Authors: Bronwyn Green
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Thriller
She felt his smile all the way down to her toes. What was the matter with her? This was Zander. Her friend. Not a prospective date.
He returned with her jacket and helped her slip into it. His fingers brushed the sensitive skin at the nape of her neck, and a shiver raced through her.
“Are you all right?” Concern emanated from his eyes.
“Just a chill. I’m fine.”
He studied her before finally nodding.
For just a moment, she wished he’d kiss her. What was the matter with her? Another thought occurred. He might have to kiss her before this charade was over. This might work out perfectly. She could appease her curiosity and longing without risking any kind of admission or involvement.
“I’ve got to speak with Aidan for a minute.” Zander held her gaze for a moment longer. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
“Sure.” Finding a relatively quiet spot near the wall, she waited and contemplated the lunacy she’d agreed to.
She shoved her hands in her pockets. Cool satin slithered across her skin and twined around her fingertips. Her stomach dropped to the floor. It couldn’t be.
Trembling, Tessa pulled a length of white ribbon from her pocket. The scent of cigarette smoke and heavy cologne, while fainter than before, lingered on the fabric.
The stalker had followed her here. He was probably watching her right now.
She shoved the ribbon back in her pocket and whirled, searching the room. She didn’t recognize anyone other than her friends. No one else seemed remotely familiar.
Her mind reeled. Maybe the coatroom attendant had seen someone put the ribbon in her pocket. She peered around the corner and checked the room. No attendant.
Suddenly, wandering through the darkened city streets didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Panic churned through her stomach as her gaze sought Zander. The sight of him calmed her somewhat, and she tried to think.
If she told him she wanted to go home, he’d want to know why, and for the life of her, she couldn’t come up with a lie he’d believe. Telling him the truth was out of the question. He’d go from zero-to-bulldog in thirty seconds or less. She could see it now. He’d be furious that she hadn’t told him sooner. Then, he’d insist on babysitting her until the guy was caught.
She didn’t want him with her out of some misguided sense of obligation. Besides, she could take care of herself. She’d been doing it for a long time, and she wasn’t about to assign those duties to someone else. Even if that someone else was the only guy she’d felt truly safe around in the last ten years.
She took a breath and slowly blew it out as she scanned the crowd. There was still the chance her stalker would back off if he thought she was involved with someone. There was a better chance he would follow them. She might catch a glimpse and, at least, have a description to give to the police when she went to the station tomorrow.
The gallery was in a decent part of town. She’d make sure she and Zander stayed on populated, well-lit streets. She returned to her quiet spot near the wall and waited, watching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. As Zander walked toward her, she realized she crushed the ribbon she still held in her pocket.
His eyes searched her face. “What’s the matter?”
She laughed, hoping she sounded more convincing than she felt. “Nothing. Why?”
He didn’t look as if he believed her. Big surprise. She’d always been a terrible liar.
“You seem upset,” he said.
So much for playing it cool. “Not at all.”
His eyes softened. “I’m sorry if this is stressing you out. I wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t been so desperate.”
“I’m fine. Really.” Releasing her clenched fist, she drew her hand from her pocket and held it out to him. Better to distract him with the walk than to try to avoid more questions. “Let’s go.”
Zander laced his fingers through hers, and she had the sensation of losing her hand in his much larger grasp. Instead of overwhelming, it felt comforting. Warm. Safe.
She sighed. She needed to stop thinking that way. She was responsible for her own well-being.
“Bored?” A smile colored his voice.
“Hmm? Oh. No. Just thinking.”
“Are you sharing?”
She cast around for a likely topic. “I’m just worried that we won’t be able to pull this off.” It wasn’t a complete lie. She worried about that, too.
The cool autumn air swirled leaves around their feet as they wandered toward the river. The gentle breeze gave her ample opportunity to push her hair from her eyes and discreetly peer behind them. No stalker so far.
