Authors: Bronwyn Green
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Thriller
Zander nuzzled her hair, distracting her. “Brat,” he murmured.
The simple brush of his lips across her ear and the delicious warmth of his breath on her neck chased away her musings, making her wish for things she couldn’t have. For a brief moment, she considered following the path of her wishes, but she pushed away that thought. Why chance it? He was too much of a threat to her self-restraint. The combination of being stalked and wishing things could be different between her and Zander had her emotions ready to slip their tether.
After the attack, her out-of-control feelings had always led to random, meaningless encounters, and she wasn’t doing that. Not anymore. Not with Zander. His fingers smoothed over the curve of her waist. He repeated the motion as if he could sense her desire, safely locked away. Maybe not-so-safely. Every moment she spent with him lured her need to the surface. If she wasn’t careful, her need would drag her down a road she had no desire to travel again. Unfortunately, her body tried to convince her otherwise. It knew better. It wanted Zander.
, she told herself.
It’s not gonna happen.
* * * *
The following day, Tessa stood in front of the mirror and rechecked her makeup. Again. Butterfly wings of nervous anticipation trembled in her belly and shivers racked her body.
The shaking wasn’t completely due to nerves, however. She’d woken up to cold air, instead of warm, blowing from her registers. Repeated attempts to turn up the heat proved useless. She’d called Zander and Mrs. Bartz, their landlady, who lived downstairs. Their thermostats were working properly. She’d also gone down to the basement to check the furnace. Not that it did a whole lot of good. It looked like a furnace.
Her landlady promised that even though it was Sunday, she’d have the heat back on in Tessa’s apartment before she returned from the party with Zander. Which was a good thing, since autumn nights in Michigan could get very cold and the converted Victorian home in which she lived, didn’t offer much in the way of insulation. Tessa had given her permission to allow the technician access to her apartment, but she hoped that wouldn’t be necessary. She hated the idea of a stranger in her home.
Zander had offered to let her shower and get ready at his place, but that had seemed too intimate. She’d opted to get ready at home. Checking the time, she decided he should be just about ready. If not, she’d wait in the relative warmth of his place. Draping her wrap around her shoulders to ward off the cold, she gathered her purse. Before she could turn the doorknob, a knock sounded on the door, startling her slightly.
She peered through the peephole to find Zander waiting and looking as handsome as ever. Pulling open the door, she stepped back to let him enter.
“Jeez, Tess. It’s an igloo in here.”
She tightened her shawl around the shoulders. “Tell me about it.”
“If it’s not fixed by the time we get back, you’re staying with me.”
Yeah. She wished.
With a grin, Zander leaned back and scanned her from head to toe. She ignored the rush of pleasure she felt at the heated appreciation glowing in his eyes. Her pulse raced, and an ache she hadn’t felt in years tightened her middle.
She spun in a circle. “Is this outfit okay?”
“You look gorgeous.” His voice was a little strained. She hoped he wouldn’t whisper her name in that same husky tone. Her defenses were cracking where he was concerned. She didn’t want to push the boundaries of safety.
He looked good enough to eat, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.
Her heather-colored, silky blouse and skirt set complemented his dark gray slacks and lighter gray shirt. Great. They looked as if they’d stepped out of some horrible couples clothing catalog. Maybe she should change.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She nodded. Her window of opportunity for non-coordinating outfits had closed.
The uneven, hardwood floor creaked under his feet as he stepped nearer and lifted the heart pendant he’d given her from her chest. He stared into her eyes. She could swear he was about to lay another one of those soul-shattering kisses on her, but instead, he leaned forward and gently brushed his lips across her forehead.
Okay. What was up with that? Obviously, she’d misread his signals again. The appreciation she’d seen earlier was probably due to the fact that they were succeeding in looking like a couple, rather than any real attraction to her.
She scolded herself when her heart sank at the realization. She was doing this out of friendship. Nothing else. She silently recited all the reasons she shouldn’t fall for Zander, chanted them in her head like a mantra through the drive to the party.
“Are you ready for this?” Zander asked as he parked in front of a large, cedar wood house.
