

I alternate between watching her in the rearview mirror and watching Grant next to me.

Every now and then, I catch him watching me, too.

Dinner is lively, mostly gentle teasing and trying to keep Nell from splattering herself with steak sauce.

I almost don’t taste my food, not when I’m so alive in this happy moment, this feeling of togetherness like we all belong at this table.

Once we’re done stuffing ourselves, we get out just in time to head to the movies.

It’s a short drive, and soon we’re surrounded by the buttery scent of movie theatre popcorn and pretzels.

In the concession line, Grant pulls Nell up on his shoulders so he doesn’t lose her in the ballooning late night crowd. Another thing that never changes in Redhaven.

The theatre always turns into a madhouse in the fall, the cooler weather driving people in.

It’s the usual townsfolk doubled by tourists coming for a quiet date night in our rustic little theatre that still looks like it belongs to the Vaudeville era.

How many hours of my life did I spend in this place growing up?

Usually tagging along with Ethan and Grant—and just as often sandwiched between them so I could have my two favorite men to myself.

As we file off to the room marked on our tickets, we exchange a fond look.

I think he’s remembering older, easier days, too.

It’s like stepping back in time, but this time without the charged, uncertain potential of our younger selves.

Now, we’re all grown up and so many things are set in stone.

But it doesn’t bother me tonight.

Not with him.

It’s also no surprise when Nell parks herself between us.

We trade indulgent looks over her head.

So much for make-out sessions.

Not long after the previews, Grant presses one big hand over Nell’s eyes and leans across her to brush his lips on mine over her head, lingering in a way that heightens all the sweetness inside.

“Later,” he promises against my lips, mostly mouthing the words.

A vow that reaches down inside me, stoking a wildfire.

And I shiver from the hot flash before settling down with Nell happily snuggled between us and already sleepy. Her small head falls against my shoulder and her feet spill over the side onto Grant.

I never thought I’d have this much fun watching a kids’ movie.

It’s another movie with the squeaky yellow things in overalls. There’s got to be like thirty of them by now, yet Nell wakes up and laughs with delight like she’s seeing their antics for the first time.

But I’m honestly more entertained by Grant’s scowling.

He watches the film like it’s personally offending him with how illogically silly it is, only for his glower to soften whenever Nell kicks her feet and giggles.

I don’t know how I hold it in.

It’s the sweetest first date ever, this little girl tugging at my heartstrings and that big lunk making me so warm every time he snorts and shakes his head like it weighs a ton.

Halfway through the film, his arm stretches across the back of Nell’s seat so his forearm rests lightly on my shoulders. Grant walks his fingers up and down my arm, something I can feel even through the thick jacket.

I love this vibe.

This quiet, simple thing might be the cure I need.

Erasing all the pain, all the hurt, all the bad memories of this town for just one night, making this place feel like home again.

My face hurts from smiling by the time the movie ends.

It’s like the first half of the day never happened.

I never thought I could go so easily from feeling so upset, so hurt, to so enchanted.

Like all my problems fade away into a dream and soon I’m back where I belong.

Nell looks hilariously drowsy by the time the lights come up. Toward the end of the movie her shrieking laughter died down to a quiet smile.

Now Grant lifts her up to ride piggyback, one arm hooked under her knee.

His other hand tangles in mine.

Quietly, easily, such a small thing and yet it fills me with brightness.

I’m pretty sure Nell’s totally out by the time we buckle her into the back seat.

I’m expecting to head back to Grant’s house, put Nell to bed, and if I’m lucky get a long kiss at the door to the guest room.

I’m not expecting it when Grant turns off a more familiar street, instead, and drives us to his parents’ house.

The porch light is already on.

His folks are waiting—wait, was this planned?

They come out and gather Nell, but not without hugs for me.

They’re huggers by nature, always have been, and that feeling of home intensifies.

As Mrs. Faircross lifts Nell up, though, Nell reaches for me, her fingers fumbling sleepily.

“I’m… m’gonna break my promise…” she mumbles with her eyes closed. “About my homework.”

Grant gives me a puzzled look. I smile sheepishly.

“She didn’t want to finish her homework before the movie,” I explain. “So she pinky promised me she’d do it after if I let her go pick out an outfit.”

“Ah.” He nods at her pink dress, then leans in and kisses the little girl’s forehead.

Yep. He’s trying to turn my ovaries into live grenades tonight.

