Authors: Denise A. Agnew
Book one in the Love Under Fire series.
Where do you yearn to be in the face of danger? In the armsof a man bound to serve, to protect and to love…
Librarian Melanie Falconer knows too well the horrors ofwar. Military men, as far as she’s concerned, are off the marriage menu. Asmaid of honor at her best friend’s wedding, she makes a mall run and landsstraight into the arms of seriously hot marine Matt Frasier, the best man.
Matt has seen too much violence, and his heavy attraction toMelanie promises to soothe his soul and set his body on fire. But when gunfireerupts, the game is on, and Melanie and Matt fight for their lives—and the heatexploding between them.
Inside Scoop:The couples in theLove Under Fireseries find love through the crucible of a mall shooting event.
ARomantica®erotic romantic suspensefrom Ellora’s CaveSudden HeatDenise A. Agnew
To myown military hero, my husband Terry.
Juggling two large shopping bags, soon-to-be maid of honorMelanie Falconer stepped out of the lingerie shop and slammed into a hard body.
It was late Tuesday and the mall would close in less than anhour. She couldn’t afford one more delay in her busy life. Especially when thetotally ripped body belonged to best man Matt Frasier. She registered Matt’ssurprised face a half second before momentum won and their bodies collided.
“Oof!” Her breath rushed out and her packages went flying inall directions.
Strong hands gripped her waist and prevented her fromlanding on her butt. She faced an intense stare that reminded her of sky fadinginto night. No, his eyes did more than look into her soul and bring forth hersecrets. They caressed her, wrapped her in instant warmth that enveloped herbody with breath-stealing attention. Every time the tall, muscular marinewalked into a room and she was there, Melanie’s breath halted and her pulseskittered.
Ridiculously aware of him, she wanted to run from the crazyattraction that stole her self-control. And she needed all the self-control shecould get.
This last week didn’t bode well for that.
Work at the library had ramped up with the introduction of anew computer system, her boss had come down with the flu and Thanksgiving weekalways gave Melanie that sinking feeling. When her best friends and fellowbridesmaids Kathleen McSwain and Lena Williams had decided the wedding partyshould buy a group present for the groom Patrick and the bride Danelle, Melaniewent into overdrive. What to get the couple who seemed to have everything? It wasMelanie’s idea, initially, to have a large frame engraved as an additionalpresent, and the others had been thrilled. Patrick and Danelle had establishedtheir own business in Constitution and they’d moved in together two years ago.With a well-appointed house, they didn’t need many things a couple wouldnormally ask for on a gift registry. Melanie wanted to give her friendsomething special for her wedding. The biggest strategic problem had beenfiguring out how to get the entire wedding party to the engraver’s so that shecould record everyone’s personal signature for the engraving. They’d alsotentatively planned dinner together afterward. The engraver had told her hewouldn’t have time to see them until about five fifteen today.
She’d agreed to the idea with relief. With everyone there atonce there wasn’t much chance she’d have to spend any time alone with MattFrasier.
“Hey Melanie.” Usually his eyes looked somewhat stoic butnow they had softened by a degree. “Sorry. You all right?”
They bent at the same time to grab her purchases. Heatfilled her face as he gathered a red lacy demi-cut push-up bra in his big hand.A thirty-four C-cup. His gaze lingered on the bra and she imagined his big handcaressing the bra while it was onher. Heat shot through her.
She snatched the bra from him and stuffed it back in thesmall bag. “Thanks.”
His assessing gaze said volumes. Straitlaced librarianMelanie Falconer wore screaming red underwear?Say it isn’t so.
“Are the other ladies in the shop too?” he asked as theystood.
“Heading that way.”
He gestured back toward the tuxedo shop. “Jake and Rick arestill having last-minute measurements on the tuxedos. Rick was late gettinghere. He’s chronically late to everything. I decided to head over to theengraver’s.”
“We’re all late tonight. Kathleen and Lena got caught intraffic. We split up to get things done.”
As he handed her one of the bags, his fingers brushedagainst hers. A tiny shock went through her body and coiled in her stomach. Ahot, undeniably sexual spark that refused to be extinguished.
His hands fascinated her—which was strange considering she’dnever given a man’s hands much thought. They felt and looked so strong, sopurposeful.
She almost winced, not because of pain but because MattFrasier turned her on. His brand of masculinity seemed to have found her brandof femininity and called to all the primitive channels inside her. Oh yes. Itwasn’t only his body that floated her boat. Since she’d met him at the party,he’d impressed her with what he’d said, his opinions and an inherent sense ofthe honorable.
And she wondered too much. She wondered how he’d make love,if the sensuality he seemed to have in spades would bring her to amind-stealing orgasm. Orgasm. Yeah, well, she hadn’t experienced one of thosein a while. Heat filled her face, her entire body. God, she needed to forgetthese raging hormones. Matt would leave town soon and that would be it. Finis.Done. And there was no way in hell she’d get involved with a marine who’dexperienced what he’d no doubt experienced recently in Afghanistan.No way.
His gaze danced across her face, down her body. She’d worncasual attire of jeans, sweater and boots. Boots for the snow threateningoutside. Still, his look devoured and said the attraction she felt wasn’texactly one-sided. A slow burn awakened tingling senses, demanding action toextinguish the flame. She’d thought she had seen him checking her out beforebut she’d dismissed it as imagination. She cleared her throat.
He cracked a grin and it brightened his stern face intosoul-stirring handsome. Matt rarely smiled, at least he hadn’t last Fridaynight when she’d met him at Danelle and Patrick’s house for a pre-wedding bashgiven by Danelle’s parents.
“Patrick is across town and up to his butt in last-minutethings Danelle wants him to do for the wedding.” A twinkle in his eyes added tothe teasing in his voice. “My brothers told him to get used to the ole ball andchain.”
She laughed softly. “When she called me a little while ago shesounded stressed out.” She shook her head. “Weddingsarea pain in thebutt.”
His eyebrows winged up. “Seriously?”
It was her turn to be taken aback. “You don’t think so?You’re a guy.”
Amusement brightened his eyes and the whisky and velvet inhis deep voice tugged on her primal needs. “First time you noticed?”
Taken off guard by his teasing, she said, “First time—no. Ofcourse not.”
Was he kidding her? Beautiful dark eyes, a day’s worth ofstubble on his jaw and his black hair trimmed in a sharp military cut weren’tthe only things that made this marine hot. Damn but he wasfine. Morethan fine. Utter hardness and self-assurance marked his face, a countenance toostrong featured to resemble anything but tough guy. His nose a tad too large,his eyes ringed by thick lashes that increased their laser intensity threefold.And his body. Taut and honed by military precision. How could any woman ignorebroad shoulders covered by an old brown leather bomber jacket and blue sweater?She’d seen him the first time wearing one of those sweaters that couldn’t hideunmistakable strength as biceps and forearms flexed. Jeans curved around atight backside and outlined steel-hard thighs. She stood five feet six inchestall and Matt was at least six two. Any woman with one ounce of red blood wouldtake a second look at him.
When Patrick had shown them all photographs of the Frasierbrothers, her jaw had about hit the floor.
Jake and Rick Frasier were disgustingly masculine too, andif her hormones hadn’t homed in on Matt, she probably would’ve found them moreintriguing. Her friend Kathleen had grown up here and knew the brothers fromschool. Kathleen and Jake avoided each other way too strenuously, and theglances they threw at each other made Mel wonder about their previousrelationship.
Well, in the end it didn’t matter. They all had jobs toreturn to. The Frasier brothers were only in town for Thanksgiving and thewedding this Saturday. After that they went back to war. Well, at least Jakewas headed back to the Middle East. Matt had recently finished a tour inAfghanistan and Rick was in the coast guard and would return to Alaska.
He cocked his head to the side. “You don’t like weddings?”
“Hate ‘em.” Curiosity deepened in his eyes but she cut himoff at the pass. “Don’t get me wrong. I think Danelle and Patrick are made foreach other. I just don’t like the whole stress-out beforehand and the expense.”
He crossed his arms. “You’d rather elope?”
She smiled. “Now you’re talking.”
Curiosity entered his eyes. “You been married before?”
She almost choked on a sound of disbelief. “Me? No.”
“You make it sound like a disease you haven’t caught.”
