It wasn’t more than a few days after he’d returned from the coast when Cope opened up his mail to find a bright red envelope. He smiled once he saw the lettering and recognized Ella’s address.
Wanting to read it but hearing the honk of Ben’s arrival—his neighbors would love the honking at seven in the damned morning—he tucked it into his messenger bag and rushed out to where Ben sat in his truck, idling at the curb.
“ ’Bout time,” his brother said by way of greeting when he’d gotten inside and buckled up.
“If you were even halfway punctual I’d be offended. As it is, what was I supposed to do? Run out and jump in through the window like we’re Bo and Luke Duke?”
“Don’t test me, asshole. I need caffeine.”
“Good thing your wife owns a café then, huh? Not as fun to go there now that my Red works elsewhere three days a week now.”
“Your Red, huh? That’s nice to hear. Christ, I feel like such a shitty brother for ignoring you. I’m sorry I haven’t been around much for you to talk to about this.”
“You’ve got a lot to deal with at the moment. I told her I love her this weekend. We had amazing sex. She gets me. It’s just . . . I don’t know, man, magical, I guess. She’s the one. I know it right to my toes.”
Ben smiled. “I’d say, so fast? But I know you. If you say it’s the real deal, I believe you. And it’s not fast when you’ve known a woman six years. Not really.”
He was so glad his brother got that. Cope hadn’t spoken to anyone about telling Ella he loved her, but he knew it would come up that he told her after only dating her a short time.
“This is what I told her. Mom wants me to bring her to dinner. I’m running out of excuses.”
“Why try to get out of it? Mom’s a great cook, and you know, if this thing with Ella is going to be serious, you’ll need to get her around the Copelands anyway.”
“I’m not speaking to Dad, and I’m sure as hell not taking Ella around with all this tension. Mom likes her, she likes Mom. Maybe we should go out to dinner or have her to the house here. The kitchen is working, and I’m nearly done with the dining room.” Ella had convinced him to let go of the condo and move into the house full time. He’d come home Sunday, and she’d even helped him pack the rest of his stuff and take it over.
“Anyway, I want Ella and Mom to get to know each other better and on a different level, without all that baggage. It’s going to be enough pressure as it is.”
“You don’t have to estrange yourself from them for me.” Ben’s voice had gone from lighthearted to sad.
“I’m not estranged from both of them. He needed to hear a few things, and he didn’t want to when I confronted him.” Best not to share the part about the near miss with the punch.
Ben pulled up in front of the café. “You didn’t tell me you confronted him. What happened?”
Cope opened his door. “Nothing worth writing home about. Come on, let’s get some coffee, and I’ll sulk that there are no women working the morning shift now that Erin is at home.”
Ben caught up with him at the door. “You know I don’t expect you to do this. I don’t want you having problems with your own damned parents because of the fucking life I lead.”
“There should be no problems with your own damned parents because of the life you lead, Ben. That’s the problem. Notthe way you live, but how he’s reacting.” Cope went inside, his brother right behind.
“Don’t think you can just avoid telling me the story,” Ben said under his breath as they waited for their drinks. This time of day the café was packed with people from the neighborhood on their way to work.
“I don’t need to clear it with you.” He grabbed his latte, tucking a buck into the tip jar.
“You’re being stubborn.”
Raven waltzed in and waved when she saw them.
The woman was many things, some positive, some negative, but one thing Cope never found fault with was her loyalty to Erin and, with some glaring exceptions, Brody. He knew his brother did not trust her fully, but though they couldn’t understand just what it was between Erin and Raven that made them close, everyone in the group honored it.
“You should go over to the house today. She’s going stir crazy and would love the company. She’s not supposed to be on her feet for more than a few hours a day. Todd is on Erin duty, so I’m sure he’d like the break too. They tend to get on each other’s nerves when it comes to her health.” Ben snorted.
“That’s because they’re nearly exactly alike.” Raven’s smile softened. “I’ll stop over in a few. I’m just doing a quick coffee run for the boys next door.” She jerked her head toward the tattoo shop. “Hey, speaking of following up on people, I haven’t seen Ella around in a few days. How’s her new job?”
Cope smiled, thinking of the envelope in his bag. “She’s good. We’ll be at pool on Friday, so if you’re around, you can see for yourself.”
“That sounds good. I hadn’t realized how much I’d miss her until she was gone and I didn’t see all that red hair or hear that squeaky voice. Tell her I said hey.”
