Authors: Annabel Wolfe
He said softly, “Yes, still black. I haven’t changed, Nikki. I know I’ve been gone for over a year, but it’s just me. I know the circumstances aren’t exactly run of the mill, but we can adjust and go back to the way it was.”
There he was wrong. It wasn’t ever going to be the same, and she wasn’t sure how to feel about it. She carefully placed the mug in the coffeemaker, put in the pre-measured cup and pressed a button, taking a moment to collect her thoughts.
He sensed it too, just as she guessed he would, and let her take the time, wordlessly accepting the cup when she handed it to him.
“Maybe you can’t tell me much, but I guess I don’t have the same restrictions. I’ve got something to tell you.”
Jack lifted the cup to his mouth, not taking his eyes from hers. “Okay. Tell me.”
Not okay. I don’t know how to do this
Her hands were trembling and she clenched them into fists, glad she’d set aside her own cup so he couldn’t see she how shaken she was. Helplessly, she said, “Last night it seemed so simple. I love you, but it isn’t quite so simple in the light of day.”
“How so?” His voice held a guarded edge. “Shit, from your expression I’m not going to like what you’re about to say, am I?”
Even as she opened her mouth to say God only knew what, she heard the click of the front door, and the soft swoosh as someone pushed it open. A male voice said, “Nikki?”
Eric Janssen turned and closed the door, inhaling the fragrance of fresh coffee with appreciation, the familiar sight of Nicole’s purse on the table in the foyer like a special homecoming just by itself. Ten days in Phoenix was about nine too many.
Catching the early morning flight had meant a four o’clock wake-up call, but it was worth it to have the entire day instead of spending half of it in airports, and since the meetings had wrapped up early, he had the option to change his departure on the company’s dime anyway.
“Nikki?” he said again tentatively, wondering if she wasn’t out back where she usually sat in the morning. She’d said she was drinking coffee in her text.
Dropping his bag, he walked toward the kitchen, humming under his breath, his mood light now that he was back. When she came to the doorway of the kitchen, he was reminded why exactly he had caught that damned early flight. “Hey, babe.”
“Sorry if I startled you.” Dropping his bag, he put his hands on her slender shoulders and leaned down for a satisfying kiss. Only the minute his mouth touched hers she stiffened. Puzzled, he lifted his head.
And then he froze, his mind going blank, the gleaming countertops and stainless appliances fading into a gray haze, nothing registering in his vision except the man standing by the table, his hand holding the telltale coffee cup, his face as familiar as his own…
Maybe Nicole made an inarticulate sound, but it was part of the unreal moment, lost and unacknowledged.
“Jack?” he said incredulously, joy coloring his uneven voice. “Jesus…Jack?”
In two strides he was close enough to grab his best friend in a hug that sent coffee splashing to the floor and on his shirt, but he really didn’t give a damn. Jack plunked the cup down and hugged him back, slapping him on the shoulder. “Yeah, Jack, in the flesh. I’m doing a crappy-ass job of keeping my presence in town a secret. Eric, good to see you.”
“Are you kidding? We thought—we were told—” He couldn’t say it.
“I know what you thought. I know what you were told.”
The somber tone of Jack’s voice spoke volumes, and more than that, Eric realized several pertinent facts as he drew back and loosened his hold. The first was that Nicole was only a few feet away, looking strained and maybe even a little pale under her golden summer tan, her eyes enormous. She was beautiful as ever in simple shorts and a pale blouse, her smooth hair loose around her shoulders, but there was not exactly exuberant welcome in her subdued expression, and she hadn’t said a word.
The second was that Jack was only half dressed, bare-chested and barefoot in her tidy kitchen, companionably drinking coffee.
Pretty early in the morning.
Where the hell had he spent the night?
And did Eric even have the right to ask that question?
Probably not, he decided in the resulting silence, the awkwardness spreading like ripples when a stone was tossed into a very still pond, the three of them standing there on a bright sunny morning, the icemaker deciding at that moment to refill with a resounding clunk.
It was one of those definitive moments when all control was lost of the predictable course, when life careened onto the fork in the road you didn’t even know was there. No signs, no mileage available, destination unknown.
“You must be deep special ops,” he said into the quiet, “for them to lie to your family.”
Jack didn’t respond at once, but then lifted a dark brow. “I can’t really respond to that, but yes, my team flies under the radar, so to speak.”
Not far enough under. Eric was an accountant executive, not a doctor, but he could still recognize a healed bullet wound when he saw one. “I’m damned glad you’re alive.”
“Me too.” Jack grinned, but there was a level of wariness in his gray eyes.
Who could blame him? He’d just let himself into Jack’s girlfriend’s house like he would be welcome and even expected. Usually, he was. Usually that kiss would have led to something even more satisfying.
His intention to surprise Nicole by coming back early had definitely backfired in an ironic way.
And Jack was quick as ever. He said in a deceptively mild tone, “Mind telling me why you have a key? I’m trying to come up with a reason besides the obvious one and kind of having a hard time finding it.”
They’d been best friends since grade school. Played football together, not to mention baseball and soccer, climbed trees, played hooky, took girls on double dates, had driver’s education at the same time, in essence grew up like brothers, and they could weather this, couldn’t they?
For her, surely they could.
“Want to sit down and talk about this?” he suggested reasonably, acutely aware of Nicole’s silence.
“I don’t know.” Jack’s jaw was set. “Tell me, do I?”
For the first time Nicole spoke. “We have to,” she said in a wavering voice just above a whisper. “I’m not sure I want to either, but we
Jack sat down, aware his sense of affront was unreasonable, that his leg ached after the long journey, and that he still hadn’t caught up on about eight months of sleep deprivation.
