There was nothing to suggest that tonight was anything other than an ordinary Sunday night at Suzette’s Bistro, but Talia Vega couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
From her position behind the bar, she scanned the room as though it would hold a clue to her uneasiness. Sunday was never the busiest night of the week, but tonight the crowd was heavier than usual. This first week of May, the spring rains had finally run their course, and with the nice weather and later sunsets, the citizens of this affluent corner of California were flush with spring fever and ready to go out and celebrate.
Tonight the bar was about two-thirds full, girlfriends catching a quick drink as they braced for a busy week ahead, couples having drinks and a light dinner, a few older students from the nearby university craving something a little more sophisticated than the college bars.
Certainly there was nothing and no one to account for the itchy, tight feeling high on her shoulders and the sense that something in her nice, normal life was about to go awry.
She shook the feeling off and fixed her face into a friendly smile as she handed a blonde in her forties another glass of chardonnay across the bar.
She murmured “thanks” as the blonde slipped her a five and turned her attention to a man in his early fifties, his salt-and-pepper hair swept back from his lined forehead. He was a regular enough customer for Talia to remember the face if not the name.
She poured him a vodka martini and made small talk, and the feeling of disquiet faded further into the background as she settled into her rhythm. Chatting with customers, mixing drinks, oohing and aahing with the server whose table had ordered a five-hundred-dollar bottle of wine from the cellar.
It was all so refreshingly normal.
So far away from where she’d been. What she’d been. Terrified. A victim. Living underground in a series of safe houses in Northern California, always looking over her shoulder as she frantically tried to keep herself and her teenage sister safe from people who wanted nothing more than to see them suffer.
Now she and her sister, Rosario, were free—had been for two years.
After Rosie got her GED, they’d spent over a year traveling; then eight months ago they’d settled back down in Palo Alto, California, so Rosario could begin her freshman year at nearby Stanford.
Even though it had been almost a year, Talia still marveled. Her baby sister was going to freaking Stanford! Not bad for a girl who was mostly raised by a sister who was mostly clueless but did the best she could.
As for herself, she’d found a good job with people she liked, working as the bar manager at Suzette’s, which didn’t land her in the lap of luxury, but it was enough to pay her bills and help Rosie with the expenses her scholarship didn’t cover. All in all, a very nice life, one she couldn’t have even imagined just two years ago. And there wasn’t a day that went by that she wasn’t intensely grateful for it.
Even on nights like this, when old memories tried to creep back in, unwanted, unsettling. She moved to the other end of the bar to clear away two wineglasses and a picked-over plate of calamari.
A smile stretched her voice at the familiar voice. “Rosie, you’re early,” she said, turning at the sound of her younger sister’s voice. She wasn’t hard to spot in a crowd. At five foot nine, Rosario Vega was a good four inches taller than Talia, easy to spot in the mostly seated crowd.
But even without the height, Rosie would have stood out from the crowd. At eighteen, she was finally growing into the huge brown eyes, long nose, and full mouth that had given her a mismatched look throughout her childhood. Now the bold features gave her a beauty that was as arresting as it was unique.
Something that didn’t go unnoticed by a single straight man in the bar.
Except, Talia noted as she felt her smile fade, maybe by the boy-man standing to Rosie’s left. Rosario’s boyfriend had his hands stuffed in the pockets of his scruffy black hoodie, a look on his face that said everything in the entire world was crushingly lame. “Oh, and I see you brought Kevin,” Talia said, trying to keep the acid from her tone but failing, if Rosario’s warning look was anything to go by.
“Still cool if we have dinner here?” Rosario said as she plopped onto a bar stool. She motioned for Kevin to follow, who joined her with an eye roll.
It was on the tip of Talia’s tongue to remind Rosie that the invitation to dinner on Talia’s tab did not include shiftless twenty-three-year-old sixth-year seniors who should be out working for a living instead of sucking off his parents’ seemingly limitless college fund while preying on hapless, wide-eyed freshmen.
Instead she bit out a sharp, “Sure.” Sure, she’d forgo her share of tips tonight to pay for the extra forty or so dollars of food and drink Kevin would undoubtedly suck up. Sure, she’d do her best to ignore the way Rosario would ignore everyone and focus all of her attention on Kevin, bouncing around him like a puppy while he mumbled monosyllabic replies around a mouth stuffed with food.
Because two years ago, when the tightrope she’d been walking had snapped out from under her, Talia had promised herself, promised Rosario, that she’d make a normal life for them. A life where Talia didn’t have to hide out in a safe house, away from Rosario, who was forced to live under an assumed name with a family of well-meaning strangers. A life that didn’t include living under the protection of full-time paid bodyguards.
And plenty of normal college girls had boyfriends, often directionless, disinterested, unworthy boyfriends like Kevin. Part of being normal meant getting your heart bruised by a guy who didn’t deserve a second of your time, a lesson Talia fervently hoped Rosario learned sooner rather than later.
And really, who was she to judge? Kevin might be a shiftless douche bag, but at least he wasn’t the force behind an international criminal organization that had resulted in the suffering and deaths of countless innocent women. Talia still held the gold medal in the falling-in-love-with-the-absolute-worst-person-on-the-planet contest.
She swallowed hard and forced the memories of the threats against herself and Rosie from her mind.
He couldn’t hurt them anymore.
She put menus in front of Rosario and Kevin and excused herself to fill an order for the main dining room. When she got back, she automatically put a Coke in front of each of them.
Kevin let out a little huff of disgust and pushed the glass back in her direction. “Can I get a bottle of Budweiser?”
“I don’t think—” Talia started, only to be interrupted by her sister.
“God, Tal, why do you do this every time? He’s legal, and you know it.”
“You’re not, and I don’t think he needs to be drinking with you—”
Kevin started to stand. “Fine. I’m supposed to meet Sam at the Z-bar anyway,” he said, referencing a bar across town that was popular with the students. A bar underage Rosario wouldn’t be able to get into.
Rosie grabbed his arm in a vise grip. “No, she’ll give you the beer!” As she spoke, she shot Talia a look that shout-ed, Don’t ruin this. You owe me. You owe me big-time.
Talia knew she could spot Rosario’s boyfriend a whole truckload of beer and it wouldn’t make a dent in what she owed Rosie for bringing a monster into their lives. She grabbed a beer and thunked the bottle in front of Kevin and asked him sharply what he wanted to eat.
“What’s up with you tonight?” Rosie asked after Talia returned from putting in their order. “You’ve got your major crabby pants on.”
Despite her irritation, Talia couldn’t help smiling at Rosie’s description of her bad mood, one that stemmed from their childhood. It was on the tip of her tongue to snap that she’d been in a fine enough mood before Rosie brought Mr. Lazy Trust Fund in to mooch dinner.
Instead she shrugged and admitted the strange uneasiness that had dogged her most of the evening. “I can’t explain it,” Talia said. “But I just have this bad feeling, like something’s about to happen.”
Talia was grateful when Rosie pulled her attention away from Kevin and reached out to cover Talia’s hand with her own. “No offense, but I told you to stop reading all that crap. How do you expect to feel when you’ve spent the last two days wallowing in it.”
Talia’s mouth pulled tight, but she didn’t remove her hand from her sister’s. “I wasn’t wallowing,” she said stubbornly.