“Yeah, sure.” Tessa glanced out the window through the fading afternoon light. She tried to quash the perverse thread of excitement that spiraled through her. If only Zander didn’t feel so much like home. Well, not her home, she amended, but like she imagined a real one would feel.
She glanced at the sky. Angry, gray clouds blotted out the sun, and the air seemed to be electrically charged. Maybe, it was just the energy that bounded back and forth between the two of them.
When they reached the front door, Zander gave her a reassuring squeeze and rang the bell. Fingers entwined, they entered a large open area filled with the murmur of conversation and the clink of glasses. Candlelight reflected off the smooth surfaces of sculptures and tableware.
The ambiance was the same as at any of the hundreds of dinner parties her mother had ever given. Tessa almost expected Bitsy Maycroft to spring from behind the elaborate floral arrangement with another “suitable man”.
Zander led her into the center of the room, toward an overstuffed woman sitting in an overstuffed armchair. Graying hair and laughing eyes didn’t hide the fact that this was a woman to be reckoned with. She commanded respect, seemingly without trying. Tessa suspected she had a good deal of pull when it came to office politics and hoped that she wanted to keep Zander on her staff.
“Your boss, I presume?” Tessa whispered in his ear. His smile weakened her knees, and she marveled at her continued ability to stand.
“Monique, this is, Tessa Maycroft. Tessa, this is Monique, the force behind the Criminal Justice department.”
The short, stout woman rose from the chair and grasped Tessa’s hand in a firm, no-nonsense grip. “It’s good to finally meet you. Alekzander has told us virtually nothing about you.”
Tessa returned the woman’s greeting with a smile. “We’ve kept our relationship somewhat private, but he really wanted me to come along and meet everyone tonight.”
“I hope you’re not bored to death.” Monique smiled. “Sometimes, these things can be terminally dull.”
She turned to Zander. “Good choice. Very believable,” she murmured.
Tessa listened intently. She’d thought Aidan was the only one who knew about their deception. She’d have to remember to ask Zander about that when she got the chance. He and Monique quietly discussed Dean Someone-or-other, but Tessa lost the thread of conversation and scanned the house. She noticed Aidan, in the midst of an animated conversation with several other people. He caught her eye and winked.
After holding court with Monique, Zander moved around and made introductions. Each conversation stretched Tessa’s nerves a little tighter. Most of these people seemed to truly care about him, and Tessa felt horrible deceiving them.
As they drifted through the room, snippets of discussions about serial killers, pedophiles and stalkers reached her. These people casually chatted about the characteristics that made an effective criminal. Characteristics she recognized all too well.
Zander led Tessa to another knot of people and introduced her to the guest of honor. As they made polite conversation, she caught of whiff of cologne she hadn’t smelled in years. It was what
worn that night.
Swallowing a gag, she excused herself and headed across the room. A breeze, heavy with the scent of rain, blew in through the open French doors that led to a secluded balcony. The gray clouds had turned black, and an ominous autumn storm blew in off the lake. The wind’s restless energy drew Tessa outside.
She slowed her breathing, willing her nerves to calm. If she’d thought her feelings had been getting out-of-control before, now they were the emotional equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. She sighed. The last thing Zander needed was for her to flip out in front of his co-workers.
Lightning flashed in the distance and created a smudged reflection on the choppy water. Cool, damp air lifted her hair off her face as she tilted her chin skyward. Closing her eyes, she tried to let the sound of the waves wash away her tension.
Before she could relax, a man’s body pressed against her back, and a hand locked over her eyes. It wasn’t Zander. His size, shape and scent were all wrong.
Tessa froze in fear, a scream lodged in her throat. Instinctively, she jerked her head and thrust back her elbow, connecting with a hard stomach. She spun and twisted away but lost her footing, landing in a heap in the corner. The railing jabbed into her spine.
Tessa scrambled to her feet, questions careening through her mind. How had her stalker found her here? Had he been here all along? Zander’s face popped into her head. She dismissed the notion before it fully formed.
