Blood and Roses

Chapter 2

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“Then I’ll stay at Victoria’s Inn.”

Picking up her briefcase, Ana exhaled harshly. “Let me know if you hear anything.”

“Anastasia.” Her mother’s voice stopped her when she reached the door. “You’ll watch out for Frankie, won’t you? He’ll be all right?”

“I’ll do my best, Mom.” But she couldn’t make any promises. She couldn’t even be sure she wouldn’t go down with them.

Reaching for her sunglasses on the top of her head, she stepped outside.

And found a deputy U.S. Marshal waiting next to her car.

Ana’s breath caught and her heartbeat accelerated with a mixture of surprise and guilt.

The deputy was a tall and leanly built man with cool blue eyes and a firm mouth. His chiseled face was impassive and his arms casually crossed. His long legs were braced slightly apart, anchoring him to the asphalt as he assessed her from head to toe from beneath the brim of his hat.

“Deputy,” she greeted him, regaining her composure.

“Anastasia.” His voice was whisky-rough and it spoke her name like a caress. “What brings you back?”

“Pit stop during a work assignment.” She shoved her free hand into her pocket to hide how it trembled. Wondering if he had more news than Tilly did, she asked, “Where’s Eric?”

Jake’s lips pursed. He had a gorgeous mouth. Neither too full or too thin and perfectly sculpted. That mouth knew every inch of her body. She still had dreams about what he could do with it. “He headed down to Florida with your brother.”

She nodded and somehow refrained from shifting on her feet. “I never did like Florida. Too much humidity for me.”

“How long are you gonna be in town?”

“A few days, at most.”

He adjusted his weight, his body moving with sleek fluidity. “So why are we wasting time talking about nothing?”

She stared at him, absorbing everything about the man she’d left behind. He was harder than before. Bigger, too. He’d been twenty-two the last time she saw him. He was fully a man now, his frame filled out. The formidable strength of will he’d exuded as long as she’d known him hadn’t changed. “Are we supposed to be doing something else?”

“Getting to the point would be good. You staying with Tilly?”

“No.”

“You married?”

She shook her head. “You?”

“No. You’ll stay at my place, then.”

Heat shimmered through her, her pulse quickening. She hadn’t expected him to move so fast. If she was honest, she would admit that she’d been afraid he would brush her off, having long gotten over her. Worse, she’d wondered if he had a woman in his life, someone who had a normal family she could be proud of and he could be a part of.

“How’s your internet access?” She was thinking about how much closer she’d be to getting a bead on Eric if she was staying at Jake’s house. She would also be closer to Jake himself, the man she loved so much it was like an aching wound in her chest.

“Sweetheart,” he drawled, his gaze hot. “You really want to start out that way? I was planning on easing you back into it, but if you’re eager to be punished, you just let me know.”

Her body responded to the sensual threat with familiar alacrity. Jake had always been able to make her ready for him with just a look, because she knew exactly where that look would lead—to dark pleasure that took her to her limits. “I have to work, Jake. It was a valid question.”

“I’m not saying it wasn’t. Just that it’s insulting to imply that the quality of the Wi-Fi in my house has a damn thing to do with whether or not I’ll be nailing you into my mattress tonight.”

She winced inwardly. He’d always been raw and blunt when talking about sex, but there was an undercurrent of hurt anger to his words now and it broke her heart. Not that she could show it. Her sympathy wasn’t what he wanted or needed, and it wouldn’t be fair of her to give it anyway, considering she was the cause of his unhappiness.

“Well—” She cleared her throat. “Glad we cleared that up.”

His smile sent goose bumps racing across her skin. “I’m not as far outside of town as Tilly is. My internet is just fine.”

“Good. I’ll need it.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “You know how to get there.”

Ana took them from him, swallowing hard at the sight of the keychain. It was a round piece of wood, a one-inch thick cross-section of a small branch. She’d made the thing as an assignment in woodworking class. On one side she’d burned the letters Jake + Ana surrounded by little decorative hearts and asterisks. The other side read Forever.

“I’ve got some business to take care of,” he said. “I’ll call you at the house to see if you’re up for dinner in town or if you’d like me to bring something home with me.”