Rosie rolled her eyes. “Call it whatever you want, but when I stopped by yesterday, I checked your browser history, and it shows that you looked up about fifty thousand articles about that old bitch.”
“What are you talking about?” Mr. Personality asked, finally intrigued by something.
Talia was summoned by a server and left Rosie to do the explaining.
As she filled the order, she had to grudgingly admit Rosie was right. Margaret Grayson-Maxwell—the old bitch in question—had been released from prison earlier this week. When her involvement with her late husband David’s less-than-legitimate business of trafficking in people, drugs, and weapons was discovered, Margaret had cut a deal. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Margaret had spilled everything she knew about an organized crime network that spanned the globe.
Now she was out after only eighteen months served, and her release sparked a fresh wave of press about David Maxwell and all of his sordid dealings.
And, of course, the stories never failed to detail Talia’s role as the disgruntled mistress who helped to take him and his empire down.
Talia could have all the fresh starts she wanted, but she couldn’t prevent her picture from appearing front and center of every newspaper in Seattle. She was alternately portrayed as the mercenary gold digger who looked the other way while her wealthy keeper used his monster of a nephew to murder high-class prostitutes, and as the victim who had barely escaped with her life when that same nephew, Nate Brewster—known better under his infamous moniker, the “Seattle Slasher”—had set his sights on Talia.
Despite repeated admonitions from Rosie and Talia’s own common sense, from the moment Talia had heard about Margaret’s pending release, she hadn’t been able to stop herself from inhaling every news story about it that she could find.
At first she’d been afraid that people around here would recognize her, that customers would do the math and realize her connection to the whole sordid mess.
To her relief, what was big news in Seattle proved to be of no interest in bustling Silicon Valley. Sure, the revelation of Nate as the Seattle Slasher had been a national story two years ago when it resulted in the release of Sean Flynn from death row.
A few months later, it was revealed that David Maxwell, a man who had married into a family often referred to as Washington State’s version of the Kennedys, had not only been the shadowy force behind the Seattle Slasher but had also run a criminal organization that netted millions of dollars and was linked to the Russian Mafia.
At that point, there had been magazine articles, front-page stories, even features on news programs like 48 Hours and Dateline. Though Talia had refused to be interviewed, her involvement with David Maxwell meant her name was dragged through the mud with his, and for about a week or so there, her name definitely had been on the country’s radar.
But news moved fast, especially in the Internet age. Though Seattleites had clearly reveled in the opportunity to rehash one of the few lurid scandals to hit their comparatively whitewashed city, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Margaret Grayson-Maxwell’s arrest and the nefarious activities of her dead husband were lost in the ether.
And as Rosie had so wisely pointed out, Talia should have let it stay lost, in the past, rather than spend all of her free time delving back into every lurid detail of the past she worked so hard to escape.
As she went back to the kitchen to retrieve Rosie’s and Kevin’s meals, Talia vowed that from now on, she would avoid any further information about Margaret Grayson-Maxwell, even if it meant she had to cut her Internet connection to do so.
What she’d done and the choices she’d made were all in the past now. And she’d fought too hard to escape that past to let it ruin what had become a very nice present.
She’d no sooner had that thought than she turned the corner back into the bar and saw Rosie enthusiastically hugging a very large man. After a few seconds the man released her, and Talia’s confusion morphed into shock at the first flash of recognition.
She must have said it out loud, because his head whipped around even before the plates holding Kevin’s burger and Rosie’s chicken breast slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers. The sound of shattering crockery was enough to jolt her from her stupor, and she felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she scrambled to clean up the mess. Real smooth, Talia.
What did she have to be embarrassed about? she chided herself. No doubt she’d looked clumsy and stupid, standing there with her mouth hanging open while the plates slipped out of her hands, but that wasn’t the worst Jack Brooks had seen of her.
Not even close.
And after two years with no contact, suddenly he was kneeling on the floor next to her. “Let me help,” he said, his voice a familiar rumble that tugged at something in her chest. Ignoring her protests, he helped her gather up shards of pottery and mounds of food onto the tray a busboy had helpfully provided.
Finally Talia stood, wiping her hands on a towel, her mind buzzing with a thousand questions as her tongue remained stubbornly glued to the roof of her mouth.
“Judging from your reaction, I probably should have called ahead,” Jack said, flashing her a grin that softened the harsh lines of his face and warmed the glacial blue of those eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted with absolutely no finesse. But who cared? It was too late to pretend his unexpected appearance hadn’t completely thrown her for a loop.
She moved back behind the bar, partly because a customer was signaling her for a refill, and partly because she wanted the physical barrier between herself and Jack. It had been two years, another lifetime, and still she found herself overwhelmed by Jack’s presence.
It wasn’t just the way he looked, though at six-four, packed with hard muscle and a square-jawed face that was all planes and angles, to call Jack intimidating was the understatement of the year.
But it was more than that. It was in the way he carried himself, the way he could be perfectly still yet be ready to spring into action at a second’s notice. The way he could scan a room and memorize every detail of every person and object in it.
Mostly it was the way he looked at you. Jack had a way of looking at a person that made you feel like he knew all of your secrets, even the ones you didn’t know you were hiding. She’d felt it that first day he’d walked into Club One and looked her up and down. At the time she’d told herself there was no way Jack knew a damn thing about her, and she was keeping it that way.
Now, she supposed, Jack knew all of her secrets. The good, the bad, the horrifically ugly.
She held herself still as he did a quick scan of her face and body. Was he mentally comparing her to the vixen she’d once been and finding her lacking?
Or was he relieved to see she was no longer the bone-thin, pale shadow of a woman he’d last seen in a safe house less than twenty miles from here?
Whatever he was thinking, his expression didn’t give a clue. Nor was there anything approaching attraction or appreciation, and Talia was shocked to feel a little pinch of hurt at the realization. She certainly wasn’t the glammed-out man-eater who’d once had men salivating as she walked by, but she wasn’t exactly a dog.
Stop it. She mentally slapped herself. You should be grateful Jack doesn’t want anything like that from you. If he did, sooner or later he’d be calling in favors.
The thought made her a little queasy, and she filled herself a glass of club soda.
“You’ve been working out. You look strong,” Jack said.
Talia nodded, unsure if she should thank him, unsure it was a compliment. There was a time, a lifetime ago, when she would have come back with something snappy, shown some attitude, run her hands over her body to make sure Jack got a good look at what she had to show.
All Talia could do was stare, tongue-tied, unable to make even the simplest small talk with the man who had saved her life.
Rosario was more than capable of taking up the conversational ball. “You never answered Talia—what are you doing here?”
Broad shoulders shrugged under his jacket. “I thought I’d stop by, make sure you were doing okay with all the noise going on with Margaret’s release.”
Talia’s brows knit over the bridge of her nose. “You flew all the way down here to check up on me?” It was ridiculous to even consider, but Talia couldn’t deny the tiny burst of warmth at the possibility.
A warmth that was quickly doused by Jack’s reply. “Of course not,” he said with a chuckle, and shook his head. “Sorry—I just wrapped up an assignment and have had about four hours of sleep in as many days.”
Now that she looked closely, Talia could see the dark, faintly puffy circles under Jack’s eyes, the weary lines around his mouth. It did nothing to take away from a face that was undeniably attractive in a chiseled, hard-jawed, sharp cheekboned kind of way.