As they walked, she caught glimpses of their reflection in the windows of businesses closed for the night. For a moment, she saw herself and Zander as a stranger might. They looked as if they belonged together. She pushed aside a pang of longing.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “You just need to relax.”
Easier said than done. “So how did we supposedly meet?” she asked.
“Let’s stick as close to the truth as we can. Less chance of forgetting anything important.”
“So we met when you moved in two years ago. And then what? They’re not going to believe we’ve been together that long.”
Did he sound offended?
“Well, let see,” she began. “You date more women than…than—”
“You sound jealous,” he teased, as he slowed his step.
“Hardly. I’m just saying that we should try to be realistic. You’ve dated a lot of women. You’re not the settling-down type.”
“I could be.” Zander stopped moving and circled his thumb around the back of Tessa’s hand. “For the right woman.”
She peered at him and frowned. He was really getting into this role-playing thing.
He raised their joined hands to his mouth to drop a soft kiss on her knuckles. At the feel of his lips on her skin, her breath caught in her throat. Respiration became next to impossible when she imagined his mouth on more intimate areas of her body.
“Knock it off.” She pulled her hand from his grasp. “First of all, you don’t have to fake it when we’re alone.”
What was she doing? This might be exactly the sort of thing that would make the stalker go away—or make him more persistent. A shiver of worry snaked through her.
“And second?” Zander asked, stepping closer. When she didn’t answer right away, he added, “If there’s a first, there’s got to be a second.”
Tessa glanced around to make sure they hadn’t been followed. She wasn’t sure what made her more nervous—the possibility of someone following them or the sharp intensity in Zander’s eyes.
“Second,” she continued, “your fear of commitment runs deeper than Lake Superior.”
He laughed. “Coming from you? That’s hilarious.”
“I don’t have commitment issues.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I just haven’t found the right guy.”
“Gee, I wonder why.” He turned from her and started walking again.
She quickened her stride to catch up. “Meaning?”
He glanced at her, a smile tilting the corners of his mouth. “The guys you date? Please.”
He’d noticed her dates?
“What’s wrong with them?” She knew exactly what the problem was but she was curious to hear his take on it.
Zander looked at the woman at his side.
Other than the fact that they’re spineless pricks?
He shook his head not about to admit that thought aloud. “The real question is, what’s right with them?”
She stopped and glared at him.
“What?” he asked as he walked back to her. “You should see yourself with these guys. You look like you’d have more fun at a symposium on tooth decay.”
“So a couple of them have been a little…reserved.”
He snorted. “If I hadn’t seen them walking, I would have suggested you check for a pulse.”
Her cheeks colored under the glow of the streetlamps. She looked ready to strangle him but managed to remain calm. “Nice try on the whole avoidance thing, but you still have commitment issues. And we still have that believability problem.”
“Fine. What do you suggest?”
Her insistence on his inability to commit was beginning to rankle. But he wasn’t about to explain the cause. The pain of losing Julia and Niko was especially raw tonight, but like the typical psychologist he was, he’d rather explore anyone’s angst but his own.
“How long have you been between women?” she asked, steering him back to the present.
“You make it sound like I’ve got a revolving door.”
She shrugged and silently regarded him. Finally, she started walking again, heading toward the river. “What’s it been? Two or three months?”
“Four.” He couldn’t find a woman who didn’t bore him after a week or two. Hanging out in the basement, doing laundry with Tessa was more interesting than any of the dates he’d had over the last year.
“Okay,” she continued. “Let’s say we’ve been dating for three months.”
“And it’s serious,” he added.
She snorted. “How serious?”
She shook her head. “If you think anyone will believe it, go for it.”
“I think the bigger problem will be how to get you to stop jumping every time I touch you.”
Her eyes widened, and she pressed her lips together as if she tried to refrain from speaking. She always kept a tight rein on herself, and he couldn’t help but wonder what their friendship would be like if she really let herself go. Maybe if she did, they could get past whatever it was that had made her so leery of him. Or he might piss her off enough to refuse to help him at all. Time to find out.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, what was Cat talking about when she said she thought you’d taken her and Annie’s advice?”
