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Authors: Laurelin Paige

Last Kiss (7 page)

BOOK: Last Kiss
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I stayed with Amber until she drifted off to sleep late that afternoon. Then Joe came to take his shift with her.

“You been here all day?” he asked. “Have you even eaten anything?”

As if on cue, my stomach grumbled. “No, I haven’t. But I really just want to take a nap right now. Will you be good with her?”

He nodded. “Make sure you make it to dinner. You heard we’re out on the deck tonight, right?”

“Not in the hall like usual?” Supper at the ranch was always a family affair – after the long day of work, the men would gather to eat in the main house. I’d eaten with them every day since I’d arrived.

“Nope. I guess there’s a bunch of guests here for the next few days so Brent said that Sallis asked for a private setting for a few of us. Me and you included.”

“Got it. I’ll be there.” It seemed strange for the arrangement to have changed when one of Reeve’s expectations had always been that I ate with the men. But I was wiped out, and the only thing I wanted to think about at the moment was putting my head on my pillow followed by not thinking at all.

 

Though I woke up starving, the nap had been a good choice. It was the most peaceful sleep I’d had since Amber had returned, and it did wonders for my mood. I felt more relaxed than I had the entire time I’d been at Kaya. More relaxed than I had the entire time I’d known Reeve.

My steps were light as I went downstairs and headed toward the deck. The hall buzzed with the usual raucousness that accompanied the ranchmen. I peeked in and noted that the room was definitely more crowded than normal¸ yet there was still plenty of seating available.

A night away from the rowdy cowboys didn’t sound too bad, though. Maybe that’s what Reeve’s thought had been as well.

He was already outside when I got there, alone, leaning against the railing, looking out over the landscape like he was an emperor surveying his land. He’d stood like that when I’d had dinner with him for the first time in Palm Springs. Even then, when I’d been shaking in my heels, scared of the lair I was walking into, desperate to find Amber – even then, the magnificence of his presence had me twisted in knots.

Now, as I took him in, my breath caught and my throat tightened, but instead of paralyzing me like he had that night in the Springs, it propelled me forward. Brought me to him.

I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his back.

I felt his surprise as he turned his head to glance at me. I surprised myself, actually. I’d always let him take the lead, because I liked it that way, but also because
he
liked it that way. Right now, though, I was too overcome with emotion to care about anything other than holding him.

He only allowed the embrace for a handful of seconds before he pulled me around to face him. Trapping me between his body and the railing, he threaded a hand in my hair and tugged hard enough to make me gasp.

He grinned as his other hand traced down the line of my neck. “Maybe I should cancel dinner and feast on you instead. Right here, on this deck where everyone can see.”

Please.
It was on the tip of my tongue, ready to fall into the tiny space of air between us like a white flag of surrender.

But as much as I wanted to be lost in him, I needed reassuring more. “Reeve, is Amber safe right now?”

He pulled back slightly, but I still noticed his body tense. “As long as she’s under my protection, yes.”

“How can you be so sure?”

The way he searched my eyes, I could tell he understood that I wasn’t just asking about Amber’s security – I was asking him to explain it all. Inviting him to tell me everything.

Yet all he said was, “Because Michelis respects me. Therefore he’ll show respect for that which he perceives as mine.”

I turned my head to study the horizon, hoping he didn’t see the hurt in my gaze. “It didn’t stop him before,” I said, wondering how much of the perception he’d mentioned was based in reality.

“Before was different. She went to him on her own. I couldn’t protect her when she walked into his arms.”

“Then she’s safe as long as she’s here?” What I meant was,
Does that mean she can never leave you?

And I couldn’t tell if he understood what I was really asking when his answer was simply, “Yes.”

“Looks like I’m interrupting,” Joe said from behind us.

Reeve’s hands fell to my sides, but he kept them on me, kept me pinned as he twisted to acknowledge the intruder. “Of course you’re not interrupting.” His fingers stroked my hips possessively. “Have a seat. Please.” Reeve gestured to the patio table that had already been set with a white tablecloth, utensils, and cloth napkins.

