Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
“Not at all.” He hoisted his duffel bag onto his shoulder, wary of her mood but cautiously optimistic that she seemed more in control of her panic. “I just like to know what I’m up against.”
He moved as close to her as he could without touching. He wanted to touch, more and more with every second. But at the moment, invading her personal space was a calculated move. It was time to settle the question at hand.
Was she ready to work with him after attempting to keep his presence there a secret from Dawson, or not?
“Why would you think you’re up against anything?” she asked. Her chin lifted. “You’re just here to keep me company, right? So I’m not alone?”
He nodded. “What else?”
The pulse at the base of her throat told him she felt the same unwilling attraction he did, even if she didn’t understand what it was—the past she couldn’t remember, the history between them, creeping closer with each breath they took.
“Drop your things in the downstairs bedroom,” she offered. “If you’re tired, we can get some rest. Or we can move on to digging into more of my secrets while you get to keep yours safely intact.”
It was an interesting slip he wasn’t entirely sure she’d caught. Precisely which secrets was Shaw’s subconscious suspecting him of keeping? What exactly was her mind ready to dig up?
“Skip the bedroom,” he said, her challenge exciting him on too damn many levels. “Forget sleeping if you’re ready to push forward. Let’s get down to business.”
Shaw would rather run screaming into the night again than take Cole back to the parlor or the kitchen. In those familiar places, it would be too easy to fall into the feelings for him that kept pushing closer, despite how much of an irritable ass she was being in hopes of maintaining some distance.
She escorted him and his overnight bag down the one hallway in the house that was still covered in dust. It was the only corner of her grandmother’s world Shaw hadn’t cleaned in a frenzy, because it freaked her out every time she tried. What better place to assert some emotional boundaries between her and her well-intentioned neighbor?
The air of dissipation surrounding them as they walked came complete with cobwebs cozying up to every nook and cranny. The once-ornate wool carpet cushioning their path was so worn in places you could see hardwood planks beneath the exposed backing. If she’d loved her grandmother’s home the way she wanted to believe she had, if this was where her father had brought her and her brother every summer for vacation, how could she have let the place go to ruin like this? What kind of empty, soulless woman would do something like that?
The closer they drew to her intended destination, a room she’d been in only once since coming back, the more unnerved she became. It was as if this corner of the Victorian projected a sense of foreboding and menace all its own.
Cole stayed at her heels.
Her father’s study loomed ahead.
She slowed nearly to a stop. Her companion barreled into her. He grabbed her shoulders as he stumbled, literally lifting her off her feet to keep from stepping on her. He twisted her body, her legs dangling, until their fronts were smashed together. His face, his ruggedly sculpted lips, and the disarming cleft in his stubbled chin were only inches away.
“What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
His masculine scent held her as enthralled as before. The strength of his arms around her, combined with the spark of concern in the hypnotic blue of his gaze, was unsettlingly familiar.
She closed her eyes against the feeling of sinking that took hold each time he touched her.
“No. I…” Memories battered the edges of her mind, trampling through her disordered understanding, rioting to be heard if she could only figure out how. “It’s not real. I know it’s not real, but…”
“What’s not real?” he asked.
Breaking her vow not to scare Cole away by doing what she’d longed to since first setting eyes on him, she kissed him. Those inviting lips, chiseled cheekbones, and the lids of his bad-boy eyes. She tasted him…and…
A savory mixture of needing and wanting and having burst to life within her. It wasn’t a beginning, the molten desire that consumed her. It held the full-on rage of completion. It was a craving for something she’d denied herself for too long, something that could own her forever, in ways that would refuse to let her go.
Her hands brushed up Cole’s arms. She clung to his shoulders just as she’d promised herself she wouldn’t. Her heart beat wildly against her ribs, her body betraying her, until all of her was throbbing as if they’d just made love.
“Shaw?” His grip on her tightened in a predatory way. “No.”
Then he was pushing her back.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Humiliated, she made herself stay perfectly still as he slid her feet to the ground.
He would go away now for sure. He’d go away and always think of her as the crazy woman who’d thrown herself at him with absolutely no provocation. She’d accosted him. And where a minute ago she’d bristled at the effortless superiority he’d exuded when he’d waltzed in her front door and once more began asking questions, she couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving now.