A flush darkened her cheeks but she held her ground. “They think I should date you.”
“Really?” It surprised him that she admitted it.
“Yeah but I keep telling them it would never work. I’m just not loud enough.”
He cocked his head. What was she talking about?
A half-smile curved her lips. “Oh God, oh God, oh Zander, oh,” she deadpanned.
“Lisa.” He almost groaned at the memory—and not in a good way. Sex with Lisa had been like being trapped in an opera. That relationship hadn’t lasted long.
“Was that her name?” Tessa asked sweetly. “The only part I was really clear on was that she thought you’re some sort of sex deity. But no man is that good.”
His angel had claws and wasn’t afraid to use them. Her smug expression irritated him and he wanted more than anything to prove her wrong. He wanted to show her how good it could be between the two of them.
“Clearly, you’ve been with the wrong guys.” He brushed his thumb across her lower lip. “You don’t know what you’re missing, angel.”
She shrugged and smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Men are more trouble than they’re worth.”
Before he could respond, she brightened a little. “So tell me about this party we’re going to next week.”
It was an obvious ploy to change the subject, but he let it slide. He wanted to ask who’d hurt her—who had broken her heart. He also wanted to beat the jackass senseless, but he knew she wouldn’t tell him. She was better than he was at avoiding topics she didn’t want to discuss.
She’d drive him crazy before this charade was over. The more he discovered about her, the more he wanted to know. That wasn’t a good sign.
For the rest of their walk and through the ride home, she plied him with questions about his job, his co-workers and what to expect at the party. It was as if she tried to fill up the space between them with enough words to keep him from looking too closely at her.
He glanced at Tessa. She’d laid her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. The streetlights cast a soft glow over her skin as they drove home on nearly empty roads.
“What’s your family like?” she asked, her eyes still shut.
He figured she’d hit this topic sooner or later. He’d been hoping for later. “My parents live outside of Detroit.”
“Are you an only child, too?”
“Nah. I’ve got an older brother.” His chest tightened, and the words rose up of their own accord. “We used to be really close. Now, we mostly tolerate each other.”
Her head snapped up. “What happened?” He had her full attention now.
“My sister-in-law died. Things…haven’t been the same since.” Loss sliced through Zander, isolating him. He thought of Niko. The closeness they’d shared had died with Julia. His brother was just as dead to him as his sister-in-law. He missed Niko, but over time, he’d managed to disassociate himself from the pain. Avoidance was a fine defense mechanism—when it worked.
“I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t want to go into the whole gruesome scenario surrounding Julia’s death. Her murder. He didn’t even want to think about it.
“Did they have any kids?”
“Julia was pregnant when…when she died.”
“Oh God, Zander. I’m so sorry.”
Her compassion was as tangible as a blanket. He wanted to sink into the solace she offered.
“How awful for all of you,” she murmured, laying her hand on his arm.
It had been a long time since he’d let himself feel Julia’s loss. Right now, it was too much. He shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” He met her haunted gaze and answered the question she refused to voice. “Twelve years.”
“It takes a long time to heal.”
He didn’t think Niko would ever heal, and he wasn’t sure about his parents. Then there was the guilt. That would never go away. He wasn’t about to dump any of that on Tessa.
So many things had changed after the murder. Nikolas had shut down, distancing himself from everything and everyone he loved. Like Zander, the event had shaped his career choice. It hadn’t really been a choice. Choice implied there were options. For Niko, there hadn’t been any. He’d thrown himself into his studies, graduated at the top of his class and been accepted into the FBI.
Zander had changed, too. In a matter of weeks, he’d gone from being a typical college student, hopping from party to party and changing his major every other term, to a dedicated psychology undergrad. He’d turned to social sciences, compelled to understand the minds of murderers. Especially those who purported to love their victims. A master’s degree and a doctorate later, he understood it on an intellectual level but wasn’t sure he’d ever comprehend on an emotional one.