by Adrienne Giordano
4.6 stars – 14 Reviews
Here’s the set-up:
Security Consultant Vic Andrews lives by his Man Laws: Never mess with your best friend’s sister Never get caught Never get attached But he can’t deny his irresistible attraction to Gina Delgado, a young widow with three kids and plenty of strings attached. Even so, having a physical relationship doesn’t mean they’re “in a relationship.” Gina lost her husband to tragedy; she is not getting emotionally involved with another man in a dangerous profession. Sleeping with Vic is just stress relief. Until one of Vic’s assignments goes wrong and the target selects Gina and her kids for revenge. There’s nothing Vic won’t do to protect Gina and the children—the family he realizes, too late, he wants. He’ll accomplish his mission but will he have lost his only chance at true love?
The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:
Man Law: Never mess with your best friend’s sister.
“Ah, shit.” Vic Andrews, butthead supreme, listened to the churn of the ocean’s waves. Or was it his life skittering off its axis?
Gina laughed that belly laugh of hers and he couldn’t help smiling. He extracted himself from her lush little body and rolled off. The St. Barth sand stuck to his back. Yep, they’d worked up a sweat. Salty sea air invaded his nostrils and he inhaled, letting the moisture flood his system.
Jesus Hotel Christ.
What had he been thinking? He’d been heading back to his room after closing down the resort’s bar and there she was, the girl-er, woman-of his dreams, crying on the beach. No condition for her to be in after witnessing her brother’s marriage to the love of his life.
Vic didn’t mention the fact it was 3:00 a.m. and she was alone on a secluded beach where any drunken asshole, like him, could have at her. Although technically he wasn’t drunk. Buzzed maybe. Big difference. Besides, they’d been at a wedding. Buzzed was allowed.
Gina moved and he finally turned toward her. “I’m-”
“No, absolutely not,” she said. She swiped at her curly mane of dark hair. Her face gave away nothing, but that meant squat. Gina knew how to hide bad moods.
The whoosh of the ocean lapping against the shore distracted him and he stared into the blackness.
“What did I say?” he asked.
“You were going to apologize. I don’t want to hear it.”
Apologize? Him? “I’m not sorry.” He touched her arm. “Are you?”
Please don’t say you’re sorry. Please.
That would be all he needed. He’d just freakin’ obliterated the sister rule Mike had invoked nearly a million-maybe two million-times. The sister rule was Man Law, and Man Laws were about the only rules Vic followed.
He only wanted to check on her, and before he knew it, voila, the clothes were off, the condom was on and they were humping like bunnies right there on the beach. At least no one saw them. All the well-meaning people were asleep.
Gina brushed sand from her legs and stood to straighten the sliplike dress he’d shoved up over her hips. The silky fabric glided over her curves, and the activity in Vic’s lower region made him groan. A thirty-five year-old mother of three, and she was killing him. He should be ashamed.
She was right there. Right there. And, because he’d probably never get the opportunity again, he should grab her and-
“I’m not sorry,” Gina said. “Not about the sex. I’m sorry about other things, but this, I loved.”
Vic retrieved his pants and stood. Gina and her honesty. Good or bad, she just put it out there and didn’t worry about the repercussions. He guessed it came from losing her husband at the age of thirty-one. She had nothing to lose.
“I need to go,” she said, watching him with her big brown eyes as the moonlight drenched her face. He put his shirt on. Did she have to look at him that way? Particularly when he wanted a replay.
“Aren’t the kids bunking with your folks?”
“They are, but you know how Matthew is. He might search for me.”
Fifteen-year-old Matt, her eldest son, took his job as man of the family seriously.
“Right. Okay.” Vic motioned toward the resort. “I’ll walk you.”
Gina held up a hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Nuh-uh. No way. “I am going to walk you. It’s late and you shouldn’t go by yourself.”
Hell, she shouldn’t have been out here alone in the first place, but he knew she’d tear him a few new ones if he said it.
She stood there, peering up at him and-God-she was fantastic. She had a classic oval face with high cheekbones and a nose he knew she hated. For over two years now he’d imagined running his finger over the little bump in it, but never dared. Every inch of her seemed perfectly imperfect.
Blown sister rule.
Gina shoved her fingers through her curls. “We screwed up. I can’t believe it. We’ve been so good.”
“We didn’t screw up. We had a simultaneous brain fart. Again.”
She laughed and shook her head.
“Anyway, walk me to the edge of the beach. You can see my room from there and can watch me go up.”
“Gina, what’s the big deal? Nobody will know we just-” he waved his hand, “-you know.”
“It’ll be better if you don’t walk me. With his mental radar, Michael is probably waiting by the door. On his damned wedding night. I swear he’s a freak. He should stay out of it.”
Oh, boy. She was getting fired up. Maintenance mode. His friend needed protection. They were both ex-special ops, but they didn’t stand a chance against all five foot three of Gina.
“Mike loves you. He’s trying to protect you.”
“From you? You’re his best friend.”
