She arched on a gasp as the heat of his mouth met her neck. His hands, clever, wicked hands, quickly divested her of her shirt, leaving her free to rub against him like a cat. She groaned as he moved away, reaching to grab him back. He grinned. That cockeyed uptilt of his mouth that had driven her insane for years.
“Sugar, don’t rush me. Do you know how long I’ve waited to have you like this?” Cope’s voice was rusty, filled with burrs and edges as it washed over her. His hair, gleaming blue-black, caught the glow of light from the nearby lamp.
“Take your shirt off. I want to see.” God, how she wanted to see his body. She’d fantasized about him for so long it seemed beyond surreal as he peeled off the tight, black T-shirt, revealing acres of sexy muscles, taut skin and tattoos.
She sighed happily as heat bloomed low in her belly, tightening her nipples.
“Like what you see? Oh sweet Christ …” He left off on a hiss of pleasure as she cruised her mouth and tongue up his belly and to the ring in his left nipple. Her hands slid over the ornate Chinese dragon tail wrapping around his left biceps. The body of the dragon dominated Cope’s entire back, marking him in a decidedly masculine way. She knew it had taken Brody Brown nearly six months to complete. Worth every moment. It was breathtaking. Beautiful and beyond sexy.
“This tattoo makes me so hot.” She nipped his side, and he leaned into her. His skin was salty; the taste filled her with craving and a sense of triumph at finally being able to touch him the way she’d wanted to for so long.
His scent curled around her senses, holding her there: the tang of his arousal, of his skin, the musk of his cologne, the citrus of his shampoo, all little sensual treats she’d picked up from being around him all the time.
Laughing, she pushed him back and scrambled atop his body, straddling his hips. He raised a brow at her, and she briefly stopped, fascinated by the jump of his pulse at the hollow of his throat. She leaned down to kiss him there because there was nothing else to do.
He was getting naked, and his hands were all over her. It was like Christmas and her birthday at the same time. Maybe even a bit of Halloween too, it was so good.
“Do you like bad boys, Ella?” he asked in a murmur caught between a purr and a growl. All while thumbing one nipple until she squirmed, breathless.
“I like you. And I like that.” She may have squeaked a bit, though she’d probably deny it if asked.
He grinned again as he raised himself up enough to reach the nipple he wasn’t already tugging. She rolled her hips, unabashedly delighting in the way the seam of her jeans slid against her clit, giving her just enough friction to make her gulp in some air, but not enough to satisfy.
Only the hands on her would satisfy. Only his mouth. Only the cock she currently ground against, still locked behind his zipper. Stupid denim!
“Ella …” His voice was tortured, laced with need.
“Please.” She didn’t know what she was begging for, only that he’d be able to give it to her.
She blinked several times and nearly died as she focused on the man standing just on the other side of the counter. How very special. She’d just had a fuck fantasy about him in the middle of the café at midday.
Piercing blue eyes met her gaze. A grin, god, that grin, marked his mouth. Andrew Copeland stood two feet away looking amused by her lapse in attention as well as ten kinds of delicious bad boy.
And to answer the question her fantasy Cope had asked? Hell yes, she liked bad boys. But his kind of bad boy. Unfortunately, she’d had a real one, and that had been enough to land her in the hospital and then physical therapy for nearly a year. The mental scars would probably be there forever. Yeah, not so much fun, those bad boys.
She swallowed, feeling the burn of her skin as she blushed furiously, but managed to smile at him, because, well hell, look at him! How could you look at all that and not simply smile in thanks to whoever created such perfection?
“Hey, Cope, sorry about that. I was woolgathering. What can I get you?” The counter had never been cleaner than right then as she rubbed the cloth over it nervously, the taste of his skin still in her mouth.
She could easily get lost in those eyes. Everything about him attracted her. For years she’d thought him the sexiest guy in town. Way out of her league, but still beyond delicious. Besides, it didn’t hurt anyone to objectify him in her head, now did it? Plus he was a total flirt, which made it even easier to crush on him without really taking it seriously. He flirted as easily as he breathed. He’d probably like it if he knew. Not that she’d tell him or anything.
