Vradin, Chapter Twenty-Six

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We had agreed that Jody and I would stay with Tank for a week and “reassess” after that. Jody decided that she wanted her space after six days without any sign of the creepy guys. Tank and I were a little too much involved in the whole bunny humping thing, and he encouraged me to bring over more and more of my things.

He even went so far as to clear a large section of his walk in closet and consolidated his bathroom toiletries so I would have space for “whatever” I wanted to put there.

When he did it all, it felt very much like a natural thing, just common sense. I did not even think twice about it until I came across him talking with Henry, one of the guys who acted as a courier between his house and the job sites.

“So, boss, is she a permanent fixture?” Henry asked.

I paused, not intending to eavesdrop, but, well, I wanted to hear the answer to that one, too, and I didn’t want to pressure Tank into any declarations this early on. A girl likes to be wanted for herself, you know, not just because she twists the screws while her fella is in the midst of heavy lustfulness.

“‘She’ being Zoe?” Tank asked, his voice very even and somewhat reserved, kind of like my dad, my uncle, and my cousin’s voices get when they feel they have been asked an inappropriate question and don’t think the person asking really understands the faux paux.

Henry said, “Yeah, is Zoe moving in with you?”

Tank took a moment to answer, and I could just picture him weighing Henry with the same kind of stern expression my uncle, especially Uncle Gary, gives to bravo young toughs to make them squirm. I guess my father has too many students who have similar looks to waste them where they won’t do any good. Uncle Gary, on the other hand, is around a lot of, as he affectionately calls them, “blow hard young idiots” most of his work day.

“We have not discussed that yet,” Tank finally said, his voice cool.

Henry must have been either exceptionally interested, or exceptionally oblivious. I mean, even without seeing Tank I knew he did not like the line of questions. But Henry persisted. “So, do you want her to move in here? I mean, there’s a lot of things that you handle that require discretion and all, and … well ….” I was guessing it was dawning on Henry that Tank did not like this topic because he just let whatever he was going to say trail off.

“Henry, one, you do not have the right to question my private life. Two, I am not some fucking dumb idiot ruled by my cajones. Hell, yes, I want Zoe to stay here, live here, and a large part of that is that she is, despite her relative inexperience, a level headed woman who fills my home with peace. We are still in the early stages of courtship, though, and you will not fuck this up for me. Is that understood?”

“Ayup, ulfgart,” Henry said, his voice pitched higher, more nervous than normal.

I moved as quietly as I could to the end of the hall and then walked back, trying to be much heavier footed in my steps. Tank and Henry were still engaged in silent eye-talks when I popped my head into the doorway into Tank’s study.

“Hey, guys, I was about to make some coffee. Do you want any?” I asked, my original purpose in approaching Tank.

Tank looked to me, and his face flowed from stern man-in-charge to amused man-in-charge. “Do you think you might have a wee bit of a coffee addiction, love?”

I shrugged, coming around to lean against the door jam. “Coffee is just a delish drink. Caramels coated in chocolate are an addiction. Huge difference.” And suddenly the thought of pouring warm caramel on Tank’s abdomen and licking it off, slowly, thoroughly, and with nibbling little nips at that beautiful part of his anatomy came to mind in full Technicolor glory. I felt my nose twitch and shifted on my feet, the now familiar stirrings of arousal tightening the nerve knot at the small of my back.

Both of the men blinked at me, and Tank gave me the heavy lidded look that said he was clearly picking up on my arousal and returning the interest with, well, interest.

“So, coffee?” I prompted.

“I would love some, but Henry is about to leave.”

“Okay,” I said. “I was thinking of mixing up some caramel sauce. Would you like some in your coffee?” I asked.

I swear, when that man gets horny his eyes damn near glow. His voice was down in the make-my-lady-parts-throb octave when he said, “That would be lovely.”

I licked my lips, managed not to squee with lust, and went back to the kitchen. I had to look up the recipe for caramel sauce on my tablet, the recipe that I could normally recite by route, because thoughts of Tank kept interfering with my brain function.

Caramel is essentially melted sugar, and caramel sauce is sugar melted into a cream, either heavy whipping cream or half and half, or sometimes whole milk. Most caramel candies are a very reduced, thick caramel sauce allowed to thicken and cool until semi-solid. Making caramel requires paying attention to what you’re doing, or you can over cook the sugar.

Have I mentioned I’m just a little in love with caramel?

Yeah, I was pouring the caramel sauce into a mason jar, having made it “thin” so it would be more liquid than solid (still very viscous). There was a little steam escaping, because, well, the sauce was fresh from the pot.

