Featured in The Promise of Love
The Shadow Stalkers — where hearts are laid bare, where desire is a risk, and where love is born from the most intimate secrets…
It wasn’t her fault he was strung out from wanting her…
It was a cool night in Carmel but for Deputy US Marshal Jack Killigrew, thoughts of Rachel were generating a lot of heat and sweat. But having her could never be more than a fantasy. She was his best friend’s widow. He promised to look after her should anything happen. And there’s no way Jack could betray the memory of his buddy by making moves on the guy’s wife—no matter how long he’s desired her.
Rachel’s marriage had been perfect. So had her husband. But fate had a different plan. Now Rachel’s a single mother, resilient and independent. It’s time for her to move on and let a new man into her life. Jack’s been there for her in the past but now she needs him in a different way. All Rachel has to do in convince him that it’s right, that it’s the best thing for both of them, and that it’s about time…
Six award-winning and bestselling authors present a never-before-published anthology touching upon the obstacles people confront in their lives–and those who help heal their hearts…
Everyone has secrets… some go deeper than others. They remain buried until the moment is right, the moment your heart is laid bare and embraced by a man who knows how to respect and protect. These stories feature women who are survivors of stormy pasts, and the good men who have become stronger for understanding them. Together they can overcome anything, with a love born of compassion…
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Jack twisted off the top of his fourth beer and tossed the metal cap in the trash. Then he headed back out the open sliding glass doors to his small fenced-in patio. His bare feet sank into the sand and he drank deeply, absently admiring the streaks of orange and pink flaring across the sky. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature fell along with it. It was much cooler here than Albuquerque, but thoughts of Rachel kept him warm enough to go shirtless.
He was beginning to think drinking had been a bad idea. The alcohol wasn’t smoothing the jagged edges of his lust at all. He was acutely aware of the fact that Rachel was home alone right now and he was only a short drive away. If he left now, he could be inside her within thirty minutes. He had no doubt he could seduce her. He also had no doubt that she’d regret it in the morning.
It wasn’t her fault he was strung out from wanting her. She’d never led him on or enticed him. Rachel was shy and quiet unless she was surrounded by people she felt comfortable with, an after-effect of being raised by an aunt who reminded her daily what a burden she was. At least in his childhood, when he made himself invisible, he’d been left alone. She had been verbally abused and tormented no matter what she’d done.
His cell phone rang and he cursed as he withdrew it from his pocket. The caller ID told him it was Brian Simmons, a fellow deputy and a guy who’d saved Jack’s ass more than once.
“Killigrew,” he answered.
“So, have you seen her yet?”
“Man, that would have been my first stop. She owns a cake shop; she might be huge and your problem would be solved.”
“Riley e-mails me pictures. No such luck.” And fact was, Jack doubted it would make a difference to him if she had put on weight. He was attracted to the whole package, not just her looks. Besides, a few weeks sharing his bed would take care of any extra pounds.
“Well, then, you should think about what you’re throwing away. First off, there are those cupcakes of hers. If she stops sending them, the guys might have to hurt you. Second, I’d give anything to be with Layla right now. It kills me knowing she’s out there somewhere in WITSEC—hopefully, still in love with me—and I can’t have her. You don’t have that problem; you’ve got permission. And although I haven’t seen much evidence of it, I’m sure you must have some charm to you. Lay it on her and see what happens.”
Jack knew he wasn’t what Rachel needed. He had nothing to offer her. Steve had a large extended family that enfolded her with open arms; Jack had only his job, and her and Riley. Steve was the steady and dependable type, a chiropractor who’d come home for dinner every night and was there for breakfast in the morning; Jack never knew when he’d be leaving or when he could come back. Rachel had lived with enough neglect and abandonment as a child. She didn’t need it in her adult life as well.
“She deserves better than me,” Jack said.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Against his determination to be in a shitty mood, Jack’s mouth curved. “Fuck you, too.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“Same to you.” Jack shoved his phone back in his pocket and was lifting his beer to his lips when he heard a car door shut in what sounded like his driveway.
Pivoting in the sand, he canvassed the public beach just beyond his short picket fence. His attention narrowed on the side of his house just before a lipstick red dress rounded the corner. The slender body it encased caught his eye next and held it.
“I guessed you’d be out here,” Rachel said, waving. She headed toward the gate with a square cake pan in one hand.