He leaned toward her, his movements slow and easy, but she recognized the strength coiled in those muscles, knew he was a predator. “You have the prettiest blush. Did you know that? Now, see, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were having a very naughty fantasy in your head just now.”
That voice. Holy crap, his voice was like sex in a jar. Or whatever. But it was hot and sexy, and she heard it lots and lots. Usually when her eyes were closed and she was masturbating. Wrong. Bad, bad Ella! Not the place to think about that.
He chuckled then, cocking his head, and whaddya know, he looked even better like that. Man, she was hopeless. Hopeless and sex-deprived. She was even getting interrupted in her fantasies. How pathetic was that?
“You were, weren’t you? You have no idea how much I want you to share.”
“I don’t know you well enough to scar you with my nasty sex fantasies.” She winked and turned, hoping he didn’t see the blush heating her cheeks at that very moment. “I’ll make you an Americano instead.”
“Killjoy. If you have nasty sex fantasies, Ella, it would help if you shared them. Unburden yourself and stuff. It’s good for you. I’ll even share some of mine. You know, so you don’t feel so alone.”
She choked with laughter and embarrassment. Good thing she wasn’t looking at him right then. Or drinking anything. Then again, a drink sounded good. A stiff shot of tequila. Gah, not stiff! Um, yes, a shot of tequila might help.
Trying to get herself back together, she focused on getting his drink. He could tease with just about anyone. Normally, once she knew a person well enough, she could too. But he was different. For years he’d teased her but had kept it gentle. She’d often felt the warm slice of envy at the way he put the moves on women. He was so smooth and sexy when he had a woman in his sights. He’d never looked at her like that. Hadn’t ever given her the smoldering gaze she’d fantasized about for years.
Until . . . well, lately it had felt like he’d changed the tenor a bit. Felt as if perhaps he’d glimpsed her as a woman instead of his friend Ella.
Which was stupid, she knew. He teased and was casually sexy, but he couldn’t have had any idea she pined for him. He’d probably feel sorry for her if he knew. Their relationship would change; he’d distance himself to keep her from getting her heart broken. And she’d hate that, hate to lose the friendship and ease they had, even if she did want to lick him from head to toe. No, a playboy like Andrew Copeland was totally out of her league. She knew it, and he did too. That’s why it worked between them.
He was one of the few people who never looked at her with pity in his eyes. He didn’t ask how she was in a pained voice that told her the asker expected the answer to be sad. She was sick of being defined by something that happened to her nearly four years ago.
He let her be. Didn’t try to control her under the guise of helping her. Didn’t see tragedy when he looked at her. Which only made her want him more.
Cope watched her back, itching to beg her to tell him more. Wanting to hear her voice when she talked about sex—about dirty, fabulously filthy things she wanted him to do to her when they were naked and alone. It was his favorite way to drive himself crazy, thinking about Ella Tipton naked and in his bed.
He was fairly sure she was teasing about the sex fantasy thing, but her reaction was interesting. His cock crowded uncomfortably behind his zipper, awakened, as always, at the very thought of her. No other woman had caught his attention and his imagination the way she did. Which might have been a huge part of his fascination with her. It was a big reason why he knew she was different, had the potential to be far more than someone he dated. Ella had marked him already. Her determination, the way she aimed herself at goals and didn’t stop until she met them. What wasn’t to admire about that? What other woman could compete?
Damn, she was something else. Striking. Short, sleek fiery hair, big blue-green eyes, freckles across her cheeks and over her nose. Her skin was so pale she shone like a pearl. She was perfect in her imperfection. All her features, in and of themselves, were not pretty, but combined, they made her singular, the sort of face that drew the eye. And she had no idea how compelling she was, how people simply watched her move for the pleasure of it.
And funny in an odd way. He got her sense of humor. Offbeat. There was truly no one else like her in the entire world. Her voice made him laugh, sort of high-pitched, like a cartoon sometimes. He knew others teased her over it, but it fit her.