Did she? What the hell did she say to that?
He laughed and the soft rumble strummed her strings and sentswirls of heat around in her belly. She wanted to squirm, more than a littleannoyed that she did this every time she saw him. What was it all about? Itwasn’t like she hadn’t desired a man before but this man, oh baby…
She glanced at her watch. “We need to get to theengraver’s.”
Matt nodded and consulted his own watch. “You’re right.” Hiseyes narrowed and he took one step closer. “Look, with all the craziness goingon I’m glad I ran into you. I wanted to ask you—”
A series of staccato popping noises interrupted. Two. Threepopping noises. Loud enough to startle.
She jerked in surprise. Saw awareness pour into his eyesfollowed instantly by grim acknowledgement and understanding.
She thought she knew what those sounds were. “Matt, what—”
“Gunfire.” Eyes hard, he reacted.
She glanced around as every muscle in her body went on highalert.
He stepped closer, gaze scanning the area rapidly. His wordswere as rapid as the gunshots. “We need the nearest exit.”
“There’s a set of bathrooms.” She pointed east. “Two storesdown. I think there’s an exit there.”
“That’s the direction of the gunshots. We can’t wanderaround here in plain sight.”
Female screams echoed.
Two more bangs. These closer and coming from the east sideof the mall.
“Move.” He clasped her biceps and ran toward the lingeriestore. “There’s no time.”
In the rush she dropped her shopping again but at least shehad her crossover body bag secure over her chest. They barreled into the store.She expected to see the two employees who’d manned the counter but the shoplooked empty.
Zigzagging around racks of bras and panties, Matt urged heralong. “There’s got to be a back door.”
Harsh and urgent, his voice compelled her to hurry as muchas his grip on her arm.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Her heart slammed in her chest. She was hot, her pulsetripping double time, fear screaming through her veins.
They rushed past dressing rooms, dodged boxes and passed asmall employee lounge. Melanie hit the exit door almost at a run, slammingagainst it when the bar gave then resisted with a clanging shriek.
Matt shoved on the door as well. “Damn it. Come on.”
He grabbed her arm again. “There’s a bathroom here.” Mattopened the unisex bathroom door and pushed her inside. “Stay here and call9-1-1. I’ll check the front and be back. Turn off the light and lock the door.”
As he started to pull the door closed, she whisperedfrantically, “Matt, be careful.”
He left without a word. She locked the door. She turned.Jolted as her face stared back at her from the single mirror above the sink.
Ridiculous thoughts jammed up in her head. Her ash hairtumbled around her shoulders—she’d decided to grow it out from a bob. Her blueeyes were too wide, too filled with doubt and uncertainty, with fear. She tooka deep, shuddering breath. Now wasn’t the time to freak. She needed herlegendary self-control if she wanted to survive this. Whateverthiswas.
After flipping off the light, she felt her way along thewall and sank down in the corner away from the door. She fumbled with herpurse, found her cell phone and dialed. As soon as the 9-1-1 operator came onthe line Melanie relayed the situation as best she could. Her throat was sotight it ached and she stuttered as her dry mouth barely managed the words. Theoperator explained that others had called in too. She heard a beeping noise andrealized her phone was dying. She’d planned on plugging the phone into the carrecharger when she left the store. As the phone gave one more bleep and died,she cursed softly. She stuffed the cell back into her purse.
Thoughts scattered through her mind at what seemed like ahundred miles an hour. Where had the lingerie shop employees disappeared to andwhy the hell was the exit door locked? Melanie’s breathing rasped in her ears,the silence in the pitch-black bathroom like a live entity sharing space andthreatening to smother her. Chaotic thoughts careened through her head.
Where were Kathleen and Lena? Had they been hurt? Killed?Her blood ran cold, dread curling in her stomach.No. Please, no.Sheshivered and rubbed her arms. The floor was cold, seeping through her jeans.She’d left her short winter jacket in the car, not wanting to carry it aroundand certain her sweater would keep her comfortable.
Who was shooting and why? Terrorists? Right now she didn’tcare. In one of those wild and irrational thoughts people experience when shithas just hit the fan, she made a vow to do something if she escaped thesituation alive.
She was going to kiss Matt once. Just once to get it out ofher system and see if all that pent-up hard-ass marine energy lived up to herimagination.
A soft knock against the door made her freeze. Her heartalmost stopped.
Relief made her legs weak but she shoved to her feet andhurried to the door. She flipped on the light and unlocked the door with shaky fingers.He rushed inside holding some sort of three-foot metal pole then locked thedoor and turned the light off again. He clasped her shoulders, pressed her backinto the corner and shielded her body with his.
He pressed his lips close to her ear and whispered, “Atleast one guy is casing the mall. He’s got an automatic rifle. He’s coming thisway and going store to store. I tried to pull down the storefront gate but it’slocked open. We need to stay in here and keep quiet.”
Shaking, her heart practically bounding out of her chest,Melanie realized she’d never felt so scared. She clasped his waist then hisstrong back as one of his arms came around her. His heat and hardness gavesecurity but she couldn’t deny that she’d gone from happy-go-lucky this afternoonto utterly terrified.
The sound of gunfire echoed outside, sounding faint butgrowing in intensity. She jerked, startled. Matt’s arm tightened around her.For what seemed an eternity they stood there, hardly breathing. A silent prayerran through her head.
Oh God. Please let this be over soon.
More gunfire. Closer. She tensed in Matt’s arms. His pressedher head to his shoulder, hand tangled in the hair at the back of her neck.Shivers suddenly racked her frame. So much for cool control. She’d lost theedge, lost her ability to stand firm and strong. Being in the wrong place atthe wrong time had a whole new meaning.
Quiet hovered like a beast, waiting. Silent and deadly andready to pounce. Matt held her tightly and she stayed tense. She barely breathed.
A huge thud hit the door. Cursing rent the air from outside,a man’s angry and incoherent shouting.
Then the man shouted. “Fuckin’ whores! Where the fuck areyou?”
Melanie tensed, holding back a cry of alarm. Matt’s armsloosened and released her.
He turned full toward the door and stood in front of her.She pressed herself farther into the corner. They waited. Waited for aneternity.Chapter Two
The sound of footsteps shuffled, faded away. Matt didn’tmove and neither did Melanie. She gulped, ridiculously afraid the killer couldhear the sound.
A few minutes later they heard more gunshots but these werefar away. The killer had retreated from the store. She let out a hard breath justas Matt turned toward her. She heard him lean the metal pole against the wall.She reached for him and he tugged her tight against him. She flung her armsaround his neck. They remained that way, finding comfort from closeness. Shelost track of time.
“It’s going to be all right.” His voice whispered againsther ear, reassuring and strong.
“I know,” she managed to say in a shaky voice. She kept hervoice to a mere whisper. “How long do you think we should stay in here?”
“We have to wait it out until the cops take him down,” Mattsaid into her ear. “I’m sorry I didn’t see another quick way out of here.”Matt’s arms tightened around her. “It’s all right. We’re safe here for now.”
Fear started to ease under his attention. God, how did he doit? How did he keep that creeping sense of disaster at bay? She accepted thewarmth and comfort his embrace offered. As her hands slipped down his shouldersshe drew in a deep breath. Something about him calmed her.
“I was on the line with 9-1-1 when my cell phone died,” shesaid.
He released her and she heard him jingling some keys.Suddenly a small flashlight on one of the keys lit up. He placed it on thefloor pointing at the wall. “This is the first time this has come in handy. Mymother gave it to me.”
He grunted and pulled a cell phone out of the holster on hiswaist. “Worried mother.”
“Worried? You’re a marine.”
He chuckled softly, a smooth, deep sound. “You know howparents are. Besides, my mother was in the marines. She’s always prepared.”
She’d never met anyone whose mother was a marine. In the airforce and the army, yes, but not a marine.
As he used the touch screen on his phone, his fingers flewover the keys. “I’m texting my brothers. I’d call them but I don’t know howsafe it is for them to answer a phone.”
“Excellent idea. Ask them if they’ve seen Kathleen andLena.”
She caught a glimpse of his face in the semidarkness. Hisbrows drew down in concentration. His eyes flashed, his mouth a tight line.Silence ruled for a few minutes. Finally a dull vibrating sound rumbled fromhis phone. And then another and another.