“Danny just landed a new client and they needed me to come down to help out, so I’m relocating here for the next month or so.” Jack managed the Seattle operations of Gemini Securities, a firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area that specialized in corporate and personal security. The firm was owned and operated by Danny Taggart, one of Jack’s team members from his time as a Green Beret, along with Taggart’s younger twin brothers. “I figured I’d save myself a phone call and come see how you were doing myself.”
“As you can see, I’m doing just fine,” Talia said.
Rosario rolled her eyes. “Except for the part where she’s spending hours online reading everything she can about the old bitch’s release and reading all kinds of trash about herself in the process.”
Jack sighed and rubbed his hand over his face, his weariness almost palpable. “You shouldn’t read that stuff.”
“I’m a big girl, Jack. I can manage my own reading material. I don’t need you to save me from myself anymore.” Talia winced at her snotty tone. What was wrong with her? She hated herself when she got like this. But it was too much, Jack showing up unexpectedly after she’d spent the week rehashing the past. Suddenly she was back in that place where she was like a cornered cat, spitting and hissing in her desperation to get free.
Her rudeness seemed to bounce off his broad shoulders. “I know you can take care of yourself, and Rosie,” he said with a nod to her sister. “I just don’t like the idea of you reliving everything that happened. You barely made it through the first time, and I hate the idea of it still hurting you. You deserve to be happy, after everything that happened.”
There was something in his voice, a fierceness that made her chest feel tight, her stomach feel wobbly. And the look in his eyes—there was an intensity there, a heat like she’d never seen before.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a customer flag her down, and another server handed her a long list of orders. Talia filled the orders as her mind churned over Jack’s appearance tonight. He made it sound so casual, just checking up on her.
But there was something going on; she couldn’t put her finger on it. And in her experience, nothing was ever casual with Jack.
As she moved back to his end of the bar, she heard him chatting with Rosie about her first two quarters at school. He nodded sympathetically as Rosie complained about the physics class that was kicking her ass.
“You can call me or e-mail me anytime for help, you know,” Jack said.
“That’s right,” Rosie said. “You were a physics major at West Point, right?”
Talia frowned. She had no idea Jack had gone to West Point, much less been a physics major. But apparently Rosie and Jack had talked enough for her to know all sorts of details about his life.
Talia busied herself wiping down the already immaculate bar, telling herself there was no reason to feel this stab of hurt over the fact that Jack and Rosario were apparently BFFs when the only contact she’d had with him in the past two years was a terse, one-line e-mail refusing any payment for the security services he and Gemini Securities had provided while keeping her and Rosario safe from David’s reach.
Not that she wanted anything more, she reminded herself forcefully. Jack was a six-foot-four, two-hundred-plus-pound reminder of everything she wanted to leave buried.
And yet, seeing him here… it awakened something inside her, something struggling to dig its way through the rubble left over from the life she’d left behind.
“So are we ever going to eat, or what?” Kevin interrupted her thoughts in a tone she’d last heard used by a three-year-old. It was clear from his sidelong glare at Jack that Kevin was not happy with Rosie’s very obvious case of hero worship.
Jack turned his steely blue glare at the boy as though he’d just noticed him. He looked him up and down and turned back to Rosie. “This is the guy you told me about?” he said, not bothering to hide the skepticism in his voice.
“Yes, this is Kevin, my boyfriend,” Rosie said with a tentative smile.
Talia winced at the uncertainty in her sister’s voice. She looked up and caught Jack’s gaze. As their eyes met, she knew his thoughts echoed her own.
Douche bag. His mouth tightened in resignation, and in that moment she felt a little crack in the wall that had always existed between them, even after Jack had pulled her out of a basement and saved her from a psycho killer.
Kevin, so sullen his bottom lip was practically protruding, reluctantly reached out his hand to take the one Jack offered. His thin hand was swallowed up by Jack’s massive palm, and Kevin winced as Jack gave it a firm squeeze.
“Kevin,” Jack said, his voice scarier for its icy calm. “Let’s get something straight, okay?”
“These two have run into enough creeps for three lifetimes. I’ve taken it upon myself to keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t run into any more. Got it?”
He released Kevin’s hand, and the younger man glared sullenly as he absently rubbed his sore palm. “Yeah.”
“Good,” Jack said with a baring of white teeth that couldn’t quite be called a smile. “I’m going to be in town for a few weeks, and while I’m here, think of me as their very big, very protective older brother who will come after you if I find out you’re giving either of them any trouble.”
Kevin gave a grunt and heaved himself up from his seat. “Yeah, that’s cool and all, but I think I’m out of here. Rosario, I’ll catch you at school. It’s getting a little heavy in here.”
“No!” Rosario grabbed her coat and purse and started after him, shooting daggers at Jack.
Talia went after her and grabbed her arm. “Rosie, let him go. This is one of the only nights of the week I get to see you—”
Rosie jerked from her hold. “Dammit, Talia, let me go! Jack, you’re as bad as her, thinking everyone in the world is out to get us. Just let me live my life,” she said, whirling dramatically as she stomped after Kevin.
“Be back at my place by midnight,” Talia called to her sister’s disappearing back. She sighed and turned to Jack, whose usual poker face had cracked to reveal a faint sheepishness.
“I’m sorry if that was out of line…,” he began.
Talia waved him off as she went back behind the bar. The crowd was thinning out and it didn’t take her long to refresh a handful of drinks. “It’s okay. Kevin is a jerkoff but he’s mostly harmless. But I do wish she’d find someone more motivated, not to mention someone who’s actually nice to her,” she said as she rejoined Jack where he was leaning against one end of the bar.
His full lips quirked into a rueful smile, revealing the flash of a dimple in his lean cheek. “Why is it the good ones always go for the assholes who don’t deserve them?”
“I don’t know.” Talia sighed with a tired smile. “But with my track record, I’m hardly in a position to question her judgment.”
Jack’s eyes darkened. “You can’t keep blaming your-self.”
Talia felt like a snake was curling around her insides as the guilt, the shame over her own bad decisions tried to claw free from the dark corner where she had shoved them. “I really don’t want to get into this right now,” she said, shooting a smile at a customer a few seats down. God, five minutes in Jack’s presence and she was already back there, scared, powerless.
“Shit, Talia.” Jack reached out a hand, stopping short of actually touching her. “I didn’t mean to… I didn’t come here to upset you.”
There was something in Jack’s face that made her swallow hard and made her feel… something… she couldn’t quite pinpoint. An ache, a curiosity—
“Hey, who’s your friend?”
Whatever it was got pushed away in a wave of perfume and blond hair striding across the room, a glint of interest in her blue eyes and a toothpaste-commercial-worthy smile on her face.
“This is my… uh… This is Jack Brooks,” Talia said. “And, Jack, this is Susie Morse, the owner of Suzette’s and my boss.”
Talia watched Jack’s huge hand swallow up Susie’s much smaller one. She grabbed a rag and gave the bar a vigorous wipedown so she wouldn’t see the inevitable flare of attraction on Jack’s face. Who could blame him? With her thick, honey-colored hair, blue eyes, and tall, athletic body, Susie was a dead ringer for Christie Brinkley in her Sports Illustrated days. Normally Talia didn’t pay enough attention to her own looks to let the contrast bother her, but suddenly she felt like a small dark mouse in the shadow of Susie’s blazing sun.