Tank’s arm slipped around me and he grabbed the handle of the pot. He wrapped his other hand around mine on the jar, steadying the jar because he had just made me jump nearly out of my skin.

“Dammit!” I yelped, some of the hot caramel hitting my hand despite his attempts to prevent that.

Tank, by the sheer greater strength he possessed, made me put the pan down and the jar, too, turned me around and licked the spilled caramel off the side of my hand. It was, at once both amazingly erotic and utterly infuriating.

“Damn it, Tank! Hasn’t anyone ever warned you about scaring people while they’re working in the kitchen?!” I snapped, flushed with the mixture of anger and arousal.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking up at me from his position bent over my hand. His voice was down in the range that vibrated my lady parts as he added, “Allow me to make it up to you.”

I pulled my hand away from him, just furious. Here he had scared me, and, okay, it was a minor burn. On it’s own, no big deal. But it could have been a lot worse, and the only thing he had needed to do to avoid it in the first place was just give me the space to finish what I was doing.

“You want to make it up to me?” I asked, snarling.

Tank blinked at me, clearly not expecting the anger. A frown puckered his forehead, and he cautiously took a step back and straightened up. “I honestly did not mean for any harm to come to you,” he said, his voice reflecting his new found caution.

“Then you should have given me the space to finish pouring off the caramel sauce,” I snapped back, turning my back on him and going to the sink. I started the cool water flowing, sticking my hand into the water flow. “Seriously, Tank, I am not some invalid little idiot who doesn’t know my limitations! Yeah, so what that I’ve been unwell? That doesn’t make me completely incapable of lifting a pan!”

The look on Tank’s face reminded me of a puppy dog smacked on the nose and trying to figure out why, which both did and did not help with the anger.

That he didn’t get why I was angry kicked the anger up a notch, but it also helped me to realize that I was actually a lot angrier about the whole thing than I should be, than I would normally be.

I started up my “In peace, out stress” mantra, and Tank was wise enough to give me room to calm down. When I felt sufficiently myself, I turned off the water and dried my hands. Then I finished pouring off the caramel and put the open jar in the fridge.

“The coffee is ready to brew,” I said, turning to look at Tank. “I need a little breathing room. I’m going to go for a drive, and I’ll probably spend the night at home. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, call me.”

Tank stepped in front of me as I headed for the door, his expression turning into genuine worry. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to be near you. I really didn’t think you’d get hurt, or I wouldn’t have done it. Please–”

I put my fingers to his lips, stopping his words. “It’s not that I got hurt. Hurt is whatever. There’s a lot that’s going on with us, and, Tank, you’re the closest I’ve come to a first boyfriend, even if we haven’t had the whole ‘let’s go steady’ convo. There’s a lot going on in my head right now about that and everything else in my life, too, and the fact that I got that angry that fast over what should have been a nothing, I need time to figure out what’s in my head. If I don’t know what it is, then I’m only going to keep having blow ups that make me feel like a freaking psycho, and that’s not good for either of us. So, I’m taking the time to figure it out. I really like you; I’m not saying good bye, or anything like that. Just, I need a moment to breath and figure out what’s going on.”

Tank looked at me with very serious, slightly wounded solemn puppy dog eyes, his hand coming up to wrap around my fingers on his lips. After a moment, he kissed the palm of my hand and said, “I would really appreciate it if you took someone with you. We don’t know what happened to the creepy guys.”

I made a face, and said, “Compromise: I’m going to drive up Mount Rainier and back. I should be home in four hours. I will text you when I get to the national park gates – that’ll be two, two and a half hours out – and when I get home, about as long as it takes to get to the gates.”

“I would feel a lot more comfortable about your safety if you had a ride along,” Tank insisted.

I frowned and took back my hand, feeling the anger swelling up again. After a deep breath, I said, “If I have a passenger then I don’t have thinking time. No. And don’t follow me, or ask someone else to follow me, either. I’m serious about needing breathing space.”

A muscle twitched in Tank’s jaw, but he said, “Text me any time your car stops moving.”

I arched an eyebrow and said, “I am not getting a texting ticket because of red lights. If I stop for gas, or something where I turn the motor off, okay, I’ll text you when I stop and when I’m back on the road. But you should only plan on hearing from me at the gate and at home. The Beast has a huge gas tank.”

Tank nodded and leaned down, kissing me before he stepped out of my way. “Be safe,” he admonished me.

“I promise,” I said.