In the distance more shots popped but these still soundedfar away.
“Yes,” he said in triumph. “Jake just answered. He’s withKathleen.”
She caught her breath. “Are they all right?”
“They’re in a storage room behind the coffee shop next tothe engraver’s and there’re several other people with them. He says they’restaying put for now.”
She released a slow breath, her tight muscles relaxingslightly. He continued texting. She stayed silent, her mind churning a hundredmiles a minute. Worry escalated. Where were Lena and Rick?
“God, I hope Lena is safe,” she said.
“I got the impression you three ladies could handle anythingthat came your way.”
“Huh. Well, we have our moments.” She slid down to sit onthe floor, easing her handbag off and leaving it nearby. “Lena just startedtaking handgun lessons. I hate guns.”
“Afraid of them?”
“Not exactly. I just have this aversion to them. My fatherwas…” How did she say this without sounding like a cliché? “He was in Vietnam.He became a cop, then the PTSD took hold after a few years and…” She swallowedhard and couldn’t continue.
His dark gaze caught hers for a second and held, filled withan understanding she hadn’t expected. “My mother was a marine for twenty-fiveyears and had some interesting experiences in Desert Storm. Then her bodycouldn’t take the wear and tear and she retired. She can be a real bear.”
“Ouch. The war or the discharge?”
“She loved her job. The discharge is what broke her.”
“She was in military police, and not doing that any more ateher up. She’s still trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up.She got out of the military ten years ago, right before this last war.”
Silence wrapped them for a few moments before she said, “Wasshe tough on you and your brothers?”
She sensed a lot more to that story but didn’t feelcomfortable going deeper. “What does your father do?”
“Travels with my mother. He was a Mr. Mom through ourchildhood. He’s a travel writer too. He’s a great dad. We always know that heloves us. He’s pretty easy to talk to.”
She popped out with, “Unlike your mom?”
He smiled. “How did you know?”
They went silent again for a short time before he asked,“You more like your mom or your dad?”
She winced. “I’m guilty of being like both of them equally.”
In the semidarkness his face didn’t reveal much. “Do peoplethink you’re not approachable?”
That question stopped her in her tracks. She shifted on thehard floor, her mind awhirl, wondering why he’d asked. “How did you guess?”
“At Patrick and Danelle’s party the other night you seemed alittle cool.”
Defensiveness almost won. She modulated her voice. “So didyou.”
He laughed, and this time it was a purr of sound that wendedits way inside her. “Touché. I’m good at giving orders in the marines. Not sogood at relating with small talk.”
“You’re doing a great job now.”
“You’re…different. I find it easy to talk to you. And Idon’t consider this small talk. It’s too significant for that.”
A low, sensual response unfurled in her and threw her offguard. How had he managed to draw her into this kind of conversation when anutjob was nearby threatening people’s lives? He’d calmed her just by makingconversation, and she was grateful.
She found her voice. “Men are intimidated sometimes afterthey’ve talked to me a while. I figured that’s the way you felt.”
“I see how some guys would be intimidated. Not want to getto know the real you.”
She didn’t want that to hurt but it did. “Story of my lifebut I’m working hard to change. I’ve spent too much of my life isolated fromother people.”
She took a big chance revealing this much to a virtualstranger.
“Hard to keep cool, calm and collected when there’s afirefight. Even if it’s in the mall,” he said.
She snorted a small laugh. “My number-one priority used tobe keeping my cool.”
“You did a good job at the party. Your eyes were throwingdaggers at me.”
Surprise filled his voice. “I did?”
“Yes. You scowl a lot.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been accused of having this pissed-offface when I’m deep in thought. It wasn’t anything personal. I don’t even knowwhen I’m doing it.”
“A couple of times you looked like a deer caught inheadlights when I talked to you.”
“I think the deer in headlights thing was probably becauseyou’re beautiful and I was stunned.”
Surprise held her silent for a moment. “Oh.”Holy cow.“Thankyou.”
My God. This guy kept getting better and better. Somethingabout this man touched her in deeper ways she didn’t understand. If it had beenjust good looks she could have ignored that. This…this had bite. Substance. Alick and stroke that demanded her attention and played along her skin like goodsex but with a lasting finish that didn’t wear off the next morning.
“I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes as she laid her head backagainst the wall. “I’ve been chattering. I guess being scared as hell does thatto me.”
“You never know how you’ll react to something like thisuntil it happens.” Finished texting for the moment, he turned out theflashlight. He sat at her left side. “You okay?”
She drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. “Yes. No.”
He made a sound, just enough to convey amusement. “We’ll getout of here soon.”
She wanted to believe him. A short time passed and thebathroom was cold and quiet.
Unease trickled up her spine. “Do you think that…man willcome back?”
“Maybe. A SWAT team should be in position soon. Then again,it hasn’t been very long. They might not be here yet.”
A low rumbling sound came from somewhere and then the lightfrom the store outside the bathroom extinguished.
“Shit,” he said.
“I wonder if the police turned off the lights.”
“They might have. It could make things more difficult forthe shooter. It could also make it harder for us.”
She drew her knees up and rested her head on her foldedforearms. “I’ll never complain about another thing again as long as we all getout of this in one piece.” She sighed. “But I have a feeling someone won’t becoming home tonight. The man must have killed or wounded people.”
“Butwe’regoing home tonight. In fact…” He driftedoff, and it immediately brought her to full attention.
She looked over at him even though she couldn’t see him,total darkness making her feel like they were isolated on another planet. “In fact?”
“Before the shooting started I was going to ask you out.”
Surprise held her silent.
He cleared his throat. “I know. Bad timing. Forget I saidanything.”
She’d heard the uncertainty in his voice and found itendearing. Her tongue felt too thick, the words difficult to form. “No. I…yes.”
“When we get out of here, let’s go somewhere and talk.Obviously after the cops talk to us. They’ll probably have a million questions,right?”
She rubbed the back of her neck. “After that, I’ll need to unwind.”
“That’s good, you know.”
“You’re keeping the good thought. We are getting out of herein one piece, I promise.”
She liked the conviction in his voice and suddenly she feltone hundred percent safe, as if he’d placed a huge safety net under her.
Her stomach growled and heat crept into her face.
He laughed. “We’ll go out to eat.”
She rushed into the next thought. “There’s a diner in townthat serves a wonderful breakfast twenty-four hours a day.” She refused toimagine they wouldn’t be out of here in time for dinner. Even a late dinner.“God, you wouldn’t think I’d be hungry at a time like this.”
“The body reacts in strange ways when you’re in danger.”
“It’s what I get for skipping lunch.”
“There’s no way I’d skip lunch if I could help it. A man’sgotta eat when he gets the chance.”
Somehow she knew exactly why he believed it. “Survivalmode.”
“You could say that.”
She rubbed her arms as a cold chill crawled up from thefloor and into her body. She took a deep breath and tried to calm thetwitchiness that still flittered and skated through her muscles. “This is thefirst time I’ve been in danger. But you were in Afghanistan, right?”
“Yeah. Two tours. I’ve been back less than two weeks.”
“Were you in dangerous situations? Wait, don’t answer. Dumbquestion.”
“No problem. Yeah, a few times there was danger.” He made aself-deprecating sound. “Who the hell am I kidding? Afghanistanisdanger. There isn’t a safe place.”
“Anything this scary?”
“They’re all scary.”
She hadn’t expected him to admit it. In the back of her mindmen like the Frasier brothers had seen violence yet had become hardened by it.“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Training. It becomes second nature.” His voice droppedlower, quieter. “I do it because my fellow marines rely on me to watch theirsix. And I rely on them. If we’re damned lucky, we come home to our familiesand friends.”
“My father would never have said that much about it. Aboutbeing in war, I mean.” An ache started in the middle of her chest. “My mothersaid he wouldn’t talk to anyone. I was too young to understand and after hebecame a cop he finally…”
She stopped and the silence grew.
“He finally?” Matt asked.
She licked her lips. “He died five years ago duringThanksgiving. Cancer. He was in a mental institution. Long story.”
How he found her left hand in the dark, she didn’t know. Heslipped his fingers through hers and squeezed gently. “I’m sorry. This time ofyear must be hard for you.”