“You can do it in the morning, Nelly-girl,” he tells her. “It’s my fault you broke your promise to Philia. You didn’t do any wrong.” A little smile sneaks past his beard. “Love you, rug rat.”

“Uncle Grant.” Nell sighs, lifting her head to press a kiss into his beard. “Love you, papa bear.”

“Papa bear?” I look at him, barely holding in a laugh.

He shakes his head rapidly.

Margaret Faircross smiles fondly and nudges Grant’s arm. “I’ve got her, Son. Go enjoy the rest of your night out. Both of you.”

Wow. I still don’t know what’s going on.

But Grant set this up, didn’t he?

Having Nell stay the night over at his parents’ place… that has to mean he really wants me all to himself.

Alone.

Eep.

I give him a wide-eyed questioning look as we climb back into his truck.

My heart’s stuck in my throat as he starts the engine and glances over with a faint smile.

“Somewhere I want to take you,” he tells me, backing the truck out to the street.

Tentatively, I scoot across the wide front seat and lean against his arm.

Soon, he’s driving one-handed with his other arm wrapped around me, gathering me close against his side, making me feel him in every breath.

I’m certain I could stay like this forever.

I’m not even thinking about where he’s driving us. Not when I’m content to snuggle into his arm and just stay there, breathing him in.

Most girls don’t grow up and actually get the guy who haunted their daydreams.

Especially not after he busts their heart like an ornament and only shows up again so many years later.

Tonight is special.

For once in my life, I feel lucky.

Like the karma wheel might finally be paying me back for all the bad luck.

When Grant pulls the truck to a halt and kills the engine, I open my eyes and lift my head, blinking curiously.

My breath catches the instant I make out the wrought-iron fence, the arched iron gate.

Oh, crud.

Are we really here?

The shapes of headstones leave no doubt, glinting like grey bones in the headlights until he turns them off.

“Grant?”

“Do you know,” he says, his arm still heavy around me, his gaze trained thoughtfully through the windshield, “we’ve never come here together?”

“O-oh. You’re right,” I whisper.

For a breathless second, I stare at the gate, my heart beating slow and heavy before I reach for Grant’s hand and hold it tight.

“Okay,” I breathe. “Let’s go see him together.”

It’s so strange, walking through the tall grass together, breathing in the scent of old flowers left behind on the graves of people who will never get to smell them.

It always hurts, every time I come here—even if I haven’t dropped by in nearly a decade.

The last time I was here, the grave marker was still fresh, and so meaningless when there was nothing buried there.

Just Ethan’s name on the headstone with no date of death. Because we don’t know if he’s alive or dead, but we decided to honor him anyway.

Like that’ll satisfy his ghost, or at least that haunted feeling hanging over us.

Like everyone just wanted to bury their old pains when we couldn’t find a body.

Shockingly, it doesn’t hurt so much tonight.

With Grant’s hand in mine and his silent presence at my side, his warmth, his steadiness, it feels like something else.

Maybe like a duty that needs to be done.

Like something I need to really, truly come home.

Most people find graveyards pretty spooky at night. But the Redhaven Cemetery is a quiet place full of old bones, old roots, old history.

Serenity lives here.

Old spirits sleep like they should without any disturbance.

The only sounds are a few owls calling through the night. The faint scratchy whisper of naked tree branches rubbing together. Our feet on the grass, moving together at a steady pace.

The moon looms over us, huge and autumn-orange, and the stars are so bright in the clear sky I can see the Milky Way sprawling across the nightscape.

It’s a refreshing sight.

In Miami, the only stars I could ever see were the shooting meteors of taillights moving by the thousands on broad highways.

Maybe there’s something to love about this place, after all.

I look at Grant.

He hasn’t said a word, but there’s a certain gravity in the air. I wonder if he’s talking to Ethan in the back of his mind.

I know I am.

My big brother, forever alive in my heart, wherever he is.

And our feet lead us automatically to the quiet corner plot beneath an old satsuma tree with low-hanging branches.

Ethan’s plot is right next to his father’s. The headstone looks newer, but it’s more worn than I remember. Moss has started growing into the inscription.

ETHAN SANDERSON

Baby, come home.

God.

I remember my mother crying while she worked out what to write. And then bawling her eyes out even more when she finally found the right words.

Not that anything will ever sound right when you had to bury a son with no body and no answers.