Vic ran his hands over her shoulders. “Yeah, but I’m not right for you.”
“The circumstances aren’t right. That’s true, but he doesn’t have to keep reminding me.”
“He does it to me too.”
They strolled to the edge of the beach, and he squeezed her hand. Don’t go. Just stay for a while. All he wanted was more time with her. Not a lot to ask.
On tiptoes, she brushed a kiss over his lips. A little hum escaped his throat. What the hell was that?
“I had a great time,” she said. “You were just what I needed.”
“I think a ‘but’ is coming.”
“We can’t do this again.”
Yep. Not good. “I know.”
She pulled her hand from his and hauled ass toward her room. Away from him.
He waited while she went up the stairs and she stopped in front of the window of the room next to hers. A minute later the door opened and Matt came out. He turned and, apparently using his Spidey sense, looked straight at Vic.
And we’re busted.
Man Law: Never get caught.
Six Weeks Later
“You got me,” Vic said when Lynx picked up the phone.
Whose number had he just called? Knowing Lynx, he probably talked some unsuspecting blonde into letting him use her phone. His old army buddy now worked for the State Department and was completely paranoid about their calls being traced. When Lynx wanted to speak with Vic regarding sensitive matters, he sent a fax-a fax for God’s sake-from the FedEx store down the street from his D.C. office. Vic would call him back from a secure line-in this case a prepaid cell phone.
“You’re in a jackpot.”
Vic sat straighter in his desk chair. “Translate.” Lynx had a flair for drama, and being in a jackpot could mean a whole lot of bullshit things.
“The job you did for us last month.”
A car horn honked from Lynx’s end. He must be outdoors. “The Israel thing?”
“Yeah. The brother is pissed at you.”
“There’s a shocker. The sheikh should be pissed at someone.”
Namely Vic, who’d been hired by a secret U.S. government agency to take out the sheikh’s little brother, an Osama wannabe. Mike, the CEO of Taylor Security, liked to call them off-the-books jobs.
“No,” Lynx said. “He’s pissed at you. Your cover is blown.”
Vic’s shoulders went rock hard. He’d need a sledgehammer to get them loose again.
“What the fuck, Lynx?”
“Hey, I’m just giving you rumor mill here, but it’s coming from a good source. My contact at the agency accidentally let me find out. The sheikh threw money at someone who threw money at someone, and now he’s got your name.”
He shot out of his chair, every muscle in his body seizing. “Son of a bitch. Who gave me up? There can’t be six people who knew about that op.”
“Please. With the kind of money this guy can toss around, anyone can be bought.”
Vic grabbed a pencil from the desk, snapped it in half. “Did I get set up?”
“No. Someone got greedy.”
“My ass is in the wind?”
“Yeah. Watch your six. Gotta go.”
Vic punched the button to end the call. He’d wipe the phone clean and destroy it later. No harm in being careful. He stared out his corner office window. Just a businessman enjoying the June sun while the Chicago lunch-hour crowd swarmed the lakefront path. People everywhere.
Deep breath. Work the problem. When he’d taken the Israel job, the agency told him it was a solo mission. He’d sneak into the country as a tourist using a fake passport, and if he got into trouble, no one would pull him out.
He didn’t get into trouble.
He’d completed his mission.
For his country.
And now his cover was blown. Sure sounded like a setup.
The hammering in his ears started, and he stacked his hands on top of his head. This could be crap. Lynx said it was a rumor.
Vic hustled down the hall to Mike’s office and found him at his desk. Early in Vic’s army career, he and Mike were Rangers together and they had a history of saving each other’s asses.
“I got a problem,” Vic said as he stormed into the office and shut the door behind him. He took three deep breaths. Focus.
Mike snapped his head from his computer and stared. His dark eyes had an intensity that drove the ladies wild, but these days he was a one-woman man.
“You heard me right. I got a problem.”
Vic had maybe uttered those words three times in the fifteen years he’d known Mike. Each time, someone had been injured or dead. Mike leaned back in his swanky leather chair. Felix Unger’s contemporary twin could have decorated this place. Everything in chrome, with sharp angles and fancy art. One lone stack of paper sat neatly bundled to the left. Mike didn’t go for mess.
“Remember the job I did last month? Lynx just called. My cover is blown. The sheikh spent big bucks to find out who I was.”
Mike squinted. “Those fuckers gave you up?”
“One of them, yeah.”
“Do you know who?”
“Hell no. And it’s too damned bad, because I’d like to break his fucking knee caps.”
Pain shot through Vic’s jaw and he lightened up on the teeth grinding.
“Okay,” Mike said. “We can assume they’re gonna come after you.”
Vic stalked the office. Crap. Sweat beaded down the sides of his face and he swiped at it. He was losing it. Fear was not something he allowed himself, but this rattled him. When was the last time that happened? How about never? The last few months had been this way, though. Something gnawed at him, eating away his insides.
Five years with Delta Force ensured he could take care of this problem, but he didn’t want to do it in a city that had welcomed him when he left the military.
