Authors: Suzanne Brockmann
ALSO BY SUZANNE BROCKMANN
Into the Fire
All Through the Night
Force of Nature
Into the Storm
Gone Too Far
Into the Night
Out of Control
Over the Edge
The Defiant Hero
The Unsung Hero
To my hero, Paul Newman
When I was in my early teens, I went to a matinee of
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
—a movie that remains, to this day, my all-time favorite. I've since seen it more times than I can count, but I'll always remember my very first viewing. Because I went into that theater a little girl—a rough-and-tumble tomboy—but when I walked out, I was a woman.
Even though, at that time, Robert Redford was being touted as the hot new star, it was Paul who caught my young but discerning eye on that momentous day.
And, as if the sky had opened and a thousand-voice choir of angels had broken into a resounding and fiery chorus of Barry White's “You're the First, the Last, My Everything,” I sat in that dark theater, transfixed by all that was Paul. And I suddenly and absolutely got it. I understood—
— why boys existed, and what they were good for.
I was thirteen, he was forty-something, but this was not a schoolgirl crush. It was true, abiding, long-lasting love. (The salad dressing, popcorn, and lemonade, with all proceeds going to charity, only cemented my adoration.)
Thank you, Paul, for being wonderful, talented, generous, smart, funny, and wickedly gorgeous. You made the world an immensely more beautiful and better place, and you will be missed.
A special thank-you to the enormously supportive team at Ballantine Books, especially Jennifer Hershey for suggesting that Dana Isaacson fill in for her as editor while she was busy adding to her family! And thank
Dana, for being so wicked awesome. Thanks also to Courtney Moran, Crystal Velasquez, Kim Hovey, Kate Blum, and Libby McGuire.
Snaps to Steve Axelrod, the world's best agent.
Thanks to the home team: Ed and Jason Gaffney, Eric Ruben, Apolo-nia Davalos, Fred and Lee Brockmann, Kathy Lague, the fabulous Kuhlmans, and the world's most awesome schnauzer puppies, CK Dexter-Haven and Lil’ Joe.
Thanks to my first-draft readers: Ed Gaffney, Lee Brockmann, Deede Bergeron, Patricia McMahon, and Scott Lutz.
Thanks also to the members of my political “debate club”—Bill, Jodie and Joan Kuhlman, Randy Divinski, Deede Bergeron, Patricia McMahon and, of course, Ed. You guys helped make campaign season bearable.
A big shout out to my steadfast gang of readers/volunteers—Elizabeth and Lee Benjamin, Suzie Bernhardt, Stephanie Hyacinth, Jim and Beki Keene, Laura Luke, Jeanne Mangano, Heather McHugh, Peggy Mitchell, Dorbert Ogle, Gail Reddin, Erika Schutte, and Sue Smallwood.
As always, any mistakes I've made or liberties I've taken are completely my own.
Sophia kissed him.
Dave Malkoff sat there, on a standard-issue stool in a generic travelers’ bar off the lobby of an equally unremarkable Sacramento hotel, as Sophia. Kissed. Him.
It wasn't an accident. She hadn't lost her balance and bumped into his lips with hers. No, no, that
her tongue lazily but quite intentionally exploring the inside of his mouth, her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck, her lovely, lithe body pressing against him until she hit the barrier of the wooden seat between his open legs and could get no closer.
She tasted both sweet and salty, like the wine she'd been drinking mere moments ago, like the tears he knew she'd shed when the news had come down that James Nash was dead.
Dave's stomach twisted and his heart clenched, and he almost— almost—pulled away to ask Sophia if this—this kiss, this embrace—was some kind of knee-jerk reaction to her grief over the loss of their friend and co-worker.
The word made it sound as if he and Sophia and Nash had adjoining cubicles in some fluorescent-lit office somewhere. Instead, their
had been gunned down as a result of their Troubleshooters Incorporated team—with Dave as reluctant leader—having taken on a no-pay assignment that went bad.
And yes, thanks in part to Nash's sacrifice, the rest of the team was finally safe—including all of the hostages that had been taken.
Hostages that included Sophia Ghaffari.
Who was now kissing him.
As in David Malkoff.
She was kissing him as a direct result of his having, earlier that day, blurted out the fact that he was in love with her, making this entire situation even that much more bizarre.
It was only in his wildest dreams that he'd ever imagined confessing his feelings. He and Sophia were friends, buddies, pals. For years, he'd been terrified of ruining their comfortable relationship by revealing the pathetic truth. For years, he'd convinced himself that he was content to love this incredible woman from afar—to keep his feelings for her hidden, unrequited and pure.
And in those wildest dreams, if he did fantasize summoning the courage to speak his heart, he'd never imagined her reacting with anything other than kindness. She'd wince at the thought of hurting him, then gently pat his hand while telling him how much she valued his loyalty and friendship.
The idea that she might actually consider his announcement something of value, and then try to touch his tonsils with her tongue, had never,
crossed his boggled mind.
