* * * * *
Belle tried to ignore what Grant’s mere presence did to her, but it was hard. She couldn’t believe her sexy neighbor with shoulders so broad she wanted to nip, kiss and lick her way across them, had stayed the night to protect her and cooked her breakfast. In her giant family, the women were always expected to cook and serve the males and all that annoying stuff. It was maddening and was probably why she’d resisted learning everything her mother had wanted to teach her, namely cooking. She knew she drove her mother, grandmother and aunts crazy because of it. Just like she’d driven them crazy when she’d decided to go to nursing school. They’d all just expected her to skip college and work in one of her family’s many businesses. While she loved her relatives dearly she’d needed something that was all hers.
Not to mention she loved her job. Working with babies all day was a dream come true. She could work with all that cuteness, but not actually deal with a baby or kids at home. She wanted one someday but she was still enjoying her youth. Of course no job was perfect. Some days were depressing as hell, but the good definitely outweighed the bad. Sort of like this morning. She should be reeling from the attempted break in—and she sort of was—but all she could seem to focus on was images of Grant naked. Or what she imagined he would look like. The feel of his erection just minutes before had her coming up with all sorts of goodness.
As soon as he shut his phone, she shoved those images aside. “What’s going on?”
“Well, Paulos Balis,” Grant said the man’s name with barely concealed disgust, “has an alibi. Don’t know how strong it is, but supposedly he stayed the night at his parents and his mother was up late enough to allegedly know he was home around the time someone was breaking into your home.”
Belle jumped at the sound of her house phone ringing. It was in the receiver on the wall by the fridge. “Hold on.” She glanced at the caller ID. Her mother. Yeah, Belle had known that was coming. Now that Paulos had been questioned by the police, she had a feeling she’d be getting an unexpected visit soon. Probably from half her family. Just great. Turning the ringer off, she ignored it and sat back down. “What else did he say?”
“No break-ins in the area recently and basically no leads.” Grant grimaced, as if was his fault.
She rubbed a hand over her face, trying to digest everything and ignore the fact that her mother would be by shortly. Hell, probably her brothers too. And she so didn’t need to be here for that. “When are your guys coming to install that security system?”
His eyebrows rose and something like victory flashed across his face. She knew she shouldn’t give in to him, but she’d be paying him back for it. She didn’t know how, but she definitely would. At the moment, she didn’t want to argue with anyone. She just wanted to get the hell out of her house in case her mother made a surprise visit.
“About noon,” Grant said.
That gave her a few hours. “I need to run some errands, stop by a furniture store, the grocery store and—”
“I’ll go with you.”
She blinked once, surprised. “That’s not necessary.”
“I know. Maybe I just want to spend time with you.” He turned the stove back on, but shot her an unreadable look over his shoulder before turning back to the uncooked eggs.
“No one likes furniture or grocery shopping.” And in her experience, especially men.
He just shrugged those impossibly broad shoulders and she knew insisting she wanted to go by herself was an argument she’d lose. The truth was, the thought of spending the morning with Grant was wildly appealing. So much so, she was starting to worry a little about what she’d gotten herself into.
Belle peered out the window of Grant’s kitchen into his expansive backyard. His giant pool glistened under the afternoon sun. Sparkly and oh so cool. It practically beckoned to her. Florida was notoriously humid and even though they lived near the Atlantic, sometimes the heat was smothering. Of course she was inside where the air conditioning was blessedly running overtime, but she wanted to test out his pool in a bad way.
After hours of shopping—and spending way too much of her savings on furniture and kitchen stuff—she and Grant had returned home to find men waiting for her to let them in to install her brand new security system. They were still next door covering all her doors and windows with sensors, even the ones upstairs, which seemed a little excessive, but Grant had been insistent. She’d tried broaching the subject of paying him again but he’d been completely dismissive. If her sexy neighbor hadn’t been such a good shopping companion all morning she might have pushed him a little harder. But the thought of arguing with Grant left her feeling cold.
So now she was stuck inside Grant’s house because he’d been called away by one of his brothers. Some family emergency that he hadn’t wanted to talk about. But his grave expression had told her that family was the only thing that would have taken him away. She appreciated everything he was doing for her even if it did make her feel a little uncomfortable, but she just wanted to go home.