Zander stepped onto the balcony in time to see Tessa knock Aidan to the ground. Adrenaline surged and he raced to her side.
“Whoa, love. It’s me, Aidan. I was trying to surprise you,” he heard his friend say.
“Worked.” She breathed heavily. “Consider me surprised.”
Zander wrapped his arms around her and tried not to take her flinch as a personal affront. Her heart pounded erratically against him, the aftermath of extreme fear. What had Aidan done to her to frighten her this badly?
Uncontrolled shivering claimed her body, but she pushed out of his embrace and knelt by Aidan.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Her hands fluttered like nervous moths by her side.
Aidan’s laugh was rueful. “You’ve got a mean elbow, woman, but I’m fine.” He grew more serious. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“You just startled me,” she said. Offering her hand, she helped him to his feet.
The expression on Aidan’s face mirrored the disbelief that roared through Zander.
Startled, my ass.
Something far more significant had happened, and he was going to find out what. He shot his friend a look that said, “Get out of here.”
Aidan excused himself after reassuring Tessa he was fine.
Zander joined her at the railing, where she leaned with her arms draped over the edge. Lightning split the sky in the distance. She didn’t seem aware of the display. Conversely, she jumped at the crack of thunder. She shook her head, a look of disgust twisted her features.
“I’m such an idiot,” she said as she smoothed her hair from her face and swiped at her eyes.
“What was that all about? And don’t say startle reflex.”
With visible effort, she tried to control her trembling but allowed him to put his arms around her. The intermittent flashes of lightning illuminated her too-pale face.
“Sorry about that,” she said and pulled from him.
“Talk to me, Tess.” He urged her to meet his gaze. “What happened?”
“Nothing. I’m just a little edgy.”
“That’s not edgy, angel. That’s freaking out.”
She closed her eyes. “Okay, so I’m a little tense.”
“A little?” He’d never seen her like this. She was wound so tightly it worried him.
She shrugged from his grasp. “I spend most of my spare time at the shelter. Some responses just become instinctive.”
She’d needed to respond like this before? His heart constricted. What kind of risks did she take there?
Cold rain spattered against his skin in sharp contrast to the thick air that surrounded them. “You decked Aidan because it was the natural response?” He had a hard time keeping the incredulity from his voice.
“Pretty much,” she said, not meeting his gaze.
“Don’t lie to your friends—it’s not nice.”
She was lying. Badly. Even a complete stranger would have recognized it. She may have responded automatically, but there was more going on here than she wanted to admit.
Her eyes widened. Fear had darkened them to indigo. She pressed her lips together and forced a smile. “I’m fine.”
The wind gusted and the glass-paned doors slammed shut. Zander twisted the handle and pushed. Locked. He cupped his hand around his eyes and tried to peer through the glass. There was no way to see around the curtain covering the window. He rapped on the door, but the sound vanished in a clap of thunder. The rain changed from splatters to slashes, soaking them.
Laughter bubbled from Tessa. Had she lost it? He whirled around to see a genuine, brilliant smile on her face.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Mhm.” Her throaty voice spread over him like the sun.
She tilted her head toward the sky. Water streamed over her and ran in rivulets along her neck. The elements molded her clothing to her body, accentuating her slight curves and hardened nipples. She looked less angelic and more primitive goddess. He wanted to worship her in the most primal sense possible.
“You’re sure?” he asked. If he didn’t keep talking, he’d cross the scant space between them and take her against the railing.
“Think about it. I just freaked out and leveled a perfectly nice guy, who also happens to be a close friend of my dear, fake lover. Then it starts to rain, well, more like storm, drenching both of us. And, as if that wasn’t enough, we’re locked out on a balcony in the middle of a torrential downpour. How is this not funny? I mean, it’s sadistically funny—but still funny.”
She had a point. After being flattened, Aidan might not agree, but it was pretty amusing. Zander grinned as he remembered the shocked expression on his friend’s face as he’d gone down.
“See? I’m right.”
They stared at each other, and her smile faded. A maelstrom of emotion swirled through her. It was so strong he could almost touch it. The air between them changed.