by Tami Brothers
Jeesh! The man just couldn’t take no for an answer.
Rachel ignored the door and jerked her cotton T-shirt up and over her head. She exhaled a low moan as her battered muscles revolted against this simple act. Gentling her movements, she lowered her arms. There was a bruise blossoming around her right bicep where Watson’s bodyguard had grabbed her earlier. She also had a cut on her left forearm where she landed when she’d been thrown against the wall in the holding room. They’d been lucky tonight. Even with the injuries Jack sustained, it could have been a whole lot worse.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Go away, Jack!” She growled the words even as thoughts of their earlier kiss filled her with warmth. She was so not ready to face the man, didn’t have her resolve back in place yet. Hell, she’d almost allowed him to kiss her again half an hour earlier. Lord how she’d wanted him to. Another low moan escaped her throat, but this one was because just the memory of that kiss caused her stomach to tingle in anticipation.
Not going there! After a slight shake of her head, she pulled on a pair of jeans and jerked up the zipper. The muscles that had loosened up in the soothing shower she’d just stepped out of were again knotted and tight because of the sexual tension that had her on edge.
Damn him! She liked this job. She liked Tom. What she couldn’t block out was the fact that she also liked Jack. Okay, so she really liked Jack, but that didn’t give her a reason to throw away everything she’d worked for this past year. Just because the man wouldn’t stay out of her dreams didn’t mean she could throw away the best career opportunity she’d ever had. Or the best relationship.
Crap! Rachel gathered up the ruined dress from the bathroom floor and stomped into the adjoining suite. “Damn it, Jack! I said go away.”
“It’s not Jack, Rachel.” There was a pause. “Are you okay?”
Relief washed over her and the tension drained from her body. Tom. Without a second thought, she changed direction and flipped the lock on the door. Pulling it open with her free arm, she smiled up into the angelic face of the man who was sharing her life and the main reason for her conflicting feelings about Jack’s kiss.
“Sorry about that.”
“No problem. How are you doing?”
Rachel couldn’t help but notice the tightness bracketing his normal easy-going grin or the pinched skin between his eyes. He heard. The soothing effect Tom normally evoked in her quickly fled. If only she could avoid the determined look in his eyes and the discussion she knew was coming.
“I’m fine. Just trashing this dress.” Wanting a second to gather her thoughts, she turned away from the door.
“I liked that dress.”
She laughed as she dug around in one of the drawers for the plastic bag she’d stuck in there earlier. “Me, too. It certainly wasn’t cheap.”
“I’m sure the bureau will be more than happy to cover the damage. Make sure you list it on your expense sheet.”
After shoving the damaged dress into the bag, she dropped the whole thing back inside and shut the drawer. “Don’t think I won’t.”
Done stalling, she turned back around. Just like she’d suspected, Tom hadn’t stepped foot into the room. Instead, he leaned against the open door jam, his arms lazily crossed over his chest. With the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up his tanned forearms, he looked like Matthew McConaughey’s twin. His boy-next-door charm was a magnet for women and what initially attracted her to him. The fact it was genuine was what made tonight’s indiscretion that much harder to face. “What’s on your mind?”
“You had a busy night tonight.”
“That’s a bit of an understatement.”
He flashed a grin that lasted all of two seconds before it slipped away. His pinched expression was echoed through the strain in his voice when he finally asked, “Are you okay?”
His gaze had lowered to the bruise on her arm and then rose back to her face, but the question was laced with an undertone that Rachel could only interpret. “I’m fine.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Really, it could have been a whole lot worse.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“Hey. You know this job doesn’t come with any guarantees. We all knew the risks going into it.”
“I know. I’ve just never been in this position before. When I heard Watson…when I knew your cover was blown….” Tom straightened away from the doorframe and in an act of sheer frustration, ran his hands down his face. When he finally lowered them back to his sides, Rachel could see pure misery reflected in his eyes. “Then when you guys went back inside…damn, Rachel. You could have been killed.”
“Tom.” Rachel was back by his side before she’d realized she’d moved, her arms slipping around his waist. When he pulled her against his chest, she felt the tension he was holding on to. The muscles around her heart squeezed tight as his fear enveloped her.
Pulling back to give herself space enough to breathe, she looked into his eyes. “I’m fine, Tom. Jack didn’t know about the back-up plan. We recovered enough that the investigation wasn’t completely blown. Watson thinks Santos is the reason we were there, so we still have a shot at bringing him down.”