She nodded even though he couldn’t see her. “I’m gettingbetter at seeing it a different way. Reframing it, I guess you could say.” Butfor some reason her eyes filled with tears that threatened to spill over. Theydid. She swiped at them with her right hand but couldn’t hold back a sniff.“Oh, jeez. I didn’t mean to start this. I don’t cry.”
“Hey.” The gentle quality in his voice stirred somethingtender within her. His fingers tightened on hers. “We’re all the crying typeone time or another.”
She made a scoffing sound. “Even big bad marines?”
“Yeah. I’ve seen a few crying like babies. We’re only human,Melanie.”
“I was just so used to seeing Dad deny his feelings and tryto pretend like there was nothing wrong. In the end it gobbled him up.”
“Is that what you try to do?”
She knew what he meant but she wouldn’t admit it. “Do?”
“Bottle things up and pretend like there’s nothing wrong.”
God, this man could see through her way too easily. “Yeah.How did you know?”
“My brother Jake is like that. He’s sort of a joker. Whenhe’s really pissed and wants to hit something, he cracks a joke instead. It’shis way of coping.” His hand squeezed hers again, this time a little tighter.“A guy in my unit flipped out on us once during a firefight. Totally lost it.We had as much fun trying to deal with him as we did with the insurgents. He’sout of the military now.”
“I sometimes wish I could shrug off my protective shell andjust deal with things head-on,” she said, willing to admit more.
“Don’t beat yourself up. We all have quirks. It’s just thata lot of people spend as much time trying to cover them up as they do dealing.”
“Do you deal with things?”
“I’m working on it.” His voice sounded graver, filled withan ache. “But being in a mall with a shooter has a tendency to make personalhang-ups seem a hell of a lot less of a big deal.”
The silence this time held a weight and profoundsignificance that overlaid everything.
His phone buzzed. “It’s Rick.” His voice held relief. “Hesaw Lena near the engraver’s moments before the shooting started. He’s going toget her now.”
“He’s out in the open with a shooter running around?”
“Don’t worry. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been in asituation or two himself. The Coast Guard isn’t for sissies.”
She could believe it. Big Rick. That’s what people calledhim, because Rick stood six feet five and was all muscle. He lived in Alaskaand there were more than enough challenges living in that state with thousandsof miles of wilderness.
They subsided into quiet for some time before he said, “Ididn’t come to Constitution to get in a firefight.”
“Constitution isn’t the big city. This sort of stuff doesn’thappen here.”
“This sort of stuff happens everywhere.”
She sighed. “Yeah. You’re right.” She switched thoughts.“You’ve got that metal pole. What can that do against a gun?”
“You’d be surprised.”
She smiled. “How could I forget? You’re a marine.”
He didn’t sound arrogant—only self-assured in a good way.
She rubbed her arms again. Half from nerves and half fromcold. “How long have we been here?”
“Too damned long. About a half hour.”
“Is that all?”
“Battle can either make things seem a hell of a lot fasteror a lot slower.”
Battle. No denying the experience.
Another text came through on his phone a short time later.“Rick has Lena. They’re safe and slipped out a back door. They’re in theparking lot. The shooter is still rampaging. SWAT is here.”
Relief slipped around the anxiety humming in her veins.“Thank God they’re safe.”
“She’s injured her ankle. She was pushed down by another mantrying to get out of the mall. He wants to take her to the hospital but she’sinsisting on staying here because of you and Kathleen.”
“Damn. Well, she’s stubborn enough. If he thinks he canconvince her to leave he’s got his work cut out for him.”
“He’s pretty stubborn too. They’re a good match.”
He switched off the flashlight again. Darkness gave theillusion of intimacy and it cloaked her in a little comfort. Absence of lightwouldn’t keep the man terrorizing the mall at bay but it gave the illusion thatfor a bit longer they’d be safe.
His voice rumbled in the darkness. “You all right?”
“No. I’m queasy, cold and worried as hell.”
She heard shuffling. “Take my jacket.”
“What? No, I can’t.”
He slipped the heavy jacket around her shoulders. “Here, putthis on.”
Her fingers came in contact with leather. “I can’t takethis.”
“Sure you can. It’s a loan. I want it back.”
The humor in his voice eased her conscience. “Aren’t yougoing to be cold?”
“Nah. I’m a big, bad marine. Remember?”
She laughed softly and eased her arms into the jacket. Itwas huge on her but his warmth enveloped. It felt good. Too good. And man, hisscent tweaked every hormone in her body. Sandalwood? It was insane to feelsexually stimulated when they were in danger of having their asses shot off,wasn’t it?
She drew in a deep breath of appreciation. “Thank you. Iwould have worn my coat but this sweater is usually very warm and I didn’tthink I was going to be in the mall that long. I feel so shaky.”
He shifted and then his arm came around her shoulders. Hedrew her into his body and the heat instantly helped. “Could be adrenaline.When you come down from it you can feel shaky and sick.”
“What about you?”
“I’m used to coming down from adrenaline surges.” His armtightened, his palm rubbing over her shoulder. “But I’ve barfed my guts up acouple of times.”
She smiled, amused by his candor. “Are you trying to make mefeel better or flirting?”
She laughed and they went silent again for a short while.Finally she spoke up. “Thank you.”
“For making me feel better.”
“Hmmm. Well, that depends. Do you flirt with all the girls?”
“Only when I’m stuck with them in unisex bathrooms.”
She stifled a laugh. “I can’t believe I can laugh atanythingright now.”
“Works for me. Keeps me from doing what I really want todo.”
“Getting out there and trying to take down the assholeshooting up the place. If it was up to me and my brothers…” He shrugged.
She could imagine Matt along with Jake and Rick kickingmall-shooter ass, but that stuff only happened in action movies. “But you’renot going to try it, right? It’s up to the police.”
“Yeah, this isn’t war and other than this pole thing I don’thave a weapon.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to doanything stupid. That’s why we’re staying in here until the coast is clear.”
“How will we know when the coast is clear?”
“My brothers will let us know. Or we’ll hear the policeclearing the building.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder absorbed the security ofhis embrace. Matt kept impressing her against her will. She didn’t want to feelthis attraction. It meant disrupting her carefully arranged ideas about men whotook charge, who were tough and macho. This man was breaking all of it apart.Yet she needed the talk to keep her mind off their situation.
The door rattled and they both jolted.
Matt stood up, his movement so swift it took her off guard.
In a frozen moment, she wondered if they’d ever get thechance to have that meal together, or if she’d ever get that kiss.Chapter Three
Matt’s entire body went on alert as he jumped to his feetwith the metal pole clutched in his right hand. His breath seemed to stop inhis lungs, his heart racing then slowing to a deep thud, thud, thud in hisears.
Everything within him demanded he protect Melanie. Hewouldn’t let anything happen to her.
The thud happened again. Then a whimper.
Caution made him move forward slowly. Darkness made it damnhard to see but he’d been in the position of creeping up on the enemy before.
A few seconds later the whimper became a female cry.
Concerned about a trap, he unlocked the door and threw itopen. He heard Melanie gasp behind him. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Emergencylighting spilled over a crumpled female lying on her left side on the floor.She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. A tight black dress fit over her thinform. Her equally black hair covered her face in a messy tangle.
Behind him Melanie said, “It’s one of the clerks. Tia.”
Blood stained the floor under the woman’s left arm. “She’shurt.” He glanced around the store and saw no sign of a shooter. He hefted thewoman into his arms and brought her into the bathroom. “Grab some clothes off arack and bring them in here.”
Melanie rushed into the store, yanked some fleece robes andcotton pajamas off a rack and returned with a flurry. She tossed the items onthe bathroom floor just as Matt turned on his mini flashlight. She locked thedoor again.
Matt’s first-aid experience kicked in. He checked thewoman’s vitals. “She’s got a good pulse and respiration and this wound in herbiceps isn’t bleeding too badly.” He ripped the sleeve down on her dress. Herummaged in his pockets. “Got any change?”
Melanie frowned at him as if he’d lost his brain somewhere.“Yes. Why?”
“Get some tampons and maxi pads from that machine. Highlyabsorbent. We’ll put one on the wound and bind this up with as much toiletpaper as we can.”
An amazed smile passed over her expressive features. “Neverwould have thought of that.” Grabbing the change he gave her, she ran to herpurse and got more. She managed to grab six tampons and the toilet paper roll.“How did you learn bathroom-style first aid?”