“Nice to put a face with the name,” Susie said, though the way her eyes were raking up and down Jack’s body, Susie was appreciating a lot more than just his face.
Something was odd, though. “Why would you know Jack’s name?”
Something flickered across Susie’s face that looked suspiciously like guilt, but then her smile was back in full force. “Oh, Alyssa told me all about you.”
Alyssa Taggart was married to Derek Taggart, who worked with Jack at Gemini Securities. Alyssa and Susie were childhood friends, and when Talia had moved to Palo Alto, Alyssa had hooked her up with Susie, who happened to be in the market for a new beverage manager at her popular restaurant. While Talia hated feeling like a charity case, she’d been happy for the introduction and had worked her ass off to make sure Susie never regretted the decision to hire her.
“Last time she and Derek were in, she said I had to meet you the next time you came to town, and I can see exactly why she was so insistent.”
In her time at Suzette’s, Talia had come to like and respect Susie a great deal and counted her as one of the few people she trusted enough to call a friend. But right now, watching as Susie looked at Jack like he was a juicy piece of meat, Talia had to squash the urge to smack her friend’s hand away from where it lingered in Jack’s.
Talia wasn’t sure in the dim lighting of the bar, but she was pretty sure Jack was blushing. “Uh, thanks, it’s, uh, nice to meet you too,” he said, and gently disengaged his hand.
“Dinner service is wrapping up,” Susie said, “but I’m more than happy to set up a table for you and have the chef put something together—”
Jack silenced her with a raised hand. “Thanks, but I’m fine. I’ll just sit here at the bar, if that’s okay?” He quirked a thick brow at Talia as if asking for permission.
Which struck her as odd. In her short but intense interactions with Jack, he never asked her approval for anything. “Fine with me. What can I get you?”
“Beer is good,” Jack said as he settled onto a stool. Talia slid the drink in front of him and saw another customer signaling her from the corner of her eye. “I need to—”
“Go right ahead,” Jack said. “I’m good.”
Talia got the customer his check, and as the crowd thinned, that sensation of being watched came back, ten times stronger now. But it didn’t creep her out, having Jack’s intense gaze track her. Instead of prickles on the back of her neck and between her shoulders, she felt a strange ache.
Oh, God, was she actually attracted to Jack?
No, it was ridiculous. Impossible. Still, as she gathered up glasses from an empty table, she heard Susie’s tinkling laugh from the main dining room and felt a sudden burst of envy. For the easy way her friend was able to smile at Jack, toss her hair, laugh, and make her interest clear.
Talia had been like that once. Friendly, flirty, ready and willing to use what she had to attract the attention of any man she set her sights on. She’d been normal once. She knew she had. Able to talk and banter and be attracted to a man as gorgeous and compelling as Jack.
But when she tried to remember what that was like, it was like parting the curtains on some distant, foggy past that belonged to another person. She’d tried to reclaim that part of herself in the past two years. She’d dated a few nice, normal men who took her out to dinner and didn’t expect her to sleep with them. But none of them had been able to wake her body from its apparent coma. No one made anything that felt remotely like attraction spark in her belly.
Of course. Because no matter how much she longed for a normal life, of course her fucked-up past and twisted psychology would make her yearn for the one man who knew exactly who she was, what she’d done, what had been done to her.
The one man who’d made it all too clear he didn’t want a damn thing from her.
Coming here was a mistake.
Jack hadn’t known what he’d expected to feel, seeing Talia in person for the first time in nearly two years. But he hadn’t expected to feel like he’d been punched in the gut, dangerously close to being overcome with a whole mess of emotions that ranged everywhere from lust to need to admiration and went way beyond the realm of mere protectiveness. He knew he was making her uncomfortable, the way he tracked her every move as she worked, but he couldn’t help it.
She was so fucking beautiful. Not that he hadn’t known that before tonight—the first time he’d seen her, he’d experienced the same dizziness every straight male experienced on his first encounter with Talia Vega. Made-up, dressed to kill in a dress that hugged a body that had more curves than the Pacific Coast Highway, the Talia he’d met that long-ago night when he’d signed on as the head of security at the nightclub she helped manage was something to behold.
But this woman, with her dark, wavy hair brushing her jaw, skin so smooth and clear it didn’t need makeup to mess with its perfection, and a tight, toned body that moved with a fluid grace as she made the rounds… she was infinitely more appealing than the man-eater she’d once presented to the world.
He was shocked by his immediate, visceral response, the sudden need to claim her when his plan in coming here was to finally let her go for good. Even though she didn’t have the slightest clue he’d been hanging on.
He struggled to keep his turmoil from showing on his face and reminded himself of his purpose here tonight.
Closure. All he wanted was to confirm, in person, everything he’d known for the past two years. Everything Danny, Derek, and Ethan Taggart had reported back to him for the past eight months. That Talia and Rosario were settled into their life here, were healthy and safe and doing just fine and had no need for Jack to come riding on his goddamn white horse to save them from an evil troll.
That last bit had been from Danny, but Jack got the point. With Nate Brewster and David Maxwell both dead, Talia’s dragons had been effectively slain, leaving her free to get on with her life, free of the violence and abuse she’d suffered in the past.
And leaving Jack free to abandon his two years of under-the-radar surveillance, keeping tabs on her through his own recon missions, the Taggarts’ reports, and the occasional communications with Rosario.
No more need for the behind-the-scenes help he’d provided over the past two years. Help he knew Talia would have refused if she had any idea it was coming from him.
She didn’t like owing him, he knew. Though he’d been careful to conceal how he really felt about her, he knew somewhere inside her she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. She was waiting for him to call in her debt. And in her experience, men, even the ones she thought loved her, would expect payment in only one form, whether she wanted to or not.
Logically, he got it. But it still stuck in his craw, knowing on some level that she lumped him in with the other assholes who had used and hurt her. He wished he could get her to see him differently, that after everything he’d done—and hell, hadn’t done—surely he’d proven beyond a reasonable doubt that of all people she could trust him not to hurt her.
But it would never happen, and any foolish hope he might have had that maybe enough time had passed to open up a little crack in her armor died a swift death at the look on her face at first sight of him.
Shock, followed immediately by wariness. A look that said, Why is he here, and what does he want from me?
So closure it was. Tonight he would say good-bye to her for good. Because Talia didn’t need Jack to keep her safe anymore.
They never saw him coming. No, scratch that. They never saw him, period. Growing up, Eugene Kuusik resented how unremarkable he was. How easily his average frame and face faded into the background. How easy it was for the girls he liked to ignore him in favor of the jocks or the tough guys or the artsy emo kids who dressed in black and pierced their faces full of holes. No one wanted to go out with the nerdy nobody whose only distinguishing characteristics were a foreign-sounding last name and a slight accent most people couldn’t place.
Now his ability to go unnoticed was one of his greatest advantages. He imagined it had worked equally well for the other greats, like Dahmer, Gacy, and BTK.
As he’d studied them, learned their techniques, he’d been struck by a feeling of kinship. He, too, knew what it meant to walk through the world looking so very ordinary on the outside, knowing he was anything but.
