Grace Under Pressure
Get the 15th Anniversary Edition with a new epilogue set 15 years after Ren and Grace’s HEA!
Excitement, danger, and falling for the man of her dreams all have Grace under pressure.
Small town college professor Grace Michaels’ normally boring life has become more than a sane woman can handle. First, her ex-finance shows up in town, then her parents park their RV in front of her house. It makes it kind of difficult to seduce her sexy new neighbor, Sheriff Ren Morello. Of course, having her office and home burglarized isn’t great either, but it does put her up close and personal with Ren.
Ren wants nothing to do with Grace. So what if he can’t seem to stop thinking about her? She is a woman who would demand commitment and after his nasty divorce from his cheating ex-wife, Ren wants nothing to do with marriage. All he wants is hard fast sex. The problem is, the only woman he can picture it with is Grace.
When the threats to Grace turn almost deadly, Ren finds himself in her company more often than not, and keeping his hands off her becomes impossible. But as the danger grows closer, the attraction grows deeper, and Grace must choose between protecting her heart or her life.
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Grace Under Pressure
Grace Under Pressure
Grace Michaels closed her eyes as she listened to her best friend giggle uncontrollably over the phone.
“It’s not that funny.”
“Oh, yes it is. What did you say to your class after you substituted the word erection for election?” Julia asked between snorts.
When Grace had awoken thirty minutes late that morning, the sun burning holes through her eyelids because she’d forgotten to close the blinds, Grace had known it wasn’t going to be a good day. When she sprayed the hairspray under her arm, then deodorant on her hair, she figured things couldn’t get much worse.
“First of all, I did not substitute the word,” she said. “You make it sound as if I did it on purpose. It’s not my goal in life to embarrass myself in front of a classroom full of college freshmen.” A classroom of freshman that happened to include Chad Albert, the college president’s son. The muffled sounds she heard over the phone made her suspicious. “Stop laughing!”
“I’m sorry, Grace. I really didn’t mean to laugh, but you have to admit it’s funny.”
“I will do no such thing.” She winced at the prim sound of her voice.
She had noticed that spinsterish tone creeping in more often over the last couple years. If she wasn’t careful, she was going to end up adopting twenty cats and yelling at kids who stepped on her lawn. “It was just so humiliating. Thank the Lord it was close enough to the end of class that I could just dismiss them. Unfortunately, I have to give the same lecture to my five-thirty class.”
“Just block out the memory,” Julia suggested. “You know, like you did when you had that unfortunate incident at graduation.”
Grace lowered her head and pounded it on the desk. There were a lot of things that she loved about living and working in the same small college town in which she spent most of her life—the familiar faces, the regular routine, and the security. The fact that almost everyone she knew had attended her high school graduation and witnessed her valedictorian walk up to the stage, with her dress and gown stuffed in her pantyhose, was not one of them.
She just wished she had worn underwear that day.
“I’d have no problem forgetting about graduation, if everyone else would let me,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “Why do you bring it up every time I do something like this?”
“Ah, come on, Grace. I was just kidding. Why don’t I make it up to you? Dinner, my treat.”
“I can’t. I told you I have a five-thirty lecture.”
“Yeah, the erection lecture.”
“I’m just joking.”
“Well,” Grace said. “I need to get going. I have to go over to Mom and Dad’s house and give the keys to their new tenant.”
“Okay, but I owe you dinner. How about tomorrow?”
“Sounds good.” She looked at her date book and groaned when she saw her Friday night schedule. “Oh, no, I can’t do that. Dr. Peterson is having some dinner thing at his house tomorrow night. How about Saturday?”
“That’s a deal. But, you could always blow off Pesky Peterson and come over here.”
“Nope. Peterson has some big announcement tomorrow night. Gotta be there for that.”
With the Beatles blaring on her speakers, Grace drove to her parents’ house, which was located about ten minutes from the college and across the street from her own house. She drew in a deep breath, enjoying the crisp fall scents that drifted through her open window.
She parked her 1968 restored convertible Bug in her parent’s driveway. Pristine and neat, it was like all the little homes in the neighborhood, though each possessed its own identity. She loved everything about it, from the familiar creaks in the floor to the wraparound porch.