“It’s amazing the things you learn on the battlefield.”
With efficient movements he’d learned in situations where hesitationcould mean life or death, he used the tampons to pack the woman’s wound.Instead of toilet paper he used a set of cotton pajamas to act as a bandage.When blood didn’t seep all the way through, he felt better. They were going tobe in a world of fuckin’ hurt if this woman went into shock. With efficiency,Melanie helped him lift the woman and put a robe under her to keep cold at bay.They piled two more robes on top of Tia.
A grim realization came to him. “Now that she’s here, itmakes it even more urgent we get out of here.”
He pulled out his cell phone, called 9-1-1 and relayed theircurrent situation and location so SWAT would know where to look for them.
Matt finished the call. “They know where we are.” He checkedthe woman’s pulse. “I wonder where she was when we first got here.”
“Hiding in a dressing room? There are only four stalls,”Melanie said.
“Maybe. She works in here?”
“Her and another much younger woman. A blonde.” Her facescrewed up. “Susie.”
“I wonder if the shooter has Susie.”
He didn’t know, and knew any reassurance would sound liketotal bullshit. Still he found himself saying, “Don’t worry. SWAT will get usout of this soon.”
“How could we get ourselves out of this? She’s too hurt torun around trying to escape with us and we can’t leave her here alone.”
Matt knew his face had to be grim because he sure as helldidn’t like what he had to say next. “No, we can’t leave her alone. Contrary toaction movies, marines aren’t bulletproof, and I won’t leave you and this womandefenseless.”
Her smile was small but genuine and her voice soft. “Thankyou, Matt.”
Matt’s heart flipped over. Something raw and possessivestirred in his heart and mind when he looked at Melanie. Since the moment he’dmet her last weekend he’d wanted to spend time with her. He only hoped now thathe’d get the chance. Sure it was partially physical. She was fuckin’ pretty.His body wanted her in no uncertain terms. In just the few moments they’d stoodoutside the shop, he’d wanted to take her somewhere and taste her. Learn herbody with a primitive possession he’d never considered so quickly with anyother woman. It freaked him out, frankly. He could blame part of it on theirsituation and the desire to affirm life. But usually he needed to get to know awoman to feel comfortable, to tell them more intimate details of his life. Hisbody stirred with energy, ready to fight and engage in battle. But he couldn’texpect her to participate in combat. She wasn’t trained for this. It was up tohim to protect her and the other woman.
When she stood, he wrapped his arms around her. “We’re goingto be all right.”
He kissed her forehead and her arms linked around his neck.She buried her head in his shoulder and sighed. His body reflected his needsand he knew it. He felt spring-loaded and ready for bear.
Admiration welled up inside Melanie. Matt might be strong,and look every inch the tough-as-hell marine, but he wasn’t a cowboy. Hewouldn’t put her and Tia at risk or do anything stupid. Inside the solidstrength of his arms, she could imagine nothing and no one could harm her. Sheknew, realistically, this wasn’t true. But she also knew this man would take abullet for her.
It stirred the most primitive reaction she’d ever had in herlife. She lifted her gaze to his anditwas there. A glowing, shimmeringconnection that pulsed from somewhere deep within her sex. She wanted him. Oncethey got out of this mess—and theywouldsurvive it—she would show himhow much. In the meantime, she’d give him a small preview of what she longed tohave happen later. His eyes smoldered, his lips parted.Screw waiting tokiss him later.
She cupped the back of his head with both hands and drew himdown. As her eyes closed, his mouth touched hers and tasted so gently it was abutterfly’s wings brushing over sensitive skin. That tiny acknowledgment sent awildfire straight down between her legs. It startled her and she almost drewback. He wouldn’t have it. His hand tunneled into the hair at the back of herneck. Their lips melded and his tongue sank deep. An involuntary moan ofpleasure left her throat as his tongue caressed hers with one stroke, then two.
He drew back quickly with a gasp and cupped her face in hishands. “Damn. You’re potent stuff, Melanie.”
She smiled, in a daze and flushed from that single quickmeeting of lips and tongues. Her head felt light, as if she might float away.
If that’s what a quick, carnal taste could do to her, shewondered what a full-fledged lip-lock that lasted longer would cause. “I’msorry. I—
“Don’t be sorry. I’m not.”
Gently she disengaged from his arms. “I can’t believe we’redoing this while she’s lying there injured.”
He frowned and squatted down next to the clerk. He checkedher vitals again, and this time he looked worried.
Tia groaned. The young woman’s eyes popped open and shegrimaced. Fury mixed with pain. “What’s going on?”
The woman’s croaky voice sounded accusatory.
“It’s all right.” Melanie touched the woman’s uninjuredright arm. “We’re safe in here.”
Matt moved around to the opposite side of Tia. “You’ve beenshot. Do you remember what happened?”
Panic flared in Tia’s brown eyes. “I’ve got to get out ofhere.”
“You can’t leave. It’s too dangerous,” Melanie said.
Tia’s eyes widened. “He’ll find me.”
Was she delirious? Melanie hastened to reassure her. “Theshooter doesn’t know where we are.”
“You don’t understand,” Tia said.
Matt’s eyes narrowed with curiosity. “What don’t weunderstand?”
Tia’s gaze darted between them. “He shot me because…”
Melanie waited, hanging on pins and needles. Her glanceflicked to Matt. Patience seemed his middle name—he showed no signs ofexasperation at Tia’s stalling.
“His name is Teddy. Teddy Xavier. He’s my boyfriend.” Tiaswallowed hard, those almond-shaped eyes wide in her pale skin. She shivered. “Wasmy boyfriend.”
Matt lifted the woman’s wrist. “Pulse is good. Skin is warm.Do you feel sick?”
Tia glared. “What do you think? That bastard shot me. Ithurts like hell.”
Matt retrieved his phone and placed a call while stilltalking to the injured woman. “Teddy Xavier shot you?”
“Yeah. He didn’t want me to leave him. But he’s a crazybastard. He was screwing Susie and I told him I wouldn’t stand for it.”
Melanie frowned. “The other clerk?”
“Yeah. She…I think she’s in on this shooting thing.”
Matt was talking in the background, relaying the informationto another 9-1-1 operator. His voice stayed modulated and calm, as if hisconversation concerned the weather. Melanie’s heart banged in her ears. Shelicked her dry lips. Her stomach felt hollowed out from fear.
Steady. It isn’t like I’ve been here that long.Whatshe wouldn’t give to be home, enjoying hot coffee or chocolate and reading aromantic suspense novel. Better yet, what she wouldn’t give to be home withMatt Frasier, spending time with him in a peaceful environment. No guns. Nogunshot wounds.
“You think she’s helping him,” Matt said to Tia, with thecell still to his ear. “That’s why she isn’t in here with you. Is that why theback door is locked and we couldn’t get out?”
Tia shook her head and winced. “I don’t know. It wasunlocked before. It’s supposed to be unlocked while the mall is open. The firedepartment said so.”
Matt returned to his call, nodding and agreeing to somethingduring conversation. Moments later he signed off. “At least the police willknow who the shooter is now. All of the doors except for the one Rick and Lenaescaped through are chained closed.”
“Chained?” Melanie felt stupid for repeating what he said.“The shooter chained up the doors? No one saw him doing it?”
Matt shook his head. “Apparently not.”
Tia frowned. “Mall security here is for shit. My ex appliedfor a job as a rent-a-cop a month ago.” Tia started to cry and out of puresympathy Melanie clasped the woman’s right hand in hers. Tia sniffed. “Teddytold me once when he was beating me up that he could pull off a mall shootingin Constitution easy. So he’s been thinking about this for a long time.”
“You think this is in retaliation because the mall didn’thire him?” Matt asked.
Tia gave a short bark of laughter. “Who the frig knows?Teddy’s the kind of guy who gets offended easily. He said the mall people areracist because they didn’t hire him.”
“Are they?” Melanie asked.
“No,” Tia said. “He’s dumb. He isn’t qualified to be a mallcop. This morning he called me and said he was going to make the mall pay. Ithought he was going to sue them for discrimination or something. I’d hadenough of his crap. That’s when I broke up with him.” Tia’s eyes reflectedsomething far less informative and more for self-preservation. “You think thepolice will blame this on me?”