She was intelligent and diligent, loyal and brave. Braver than most people would ever know. His eyes swept to her legs, covered by a long, loose-fitting skirt.
She turned and handed him the Americano, made just exactly the way he liked it. She tucked an amaretto-almond biscotti on the edge of the saucer with a smile. “Made fresh today. I promise it’s good.”
He handed her the money, and she sighed when he waved away the change. “You deserve it for the biscotti. I need it this afternoon. I’ve had a long day.”
Instead of going to a table, he leaned against the counter and watched her work. The café his sister-in-law Erin owned and Ella ran was quiet for the time being, so he had her pretty much all to himself. He planned to take advantage of that fact.
“Are you all right? You mentioned your day,” she said when he must have looked confused. “I haven’t seen you around lately.” She bustled around the counter area, straightening, cleaning, polishing. Ella was rarely still; this fascinated him, though he couldn’t say why. It wasn’t a rare talent or anything.
She glanced up at him. “Ben said you were hiking. Was it fun?”
He knew she’d asked after him because his brother had told him. Still, it didn’t diminish the silly pleasure that she’d noticed his absence.
“A very good time was had by all, thank you for asking. Me and some buddies—Brody and Ben usually included, but they’re both a bit busy this year—hike Hurricane Ridge out in the Olympics.” He laughed, thinking of the way Erin’s belly had grown, of how she looked at his brother and their husband Todd like they were the best things on earth. “It was good. We were at a high enough elevation that we actually got a bit of snow, which isn’t totally unusual for early fall. I’ve seen snow at the higher elevations in the summer, even. It’s beautiful just now. Have you been?”
“You camped and hiked in the snow?” She shuddered, and he bit back a laugh. “Um, no, I’m happy to say I’ve not been snow camping because I’m not insane. I’ve been to the Ho Rainforest and I’ve done some hiking out there near Crescent Lake, but I’ve never camped and hiked like you do. Snow camping is just not a phrase I’d ever utter as a suggestion to how to spend my time. I love to ski, though I have to watch my knees now. I enjoy all that outdoorsy stuff, as long as I can escape it at day’s end. As in, hot toddies at the lodge in front of a fireplace, or cabins with high-speed Internet. I’m not much for roughing it.”
He laughed, but had the crazy desire to take her camping anyway. He could take her on long bike rides, show her the beauty of the Olympics in the fall. In the winter he was sure he could show her plenty of ways to keep warm, though he did agree with her that a hot toddy at the end of the day inside in front of a roaring fireplace was better than sleeping in a tent in the snow.
“I bet you’ve just never been with the right person. I promise you, camping is something you’d love with the right guide and gear.”
She raised both eyebrows. “It always sounds nice, but then that crazy reality comes knocking, and I remember it’s sleeping on the ground in a tent with nothing but less than an inch’s worth of fabric protecting me from bears and bugs. And random snow? Hmm. Can’t wait for that.” She wrinkled her nose. “Plus I’m the kind of girl who gets third-degree sunburn even after I put on sunscreen on. Then I peel and have eight thousand more freckles as a result. It’s a horrible cross to bear.”
She sighed and blinked, the corners of her mouth struggling to stay in place and not curve upward.
He laughed. “I like freckles.” He liked her freckles. He couldn’t say he thought about them much before he’d walked into the café that first time and laid eyes on her and those bewitching spatters of ginger all over that pale skin.
She looked him up and down, putting another biscotti on his saucer when he’d finished the first one. “Easy for you to say, since you have none.”
He wanted to lick her. Lick her freckles, taste the salt of her skin, hear whatever sounds she made when aroused, and he had a feeling she made them, though selfishly, he liked to pretend she hadn’t made them in a while. His mood soured then. He hadn’t seen her with anyone since that fuck brutalized her years prior. Just thinking about her ex made him want to punch something.