A son who may be alive out there somewhere, no matter how slim the odds.

We stop together, though, standing peacefully side by side.

His hand tightens in mine and I smile, my mouth aching with a sweet pain.

“Hi, Ethan,” I whisper. “Long time no see.”

“Hey, dumbass,” Grant growls. “It’s been a few. Where you been hiding?”

I can’t help a choked laugh and I turn my face into his arm.

“I can see it now,” I murmur. It hurts my throat, yet I’m still smiling so much and I can’t explain why. “He’d put you in a headlock for that and ask who’s the dumbass now.”

“Like he could reach.” Grant snorts affectionately. The growl in his voice seems more tender. “So he’d just end up hugging me like the big lanky softie he was.”

“Right. Until he tackled you at the knees and put you on the floor,” I tease.

“Good luck knocking me down with a thousand hours of training and years on the force. I wouldn’t move an inch for that guy.”

Liar.

The softness in his dark-mocha eyes tells me he’d jump off a cliff taller than a skyscraper just to have one more conversation with his best friend.

Oh, I’m so gutted, but I’m smiling.

Pulling my hand loose from Grant, I raise both hands with my fingers curled. “I remember how he got you. Every time.”

His eyes widen and he takes a wary step back. “Butterfly, don’t you dare. I’m a grown-ass man and this is hardly the time or place—don’t tickle—fuck!”

What can I say?

Since Ethan isn’t here, someone has to do it.

So I lunge at him and Grant hops back with the most ridiculous, funny sound I’ve ever heard.

I never knew a man his size could squeak in baritone.

We both freeze, him staring warily, me looking on in surprise, my fingers still curled and reaching for him like claws.

“I wasn’t actually gonna,” I whisper sheepishly.

Grant startles me again with that rich, hearty bass laugh that trembles my heart.

I can’t help myself.

I’m laughing too, and we’re falling into each other. I lean on him hard.

Yes, there’s a saying about whistling past graveyards, but… let’s hope laughing our heads off in one isn’t too blasphemous.

I needed this.

Call it catharsis.

And I’m so much more relaxed as I slump against him, resting my cheek on his chest and curling my hands against his arm.

“I think he’d like this,” I say. “Us, here with him, I mean. Laughing like we’re still teenage screwballs. Ethan wouldn’t want us wallowing in misery.”

“We have been, though,” Grant answers. “Or maybe it’s just me.”

“No, no… I’m just as guilty. Even in Florida when I thought about this place, about my brother… you were always in the back of my mind.” I push my arms around his neck. “I always felt alone in Miami. Part of me was scared to come back here, I think. To all these memories. Even though the only people who could possibly ever know how I feel are here.”

“The people who miss Ethan the most,” he finishes.

My heart dives. It’s like he’s read my mind.

“Yeah. That.” Shaking my head, I burrow my face into Grant’s massive chest. “But I’m also talking about the people who look at me like I was somehow involved in that whole mess. It’s almost worse, now that the truth is out about what really happened to Celeste Graves. Just feels like they pity me.”

“And you,” Grant says, slipping his fingers under my chin and tilting my head up, “are too damn proud for pity, Miss Sanderson.”

I giggle.

“I thought you’d say too bratty.” I smile up at him. “I’d ask for a kiss, but…” I tilt my head at the gravestone and nod.

“Woman, if I could kiss you in front of your brother, you’d have known how I felt a lot sooner,” Grant growls, glancing at the headstone thoughtfully. “Feels damn weird saying that when we both know he’s not really in there.”

“But it feels like he’s here anyway, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Grant answers after a pause. “It does.”

We stand there for a few minutes, hand in hand, his warmth and his big jacket and his bigger presence wrapped around me like a blanket.

For the first time in ages, I don’t feel so alone.

It really is like Ethan’s right here, right now, standing with us.

Hopefully, giving us his blessing.

I feel like that blessing stays with us as we slip away, still hand in hand.

It’s a serene walk back to the truck with Grant’s fingers in mine, chasing away the October chill.

In the car, I’m happy to bundle myself up in his jacket like a blanket and snuggle against his side, drowsing while he drives.

Nothing breaks the quiet growl of the engine and the soothing whir of tires on the road until we’re almost home.

Then Grant’s voice rises up like low thunder between us.

“Sorry it wasn’t anything spectacular tonight,” he says. “First date in a cemetery—if you want to call it that.”

