Blood and Roses

Chapter 3

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Ana had decided to focus on his relatives. She could imagine how it would feel to go into the heist as the lone outsider in a family group—a mother, her son and his best friend. Although Eric wasn’t technically related to them, he was practically a brother to Frankie. Terence would understandably want someone similarly close to him on his side.

God… Frankie. Her throat tightened with fear and her eyes stung. Her baby brother had never really had a chance to walk the straight and narrow. And if something happened to Eric, it would destroy Jake.

“One step at a time,” she muttered to herself. “Find the fourth.”

“You’re making the rest of us look bad, Jake.”

Jake looked up from the paperwork he was trying to clear so he could take the next day off. Luke Stiles—one of his fellow deputies and a longtime friend—stood in the doorway, grinning. “I heard Ana’s back in town and staying at your place.”

“Ah, Whisper Creek, where the whispering about other people’s business never stops.” Leaning back in his chair, Jake gave himself permission to think about the woman who was as much a part of him as his badge. She’d been the most important thing in his life since her family drove into town when she was sixteen. Together they’d helped each other cross the threshold from adolescence to adulthood, and they’d discovered what they needed from the person they loved. A lot of people never figured that out.

And some never found their soul mates.

He still didn’t get why they weren’t together. He understood that she’d needed to get out of Whisper Creek to spread her wings, but he couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t let him go with her. He’d cajoled and begged and threatened and teased, making her tell him a hundred times over that she’d never leave him. But in his heart he’d known she would go; he’d seen the truth in her eyes.

She loved him; he knew that and didn’t doubt it. There would never be another man for her, not one who knew her as deeply and completely as he did. They’d experienced so much together, raw and searingly intimate encounters that bound them tighter than gold rings and vows.

But as the years passed and she didn’t come back to him, he realized something was keeping her away and today proved it. The love was still there in her beautiful green eyes. She still wanted him and obeyed him, still craved his hunger for her. If she left again, he’d have his

answer—it wasn’t him; it was Whisper Creek. And if location was what was keeping them apart, he’d paddle her ass for not saying so.

Luke leaned against the front of Jake’s desk. “Is she back for good?”

“Don’t know yet.”

“Ah… okay. You two coming into town for dinner?”

“She’s cooking.”

“Really? You should know I was in Home Ec with her for a semester. She couldn’t crack an egg.”

Jake smiled. “Warning noted.”

“You sure about that?” Luke’s smile faded. “She did a number on you last time, Jake. I don’t want to see you like that ever again.”

“I’m not the only one who got hurt. Guess Ana and I can’t quit each other.”

He waited until Luke left the room, then pulled out his cell to call Eric. His younger brother was supposed to check in twice a day, but he hadn’t called since yesterday morning. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t totally unexpected.

“Hey, Eric,” he said, when he reached voicemail. “You’re supposed to be checking in. Yes, I know you’re a grown man now, but this isn’t about what’s good for you, it’s about doing something good for me. I worry.”

He took a breath, thinking.

“Text me when you get a chance or leave me a message. Shit, send me a picture if you can’t be bothered to type or talk. But don’t send me a damn mug shot or I’ll be kicking your ass all the way to jail.”

Ana finished her report and emailed it to her contact at the insurance agency. It was difficult showing progress when she didn’t want to give up any names. Even using the guard’s name was tricky, because he might flip on Frankie or Eric if he felt the heat. So she’d reported that she was researching the backgrounds of all the store’s employees, which didn’t make her look any more competent that the local cops, but she’d dug up a couple dark spots that would’ve been viable leads if she didn’t already know who was responsible for the crime. The information should be enough to make it look like she was worth her fee… at least for today.

As for her hunch, she’d discovered that Terence had two brothers—one was a tenured professor in Virginia and the other had a sealed record that she’d hacked. Richard Parker had a previous armed robbery conviction when he was fifteen and a variety of petty larceny and drug charges. His record was clean as an adult, but her parents proved that not getting caught didn’t mean you were straight.

Shutting down her laptop, Ana slid off the barstool and went to check on dinner. She’d done a quick check of Jake’s fridge and pantry earlier and hadn’t been surprised to find both well stocked. After debating her options, she’d put a pot roast in the oven and a salad in the crisper. Then she’d opened a bottle of red wine and left it to breathe on the counter. Because she’d prepped in advance, she had time to take a shower before Jake got home.