I started numbly toward Joe, my head still wrapped up in Amber, but Reeve held me in place.

“Not so fast.” His tone reminded me that he was the one who dictated my actions. He leaned in close, letting his breath rush hot against my ear. “I wonder, if I make him watch, will he try to rescue you when you start screaming or will he wait until I wrap my hands around your throat?” He drew back to let me see the glint in his eye. “Fascinating question, isn’t it?”

My heart raced, and I forgot why I’d had even a second of jealousy. Even when he abruptly released me and went to join Joe at the table.

It took several seconds to compose myself before I was able to walk the few steps to them and even longer before I could look Joe in the face without turning scarlet. Hopefully he’d assume my flushed skin was from the fire pits that surrounded us – an elegant touch that provided both light as the sun went down and enough warmth to keep out the April evening chill.

Conversation was casual and easy – easier than I’d expected between Joe and Reeve. They chatted about the land and the ins and outs of ranching and the luxury hotels that Reeve owned. Though, while each question from the investigator seemed in line with typical small talk, I could practically hear the gears turning in his head, processing each of Reeve’s answers and filing it away for later in categories with labels like
Suspicious, Follow-up,
and
Miscellaneous.

It was hard to guess whether Reeve caught it as well. He didn’t give any indication that he was on guard any more than usual, but that was the thing about Reeve – he was subtle in the way he held his cards. So subtle, it was almost impossible to discern whether he was even playing the game.

As had been the case in Palm Springs, dinner was served from a warming cart, our plates having already been dished up in the kitchen so a staff member could place them in front of us still piping hot. Another server poured wine for each of us. There was a fourth set of utensils on the table, but no food was laid there. For Brent, maybe, who’d probably gotten caught up with the visiting ranchers.

“Joe says there are extra guests here this week?” I asked, before putting a forkful of garden salad in my mouth, the raspberry vinaigrette dressing surprising me in its decadence. The entire meal was a contradiction to the surroundings, just like Reeve was in a place like Kaya. Even in a rugged environment, he brought luxury.

He swirled the wine in his glass, the merlot thick and heavy as it spun. “Our visitors are men from another ranch.” He paused, and I wondered if that was all he’d say.

But after he took a swallow of his drink, he set the glass down and went on. “They always come out for a few days for the spring branding. Since we aren’t set up to handle a large herd of cattle, we sell a portion of the calves to the Callahans. We also don’t have modern branding machinery, so they send up men to help us do it the old-fashioned way. We mark half with the Kaya brand and the other half with theirs. They leave with a truckload of cattle and our numbers are more manageable.”

“Cowboy stuff,” I said with a wink. Even with the opulent touches, it was strange seeing Reeve wearing the hat of ranch owner, though, really, it wasn’t much different than the hat of business tycoon. Both roles fit his authoritative personality. Both roles looked equally good on him.

“Cowboy stuff,” Reeve repeated with a chuckle. “It’s an occasion the men all look forward to. Lots of drunkenness will be had in the main hall tonight, I assure you.”

“Any reason we need to be concerned about any of them?” Joe voiced my own thoughts. I’d eaten with the ranchers when they’d been drunk before – when Reeve was out of town, even.

“Not at all,” he answered.

Wanting more, I nudged him under the table with my leg. “Are you afraid they’ll be too wild for us to be around? Is that why we’re dining away from them?”

His hand fell to my knee and remained there, hidden under the tablecloth. “I’m sure that nothing’s too wild for you, Blue Eyes. But I don’t know all of them. Besides, I thought you might enjoy the quieter atmosphere for a change.”

“Hmm,” I said in vague agreement, trying not to let his touch distract me. While the setting was indeed pleasant, I sensed there was more to the alteration in our routine than simply that Reeve didn’t want to mingle with strangers. He didn’t trust them, it seemed. Was he protecting me from them because he wanted to be sure no one else laid a hand on me? Or because he believed they were somehow a real threat?

The question immediately left my mind when a figure appeared at the door.