Melanie met Matt’s stern look for a startled second butreturned her attention to the wounded woman. “Why would they do that?”
“Because I didn’t take him seriously. Then when I broke upwith him this morning…” She drew her bottom lip between her teeth.
“It’s not your fault.” Matt’s voice had an authoritarianedge. “He’s responsible for his actions, not you.”
Relief eased into Tia’s eyes but she didn’t speak.
In the distance the rat-tat-tat sound of rapid-fire shootingcaught Melanie’s attention. “Matt? Do you hear that?”
“Yep. Shouting too. Sounds like more than one man.”
“Are the policed coming to rescue us?” Tia asked.
“They will.” Melanie said this as much to reassure herselfas much as Tia.
Closer. Closer, the sounds of shouts, of a methodicalmovement toward them. Matt stood and reached for the metal pole leaning againstthe wall.
Matt’s phone buzzed on his hip and he snatched it out of theholster. “It’s Rick. He says SWAT has entered the building.”
“Thank God.” Relief made Melanie feel wobbly as she stood.
“Keep your guard up.” Matt didn’t seem as convinced asMelanie that all was well.
It wasn’t long before deep male voices came from outside thebathroom door. “Clear! Here’s the bathroom.” A knock sounded on the door. “Thisis the police! Matt Frasier, are you in there?”
“Yes, sir!” Matt didn’t hesitate to call out in a strong,self-assured voice.
“It’s safe to come out. Open the door slowly and come outwith your hands where we can see them.”
“They make it sound like we’re criminals.” Tia’s whiny tonegrated on Melanie.
“They want to make sure we’re friendlies,” Matt said, thenadded for the benefit of the men outside, “Unlocking the door now!”
Tia started to struggle into a sitting position but Melanieurged her not to move. As Matt unlocked the door and it swung open, the SWATteam entered. At that moment Melanie made a vow. She might never enter a mallagain.
Melanie blinked in the strong lights shining around theparking lot, illuminating the increasingly steady snowfall. Police carssurrounded the area, including a sheriff’s department SWAT mobile commandstation. Lights on the police cruisers flashed red and blue, their pulsationand flicker compounding the ache starting in her temples. Her breath puffed outand she guessed the temperature had dropped to around thirty from the high offifty today. Warm for this high mountain town in November. At night shecouldn’t see the sharp outline of peaks that rose close to thirteen thousandfeet and almost surrounded the bustling mining town deep into the Arizonamountains. She wished it was daylight, the snow-covered peaks would be awelcome distraction and wonderful reminder that she’d escaped the mall in onepiece.
Melanie accepted yet another hug, this one from Kathleen.Kathleen and Jake had exited the building a short time ago with otherindividuals they’d been stuck with during the event. They’d waved at Melanieand Matt but were quickly interviewed by the police before they could reunitewith friends. Melanie and Matt had rushed up to Rick and Lena as soon aspossible. Lena sat on Rick’s open truck bed with her right ankle wrapped. Lenasaid no when Rick wanted her to go to the hospital, and she said she could haveit checked out tomorrow.
Tia had been hauled off in an ambulance some time ago.Amazingly, Teddy Xavier hadn’t killed anyone. Most of his shooting had beenaimed at the ceiling. He’d shot Tia and a couple who had attempted to run fromhim but all three people had fairly minor wounds.
SWAT hadn’t waited as long as she’d thought to come in andtake out him out. If Teddy had planned on committing suicide, he didn’t havethe chance. An assault team had entered and scoured the mall for him and tookhim down.
Melanie thought she saw tears in Kathleen’s eyes before shekissed Melanie’s and Lena’s cheeks and they all started chattering at once.Lena’s petite form seemed diminished somehow by what had happened as she sat onthe tailgate of Rick’s truck. Kathleen sagged, exhaustion clear on her face.Melanie noticed something about Kathleen and Lena. They looked and acted asmuch shell-shocked as relieved to be out of the mall. Yet they all searched thearea for someone. Three someones.
“Where’s Rick?” Lena asked, wide-eyed.
Melanie swiveled to look around. “He’s over there with Mattand Jake.”
“Jake.” Kathleen’s dreamy tone would have seemed bizarreunder the circumstances but Kathleen cleared up the mystery immediately. “Inever thought I’d say this but Jake Frasier can eat crackers in my bed anytime.”
Lena and Melanie laughed at the same time.
“Whoa,” Lena said. “That’s a turnaround.”
Kathleen winked and smiled. “Bite me.”
“No thanks. You’re not my type.” Lena scratched her nose. “Iguess that shoots the idea of an engraved frame for the wedding.” Lena’s regretsounded tired but genuine.
“Oh no.” Kathleen’s eyes widened. “Has anyone called Danelleand Patrick?”
Lena nodded. “Rick called them as soon as we knew you weresafe. We didn’t want to call them before that and worry them. They’re going tokill us, though, worrying them anyway.”
“Rick didn’t want to call them?” Melanie asked.
Lena blew out a hard sigh. “He said they would hurry overhere.”
“And you argued with him, didn’t you?” Melanie injectedteasing into her words.
Lena bit her bottom lip for a second. “Yes, damn it.”
Melanie and Kathleen laughed but Kathleen leaned forward.“We have a problem here, ladies.”
Melanie’s eyebrows winged up. “Problem? We just survived amall shooting. What kind of problems could we have?”
Kathleen patted Melanie’s back. “I live in Los Angeles. Idon’t have time for romance and Jake doesn’t really like me that much anyway.”She patted Lena’s back next. “Lena wouldn’t like a long-distance relationship.Rick is in Alaska, she lives here.”
Melanie saw warmth color Lena’s face as Lena stared at Matt,Jake and Rick. Lena had briefed her and Kathleen on how Rick had rescued her asa man had rushed the doors and knocked Lena down. Her description had beenfilled with caution and admiration.
“I might reconsider that,” Lena said. “A long-distancerelationship, I mean.”
“I thought you didn’t like Rick?” Melanie asked, rememberingLena’s coolness toward Rick at the party.
Lena’s mouth popped open and her green eyes flashed. Shewaved one hand in dismissal. “I never said I didn’t like him. He’s…um…a risktaker. I don’t want someone in my life like that. Military men aren’t for me.”Lena flapped her hands in frustration. “And damn it he’s so…”
“Hot?” Kathleen planted her hands on her hips. “Face it,ladies, the Frasier brothers are seriously sexy.” Kathleen’s curious gazelanded on Melanie. “And you, my good buddy, are a goner.”
Melanie’s face flamed. “What?”
“I saw the way you looked at Matt at the party. You like himmore than a little.” She nodded at the garment around Melanie’s shoulders. “Andyou’re wearing that like it’s a letter jacket from high school.”
Could she deny it? Yes. But what good would it do? Herfriends were too astute.
Melanie snuggled deeper into the jacket. Strange or not, shefelt as if Matt had his arms around her. When she’d tried to give it back tohim he’d told her to keep it on until she could grab her own coat. Good thingshe had the jacket anyway. Heavier clouds blanketed the area and the wind hadpicked up. Normally the snow would lift her spirits because she liked winterbut tonight she felt somewhere between numb and jumpy.
Lena touched her shoulder. “Melanie? Are you okay?”
Melanie snapped out of it. “I’m good.” She surveyed herfriends and had an epiphany. Each was dealing in their own way with the traumathey’d faced. Lena and Kathleen put on brave faces. Especially spunky,assertive, take-charge Kathleen. Did the stress show on her face, or the reliefthat she’d survived violence?
“Group hug,” Lena said.
Kathleen groaned, less inclined to show physical affectionto that many people. But even she came together with the other two and hugged.Once they released each other, Melanie felt a wave of tiredness overwhelm her.
“You both had a lot to contend with.” Melanie rubbed theback of her neck. “Hitting the sack sounds good right now.”
“I don’t think I’d sleep.” Lena’s eyes continued to appeartroubled, perhaps more than when Melanie had first seen her after escaping themall.
“You hid in a bathroom with a rock-hard marine, Melanie.”Kathleen smiled. “I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.”
Kathleen’s attempt at humor worked. They all chuckled.Melanie’s face heated at the blatant sexual thoughts rampaging through herbrain. She wondered what Matt would look like naked and her mind zippedstraight to thinking what his cock would look like erect.