A hedge of bushes lined the passenger side of the driveway, but the opposite, identical row had been destroyed by one too many renters trampling on them. A warm wind whipped around her face. She cursed when it tugged at her curls, no doubt pulling a few from the bun into which she had struggled to imprison them. Knowing it would do no good to fight them, she gave a mental shrug and walked up the path to the front porch.
It was a two-story farm house, with white aluminum siding, which replaced the once wooden slats she and her brother, Gabriel, used to curse each time they’d had to help paint them. The no-nonsense black trim contrasted with the brightness of the white siding. A massive wraparound porch that had once been filled with potted ferns and impatiens, a couple of rocking chairs and a swing, was now bare except for a few dried leaves and one coffee cup.
Four cement steps led up to the porch, elevating it and allowing for a flowerbed with a hedge of Texas sage lining either side.
She eyed the cup again and judged the distance. It sat on the edge and would be just as easy to grab from where she stood as to go up on the porch. Bracing herself on the bottom edge of the porch, she leaned over the soft blue-green leaves of the Texas sage to grab it, balancing on one foot. She had the damn thing within her reach when her left foot slipped. Losing her grip, she tumbled head first into the bushes. Hands out in front of her, she landed on the hard ground, her palms taking the brunt of the fall. Several branches lashed her face, and a small rock bit into one of her hands. She lifted them, inspecting them for scrapes and cuts while balancing on her elbows, her rear end slightly elevated because her knees had landed on the pavement. She wiped away the dirt, finding no serious cuts.
She hoped no one witnessed her lying with her backside sticking up in the air. Knowing her luck though, the Board of Regents from the university was probably lined up behind her.
“I always heard that Texas was a friendly state,” said an amused male voice. “I just didn’t realize how friendly.”
Ren Morello watched Grace push herself out of the tangle of bushes, try to straighten her ugly, brown, shapeless suit and turn to face him. At least, he assumed this was his new landlady. It was a real shame she was wearing that suit. The stiff tweed material resembled the color of mud, which did nothing for the woman.
Once she stood, the material fell away from her curves giving her an almost boxy appearance. From the view he had walking up the path, he was pretty sure there was a nice rounded ass beneath it.
Her skirt was twisted and hiked up a few inches, revealing a lacy slip and a hole in her hose. He watched her try to pull her unruly red hair back into the neat little bun on her head. A sprinkling of freckles ran across her nose, along with a few scratches from some of the branches. When she finally looked him in the eye, he noticed that, unlike her mother, who had sky-blue eyes, Grace possessed eyes the color of whiskey, lightened by golden flecks. They turned up slightly at the corners, giving him the impression of something definitely feline.
“I take it that you are Ren Morello,” she said in a slightly husky voice that vibrated down his spine. “What am I saying? Of course you are. That would be about par for the day.” She raised her hands again, a nervous gesture, trying to pull her dark red curls under control.
“Ren Morello,” he said, offering his hand to shake.
“Grace Michaels.” She stepped forward and firmly shook his hand.
She plastered on a professional smile that did nothing to diminish the fullness of her lips. They were as lush as the rest of her body. Only a smudge of lipstick on the upper lip marked them—the rest looked as if she had eaten it off, worrying. “I assure you I am a lot more professional than I appear at the moment.”
“Oh,” he said, his lips curving slightly. “You look professional enough to me.”
Her face reddened, those lips flattening into a straight line and he thought he heard her mutter. “A professional what?”
She said nothing for a few moments and the awkward silence lengthened. Then she shook her head as if trying to clear it.
“I assume you want a walk-through?” she asked, as she turned and started to walk up the stairs.
He followed her onto the wraparound porch, watching the natural sway of her hips as she climbed the steps. Damn, but she was sexy. Grace Michaels had a figure that reminded him of Marilyn Monroe or Rosalind Russell.
Although the suit was almost asexual in its design, he had a fantastic view of that ass with the rough brown material stretched tight across it. He had also seen one shapely leg when her skirt had hiked up. He glanced down at those legs, covered by her skirt, thinking it had been a long time since he’d slipped his hand up a skirt to caress the soft skin behind a woman’s knee. He shook his head to clear it, wondering what the hell he was thinking.
She wasn’t his usual sort of woman. He tended to date women who were lean and hard. Athleticism had been a turn-on to him from his first time in the backseat of his car with Janet Rice, the star of the girls’ high school track team. Women he dated were tall, but a little on the thin side, with no more than a handful or mouthful, however you looked at the situation. The most important thing about them was they understood it was casual. At least, that’s the way he handled relationships since his divorce.