She was off, leaving them alone. They managed to play nice until they got to Ben’s place, where they took their argument up again on the way through the side door to their home office.
“There’s no reason for you to get caught up in this mess. Who knows, maybe Ella will soften him. She could soften just about anyone, your lady.”
Cripes, he got giddy thinking about her sometimes. “She’s special that way. But while this involves you in some ways, this is about family. My family as well as yours. He’s wrong. He’s hateful, and I’m not having it. I don’t want to be around it, and I sure as hell don’t want Ella around it. Anyway, that’s enough for now. Go and check on Erin; I know you want to. I’ll take the conference call.”
“What did he do, Andy?” Ben stopped him just inside their office door. “I need to know.”
“Go see your wife. You don’t need to know.”
“Fuck you. I’ve told you stuff. Pay up.”
He slumped into a chair. “I went out to the range to talk to him. It was ugly. So ugly he tried to punch me. Todd’s dad came out and pulled him back. I don’t know what happened after that, because I left and I haven’t spoken to him since.”
Ben blinked and leaned back against the doorjamb. “What the fuck? He tried to hit you?”
“I have to do this call. They’re expecting it. Go. Kiss your wife. He’s not worth it.” He began to dial, and his brother sighed.
“We’ll talk more about this later.” Ben left right as his conference call began.
“I’m leaving,” Cope called out later that afternoon. “I have shit to do, and you’re all fine here.” He bent and kissed Erin’s cheek. “How go things?”
“My blood pressure is better. Good enough that I can come out to pool on Friday if I sit the whole time.”
“Maybe.” Todd didn’t even look up from where he was working on tightening a washer on a leaky sink.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Erin tossed back without heat.
“I beg to differ.”
“That you have to beg to differ proves my point.” Erin beamed at Cope, who wisely hid a smile.
“My cue to leave. See you tomorrow,” he called to Todd. Ben had left to go deal with a client, so Cope had been able to avoid any further discussion of their father.
It was a warm day, so he decided to skive off and work on the house. Being late afternoon, he wouldn’t be worried overmuch about any noise from the saw or any of his equipment, and he needed to work for a while to get his head together.
First though, he sat on his bed and slit open the top of the shiny red envelope. She’d written the address in metallic ink. Her writing was all loops and swirls. He’d expected it to be precise, but it wasn’t. It was feminine and sexy.
A card came first. On the front, a photograph of a circular stairwell taken from the bottom. Light shafted against the gleam of the wood and the strength of the wrought-iron railing. He sat looking at it for a long while, felled that she got him in a way no one else did. Those curves and lines were beautiful and appealing to him in a way few would understand.
But she did.
Inside was a note.
I made you this playlist. Enter your e-mail address and it’ll load directly to your computer or iPod. It’s sort of a mixtape. Which makes me feel uncomfortably teenaged. And yet, they’re songs I have in my mental Andrew Copeland playlist.
I don’t have poetry like you do. I only know that I love how my sheets smell after you’ve been in my bed.
He held that card for the longest time, wishing she understood that she was poetry to him. Smiling because she made him a mixtape and because he loved it that his scent marked her sheets. He closed his eyes, imagining her rolling into the spot he’d been in, breathing in against his pillow. The way he did when she had been in his bed.
Inside the envelope he found a bird’s feather nestled in a folded sheet of brightly colored tissue paper.
He’d sent her a letter a week ago. She’d shyly told him how much she’d loved it, and it had made his day. It wasn’t that he expected her to reciprocate, but he was very glad she had. The paper smelled like her.
She was there, in his life. A constant in a wholly new way. A better way, because now he got to kiss her and touch her and see her naked. Her body was hot enough with clothes, but it was her insides he found so totally appealing. She wasn’t totally normal—who could be after what she’d endured? For that matter, he wasn’t either. But she was Ella, and she lived with an honesty he found awe-inspiring, so what was normality compared to that, anyway?
He grabbed his phone to call her but got her voice mail instead.
“It’s me. Wanna have dinner tonight? Thai takeout? Burgers? You decide. I’m at the house now. You can bring a bag if you’d like to stay over.”
He disconnected and changed from work clothes into ratty jeans and a T-shirt to work in, heading downstairs, whistling the whole time.
Ella parked in his driveway, and balancing the bag of takeout, she headed to his back door. She figured the least she could do, since she was not an ace at any of this carpentry stuff, was to bring fuel for him to continue his work.
Also, he invited her there. Invited her to stay the night like real couples did from time to time. This made her smile. Something about him going out of his way to be with her, to touch her or kiss her, drove her crazy. It had been a very long time since it had felt like someone wanted to make a relationship with her.