“I could cook.”

“Could you now?” He grinned. “I’d like that.”

“Sure you would,” she said dryly. “You’re a man.”

Jake pulled a business card out and gave it to her. “That has my office’s number and my cell number on it. Call me if you need me for anything.”

She held his gaze. “Anything?”

“Been that way for twelve years now, Ana. Despite spending ten of those waiting for you to get your ass back here.”

Ana took a deep breath. He was everything she’d always wanted, but could never have. Lawmen and grifters didn’t mix. “I’m just passing through, Jake.”

“So you said.” He touched the brim of his hat. “See you later.”

Ana drove her Jag slowly down the tree-lined street, her gaze taking in just how much the area had changed since she’d left a decade ago. At one time—back when Jake’s home had belonged to his parents—the house had been one of only a few on a new street. Now the homes lined up one after another, forming the perfect picture of Small-town America.

She parked at the curb in front of the ranch-style house, smiling at the white picket fence that said a lot about the man he was. The yard was immaculately landscaped and a swing hung from the porch rafters. It was just the sort of normal family home she’d always fantasized she would have one day.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t normal and neither was her family. Her brain was filled with a variety of larcenous information, which was how she’d come to be an insurance investigator specializing in fine art and jewelry theft—her mind worked like a criminal’s.

Keeping Jake had never been an option for her, despite how much they loved each other. His brain had always worked out problems from the opposite side of the law, and he’d always planned on working in law enforcement. She couldn’t imagine him being anything other than a cop.

How could she ever ask someone like him to connect his life to those of a band of criminals? The reason she’d come back only proved how right she had been to walk away. What would it do to him, to his career, to their love if she went to jail? She’d known that one day Tilly or Frankie would land into trouble and when that happened, it would impact Jake. She couldn’t do that to him. In the end, she’d loved him enough to leave him.

“Yet here you are at his place,” she murmured to herself, grabbing her weekend bag from the passenger seat. She slung it over her shoulder and opened the gate, admiring the cobblestone pathway to the front door and knowing Jake must’ve laid it himself. She imagined him outside on a sunny day, shirtless and sheened with sweat, the muscles of his back and arms flexing as he worked his way across the lush lawn.

She wondered what he’d been thinking of while he was working. Had he imagined a wife waddling over it while pregnant with his child? Or his kids skipping along it on the way in from school? Or a dog bounding over it as neighborhood children played in the yard with his own?

Her hand clenched around the keychain she’d made for him when she was just sixteen.

Been that way for twelve years now, Ana.

Jesus. That was a heartbreaker. And yet she was touched that his love was as true as hers.

She let herself in, dropped her bag on a black leather couch, and took in the surprisingly modern style of the furnishings. He’d gone with pale blue and chrome with black furniture, and the cool palette went remarkably well with the warmth of the gleaming hardwood floors.

If she’d had any sense at all, she would have stayed at the inn. Leaving had shattered her last time. What would she suffer through this time? What would Jake?

Taking a deep breath, Ana pulled the much-loved scent of him deep into her lungs, her entire body tingling with awareness. Jake had been her first lover and her senses were trained to be attuned to his. He’d trained them, first with his hands and mouth, and later with restraints and the delicious bite of pain. It was a lifestyle they’d fallen into together, both of them realizing that she had a deep-seated need to surrender to his authority, and in the process, he’d ruined her for other men. Sometimes, when she was lying in bed at night, she wondered if she’d ruined him for other women.

Ana dug out her laptop from her bag and carried it into the dining room. Jake had a square, high table and she kicked off her heels before climbing onto a barstool. As her laptop powered up, she pulled out her cell phone and his business card, and texted him.

Password for your wi-fi?

A moment later, he replied. [email protected]

She stared at the code and smiled. “Ana-mine-69, huh?”

Wishful thinking or a hint? she texted back.

He answered fast. An order.

“Well. Some things never change.” Ana flexed her fingers and rolled her shoulders back, focusing her mind on the work ahead.

She was going to dig up information on Terence Parker and she was going to break the law doing it. She pushed aside her guilt, knowing it had to be done. “I hope you pull through, Terence.”

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