Jack wanted to do the gentlemanly thing and let her in, but he couldn’t move. She’d cut her hair short and wore it in sexy, tousled curls that exposed her slender neck and emphasized her fine-boned features. As she passed by him, he saw the back—or, rather, lack of a back—to her dress. Held up by thin straps, the material dipped down to the upper swell of her buttocks, betraying the lack of a bra.
Jesus. She’d lost her mind coming around him dressed like that.
“What are you doing here?” he asked without finesse, his gut aching from a soul-deep longing. He rubbed at the center of his chest with the bottom edge of his bottle but found no relief.
“You said no to lunch and dinner but didn’t decline dessert.”
She came through the gate, her long legs on display thanks to the short skirt and two-inch slit at her right thigh. There was no hesitation in her approach, which changed the rules of engagement. She’d never outright avoided him, but she hadn’t gone out of her way to be near him either.
Lifting onto her tiptoes, she balanced herself with a hand over his heart and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. “You look fabulous, Jack,” she murmured. “It’s really good to see you again.”
Jack wondered if she was aware of the soft note of invitation in her words or how it made his heart race beneath her palm. He didn’t want her under a sense of obligation. He didn’t want to be the tie that bound her to memories of her past with Steve. And he sure as hell didn’t want her martyring herself in his bed.
“But,” she went on, stepping back, “I’m not so sure you’re happy to see me.”
He took the opportunity to breathe, sucking in the salt-tinged air in an effort to clear his head. “I’m just surprised but in a good way.”
Rachel smiled. Her fingertips slid down his arm to his wrist, then circled the neck of his beer bottle. She tugged it loose and took a long pull, her lips wrapped around the top and her throat working with each swallow.
His mind fell straight into the gutter.
He turned as she skirted him and went into the house. He hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on and she didn’t, either. Instead, she used the fading sun as a guide to reach the kitchen island. A moment later a flare in the shadows preceded the igniting of a candlewick. The property management company had scattered groupings of seashell-covered candles all over the house, part of the nautical theme they’d utilized throughout.
“I’d forgotten how charming this place is,” she called out to him.
Jack debated the wisdom of following her inside, knowing the leash on his hunger was tenuous at best. “I can’t take credit for it. It’s staged by professionals to appeal to the vacation renters.”
“I wish you’d reserve more time here for yourself.” She lit another candle. “We’d love to see you more often.”
“I’m thinking about it.” Knowing it would be ridiculous to keep shouting at her from outside, Jack entered the living room. “I’d like to start spending more time with Riley, now that he’s older.”
“He’d love that.” Turning away from him, she searched the cupboards.
“The plates are to the left of the fridge,” he directed. He watched the way the hem of her skirt lifted a couple tantalizing inches as she reached upward. Feeling like a randy dog, he looked away, then couldn’t resist looking back again. “What have you got there?”
She looked over her shoulder and her mouth curved. “Better than Sex cake.”
Jack searched for a sign that she was joking. “Whoever came up with that doesn’t get out much.”
Her laughter hit him like a punch to the gut. He’d always loved that carefree sound. It said so much about her. She made him laugh, too, with her e-mailed stories about hysterical run-ins with customers. He’d startled his fellow deputies more than once by laughing aloud at something she sent him. She brought light into his life, which made him even more aware of the darkness he could bring into hers.
It figured he would fall for the one woman he was the worst possible fit for.
Kicking off her low-heeled sandals by the island, she padded over with a single plate in her hand. “I make a cupcake-sized version of this at the store. It’s one of my most popular flavors.”
“Everything you make is popular. You’re an awesome cook.”
“Thank you. I can’t grill, though, so I’m relying on you to handle the hot dogs and burgers tomorrow.”
“Put me to work. That’s one of the reasons I’m here.”
One dirty blond brow rose with challenge. “Don’t complain later when I take you up on that.”
Again, there was a suggestive undertone to her words. He forced his gaze away and down at the cake, noting what looked to be caramel drizzle over the top. He wanted to drizzle caramel all over her body and tongue it off slowly. Endlessly. Licking through it to the sweeter flesh beneath.
“Here.” She stabbed at the cake with the fork in her hand and lifted a bite to his lips.
He opened his mouth. The cake was rich but not too rich.
“Very good,” he praised, happy to see her cheeks flush with pleasure. “But it’s not better than sex.”
Her blue eyes sparkled with silent laughter. “Prove it.”