“We got a whole army of guys here ready to cowboy up,” Mike said. “We could even bring a few back from overseas.”
They had at least five hundred men in the Middle East protecting U.S. officials.
“Hell, I trained most of them and you want to put them on me? I can take care of myself.”
Fuckin’ A, bubba. Maybe Vic’s ego was getting in the way, but at thirty-six years old he’d had a whole career of spec ops training. Offering him protection came as an insult.
Mike shook his head. “Hey, asshole, did I say you couldn’t? All I’m saying is we put some muscle around you. Eyes in back of your head.”
Eyes in the back of his head. Mike had been his eyes for years now. Wasn’t he the one who’d given Vic a job when he needed one? Now they were partners. Mike handled high-end security, and Vic handled the civilian contractor assignments. The neutralizing-terrorists stuff.
“There’s no credible threat yet. I’m supposed to tie up man power for a maybe?”
Mike shrugged. “But you think it’s solid, or you wouldn’t have come in here.”
He had him there, and Vic scratched his head. The hammering in his ears went bye-bye, leaving behind the wilting end of the adrenaline rush.
“I brought a shit storm on us.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Are we having a moment here or what? Don’t get ahead of yourself. Let’s see what happens. Meantime, put a team together and I’ll sign off.”
“We may not need them, but I’ll put something on paper.”
“Right. Let’s get someone to sweep your car and your apartment building. Just to be safe.”
Vic nodded. “Already on it.”
“Watch yourself,” Mike said.
This sucked. He should fight this alone, but knew if this guy came after him, he’d need a team. The gut shredding began. People, maybe his friends, were going to die.
And it would be his fault.
Gina had three checks for her brother to sign, one of which was for a company credit card maxed out by an overseas operative. Michael wouldn’t be happy.
A quick stop in the ladies’ room on the third floor allowed her to freshen up. She never knew when she’d run into Vic, but it always helped to be prepared. She fluffed her hair, checked her lipstick and gave herself a once-over in the full-length mirror. She wore the champagne pencil skirt and matching silk blouse her sister-in-law picked out. Not bad. Pretty darn good actually.
Roxann liked helping her choose age-appropriate clothes for the thirty-five-year-old she was, rather than the coed look she’d gotten used to. Gina liked her low-rise jeans and T-shirts, but maybe she was in a rut. A deep one. For four years now.
The romp on the beach with Vic made her realize she needed to make changes. To stop clinging to the person she’d been before Danny died. That person evaporated when a burning building collapsed on her husband and destroyed her world. Accepting the new normal hadn’t come easily, and she’d been fighting it by not altering the tangible things like wearing clothes Danny liked or hanging his uniform in the bedroom closet so she’d see it every day. Keeping things the same meant preserving some part of her cherished husband.
This included focusing on their children. On making them whole when half the parent base had disappeared. Putting their needs first and hers last. Wasn’t that what good mothers did? But somehow Gina the woman got lost, buried under the rubble of a burning building.
The time had come to dig out. Enter Roxann and her all-around good taste. Despite her penchant for classic clothes, Roxann could find things with a little funk to them. She made for a great sister-in-law, and Gina reminded Michael every day he’d better not blow it.
With a final flip of her hair, she left the ladies’ room and headed for Michael’s office. Vic stepped into the hallway, turned and smiled the slow wicked smile that always sent her heart into overdrive. Add the green eyes, the messy blond hair and the oh-so-sexy goatee, and a girl was done for.
“Hey, you,” he said. “What’s going on?”
Gina stopped a foot or two in front of him. Otherwise, she’d get whiplash trying to look up at all six foot five of him.
“I have checks for Michael to sign.”
He glanced toward Michael’s office, then back at her. Something was off. She searched his face, took in the rigid jaw, the crease between his brows and-bam-his eyes. Missing today was the twinkling mischief that promised a girl he’d put a smile on her face but wouldn’t relinquish his emotional armor while doing so.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “You seem distracted.”
He smiled the player smile this time. Like that would work on a woman raising three children. Puh-lease. Surely she’d lost her mind thinking he’d admit something to her. “Forget I said anything. If you need to talk, let me know.”
She stepped around him, but he reached for her and a zing shot through her arm. Damn. After that glorious night on the beach he couldn’t touch her without her body betraying her. Not that he’d touched her since then. On the contrary, he usually acted like she had a skin rash.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right. I am distracted. No big deal.”
“Fine. Just know my offer stands.” She held up the checks. “I need to get these to Michael.”
He pushed a curl from her cheek. What was with him today?
“Look at you.”
Vic shrugged. “You look…different.”
Different? What the heck did that mean? “New outfit. Rox helped me with it.”
Enough of this already. Because, really, she didn’t have time. She was getting nowhere with him when all she wanted was to get somewhere. And then he went and did it. He tilted his head and parted his lips just so slightly and a burst of heat exploded inside her. Suddenly, the hallway seemed tight. Closing in as his stare filled the space. At any second, it would occur to him that he should attempt to mask his feelings. The idiot hadn’t yet realized his ability to hide from her dissolved two years ago in her basement. That had been the first time she’d noticed the look and it still tortured her. Damn him for bringing it all back.