His door was unlocked as he said it would be when she’d checked in earlier. She headed into the kitchen to put the food down and hang up her coat and bag. He’d been working on the pocket doors fronting his home office. She could smell the oil he used and then stilled, standing in the hallway, on her way to seek him out. She knew that scent, which meant she’d been there enough to know it.
A giddy little thrill riding her spine, she turned the corner and saw him. The giddy went away as a hard shock of lust slammed into her.
He stood, slightly dusty, slightly sweaty and a whole lot work-rumpled as he ran his hands over the wood like a lover. A high casement window shafted pale sunlight over him, tinted just orange because the winter sun was setting. Dust motes danced around him, his hair gleaming.
But that wasn’t all.
He wore a pair of pale denim jeans, worn thin in the right places, nearly snow white against his thighs and at the bottom of his zipper. The hole on his thigh showed hard, olive skin, as the muscles moved while he did. His arms and chest were showcased to their advantage in the faded, thin cotton of the T-shirt.
He was a carpenter fantasy wet dream straight out of a dirty letter to a skin mag.
She simply watched him there, letting the desire in her build up, warming her until she needed to move, to speak or make a sound, because the ache of not really having him became too much.
“Hey,” she said, walking again, moving to him because there was no other place she could be.
His face lit when he saw her. His smile sexy-sweet.
“Hey, Red. I didn’t hear you come in. Don’t get too close, I’m a sweaty, dusty mess.”
“God, but I know.” All she could think about was getting him naked, so she did.
He lit up the moment she touched him, taking her in his arms and hauling her to his body roughly. His mouth met hers, her lips opening to him as he took over, his tongue sliding along hers.
She drowned in him and went willingly when he spun her, pressing her against the wall behind her. She moaned, and he paused for a moment. She realized he probably worried he’d hurt her or scared her. To underline just how her moan was the good kind, she pressed her hips forward, grinding into his cock.
“Christ, you’re so beautiful,” he managed to say after breaking the kiss. His nimble fingers had her sweater unbuttoned and had popped the catch on her bra before she could gather enough brain cells to speak. “These. I. Love. Your. Tits.”
She laughed, tipping her head back as he kissed his way down her neck, unerringly to her nipples. He was very good at that. If she could speak again, she’d tell him.
“Bedroom.” Pulling away from her, he began to tug her in the right direction. She stopped him, and he turned back to look at her. “I’d fuck you right here, right now, but I don’t want you to get hurt on any of the stuff I have out.”
“It’s my turn, and if you don’t fuck me right here and now, I might die.”
He stopped and took a deep breath, the blue of his eyes deepening. “Let me shower,” he said after backing her against the wall again. “I’ll be right back.”
She grabbed his belt buckle. “No way. Now.” In moments she had his pants open and down.
“I’m sweaty.” He meant it as a protest, but he just said it automatically. He clearly didn’t mean it, since he thrust into her grasp.
She smiled up at him as she got to her knees, having totally changed her mind about needing to be fucked that instant. He groaned when she pulled his cock free. “I know. You’re so hot. You’re sweaty and dusty and just all sexy and I”—she stopped, licking the head of his cock—“wanted you the instant I saw you, your hands on the wood, caressing it like you caress me.”
He paused, the intensity in his features changing to something else. His shirt was off in moments, and he moved around her, yanking his jeans down and then trying to get her sweater off.
“I was doing something!”
“I heartily approve of what you’re doing. But don’t kneel there on the hardwood. Let me get you into the other room on a pillow.”
She pushed his hands away and licked over the head of his cock, sucking it into her mouth slightly. “Sometimes a girl likes it a bit uncomfortable and dirty.” Which was true, but she’d surprised herself by saying it out loud.
Awesomely enough, she’d surprised him too, and it gave her an advantage as she went back to what she was doing. Something about making him feel good by going down on him really turned her on. Made her feel powerful in a totally new way.
The need he’d awakened inside had bloomed, sometimes overwhelming her. Usually when she was with him it hit her in a wave of heat and craving. She’d been emboldened just by being with him. What an odd and fantastic experience that had been.
The floor against her knees was just uncomfortable enough to keep her hyperalert; the scent of wood dust hung in the air around clean man sweat from a job well done. She breathed in deeply, loving it.
His groans made her wet, made her feel empty, achy. His taste wended through her, and she wanted more.
