Her heart thudded hard in her breast. She knew immediately who addressed her. Since Ruby’s collaring he seemed ever at Diane’s elbow whether it be at the grocers, at AJ and Ruby’s, at the theater. Donnal.
It was pointless, she admitted to herself. His interest could only be transitory for despite the fact that she found him fascinating –from his sable thick hair and laughing, coffee-dark eyes to the breadth of his shoulders- she knew it would not be possible to hold him.
Shorter than Donnal by 5-6 inches, she had green eyes and straight brown hair cut short. But her figure…Diane despaired over her figure. Gravity and time had done unspeakable things and though she now spent religious hours in the gym, it was slow work, discouraging work.
Plastering a smile on her face though she had rarely felt less joyful, Diane spun on her heel. Donnal stood close, much closer than she had anticipated but she refused to step back. With a tilt of her chin, she looked into his amused gaze.
“Donnal, we hafta stop meeting like this.” She injected wry humor into her voice.
“Say the word, then.” Something quick and hot flashed in his eyes that had Diane swallowing hard, her grin wavering. “Name the day, Diane-love.”
Temper and hurt stole her grin. It was cruel of him to tease her in this way.
“What if the word is ‘never’?”
“Say it,” all humor evaporated as he invited her flatly, “look me in the eye, say that word and I will go.”
And he would, too. She read it clearly in his face, his stance. If she said the word, he would leave her alone for good. Intolerable thought.
“Saturday.” It popped out against her better judgment and she blinked in surprise.
“Done.” He said with a grin and pinched her chin between his fingers. “Courage, pet, it will be alright.”
“What am I? A cat?”
His right eyebrow shot up and his eyes sparkled with wicked humor. “Shall I stroke you and find out?”
She backed up this time, laughing and not incidentally pulling her chin from his grasp. “I scratch,” she warned.
“Serve you right if I did.” Diane shifted uneasily, convinced that he knew to a hair’s breadth his effect on her.
“Saturday, 1PM. I’ll pick you up.” He laughed and departed.
A moth, she thought despairingly as she watched him leave, she was a moth to his flame and not a cat at all.
By Saturday, she had changed her mind; she was a cat. Anticipation turned her cat-twitchy. She paced catlike. Diane acknowledged ruefully when she caught herself hyperventilating that Donnal affected her as no other man.
He was Dangerous, with a capital “D.” She rolled her eyes and took herself to task for thinking in capital letters.
It was her doom, Diane decided grimly moments later as she breathed into a paper bag, to be at her worst whenever Donnal showed up. She winced inwardly as he parked his car and sauntered up the walk to her house, pausing at the bottom of her porch steps to absorb the scene before him.
Item: woman of indeterminate years dressed in indigo cotton walking shorts and pale blue sleeveless blouse sitting on the top step.
Item: small brown paper bag clutched in her left hand.
Item: woman breathes into said paper bag while glaring defiantly at the man grinning appreciatively at her.
“Stressful morning, little cat?”
“You’re early,” she accused, lowering the sack.
He came up the steps chuckling and sat next to her. Diane’s heart rate spiked and she hastily resumed breathing into the bag. God! She could feel his heat seeping into her; she could smell the seductive combination of soap, fresh clothes, shaving lotion and his clean skin. She thought it was the sexiest scent ever.
“Trembling? For me?”
Until he pointed it out, Diane had not realized that she was shaking like a feather in the wind. She half hoped that Donnal would think her such a basket case he would give up his pursuit as a bad job.
“Actually,” she lifted her face from the bag to retort, “I just saw my latest power bill.”
“Know what you mean,” he said without missing a beat, “I think it’s time utility companies paid us to take the power off their hands, don’t you?”
As he spoke, Donnal slid his arm around her shoulders and urged her to lean against him in an easy intimacy that Diane resisted. She opened her mouth to tell him she had changed her mind about the date.
“You’ll try to back out now, hmmm?”
She snapped her mouth shut with such force that her teeth clicked audibly. He had to be guessing! The thought that he might know her so well after so short a time appalled her.
“Bugger,” she said.
Donnal threw back his head and laughed. His laughter was purely male, rich and infectious, and it drew the corners of her lips upward in a reluctant grin. She liked the way his amusement resonated in his chest and the way his arm tightened automatically around her as though he wanted her closer, to join in his mirth.