A flash of something crossed his face before he was able to completely cover it up. With the change, he pulled back and stepped away. Rachel wrapped her arms across her chest in an attempt to hold on to some of the warmth. Tom slid his hands inside his pants pockets and paced to the window. His rigid back was a wall blocking his emotions from her.
Rachel couldn’t stand to see him like this. “Things happen. What went down tonight couldn’t be helped.”
“Which part? The kiss that botched the whole plan, or you almost dying at the hands of a mad man? Because I’m pretty sure some of that could have been helped.”
Okay. No beating around the bush tonight. The hurt underlying his words tore at her heart. The touch of jealousy mixed in with his fear was like a knife slicing deeper with each syllable. Rachel knew she stood at a crossroads. As much as she would like to avoid it, deep down she knew she was about to be confronted with a decision that could quite possibly cost her everything she’d worked so hard to achieve this past year, along with her heart.
Tom knew the moment the words left his mouth he wasn’t ready to say them. Too late now. He knew that by bringing this issue up, there was a very real possibility of losing this woman. Hell, he was lucky to have her in the first place. If it hadn’t been for Jack breaking his leg, he would have missed out on playing the hero when he rescued Rachel in Aspen. Was he ready to put all that on the line?
“Tom. That kiss was not planned and it shouldn’t have happened.”
He turned to face her. Maybe he wasn’t ready, but he couldn’t hang in limbo anymore. That kiss between his best friend and the woman he thought of as his girlfriend had awakened something in him that wanted to tear through the calm exterior he presented to the world. Jealousy was a completely foreign feeling to him and he didn’t like it. “You think? You and I are practically living together. Do you have any idea how hard that was to listen to? And on top of that, during a sting? You were wired, Rachel. I had half the team looking at me to see my reaction. The other half wouldn’t look me in the eye. Is that what you mean by ‘it shouldn’t have happened?’ Because I’d really like some clarification.”
With his hands on his hips, he watched as Rachel stood her ground and took his accusations head on. Her strength was one of the things that had originally attracted him to her. Unfortunately, it was also a quality Jack was attracted to. Hence, the reason he was in this position. Under normal circumstances he and Jack didn’t go for the same type of girl. On the rare occasion they did, it was usually first one to see her, got her. He’d been fine with that arrangement. Until Rachel.
The moment she’d fallen into his arms outside of the Aspen lodge, he’d wanted her. Seeing her with Jack had been the hardest thing in the world for him to stand by and watch. But he knew the rules and he’d planned to stick with them. Then when he’d been the one to ride in on the snowmobile and rescue her, she’d come to him. Not Jack. The feeling of Rachel in his arms since then had made it well worth breaking the unwritten oath he had with his friend.
Up until tonight, he’d been able to ignore that nagging sense that told him Rachel was holding back. He’d pushed the thought that something wasn’t quite right to the back of his mind and ignored what was so obviously staring him in the face. Until now.
That kiss this evening had changed everything. There was no more ignoring the obvious attraction between Rachel and Jack. He couldn’t live like that. Tonight Rachel would have to choose.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
Tom rolled his head back and closed his eyes. Embarrass. Not the words he’d hoped to hear.
With a shake of his head he stopped her from saying anything else. He had to finish this his way. Steeling his resolve, he reached into his pocket and closed his fingers around the ring he’d slipped in there before coming to her room. He’d planned a more romantic setting for this, something with a glamorous setting, champagne and delicious food. But he had a feeling now was the time. If he didn’t do it now, then he would never get another opportunity.
Slipping his hand out of his pocket, he took the two steps that closed the distance between them. Without a word, he stood for a moment and took in the watery green eyes and tense jaw. God, he loved this woman.
Before he lost his nerve, he reached and grasped her hand. He saw the brief flash of confusion on her face before he dropped down to one knee. He felt the squeeze of her hand and heard the intake of her breath when his actions shocked her. Too late to back down now.
After a fortifying breath, he swallowed the fear that kept screaming at him to ‘stop now before it’s too late.’ He lifted the ring he held between his fingers. “Rachel. I’ve spent the last year loving you. Tonight opened my eyes. Both with what happened with Watson and with Jack. Maybe part of it was my fault for not saying this to you sooner.”