Her fingers twitched at the memory. Kneeling on top of the dryer battling the water that had shot from the pipe and doused her. And Vic staring at her in a way that made her miss having a man to curl up with.
“Holy shit,” he had said.
The words cut through the sound of gushing water and penetrated her focused struggle with the valve. “The handle is stuck.”
His gaze traveled along the ceiling, darting along the pipelines. Slow. Considering.
“Idiot,” she screamed, “the valve is here.”
He stepped around the large puddle forming on the cement floor and stormed to the back corner of the basement. “No kidding, but I’m not getting wet when I can cut the main supply.”
“The main supply?” What?
And suddenly, the river slowed to a trickle. She stared at the pipe, gave it a whack with the wrench. Bastard pipe.
For two years she’d been living as a single mom, dealing with appliances that failed, shoveling snow, getting the car serviced. Never mind raising three kids whose moods shifted like swings in the wind. She been doing it all, hadn’t she?
Without a man.
Until the flipping water valve got stuck. With Michael not around, she’d been forced to call Vic when all she wanted was to take a bat and smash that stupid valve to a million little bits. Just destroy that piece of crap. She pounded her fists on the washer because she didn’t need this evil, blasted, hateful valve making her feel like she needed a man.
Vic stood a few feet from her, hands on his hips. Did his lips quirk? She swore they did. No, sir.
She flicked the wrench at him. “Don’t you laugh. I’ll come down there and beat you to death. You will be bloody if you laugh at me.”
He remained silent. One of his better choices, because she was just mad enough to let him have it. She tossed the wrench down, pushed her saturated hair from her face. “I’m sorry I called you an idiot. That was mean.” She held her hands wide. “Look at me! I’m soaked.”
“Oh, I’m looking.”
The rumble in his tone drew her attention and she found him, head tilted, lips slightly parted, eyes focused on her…chest.
The one encased in a soaking-wet tank top.
A white one.
With a sheer lace bra underneath. Lovely. Her very own wet T-shirt contest. She gasped and spun away because…well…Vic. Never before had he done this, and heat poured into her cheeks.
Two years she’d been without a man’s hands on her. Two long years without passion. Without sex that left her loose limbed and quivering. And he had the nerve to look at her like he wanted nothing more than to put his hands on her.
Wait a second. Why not? She deserved attention. Didn’t she?
Besides, he had great hands. Big hands that let a girl know he’d take care of her.
And then she lost her mind.
She jumped off the dryer and charged him. He stepped back. “No you don’t, pal. You started this.”
Grabbing his shirt, she pulled him down and kissed him with the furious lust of a woman who hadn’t had a good screwing in twenty-four months.
He clenched her forearms. “Whoa, Gina.” Yet his mouth was still on hers.
She shoved him backward. “Problem?”
“Uh, no. Yes.”
Again with the tilted-head thing. “You’re doing it again. The look.”
“Hell yeah, because, holy shit, you’re gorgeous. Between the shirt and the wet curls, you’re like some kind of sea nymph. It’s making me crazy.”
“Okay, so we’re on the same page here. The house is empty. Just you and me. Two consenting adults sharing some good old-fashioned fun.”
She ran her fingers under his shirt. “But nothing. Wow, you have amazing abs.”
He stepped back again. “Do you seriously want to do this? Because I’ve been hanging back. You green light me and we’re on.”
Hanging back? “You’ve been thinking about it? With me?”
“You just never noticed. You sure about this?”
“You bet I am.”
He shoved her against the washer, dropped his jeans and hoisted her up for what she hoped would be a good, hot romp.
He didn’t disappoint. On the contrary, he left her feeling just fine about the whole basement-flooding thing. Who knew that she and her brother’s closest friend could spark that kind of inferno?
Vic set her on the floor, pulled up his jeans, and Gina dug a dry shirt out of the dryer. Where her wet one had gone was a mystery.
The sound of footsteps above slammed into her. Michael and Matt yelled and she tracked their footsteps from the living room to the kitchen.
Vic stared at the ceiling. “Crap.”
At any second they’d be down the steps. She shoved her arms into the shirt. Matthew’s. Gah! No time to find her own.
She spun around to button her shorts just as Michael and Matt halted at the bottom of the stairs. She whipped back and faced the openmouthed shock on Michael’s face. His gaze moved from Gina, then to Vic, then ever so slowly to the floor.
Tank top found.
“Mattie,” Michael said, taking in Gina’s attire. “Go grab towels.”
“The hose blew,” Vic said.
It sure did. Gina twisted her lips to cage a laugh. How ridiculous could she be? Her brother and son almost caught her having sex and she was laughing? Horrible.
Michael eyeballed Vic. “Are you fucking kidding me? My sister? The widow? With kids?”
He shifted to Gina. “And you? You have to be nuts.”