“You all right? You didn’t talk about your day.” She touched his hand, her thumb sliding over a knuckle and then into the indentation between that and the next. His anger slipped away, chased by the waves of pleasure spreading from the place she’d just caressed.
“Sorry. Some stupid work thing I thought of. You’re much better to think on though.” He flashed her a smile, and she rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you have some hussy to harass?” Erin walked in with a jingle of the bells over the door. Erin was his sister-in-law and a friend. She was also about to expel nine and a half pounds of baby, and though he’d never say it out loud lest he take his life into his own hands, she looked it, around the edges anyway.
“I’ll have you know I haven’t harassed a hussy in years.” Cope pushed a stool back so she could sit down, which she did with a rusty exhalation of air.
Ella pushed a glass of juice toward Erin and dared her to come behind the counter. Erin, ever so smart, obeyed, staying seated at the coffee bar.
“You and the gorgeous Ms. Tipton here are the only hussies I harass. Anyway, you look harassed enough for a few hussies. I thought you knew what caused that state.” He waved at her belly, and she snorted.
“I do. But it’s hard to remember this part when you’re having that part. It’s the getting here that’s so fun, damn it.” Erin grinned as she eyed him. “You look good. Tan and ready for trouble. You Copeland boys are hell on a girl’s eyes, you know.”
Ella nodded and then blushed when he caught her. He raised his brows at her but was content enough to let her get away for the moment.
He’d danced around her for years, wanting her. Truth be told, he hadn’t been ready for her. Not then. He’d had no real interest in being tied to any one woman. He liked women. He liked them a lot, and he liked a lot of them. Back then he’d taken one look and had known a girl like Ella was a relationship type of woman.
And she hadn’t been ready for him, either. She’d been with someone else when he’d first started getting his inkwork done at Brody’s place, just next door. He’d been no less compelled by her, but she’d been different then. That Ella had been vivacious at times. But the light in her had slowly dimmed as the relationship she’d been in had gotten worse. As the man who was supposed to love her had ground her into nothing and finally nearly killed her.
The Ella he’d first known had begun to shine through again. Not all the time, and she’d changed in ways that would alter her forever. She was harder now, stronger, more wary. But no less beautiful to him. More so, in fact, as he watched her rise from the wreck her life had become and work her way back, never wavering. Her strength was what he admired the most.
Ella Tipton was one of the best parts of his day when he came in to the café. She was the kind of woman a man could bepartners with. A woman who’d lean on him when she needed it, but not cling. A woman who’d need, but not depend. He found himself thinking about this, that this woman was all the things a man wanted in a mate. More than he’d ever considered before.
The bottom line was that Andrew Copeland was more than halfway in love with a woman he’d never even kissed. In love with a woman who didn’t even know how he felt. Then again, he probably could stand to make himself more obvious. He was so used to having women fawn all over him that he had little experience with wooing one. He could flirt like a gold medalist, but he needed to up his game when it came to making this one woman know he was interested in far more than a few nights in his bed.
This woman called to him in ways he couldn’t deny. Ella. She was something else, something worth time and attention, a woman worth forever.
And a woman so badly used, Cope wondered if she’d ever find her way back into a normal romantic relationship again.
“I need to go grab the invoice for the dairy guy,” Ella said, looking to the door where the big white truck had pulled up. “Be right back. Cope, if Erin gets up for any reason other than labor or a robbery, yell.”
Erin snorted and watched Ella go before turning back to Cope, where he’d been watching too. “Well now, jeepers Andrew, I think I recognize that expression. Are you sweet on Ella?”
He raised a shoulder. “Smart-ass. I like the way she moves. That a crime?”
“Not at all. In fact, it’s a good thing. I think she’s ready for it now. Though”—Erin looked him up and down with a grin—“I’m not sure anyone could be totally ready for you.”
Cope thought it was the other way around. “I’m not that bad.”
Erin snorted. “You are a first-rate lady killer. I rarely use that phrase, but you’re it. She’s been off the market for some time, while you, well, you’re Cope.” She shrugged. “It’s hotter than hell, but even I would be intimidated.”