“It was exactly what I needed. No fooling. Plus, we had dinner and a movie. Extra points for that.”

He snorts with amusement.

I rub my cheek against his shoulder before I make myself pull away as he turns into the driveway and parks. We slip out together, and as we walk to the door, I steal his hand, tangling our fingers together.

The possessive squeeze he gives me sends a fresh wave of butterflies spinning through me.

“I needed to feel like I was part of something,” I say softly. “To feel like I was home. Everything’s been so off-kilter for so long, Grant.” We climb the porch together and stop, locking eyes in the shadows and the pale-gold glow of the porch light. “I’ve never felt like I fit in anywhere. Now, I wonder if it’s because I was so busy running away from the only place I ever did.”

He gives me one of those long, stern Grant looks I used to find so unreadable.

Only, now I realize he’s just taking me in.

Staring because he wants to.

Because he wants to see me.

Because he wants to warm me to my core with nothing more than a glance that says, woman, you are beautiful.

Mission accomplished.

I’m burning just as much from his gaze as the heat of his palm settled against my cheek.

“And where do you fit here?” he whispers.

“…not sure yet.” I sway toward him, smiling like I’m about to come apart. “But I’d like to find out.”

The kiss comes like a summer rain.

Slow and quiet, then suddenly it’s a rush of pure adrenaline drenching me as his lips take mine, possess me, drown me in a world that’s nothing but Grant.

Here, there are no worries.

I can’t be sad or stressed or afraid. Not when his arms wind around me this tight and his beard tickles my throat.

The raw, rough taste of him melts against my lips like the warmest salted caramel.

I’m so hard-wired with need that I moan almost instantly, some hot tight core inside me knotting up even as the rest of me goes loose and melty with desire.

His shoulders feel so strong under my palms, manly muscle stretched over iron bones.

I can feel his heartbeat against that powerful barrel chest, a wild thudding that echoes my own—and for a moment that tender, slow kiss turns thieving and renders me breathless, so powerful my knees go out and my whole being ignites.

Holy hell.

When we break apart, I’m panting.

Clutching my trembling fingers in his jacket and looking up at him in a daze.

He’s so handsome, and the evening light flutters in his dark eyes like moths searching for a gold-lit heaven.

“Inside?” I whisper hopefully.

Please say yes.

This ache for him that’s built inside me my entire life might tear me apart.

Grant’s only answer is a loud, needy growl before he pulls away and practically breaks his house key, jamming it into the lock like a man possessed.

I bite back a giggle, covering my mouth with my hand.

I feel like a giddy little girl again, knowing he wants me that much.

And that feeling only intensifies when he gives me a familiar dirty, disgusted look. But it’s also so much more now.

There’s no mistaking what’s underneath, coursing like blood.

That smolder.

The same heat that burns incessantly in my core and trembles through me as he shoves the door open and pulls me inside the dark house.

God, I want him right here, right now, but I don’t want the anticipation to end.

As I slip past him, I deliberately pull away just out of his reach, backing toward the steps and loving how intensely he looks at me.

The man stalks after me like a hunter and fills me with a thrill.

This big, powerful beast—and I’ve practically got him on a leash, drawing him after me with every step.

“You wanna play games, Butterfly?” he rumbles, his voice scorched.

“Maybe I just want to be civilized,” I tease, reaching back to find the stair rail and guiding myself up the first few steps. “At least use the bed. Don’t make me beg you to take me over the back of the sofa like a heathen.”

His expression darkens deliciously as his eyes rake me from head to toe.

“Ophelia, fuck,” he snarls. “There ain’t a goddamned thing civilized about what I’m about to do to you.”

Holy hell.

There’s a frozen moment where I realize what he’s about to do as his body tenses and lowers slightly.

And I let out a laughing squeal and turn, bolting up the stairs with a wild man hot on my heels.

I don’t make it far.

He has too long of a stride—and let’s be real—I want to be caught tonight.

I want to be his more than I want my next breath.

And it fills me with electric excitement and heady joy when he catches me on the stairs and sweeps me into his arms, holding me tight against his chest.

The reality of Grant wanting me and making no secret of it is better than any childish daydream. I can’t help grinning as I twine my arms around his neck, looking up at him.

“Oh, no,” I lilt tauntingly. “The big bad wolf’s caught Little Red. Whatever are you going to do with me?”