“Why are you doing this?” It popped out unbidden.
“You know why,” he retorted and then sighed, “and you are going to fight me every inch of the way, aren’t you?”
“I can’t let you win.”
“And I cannot let you lose.” Tenderness laced his voice and he nuzzled her silky dark hair. “Don’t worry, little cat. I love a good battle.”
If that was supposed to reassure her, it failed miserably. She buried her face in the bag and inhaled deeply.
Donnal drove her to his farm for an afternoon picnic. AJ and Ruby had already arrived. While the two men fired up the grill, Diane joined her friend in the kitchen. She put together a salad while Ruby laced marinated pork onto bamboo skewers.
After a few moments’ companionable small talk, Diane took a deep breath and asked, “Ruby, are you ever afraid of AJ?”
Ruby looked up from her task and regarded her friend a long, thoughtful moment. “I think it’s impossible for fear and deep trust to co-exist. I trust AJ with my life.”
“Even when he hurts you?”
“AJ is more careful with me than you know,” she said mildly. “Why don’t you ask me the real question, Diane?”
Diane blushed and muttered, “I thought I had.”
“You don’t fear Donnal, my friend. You fear the way he makes you feel. You are afraid to trust him because deep down, you are afraid you will be hurt. What you want to know is whether Donnal is worthy of your trust.”
Ruby, Diane acknowledged with a certain grim amusement, was bang on the mark.
“Is Donnal trustworthy?”
Ruby washed her hands and gave her friend a warm hug.
“I find him so. And I will tell you this: AJ says he has never seen his brother more single-minded or more determined to succeed.”
Diane’s heart thumped painfully in her breast as she sighed. “I’m not sure I wanted to know that.”
Ruby chuckled and squeezed her affectionately once more. “Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?” she asked as she returned to skewering pork.
“That I take the risk, fall in love with Donnal and he leaves me.”
“Really?” Ruby piled the pork skewers onto a platter and went to the door leading to an outside deck. “I would have said that the worst would be to not take the chance and in consequence, miss finding the love of your life.”
“Oh, I get it,” Diane snorted and, carrying her bowl of salad, followed Ruby out the door. “Better to be sorry than safe, huh? Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Ruby chuckled. “Better to take a chance than to hide from life,” she amended.
AJ took the platter and set it on the table near the grill.
“Who’s hiding then?” he asked Ruby with a grin, brushing his knuckles along her cheek in an affectionate caress. She smiled up at him and for the first time Diane understood – really understood – what Ruby meant. Adoration and absolute trust glowed in her friend’s face as she gazed at AJ.
“Just girl talk.”
Diane was not surprised to find Donnal’s gaze on her when her eyes flicked his way. The similarities and the contrasts between the brothers as they stood side-by-side caught her attention at once.
Their shared blood was evident in the line of jaw and shape of head. They echoed each other, too, in their stance – a kind of loose limbed alertness – and in the way amusement tilted each head in the same way so that laughter crinkled the corners of their eyes before moving down to curve their lips.
The contrasts between them seemed therefore more pronounced, as though thrown into relief by their close resemblance.
AJ shaped his conversation with his hands, punctuated with a gesture, a flick of his wrist, a slash of his fingers. His hands were rarely still. As often as not, one or both hands rested on Ruby.
With a pang, Diane realized that AJ used such touches to reassure her friend as well as to remind her of his control. He had big hands. In fact everything about him was big. She had once told Ruby that AJ was the prototypical dominant male but in truth, his size intimidated her.
Donnal, on the other hand, was built on less massive lines and stood a half-foot shorter than AJ’s six foot four inches. There was an ease in the way Donnal held himself, a bone-deep comfort in his own skin that said he knew exactly who he was. This man not only knew his own strengths and weaknesses, but accepted them unapologetically.
His air of barely suppressed amusement grated on her nerves, put up her back. It was as though Donnal found everyday life diverting, a personal entertainment, a source of never-ending merriment. In a flash of insight, Diane realized that part of his ready amusement stemmed from a clear-eyed ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of others along with their self-deceptions.
Diane sighed in embarrassed recollection of just how much she had unwittingly amused him earlier that very day.
“A penny,” Donnal said, “for your thoughts.”
Not bloody likely! Diane sought purely to distract him. “AJ’s so much taller—“
AJ raised a brow and smirked at his brother.