Don’t freak. “Michael, I got soaked. I had clothes in the dryer.” Stop. She shouldn’t have to explain herself. Not to her brother.
He held his hands palm out. “I walked in here, with your thirteen-year-old son, and it appears we interrupted something. At the very least, it was reckless.”
“You shut up. I’m not talking to you now.” He put his head down, cracked his neck. “Whatever this is. It’s not good. For either of you. A man with a dangerous job and a vulnerable widow with three young kids… Gina, it’s emotional suicide.” He inched a step closer to Vic. “My goddamned sister? You’ll wreck her life.”
Gina huffed out a breath. “Knock it off. You don’t know a thing about what went on here. You’re completely out of line.”
He snorted. “Am I? Have I said anything that’s not true?”
No, he hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. And now, Vic stood before her giving her the look that once again made her feel like the damned hallway had shrunk. After the basement incident Vic had kept those big hands of his, among other things, to himself. He’d been cordial. Disgustingly so. Like too much syrup on a stack of pancakes, and the sweetness made her ill. At times, she caught him staring and it infuriated her because they had never once discussed it. That was how it had been until Mike’s wedding and their second act of spontaneous passion.
Again, Vic went dark, keeping to himself, being sickly sweet. And now she was done.
She grabbed his arm, hauled him into his office and slammed the door. “Different. Could you have come up with a more generic word?”
He gawked. “What?”
“What does different mean?”
“Your clothes. They’re new, right? That’s what I meant.”
Of course. She’d given him the opening to talk about his feelings, to really go there and own up to his part in the off-the-charts sex, but nothing. Typical.
She propped a hip on the desk and sucked air through her nose. A burning sensation clawed from the pit of her stomach. “I’m in a rut. Trying to figure out who I am. All I am right now is Danny’s widow or the kids’ mom.”
Tears slid down her cheeks and she swiped at them. How could she be crying over something so minor? How did she get to this place and where had she lost herself?
“Please don’t cry. I hate that.”
He hated it? Please. “Here’s the thing, Vic. You’re back to being the guy who wants to run screaming from me and I hate that. We need to talk about what happened with us.”
He pinched his eyes shut, opened them again. “Why?”
This man was a major challenge. “Because I want to start dating again, have a man in my life, and there are times when you stare at me a certain way and it makes me think you could be that man. I need you to be honest with me.”
He pressed his fingers into his forehead. “About what? I’m not sure what you want me to say.”
“I want to know how you feel. I’ve been a widow for four years and in that time I’ve had sex three times. Two of those times were with you, and if it was a blip, a way to pass time, whatever, then fine. But I need to know so I can move on.”
“Who else did you have sex with?”
Was he insane? She’d just begged him to talk to her and he wanted to know who the other guy was. Crazy. “I’m not answering that. I don’t ask you about your affairs.”
He shrugged like she had a point.
“Wait, I will answer that. Why not? He’s an accountant that Martha fixed me up with last year. Nice guy.” She boosted herself off the desk and faced him. “No spark, though, not like on a beach in St. Barth or a flooded basement.”
Vic inched toward her, his eyes on her in that way that made her cheeks fire. This was it. Finally, he’d talk to her.
“You fucked an accountant?”
Man Law: Always duck and cover and hold on to your ass with both hands.
Shit on a shingle. Did he really say that? He never could deal with women. Blame it on his mother, the heroin addict.
Gina’s eyes widened into big brown saucers. At any second, she’d go off on him. And then, oh baby, her eyes narrowed and she should have had smoke blowing out her nose. He was torn between wanting to jump out the window or tear her clothes off.
“That’s what you’re focusing on?” she yelled. “Who do you think you are asking me a question like that? Are you insane?”
That was it. He was insane. Had to be. He wanted this woman like he wanted his next breath. With that amazing rack and great ass, she had curves that sent his blood bulleting to the wrong places, and all he ever wanted was to touch her.
But it would never work. Not with his lifestyle. He could die at any time and she’d be alone. Again.
He stepped out of her reach. Just in case.
One fucker of a day so far.
“News flash, jackass,” she said. “I wouldn’t have fucked him, as you so eloquently put it, if you’d made yourself available.”
Hey, now. What’s that about? He’d have to play this cool. Contain the energy. Compartmentalize. He became a machine when it came to emotions, or lack thereof.
“It’s my fault you thrashed some nine to fiver?” So much for playing it cool, but, hell, how did he catch the blame for that one?
She poked her finger at him. “You don’t get to talk now.”
All righty, then. She was on a roll, and as pissed as he was, he’d let her get it out. She had one of those tempers that burned out quick.
“What do you expect from me, Vic? I can’t do casual sex, not the way I feel about you, and having a relationship? It’s a joke. Even if you were capable of commitment, which God knows you’re not.”
She laughed, but it was sarcastic. “A relationship requires more than four weeks of dating, and from what I’ve seen, four weeks seems to be your limit.”
“Now you get to do commentary on my life?”