Yet when he’d learned about Nate Brewster, dubbed the Seattle Slasher by the press, it was as though he’d been hit with a bolt of lightning. Even though Brewster was a pretty boy like Bundy, able to use his good looks to seduce his victims, as Gene read about the man shot down in his prime, he’d felt an electric shock.
When he’d learned that Brewster had filmed his kills and had watched the footage that had leaked onto the Internet, he’d realized the world had been robbed of a master. He watched the footage over and over, especially of Talia Vega, the victim who got away. And with every viewing, his certainty grew that it was his destiny to continue Brewster’s work.
This was how he would make his mark. No one would ever think him unremarkable again.
He’d been perfecting his methods over the past months. Refining, experimenting, working out the kinks. Practicing to get every detail perfect. Pushing himself relentlessly to that final step.
Click clack, click clack. His ears pricked up at the sound of high heels echoing across the asphalt like a shark scents blood.
He was nearly there.
What if you mess up with this one too?
No. He was ready to go all the way.
He wouldn’t fail again. With this one, he would be able to take the final step.
The woman didn’t even see him ducked down between an SUV and a station wagon as she hurried by. Her keys were out and she was moving fast, confidently, and he could practically hear the script of some dumb self-defense class she’d taken.
Move with confidence. Don’t act like a victim. Keep your keys out as a possible weapon.
Right. As if good posture and a two-inch piece of metal could really dissuade someone determined to take you.
He smiled into the dark. Someone like him. If she saw him, would she even remember him as the man who had passed her on the street twice on her way to the restaurant?
He ducked out of his hiding place and skirted silently through the shadows. Her phone rang, distracting her as she dug in her purse and pulled it out to answer.
He ducked down, less than ten feet from her. Close enough to hear her side of the brief conversation without any trouble.
“I’ll be there in less than ten minutes.”
He imagined himself melting into the inky blackness until his body dissolved, leaving only his shadow. A leather-gloved hand came up, so quietly she didn’t even flinch until the syringe touched the curve of her throat and pierced her carotid artery.
By then it was too late.
Talia woke up the next morning with an ache in her chest that she couldn’t seem to shake. It was stupid for Jack’s surprise visit to have such an impact on her. But the way he’d left, with that half smile softening his face as he said, “Take care of yourself,” it was like there was a finality to it.
Like he was saying good-bye for good this time.
And so what if he was? she scolded herself as she shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. It wasn’t like he’d been such a huge presence in her life since she’d been able to live out in the open. But she’d always had that sense that he was out there somewhere, watching out for her even though she’d told him dozens of times that he’d done enough, that he didn’t need to worry about her or Rosie anymore.
Based on his visit last night, it seemed like he was finally taking her word for it.
She should be happy. The last thing she wanted was for Jack, a living, breathing reminder of her past, to be front and center in her life. And yet it was still there, that pinch in her chest at the thought that Jack was right here, in town, and would be for several weeks—though he’d made it clear he wouldn’t be making any effort to see her again.
Rosie padded into the kitchen, jerking Talia from her moping before it turned into a full-on pity party.
“You up for hitting the gym in about half an hour?” she asked.
Rosie shrugged. “I guess so.” From her tone, she hadn’t quite forgiven Talia for pissing off Kevin the night before. But maybe they could work it out in the ring.
It had become their tradition on Mondays, the one day Rosario didn’t have class, for Rosario to join Talia for a training session at a nearby boxing gym. Talia trained there nearly every day with Gus Esperanza, a mixed martial arts fighter who had toured with the Ultimate Fighting Championship until he suffered a career-ending knee injury.
Talia had started training with him shortly after she’d moved to Palo Alto. With the thought that it would make sense for her and Rosario to brush up on their self-defense skills, she’d signed them both up for an “issues in women’s self-defense” class through the continuing studies department at the university.
They’d stopped going after three sessions, when it became clear that more time would be spent in a circle listening to a bunch of privileged, navel-gazing girls in their late teens and early twenties cry about how frat boys “objectified” them and made them feel so “vulnerable.”
After a plump little brunette with a bouncy ponytail and Kewpie-doll mouth complained that even seeing images of rail-thin models in magazines made her feel somehow assaulted, Talia had had enough.
For the most part, Talia tried to keep the past in the past. But sometimes she couldn’t keep the pain and the anger that accompanied it from spewing out.
“You want to know when I felt vulnerable?” she cut in, ignoring the way Rosario winced and hid her face behind one hand. “I felt pretty fucking vulnerable when my boyfriend threatened to have my sister gang-raped by his goons if I ever tried to leave him. I also felt assaulted when a psychotic killer drugged me, tied me up, dragged me to his basement, and showed me videos of himself killing other women while he burned me with a cigarette and stabbed me.”
She had stormed out, shaking, furious with herself and those snotty princesses who had no idea how lucky they were. She needed to learn to kick some ass, not give free voice to the fear that she’d finally managed to bury.
Thank God Susie had introduced her to Gus and his training program. A few years ago, right after Susie had opened the restaurant, she was mugged at knifepoint while walking to her car. “I never kidded myself I could take out a huge guy determined to hurt me, but I wanted to at least give him a run for his money. There was a lot of buzz when Gus opened his gym, so I gave him a try. And”—she’d leaned in as though delivering a delicious secret—“I’m wearing smaller jeans than I did in high school. That’s saying a lot for someone who works in the restaurant biz.”
In the past six months, Talia had reaped the benefits, too, physically and psychologically. Her aggressive training with traditional and Thai boxing, tae kwon do, Krav Maga, and Russian Sambo had tightened and honed her body, tempering her once outrageous curves with sleek muscles. More importantly, she reminded herself, if someone did jump her, she’d have a decent shot at fighting him off.
In addition to her twice-a-week workouts with Susie and her Mondays with Rosario, Talia found herself at the gym most other days of the week, even when Gus said she needed a day off.
Somewhere down the line, it had gotten hard for Talia to make it through the day without working up a hard sweat. Self-defense skills aside, it centered her, gave her a sense of strength and resilience that would help her get through anything.
Even things like having Jack Brooks show up and throw her entire existence out of whack.
She slipped on a pair of capri-length stretchy pants, a sports bra, and a high-necked tank top. Unlike Susie and, to Talia’s dismay, Rosario, there was no way Talia was setting a foot in the gym with her abdomen on full display. Even if she could forget about her scars for minute, she wasn’t comfortable showing off her body, the irony of which, given her past, wasn’t lost on her.
If it were up to her, she’d wear an oversized T-shirt and baggy sweats, but Gus had told her straight up it wouldn’t do. “Gotta see your form, mija. Can’t tell if you’re doin’ it right if you’re wearing goddamn clown clothes.”
Talia had conceded, but she always wore an oversized T over the Lycra tank until the very last second.
Familiar sounds and smells greeted her as she pushed open the door to the warehouse on the corner of Industrial and Murphy. Grunts, huffing breath, and the occasional meaty thwack of a fist or foot connecting a blow echoed through the gym. The smell of salt and sweat permeated the air, and gangsta rap pumped through the speakers.
This was so much better than the three-hundred-dollar-a-month private club where she used to train in Seattle. Talia’s muscles twitched in anticipation. She and Rosario made a quick side trip to the ladies’ locker room, which was much more nicely appointed than the rest of the gym would have suggested. But Susie wasn’t the only one to realize how well Gus’s shredder classes worked to keep the pounds off, so he’d tricked out the ladies’ locker room to rival that of any high-end gym.