Besides, first impressions never failed with him before and Grace Michaels reeked of commitment. She possessed the aura of a suburbanite. She reminded him of chocolate chip cookies and PTA meetings, the type who would settle down, have two-point-five kids and a two-car garage.
He could tell by looking at Grace, her conservative suit and that serious expression, she didn’t fool around. But, then again, there was nothing wrong with appreciating the view.
The clank of keys hitting the porch floor brought his attention back to Grace as she bent over to retrieve them. He zeroed in on her backside once more. The fabric stretched tighter this time and he definitely detected a fully rounded heart shape.
A vision of holding those rounded cheeks in his hands, those shapely legs wrapped around his waist as he braced her against a wall, and pumped into her, streaked across his mind before he could prevent it.
She straightened herself and turned around to say something to him, but whatever it was died on her lips when she realized where he had been staring. Ren slowly slid his gaze up her body to meet her eyes, and noticed once again that her face was fire engine red. She abruptly turned, unlocked the door and walked into the house. He took a deep breath, trying to steady his usually controllable libido and followed her through the door, shutting it with an almost silent click.
Grace’s face still burned as she showed Ren through her parents’ house. Never in all her years had she been so embarrassed. And, considering her history, that was saying a lot. She stepped back and let him walk into the kitchen. As he walked around, poking here and there, as he inspected the kitchen, she remembered the look on his face when she turned around and found him staring at her rear end. She thought she might have detected a hint of appreciation.
Surely not. Lean, hungry, virile men were never interested in her. They liked supermodel wannabes, like the ones her brother dated. Perfect bodies with little minds were Gabriel’s type.
That was okay. She wasn’t really interested in Ren Morello anyway. Okay, so he was attractive. Very attractive. Didn’t mean that she had to be interested in him. She had a career to worry about. She didn’t have time to pay attention to the exquisite hunk of man walking around her mother’s kitchen.
And he was exquisite. He had short black hair, graying a little at the temples, and chocolate brown eyes with crinkles at the corners that could be from either smiling or glaring. She would bet on the latter.
His slightly crooked nose looked like it had been broken more than once, and he had full, sensuous lips. If he hadn’t been so masculine in all his other features, she was sure that you could term those lips as almost feminine. He was tall, at least six feet, most of which was legs. She’d never lusted after a man’s legs, usually focusing on a man’s mind first, but she truly wanted to see what they looked like out of the body-hugging denim. Worn and soft, it stretched tightly across his butt, rode low on his hips, and cupped his sex in the most disturbing manner.
Her pulse accelerated a few beats per minute and she took a deep breath to try to steady it. Why the hell was she thinking about how nicely his jeans outlined that particular part of his body? Well, because he was a big sexy man and any heterosexual woman would think of him that way. It was a bit distracting the way he moved through the house. Ordinary people walked. He prowled like a big sexy leopard.
She shook her head as she inwardly laughed at herself. Being attracted to the stud renting her parents’ house wasn’t a smart thing to do.
It was just her luck that the first attractive man she met in several months had been spending his first introduction to her staring at what she considered her worst body feature. Of course, she wasn’t interested, she reassured herself—again. So what if he had the body of a god and milk chocolate eyes? She didn’t care. Just because her blood warmed at the thought of running her hands down his muscled back to cup his ass—and it was a wonderful ass—didn’t mean she wanted to jump his bones.
She shook herself out of her musings. She didn’t care about Ren Morello and his exquisite ass.
Really, she didn’t.
He inspected the oven like he actually was going to use it for something other than reheating pizza. Single, good-looking men in this town didn’t have to cook for themselves. Available men you hadn’t dated, and to whom you weren’t related, were a scarcity in a small town like Cannon, Texas. One this attractive, and with a job like Chief of Police, would be a single girl’s dream come true.
Well, single girls who cared about that sort of thing, she told herself. Which did not include her. She cared most about her career, she thought, straightening her shoulders and tilting her chin.
It would be best if she kept that in mind. The sooner she was out of there and back to work the better.