“Red, god, please, stop, stop, stop. I want to fuck you right here and now.” He pulled her to her feet. “Don’t move.” In two seconds he was back, rolling a condom on, and she’d managed to get a leg out of her jeans.
“Look at you. Mussed, lips swollen from my cock in your mouth,” he murmured as he came back to her and in one totally rock star move, had eased her weight up and then down onto his cock in one thrust.
Not knowing how it escaped, she couldn’t regret the half shout of pleasure at the shock of the invasion, of her body settling around his so easily, the way made slick already.
“Hot and wet. My favorite things on you.”
“Mmm.” She put her hands on his shoulders and levered herself up and then down again, rolling her hips as he began to thrust so hard her boobs bounced. Pleasure flooded her system as he fucked into her body.
Where she gripped his shoulders she could feel the tremble of his muscles. “Don’t hold back. I’m, oh god, I’m fine, and I want this. I want it all.”
He groaned, ragged, needy, and pressed deep and hard, his grip on her hips tightening, sending a wave of delicious sensation through her.
“I want every bit of you, Ella,” he ground out though a clenched jaw.
“I’m right here. Take me.” Each time he was with her, he showed her just how beautiful sex could be. He was the reason she’d been able to walk through that door and act on her desire in the first place.
He thrust harder and harder, driving her mad with sensation, but not quite enough. She hung on the edge of climax.
“Shh, lean toward me. Change your angle. Let me help you.”
She dragged her eyes open to find him looking at her, hunger stamped on his features. When she leaned forward, she knew immediately why he’d suggested it. The length of his cock brushed against her clit at this angle, providing the perfect amount of friction to shove her into climax with a surprised gasp.
“Christ,” he hissed as he held her, thrusting harder and harder until one last press deep, and he went to his knees, her legs still wrapped around his body.
Before she could disentangle herself, he stood again and took her into the bathroom connected to the master bedroom.
“You’re very strong.” She waggled her brows at him, and he laughed.
“You’re good for my workout. This is far more fun than lunges or running a few miles.”
“Your back might appreciate it if you put me down.”
He let go, and she slid off, kissing his neck, taking one last breath of him.
“You’re not heavy.” He kissed her as he pulled her jeans and panties all the way off. “Shower with me.”
“Okay.” What the heck? Why not?
He drew her into the huge, double-headed shower stall with him.
“Since you’re so dirty, let me soap you off.” She smirked and ran her hands all over his body, slick with soap.
He stood there, water sluicing over his muscles, over his tattoos and piercings, and never took his gaze from her. What surprised her so much was that his attentions never made her nervous. The way he looked at her made her warm inside. Made her feel confident and sexy.
“Best greeting ever.” He grinned and began to soap her up too. “You totally objectified me. It was awesome.”
She laughed, caught off guard. “I did. But never fear, I like you for your mind too.”
No one made him feel so fucking secure in himself. No one saw him the way she did. She tiptoed up to get his hair, and he ducked a little to help. Her fingers were strong and firm against his scalp, feeling so good he had to groan.
“I was a shampoo girl when I was in high school. For gas money.”
He laughed. “Feel free to practice on me anytime.”
Later, as they perched on his bed eating takeout, he leaned in and kissed her. “Thank you for the letter. I haven’t had anyone make me a mixtape in a very long time. What came over you, by the way?”
She expertly wielded her chopsticks, spearing a mushroom and popping it into her mouth. “You mean the letter or the way you looked like a dirty, dirty carpenter wet dream when I came in and then had to have you?”
“You’re a wonder to me. You know that?” He stole a spring roll from her plate, and she sent him an arched brow.
“I can’t be the first woman to see you all sweaty and work-mussed and have her hormones shoot into overdrive at the very sight.”
“The first woman who mattered. Yes.”
She smiled and ducked her head in the way he’d come to love seeing when it was sweet, not so much when it was from her embarrassment or shame over something from her past though.
“I missed you. You were there and you looked . . . God, I don’t know. Just all über manly and stuff. You touched the wood like you touch me. I love to watch you working.”
“I like it when you don’t hold back with me. Makes me feel like superman.”
She blushed. “You feel that way to me too.”
She knew just what to say.
“Did you bring a bag? Because I’m beginning to crave you in the middle of the night.”
“I did. Didn’t bother with pajamas as you only get annoyed when you have to wade through any clothing at all to get to me.”
“It’s your fault for being so irresistible.”
His cell phone rang. “Sorry, Red, it’s Ben’s ring. I need to get it.”