That made her step back. Gina, above all else, was a reasonable woman. Mostly. If he couldn’t comment on her life, why was it okay for her to comment on his?
She sighed and her shoulders slumped. “You’re right. It’s none of my business. Besides, what an awful thing to say.”
He scratched the back of his head. “You’re mad. It’s okay.”
“No one is entitled to be cruel to someone they care about.” She leaned back into the desk. “You terrify me. With your job, I shouldn’t let you into our lives. We’d get used to having you around and then one day, you don’t come back, and my kids have lost another man. Bottom line, when you’re ready to make changes and have a relationship with me, then you can ask about my social life. Until then, butt out.”
Mike tore through the door, eyes burning. Shit.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Gina said. “We’re talking.”
“Yeah, hello, half the floor can hear you talking about fucking some accountant.” He glared at Vic. “What the hell? This is an office. I warned you about this.”
He opened his mouth, but Mike had turned to Gina. “Whatever this is, take it outside my building.”
Gina’s shoulders flew back. “Michael!”
“No. I told you too. He’s not going to give up playing cowboy. You know it. You’ll give in, though, and when he comes home in a body bag, you’ll grieve all over again.” Michael shook his head. “I guess losing your first husband in a collapsed building wasn’t enough for you.”
Now he’d gone too far. Mike had an explosive temper and sometimes said dumbass things, which Vic could tolerate, but not this time. He put his hand on Mike’s chest. “You made your point. Shut up.”
Michael pushed him off. “You’re screwing up my sister’s life.”
“He is not,” Gina said in a loud voice.
Michael grunted, locked his lips together and stormed off.
Vic eased his head back and stared at the ceiling. Could it possibly still be the same day? “Not good.”
Gina put her hands over her eyes. Please don’t cry. Please. If she started to cry, he’d put a bullet in his head.
“Are you okay?”
Heading toward the door, she said, “No, I’m not. I’m seriously pissed at you.”
That evening Vic pushed through Mike and Roxann’s kitchen door just as she slid a tray of lasagna into the oven. The smell of cheese and garlic assaulted him and his stomach howled. Roxann ordered the food from a restaurant, because, even though she enjoyed hosting family get-togethers, everyone knew she couldn’t cook.
“Sit,” she said to him.
“Actually,” he said, holding up the empty bottle of wine, “your mom wants more of this red and there’s none out there.”
Roxann pointed to one of the chairs at the kitchen table.
He stayed standing. He knew Roxi well enough to know she had something on her mind, and it most likely involved the smackdown in his office, but he wouldn’t let himself get sucked into some lame-ass conversation about how he screwed up. “What do you need?”
“I need you to have a lobotomy.”
Oh, what the fuck? “I’m outta here.”
She beat him to the door. “No, you don’t. Have a seat.”
“Rox, it’s been a hellacious day. I’m not up for this.”
“You’re not going to let Gina go, are you?”
Vic analyzed her. What the hell kind of angle could she be playing?
“You obviously have feelings for her, or you wouldn’t have behaved so poorly today.”
He sat. “Did Mike tell you? Or Gina?”
“Good. I’m not sure how much Mike knows-I’m assuming you know about what happened on the beach?”
Roxi nodded and he tried to ignore the burning in his cheeks. “Like I said, I don’t know how much Mike knows. Hopefully not a lot, and I need it to stay that way. He gets fucked-excuse my French-in the head about this subject.”
“Tell me about it. I live with him.”
With his elbows propped on the table, Vic lowered his head into his hands. “I’m tired.” His Southern drawl slipped and he smacked his lips together. He’d learned to hide the accent, but at times it made itself evident.
Roxi squeezed his wrist. “I know, but you have to fix this. I’ll deal with Michael. He was wrong to interfere. It’s not fair to Gina, though. Did you at least apologize?”
Vic eyed the door.
“You didn’t?” Roxann shook her head.
She put up her hands. “Did you say the words I’m sorry? Nothing else counts.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. What. The. Fuck. “She’s got me all twisted up. I’m trying to do the right thing. Mike asked me to stay away, given the dangerous job and all, and I do care about Gina. I don’t want her to get hurt again.”
He had to make her understand. “Rox, I love my job and I’m good at it. I can’t throw away years of training.”
“So, it’s the job or Gina? No happy medium?”
“No. I’m alone for a reason. I don’t have to worry about anyone but me.”
Good thing too, because right now, with this Sirhan crap, he only had himself to worry about.
“Why couldn’t you help run the business rather than going into the field?”
Vic scoffed. “You’re not listening. I want to be in the middle of it. I like it.”
Gina came through the door. And glared at Vic.
“Rox, I’m sorry,” she said. “Lily isn’t feeling well and we’re going to head home. Michael said he’d take us.”
Roxann puckered her lips. That couldn’t be good for him.
“Vic can take you.”
What the fuck? “Huh?”
“I need Michael to help me here. The boys can stay and have dinner. We’ll bring them later. You take care of Lily.”