“Drop you on your knees and put your brat mouth to work,” he growls, even as his grip on me tightens and he carries me toward his bedroom with determined steps. “Or I could just throw you down here, make you sit on my face, and eat you alive.”

Dead.

I’m sure I’m not alive anymore as I look at him and whisper, “I don’t think I’d mind being eaten.”

“Woman, you’re gonna regret saying that when I take you literally,” Grant says, then elbows the door open and carries me into his room.

I barely get a flash of the moonlight-drenched space, the dark masculine colors, the Spartan neatness, the heavy solid furniture before he’s tumbling me onto the bed.

I sprawl out on my back against the comforter, and my entire world becomes Grant.

Him kneeling over me and his bulk takes up my entire field of vision.

His hands fall, flanking both sides of my body until his arms cage me.

His eyes glowing like bonfires in the darkness, that handsome face hovering over mine, gleaming with a hunger I’ve never seen.

My heart throbs violently.

I reach up to stroke his jaw, his beard—and his animalistic stare softens as he leans into my touch, rubbing himself against my skin like the wild thing he is, stealing my breath away.

Feral.

Powerful.

Stubborn.

Harsh.

And allowing me to touch him like I’m the only force in the world that can ever tame him.

Oh, I want this man to make me his so much.

“Grant,” I whisper, trailing my fingers down his throat. “Grant, kiss me.”

“I never wanted to stop,” he exhales roughly, sinking down to reclaim my mouth.

There’s a tremor now, almost like he’s holding back a raging river with the flimsiest dam.

The way he kisses me with such gentleness, but with such tension lashing through his body.

A body that presses down slowly as he lowers over me.

And God, I almost forget the feeling of his lips against mine when I discover how delicious it feels to be under a man this huge.

There may have been a couple men in my life while I was away from Redhaven, sure—but no one had Grant’s sheer size or overwhelming presence.

No one else could ever take his place.

Not in my mind.

Not in my heart.

Definitely not in the desperate craving of my flesh.

I crush myself against him, arching my back, leaning up into the heat of his wild, surging kiss.

His mouth nearly bruises mine, all harsh beard and seething lips.

His teeth torment in taunting nips that make me clench in places I’m pretty sure no man has ever touched—and I desperately want him to.

Moaning, I run my fingers feverishly through his beard, letting my mouth go slack in total surrender, giving myself over to his tongue, every lick and tease that lays claim in the most obscene ways.

But not nearly as obscene as his hands skimming over my body, dragging at my clothes, gripping my flesh like he’s trying to shape me in the image of his darkest desires.

Everywhere, his touch leaves a burning handprint.

It’s like I’m already naked.

And when he angles his hips, when his broad body shoves my legs apart so I have to strain to fit him and I’m spread so open that I feel it as his hips ram mine and that hard straining spear of his cock presses against me…

I nearly fall apart forever.

“Grant,” I pant, rolling my hips, shuddering and almost flinching when my panties press into delicate flesh as he rubs against me.

Until now, I never knew the phrase ‘dripping wet’ could be a real thing.

Grant.”

An agonized groan spills out of him as he tears his mouth from mine and drops his brow to my shoulder.

I twine my arms around his neck.

That’s when I realize it’s not just me.

He’s shaking, too.

His entire body feels so tense he’s nearly trembling, his hands gripping me so hard.

“You’re about to fuckin’ break me, Ophelia. You know that?” he rasps against my shoulder, his voice thick and feral and electrifying.

“Grant,” I whisper again, running my legs along his.

His eyes pinch shut and he exhales a breath like pure dragon smoke.

“Don’t say my name like that again. You’ll murder me.”

Somehow, that delights me.

I’ve always had a bratty streak with this man.

After the briefest hesitation, I turn my head, brushing my lips against his ear.

Grant,” I purr.

It’s like flipping a switch.

His entire beastly body goes rock-hard.

His cock pulses against me so violently I feel it jerking, straining against his jeans like it has a mind of its own.

Growling, he braces his hands against the bed and pushes back, gazing down with heat and shadows in his eyes like a leaping campfire.

Right before he very deliberately begins stripping my clothes off.

I’ve never had anything like this.

You can barely call it foreplay.

But it’s the silent intensity in Grant’s unblinking, burning stare that makes me a mess.

The slow, calculated movements as he teases the little ribbon tying my cardigan shut.

The manic way he touches me with every movement, his knuckles grazing my breasts as he tugs the cardigan open.