She grabbed her bag off the couch and headed to the guest bathroom, admiring the tile work in the shower that she knew was another of Jake’s projects. When he’d inherited the place from his parents, it hadn’t had such upgrades. It had been a cookie-cutter house, one of the first homes built by a developer who’d thought the town would grow much faster than it had. Now it had Jake’s stamp over most of it, but the guest bathroom was clearly Eric’s domain. The razor on the edge of the sink was a bright lime green and the men’s body wash in the shower was the kind marketed to hormonal young men.

Jake had assumed responsibility for his brother at the tender age of nineteen, when the Monroes had been killed by a collision with a drunk driver. Ana had supported him through that rough time and offered him what comfort she could, considering how young she herself was, but he’d been good with Eric from the beginning. Jake was a born leader, firmly anchored by his moral compass and unshakeable confidence.

She’d needed his quiet strength as much as Eric had, having been raised by two of the flightiest people ever to be parents. And even after all these years, Jake was still her touchstone.

Ana scrubbed, shaved, and perfumed herself like a woman bent on seduction, a mindset she hadn’t adopted for a very long time. She hadn’t packed anything sexy, so her simple cotton baby doll nightgown would have to do.

“Ten years,” she murmured to her reflection in the mirror, fluffing out her damp curls with her fingers. “You’re bound to be a little rusty.”

When she opened the bathroom door, she knew immediately that Jake was home. There was a palpable energy in the air and it flowed over her, awakening her senses. She could hear the shower running in his bedroom and appreciated the time to finish prepping dinner. She smiled when she saw the white roses in a vase on the dining table and when she went to pull out the salad, she found one of Victoria’s famous cheesecakes in the fridge.

She was tossing the salad when she heard Jake pad into the kitchen behind her. A moment later, his arms were circling her and his lips were pressed to the side of her neck.

“Hi,” he murmured, his voice low and husky.

“Hi back.” Her head fell against his shoulder and she allowed herself the temporary luxury of leaning into him. His chest was bare, hard, and warm. “I like the flowers.”

“Good.” The tip of his tongue touched the lobe of her ear; then he caught it between his teeth. “I walked in the door and the smell of dinner made me hungry. Now I’ve smelled you and I’m starving.”

He wasn’t talking about food, she knew. That was proven when his hands slid down the flat plane of her stomach and gripped her thighs just beneath the hem of her baby doll.

“Did you get some work done?” he breathed, bending his knees to press his erection against the swell of her buttocks.

Ana became so aroused the denim of his jeans and the cotton of her baby doll might as well have not been there. She dropped the salad servers into the bowl, shaken by the lust that burned through her. It felt as if she’d been numb for ages and was suddenly reawakened to sensation, overwhelmed by the vibrancy of it after living through miserable loneliness. “Yes, I did. How was your day?”

“I spent the last half of it thinking about you and cursing the paperwork I needed to clear so I could stay home tomorrow.”

She sucked in a deep breath. “Oh?”

“Before you leave my bed, Anastasia, you’re going to explain to me why we’re not together.”

“Jake—” Her words cut off as his fingers pushed under the elastic edge of her lace thong. She was slick and hot, primed for him by deprivation and the depth of her love. His fingertip slid between the lips of her sex, stroking through the moisture to tease her clitoris.

“You still want me.” He pulled her back against him and rolled his hips, making sure she felt the steely hardness of his erection. “And you know I’ve never stopped wanting you. We should be in the same bed every night and the same house every day. We both know it.”

He stepped back, removing his touch and leaving her bereft. “Can I help with anything?”

Ana shot a narrow-eyed glance at him over her shoulder and found him grinning unrepentantly. He wore a pair of soft, well-worn jeans that hung low on his hips and nothing else. His hair was longer than it had seemed with his hat on. Dark as night and glossy, his hair had always been a lure to her. She loved to run her fingers through it and clench it in her fists as he pleasured her.

“You can set the table,” she told him.

He washed his hands at the sink and set to work, not surprising her in the least by having all the necessary components of a dinner setting—cloth napkins, salad and dinner plates, silverware, and placemats. She could imagine him dishing up dinner for Eric every night, ensuring that his brother had as near to a traditional family life as possible.

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