The two of them stared at her, but Rox had that blonde girl smile going for her and Vic didn’t want to argue. Not in her own home. At least some of his aunt’s lessons had stuck.
“Sure,” he said.
“Great,” Gina said.
“Wonderful,” Roxann said.
Lily fell asleep in the car. Poor kid was dead on her feet. Vic pulled his Tahoe into the driveway behind Gina’s house and parked next to her mini SUV. The narrow alley had houses packed tight on both sides, and when a car went barreling through, Vic had the urge to holler at the driver to slow down. What if Lily had been playing in the driveway? Asshole.
The evening sun faded fast, but the temperature was hanging in there. He looked up at the sky-no clouds. Stars would abound. A good night for a sail.
“I’ll carry her in,” he said.
“It’s okay. I’ll wake her up. Roxann is waiting dinner for you.”
He snorted. “Roxann is not waiting and you know it.”
Nothing doin’ on that idea. She sent enough food with Gina to feed them for three days. No, Roxann pretty much beat him over the head with the idea he should not come back. She wanted him to square things with Gina. He wanted to square things with Gina. He couldn’t take her being pissed at him.
Vic opened the rear passenger door and scooped Lily up. The kid was a peanut. “We need to talk,” he said.
“Let me get her settled first.”
He cradled Lily in his arms and got a whiff of strawberries. Probably her shampoo. Lily was obsessed with strawberries. She ate them nonstop, wore them on her clothes, her barrettes, her socks. Whatever she could think of. Sweet kid. He kissed her on the forehead.
“She feels hot. Does she have a fever?”
“I think so. I’ll give her something.”
“Is she going to be okay?” Damn, he adored Lily.
“It’s probably the stomach flu.”
Vic went through the kitchen and dining room to the living room. Gina’s house had to be a hundred years old. One of those old brick deals that could withstand the worst hurricane-force winds. The carpet had a broken-in feel he liked. He hated houses resembling museums. He didn’t want to get screamed at when he accidentally dumped a beer.
He marched up the creaking steps into Lily’s room and deposited her on the bed. He glanced around the pretty room. A typical little girl space with dolls on the shelves and pink bed linens. One tall dresser, white with pink trim, and a framed picture of her dad on top sat along the far wall. Oh, and how could he have guessed? Strawberries on the wallpaper.
He snorted. “I’ll wait downstairs. We’ll talk when you’re done here.”
Talking. His favorite thing in the world. Kill me now.
Vic had set food and dishes on the table. Gina stood in the doorway of her little kitchen trying to remember the last time she’d found a meal ready for her. Danny had done it, but she couldn’t place when and the agony that came with being a widow shattered her rib cage. Losing the memory of those little moments destroyed her. How could she not remember the last time her husband, her high school sweetheart and a man she’d treasured, had prepared a meal? She’d taken too much for granted back then.
After Danny died, she repainted the kitchen a bright, sunny yellow. Mealtime had been family time and they’d spent countless hours huddled around the table, laughing, telling stories, hearing about everyone’s day. In the beginning, the memories were too painful and altering the kitchen seemed like a fresh start. She and the kids still did family time, but there was now a new cherry table for four to go with the updated wall color.
Vic stuck his head up from the refrigerator. “Salad dressing?”
“On the shelf. Toward the back. The kids can’t remember to put it on the door.” She looked at the table again. He’d even put her place setting in the spot she usually sat. “This is nice. Thank you.”
He cracked open the bottle of salad dressing. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m eating too. I’m starved and it’ll probably take me the next hour to figure out how to convince you I’m sorry. I figure we can eat while I talk.”
She smiled at his logic. Nothing came between a man and a good meal. “You’re allowed to eat. Just because I’m mad at you doesn’t mean I never want to see you again.”
Scraping the chair back for her, Vic held out a hand and she sat down. At least they were being civil.
Gina began doling out food. “I’m confused about today. We seem to be stuck between friends and something more.”
This would be torture for Vic, but why should they beat around the bush? Sweat peppered his upper lip. Sweat? Over a conversation? This man was completely terrified of emotional upheaval.
“Here it is,” he said. “When you told me you’d been with someone else, it surprised me. I try not to think about you being on dates. I also don’t bring dates around when I know you’ll be there.”
The fork stopped midway to her mouth. “You do that?”
He huffed. “Can you give me some credit for being a decent guy? I don’t think it would be right to put some girl in front of you after what happened downstairs. And on the beach.”
“I wasn’t flaunting that I’d been with someone. At least, I didn’t set out to.”
He propped his elbows on the table. “I’m sorry for being shitty to you. Like every other time my emotions take over, I acted like an ass. I’m sorry.”
Gina took her half-eaten meal to the sink. She needed something to do. Were they really having this conversation? Would it get them anywhere? She stared out the kitchen window at the house on the other side of the alley. The Jeffersons lived there, and every time Danny would see them he’d sing the theme song from the old sitcom. She could still hear him. “Movin’ on up…” She laughed at the thought.