It’s so sexy, yet never quite satisfies, leaving me aching for more, my nipples throbbing and peaking, dying for his hands and mouth.

It’s beyond hypnotic.

“Damn, woman. Goddamn, you are fucked.”

No kidding.

I just wish he’d make it happen faster.

He has me in thrall, helpless to even move, trapped in his carnivorous eyes as he lifts me up with one broad hand.

He handles me effortlessly, peeling the cardigan away and pulling my thin camisole over my head.

I can’t even whimper as he lays me back down and slowly runs his fingers through my hair, fanning it out in a halo.

This vibe, it’s almost frightening.

It’s so raw, so real, so alive with feeling I have to curl my toes so I don’t black out.

Big bad wolf, indeed.

I never imagined I’d be the delicacy he wants to swallow whole, but here I am, willing prey and all.

There’s definitely a slow, wolfish smile on his lips as he presses his fingers to the apex of my ribs, slowly dragging them up, engraving the roughness of his skin in my flesh.

As his middle finger hooks under the clasp in the center of my bra, I inhale sharply.

The lace cups drag against my sensitive nipples, pulling a whimper from the back of my throat.

“Gra—”

“Hush,” he demands.

There’s pure command in the soft, gritty sound that liquefies my bones.

And then makes my heart skip, my stomach flip, as a deliberate flick of his thumb releases the clasp, leaving me naked and already wrecked.

I almost want to hide from his eyes.

Almost.

Except I’ve wanted this man to want me since before I was old enough to have the dirty thoughts rampaging through my head.

It’s almost unbearable to have him look at me like he’s always wanted me just as much.

It hurts when I think of the last ten years, the two of us apart and still burning for each other.

Always in denial when I could have had this if I hadn’t run, if he hadn’t put a shark-infested moat between his heart and the entire world.

But I’m too caught up in the moment to dwell on the past.

I start to lay a hand across my chest—then Grant catches my wrist.

I flush as he pushes my arm down on the bed, pinning me lightly by the wrist. He holds me captive as he pushes one bra cup aside and then molds his hand over the curve of my breast, fully enveloping it in the heat of his large, masculine hand.

I’m so sensitive it almost hurts as his fingers sink into my flesh, making me feel my own softness in his strength.

I bite down on a husky noise spilling out of me, swinging my hips, gasping when I clench my thighs and grind him deeper into me.

Oh God, deeper.

He’s made me such a mess, the lightest touch tearing me apart.

This feeling of yearning emptiness inside that just wants him to touch me and fill me and bring our bodies together until we can’t tell ourselves apart.

But Grant seems intent on this slow, sweet torture.

Even as I twist under him, he burns me with little heat-shocks as his calloused thumb traces slow circles over the peak of my nipple, toying with it, sending waves of pleasure cascading through me.

I close my eyes in rapture and throw my head back with a needy cry.

I’m so not ready.

Completely unprepared for the moment when his hot mouth descends again, kissing me so lusciously deep.

When his body lowers on mine.

When his hips rock like mad, taunting me with the friction of what I need so bad, stealing my breath away.

He kneads my breast, teases and pinches and thumbs my nipple.

Always with this perfect rhythm until I can’t help moving against him.

I barely notice when his hands go lower, flicking my jeans open, dragging the zipper down and flinging them aside.

My belly sucks in, clenching as he skims his fingers over the waistband of my panties.

I whimper against his mouth.

But that only makes him slide deeper, his lips dominating mine, nearly fucking my mouth with slow, lazy strokes.

Heaven help me.

I’m hyper-tuned to the lightest touch, shivering with how close he is to the heat pooling between my thighs as his fingers search the scalloped line of lace clinging to my hips.

When his fingers hook in the fabric, I’m breathless.

He stretches it away from my flesh, cutting sizzling movements against my pulsing, wet lips.

I rise up with a cry, sinking my teeth into his bottom lip before he shreds my panties.

He actually tears them in two as he tosses them aside.

Holy shit!

I try to cling desperately, but he breaks the fusion of our lips, catching my eye with a devilish smile—right before his mouth descends on my jaw and I finally start to get what it means to be devoured.

His lips and teeth are everywhere.

Sucking, biting, skating down my throat, across my shoulders, my collarbones.

