Authors: Amanda K. Byrne
She loved her house. The price on the two plus bedroom bungalow had been slashed when she’d seen it, and she immediately called for a showing. It was perfect for her needs. The walls were in severe need of paint, and she needed a hell of a lot more furniture, but it was
Her sanctuary. Her fortress. No one would be breaching these walls unless she wanted them to.
Dinner could wait. She had to do something about the stiffness in her shoulders. She made her way to her bedroom, lecturing herself into hanging up her slacks and folding her sweater before she walked into the adjoining bathroom and flipped on the shower.
Under the pounding spray, the last bit of tension in her belly evaporated, taking some of the muscle stiffness with it. A few more days like this, and she’d be fine. Maybe she’d even try to scare up a date for the weekend. Nate had called her a few days after she’d returned from Chicago, but she’d been too busy playing catch up, and too busy stalking Taylor, to do much more than call him back and make an excuse.
Good thing he was so laid back.
If she’d been after more than the occasional date, Nate would be a good fit. It was part of why she’d gone on more than a handful of dates with him. Oh, sure, she’d interspersed those with other guys, and she knew he was seeing other women. But he was easy to get along with, funny, cute, intelligent, and easy to talk to.
Unlike some men she knew.
. She was not going to ruin her good day by thinking about that idiot. She was going to get out of the shower, call Nate, and if he hadn’t gotten serious about someone else in the last few weeks, she was going to see him this weekend. Possibly sooner.
Sooner was good. She could break her own rule about dates on weeknights for him.
Warm, dry, marginally less tense, and clad in fleece pants and a pullover, she wandered out into her living room with her wine and hunted up her phone. She sank onto the couch and pulled up his number.
Nate’s gravelly voice instructed her to leave a message. “Hey, it’s Sara. Work’s finally calmed down, you up for dinner soon?” She disconnected at the question and tossed her phone onto the couch beside her.
What would Taylor be doing right now? Eating dinner? Working out? Having sex? Did Taylor even
She groaned. It didn’t matter whether he did or not. The man needed to be relegated to the filing cabinet in her brain of people labeled lost causes. He was a man who had his secrets and obviously wasn’t interested in sharing them with anyone.
She knew all about not sharing secrets.
The news coverage of the hostage situation in Sacramento hadn’t made the papers up here. And even if it had, it was seven years ago.
Not that she was keeping track.
She no longer had nightmares of Sam waving that huge hunting knife in her face. It might have taken her years to reach a point where she could date again, but she’d used them wisely and built a life. A life with friends, a job she disliked more and more each day, and hopefully a date this weekend with a guy whose company she enjoyed. Nate couldn’t cut her to tiny pieces with a single comment. And she’d taken enough self-defense classes to be confident she could get away if he so much as lifted a hand to her.
She unfolded herself from her spot on the couch and walked into her kitchen, yanked open the fridge and perused the contents. Guess she’d be eating salad again. Tomorrow she’d leave at a reasonable time and do her grocery shopping.
Her phone rang while she was chopping vegetables for a salad, and she grinned at the name on the display. She hit Accept and switched the phone to speaker. “Hey, lady. How’s the city of angels?”
Krista, her best friend, snorted. “Smoggy. Like always. Am I interrupting?”
“Long as you don’t mind me crunching in your ear, talk away.” As Krista chattered about her latest project, Sara finished putting the salad together and leaned against the counter, digging into her meal.
She’d built a life. The only one who got to wreck it was her.
He needed coffee. He needed a vat of coffee. Taylor entered the break room and made a beeline for the coffeemaker. It would be shitty coffee, but it was there, and it was free.
A tiny part of his brain registered another person in the room. A surreptitious glance confirmed it was Sara, engrossed in a book. The book didn’t fit with the image he had of her. Friendly, gregarious Sara should be engaged in conversation. Or simply not there, out at some trendy yet affordable lunch place.
