Cant hardly breathe, p.14
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       Can't Hardly Breathe, p.14

         Part #4 of Original Heartbreakers series by Gena Showalter  

  Whoosh. Boom! The ground shook beneath his feet, already unstable buildings threatening to topple. In the distance, fire blazed and smoke clouds drifted. Dust plumed. But even in the hellish darkness, he could see the worry in Brock's face.

  "We're going to be okay," he told his friend.

  "Not if we stay here. Go on. I'll cover you, and you can come back with help." Brock had taken a bullet to the calf as he'd dragged a bleeding Daniel into this hidden pit. Now they were both injured. "Go!"

  "Like hell." The shards of metal embedded around his ribs sank deeper with every move he made. "Our help is already KO'd." Earlier their friend Felix had tripped a Bouncing Betty. The land mine had shot into the air and exploded, ensuring the shrapnel inflicted maximum damage to nearby soldiers. "We wait until the trouble passes."

  Jude was hunkered in front of a makeshift window, staring outside with night-vision binoculars. He was the only one without a gusher. "Sorry, bro, but it's not going to pass us. Not for hours yet."

  "Then I'll cover you," Daniel told Jude. Already lost my mom. Would rather die than lose a friend. "Leave your battle-rattle here and get Brock to the medic."


  Debris rained over their hideaway, the roof caving in. Through the ringing in his ears, he detected a storm of footsteps. The enemy approached. He readied his weapons for a final stand and--

  Sat up, gasping for breath he couldn't catch. Sweat drenched him. Princess licked his hand, reminding him that he wasn't alone, that he'd survived the battle and, more important, his friends had survived, as well.

  He drew his knees to his chest and rested his head on top. People wondered why it was so difficult for soldiers to acclimate to "normal" life. Forget the nightmares. Often Daniel had to retrain himself from speaking in "command voice," a tone that demanded an immediate response; a tone that scared...everyone. And that was the least worrisome reason.

  He stood to shaky legs, showered and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. A glance at the clock revealed it was 3:13 a.m. Unlucky thirteen. Whatever. He had no fear of a man-made superstition.

  Fear wasn't a friend but a hated foe. Time and time again, he'd seen men freeze in battle anytime a shot rang out, making themselves a perfect target. Fear could act quickly or slowly, but if left unchecked, it would always take control of your life.

  Fool! You're letting fear make your decisions with Thea.

  What? No. Hell, no. He didn't fear a relationship with her. He wanted it with every fiber of his being. And he didn't fear his dad's reaction to the inevitable breakup. Not really. He simply preferred to stop a punch before it was thrown.

  Though it was a little too early to head to the inn, staying here was no longer an option. He could smell the taint of war, could hear the faint echo of screams. He needed Thea's scent around him, calming him, and not just from her soap, but from every piece of fabric and furniture he encountered. He needed the excitement of watching every corner, wondering when she would round it and finally enter his line of sight. He needed the joy of hearing her voice and seeing her face...her body, a bounty of softness. A treasure.

  Freckles mark the spot.

  "You want to go with me?" he asked Princess.

  She barked and ran circles around his feet.

  "I'll take that as a yes."

  On the drive to the inn, he realized he needed to buy Princess a doggy car seat. Or maybe a travel crate? Was that an actual thing, or did he need to build one? Either way, better safe than sorry. If something were to happen to his dog--

  He shook his head. She wasn't his dog.

  Her owner would show up eventually, and he or she would have a lot to answer for. Would have to pass Daniel's Do You Deserve Princess exam, too.

  "Today I'm going to turn Thea's no into a yes," he told Princess as he parked in the lot across from the inn. But he felt no excitement at the prospect. What was wrong with a woman wanting him just because he was, well, him? Nothing, that's what.

  Thea might not admit it, but she did want him. The way her breath hitched when he touched her...the way her gaze lingered on him... He just had to remind her of her feelings, and that was what excited him.

  The front door was locked, saving Thea from a lecture about safety. Even small towns had crime. He used his key. The one he'd had made before yesterday's date. In the lobby, a soft lamp glowed on the counter, highlighting a sign that read "Office hours 6:00 a.m.-12:00 a.m. To report a problem, call 405-555-6892."