God, Melanie, have you lost it?As much as herimagination went nuts, she didn’t think the opportunity to see him naked wouldpresent itself in the short time Matt would be in Constitution, Arizona.
She’d kissed him too. The last thing she wanted to do,though, was to admit to her friends that she’d experienced a full-on lip-lockwith Matt. Right now she had the feeling all of them hid something about theevening that they didn’t want to share. Not even with their very best friends.
“Seriously.” Kathleen touched Melanie’s shoulder and pressedgently. “You look like you don’t feel well.”
“I’m fine.” Melanie knew she wasn’t. Not really. A master adiverting attention, she continued with, “And I’ll admit the Frasier brothersare hot. But Matt is…well, there’s something extraordinary about him.”
Kathleen and Lena broke out in collective, knowing grins.
“See, I told you.” Kathleen winked. “We’re in trouble.”
“What are we going to do about it?” Lena frowned, a troubledlight in her eyes. “I can’t get involved with a man in the coast guard. I justcan’t.”
Melanie wanted to hear the answer, even if she understoodwhy. “The long-distance and military thing?”
Lena reached in her big black purse and found her blackleather gloves. She slipped into them. “Yes, and because I’m older than him.”
“Pfft.” Kathleen made a disgusted sound. “You are absolutelyold enough to be his mother.Not.”
Lena stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat. “You knowhow I feel about military men. Even without an age gap, it’s a no-go for me.”
“Alaska is a long way.” Melanie finished what her friendwanted to say. “That’s a challenge.”
Lena turned troubled eyes to her friends. “You know that’snot the half of it, so don’t even start.”
Matt looked over and caught Melanie’s gaze. Awareness joltedthrough her stomach. Heat stirred and built, arousal undeniable. They’d made adefinite connection sequestered in the bathroom, and the kiss had blown heraway. Not wanting to face that attraction, she deflected.
“So if we aren’t interested in relationships with them, whatdo we do? Walk away?” Melanie asked herself as much as she did her friends.
Kathleen frowned. Melanie had never seen her friend look aspuzzled as she did now. Kathleen’s russet-brown hair fell in lustrous curls toher mid-back. She looked rumpled and confused.
Kathleen pushed one hand through her thick hair, blue eyesserious. “A one-night stand.”
“What?” Lena sounded scandalized. But she’d always been themore conservative of the three friends. “Are you serious?”
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” Kathleen shut up as shegazed over at the brothers.
Jake’s tall form looked more than rough and tumble. Almostas tall as Matt, with black hair only slightly longer than Matt’s, Jake had acharisma that couldn’t be denied. Rick stood over six feet tall withshort-cropped black hair and green eyes. His build was similar to those of theother two men. Muscular. Ripped. Disgustingly gorgeous in a rugged way.
“I don’t know about you.” Kathleen turned her gaze back toMelanie and Lena. “But I need to burn off some stress.”
Before the ladies could continue their discussion, the menwalked their way. Melanie swallowed hard. Kathleen was right. Matt had made asignificant impression on her—one she didn’t want him to make. That kiss in thebathroom hadn’t extinguished Melanie’s curiosity or need. It had only built ithigher.
Matt arrived at Melanie’s side and touched her elbow. “Can Italk with you a moment?”
Rick approached Lena. “How’s your ankle?”
“Aches, but it’s no big deal.”
Rick frowned and lifted her off the truck tailgate and intohis arms. “I’ll take you home.”
“Really, I can walk.” Lena’s arms went around his neck.
“Don’t argue,” Rick said as he helped her into his truck.
Jake took Kathleen’s hand and walked away. “We’ll see youlater,” Jake said with a smile.
Melanie smiled into Matt’s eyes, suspicion flowing throughher. “What is this, a conspiracy?”
Matt looked world-weary and tired but he still managed toreturn her grin. He slipped his fingers through hers and the warmth added tothe butterflies continuing a dance through her stomach.
“Yeah, it’s a conspiracy. I want that meal with you,” hesaid. “Unless you’re tired?”
“I’m tired but I’m starving. I’d rather eat and decompressbefore I go home.”
His eyes filled with understanding and concern. “You don’twant to be home alone?”
“How did you guess?”
“It’s not every day a person witnesses a mall shooting. Itwas damned scary.”
She couldn’t deny it. “When I go home I’ll probably fallasleep right away.”
“Then let’s eat before you fall asleep.”
“I’ll drive my own car.” Her voice sounded clipped to herown ears.
“You sure you want to? Your car is on the other side of themall. Reporters are stacked up there two feet deep from what I hear. I’ll driveyou to the diner and home. We can get your car in the morning.”
We can get your car in the morning.
So he planned either that they’d spend tonight together orhe’d come by her apartment and take her back to the mall?
She’d soon find out.Chapter Five
Quiet had surrounded Matt and Melanie as they’d drivenMatt’s SUV to the diner, and she hadn’t expected to feel as comfortable withthe silence. On the other hand, perhaps they’d become exhausted, coming downfrom an overload of feelings. She wasn’t sure she knew what to think or how tofeel.
When they reached the diner the bright pink neon sign on themarquee made her eyes ache. They had to search for a parking place for sometime, and she almost told him to forget it and they’d eat somewhere else. Buthell, she imagined you never told Matt to give up on anything.
Melanie stepped into the noise and winced. She seemedhyperaware, her skin sensitive, her mouth dry and a dull ache in her temples.Regardless, she would make the rest of this evening pleasant. She wanted toforget, if just for a moment, her mind awhirl in a way it never had beenbefore. She was disconnected and feeling anything besides fear and doubt wouldgo a long way to healing what ailed her.
Despite the later hour, the diner’s pop music bounced offher ears, irritating her more than it would on a normal day.Huh. Yeah.In no way could this day be classified as normal. The interior lights seemedtoo bright. Even the young hostess’s tomato red dress gave Melanie a headache.
When they reached the booth, Matt stepped up to help Melanietake off her coat. With a gentle smile, he handed Melanie the coat and sheplaced it in the booth. The hostess eyeballed Matt with clear interest as heslid into the bench seat across from Melanie.
After the hostess left, Matt’s smile widened. “Hope myhelping you with the coat was all right?”
She blinked, confused. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Some women think it’s an affront when you open a door forthem or help them take off their coat. As if they can’t be feminists and acceptchivalry.”
“Not me.” She reached for the crayons sitting in the middleof the table and started to scribble on the white butcher paper that served asa tablecloth. “I open doors for men. It’s a polite thing to do for anyone.”
Matt’s gaze held hers and warmth spread from her face downthe rest of her body. “My kind of woman.”
A waiter appeared and took their drink orders.
After the waiter left, Melanie rubbed her temples. “Youwouldn’t happen to have an aspirin would you?”
He frowned, those dark brown eyes concerned. “No. Headache?”
“Yes. Plus other muscle aches. Probably the tension.”
Matt leaned forward, his voice low and husky. “Hey, if you’drather go home and get some sleep, we don’t have to be here.”
She waved one hand in dismissal. “I don’t think I want to behome right now where I can think too much.”
“Me either. Drink plenty of water while you’re here. Youmight be dehydrated too.”
“Are you sure you aren’t a doctor?”
He grinned. “No. It’s all stuff I’ve learned in themilitary.”
“So…” Curiosity was eating her up from the inside out butpart of her was nervous. She grabbed a yellow crayon and started drawing happyfaces on the paper. “What exactly do you do in the marines?”
He explained the details, which sounded dangerous as hell.“In essence, we accomplish what’s called green operations. We go looking fortrouble.”
“Well, you found it today.” She drew long hair on one smileyface.
“Yeah. I was hoping I wouldn’t. But I guess there’s a brightside. Several, in fact.”
She stopped tinkering with the crayons and looked up.“What’s that?”
“I got to spend time with you.” His gaze held hers.
Oh man.Her stomach did a flip and a flop and not ina bad way. “Thank you.”
“And,” he continued, “we got out alive.”
She couldn’t deny that truth. “That’s the most importantbit.”
She dared allow her gaze to tangle with his again and theheat in her body flared. Her attraction to him was escalating. “By the way, didI ever thank you for keeping me safe? It was your quick thinking that made sureTia and I were okay.”