Some random guy had tried to break into her house. It wasn’t as if she had a stalker or anything. The more time that passed the better she felt about the whole situation. Yes, it still freaked her out that someone had wanted to rob her or possibly worse. And she was thankful for the new sense of security, but it wasn’t necessary to stay cooped up in Grant’s house in broad daylight until he returned home. That was definitely overkill and if she let this man start running roughshod over her now it would never end. It’s not like they were even in a relationship, but she could envision that as a possibility, and she couldn’t let him make decisions for her.
She’d only recently stood up to her own family. With so many health and heart problems growing up, she understood why they’d been so over-protective but at twenty-four, it had been time to move out. At first her mother had been horrified—and though she wouldn’t admit it, secretly impressed when Belle had put a big down payment on her new house with her own money—but eventually her mom and the rest of the family had come around. It wasn’t like they could keep her a freaking prisoner.
Which was sort of how she felt now. Being trapped in this strange house brought up too many familiar negative feelings. Giving the pool a longing look, she made a decision. She hurried next door and politely announced her presence to the men working, and tried not to stare at the man with the mohawk, piercings and numerous tattoos because if he worked for Red Stone and Grant trusted him, then she would too. He didn’t give her the creeps, he was just visually intimidating as hell and she’d had a rough enough night.
After packing a small bag with her bathing suit, sunscreen lotion and a change of clothes, she headed back to Grant’s. She was still doing what he said, but getting in a few laps and stretching her legs couldn’t harm anything. It was the middle of the day and she had full visibility of his entire backyard. Unlike hers with tons of bushes and places to hide, his was wide open.
She quickly changed into her checkered green and blue two-piece bathing suit then pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail. The moment she descended the short set of stairs into the shallow end, she pushed out a sigh of relief. The cool water lapped against her bare legs, then stomach until she fully immersed herself. Yeah, this was exactly what she’d been craving.
Doing the breast stroke, she cut through the water with even, steady strokes, hitting the wall at the deep end, then returning to the shallow end. Over and over, she kept swimming until her muscles burned.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been in the pool but the warm sun beating on her back and her tired body told her it was time to get out. As she reached the wall in the deep end, she was ready to push off for her last lap when she glimpsed a masked figure in her line of sight. She blinked trying to get the water out of her eyes when strong hands shoved her under.
Belle tried to suck in a breath but pulled in water, burning her nose and throat. Choking and thrashing around, she grasped at the forearms of the man holding her under water. And there was no doubt it was a man. His hands were really strong and holy shit, she was going to die. The thought registered clearly in her fogged mind.
She kicked out her legs but wasn’t close to reaching the bottom. Terror burst inside her as she continued to struggle. A raw kind of fear slithered into her bloodstream. Her toes connected with the wall, the pain jarring her straight to her bones.
Reaching up she grasped onto the man’s forearm and raked her fingers down his skin. She could feel his entire body jolt at that. She inwardly cheered that she’d injured him.
One of his hands loosened. Before she could strike again, she was jerked above the surface. Sucking in a breath, she struggled to see her attacker but a hard fist connected with her jaw. A kaleidoscope of colors burst behind her eyelids as pain ricocheted through her.
Everything went fuzzy, but at least she could breathe. Then she was once again submerged into the cool depths. She tried to scratch him again but he kept pushing her down farther and farther. She couldn’t get a grip on him, the wall, nothing.
Despair welled inside her as she began losing consciousness. She fought it, her brain screaming at her to hang on, fight harder, but she couldn’t breathe. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been submerged but her lungs burned and ached with pressure. With the desperate need for oxygen.
Darkness edged her vision and her eyes slowly drifted shut. The hands on her shoulders loosened and she started sinking. Deeper, deeper, her body floated weightless. Then a sharp tug on her arm jerked her back closer to consciousness but she couldn’t open her eyes.
She was being propelled upward. In the distance she heard a man shouting. At her? She couldn’t tell. There was another male voice. This one sounded like it was coming from a tunnel.
Someone opened her mouth and put their lips over hers. The rush of air into her lungs had her gasping for breath. Despite feeling like sandbags weighed on her eyelids she cracked her eyes open.