“I’m more than just my dick.” He said it a bit more sharply than he’d intended. It hit him though, just then, that for the first time ever that he would care about, he’d be judged for his devil-may-care attitude about women and romance. Still, Erin knew him, and it was silly to think she meant it in any way but the one she brought up. He and Ella did have differences of experience.
He softened his tone. “You okay? Should you even be here? Isn’t your due date approaching?”
“I’ve got two months to go. I’m pregnant, not sick. Anyway, Todd is right next door with Brody. They know you’re here mooning after Ella, so I was allowed to come over if I sat down right away and drank some juice. I believe the assumption was that you’d also be their eyes and ears over here and tattle should I start tap dancing or cage fighting with the customers. Not that the men in my life are bossy or anything.”
He nudged the glass toward her. “Keep drinking it then.” He considered whether or how to put the next question. “Does everyone know? About me and Ella? Am I so obvious?”
She took a big drink and flipped him off before grinning. “Ben’s your brother and Todd is your best friend; of course they can tell. Ben told me the other day that he’d never seen you look at a woman the way you do her. And of course you’re more than your cock. Pffft. I’ve known you for years now, and I’ve seen you date a lot, but it never seems like serious business to you.” Erin paused, searching for words. “She’s serious business, Cope. She doesn’t have a lot of people she can count on. There’s stress in her family over her insistence on staying independent.
“For the longest time she shied away from all of us. She’s only begun to come out of her shell and trust us more. It would have been unimaginable to me a year ago to watch her opening up with us the way she has.”
He nodded. Erin was being protective of their friend, but he hoped he could be trusted to never hurt her on purpose. When it came down to it, Cope knew a little something about feeling like you’re on the outside looking in. “She is, which is probably why I like to look at her more than I have liked to look at a woman in a long time. She’s not a hit-and-run for me.”
Erin looked at him over the rim of the glass for long moments before speaking. “I can see that. So then? You planning to make a move? Or just moon at her more?”
“I’m thinking about it. Been a few years now. I’ve had other women, and she’s had a lot to deal with. None of them were what I wanted, what I needed. I get the feeling Ella might be just that. I think the time is right, and I’m done filling my time with women I don’t crave the way I do her.”
“Years, huh? Very nice. She doesn’t stand a chance. You Copeland boys are a threat to the willpower of women everywhere.”
“We play a lot, but once we settle down, we’re rooted. We love well.” He touched her belly, palm flat to feel his niece or nephew move around. “Active today.”
She grinned. “I know. I ate an entire box of Hot Tamales. Babe-O seems to dig that. As for you boys and that playing, it makes you all very handy to the ladies you end up with. That’s a good thing too.” Ella’s noise came closer, and Erin changed the topic. “How was the trip? Adrian pouted for the last week because he couldn’t go with you guys this year. Thankfully Todd and Ben were too preoccupied pestering me to get too sad about it. Brody’s so caught up in all the wedding plans, I don’t know if he even noticed.”
Cope laughed. “He noticed and bitched about it a bit. But he wasn’t that serious. And there’s always another time to go camping.”
Ella came back through to the café, calling out a hello as the delivery guy came in, wheeling the milk cartons with him. Of course, Cope barely registered a word Erin had said once Ella was in his line of sight again.
“She hasn’t been out in a while.” Erin shrugged, looking at her nails. “I’ve been so glad not to have to worry about the café. She’ll be getting her degree soon enough, and she’ll move on to a different job. I think she’s interviewing soon with the place she’s interning at now. They seem to really like her, and who else could be so good at helping families who’ve been torn apart by violence?” Erin’s gaze slid to his for just a moment and then away again. “She’s already beginning to train one of our part-timers to take over for her as the manager. Even hired on two new part-timers to take over for her and to fill the gap of my absence too. Smart girl, our Ella. But boy, she’s always so busy. I’d hate it if she never got out for any fun at all.”
Subtle. He rolled his eyes.
