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Authors: Annabel Wolfe

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BOOK: Gone
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That was, of course, also her problem.

Damn.

“Where did you get shot?” She heard Eric ask the question, his voice somber.

“Here.” Out of the corner of her eye as she laid bacon strips in the pan, she saw Jack point to his chest, his signature grin crooked.

“Very funny. I take it wherever you were when it happened is one of those things you can’t tell us.”

“Or, as they say, I’d have to kill you,” Jack said blandly, “which is damned tempting anyway.”

“Eliminate the competition? Don’t put ideas in my head, Templeton.”

“You could try, Janssen.”

At least they were joking with each other a little, Nicole thought, hearing the satisfying sizzle of the bacon, the aroma starting to fill the kitchen. She cracked the eggs into a bowl, took an old-fashioned eggbeater from the drawer, and vigorously whipped them to a frothy lemon-yellow smoothness.

No inspiration came on how to handle this predicament.

Damn again
, she thought as she popped two halves of a bagel into the toaster and adjusted the setting.

“Why would you keep it a secret you are in town?”

Jack answered the question readily enough. “There’s going to be an official statement released to the families and simultaneously a press conference for the public, explaining that we’d been reported killed but they discovered we were still alive and a special force was sent in secretly to recover us behind enemy lines. In case the mission was a failure, or word leaked of the planned rescue, it was kept quiet even at the highest levels. We were told to lie low until we were informed of exactly what day and time the announcement would come. They had to clear the schedules of some pretty high-ranking officials to bring it all together. They want all the families to find out at the same time, so they are taking care of the notifications. We have strict orders to stay dead until told we aren’t. Given the explosion of social media in our society, they don’t want anyone to find out anything on Facebook or Twitter or by email.”

Nicole turned around. “A special force…behind enemy lines…is that true?”

“Some of it.” Jack lifted his ebony brows, his silver eyes unreadable.

Could she live with a man who could never tell her the entire truth? She wasn’t sure. Before his disappearance she would have said without hesitation that yes, she could. It was his job and she knew he was good at it, and more than that, he had a sense of adventure that made his occupation suit him perfectly. Besides, as he’d told her time and again with that persuasive smile, someone really needed to do it.

But even if he hadn’t been killed this time, it certainly looked like he’d come close to it, and she doubted it was his last dangerous mission.

It was impossible to think of going through that anguish again.

She got out three plates and another for the bacon, finished scrambling the eggs and took the food to the table. Silverware and napkins were added to the mix, and she poured juice into tumblers and then sat down. In the chair between them, as it happened, which was rather symbolic, she mused as she picked up her fork.

“It smells terrific,” Jack murmured, his eyes shadowed with memories. “You always did make a fantastic breakfast.”

“Still does,” Eric added, his voice dry.

Lord, she thought, taking a bite and swallowing with difficulty, this was going to be hard to handle.

Chapter Four

The impromptu meal was over.

Eric took a last sip of coffee. So what was he supposed to do? Apparently he’d missed the class on how to handle your girlfriend/soon-to-be-fiancée’s former lover coming back from the dead. He had no idea how to deal with this. It seemed clear to him that none of them was sure what was going to happen next.

Maybe he should just go, but a part of him rebelled at the idea. Why should he be the one to leave? He wasn’t the one who’d disappeared without a word, was declared dead and left Nicole behind brokenhearted.

Not that he was sorry Jack was alive and well. God no. Eric fought the urge to rub his forehead and instead straightened his spine. His friend was
here
and he couldn’t be happier, but dealing with the ramifications was not exactly an easy task on such short notice. He started to say, “Nikki—”

Her cell phone made a trilling sound from the foyer. Nicole rose from the table. “That’s my sister’s ring…oh damn, Cadence. It’s Saturday.” Her gaze swung between him and Jack where they sat at the table, a hint of panic crossing her delicate features. She stared at him. “And she’s in the driveway. I didn’t expect you back from the trip. Or it goes without saying,
you
at all”—she darted a glance at Jack, clearly off balance—“so I said I’d go shopping with her.”

“Just remember I’m not here.” Jack leaned back and crossed his arms. He’d gone to put a shirt on before they ate and it clung to the contours of his chest and defined the bulging muscles in his upper arms. Eric was in good shape, lifted weights three or four times a week and played league racquetball, but it was obvious Jack had not one ounce of fat on him.

“My
sister
can’t know?”

Jack’s dark brows drew together. “No, she can’t. There was a top-secret raid in a military installation in a country that is supposed to be one of our allies and there’s going to be a press conference after the top brass decides what to say. Don’t tell her, Nikki.”

Apparently he was sticking to his story.

“They are releasing your names?” Eric wasn’t sure he’d want to be part of that particular announcement.

“The reasons aren’t too clear to me yet either, but yes.”

Nothing like a POW returned home, Eric thought, to stir the American people to patriotism mode. Never mind what those captured heroes had been doing behind enemy lines.

But hell, he didn’t disagree that some things should be kept secret, because how many people agreed on how to handle foreign issues? Not many. “Your parents are going to be the happiest folks on this planet,” he said quietly. “I wish you didn’t have to make them wait.”

“Me too.” Jack’s expression was shuttered. “But I have orders.”

Out in the driveway there came a honk.

“Should I tell her I’m sick or something?” Nicole stared at her phone. “I hate to lie, especially to her, but—”

“Just go, Nikki. Eric and I were friends long before I met you.” Jack said it with no intonation at all; his head tilted just a fraction to the side, his smile a faint curve of his lips. “We won’t injure each other and bleed on your floor. You have my word. This might be for the best. He and I can talk.”

“I’m not really sure I want you two to talk.” Slender fingers tightened on her phone.