Ten minutes later, they’d finished looking at the master bedroom upstairs. “Two of the other rooms are relatively the same size,” she said. “But this one is smaller because my parents redid the bathroom. There’s another full bath at the end of the hall. The only room that gets a lot of sun is the front bedroom. I know, because it was mine. I took the sun because it was the only other one not next to my parents’ room. But the oak tree out front helps most of the year.”
“And it must have been pretty easy to sneak out using that oak,” he said, noticing her mischievous smile. “But I’m sure you would never think of doing something like that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I sprained my ankle sneaking back in one night.”
“Oh? How did you do that?”
“Well,” she said, motioning for him to take the lead down the stairs. “Julia, my best friend, thought it would be cool to skinny-dip in the high school pool.”
He reached the bottom step, and turned to face her as she stopped about five steps from the bottom. He didn’t even try to hide his skepticism.
“I’m amazed you would do something like that.
She frowned. “You mean, sneak out of the house?”
He didn’t respond right away as he let the silence stretch. It was a technique he’d used many times when he interrogated a suspect. It always made the person squirm.
“No.” He smiled when she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Skinny-dipping. You look more like a girl who would be in bed by nine at night.” He perused her, from her head slowly down her body. “And, I mean in bed and asleep. Red, you look like the type of woman most likely to report someone skinny-dipping.”
She pursed her lips. Ah, a little tell. Ren would always know when he irritated her from this point on.
“Don’t call me Red.”
He ignored that order for the most part and decided to push her a little further.
“Let’s get back to the skinny-dipping part.”
“Oh.” Her face flamed once again. “Well, Julia forgot to tell me to get the key, so we couldn’t get in. You know, Dad was the athletic director, so he had all the keys to the department.”
“Oh,” he said. “But you said you sprained your ankle.”
“Yes, I was climbing up the oak out front when Julia said something to me. I turned to face her and lost my balance. I landed on the roof of the porch, which woke up the dogs and Dad. Turned out that she was trying to tell me to be careful.”
“Well,” she said, prissiness creeping back in her voice. “At least now I’m not that clumsy anymore.”
She picked an imaginary piece of lint off her suit, studied it intently and then flicked it away.
“Yeah,” he said. “What happened out front earlier, Red?”
Her spine stiffened and fire snapped in her eyes. Oh, she was so much fun.
“That was just an accident,” she said in a schoolmarm tone that reminded him of his fourth grade teacher. With Grace, that prissy tone in her husky voice caused his dick to stand at attention. It also made him want to tease her more. He just couldn’t help himself. “And I told you not to call me Red.”
She put her hand on the banister and took a step. The heel of her right shoe somehow caught the edge of the step. She catapulted forward, her eyes lit with surprise and her arms wind-milling.
He held his hands out and caught her by the waist, trying to stop the inevitable. But he lost his footing and suddenly flew backward, landing on the hard wooden floor. The air rushed out of his lungs, leaving him gasping for air.
Before he could catch his breath, Grace landed on him with a thud, smacking his nose with her forehead. He blinked, shook his head once or twice, trying to focus his eyes. Looking as dazed as Ren felt, Grace propped herself up on her elbows.
He suddenly realized he was right about the body beneath that ugly suit. At the moment, every curve was pressing up against his body. She was round and warm, and it felt entirely too comfortable having her on top of him. As she tried to untangle herself, she moved this way and that, he groaned. The woman was either going to make him embarrass himself or unman him.
She stopped and looked down at him. Her curls had tumbled down from the bun and her eyes widened. “I’m so sorry.”
Despite the ringing in his ears, and the stars circling in front of his eyes, he laughed.
“I have to say again, Red,” he said, smacking an outraged Grace on her rear end. “I’m really amazed how friendly Texas actually is.”
Grace shut the door to her office and sighed, releasing all the tension and frustration from the day. She dumped her briefcase on the floor and sat behind her desk. It was now close to eight at night, and her day had started before eight that morning. Kicking off her pumps, she leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temples.
If she’d planned on humiliating herself when she woke this morning, she was sure it would be considered a banner day. There was no possible way things could get worse. As she closed her eyes and started mentally preparing for tomorrow and her lectures, a knock sounded at her door.
“Come in,” she yelled, knowing anyone in the small building that housed the history department would have to have a key.
The door opened, and Darian Daniel Dawson, her ex-fiancé, stood in the doorway.
Okay, she was wrong. Her day could get worse.