She and Rosario ditched their stuff in a locker and went out to join Gus for a private training session. As he had them warm up with jump ropes, Talia’s mind wandered back to Jack.
If last night was good-bye, why bother to come see her at all? In the six months she’d lived here, he’d never made an effort to see her when he traveled down from Seattle for business.
Talia had had reservations about moving here, specifically because she thought it would mean running into Jack more often than she thought she wanted. Though Jack ran the Seattle office, Gemini’s headquarters were just up the road in Menlo Park, which, the connection to Jack aside, did turn out to be a lucky coincidence. Though Talia was all about self-sufficiency in this new life of hers, it was good to have people nearby who had shown their willingness and ability to help her out of a jam.
However, along with that reassurance came the trepidation that Jack might be popping in to say hi on his trips to the Bay Area. But it had never happened, and she knew from Alyssa, who came to Suzette’s at least a couple times a month, that Jack had been here half a dozen times since she and Rosie had moved here.
Last night was the first, and apparently last, time Jack was planning to darken Suzette’s doorstep.
“Ease up, this is just a warm-up drill,” Gus said when she jabbed the focus pad hard enough to make him grunt. He took off the pads and motioned her and Rosie to follow him into the studio to spar.
She was glad, she told herself as she and Rosie circled each other. She didn’t need Jack, with his cool, analytical stare that saw too much. Yet even as he unnerved her, she had to admit something happened to her whenever she got in the same room with him. After all this time, she felt safer with him than any other human being on the planet. She wished—
Rosario’s gloved fist connecting with Talia’s stomach jarred her back to reality.
“So what happened with you and Jack after I left?” Rosie asked, a little breathless as she bobbed to avoid Talia’s return blow.
“He had a beer; we chatted at little bit. He said he was glad we were doing well, and he left.”
Talia used her forearm to block Rosie’s kick. “What else would there be?”
“He didn’t ask you out or anything?”
The question startled her, tangling her feet so instead of lightly dancing out of Rosario’s considerable range, she staggered back and fell on her butt.
“Jack and I aren’t like that.” She took Rosie’s proffered hand and let her sister pull her up.
“Nothing. It’s just that sometimes when I talk to him, the way he asks about you—”
“Wait, how often are you talking to him? What are you saying about me?”
“Jeez, Tal, calm down,” Rosie said as they resumed the fighting stance. “When we talk, he asks how you are—that’s it. I just thought—”
“Did you say something to make him think I wanted him to ask me out? Because, Rosie, believe me, after everything that happened, I don’t really want to go out with anyone, especially not Jack.”
The reasons were endless, starting and ending with the fact that Jack had seen her at her lowest point, had pulled her naked and bleeding from that basement. And worst of all, he knew that it was her own fault, her own stupidity, her own bad choices that had landed her there.
He knew firsthand her ability to fuck up. Not just for herself, but for Rosie too. And a guy like Jack, who always tried to do the right thing, no matter the threat to himself, would never be able to forget that.
By some miracle, he’d actually seen something in her worth saving. Talia wasn’t going to push it by asking for more. In answer to Rosie’s question, she said simply, “It’s complicated. But I don’t want you bugging Jack anymore.” She lifted her hand when Rosie opened her mouth to protest. “I got the sense he came by last night to reassure himself we’re doing well so he can feel okay about cutting us loose. Jack has done more than enough for us—we owe him our lives. He doesn’t need to worry about us anymore.”
Twelve hours later, Talia shot out of bed at the first screech of the security alarm. Her heart hammered against her rib cage with bruising force as she fumbled for the keypad next to her bed and entered the code that would silence the earsplitting din.
Ears still ringing, she grabbed her cell phone and started blindly for the bathroom, where she’d spent a week’s worth of tips to install a steel-core door with a bolt lock, the best approximation of a safe room she could put together in her little rental house.
Rosie. She stopped herself just as she was about to throw the lock, and her adrenaline-drenched brain came to life and reminded her that her sister was staying down the hall. Alone. Vulnerable.
Panic propelled her to the hallway, where Rosario stood in the doorway in her pajamas, her own cell phone in one hand, rubbing her eyes with the other. “What’s going on?” she mumbled.
“Something set the alarm off.” As she reached for Rosario, a loud crash nearly made her heart burst through her chest, and holy Jesus it sounded like it was coming from somewhere in the house. “Come on!” She grabbed her sister by the arm and dragged her into the bathroom, slamming the lock home.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered shakily as Rosario sank to the floor and drew her knees up to her chin while Talia sat on the edge of the tub. “The police will be here soon, alerted by the alarm company,” she said, as much to herself as to her sister. She tried to force her breathing back to normal, tried not to show Rosie the true depth of her terror. She had to be strong, had to make sure Rosie knew everything would be okay.
The ring of her phone nearly made her jump out of her skin, and she forced herself to take a deep breath as she answered. It was just the alarm company, calling to make sure the alarm hadn’t been tripped accidentally.
“We’ll make sure a patrol car is sent right out,” the dispatcher said after Talia confirmed the alarm was set off by a possible intruder.
“Police are on their way,” Talia said, closing her eyes as she prayed that whoever had broken in wasn’t at that moment sneaking up the stairs, prepared to break down the door to get to them.
Rosario stood and reached for the lock.
“What are you doing?” Talia said, and batted Rosario’s hand away.
“I can hear the sirens,” Rosario said, gesturing to the barred bathroom window.
Sure enough, Talia could hear the sound of a squad car siren getting closer.
“Shouldn’t we go let them in?” Rosie asked.
“We stay in here until we see the squad car pull up,” Talia said. But that still meant she’d have to walk through the house to unlock the door or risk having it broken down.
It was going to be okay. The police—police who were on her side now—would be here soon.
Clearly her efforts to conceal her panic hadn’t worked, because Rosie pulled her into her arms. “It’s okay, Talia,” she said in a tone suited for soothing a baby as she rubbed her back. “The police are coming. Nothing is going to happen.”
“You’re right,” Talia said. Yet she couldn’t escape the sensation that she was being sucked back into that dark pit, the terror that she thought she’d buried once again threatening to consume her.
She stood on shaky legs and forced herself off the floor so she could look for the police through the bathroom’s tiny window.
She heard a tapping sound behind her, the familiar sound of Rosie on her phone. “Are you tweeting about what a head case I am?” she asked.
Rosie gave a little laugh but didn’t answer. At least she didn’t seem too scared, which was good. Though Talia tried to instill some caution into her sister, she was glad the months in hiding hadn’t left Rosie with the unfortunate paranoia that Talia only mostly kept under control.
Yes, Rosario had suffered from the fallout, but Talia had done her best to keep her sheltered from the reality of her situation. And while the attack on Talia had scared her, Rosario had been kept away from her in her own safe house so she never saw the true horror the Seattle Slasher had inflicted on her.
Though Rosie was a lot more street-smart than most girls her age, thanks to the lessons Jack and his friend Danny Taggart and his brothers had drilled into her, she didn’t have the instincts for danger that came from experiencing violence firsthand.
Talia hadn’t done much right, but she’d kept Rosie out of harm’s way.