And yet, this was the reality in which he now lived.
A reality in which her breasts were soft against his chest. A reality in which she angled her head and opened her mouth wider so that he could lick his way into her mouth. And dear God, the sensation of Sophia's tongue against his own flooded him with a wave of heat and need so intense his knees went weak—thank God he was sitting down.
And still she kissed him, right there in that extremely public bar, in the very hotel where a large number of their other co-workers from Trouble -shooters Incorporated were also staying. Anyone could walk in and see them. Their boss, Tom Paoletti. Tom's second-in-command, Alyssa Locke. Their mutual friend and James Nash's former partner, Lawrence Decker.
And okay, thinking about Decker instead of focusing his full attention on the fact that he was kissing Sophia was probably not the smartest thing Dave had ever done.
Sure enough, as if she'd read his mind, Sophia finally ended the kiss.
She pulled back, the tip of her tongue a pink flash against her lips, as if she were savoring the taste of him—though she was more likely cleaning up any excess saliva he'd left behind because, face it, when it came to kissing, he was sorely out of practice. But then there they were, his heart damn near pounding out of his chest, that soft lower lip he'd just thoroughly and intimately enjoyed now caught between Sophia's teeth as she gazed searchingly at him, a question—or maybe it was just blanket uncertainty—in her crystal blue eyes.
Dave had to laugh, because the idea that she could kiss him like that and remain at all doubtful as to his enthusiastically positive response was ridiculous.
His arms were still around her. She was still standing between his legs, her fingers still playing with his hair, which felt about four million times better than he'd ever imagined. She smiled then, too, laughter lines crinkling the corners of eyes that both glistened with sadness and sparkled with life. She was so beautiful—and even more gorgeous inside, in her generous soul—that he couldn't speak.
So he kissed her again.
As he lowered his mouth to hers, before he closed his eyes, he caught a glimpse of Sam Starrett—a co-worker from the San Diego office and husband to company XO Alyssa Locke—in the mirror behind the bar.
“Whoa,” he was pretty sure he heard Sam say as the kiss Dave had intended to be as sweet and tender as the one Sophia had just given him turned into something else. Something molten and powerful and scary as hell—or it would have been had this woman not turned to fire in his arms. She was kissing him back with the same amount of need, molding herself to him even as he damn near crushed her in his arms.
And when he pulled back—because, God!—she was breathing as hard as he was. Again, she just stood there, this time her forehead pressed against his as she labored to catch her breath.
“We should probably … um …” Dave couldn't do more than whisper, couldn't really figure out
they should do, other than get out of there, because, yes, that was Alyssa in the lobby right outside the bar door, talking on her cell phone.
“Go.” Sophia finished his sentence for him, pulling back to nod her agreement.
Somehow Dave let go of her, and she gathered up her jacket—a huge
Windbreaker that one of the paramedics had given her some hours ago, to ward off the chill of the evening in the mountains. She also took her wineglass and his mug of beer, both of which had magically been refilled, no doubt by the attentive barkeep, and headed briskly for the door.
Dave couldn't walk out of there without adjusting his pants, so he tried to do it surreptitiously—and failed. It was a stare-into-space, grab-and-pull kind of move, only he managed to meet Sam Starrett's eyes in the bar mirror. Dave quickly looked away, but it was too late. He saw speculation in the former SEAL's eyes. Surprise was there, too—a heavy dollop of
Sophia's with Malkoff? No way…
But it was the speculation—where were they going and what were they going to do when they got there?— that bothered Dave and made him stop at Starrett's bar stool instead of following Sophia out the door.
“It's been a long day,” Dave told his immediate superior's husband. “I'm just going to see Sophia up to her room.”
Almost as handsome as James Nash had been, Starrett was Texas-born and -raised, with a cowboy drawl and good ol’ boy attitude, both of which came and went at whim. He'd draped his long, rangy frame on one of the stools, his booted foot claiming possession of another for his wife—no doubt his version of “save, save, super-save.” His Texas-sky eyes were guarded as he met Dave's gaze, as he tactfully didn't call Dave's obvious bullshit. “I'm sorry for your loss, Malkoff. I didn't know Nash all that well, but he was …” Sam cleared his throat. “He'll be missed.” He looked at Sophia, who'd come back into the bar to see what had slowed Dave down. “I'm glad you're safe, though. You must be feeling, uh …” Another throat clearage. “You know, relief can be a pretty consuming emotion, so—”
“Which is why I'm seeing Sophia to her room,” Dave cut him off. “Good night.”
As he turned and headed for the door, his hand against Sophia's back, he could feel Starrett's gaze following them.
She was silent as they went toward the elevator, as they joined two elderly women, one with a walker, who were waiting for the lift to arrive.
Dave took his mug and had a healthy slug of his beer. The door opened with a ding, and after the little old lady faction had boarded, he let Sophia go first. He didn't need to ask what floor she was on. They'd checked in at the same time—he knew they were both on four.
