By the time Thaddeus arrived home, rain pounded the car roof in accompaniment to the pounding in his head. How, in God's name, he'd gotten strapped into taking care of blonde, on-the-run Katie Hansen was completely beyond his comprehension, but the message from his mother was quite clear. He was going to be stuck with the girl—woman, damn it—who made him dream of things that shouldn't be.
She was probably in his house right now, wreaking havoc on...something.
At eight years old, she had pulled every one of his paintings from his portfolio—okay, not a portfolio, but a very important senior year art thesis for his advanced placement class in high school.
God, he sounded like a pretentious prick. Ten years his junior, she couldn't have known to check the kitchen table for water before laying them out to admire.
He braked to a stop in front of his brownstone and glared at the beat up old Chevy—her truck in his parking spot. He'd won that spot in the neighborhood association lottery. He sighed, closed his eyes for a moment, put his practical sedan back into drive and pulled around the corner to the parking garage. This day just wouldn't end.
Rounding the corner back to his street on foot, he took the steps to his front door two at a time. He stopped short at the open door and frowned. “Hello?”
He pushed the door open. It creaked like the eighty-year-old fixture it was. “Katie?”
His voice bounced from the hardwood floors and paneled walls. She was supposed to be here. Glancing up the stairs, he rested his hand on the pineapple-shaped newel cap and stood still.
A soft rumbling snore came from the study. Crossing the hallway, he quietly pushed the sliding door into the wall. Despite keeping his distance, he had noticed her new height, the supple curves...the smart mouth. Her length barely fit the brown leather couch and bare feet poked out from beneath the fleece blanket. Not small feet, but pretty, with painted pink toes. His stomach clenched as the unwanted feelings of desire hit him hard.
“Hey,” she said.
His eyes flew to her wary gaze. He jack-knifed away from the door jamb and came to her side. “What the hell happened to your face?”
She touched the bruising that ran from her hairline to the lobe of her ear. And winced. “Jack ran to me and we bonked heads.”
“A two-year-old. Your nephew?”
Her laugh filled the room, successfully cutting the air from his lungs.
“We had our little run in at the playground.” She sat up and ran her hands nervously over her wrinkled slacks. She wouldn't meet his gaze. “Um, your mom insisted I come over, and I just didn't have the heart to resist.”
“Well, you left the door open.” He turned to the dry sink where he stored his liquor. He pulled a tumbler from the rack on the wall, poured himself some scotch and turned to her. Squelching lust might take a shot or two.
“What?” Her blank stare cut through his sympathy, reminding him that she just might still be an irresponsible girl.
“The front door was open when I got home.”
Her face paled as she scooted past him into the foyer. “Are you sure?” She swung the door open and looked out. “No. I wouldn't do that.” When her hands shook, he knew something was seriously wrong, knew, in an instant, that the bruising on her face hadn't come from playing with a two-year-old. He set down the empty tumbler.
“Have you been upstairs? Or back to the kitchen?” She ran a hand through her hair. “I'll check upstairs. You do the kitchen.”
He grabbed her arm—tone, lean muscle under his hand shocked him.
She didn't seem to notice his stupor and clasped him with both hands, one on his arm and the other at his waist. “After we look around, I'll go. You don't want me here anyway.”
He cleared his throat and loosened his tongue. Every muscle in his body tense. “You wanna tell me what you're running from?”
She backed up as if slapped. “No,” she said flatly. “I'm a big girl now, and I take care of myself.”
He had noticed. He pulled her close and noticed again. “Maybe my mother is right. You should stay here.”
She sputtered with tight lips, determination emanating from every pore. God, those lips. They were close enough to kiss.
She reared back. “Don't even think about it, Thaddeus Magree.” Katie's face flushed, her lips parted.
He was struck by a realization. “You still have a crush on me.”
Her eyes widened, and she snorted. “You are so full of yourself.”
With little show of his normal finesse, he melded their lips together. She made a sound of protest. He didn't even have to lower his head to have her. They fit together perfectly from head to toe. The girl she'd been yesterday was now his fantasy woman come true as she relaxed into his embrace.
He would be forty in five years, and she was just barely out of college.
It didn't seem to matter anymore. They'd played long enough, and he was through being a slave to his past. He wanted her, wanted the woman she'd become.
“Thaddeus.” Her throaty, desperate cry tipped his scales. He took the opening she'd given him and tasted her, tasted burgundy and fire. Her arms came around his neck.
He backed her into the wall, crushing every inch of her to him. She tipped her head back. His lips moved to her jaw and down the smooth slope of her neck. He should have known it would be like this. A burning ache in his soul to be the one—the one to protect her, to love her.
“Well, isn't this sweet.” A deep voice from behind him slammed into his libido.
He caught the startled look in Katie's eyes. “Oh crap.”