She heard a car pull up outside and slid open the bathroom window. Since the house was all one level and all of twelve hundred square feet, including the garage, she could easily hear the footsteps falling on the flagstone walkway. Seconds later, there was a knock at the front door. “Ms. Vega? It’s Officer Roberts from the police department.”
“I’ll be right out,” she called through the window.
She kept Rosario behind her as she hurried through the bedroom to the front door, turning on every light in the house on her way. By the time she peeked through the peephole, the house was blazing with light, no shadows left to conceal any creeps who might be lingering. Outside, a uniformed officer stood illuminated by the floodlights that automatically came on when the alarm was tripped.
She unlocked the door, let the officer inside, and briefly explained what happened.
“So you heard something banging in the garage but didn’t see anything?”
“That’s correct,” Talia said.
“And you were here, inside the entire time?” Officer Roberts asked Rosario.
“I was asleep,” she replied.
“She got in a couple hours ago, right after midnight,” Talia added. “I waited for her to get in to set the alarm.”
The cop made a note on his notepad. “Okay if I take a look outside?”
“Of course.” Talia nodded.
Talia could hear the crunch of gravel under the cop’s feet and saw the beam of his flashlight as he moved around the side of the house. She went into the kitchen and was pouring herself a glass of water when she heard a knock on the door that led to the single-car garage.
Talia put down her glass and opened the door to Officer Roberts. “I think I know what the problem is.”
But another voice, deep, male, and all too familiar, distracted her. “Where’s your sister? Is everything okay?”
Talia turned to see Jack in her entryway, dressed in frayed jeans and a gray sweatshirt that proclaimed him property of the U.S. Army. His eyes were a little puffy and his short dark hair was ruffled as though he’d just rolled out of bed. Which, at just after two on a Tuesday morning, he no doubt had.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I texted him from the bathroom,” Rosario said.
“Rosie, we shouldn’t bother Jack with stuff like this,” Talia said tightly, even as her stomach did a little flip at the idea that he was willing to pull himself out of bed at this ungodly hour to make sure they were okay. “He doesn’t need to deal with our problems anymore.”
Jack’s heavy footfalls echoed on the wood floors as he took the ten steps that led from the door to the small kitchen.
Talia turned to face him. “I’m so sorry, Jack. Rosie shouldn’t have—”
“Of course she should have,” Jack said, his eyes narrowing on her. “Why didn’t you call me yourself?”
“It didn’t occur to me,” she said honestly. “Besides, the alarm company automatically calls the police. There’s no reason for us to bother you with it.”
She could see a muscle tighten in his jaw. “When are you ever going to understand that it’s not a bother? I need to know you’re safe for my own peace of mind.”
Under his scrutiny, Talia suddenly became aware that she was wearing her pajamas, which consisted of a pair of soft cotton pants and a thin tank top that showed off every curve of her braless breasts. Her face heated and she crossed her arms over her chest.
It was silly to feel self-conscious—the man had seen her naked, for God’s sake—but there was something different between them now, a weird charge in the air.
And it didn’t help that snippets of her earlier conversation with Rosie kept popping into her brain. Making her wonder if her sister was right, that Jack did have a thing for her after all and had just been biding his time before he called in his favors.
Stop. Jack isn’t like that and you know it, she told herself, giving herself a mental slap for even thinking it. After all that he’d done—and more to the point, hadn’t done—Jack didn’t deserve anything but her gratitude.
“I appreciate that you’re concerned about us, Jack, but I’m sure whoever tried to break in is long gone. No need for you to lose any more sleep over it.”
“Actually, I don’t believe there was an intruder,” Roberts broke in.
“Then what set off the alarm?” Jack said.
“Want to follow me?” He gestured them out to the garage, Jack following Talia so closely she could feel the heat rolling off his much larger body.
The overhead light was on, illuminating Talia’s silver Honda Accord parked inside. Next to it, a plastic garbage can lay on its side. The bag inside had been dragged out and shredded, and bits and pieces of banana peel, coffee filters, and other assorted trash littered the concrete floor.
“Looks like the side door into the garage was left slightly ajar,” Roberts said, picking his way over a Styrofoam container dripping week-old noodles as he walked to the door. “My guess is raccoons pushed the door open, and when they did, they set off the motion detectors in here.” Roberts took a curious look around. “Don’t often see motion detectors in a house this small.”
Especially not one full of secondhand furniture and cheap electronics. But it wasn’t stuff Talia’s more-sophisticated-than-average security system was protecting.
She turned to Rosario, who was lurking in the door that led to the kitchen. “You told me you locked the door when you came in.”
Guilt flashed in her sister’s eyes as she grimaced. “I thought I did, but it’s possible it didn’t latch…”
Now she really felt like a jerk, having the police show up and dragging Jack out of bed because of a mishap with the neighborhood wildlife. “You need to be sure!” Talia snapped, her unease morphing into annoyance.
“I’m sorry, okay? Don’t yell at me!”
Talia took a deep breath and bit back her temper. “I’m sorry I yelled. I know it was an accident. This is a safe neighborhood, but we still need to be careful.”
Rosario nodded, but her mouth was still pulled into a slight pout.
Officer Roberts’s radio squawked from his hip and he unclipped it to have a low-pitched conversation full of codes Talia couldn’t decipher.
Talia turned back to Officer Roberts. “Are you satisfied everything is okay around here? I have a possible two-sixty-one I need to respond to.”
“What’s a two-sixty-one?” Talia wondered out loud.
“It’s sexual assault,” Jack said quietly before Roberts could answer. “Right?” Jack asked Roberts as an afterthought.
“Yes, we’ll be fine, Officer. Thanks for responding so quickly,” Talia said. As he walked away, talking into his radio, she heard something about “panic,” and “raccoons.”
As she looked at the garbage tossed around her garage, Talia suddenly felt very, very tired. “How could you not check to make sure the door was locked?” she said again as she took a garbage bag from the box on a shelf and gingerly picked up an empty pretzel bag.
“It was just a raccoon,” Rosario said defensively. “It was nothing.”
“This time,” Talia snapped as she threw a bunch of rancid carrot tops into the bag. “But you heard him. He left to go investigate a rape. That could have been us. It could have been you—” Her voice choked on the thought.
“Don’t get all paranoid again—”
“Your sister’s right,” Jack snapped, and knelt down to scoop up some stray papers. “You can’t just think you lock the doors; you have to be sure—”
“This is exactly why I live in the dorms,” Rosario snapped, and stomped back into the house.
Talia snatched a milk carton from Jack’s hand. “You can go now,” she said, wincing at her peevish tone. “I’m sorry,” she added immediately, and sat back on her heels with a sigh. “I shouldn’t talk to you like that. It’s just, I thought I was past it, you know?” She pushed herself to her feet and held up her hand to show him how much it was shaking. “One minute I’m fine, sleeping like a baby, but all it takes is a wayward raccoon to send me into a full-blown freak-out.”
Jack caught her arm, the warmth of his big palm seeping into her skin, making her suddenly aware of how cold the rest of her body was. She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering as a shudder tumbled through her.
“Next time it might not be nothing. Don’t beat yourself up for being prepared.”
Talia let him pull her into the house. False alarm or not, the adrenaline rush of fear and the subsequent crash were real. And though she was loathe to admit it, it felt good to have him here, his strong presence, ready to spring into action at the slightest threat.