It’s an onslaught I’m powerless to defend against as every sting of pleasure just keys me up higher and higher until I’m writhing chaos, kicking my feet against the sheets, curling my toes, clutching at his hair—and fisting a handful as he takes my nipple into his mouth.

“Grant!”

I’m so gone.

The suction, the wetness, the heat—oh, the heat—I feel it plunging to my depths like lava.

My vision whites.

My breath stalls.

It can’t be.

But it is.

Unbelievably, I’m already coming.

Grant flipping Faircross just owns me that good.

And judging from his rough growls, he enjoys every evil second of taking me apart, leaving me speechless and still begging his name with every breath.

His tongue continues marching across my skin when he’s done with my nipples.

Down, down.

The swell of my breast.

The slope of my stomach.

My upper thighs, my inner thighs, his face sliding down my twisting body, and then—

I feel his breath.

There.

The scratch of his beard, high on my inner thighs.

His shoulders, pressing my legs apart, forcing me open, exposing me to the heat of his skin invading my most secret places.

I rake my fingers through his hair, the nerves drawn up tight inside me as I look at him with my eyes narrowed.

“G-Grant…”

So, he was serious about devouring me whole. I’m just not sure I’m ready—will I ever be?

But the way he looks up the length of my body…

I already know there’s no mercy in those eyes.

And absolutely no scenario where they won’t fulfill every devious promise beaming into my soul.

“You said you wouldn’t mind being eaten,” he mocks.

My eyes widen.

“Oh, you—ah!

One fast lick.

That’s all it takes to steal my breath, my thoughts, as his tongue sears my clit—and then a long, slow lick with just the tip, tracing wet-burning lines on my quivering flesh.

Feeding a slow-moving explosion demanding release.

How?

Just how does he make me feel like this when it hasn’t even been five minutes since the last time I erupted?

Everything inside me tightens in a screaming knot.

I squeeze my thighs hard against him, whining in the back of my throat.

Yes, it’s only the beginning.

He tastes and teases me in almost sadistic strokes, never letting me doubt as he scours me with broad sweeping licks and then stings me deep with savage thrusts of his tongue.

It’s unpredictable, shocking, rocking and tearing me apart.

But when he thrusts his tongue fully inside me, teasing that emptiness inside me while his lips suck and caress—

I lose it.

I’ve wanted this for too long.

I have no defenses left whatsoever.

No resistance to the brute pleasure he slams through me and the wondrous beat of my heart.

No hesitation as I hear him in every thrust, growling come for me, Philia. Give it all up.

It’s just a few thrusts of that rough tongue inside me, rhythmic and demanding and swift, before the knot inside me bursts.

My vision goes white-hot.

Full body whiplash.

I wrap my legs around Grant’s shoulders, screaming, every inch of me twisting in convulsions.

I come hard enough to break my lungs, wringing myself dry, dancing to his whim as he licks my overstimulated flesh to the brink of insanity.

And I don’t come down until he says I do.

Until I’m spent and he’s good and ready and softening his strokes.

Even as the orgasm fades, he’s still running his tongue over me like he wants every bit of hot, sticky sweetness spilling out of me.

Only now I’m a human live wire.

My skin, one raw nerve.

I’m nearly sobbing as I tug at his hair.

But he won’t stop—and I think I could even come again—when Grant lets out a satisfied rumble and finally lifts his head, looking at me with lazy satisfaction on his face.

“Not sorry,” he says with a slow, unapologetic grin. I blush deep enough to burn at the sight of his beard dotted with my slickness. “Just couldn’t get enough of you saying my name like that while I took your pussy to the moon.”

I make a spluttering, embarrassed sound.

“I… I wasn’t… I didn’t say your name!”

…did I?

Um, I might have confessed to murdering Julius Caesar while he had me like that.

So high on pleasure I didn’t know my own name.

And it looks like he knows that as he pushes himself up with his grin widening.

“Even better,” he rumbles, unbuttoning his shirt and shrugging out of it, then stripping his undershirt over his head.

He bares the broad expanse of his chiseled, tanned, scar-pecked chest. I love the way the dark hair outlines the inner grooves of sharp, mounded abdominal muscles and the stylized tattoos that start on his biceps and curl over his shoulders like the stripes of some large exotic cat.

“You must’ve been enjoying it, at least, if you didn’t even know you were screamin’ for me like a banshee.”

Oh, I want to kill him.

But I want to kiss him more.

He’s so good at pissing me off in the best ways.