  Thea's cell phone number.

  Not on my watch.

  Daniel hid the sign in a drawer and taped a new one to the counter. "Office hours 7:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. If there's a problem after hours, take care of it yourself. You're an adult."

  He sat at his desk and worked on answering questions sent from the inn's website. Another job Holly clearly hadn't done. There were hundreds of messages from people raving about their stay, complaining about the rude receptionist and asking about reserving a block of rooms for different festivals.

  There were also two new applications. He placed them both in a To Be Read Later folder without reading a single word. He would look everything over in three weeks, when his tour of duty ended.

  You're welcome, Thea. Thank me with a kiss.

  He answered the questions as best he could, apologized for Holly's behavior and promised the new beefcake behind the counter was much nicer.

  When he finished, he headed for the kitchen, Princess trotting behind him. The door was unlocked, the room empty. Guests could walk in and take anything they wanted with no concern about the money the food cost Thea.

  He started a list of things he needed to buy for the inn, and digital locks took the number-one spot.

  Harlow would begin painting her murals in the first themed-out room today, but not for hours yet. He might as well tape the door frames and windows, allowing her to concentrate on the main event. Again Princess trotted behind him, his own little shadow.

  He frowned when he noticed the bright light spilling from beneath the door. Hadn't he turned off everything before he'd left? Yeah. Definitely. He hadn't wanted to add an extra expense to Thea's electric bill.

  Very quietly, he used his master key. The door--which would look cool with a twister carved in the center--swung open to reveal Thea in a T-shirt and raggedy jeans, her mass of curls piled atop her head. She had earbuds stuffed in her ears, and as she wrote on the wall, her hips bumped and ground just the way he liked.

  A bolt of lust slammed into him, the trials of the night fading from his awareness. He wanted to groan and laugh at the same time. Such a gorgeous, silly girl, his Thea.

  He flipped the light switch on and off to alert her to his presence. With a gasp, she yanked out the buds and spun.

  "Daniel." Her emerald gaze swept over him--and heated. "What are you doing here?"

  Looks like I'm stoking a fire in you, my sweet. The same fire he'd noticed when they were at the Scratching Post, and Brock had mentioned playing a sex game with his hookups.

  "I couldn't sleep," he said, hopeful for the first time in forever, it seemed. Finally he had a weapon to use to his advantage. "I figured I'd get started on the room."

  Compassion softened her features.

  Just like that, irritation began to claw at him. It was the total wrong response, he knew. He was the one who'd told her there were horrors in his mind. Something that had shocked him as much as it had shocked Brock. They had an unspoken rule: Sharing Is Scaring. Civilians didn't need to know the things they'd witnessed...the things they'd done.

  "I couldn't sleep, either. I was too excited." She waved him over. "Come see what I've done."

  He'd have to be a stronger man to resist her. He eagerly closed the distance.

  "Each wall will represent a different season but also different weather patterns, with a single tree spreading its branches across all four," she said. "This one will be a winter wonderland with an ice storm...this one is a rose garden with a tornado...this one is a pumpkin patch with noctilucent
clouds...and here, where the bed presses against it, a lush summer forest with rain showers. I'm hoping you'll build a headboard in the shape of a tree. The branches can stretch out over the mattress, and I can drape them with a canopy of green fabric. Like the walls, different branches can represent different seasons."

  "Me? I'll build a headboard?"

  "Well, you took a woodworking class in school..."

  She'd known his schedule?

  He masked his pleasure by donning the most severe expression he could muster. "You want me to build a'll have to negotiate."


  NEGOTIATE. LIKE EVERYTHING Daniel suggested, the idea was both a threat to her peace of mind and a delight. He wanted her in his bed. He'd made that clear...and it was growing clearer by the second. His jeans were unable to hide the massive evidence as he hardened right before her eyes.

  A fact that didn't embarrass him. No, he ran a hand down the entire length of it, as if he was proud of his reaction to her.

  She swallowed in an effort to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. There was no way she'd give up her goods and services for a headboard...right? That would be bad? Right!

  I'm worth more, blah, blah, blah.