“Let me finish, Rachel.” He could see her jaw clenching as she bit back what she’d wanted to say. He cleared his throat and continued with the hard part. “I love you. I’ve wanted to tell you this since the night of your graduation from the academy. When I asked you where you wanted to celebrate, you said my apartment. I knew then that if I could, I’d keep you there forever.
“I want the security of knowing you’re mine. If Watson had hurt you, I would have ripped this town apart to find that bastard.” He paused as the thought of what could have happened washed over him. Swallowing the knot forming in his throat, he shook the thought away and continued.
“I wanted to do this right. I wanted to offer you all the glamour of Bistro Niko. But I couldn’t wait. After that kiss between you and Jack, I couldn’t wait for the perfect moment. Rachel, I want to know you’re going to be there when I come home at night. I want to know I’m the one you reach for when you want comfort. I want to know your heart belongs to me. I’m offering you my heart and soul with this ring but I want you to want me. And only me. The thought of losing you tonight was excruciating, but the thought of you wanting Jack while you’re with me is cutting my heart out.
“So I’m giving you a choice. Marry me. Take my ring and wear it if you love me. But only if it’s me you truly want.”
He ended the speech on the very last breath he had and felt his chest tighten in anticipation. There were tears flowing freely down Rachel’s face and he wasn’t sure how to interpret that. He watched as she visibly swallowed and then anticipated what she would say when she opened her mouth to speak. Just then the radio on his belt cracked to life. “Incoming call, boss. It’s Watson.”
In the next second, the cell phone on Rachel’s nightstand rang.
Damn it! Reaching down, he pulled the radio off his belt and keyed the mike. “Start the trace as soon as Rachel picks up.”
Rising to his feet, he admired the way Rachel visibly transformed from the weeping woman who was about to answer his question into the fearless agent she’d been trained to be. She walked over and reached for the phone as it rang a second time, then glanced back at him. With a nod, he gave her the okay as he placed the listening device attached to his radio into his ear. This would allow him to listen in on the conversation.
The skin crawled on the back of Tom’s neck at the sickening endearment.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Watson?” Tom heard the way Rachel stressed the Mr. of his name and silently applauded the calmness of her voice.
“Just wanted to let you know I’ve taken care of that problem we discussed earlier.”
“Excuse me?” From the glee undeniably lacing Frank Watson’s voice, the look of concern in both Rachel’s voice and face were understandable. Tom’s instinct told him this wasn’t going to be a call scheduling their next meeting.
“I took care of that problem you were having with your husband.”
“Mr. Watson, I thought we had already discussed the situation regarding Mr. Santos and came up with a feasible plan to deal with the situation?”
“We did. And you will still follow through with that plan.”
Rachel paused. “I guess I’m not following what you mean then, Mr. Watson.”
“Call me Frank. And let’s just say, Rachel, you don’t need to worry about your husband getting you into another jam like he did tonight. I had my men take care of him for you.”
“Wh—what do you mean?”
“Mr. Willoughby just took a short trip off the Glenridge Bridge over 400. It’s highly doubtful he survived the fall, but if he does, Jack Willoughby won’t be doing any gambling any time soon.”
“You can thank me later. Perhaps over dinner at one of my restaurants? I’ll be in touch.”
With that, the phone went dead. Tom could see the fear on Rachel’s face as she slowly lowered the phone. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “He didn’t just say what I think he said, did he?”
Tom keyed his mike and spoke to the team staked out on the bottom floor. “Did you get that, Alex?”
The radio crackled as his best tech man replied, “Harvey’s working on it now. But I did just check in with Denton. Jack lost him a few miles from the house but he was able to pick up the signal from the car. He, uhh, well, he said….”
“Spit it out, Alex.”
“He just confirmed Jack’s car did freefall off the bridge… the good news is he landed in the bushes without overturning. The bad news is he can’t tell if Jack’s alive or dead. Traffic is starting to back up in the area so he’s trying to find a way down to him.”
Tom glanced up and saw the color draining from Rachel’s face as she processed Alex’s words. In the seconds that followed, he saw what his life with Rachel would have been like flash before his eyes and knew what her answer would have been.
Shaking off the feeling of utter loss, he reached for her hand. “Come on. Let’s go find Jack.”
* * * * *
I’ve got goosebumps for sure now. Wish it were Friday.
What do you think will happen next? Will they find Jack? Will he be alive? Leave a comment for a chance to win next week.