Authors: Rachel Trautmiller
Not pain etched a mile wide, inside her eyes. And a quick escape. All because of one outburst they hadn’t seen coming. A shift in a harmless looking storm.
He blew a breath between his lips. Managed to slow his heart a fraction. Walking in hot wouldn’t do either of them any good.
He hadn’t been this tied in knots since...
A long time ago, the answer to the question would have been never. That was before one sassy detective got under his skin and turned his world upside down. Before he realized he couldn’t live without the universe being in the ultimate Nettles Trendelenburg.
Robinson rapped his knuckles across her door, the motion as needed as an apple corer for a banana. AtEase, or Addie, as Amanda referred to the security system as, had already alerted the woman inside. With it, she’d known of his approach thirty seconds before his flesh had hit the door.
Had it given her enough time to store up her arsenal of sassy retorts? Or perfect her mask of indifference, so no one could tell the difference between true happiness and getting by?
There was always the slight chance she wouldn’t open the door at all. Leaving him to wonder about everything.
The humiliation of this venture. Her Audi parked in the lot. Why she hadn’t joined any task forces in the last six months. If she’d even listen to him now.
All of it kicked a healthy dose of anger through his system.
turn around. Forget this. Move on. Listen to his brain, for once, the only organ interested in saving the rest of him.
The door swung open. Amanda stood on the other side, a black lacy shirt layered above a purple camisole. Light colored jeans clung to her long legs and probably her toned backside. One hand rested out of sight, on the other side of the door, her torso leaning against the partially open entry.
As if his presence, at her door, were perfectly normal.
“What’s up?” Scotch-colored eyes zeroed in on his face, steady and serious. Brown hair he’d run his fingers through on numerous occasions rested below her chin, in a stylish bob. The pristine ponytail she’d worn at the nape of her neck, for years, was gone.
“You cut your hair.” He applied pressure to the corner of his tongue with his teeth. Wanted to snatch the words back. Come up with something a little cleverer. A sentence sure to knock her casual words—as if he were a pesky neighbor always coming over to borrow sugar—into orbit.
Her free hand flicked to the strands. “People do that.”
“I like it.”
Shock and some indescribable emotion covered her face for half a second. “Likely story.”
Hmm, he really did. It brought out her plump lips and upturned eyes. Although, she could probably shave her head and he’d still find her attractive. Of course, he’d try to talk her out of the decision.
“Can I come in?”
As if she couldn’t decide if he were a wolf in sheep’s clothing or not, hesitation slid over her features.
If he let it fester, she’d find a way to dismiss him. So, he harnessed his inner jerk and advanced toward her. The poor schmuck had been waiting for an opportunity to rise to the occasion, anyway.
Why not now?
Amanda didn’t move. Centered those scotch orbs on him and watched his approach with something akin to amusement dancing behind annoyance. “It’s not like you’re giving me much choice.” Those eyes bounced from where she stood to his feet and back.
This, he could work with. Didn’t have many options if he wanted to succeed. Three young girls depended on it.
Yeah. That’s all it was. Somebody else’s life hung in the balance. Not his.
“I need a favor.”
“So, you feel the need to stand on top of me?” Those plump lips pressed together as he rested inches from her. Close enough to bend down and brush his mouth against hers.
“There’s plenty of room.” Too much space between them. And months of separation hadn’t cooled the need.
The smell of wild flowers, exotic and all Amanda, rushed across his nose. The pulse at her neck had picked up speed. As if she were fighting the urge, her gaze flicked toward his lips and then back up.
His body hummed with the possibilities.
A kiss wouldn’t change anything between them. Once his mouth left hers, all of the pain would come rushing back.
With no solution.
Her lips parted on an exhale, her body shuffling back an inch. Those expressive eyes turned distant and a little cold. “I’m sure you don’t have to stoop to my level to find someone worthy of carrying your cause.”
A solar flare of irritation slid down his spine. It spread like poison injected directly to the jugular. He ground his teeth together. Tried to tell himself this was better than stoic silence. Or any of its counterparts. “Turns out I do. And I wouldn’t call it stooping, as much as a hand up.”
And he was sick of working with a know-it-all hotshot with more concern about climbing the ladder than saving lives. “Detective Brink has spent too much time around computers. His brain is warped with binary code.”
“Watch out for those nerds.” A bit of sass lingered beneath words meant to come off as bored-with-this-conversation. Idiot that he was, a tendril of hope sprung in his chest. One he knew better than to let spread.
Amanda still hadn’t stepped aside. Hadn’t offered to let him pass.
Would he have to force his way inside? Maybe.
Young life. In need of saving.
A loud crash drew her attention to something inside the apartment. She twirled toward it, her movements quick and a little panicked. An expletive came from her mouth.
What in the world? Robinson stepped inside and shut the door.
“How did you get up there?” Amanda reached the counter, which separated the kitchen from the living room. A laptop was at her feet. Two barstools were pulled together, creating a ladder of sorts. A glass bowl balanced on the edge of the eating surface. She pushed it back and extended her arms toward the cabinets above her. One door was open as Riley Bening scrambled on top of the compartment.
“Alright, sweetie. Let’s get you down before your mom kills me.”
Riley had a grin on her face as she crawled forward on hands and knees, between the cabinets and the ceiling. Oblivious to the end of the structure. And the plunge to the island and hard floor beneath. The toddler scurried across the shelves as if this were a game. Two more inches...
His heart launched into his throat.