  "Provide the headboard," she said, breathless, "and I'll put your name on the plaque that will hang outside the door."

  His look was as pitying as it was carnal. "You think I'm going to spend days...weeks...constructing the headboard of your dreams just to have my name put on a plaque? Think again, pinup girl."

  Pinup girl? What a delicious nickname!

  Do. Not. Soften. "You can stay in this very room, no charge, once a month for the next year." And if he brought a woman with him? "Alone," she added, and her cheeks began to burn.

  "Now you're just embarrassing yourself, sweetheart."

  Ugh! "You build the headboard, and I won't tell Jessie Kay you made me cry."

  He pursed his lips. "You wouldn't."

  "I so would." Dorothea went in for the kill. "Jessie Kay texted to tell me she'd heard we'd hooked up at the Scratching Post, and that I should let her know when you mess up. When, not if. Said she'd take care of the problem--you--lickety-split."

  "Wait." He shook his head, his expression twisted with horror. "I made you cry?"

  Head slap. Why hadn't she kept that bit of info to herself? "Not recently, no. And never you mind about that. Concentrate on the headboard."

  "I am concentrating, but you're going to have to give me something I want. Make the backbreaking manual labor worth my while."

  "I'm not going to offer sex, if that's what you're hinting at." The very idea should probably offend her, yet here she was, trembling like a teenage girl with her first crush.

  Because Daniel was her first crush.

  The look he gave her was ravenous. "The sex you'll give me for free. Admit it, you crave me as much as I crave you. But there are other things we can do in the meantime..."

  Other things? "I will not give you a...a...blow job. Do you hear me?"

  One corner of his mouth curved up. "Someone has a very dirty mind, doesn't she? But don't worry. You'll give me a blow job free of charge, too. And I'll reciprocate. Gladly. For the headboard, I'm thinking...a kiss. Right here, right now."

  Butterflies with razor-sharp wings took flight in her stomach. "A kiss? Just one?" What! Don't tell me you're considering this, Dorothea Mathis.

  "Just one. Right here, right now," he repeated huskily.

  Well...something short and sweet shouldn't be a problem. A dry peck, even. Loophole! He'd stated no particulars.

  "Are we agreed?" He took a step toward her and, as if reading her mind, said, "It'll be openmouthed. With tongue."

  Dang him! Shivers danced through her. "How long will it last?" Was that needy tone really hers?

  "Ten minutes."

  What! "Ten minutes?" she squeaked. She and Jazz had kissed, stripped, had sex and cuddled in that amount of time. "Five minutes, and that's my final offer."

  He laughed with masculine appreciation, as if he knew something she didn't. "Done. Five minutes." He took another step toward her, then another.

  This was happening. This was really happening. "Wait! I meant two minutes."

  "Too late. The deal has been made, the conditions settled. No backing out now." He stopped, only a whisper away.

  Her heart erupted in a crazy rhythm. "What are you going to do with your hands?"

  "Now, that's a real good question, and one you should have asked before we finalized our negotiations." He rested the hands in question on the wall, caging her in like he'd done the first time she'd come to his room. Obviously he liked being the predator, and making her the prey. She liked it, too. His shoulders were so strong and wide she felt engulfed by him--possessed by him. "I'm going to put them all over you. And I'm going to put my fingers inside you."

  Her panties basically liquefied. "N-no?" A question? Come on! "No." Better. "Your hands have to stay above my waist."

  Oh, wow. Way to restrict him, Dor.

  "Very well." He rubbed his nose against hers. A reward? Because she'd given him exactly what he'd wanted? Now he had permission to play with her breasts...pinch her nipples...

  He set a timer on his watch, saying, "I'm not going to let you short me of a single second."

  "Be honest. You can't really kiss a woman for five whole minutes. You'd smother her."

  "Let me set the scene for you. We're going to pretend we're at school, and the bell's about to ring."

  How is he feeding my longest-standing fantasies? Her limbs trembled as the rest of her heated.

  "I'll be real careful not to wrinkle your clothes, sweetheart." Peering at her with eyes on fire with lust, he hovered his face over hers, not touching her, not yet.

