Read Gone Online

Authors: Annabel Wolfe

Gone (8 page)

BOOK: Gone
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“I…sure, okay.”

He caught the small stammer. “Unless it makes you uncomfortable, Nikki. When we had dinner together you seemed fine.”

Did it? If there was tension between him and Eric it would bother her, but there didn’t seem to be. Actually, lunch with two gorgeous guys sounded very nice. “I am not sure how to define how I feel, but you two together do not make me uncomfortable. Let’s just go somewhere where we aren’t likely to run into my mother, okay?”

He laughed. “I can see where you are not anxious to have that conversation. You should have heard my dad trying to talk around outright telling me you were seeing Eric. I finally took pity on him and told him I knew already.”

“And he said?”

“That my personal life was something he’d just let me handle. I agreed, and we played a game of pool and talked about something else.”

He was still holding her wrist but his fingers slipped down to hold her hand instead. He gave a small squeeze of reassurance.

“Yeah, well women are a bit less likely to let the subject go,” she muttered, but his attitude was reassuring anyway.

“So…lunch? How about that little pub in Broadripple we used to go to? I am not expecting to see your mother there on a Sunday afternoon.”

“Or ever.”

“Do you want to call Eric, or should I? I need his number anyway.”

He already had his phone out and Nicole asked curiously, “If you can’t even buy a car, how did you get a phone?”

“My superiors really want to be able to talk to me if they need to at a moment’s notice, so they took care of it.”

That was a sobering thought, one that cut right through her. This was Jack. Whether or not he would discuss it, she realized his occupation required a military-issued phone and the ability to be ready to vanish at all times.

Which meant she could lose him all over again.

She said in a voice that wavered slightly, “Here’s the number.”

 

 

“I’m meeting two friends,” Eric said to the hostess, realizing with a small shock he hadn’t been to this place in…a long time. He and Jack had met there frequently for a beer or lunch—it was one of their favorite pubs—and though he hadn’t consciously avoided it after hearing about his best friend’s death, his subconscious had apparently kicked in because he hadn’t set foot in the place since the funeral. “They might be here already. Dark-haired guy and a drop-dead-gorgeous blonde.”

“I think you mean a drop-dead-gorgeous dark-haired guy and a young woman with blond hair.” The hostess was pretty and curvy and had a saucy smile. “The corner booth. Follow me.”

He laughed.

Nicole was there, wearing some sort of floral sundress that draped the curves he knew so intimately, with a small ruffle at the neckline, her slim arms bare. The fall of her shining hair brushed her shoulders and never failed to fascinate him. Luckily it was a corner booth and he wondered if Jack had asked for it specifically so they could both sit by Nicole.

He slid in next to her. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve had a couple calls this morning asking me if it is true about Jack. Car is outside. Here’s the keys.” He handed over the small pink keychain with the flamingos on the handle to Nicole.

“When we’re done, mind driving me out to my parents’?” Jack asked it casually, but his gaze touched on Nicole and then went back to Eric. “I think it would be better if it was you.”

Eric agreed one hundred percent. “It’s much better to let everyone see you and I aren’t at each other’s throats.”

“Now I’m a situation?” Nicole shook her head and her blue eyes held a glimmer of distress. “If there is one thing I don’t want it’s for your friendship to be damaged because of me.”

The arrival of the waitress to take their drink order kept either of them from commenting, but once she was gone, Jack said, “There are a lot of things in life you can’t predict or control, but friendship Eric and I can make a decision on, so don’t worry about it. Besides, it would be because of us, not because of you, Nikki. Just relax. We’re okay.”

She did seem reassured, or at least relaxed a little. The cheerful clatter of the restaurant could have been part of it, or maybe it was that he and Jack talked naturally, like they always had, and maybe Jack was right and the solid base of their lifelong relationship could weather whatever came next.

The only awkward moment was when they walked her to her car. Normally Eric would give her a brief kiss goodbye, and he could tell Jack was having the same sort of inner battle by his rueful smile as she solved the problem and gave them each an unsatisfactory kiss on the cheek, sweetly thanked Jack for lunch and got in her car.

“There goes our girl,” Jack said jokingly as she pulled away, and Eric gave a muffled laugh.

He jerked his head toward his sleek sports car, his one true indulgence since getting his latest promotion. “Come on. When we get to your parents’ house, I’ll beat you at a game of pool.”

“Fat chance, Janssen. This is a sweet ride, by the way. Thanks for letting me use it.”

“Anytime, you know that.”

At least it was fairly uncongested on a Sunday afternoon, and as Eric headed toward Highway 40, traffic thinned even more. He said conversationally, “Did you ask her?”

Jack just looked at the road, relaxed in his seat. Just like old times, he knew exactly what Eric was asking without further clarification. “About last night? No, I didn’t ask her whether or not you stayed. I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen.”

“Should we talk about it?”

“I have a decent imagination. Details are unnecessary,” Jack said, one dark brow lifting sardonically. “Let me take a shot at it. The two of you naked in bed and—”

“Very funny.” Eric signaled to pass an SUV. “I guess I’m more interested in just how
you
feel about it.”

He could have sworn Jack would have said something flippant but instead there was a silence as they stopped at a light, waiting for it to turn.

Finally, his best friend ran his hand through his dark hair. “Look, fine, here it is. I would swear I’d be more possessive, but it didn’t really bother me knowing you were together. Don’t for a minute think it is because I don’t love her, but because I
do
love her. If you make her happy, what can I say? For that matter, I want you to be happy too…shit, I don’t know.”

That was honest, so Eric couldn’t back away from at least giving as much.