She closed her eyes. Jack was not her personal knight in shining armor, and she couldn’t keep depending on him. She already owed him so much. She couldn’t keep adding to the list.
Jack pulled Talia into her postage-stamp-sized kitchen and forced himself not to focus on the silky feel of her wrist under his fingers. Though she was trying hard to keep it together now that her intruder had turned out to be a furry bandit, she was clearly shaken up. She didn’t need him to start fondling her arm like some sexually frustrated perv.
But it was damn hard to pull his hand away as he settled her into a spindly wooden chair. He gave her wrist one last squeeze, telling himself it was to comfort her, but it was just as much to savor a last quick feel of the smooth, milky, coffee-colored expanse.
“You should let me redo the system,” he said. “Hook it back into the Gemini network so I get an alert when it goes off—”
She looked up at him, her eyes shadowed with fatigue, her full mouth pulled into a wry half smile. “Really? So you can come running every time a raccoon gets in my trash? Besides, the Gemini alarm system would mean retro-fitting the house’s phone lines. Even if my landlord let me do it, I can’t afford to pay for it.”
“Don’t you dare offer to pay for it!” Talia snapped before he could even get the words out. “I’m sorry, I know I’m acting like a bitch, but you don’t need to do anything else for us.” She shook her head and huffed out a little laugh. “I know that sounds ridiculous given how much you’ve done for me and Rosie. But, Jack, it’s been over two years. Whatever debt you think you owe me for what happened, believe me, you’ve made up for it. You can let go of your guilt and stop worrying about us.”
Goddamn, if only it was that simple, he thought as he studied her. So different now than the almost savagely beautiful woman he’d met for the first time two and a half years ago. Back then she’d been tough as nails, slinking around Club One, ruling with an iron fist and a killer bod.
Or so he’d thought. It hadn’t taken him long to see the cracks start to show, to realize she was in way, way over her head.
And with his usual—and sometimes misguided—sense of what his sister called old-school chivalry and what he called an idiotic hero complex, he’d decided Talia Vega was a damsel in sore need of rescuing.
But he’d drastically misjudged his opponent and nearly gotten her killed.
So, hell yeah, guilt had driven him, especially at the beginning. But as he’d gotten to know Talia, he’d seen firsthand her drive to protect her sister at any cost, her fighting spirit that helped her survive an attack that would have killed most.
Then he’d watched her these past two years as she picked up the pieces and built a new life for herself, and his admiration had grown exponentially.
Admiration and something else he wasn’t quite ready to put a label on. In any case, whatever he felt for Talia was a lot more complicated than simple guilt. “I don’t see why it’s such a problem for me to want to help you out every once in a while.” The truth was, he wanted a hell of a lot more, and a depraved part of him knew she’d probably give it if he asked.
But it would never be for the reasons he wanted. And he would never settle for anything less.
“So can you indulge me?” he asked softly. As he gazed into her dark, shadowed eyes, her beautiful face with the high cheekbones and full lips that gave her an exotic air, his hand itched to caress her cheek. Trail down her neck. Tangle in the thick tumble of near-black curls.
He curled his hand into a fist.
She nodded. “I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful. For everything—”
“I don’t want your goddamn gratitude,” he said, harsher than he’d intended.
To her credit, she didn’t flinch. “But I don’t know why you feel obligated to bother with us, especially now that we’re safe.”
“But you don’t feel safe, do you?”
“It’s over,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about anymore.”
He wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince him or herself, but the fear was still there, along with the scars that had faded but not disappeared.
And though he knew it would be torture to be around her while knowing he couldn’t have her, at that moment he knew he was going to stick around for as long as it took him to banish her fear for good.
The light in the penthouse suite was dim, the heady scent of gardenias filling the air. The silk of her dress rustled against her skin as she gazed out the window at the Seattle skyline. She smiled as the strong hands looped the delicate chain around her neck. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed as she held the diamond-encrusted platinum rose charm between her thumb and forefinger so she could better admire it.
A deep voice rumbled in her ear. “I wanted to give you something to remind you exactly what you mean to me.”
The voice sent a shiver of dread through her as the walls of the suite started to ripple. Suddenly the room changed, morphing from a luxurious hotel suite into a dank, cold dungeon. The scent of the flowers grew stronger, the sickly sweet scent threatening to suffocate her. The necklace tightened around her neck, digging into her throat, cutting through her skin.
She clawed at the chain, its razor sharpness slicing through her fingers as the chain sliced its way through her neck.
“Jack!” She tried to scream but nothing came out except a weak gurgle.
Talia jerked awake, her body bathed in a cold sweat, her breath coming in sharp pants. Her hand went automatically to her throat. Nothing. She let out a sound, half sob, half laugh.
Though her fingers and neck still tingled, there was nothing there. The necklace David had given her was long gone, taken from her body the day Jack had carried her, bleeding, from Nate Brewster’s hideous torture chamber.
She breathed deeply, reassuring herself there was no trace of the cloying gardenia scent in the air.
She swung her feet to the floor, groggily shuffled to the bathroom, and tried to sweep away the lingering images of David Maxwell from her mind. She couldn’t remember the last nightmare she’d had about him, but clearly last night’s scare had called one of her primary demons from the depths of hell to torment her.
You don’t feel safe, do you?
No. She hadn’t from the instant she realized she’d given her love, given herself to a monster. And now, even with him dead, it seemed she would never escape the cloud of fear he’d cast. She resisted the urge to spend the day behind a locked door and forced herself to keep with her regular routine.
She’d come too far, worked too hard to get her life to some semblance of normal. No way was she going to let a stupid raccoon send her back to that place where she could barely go to the grocery store without having a panic attack.
It helped that Rosie didn’t have class until the afternoon and had offered to hang out this morning. The fact that her sister was unfazed by the nighttime visitor made it easier for Talia to get herself out the door to the boxing gym.
And the fact that Jack Brooks was somewhere in the vicinity, ready to drop everything to come to her rescue at a moment’s notice…
No, no way, you are not going there. Jack has done more than his fair share to save your ass. You haven’t been a pain in his side for nearly two years and you’re not going to start up again now.
Two hours later, Talia was feeling immensely better after an intense training session, energized from both the workout and the bucket-sized lattes she and Rosie had picked up on the way home.
But her postworkout euphoria vanished when she saw an unfamiliar car parked in front of her garage. Unbidden, irrational uneasiness consumed her. There was no reason to freak out, she told herself, just because there was a strange car in her driveway. Maybe the landlord sent someone over to do a repair, though he’d never sent anyone over unannounced before.
If that was the case, Talia would have to have a word. She didn’t care that she was merely renting. She didn’t like strangers, and she didn’t like being caught by surprise.
She parked on the street and walked up to the car and peered into the driver’s side window.
She raised a hand and cut Rosario off as she walked up the path to the front door. Her stomach leaped to her throat as the door swung open just as she was reaching for the handle.
The realization that it was Jack, followed closely by a tall, muscular man Talia had met but whose name didn’t immediately come to mind, didn’t do much to quell the impending heart attack. She staggered back, hand up to her chest as Jack looked down at her.
“Shit. I was hoping to have this finished before you got back,” Jack said.
“Have what finished? What are you doing?”
Excerpted from Run from Fear by Alden, Jami Copyright © 2012 by Alden, Jami. Excerpted by permission.
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