  She waited, wrapped up in an agony and ecstasy like she'd never known.

  Why wasn't he kissing her already, dang it?

  "I don't care about my clothes," she told him.

  "You don't care if the other students know what we've been doing?"

  "The students." Her shivers returned, redoubled. Heat bloomed in her chest and swiftly spread through the rest of her. Breathing became a chore, her airways restricted, oxygen too thick. Her heart only raced faster. "Yeah, be real careful."

  "Promise." But still he hovered...

  There was anticipation, and there was torture. They'd reached the torture stage.

  "Daniel," she rasped, willing to beg for his kiss.

  "There she is." He pressed his mouth into hers, and she opened eagerly. Somehow, when his tongue brushed against hers, it was a shock to her senses. He was hot, his lips soft, his jaw prickly. The taste of and...sin? Crack?

  He kissed her deeply, dreamily, slow and easy, sweeping her up in the gentlest of storms. A soft summer rain. An exploration.

  A delight--but not exactly satisfying when she longed to rip off his clothes.

  All too soon, he lifted his head. He was breathing heavily. "We should stop, sweetheart."

  What? No!

  "The bell," he said.

  Did his old girlfriends have to attend support groups? Hello, I'm Dorothea, and I'm a Daniel addict. "I'm your English teacher, Mr. Porter." Warm shivers tracked through her. "I'll write you a note."

  He chuckled against her lips, gave a little lick. "That's why you're my favorite teacher. Just want to make sure you're giving me the A you promised me."

  "Not if you keep talking." She wound her arms around him, one hand sinking into the silk of his hair, the other tunneling under the collar of his shirt. Skin-to-skin contact was essential. Absolutely critical to her survival.

  "Thea." With a moan, he swooped down to kiss her again. This time, he deepened the pressure, pressing harder, thrusting his tongue against hers.

  Yes! This! This was everything. Time ceased to exist. As she inhaled...exhaled, her nipples puckered and rubbed against his chest. A delicious abrasion that sent waves of pleasure straight to her core, exactly where she wanted his hands.

  Where were his hands?

  Still beside her temples, she realized. Dang him. Why hadn't he touched her yet? He had to touch her. It had been so long. Too long. She ached.

  "Daniel." A croak this time. "Mr. Porter. Please."

  Finally! He kneaded her breasts and ran his thumb over the distended crests. She gasped, her nails digging into his scalp and between his shoulder blades in an effort to hold him closer--or to ensure he never got away.

  "I know I'm not supposed to wrinkle your clothes, Miss Mathis, but I'm losing my mind here."

  "Daniel," she repeated, and the tone of the next kiss shifted, becoming a ravenous feasting. "Wrinkle them. Ruin them."

  He bit, sucked and nipped. Staying still wasn't an option. She rocked her hips against him, creating a notch at the apex of her thighs. A notch he utilized to their mutual satisfaction, sliding his big, scarred hands down her sides to cup her butt.

  "Wrap your legs around me. Now." Before she could obey, he lifted her as if she weighed no more than a cotton puff.

  Not once did she consider denying him. As she wrapped her legs around him, he used the wall as leverage, pressing an insistent erection against her core, holding her up. The contact was bliss, rapture...but she hated their clothes, wanted him inside her, filling her, thrusting so deep. She was empty! Need consumed her, drove her. Release...she had to have a release.

  He stayed true to their deal, however, his hands exploring only above her waist. Restrictions sucked...sucked... Oh! Yes! He sucked on her bottom lip, at the same time shoving a hand under her shirt. She jolted. His skin--white-hot!

  His fingers traced a path up her quivering belly. He kneaded her breasts once again, only this time directly over her bra. Why had she worn one? Never again!

  "Do you know how often I've fantasized about these plump beauties with the cotton candy nipples?"

  "Please," she said, practically mindless. At the moment, it was the only word she could manage.

  He kissed her chin, her jaw, then down the column of her neck, where he sucked on her racing pulse. The pressure inside her continued to build until it was nearly unbearable.

  "Please," she repeated.

  "I think Miss Mathis has fantasized about me, too." He pinched her nipples, gently at first but increasing the pressure.

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