Slowly, he said, “My sentiments exactly. I think we’d be extremely stupid to push her and make this a tug of war with her in the middle. If she continues to see both of us, I’m fine with that. Apparently I’m more open-minded than I thought.”

“I think we aren’t the ones she’s necessarily worried about.” Jack frowned, his expression abstract. “It’s more that everyone is wondering what kind of decision she is going to make.”

“It’s really none of their damn business,” Eric said forcefully.

“Get real, Janssen. It isn’t, I agree, but there is no such thing as ‘none of their business’. Since time began people have poked their nose into everyone else’s life. I wouldn’t have a job if our government didn’t want, and need, for that matter, to know what was happening on an international level. Tell me this, how hard was it to persuade her?”

“To let me stay the night?” Eric understood the underlying question. “I don’t think she has a moral issue of betrayal to either of us, because of the unique circumstances, but maybe an inner conflict over the concept of sleeping with two men.”

Jack ran his hand over his jaw. “How the hell can we convince her?”

“To live in the moment, so to speak? I’m not sure. This afternoon was probably not a bad start. Thanks for inviting me to lunch.”

“I had to return your car, and besides, since the three of us seem to be sharing our meals together anyway, why break the rhythm? And hey, our favorite place. I thought about the burgers there way too many times over the past thirteen months.”

“As good as you remember?” Eric slowed for a small town, the speed limit dropping to forty-five miles per hour. The corn was just beginning to show a hint of brown in the fields.


Everything
is as good as I remember.” Jack’s grin was cheeky, but it usually was.

“But you aren’t done, are you?”

His friend didn’t hesitate. “I could get a call in the next minute and we would have to turn this car around and head for the airport because I’d be deployed again.”

“You like it.”

Jack’s shoulders lifted. “Not all of it. Hell no. Who wants to be too hot, too cold, shot at, left behind enemy lines, given crappy rations, no cold beer—that goes without saying, you get my drift—but I will never be suited to a nine-to-five office job. I really like my CO. He actually lives in Indianapolis, and the rest of the team is made up of people willing to risk their lives to save one another. I’m sure as hell not bored, let’s put it that way.”

Even in college Jack had joined the crew team to be out in icy temps in boats on the rivers, he’d gone skydiving and gotten certified in scuba… He liked adventure, and Indiana didn’t offer enough of it, not for him.

“As the guy with the office and regular hours, I don’t exactly get it, but then again, I’ve known you a long time, so though it sounds like a contradiction, I do. I get it for
you
.”

“We never have been alike in that way.”

True. But very alike in other ways. They both wanted Nicole to be happy, but at the moment that seemed to be a little dicey.

Eric said thoughtfully, “You know, our differences…that might just work out perfectly.”

Chapter Eight

Colonel Peter Hanes was tired. Like bone-fucking tired. He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at the number on his phone. By now he was screening his calls—the fallout from Operation Vanish was about how he’d imagined, and truthfully, he’d imagined hell.

Paperwork. God yes, loads of it, and he had to trust some of it to other people because there was no way he could possibly wade through it all, but his signature would be there on the bottom of the final page.

The phone chirped again.

Unknown number.

No, thank you.

The house smelled stale and disused, which was about right—how long had he been gone? He set down his bag and loosened his tie. Months. He’d been away for at least three, stuck in Washington for half of it, which he preferred less than being sent into combat zones.

Then he caught it. A whiff of perfume, very faint but he knew it; in his gut, in his mind, in his very soul.

Been there, or
was
there. That was the question. He’d left the bottle on the dresser when she’d moved out and not taken it, and it was always possible an intruder had just knocked it over.

He dropped his bag and carefully took out his weapon. Sidearm, a .38, effective but not too heavy for a man to carry easily…and he released the safety as he slipped into the dark hallway.

Why was it, he wondered, that people did not recognize the sense of smell was the most effective that even unsophisticated creatures like human beings possessed? If a person really thought about it, the perfume of cinnamon could conjure up the holidays more than almost anything else, and there was nothing like the smell of a locker room or a hospital to slam home a particular memory…

Or the evocative scent of a woman’s favorite perfume.

“Kathy?” He eased sideways along the wall and spoke quietly. “It’s me.”

Taking a chance there. She wasn’t the only woman who wore that scent. If his enemies knew he was this susceptible every counteragent would slather him or herself in the stuff.

Then someone in New York or Paris would get rich, he’d be dead, and the world would never remember his name…and that was a powerful incentive to stay alive.

Someone
had been in his house.

“In here.” The words fell softly.

Oh God, the sound of her voice. Peter froze for a moment, every muscle going rigid. Then he eased around the corner, stepped into the doorway of what had once been
their
bedroom, and saw her sitting there in the near darkness, the silhouette of her profile unmistakable.

Without inflection at all, she said without turning to look at him, “I got an email notification about your flight. We probably need to change that.”

He slipped the gun back into his shoulder holster as unobtrusively as possible. “I thought I’d changed everything over to my new account, but I guess I missed that one. I rarely fly commercial anyway.”

“I know.”

Two simple words.

But here was nothing simple about the expression on her face.

She went on unemotionally. “I am soon to be your ex-wife, but this is still our home in so many ways, so I took a chance you’d come straight here. You know, you never did make me give back my key.”

He hadn’t had the heart, and besides, he’d been so damn busy he really hadn’t had the chance to process the disintegration of his marriage. A part of him wondered if he hadn’t immersed himself in this project so deeply just to avoid that reality.

Because he still loved her.

“I believe you took it with you when you walked out and we haven’t seen each other since,” he said coolly, striving for a dispassionate tone. “Besides, technically, this is still half your house until we sign those final papers.”

BOOK: Gone
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