The door closed and as the elevator groaned its way upward Dave felt Sophia reach out and touch him, her fingers hooking on his belt at the back of his pants. He didn't dare look at her, didn't dare touch her, didn't dare say a word. He just kept his eyes on the numbers appearing above the door. Two. Come on. Three. God, this thing was slow.
Four. Finally. The number lit but the elevator seemed to hover in limbo for eons before a bell rang and the doors opened.
And then they were alone in the hall, and the elevator door was closing, and Sophia finally spoke. “What you told Sam,” she said, leading him down the corridor as she fished in her pocket for her key card. “You weren't… Were you …” She laughed and started again as she took the card from its paper folder and slid it into the lock. “He's right, you know. About relief being …” The green light flashed and the lock clicked, and Sophia grabbed the handle and opened the door, holding it there as she turned to look up at him, her pretty face somber. “That's not what this is.”
Dave nodded as he looked, hard, into her eyes. “I know,” he whispered. He also knew what—precisely—this
The first runner-up could still get the prize if the real winner bowed out.
over the past few weeks as Troubleshooters team leader Lawrence Decker had made it profoundly clear that he had no room in his life for Sophia, who'd fancied herself in love with him for years. No doubt about it—the man was a moron to have pushed her away.
But he had. And now Sophia claimed that she'd come to terms with the fact that sitting around and waiting for Decker to get a moron-ectomy wasn't going to get her the things she wanted. A home with a man who loved her. A family.
“You coming in?” she asked, holding the door open and turning back to look at him as he leaned there against the wall.
With her shimmering blond hair, delicately featured face, gracefully shaped mouth, perfect nose, huge blue eyes, that fairy-princess point to her chin, Dave found her to be so beautiful, his throat ached. Or maybe it was aching because he knew—as her best friend and confidant for so many years—just how damaged she truly was. He knew how hard she'd worked to regain the semblance of a normal life, to overcome the violence and tragedy of her past.
He also knew that she hadn't had sex in years.
Neither had he. Which she, of course as
best friend, also knew.
This was going to be … Dave searched for the correct adjective.
was up there with
Was there a word that included all three?
wasn't quite right and …
“You don't have to if you don't want to,” she said, and he realized that his delay in response had retriggered her uncertainty.
“I'm an idiot,” he said, coming inside and closing the door behind him, leaning on it so that it latched, throwing the bolt and the night lock, too. “I was just relishing the moment and—”
“Are you scared?” she interrupted.
He blinked at her directness. “Yes, but not for the reasons you think.”
She smiled at that.
Dave had to smile, too, as he looked around the room for a place to put down his beer mug. “We don't exactly have a lot of secrets, do we?”
“I still have a few,” she admitted as she put her jacket over the desk chair and kicked off her shoes. “And I'm betting you do, too.”
The room was standard as far as hotels went. Nice enough in size, with a neutral décor that neither pleased nor offended, and a king-sized bed that he forced himself not to look at. There was a cluster of furniture—a small table and several chairs—over by the windows, and he headed toward its relative neutrality.
“I'm not scared,” she told him as she set her wineglass down on the bedside table. “At least I wasn't while you were kissing me. Which is something I desperately want you to do again. Which is going to be difficult with you over there and me over here.”
“I'm trying to give you space,” Dave told her through a heart that was securely lodged in his throat. She
wanted him to kiss her again.
“No, thank you,” she said.
“Because, see, we should probably talk and I'm not sure I can do that with your tongue in my mouth. Which is not to say I didn't
“We can talk more later. If we need to. I mean, we've talked for years.” She held out her hand to him and his feet moved toward her of their own volition.
So he spoke quickly. “It's occurred to me that it's been a while since either of us have taken a shower.”
Sophia went still. It wasn't so much that her expression changed, because
it didn't. She didn't move, she didn't say anything, but Dave stopped short, knowing that he'd somehow said the exact wrong thing.
And in a flash he remembered her telling him—haltingly—about her captivity, about how the other women would bathe her. They'd put perfume in her hair and on her body, dress her completely in white—the better for the blood to show, should a man prefer that sort of thing.
“I meant me,” he added hastily. “I'm pretty sure I reek—”
“I love the way you smell,” Sophia told him, tears in her eyes because she knew he knew. And likewise he knew
knew he was now— absolutely—terrified of making another insensitive blunder. “I've always loved the way you smell.”
“Really?” Dork that he was, his voice actually cracked, but she didn't seem to notice or care as she nodded. He took her hands. “Soph …”
Tell me what to do, what you need. …
She answered his unspoken question. “Just kiss me the way you kissed me downstairs.”
He pulled her close, and she went up on her toes to meet him halfway as he covered her mouth with his own. He didn't try for tender, didn't go for sweet—not that it would have made a difference if he had, because trying to wrangle the heat that sprang up instantly between them would have been as futile as trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a baby blanket.