Lines furrowed between his brows and turned him into theserious man she’d known at the party last week. “You would have thought of thesame thing.”
“I hesitated. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight once Iheard those gunshots.”
“That’s not uncommon for civilians. It’s nothing to beashamed of. It’s not every day you hear gunfire.”
She rolled her shoulders, trying to loosen the muscles.“Still…thanks anyway.”
He touched her hand as it lay on the table. He squeezedgently and pulled back. “I’m glad I was there.”
Matt’s gentleness and modesty challenged her beliefs thatmarines had steel interiors. “You know, you aren’t what I thought you were.”
He chuckled, but the waiter brought her hot tea and hiscoffee before she could comment. After the waiter took their meal order andleft, Matt drank his black coffee. “So you prejudged me or took a firstimpression and found me lacking.”
Embarrassment took hold. “Yes. I don’t usually do that.Unless the guy is tall, dark, handsome and very sure of himself. That’s when Iget into trouble.”
His smile held no malice. “Do I sense past history I shouldknow about?”
Should he know about it? She sensed he wouldn’t reveal moreof himself if she didn’t reciprocate. “I told you that my father was in Vietnamand then a cop. He just had so many damned issues he couldn’t be there for mewhen I was a kid. He was often cold and unconnected.” She poured hot water overthe tea bag then dunked the bag up and down. “I shouldn’t have judged you theway I did, especially because people tend to do it to me and I don’t like it.”
“What impressions do they get of you?”
She wrapped her hands around the teacup and took a sip.“They hear I’m a librarian and they think I’m poor, staid and boring. Like yousaid earlier, they think I’m hard to get to know.”
His eyes narrowed and the coffee mug stopped halfway to hismouth. “First impressions mean a lot, even when we don’t want them to. Peoplemisjudge the military too.” He sipped again then put the mug down. “I’ve metwomen who get off on the fact I’ve been in dangerous situations.”
She winced. “Like Navy SEAL groupies?”
“What you do is dangerous. That can turn a woman on.”
His gaze, so dark and compelling, tangled with hers again.“But I don’t want it to be why a woman wants me.”
Oh and shedidwant him.
Cynicism reared its head. “Come on now. You don’t get off onwomen coming on to you for your looks and what you do?”
His frown said it all. “Hell no.”
“My experience with men in dangerous occupations has jadedme, I guess.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’ve dated lots of military men?”
“None. That’s the point. I’ve avoided them for that reason.I’ve avoided firefighters and cops too.”
“That’s extreme, isn’t it? Because your father had issues?”
She tucked her hair behind her ears and saw his gaze latchon to the small, dangling citrine earrings she wore. His gaze caressed her anda flare of unquenched need pulsed low in her belly. “Self-protection is likethat. It’s my way of coping.”
“But you were condemning a bunch of men based on theiroccupations? That’s…” He shook his head, looking damn disappointed.
She was too. She hadn’t meant to tell him all this when shecame here but something about this guy brought everything out. She almostdefended herself, then realized she had to come clean with him. If she plannedto explore anything with Matt, she had a feeling he would learn all her secretsbefore the night finished. She didn’t want to see that chagrin in his eyesagain.
“It’s one of my less than admirable traits,” she said.
His gaze lifted from his coffee mug, sharp and direct. “Weall have faults. Most of us don’t admit it.”
“What are your faults?”
He laughed, this time without a speck of genuine amusement.“Maybe you should ask my brothers. They conveniently forget their own faultswhile they’re listing mine. Jake can be sort of ADD. He’s hard to keep in oneplace.”
“He’s in the army. They move around a lot, right?”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean. He was always one ofthose kids who couldn’t sit still in class. Too damn smart. They had to put himtwo grades ahead. He’s tough but he’s got this adventurous quality that used toget him in trouble when we were kids. He joined the army when he was eighteenbecause my parents said he needed a steadying influence. He’s still hyper. Rickis…well, Rick is generous to a fault. He’s always trying to rescue people. Andhe’s freaked my parents out on more than one occasion because of the risks hetakes. He’s a rescue diver and swimmer.”
“His job isn’t any safer than yours and Jake’s?”
“The Coast Guard can be very risky. But in his personal lifehe’s done rock climbing, bungee jumping. Stuff like that.”
“Probably a good occupation for him then. The coast guard, Imean.”
She fiddled with her teacup before bringing it to her lips.“How old are you brothers?”
“I’m thirty-five. Jake is thirty-one and Rick istwenty-nine.”
“I’m thirty-two.” She supplied the information withouthesitation.
“Women hate to tell their ages.”
“Not me.” She cleared her throat. “And you managed to leave outyour faults.”
The waiter stopped by with their food before he could speak.She took the next few moments digging into meatloaf and mashed potatoes whileMatt ate his scrambled eggs, toast and bacon with enthusiasm.
“Back to the subject,” she said. “Your faults.”
He finished chewing before answering. “Most women seemscared as hell of me. Maybe I give off keep away vibes.”
“Well…” She was surprised that he didn’t have women crawlingall over him. “You did seem a bit frozen and maybe arrogant at the party.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Yeah? I didn’t mean to. I’m a littleshy in social situations. People think I’m mad when I’m not. I get a littleimpatient with people who don’t use their brains and common sense.” His gazereturned to hers. “My shyness was painful when I was a kid and a teen. I didn’thave a real date until I was nineteen.”
“No way. You’re kidding.”
“Nope. It’s the truth. My stomach gets knotted up whenthere’s a woman I really like that I want to ask out.”
She had to take a long drink of tea to swallow meatloaf. Shetook her time asking the next question. “Like me?”
He flashed a cocky smile. “Yeah. Look, whatever ourbackgrounds are, there’s one thing you have to know right up front. I thinkthere’s something between us.” He put his fork down and leaned forward,lowering that deep voice to a husky liquid sin. “It’s life or death that makesa man pay attention to what’s important. Before I went to war I didn’t have theappreciation I do now for getting things out in the open when it really matters.I’ve learned my lesson. There’s nothing I’d like more than to get to know you.I don’t want this to end here.”
Taken aback by his honesty, she drew in a deep breath andtried to find her bearings. “Wow. That was honest.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
As he gazed into his eyes, she realized the sexual tensionbetween them burned hot and true. More than that, she found his straightforwardattitude comforting.
“I like it,” she said. “You’re the first man I’ve met whohasn’t danced around what he wants to say when it comes to relationships.”
She fiddled with the handle on her teacup, looking into theliquid for a long time before she dared raise her eyes to his. Inside his eyesshe saw one thing that she knew instinctively on a gut level. If she let thisgo further, if she allowed everything primitive inside her to rip free, she’dfind herself in bed with this man tonight.
Matt leaned forward a bit. “Before I leave Arizona, I’d liketo have a real date.”
“And what would that entail?”
He lifted one eyebrow. “Maybe dinner at a fine restaurant?”
“You’re leaving the day after the wedding?”
“Two days after the wedding.”
“Let’s have dinner the night before you leave then.”
Matt’s eyes held secrets but instead of running from them,she wanted to know more. She would have to reveal everything before he’d giveup those secrets.
“Now,” he said before she could express her thoughts on hisrevelation. “There’s got to be more about you.”
Hesitation entered the picture. “Tonight? You want to knowit all tonight?”
“Only if you want to tell it all tonight.”
Matt’s expression stayed light. She found she did want totell him more. And more.
“My life’s been interesting,” she said. “I’m an only child.I told you about my father and my mother. My mother was born rich and sheticked off my grandparents when she married my dad, a cop. Mom insisted theyhave a luxury home but Dad rebelled. Said it didn’t make sense for a cop tohave that much money. He hid our wealth but sometimes people still found out.Dad was…he was strong but he couldn’t take the experiences he had in the war. Ithink maybe he was a cop because he always thought he had to battle an enemy.”
“He never told you what happened to him exactly in Vietnam?”
“Never. And then he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder,kicked out of the police department and Mom had him committed. She lives withher sister in Connecticut.”
She didn’t need to say more, since she’d already mentionedthat he died from cancer five years ago at Thanksgiving.
Matt kept his curious gaze on her, and she couldn’t evadethe sensation that he was looking for something.
“Was Afghanistan rough?” she asked the question knowing theanswer. “I mean…did anything happen to you there that could…” She shrugged.