“AJ got the tall genes,” Donnal drawled, “I got the smart ones.”
Diane grinned despite herself as AJ snorted and rolled his eyes.
It was only later, as they were eating, that realization hit Diane so hard she froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. The sheer depth of Donnal’s planning took her breath away. What -on the face of it- appeared to be an innocent afternoon get-together with friends and family was in reality something else altogether.
In point of fact, it was a carefully calculated exposure to dominance and submission. She had no doubt it was deliberate. And it had worked too,dammit! Diane had watched Ruby and by association, AJ, rather closely over the course of the afternoon. It was clear that Ruby’s unswerving focus was AJ. While she laughed and chatted with everyone, she always, always kept a part of her attention on AJ and anticipated his needs.
So natural was Ruby in her care of AJ that it was seamless: refilling his glass before it was quite empty, fetching a towel so he could dry his hands, offering him a second helping of salad. In a gesture Diane was convinced Ruby had no idea how often she made, her friend ran her fingers over the black and silver collar she wore. Diane also observed AJ stroke his thumb along the metal once or twice and had seen Ruby’s softly glowing pride in his possessive display.
One could argue for mental telepathy, watching them. With a pang she realized that the shared glances and intimate smiles between AJ and Ruby demonstrated a mutual radar, only Diane was pretty sure, that they called it ‘love.’
As she carefully returned her fork to her plate, Diane mentally saluted Donnal’s cleverness. She wanted what Ruby and AJ had. She longed for it and feared it, too. Ruby gave herself completely to AJ, gloried in her submission and reveled in his dominance. It was clearly to AJ’s benefit. But what of Ruby?
Such absolute surrender, the mere thought of trusting another person that much, flatly scared the bejeezus out of Diane. She was NOT Ruby. If that’s what Donnal wanted from her, they were both doomed to disappointment. Of course, Diane grudgingly admitted, AJ obviously adored Ruby. It would be thrilling to be adored, wouldn’t it?
It was inevitable, she supposed, raising her eyes, that his gaze rested unsmilingly on her. Donnal had his own kind of radar where she was concerned and that, more than anything else she had learned today, filled her with trepidation.
He saw and understood in a blink her newly acquired knowledge, her awareness of his purpose and his eyes flooded with heat. Her chin went up and she gave him the barest contrary shake of her head. She could not be Ruby and refused to try.
Diane groaned inwardly when his response was a slow sexy grin. Too late she remembered that Donnal liked a challenge.
In the car on the way home from Donnal’s, Ruby said, “You were correct, Sir. Diane did try to deflect Donnal. She used humor and indifference and physical distance. But he only let her go so far before he…”
“Retrieved her.” AJ interjected with a grin. “I noticed that, too.”
“Then he kept his hands on her…usually at least one hand on her lower back. She doesn’t know that it’s a claiming gesture.”
“She knows.” AJ countered. Ruby tilted her head in thought.
“He’s accustoming her to his touch, isn’t he, Sir?”
AJ nodded and slid his fingers through her silky soft hair. “Skittish creatures, submissives.”
“Now what?” Diane asked somewhat belligerently as AJ’s car disappeared down the drive.
Donnal leaned back against the deck railing, his feet crossed at the ankles and hands shoved deep in the pockets of his jeans. He wore a black T-shirt that should have been X-rated simply for the fact that the way it stretched over his chest made her mouth water and short-circuited her circulatory system.
His dark gaze rested on her in a steady male assessment that jerked her heart hard and gave birth to a rising carnal panic.
She put up her chin. “I am not your dog.”
His right brow flicked up and the humor that flooded his gaze did nothing to reassure and everything to ratchet up her female panic.
Slowly, he removed his hands from his pockets and straightened. She could have run, should have run, but ruefully admitted to too much reckless bravado to do it. Donnal caught her arms just above the elbow and tugged her close, until her hands splayed across his scrumptious chest and she blinked up at him.
“I don’t want a dog.” he assured her, lacing his hands in the small of her back and trapping her against his heat, pulling her between his legs. It was not a fair tactic, when being this close to him fanned her need to yowl at the moon, or failing that, melt into a puddle.
She reacted viscerally to him. Female to his male. Scared witless, she could only stand in his embrace holding her breath as his mouth came closer and closer. He put his lips against her ear and told her in a laughter-laced whisper,
“I want a cat.”