“You know, after Danny died, one of his firefighter friends brought me a letter he’d written.” She stopped. Swallowed hard. Let the chill running through her subside. “He must have sensed something might happen, because he wrote it a few months before he died.”
She turned toward the table.
Vic shifted in his chair. “You shouldn’t tell me this. It’s between you and Danny.”
“It’s okay. I need for you to understand.” She took the seat next to Vic. She’d never told anyone about the letter and felt a pang of something inside. Regret? Guilt for sharing Danny’s thoughts?
She shook it off. “He apologized for leaving me to raise three kids. He shared his hopes for the kids, things he wanted me to tell them, but the important thing was he asked me to give them a stable home. To make them as comfortable as I could without a dad.”
Gina stopped, cleared her clogging throat. She grabbed a napkin from the table, blew her nose.
“Please. Let’s not do this.”
Vic’s lips went white. Probably from the pressure of squeezing them shut. He had to learn to relax about this stuff. He was easygoing about everything else, but anything involving emotions seemed taboo with him.
“I need you to understand,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. Suppose you and I decide we want to be a couple, and I start bringing you around. We have dinners together, go places with the kids. They’d get used to it. They love you anyway, so it would be easy for them.”
With a nod, he said, “It would be easy for me too.”
“I don’t know what your real job is. I think I make pretty accurate assumptions because I run the company checks. I see your expense reports. I know you’ve been in Afghanistan and Israel over the last two months. Those are dangerous places. If you become part of our lives and I have to sit home while you’re on a trip, I’ll go crazy. I would always wonder if you’re okay. Heck, I wonder a little bit now. If we were a couple, it would distract me from giving my kids what my husband asked. Part of having a stable environment is having a mother who is consistent with her emotions.”
Vic shrugged. “I get that. Believe me. It’s why I’m not married. It’s why I never let myself get close to thinking about it. I don’t want to check in. I need to stay focused and I can’t do that when I get emotional. You saw it today.”
The phone rang. Gina thought about ignoring it, but what if it was one of the boys? She grabbed the cordless from the base on the wall, checked the ID.
“It’s Michael’s number.” She clicked the talk button. “Hello? Hi, Rox. Lily’s fine. She’s sleeping. Vic and I are talking… Hmmm. Are you sure? No, I don’t mind.”
She hung up. Oh boy.
“What’s up?” he asked, putting his dirty dish in the sink.
“The boys are staying there tonight. They want to watch Friday the 13th on Michael’s new television.”
Vic laughed. “I don’t blame them. It’s a kick-ass TV.”
“Boys and their toys. Anyway, are we going anywhere with this conversation?”
Leaning against the counter, dressed in his faded jeans and his beat-up sandals, he finally relaxed.
“We probably understand each other better.”
Gina went to him but stayed back a foot. No sense getting too close and self-combusting. Whenever she entered his orbit, something in her brain went whacky and all she wanted was to cuddle up with him.
“We can’t continue to avoid each other,” she said. “If we’re not going to move forward, we should feel free to date other people. You’re at all of our family functions. Why should you feel like you can’t bring women around?”
“I don’t like that idea.”
Holding her hands palm up, Gina asked, “What are we going to do, spend the next ten years not bringing dates around? That’s not okay with me. I want to be able to have someone in my life again. I don’t need a man, but I’d like companionship. I’d like my kids to have a man around.”
And if Vic couldn’t be that man, she had to let him go. Disappointment crept into her heart. Maybe she wouldn’t get over lusting after him, but she’d live with it. She’d had practice.
Gina held his attention as he took a deep breath and shook his head. “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
For a thirty-six-year-old man who’d seen so much death, he was clueless. “When you care about someone, it should be hard. We can’t continue to do this. It’s not fair to either one of us. It doesn’t mean we can’t care about each other.”
God, this sucked. Her body went numb. They weren’t even a couple and it felt like a breakup. Or maybe a loss of hope. She had hope for her children, but when it came to her own life, she wasn’t sure anymore. She had to raise three kids. Her life had to wait.
Gina swiped at her eyes. And now she was crying. Fabulous.
Vic wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. “I can’t give you what you need. I want to. I really do, but I can’t find the compromise.”
Settling her head against his chest, she inhaled. Vic always had a clean, salty-air scent and it tore something inside of her loose. She ran her hands over his back, just for a second, to savor it. He stroked her hair and she glanced up at him, the silence in the room causing her lungs to strain. She should break the contact. Step back.
And then he kissed her.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Not doing this.
But his kiss was an unexpected gentle touch of his lips, so different from the night on the beach. Last time had been fast and searing. This kiss had her falling, falling, falling. Just enjoy it. Only for a few seconds. Then she’d push him away.
His goatee pricked her chin, but she didn’t want to stop. Ever. Not when her body craved his warmth. They connected on too many levels for it to end.
“We should stop, right?” Vic asked, kissing her again.
For a man who didn’t like to talk, why the hell was he talking?
“Probably,” she replied without removing her hands from his butt. How her hands got there, she had no idea.
Then he backed her into the counter and it was all over.