The other image lodged in his brain was of her sitting cross-legged on a bed, t-shirt bagging around her, absently nibbling on a French fry as she stared at the TV. Free of makeup, her suit, and pretenses.
She intrigued him. It’d been a long time since he’d met anyone who roused his curiosity as much as Sara did, and he wanted to know what was going on inside her head as much as he wanted to kiss her senseless and hear her begging for more. But her nerves and the fear he’d seen on her face that night held him back. Until he had a better handle on what
could handle, he’d keep her at a distance. Most people had no idea how much of themselves they gave away without ever saying a word.
She didn’t look up as he moved around the break room. He faded into the background, as usual. Another glimpse gave him the name of the book holding her attention:
by Rebekah Cross. He tucked the scrap of information away, adding it to his dossier of Sara.
He’d collected information like that for the Pretty Boys. With them, he’d learned never to ask what it was for.
Pushing the thought from his mind, he busied himself with the coffee, attempting to cover some of the burnt taste with fake creamer. Footsteps echoed in the room and a chair scraped along the floor. He glanced over his shoulder to find the source. Kaylin, the blonde from HR and the queen of office gossip, had planted herself at the table.
This could be interesting
. While Kaylin had probably seen him when she came in, chances were she’d already forgotten about him. He smiled inwardly and picked up his coffee. He could pick up a couple pieces to the puzzle of Sara.
Kaylin launched right into whatever it was she wanted as he sat with his back to the room, the table by the window far enough away to give the two women an illusion of privacy if Kaylin kept her voice down. Which she didn’t.
“So when are you going to go out with my brother again?”
There was the sound of a book hitting the table. “Kaylin, I’m not really interested in dating right now.”
“Bull. Luke said the two of you had a great time, but you won’t return his calls.”
“Really.” Steel laced her tone. “Did Luke also happen to mention his idea of a ‘great time’ was pawing at my boobs without permission?”
Silence. Taylor sipped his coffee, waiting to hear how the confrontation would play out.
“Luke didn’t say anything.” No shit. No man would admit to that sort of behavior to a sister. “Are you sure it wasn’t a misunderstanding?” Kaylin’s voice sounded small, yet indignant. He allowed himself a grin. Didn’t want to admit her brother wasn’t quite the gentleman he claimed to be.
“Yes. He misunderstood my ‘no’ to be a ‘yes.’” A chair scraped back, and he pictured Sara standing next to the table, vibrating with fury. Her brown eyes would be lit with it, her cheeks flushed.
Heels clicked over the linoleum, and instinct told him someone had left. Most likely Sara. Five more minutes. That was the average amount of time for someone to forget there was another person nearby. If Kaylin left first, so much the better.
By the time he escaped back to his office, he’d finished the disgusting cup of coffee and wished he’d left as soon as he’d gotten his cup. Hearing about Sara’s date, failed as it was, left him with a growl in his belly.
He shoved it away. Inappropriate, and completely unnecessary.
Work closed over his head, the repetition of dealing with client after client blanking his mind. It always gave him a kind of smug satisfaction, surprising everyone with his skills at client relations. But Larry trusted him with the clients who needed a hell of a lot of hand holding because he had an endless store of patience. He kept his voice down, never made promises he knew he couldn’t keep, and waited them out when they wanted to rant. He’d grown up with ranting and cursing. He couldn’t walk down the street back home without hearing or seeing at least one fight, and he’d learned the hard way the most effective way to stay alive was to stay out of it.
He rolled the kinks out of his neck, the small cracks satisfying as he glanced at the time. Four PM. He blinked. Coffee break aside, he’d been working uninterrupted since eight that morning. It’d been almost a week since Sara’s last friendly overture, but he’d quickly gotten used to her poking her head in at random times of the day.
A week. Maybe observing from the sidelines for a while wasn’t a good idea. The longer he waited, the greater the chance she’d lose interest. He wanted to get to know her. Not put her off more.