She swayed, the effect of her near-sleepless night and the onslaught of anxiety she’d been enduring since her nightmare suddenly overwhelming her.
“Damn it.” The gruff edge to his voice could have been understanding. More likely, it was pity. “Let’s find you somewhere to sit down.”
She gasped when he picked her up, cradling her close, her knees draped over his arm. She tensed to resist, as she had in the kitchen. But her butt nestled so perfectly against the taut muscles rippling beneath the T-shirt he still wore without a jacket, despite the winter temps outside. She found it impossible to push herself away. He walked the rest of the way to the office, as if he’d been there countless times before. He nudged the half-open door wide with the toe of one boot and carted her toward the enormous leather chair behind the mahogany desk.
She expected him to put her down and to back away nervously. Instead, he laid his bag aside and sat. He curled her into his lap as if he wasn’t any more ready to let go than she was. Her head nestled beneath his chin as though it had been crafted to fit precisely there.
“Are you okay, darlin’?” he asked, and it was him saying
, in this room, while she was safe in his embrace, that shredded the rest of her control.
She melted against him, into him, useless tears leaking from the corners of her eyes no matter how hard she tried to blink them away. She had never felt weaker, more defeated, and she had no idea why.
Why now? After weeks of successfully battling the all-consuming emptiness inside her, why did Cole have to be there to witness the last of her defenses come crashing down?
It made no sense, except that he was holding her again, stroking her back and her hair with gentle hands. He was murmuring soft, understanding things, and he knew how to say each word to touch her deep inside. His hold and the contours of his long, lean body were a perfect fit for every part of her. She couldn’t get close enough.
And yet, bizarrely, it made her hurt, feeling his boundaries evaporate along with hers. It made her miss something that didn’t exist outside the chaos in her mind. Except he seemed to be feeling the same things, too. His hold on her was tightening, even as his fingers brushed like a whisper at the moisture on her face.
“Don’t cry,” he said. “It’s going to be okay, Shaw. I won’t let him hurt you anymore.”
It was a simple promise. But his words were moving in her mind, through her memories, unsettling and refocusing things, sending her spiraling into the darkness that had eclipsed her past…
…She was eighteen again, waiting in the office and terrified. She was a teenager with no control, nowhere to run, and no way to avoid the menacing presence in her life. But she wasn’t going to let him see her fear. She wasn’t going to cry one more time.
She was a Cassidy. She could be as powerful and strong as she needed to be. And she’d never needed that legendary Cassidy grit more than this moment.
Her hands were clenched so tightly in her lap, her fingers ached. But she wasn’t moving an inch, not until they finished this latest battle.
A shadow fell across the doorway, causing her to jump.
“Cole!” she squeaked. “You’ve got to get out of here. You’ll make it worse. The only person he hates more than me is you. Besides, this is my fight.”
“I can’t believe you’re sitting here waiting for him to hurt you again.”
“I’m standing up to him this time.” She bunched her fingers in the pleats of her linen dress. The fabric itched and she hated it. She’d rather be wearing a comfortable T-shirt and jeans like Cole always did, but Father insisted this was what young ladies wore, even ones who were set to head off to college in the fall. Her brother got to wear what he liked. Why couldn’t she? “He can’t keep pushing me around or hurt the people I love and threaten me to get his own way.”
“You’re not responsible for stopping him. No one ever stops him from doing and saying whatever he wants to.”
Cole was right. She knew it. But she wasn’t backing down, even while she dreaded the coming confrontation. Cole always saw straight to the core of everything and everyone, even when his perception wasn’t welcome. And he spoke the truth. He didn’t care who didn’t want to hear it or accept it, even when that person turned out to be her.
It was part of why she loved him so much.
Even when they fought and disagreed, she always knew she could trust him.
“I won’t give up and let him win,” she said.
“He won’t stop until he crushes you. Until he runs you away from here or destroys you first. You can leave on your own, Shaw, with me. We can leave tomorrow. I’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of everything. He wants your pride so he can stomp on that, too. Don’t give it to him. He doesn’t deserve it., I don’t care how important family is to you.”