“Hey, Brody.” Ella waved as Erin’s older brother ambled in from his shop next door. He paused to kiss Erin’s cheek and rub her belly.
“Sit down, and I’ll get you a hot chocolate. Elise’s mother gave me the best recipe. I’ve been using it this week, and people love it.”
“Ella, my darling, you’re all things bright and wonderful in the world,” Brody said with a wink as he hopped up onto a stool.
Erin perked up. “Cocoa? Oh! Me too, please.”
“Finish your juice, and I might be persuaded.” Ella sent Erin a look before turning around and using a whisk in the ceramic pot she had placed on a low burner. Moments later, the fragrant mugs were on the counter. “One last detail,” she murmured, drawing a quick leaf in chocolate on Erin’s, dropping a dollop of whipped cream on Brody’s and adding a shake of cinnamon to Cope’s.
She remembered. Who did he know well enough other than family who remembered silly stuff like that? He said so, and she laughed. “I’ve been making you coffee for a few years now, Cope. I know how much you love cinnamon. Like I know how much Brody is a whore for whipped cream and Erin loves extra chocolate shavings. I remember these things. I like taking care of you.”
She turned before he could say anything. Which was good because she totally sent him reeling. Thankfully, she also missed the elbow to the ribs Erin had delivered.
“How’s school?” he asked, not ready to let the contact with her go.
“Good. I’m nearly done now. My internship has been really helpful. The agency has provided me with some excellent training.”
“Ah, so you’re finishing early? Or going until June?”
She had the longest legs and a very nice ass. Still, he wasn’t disappointed when she turned to face him again. “Yep. It took me longer than it would have normally, but they’ve worked around my schedule and stuff. I’ll be finished at the end of this quarter. Or I hope so.” She laughed. “If I complete these last classes successfully, that is. I’ll have my MSW in December. Maybe I’ll do the official walk in June, but the important part is the degree.”
“Dunno why you’d doubt yourself. I have faith in you.” He meant that. Watching her not just survive what happened to her but use it, rise above it, and empower herself and others with her energy and determination had only made him more attracted to her. “Why wouldn’t you do graduation? You worked hard to get here. You need to give us all the chance to cheer you on as your name gets called.”
“Thank you, Andrew.” He smiled at the use of his given name. “It means a lot to me to hear that.” She nodded and smiled at a customer who’d come through the door, and he felt like a toddler, aching to get her attention back.
“And what about you?” she asked when she got free again. “How are things? How’s your life? Work?”
He sipped and watched, took a leisurely detour around the curves of her cheeks, noting each freckle. He also noted she sidestepped the graduation comment. “We need to catch up, you’re right. What are you doing after you get off today?”
Surprise showed on her face. Luckily, it seemed to be the good kind of surprise. “I have to go by work—my other work—for a few hours. I have a paper due next week, so I need to work on that when I get home.”
“I guess two jobs and school sort of cuts into your social life. No time for a pizza then? We can be quick. I realize we haven’t talked in a while, and I want to know more. You know, about the program you’re in.” Not so much with the smooth. She set him off balance in a way no one else ever could. Shook him up so that he couldn’t even connect with his inner cool right then. He just wanted to touch her.
Her blush was back, and he ached to brush his fingertips against the swell of her cheek, to feel the heat of that soft skin.
“I wish. Pizza sounds good. But this paper is due next week, and with Erin getting closer to her due date, I want to get it out of the way.” She hesitated. “You’ll be in here though, still, right? You know, coming by time and again to get lunch and some coffee? We can talk then.”
“Couldn’t keep me away.” He’d have to find a way to get her to go out with him soon. If he didn’t snap out of this, he’d be trying to get her to ride with him to Brody and Elise’s wedding in two months. And he didn’t want to wait two months.
He loved the way her eyes widened with pleasure for just a brief moment before she spoke again. “Good. I don’t get out much to see my friends. I’m greedy for it I suppose.”
Like he was greedy for her. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to do something about it. To feed that need he had.