“Amber!” I exclaimed, surprised to see her downstairs. Though her posture still seemed weak, her pallor was much better than when I’d left her. Relief rushed through me, and I realized for the first time exactly how terrible she’d looked and how worrying her appearance had been. It was extremely comforting to know she’d gotten through the worst of it. Reassuring to see that she would bounce back.

That feeling only lasted a handful of seconds before anxiety crept in. I wanted her well, I really did. But with the return of her health, I could no longer ignore the threat she posed to me. She was a beautiful, vibrant woman – a beautiful, vibrant woman that Reeve had once loved. Maybe even still did.

And that terrified me as much as the thought of never finding her alive once had.

Reeve twisted in his chair to look at her, his hand leaving my leg as he did. “You made it.” He nodded at a servant who stepped forward and pulled out the empty chair across from Reeve.

Joe jumped up and met Amber at the door, and immediately I felt awful for not thinking of it. “Need to lean?”

She smiled, the full flirty grin I recognized from days gone by. “Why thank you, Joe.” She linked her arm through his and let him lead her to her seat.

If Reeve felt remorse for not being the one to attend to her, he didn’t show it. “I had a place set for you,” he said, as another servant made his way toward us with the warming cart, “in case you felt up to joining us. From Jeb’s last report, I didn’t expect to see you here.”

I fidgeted in my seat. The uncertainty of what to expect or how to behave brought such a heavy air of tension that I was sure everyone had to be feeling it as well. I glanced at the men and found them both stoic and unreadable.

Amber, however, seemed quite comfortable. She settled into her seat and unfolded her napkin as though she felt right at home. “It’s interesting you get your reports from Jeb when there are other ways you could check up on me.” She placed the linen in her lap, keeping her eyes pinned on the man opposite her.

Reeve arched a brow. “Meaning?”

“You haven’t been by. I thought you might be avoiding me.” Her delivery was light and playful. Only Amber could make an accusation sound like she was teasing. I’d forgotten that about her, forgotten how often she snuck her jabs in under dimples and flashes of ivory teeth.

“Not avoiding you. It’s been a busy few days.” Under the tablecloth, Reeve’s hand returned to my leg, higher on my thigh this time.

I forced myself not to react, directing my attention to cutting my steak. While I always loved the way my body buzzed when he touched me, the gesture was totally inappropriate and it made me suspicious of his motives. I wanted to be his, wanted him to be open about our relationship, but if this were something else – if I were merely a pawn in a game of revenge, I wouldn’t participate.

I started to push him away, but the glance he shot me told me that he wouldn’t let me dictate his actions.

For the moment at least, she was unaware, and arguing with Reeve would only draw her attention. So I let his hand remain, and, truthfully, I liked it. Liked how he touched me when
she
was sitting so near.

Maybe I liked being a pawn after all.

“How are you feeling?” I asked as the server laid a plate in front of Amber and filled her empty glass with water.

“I’m actually feeling pretty okay at the moment. Much better than this morning. Jeb gave me my evening dose about forty minutes ago, which helps. I figure I have an hour or two before I start spiraling downward.”

She looked pointedly at Reeve’s wine as she picked up her water. “I definitely think I’m ready to not need babysitting anymore.”

I lowered my gaze again to my plate. The underlying discord between Reeve and Amber was palpable, and it shook me up. It would be easy to decide that the contention meant that their relationship was entirely in the past, but I was smarter than that. I understood intricacies of human relationships, specifically of Amber relationships and even Reeve relationships. She wouldn’t be holding on to hostility if she didn’t still feel something.

And Reeve wouldn’t be monitoring her beverage consumption if he didn’t care as well.

Oh, God, how I didn’t want him to care!

I loathed myself for that wish. Of course he should care. His concern didn’t have to mean anything about me. But rationale doesn’t work on emotion, and instead of understanding his compassion, I felt bitter and raw.

“Alcohol is not recommended with methadone or addiction recovery,” Reeve said dispassionately. “If you want it, you’ll have to find someone else to provide it.” She opened her mouth to interject, but he didn’t let her. “And the people taking shifts with you are not babysitters. They’re there to help you.”

Here, she dug in her heels. “I don’t need them.”

BOOK: Last Kiss
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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