IT WAS childish, that was true, but at the moment, with my adrenaline pumping, the flush heating my body, and my heart pounding in my ears, I couldn’t think of a better option.
I ran. Fast.
I had been strolling on my way to The Colonial, one of the many bed and breakfasts along the seashore in Mangrove, when I walked by the patio of Brenner Manor, one of the most exclusive B&Bs, the high end of the lot, and saw him.
It was just a quick glance, but as I would have known him anywhere, the man’s features forever stamped on my memory, I’d jolted to a stop and stood there staring like an idiot. Blessedly, my brain kicked in and I got control of my muscles back. I had pivoted and run down an immaculate alley paved in brick, past white picket fences to the street on the other side. Now I flew by The Lighthouse, that good bar where they mixed handmade cocktails, then by Cuppa Joe, where everyone got their coffee all day, and around the side of Wick and Wand, which sold spells and supplies to both Wiccans and posers. When I cleared Schnapsidee, the German restaurant that made the best Jägerschnitzel I’d ever had—German dumplings with mushrooms—I stopped running and ducked into another alley, this one shaded though still stunning, and leaned up against a wall.
It took long minutes for me to catch my breath and then parse what I’d seen.
After ten years, there he was, Britton Lassiter in the flesh. What the hell was he doing in Mangrove, Florida?
The last time I’d seen him was in New Orleans. He had just graduated from college and had taken a road trip with some buddies from his home in Scarsdale, New York, down to the French Quarter before he started Harvard Law School in the fall. I learned that information walking with him while his buddies were drinking on Bourbon Street. He’d been different from the others—or so I’d thought. In the end his only agenda had been to satisfy his curiosity about being in bed with a man. What I’d taken for more—which was stupid after only two days—had been meaningless to him. I learned that the hard way when he wasn’t where he’d promised to be.
Britton had asked me to go to Boston with him. But when I’d shown up, bag packed, ready to start my dream, he was nowhere to be found. At the time I thought it was the end of me, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Because, really, no one rode in on a white horse and saved you from your life; everybody had to do that for themselves. I was no exception.
The Army took me and trained me, and four years later I was out and made it to Florida as fast as I could to see a buddy who was medically discharged before I finished my tour. When my friend’s mother asked me about my dreams for the future, I had an epiphany, one she was more than happy to help me with.
I heard a car close to me, but even though it broke into my memories, I didn’t look up until I heard a question fired at me. “What the hell are you doing?”
Turning to the sound of the voice, I found that same friend, Cosimo Renaldi—Coz—staring at me from behind the wheel of his Crown Victoria. “Resting,” I answered.
“I thought you were being chased by a hellhound or something, when I saw you blow by,” he said, scowling, putting the car into Park in the middle of the street before getting out. As he came toward me, I took a moment, as I always did, to admire his height, his hard, muscular build, the V-shape of his torso and the breadth of his shoulders. I had always been an aficionado of gorgeous Italian men, and Coz was a classic in every way but for his skin, a beautiful rich bronze. I’d seen him naked enough times to know that he was a deep tan all over. It made my mouth dry just to think about it. He was sex on two legs and I never got tired of looking at him.
“I thought you had to check on the Italian cypresses at The Colonial this morning.”
“Yeah,” I gasped, still trying to suck in oxygen, made harder by my appraisal of his profile: the long, straight nose; lush lips; the divot in his chin; and his gleaming henna-colored eyes under dark brows. His thick black hair was coarse to the touch and only a bit longer than it had been when we served in the Army. I didn’t stare at him often—it did me no good—but when I did, when I allowed myself to, I always found myself wondering what he’d taste like. It was a familiar craving.
“That’s what you told me last night when you were over for dinner.”
“Dinner. Last night. Is this ringing any bells?”
“My mom went to Miami for sausage and peppers.”
He’d lost me. “What?”
“You told me all the things you had to do today, and so I told her and she decided to run to Panama City to pick up what she needed for dinner tonight.”
“But if you don’t get all your work done, then you won’t be on time for dinner, and you’re gonna break her heart.”
I nodded. “I won’t be late.”
“You will if you’re fuckin’ around instead of working.”
He was like a dog with a bone. “I know!”
“Then why aren’t you there?” he pressed, closing in on me. “You know that since my father died she’s been—”
“I just need a sec, Coz,” I said before inhaling deeply.
Silence, but I knew without looking that he was scowling at me. He’d done it all through basic training and continued when we were stationed together in Afghanistan. Even after the accident, when I’d crawled through the debris of his blown-apart humvee, under fire, to reach him. Even when he was full of shrapnel and missing his left arm from the shoulder down, even then, at that moment, there had been scowling.
Lifting my head, I finally took a deep breath.