Cole was only a year older than she was, but he was easily a decade wiser. He’d practically raised himself after his mother died and his father hadn’t stopped drinking long enough to plan her funeral. It had happened over the summer last year, and Shaw was thankful she had been there to help Cole take care of the arrangements.
He’d been basically on his own ever since. And what’s more, he didn’t seem to mind. He certainly didn’t understand, after everything they’d shared, why she’d want to fight for what little family she had left.
“He’s my blood,” she said, feeling the loneliness that had deepened within her since her grandmother passed. “I can’t give up on him. I’m going to stand up for myself this time, but—”
“I won’t let him hurt you anymore.”
Cole pulled her from the couch, into his hug—the best hug in the world.
“Shh…” he said when she moaned at the perfect smell of him.
Forest and fresh air and honesty and desperation—all of it, all of him, was there for her whenever she needed him. Cole wanted her. He was the only person in the world besides her grandmother who’d ever completely wanted her.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she said, clinging tighter.
“You’ll never have to find out. It’s going to be okay. I’ll wait here with you. I won’t say a word if you don’t want me to. But you don’t have to face him alone.”
She didn’t realize she was crying until he wiped at her face.
She’d been able to fight back the crazy, sick feeling she always got in the pit of her stomach each time she visited her father’s cold, sterile office. Until Cole’s touch had been there, and his warm voice, and his fiery determination to stand by her side no matter how badly her only remaining family treated her. She snuggled closer. Her arms wrapped around his neck. Her lips brushed against his in shameless need.
“Stay with me,” she pleaded, a second before his kiss healed every broken part of her.
His hands roamed down her back, tracing her rib cage. They cupped her breasts through her dress and cardigan. His groan told her he’d realized she hadn’t worn a bra. He loved the secret ways she found to rebel against her father.
“Shaw…” He said her name as if she were all there was, all there would ever be for him, as if this moment, every moment they could touch and feel and believe they would be together forever, was his whole world.
His hands dropped to her skirt, inching it upward. She gasped, then wiggled closer on her tiptoes, giving herself over to him and the moment, never mind where they were. He lifted her, held her suspended, and cradled as he turned, then sat on the couch with her in his lap, still kissing her.
“Cole,” she begged.
“Don’t cry,” he growled, cupping her face between his work-calloused hands. “It’s going to be okay, Shaw. I won’t let him hurt you anymore. Shaw?”
“Shaw? Are you okay?”
She started, whisked back to the present. She found herself at the desk instead of the couch, but with Cole’s hands still holding her. They were on her shoulders instead of her cheeks. But his face was as close as in her memory.
“Where did you go, darlin’?” he asked, his voice sounding just as it had all those years ago.
She gasped. Shock slammed into her, electrifying nerve endings from her toes up, ringing in her ears, propelling her out of his arms, his lap, the chair they were sitting in.
She was remembering. Not her shooting, but her life long before she’d been hurt. She was wide awake this time. And the past, at least one confusing moment of it, was staying with her.
She was coming back to herself—who she’d once been and whomever, whatever, Cole Marinos had once been to her.
She stared at him.
“You said that once before.” She couldn’t stop staring at his mouth, feeling the sensation of his teenage lips on hers. She could still taste him. “Here, in this room.”
“What?” he asked softly. “What did I say?”
. You called me darlin’, like you did when we were teenagers, waiting in this room together.”
She pressed her hand to her temple, letting herself hope. It was starting. Her memory was finally coming back.
“What else did you see?” He stood, too, watching her with an intensity that demanded she answer him.
“Us. I remembered us, when we were teenagers.”
Oh. My. God.
“I thought the feelings I’ve been having for you since you showed up last night were merely more proof that I’d officially gone ’round the bend. But we were more than friends, weren’t we?” She swallowed. “We were right there.” She pointed at the couch. “And I was upset and afraid, like now. And you were…holding me then, too. We were…”
She gestured between them.
He went completely still. “We were what?”
“Kissing,” she blurted out, her cheeks hot with embarrassment.
If he didn’t say something soon, something to spare her from herself, she was quite simply going to burst into flames.