Decision made, he pushed back from his desk and stood. Her office was only a few doors from his. Hopefully she’d be in it.
He was in luck. His knock on the doorjamb had her head snapping up and friendly smile flashing. It faded from her eyes, remaining only on her lips, as soon as she saw who it was. “Taylor. What can I do for you?”
Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure what to do next. He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Haven’t seen you in a few days. You usually stop in,” he added when her brow arched.
She sat back in her chair. “You never gave me much of a response. I figured I was wasting my time.”
The casual dismissal stung. Read that one wrong. “Had a lot of work,” he lied. “Done playing catch up, thought maybe I’d grab a drink. Want to come?”
She took her time considering the offer, to the point where he almost turned around and left. Intriguing or not, he wasn’t one to push — or chase after a woman who’d decided she wasn’t interested.
Her responding nod was slow, and she got up and gathered her belongings. He followed her down the hall, stopping in his office to shut down his computer and grab his coat.
The wariness in her brown eyes made him want to reassure her he wasn’t about to maul her without permission. Doing so, however, would mean he’d admit he’d been paying attention to the conversation. Letting Sara know might embarrass her. Embarrassing her wasn’t on the agenda for the evening. He wasn’t sure what
Why the hell had he asked her to grab a drink? By her own admission, she wasn’t interested in dating. And she was too fragile for him. The fear he’d seen in her, the night they’d been stuck in Chicago, wasn’t something that would have gone away overnight.
Plus, he hated small talk.
They stepped into the crowded elevator, Sara close enough the heat of her body warmed his skin.
. That was why he’d asked her. The tug of interest from the hotel room was fast becoming an all-out pull, and he wanted to know why.
The elevator doors opened to the building lobby, and they made their way out onto the busy sidewalk. She turned right, and he went with her, figuring she’d know where to go.
To his surprise, she led him into a small, mostly empty bar. More like a lounge, he realized, taking in the dark gold walls, the small tables scattered over a scuffed wood floor. The bar itself took up most of the room, the dark wood shelves behind it covered in glittering bottles full of social lubricant.
She hesitated in the middle of the room, and he kept going, walking to one of the small booths toward the back. He slid onto the bench with a view of the entrance, watching as Sara made herself comfortable on the opposite side of the table. A server came over immediately, and he ordered without thinking. “Jameson’s and water.”
“Bombay and tonic.”
Then they sat there, staring at each other, the muted sounds of the bar filling the space between them.
He felt like he was back on his first date when he was fourteen. Tammy Clare had finally agreed to go out with him, and he’d taken her to Joe’s, the neighborhood diner. It had been awkward. His tongue had been tied in knots, and most of the meal passed sans conversation, which he’d since learned was necessary for a date.
Conversation. He needed a topic, something innocuous. Something that wouldn’t bore him to death. Unfortunately, everything he wanted to know about her ventured into the
get the fuck away from me, I’m not telling you anything
Sara blinked first. “Why are we here?”
He almost sighed with relief. “Here, specifically? I was just following you.”
She made a face, and he relaxed another fraction. That was the Sara he’d seen around the office. “Don’t be an ass. You practically wear a neon sign that says do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. I’d be surprised if you didn’t tell me to go directly to jail.”
Something uncoiled inside him, and he chuckled. He relaxed even more at her surprised look. So his smile, his first genuine smile in what felt like days, stayed in place. “Honestly? I don’t know. I got used to you popping in every other day or so and when you didn’t, it felt weird.”
“And what, you followed your instincts?”
He shrugged. “Pretty much.”
One brow shot up, mouth pursing as she studied him. “Huh.” She glanced up as their drinks arrived. “Could I get an order of sweet potato fries?”
The server bounced off to fill the order, and she stared after him. “God, he can’t possibly be old enough to serve liquor. And no one should be that cheerful, working in a bar. It’s unnatural.” She sipped her drink, keeping her gaze on the table.