When he moves up my body to kiss me again, when I taste myself on his lips as he smothers my mouth and crushes my body with his, I’m so ready.

A full decade worth of killing desire that’s been building up inside him comes bursting out in wild urgency, this need to be inside me.

The loud rasp of his zipper.

The crinkle of a condom packet.

Suddenly, that flesh that was only teasing me through layers of fabric before is pressed against me, nothing barring skin from skin but a paper-thin layer of latex that does nothing to buffer his heat.

The anticipation destroys me a hundred more times.

Grant’s kiss gentles as I press my thighs against his hips.

He brushes my hair back, cupping my face.

Those honey-brown eyes are so tender, but so possessive I can never imagine belonging to anyone else.

He kisses me again with the weight of the world.

“You sure you want this, Ophelia?” His tone tells me his leash is on the verge of snapping and yet it’s so powerful to know he’s holding himself back. Making sure it’s really okay. “You sure you want me?”

“I’ve never wanted anything more, Grant. Never,” I whisper, brushing my lips against his.

With a raw sound, he fuses our mouths together.

He catches my wrists, pinning them to the bed, leaving me helpless and open for him.

His hips go to work, rocking, teasing, gliding the length of his cock up and down against me until I whimper against his lips.

When he finds the perfect position, all the better to ruin me, it’s on.

The pulsing head of his cock storms the emptiness inside me.

Hot pressure.

Animalistic power.

One slow, fateful, all-consuming thrust.

Then he glides into me to the hilt, molding me around his thickness like a force of nature.

So intimate I almost want to hide, yet I can’t dream of stopping this.

Of course, he’s just as big below the belt as the rest of him.

I swear, I can feel every vein as his cock splits me open.

It’s like he’s breaking me in half, but the sharpness is glorious and wonderful and addicting.

I just want more—more!—wrapping my legs around his hips, digging my heels into the small of his back, lifting myself up into him.

I don’t even realize I’m biting his mouth until I taste the sharp metallic hint of bruises.

But he bites me right back, marking me.

His breaths rush so hot, the rough hair of his chest scraping against my breasts in shivers of pleasure.

His body moves so hard against me as every muscle tightens like a spring.

Low, guttural pleasure sounds melt between our warring lips as he sinks deeper, deeper.

I feel like he’s kissing me from the inside out, marching sensations with every inch of him that fills me.

He drives the breath from my lungs, my chest aching and hurting by the time he gives one last short, sharp, sanity-shattering thrust and buries himself in fully.

Our bodies lock.

If I thought I was sensitive before, it’s nothing compared to the wildness that ripples over my skin now.

And I clench my fingers, tossing frantically under him, still begging with my body.

Ophelia.”

He whispers my name into my lips.

Imprinting his desire like a prayer.

And then, oh, then…

He moves.

He takes.

He demolishes.

He leads me in his rhythm, in his power, until the world pivots by the slow, deep strength of those plunging strokes, piercing me deep, stroking me from inside only to draw back, leaving me empty.

That spot his cockhead teased before throbs.

I’m falling apart, trembling into ruin as every thrust comes a little faster, a little harder, a little more broken.

Honestly, I think he’s testing just how much my body can take when I already know the answer isn’t much.

Not when I’m close to dissolving with each second.

Not when he’s a human storm made flesh, and pleasure hammers me down every time he draws back and slams deeper, filling me up with such force he arches my body off the bed.

Harder.

God, harder.

The air itself ignites.

Our breaths come in rushing tandem, moving together, faster, faster

It’s like we’re racing each other.

I’m not sure who gets there first.

I know it doesn’t matter.

We finish together and there’s this glorious moment when I feel him swelling inside me and his back arching and his body shuddering and his fingers clamping down on my wrists.

A moment when his breaths skip and mine shudder and he’s somehow deeper, thicker, and I’m so much fuller.

A moment when I flipping break.

When everything inside me focuses and all I can feel is Grant Faircross.

When my pussy locks down on his cock and convulses with the surging ecstasy of his girth, marking me as his forever.

And then it’s his name on my lips, slowly being kissed away, swallowed by his ravenous kiss.

With a breathy sigh and a claiming touch, I dissolve in his electric glory.

“Philia, fuck!” His voice is pure thunder as Grant lets go, releasing like the sky splitting open.

Finally, he roars and pulses and gives me everything I’ve ever wanted with one last greedy thrust.


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