Bottom line, he reminded himself, it was great to see Eric.
His order of business had been Nicole, his parents and then his best friend when it came to telling people he was still alive and kicking. Whatever his orders, both Nikki and Eric knew now he was fine and they were about as trustworthy as any two people he knew and certainly important in his life.
Eric and Nicole had met, actually, when Jack had started dating Nicole, but at the moment he had the sense that the two people he introduced a few years ago now knew each other pretty well.
“So,” Eric said evenly, propping his hand on the maple kitchen tabletop, “let me start, if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead,” Jack agreed grimly.
Eric glanced over at Nicole. “I will, unless you want to go first.”
Lush lashes lowered over her eyes briefly, but she was hardly a coward—it was one of the things Jack loved about her.
Yes, he loved her.
She said, “I don’t want to, but I think I should.” She looked at him, her soft mouth taut but her gaze level. “I loved you. I love you now. You
“But you thought I was dead.”
Eric interjected roughly, “We both did. And for the record, it was like losing a brother when I got the news.”
Last night had been perfect but this part was not quite the homecoming Jack envisioned. Then again, if he used logic, there was a reason he’d checked the refrigerator to see if she had maybe moved on. A reason he’d been stealthy and ready for trouble in case he startled someone besides her with his invasion of her home. Over a year was a long time, and he had no right to ask her to wait for a man she thought was never coming back.
Besides, hell, Eric was a good guy. A
guy. And women fell all over him too, not just because he had the classic golden-boy good looks and a tall, athletic build to go along with that pretty face, but because he was also smart as hell. Last Jack knew, he had been promoted to some sort of vice-president position in the banking company he worked for, which had been no surprise even though he was only twenty-nine.
She couldn’t make a better choice. It was just that this made for a real problematic situation.
If Jack didn’t love her…
But he did.
“I can’t defend that,” he said coolly. “Not my choice, but it’s what happened.”
“It wasn’t easy on this end,” Eric said, his hazel eyes steady.
Jack spread his hands on the table, palms down, his fingers surprisingly steady. Or maybe it wasn’t surprising. All he’d done lately was deal with situations that might twist his life into knots. “I got that. It wasn’t too great for me either when I was told they’d made the decision to play it that way. I can’t explain to you why they did it. You know about all you are going to know.”
Nicole lifted a hand to brush back her hair in a familiar gesture that tightened his heart, especially when he saw her fingers tremble. “Your parents invited me for Thanksgiving because my parents were going to be in Hawaii for two weeks for their anniversary. Eric was there too. We talked, mostly about you.”
He’d have to thank his parents for that one. “I take it I didn’t remain the only topic of conversation.”
“You fell in love with her, Templeton,” Eric pointed out with irritating accuracy and equal sarcasm, leaning back in his chair and running his hand through his dark blond hair. “Give me credit for being at least as smart as you are.”
Hard to argue that one. Jack gazed at Nicole, looking into her luminous azure eyes, found he had no idea what to say next and got the impression that she had the same problem. Soft rose lips parted—those lips he’d kissed passionately the night before—as if she was going to speak, but she compressed them together again and swallowed hard enough he saw the muscles in her throat ripple.
Very well, he’d help her out. Quietly, he said, “I was really afraid you would move on. It’s unreasonable to be surprised or hurt because you lived your life without me, I know that. I was so damned glad last night when you were alone I can’t even begin to describe the feeling.”
Eric muttered a word under his breath that sounded like “fuck”. In his shoes, Jack would feel the same way, but his shoes were not all that great either.
Eric said evenly, “I’m not going to ask what happened because you don’t owe me an explanation, Nikki. If you slept with Jack, I even see how that happened. I know what you went through when we thought he was out of our lives forever. If he can be reasonable, so can I. This might sound strange, but I’m not even all that jealous of that part. I just don’t want to lose you.”
That pretty much summed up Jack’s feelings about it all too. She was twenty-six years old, and if she was in a relationship with Eric and had been since last fall, they were no doubt sleeping together. He had a key, so that stood to reason, and if it had to be anyone, at least it was Eric. That Jack could handle. Anyone else, he’d want to strangle with his bare hands.
Which he was actually trained to do.
“I think it isn’t going to surprise either of you if I say I’m pretty confused at the moment,” she said finally, and then drew in a breath, straightening her shoulders. “And that is an understatement. In the meantime, does anyone want breakfast?”
Nicole usually prided herself on being a modern young woman typical to her generation, a busy professional with a degree in chemistry and a job in research with a large pharmaceutical company, a house in a suburb of Indianapolis that she’d bought entirely on her own, a nice car and a true sense of independence.
However, she must be somewhat like her grandmother, because when she really needed to think about something, she cooked. As a method of therapy it just seemed to work, though she had to admit, even amid the consternation over how to handle the sudden dramatic change in her life, both Eric’s and Jack’s expressions were comical when she rose from the table and started rummaging in the cabinet for her favorite frying pan. Luckily, she’d just been to the store a few days ago and she had bacon on hand, enough eggs for three, bagels and cream cheese, and orange juice.
Eric stood up, but she shook her head and pointed a spatula his direction. “No, I don’t want any help. Make a cup of coffee for yourself and sit down.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His hazel eyes were amused, and it eased the tension in the room at least a little. For the flight home he wasn’t dressed for the office, but wore khaki slacks and a light green short-sleeved pullover shirt. He was just as good-looking as Jack, but in an entirely different way that wasn’t just their opposite coloring, but more their demeanor. Instead of Jack’s aura of tough competence, he was much more even-tempered and gifted with a truly charming smile. He was genuinely
. Her parents adored him, but they had loved Jack too.