Amanda hoisted one leg on the Formica surface. Robinson stepped forward and half push-lifted her upward. If one hand on her waist, the other on the nicest backside he’d ever had the pleasure to touch, bothered her, she didn’t show it. Instead, she centered herself on the counter. Hunched below the ceiling. And reached for the child.
Riley squashed herself into the corner of the wall. Shook her blonde head as if Amanda were messing up her groove.
“Come on, honey. I want to live another day. So do you.” She placed one hand on the toddler’s arm, the other scooping under the opposite armpit. Pulled her off the perch and hugged her. A cry erupted from the little girl, who arched her back and squirmed toward her previous playhouse. Each movement threw Amanda’s balance off-kilter.
“Careful.” The words left his mouth, full of worry.
She flashed him a quick glare. Then her attention returned to the girl. “Hold still. We’ll get down and—”
The toddler kicked out. Amanda’s hold loosened. Riley started to fall. The older woman retained a grip on her arm. Attempted to regain a hold around the child’s torso. The motion caused her to step to the left. Into the glass bowl she’d moved earlier.
And then they were both going down.
He moved into their path. Grabbed Amanda’s middle as she collided with his shoulder. The force unsteadied him and sent him backward. He shifted to avoid landing on both girls. His shoulder hit the corner of an end table, something sharp ripping into his skin. And then they met the floor. The impact stole most of the air from his lungs.
Terror took the rest.
Nobody stirred, the heavy pound of his heart lodged in his ears. And then the spit and vinegar version of both Jordan and McKenna sat up in Amanda’s arms and grinned. “Again!” The toddler stood, one fist in the air.
“No.” Their voices melded into one.
Amanda’s gaze connected with his and a puff of air left her lips. That awareness—a heightened sense of touch and smell combined with the heady rush of desire he only experienced with this woman—stretched between them. If he could grab ahold of it and reel her in forever, he would.
Those gorgeous amber orbs scanned his head. Noted the table he’d crashed into. “You hurt?”
Yes. Everywhere. Bleeding out. “What do you think I am? A wimpy girl?”
A genuine smile lit her lips. The first one he’d seen since the wedding. And he owed it to a one-and-a-half-year-old. He’d have to thank the kid later. After he got his heart back into a normal rhythm. Made sure he hadn’t pissed himself.
“How about you?” He asked.
“A girl, but not wimpy.”
Now, it was his turn to grin. The motion was foreign. Had he been without humor as long as Amanda?
An image of New Year’s forced its way into his mind. Two months of broken communication and an official letter from the state of North Carolina had forced him to corner her inside the house of a friend, during a celebration they should have been enjoying together.
He’d seen the shadows under her eyes. The way her smile never added a sparkle. Watched her almost passionless work ethic. In that moment, the woman he loved was gone. Stripped away by an event neither of them could control.
He’d meant to hold her. Let her know he understood all those emotions, because they lurked beneath his skin. He didn’t have the luxury of embodying them. Not with his sister and niece to care for.
Instead of careful words, ones that would let her know she wasn’t alone, he’d drawn her into a darkened spare bedroom.
The bond they had was special, right down to her sassy quips and his jerk-like qualities. Losing that was a crime. It was a sin.
The rest was his own doing.
Riley appeared with an orange book. Plopped it on his chest, right in front of Amanda’s head. “Peas.” The child’s face lit up as she drew out the word. Neither adult moved. Excitement quickly changed to frustration. “Peas.”
Amanda let out a bark of laughter that sent vibrations into his side. Poor schmuck that he was, the sound filled his head and landed in the organ in his chest. The one that didn’t operate well without this woman.
He’d do more than thank the kid. He’d buy her a pony. Or a car. A drum set.
“Very bossy. Just like your mommy.” Amanda sat up. “Do you want to read?”
The child nodded once. “’Kay.” She ran to the couch, hoisted herself on it and sat. Little legs kicked to some inaudible tune. Then she wiggled from the space and swiped another book. Started reading in complete toddler gibberish.
“I’m getting too old for this.” He sat up. Brought a hand to the sting in one shoulder blade. His other moved the reading material aside.
She stood. Offered a hand. “Rescuing me or lying on the hard floor?”
“Both.” He clasped her fingers, a charge of electricity traveling up his arm as he stood. Did she still feel it, too?
“So, I should find a new hero?” A hint of mischief sparkled in her eyes. She didn’t drop his hand.
Heck, no. “Every hero must retire. I’m a hard act to follow, so I’d start the interview process ASAP.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the advice.”
If he’d known championing over a short fall with precious cargo was what it took to break the ice between them, he’d have hired Miss Riley Bening to act as liaison much sooner.
Figures. The little urchin was bound to be a meddling guru by age two. He was surprised she wasn’t wielding a gun and shouting orders already.
As if Amanda realized they were touching and talking, she pulled her hand from his. Picked up the laptop at her feet. Set it on the counter. Then she tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. And fiddled with the device in front of her. Avoided eye contact with him.
She hadn’t kicked him out. That was a plus. “Where’s McKenna, anyway?”
“She ran to the store. She might have mentioned her daughter possessed crazy, death-defying skills.” Amanda turned in his direction, then, and every fleck of brown in her irises zeroed in on him.
An instant hum traveled through his bloodstream. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be on the other end of her full attention. He’d merely been going through a severe Amanda drought and it had frazzled his brain to the point of no return.
Not to mention other organs.
As if she knew the way of his thoughts, she tucked her bottom lip inward for a second. “Thanks for breaking our fall.”
“Anytime, A.J.” He’d spent the better part of his career stuck in less than stellar situations with this woman. Been injured. Rescued victims. Arrested criminals. Trading moments wasn’t his style. He wouldn’t change a thing.