Eric stood and went over, gently taking her by the shoulders and turning her toward the front door. “Go. Shop. Relax. He’s right. Besides, you don’t look sick. You look gorgeous, and Cadence is a smart woman. She would figure out pretty quickly you were lying.”

And he thought she might need a little space without both of them right there, breathing down her neck as it were.

Maybe if her phone hadn’t beeped again she would have refused, but she finally nodded and without saying anything else, grabbed her purse and went out the front door. A moment later a car door slammed and he could hear the sound of the minivan backing out of the driveway.

He stood there, arms at his sides, and then slowly turned to look at Jack. “Tell me whatever you did, wherever you were, was worth it. She went through hell, you know.”

“Worth thirteen months away from her?” Jack rubbed his forehead and briefly shut his eyes. “I’m sitting here trying to decide if it was. Especially if it means I’ve lost her.”

“To me?” Eric stopped, not sure what to say next, and then blew out a short breath. “I don’t know. Before I walked in here this morning I would have said I thought things were going really well. If it were anyone else, I can tell you flat out I’d have proposed to her by now and intended to very soon. There’s no question that I am one hundred percent into this relationship in a way I’ve never been before. No one has ever even come close.”

His best friend gave him a level look. “I can understand exactly where you’re coming from on that point.”

“She’s smart, sweet and sexy as hell.”

“Can’t argue any of that.”

“But she’s not over you, so I’ve waited.” Eric prowled over to the refrigerator, opened it, rummaged in the bottom drawer and pulled out two bottles of beer from underneath a package of spinach. “Might be a little early for it, but want a cold one?”

“A cold beer on a sunny Saturday morning? Sounds like heaven to me. Besides, I’ve learned time is kind of a relative concept and if ever an occasion warranted a drink, this is it.” Jack accepted the bottle and deftly twisted off the cap. “If I had seen these last night, I might have wondered more about my welcome. You have a key but haven’t moved in yet, is that it?”

“Pretty much.” Eric wasn’t sure just how honest he should be, or was required to be for that matter. “How was your
welcome
?”

“She was glad to see me.” Jack looked bland. “Twice.”

“Jesus, Templeton, that was kind of a low blow.”

“You didn’t have to sit here and watch me kiss her like I did when you walked through the door. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me you were anticipating a welcome of your own. How long have you been sleeping together?”

He’d have told anyone else to mind their own damn business. But this was Jack, and he probably had at least some right to know. Eric took a long cool drink before he responded. “We waited a long time, actually. I didn’t want to push her, and really, I don’t think she was interested in getting involved with anyone again after losing you. It didn’t happen until she was ready for it, and I was willing to wait for the right moment.”

Eric was tempted to add that night was probably the most memorable of his life. He’d tasted and touched every single inch of her delicious body, surprised—in an entirely good way—how uninhibited she was once he finally got her into bed. He wasn’t particularly promiscuous, but he’d slept with his share of women and she was by far the most sensual and responsive.

The room was quiet except for the tick of a bronze clock on the wall, the hands pointing at Roman numerals. It was Jack who finally muttered, “I feel like I’m starring in a soap opera or something. Lifelong friends in love with the same woman, one of them popping back from the grave. The trouble is, I can’t even hate your guts. I’d like to, but I can’t.”

“Just like I can’t bring myself to wish you hadn’t come back.” It was true. “No matter what happens next, I’m never going to feel that way. I’m glad you are still alive.”

“The real question is what the hell
is
going to happen next?” Jack lifted a dark brow, his expression sardonic.

Eric muttered, “I have absolutely no idea.”

 

 

Cadence looked pointedly at Nicole’s plate. “Are you seriously not going to eat more than two bites? I love the shrimp salad here. Isn’t it great?”

Nicole looked down at her food and hastily scooped up a forkful. She hadn’t eaten the breakfast she’d fixed either, the sudden disorder in her life not conducive to a hearty appetite. “I’m kind of distracted,” she admitted. “But you’re right, it’s delicious.”

The restaurant was busy, right next to the mall, and outside people walked past on the sidewalk in shorts and sandals, the beautiful weather seeming to bring all of Indianapolis outdoors. Their waitress whisked past, assessing their progress with an expert eye, and went on.

Her sister narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, I kind of noticed. Must have been when I asked you if you thought that sundress was flattering or if it put fifteen pounds on me and you answered yes to both questions. I seriously don’t think I should buy a dress that makes me look fat. What’s going on?”

Even if she could talk about it—and if she told anyone it would be Cadence, but Jack had forbidden that—she wouldn’t want to, at least not until she sorted it out a little more in her own mind. “A small, unexpected complication in my life,” she said evasively.

Small? Liar
.
Try huge
.

“Such as?”

“Eric.” It probably wasn’t fair to blame this all on him, but she wasn’t supposed to mention Jack yet.

Her sister’s brows rose. “Something wrong? I thought everything was great with the two of you.”

“Everything was—is—great, it isn’t that.” She speared another shrimp. “I think he’s really serious.”

“Marriage?” Cadence smiled warmly. “Nick, you couldn’t do better. Eric is fantastic.”

“Yeah, he is.” It was true, dammit.

“You have doubts?”

Had they been having this conversation only a day before, she would have said no. She responded evasively, “I’m not sure how I feel about it.”

“Is it Jack?” Setting aside her fork and pushing her empty plate to the side, Cadence gazed at her sympathetically. “I guess I can see where that might be an unresolved issue, but if you ask me, if you had to end up with someone else, I think Jack would have chosen Eric for you.”

Nicole choked on a swallow of shrimp and quickly took a sip of iced tea to cover it up. “I’m not as positive of that as you,” she murmured.

BOOK: Gone
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