Then he bit her earlobe. Hard. Enough to make her yelp and wrench back, knocked out of her mesmerized fascination by the shock of his teeth.
“You want a Ruby!” Diane flung at him, straining to break his hold.
“Ruby is just right for my brother and all wrong for me.” He held her with an ease that turned her panic to fury.
“You want me to submit!”
“Of course, and you will, you know. That’s why you’re half panicked. It will be ok, Diane. I won’t hurt you.”
His tone made her think of crooning, a slow, deep, male kind of purr that shivered up her back making it hard to swallow, to breathe. Bloody hell, the man could make a fortune if he bottled that tone and sold it as ‘Imminent Sin.’
When he dipped his head to taste and nibble at her neck, Diane groaned with the pleasure, her anger dissolving into carnal bliss. She wanted this, wanted him. Even knowing it couldn’t last, she wanted the memory of it. In that moment, she decided to have an affair, to accept what he wanted to give, to guard her heart and sleep with him. Hopefully within the next ten minutes if not sooner.
Donnal stroked his thumb over her jaw and smiled at her, his self-assurance such that she experienced an entirely contrary feminine desire to shake him, to surprise him.
“Sweet cat,” he said as he kissed his way along her jaw, “purr for me.”
She turned her head and nipped at him. When he reared back in surprise, she broke free leapt the two steps off the deck to the ground and grinned as he stood there rubbing his neck.
“I’d rather bite.”
Diane was very sure, as she watched the purely male heat flood through Donnal, that she had made a tactical error. Backing away with her hands up before her, palms out in a universal gesture of ‘slow down, wait a minute,’ her smile wavered.
Donnal took a step towards her, then another, his eyes locked on hers and his movement fluid, deliberate. He let her see her fate...the male determination to possess, to take, to hold. She gave a squeak of pure feminine terror, turned and fled.
As she ran through the orchard where Ruby had received her collar, Diane forgot all about her decision to offer her body to Donnal for a night to remember. She forgot about her attraction. She forgot where the car was. She forgot her own name. So deep was her panic and desire to flee that male claim, she forgot everything but the need to run.
After a few moments of blurred rushing terror, she caught her toe on a tree root and sprawled headlong in the grass at the orchard’s edge. The shock of falling kick-started her higher brain function. This is bloody ridiculous! Diane thought as she rolled onto her back and sought to calm her racing heart by taking a mental inventory.
Elbows - check Hands - she sniffed the strong odor of grass scent and didn’t bother to look. Grass stained. Knees - stinging, grass stained too, no doubt. Feet -
“Are you all right?” Donnal interrupted her inventory and she looked up.
Although his tone was one of concern, his mouth displayed what she considered to be a deplorable tendency to curve in the beginnings of a smile as he stood looking down at her disheveled form. The jerk.
She glared at him.
“Chuffing wonderful!” She spat, fisting her hands in the tall grass.
The jerk chuckled. Mortified, she squeezed her eyes shut.Dammit, she groaned inwardly and struggled hard to hold onto her anger and embarrassment. Something about Donnal’s laughter disarmed her every time.
“Come on,” he said.
She cracked an eye open and saw an outstretched hand.
“Let’s clean you up a bit.”
Diane glanced suspiciously into his face, assessing his determined innocence for a long moment before giving a philosophical shrug. ‘Elegance’ had never been her middle name. So sue me, she thought and took his hand.
Donnal drew her upright with a smooth, steady pull that gave her delicious shivers at the display of controlled strength. Once she was upright, he retained her hand and started off, pulling her along willy nilly.
“Where are we going?”
For the first time, she noticed that a barn stood on the edge of the clearing.
“I’ll want to see your Red Cross card.”
His fingers tightened on hers and he threw her a laughing look over his shoulder as he unlocked the barn’s side door.
“It’s in a very safe place.”
“I’ll bet.” she muttered and stepped through the door into the darkened interior of the barn.
It didn’t smell like a barn, was her first thought. No dusty hay smell. No pungent animal smell. Then Donnal flipped the light switch and tugged her towards a long wooden counter set with a deep stone sink.
“Here.” He put his hands on her waist and lifted her onto the counter. While she sat gasping at the ease with which he had lifted her, Donnal turned the water on and hunted through drawers until he came up with a clean cloth.