“Oh,” he muttered quickly, clearly surprised, if the lifted brows and concern on his face were any indication. “You actually look scared. What’s wrong with you?”
I cleared my throat. “Remember that guy I told you about? The reason why I joined the Army to get as far away from my life as I possibly could?”
“Yeah, so, I just saw him on the patio at Brenner.”
The way his eyes narrowed, I knew he was filtering my words, processing them. “No shit?”
“No shit—” I choked. “—so let me stand here and breathe, okay?”
I lifted an eyebrow in agreement with his assessment of the situation, the whole what-the-fuck of it all.
I squinted at him. “What do you mean ‘and so’?” Maybe what I’d seen was not in fact sympathy.
“I mean, he’s just a guy, right? You’ve fucked a ton of guys in your life.”
I was being insulted and I knew it, even though it took a moment to sink in. “I’m sorry, what’d you just say to me?”
“Oh, c’mon, Kel, where is that guy on the list? Do you even know?”
“Do I know?” I was indignant.
He threw up his right arm and groaned loudly as he turned away from me. “Just go to work already, before my mother calls me to check up on us and has a fuckin’ heart attack.”
I darted around in front of him so he had to either stop moving or plow into me. “I’ll have you know that your mother never calls to check up on me or check up on your sister. She calls to check on you because you’re the one who’s breaking her heart, not either one of us.”
His eyes widened in anger, and part of me felt bad for baiting him, but he’d just called me a slut, whether he realized it or not.
“I’m breaking her heart? I am?”
He’d always been on a hair trigger, and losing his arm, being mad at the world, had not changed that. It had, in fact, just made it worse. I heard the frustration in his rising tone, saw the anger in the clench of his jaw, and felt the heat rolling off his sleek, hot, gorgeous frame. If he would just let me put my hands all over him, I was sure I could relieve quite a—
“How exactly am I doing that?”
“What?” It took me a second to banish my impure thoughts.
“Pay fuckin’ attention! How the hell am I breaking my mother’s heart?”
“Do I really need to tell you?” I asked, matching his volume. “Again?”
He waved his hand at me dismissively because he knew what he’d done.
“You nearly killed her when you took this fuckin’ job,” I said, gesturing at the uniform, the car, the entire officer of the law accoutrement.
“Nothing happens in this town!” he barked defensively.
“It doesn’t matter,” I volleyed.
“Of course it matters! Why would they make me—a man with only one arm—a policeman if they actually thought I’d have to do anything? It’s a pity post, idiot.”
So much annoyance colored his tone. “Then why do you have a gun?”
“Maybe because I know how to use one!”
“Or,” I began, making sure I sounded just as snide as he did, “maybe the chief actually expects you to put yourself in danger if the situation calls for it.”
“And what the fuck is wrong with that?”
“Oh, nothing, except that your mother lost her husband two years ago, and all she has left is you and your sister.”
“She has you too!”
“It’s not the same and you know it!” I yelled because he did. Matching his volume was one of my favorite things to do.
“It is too the same,” he growled. “She likes you better than me and Mia put together!”
I stared at him and he glared back.
“Why’re you still yelling?” I asked abruptly, because he was ranting like a crazy person. Normally one of us got either tired or hoarse fairly quickly.
“Because you make me crazy with this shit!”
“Okay,” I began, clearing my throat, lowering my decibel level, “so you know that what your mother wanted—what we all fuckin’ wanted—was for you to buy that bar and run it.”
He rolled his eyes.
“It was a good idea.”
“It was a boring-ass idea, and what the hell do I know about running a bar?”
“What the hell do I know about landscaping? What does Mia know about the law?”
He sniffed in annoyance, and I laughed, because, shit, that last part really was stupid. Sometimes my mouth ran on a bit quicker than my brain.
“Well, I dunno. For starters she went to law school, ya fuckin’ idiot.”
I snorted out a giggle that I couldn’t stifle. “Yeah, fine, whatever.”
His reluctant grin showed off the laugh lines in the corner of his eyes, the deep ones around his mouth, and the curl of his lip that made my stomach clench. “What does this have to do with—”
“I borrowed money from your mom for my landscaping business,” I reminded him. “Mia took some when she opened the law office, but you—you had to go and be a damn lawman.”
“I didn’t want to be a burden on her, and I don’t know how to do anything else but fire a weapon and save people.”
“You could solve problems at a bar and maybe shoot someone once in a while, if they tried to rob you.”
“In this town? Get robbed in this town. This is your story?”
“Seeing you in that uniform is killing your mother.”
He growled. I arched an eyebrow to hammer home the point that he was, in fact, taking years off his mother’s life every single day. He’d come home from serving his country with a piece missing. She didn’t want him to lose any other parts––and definitely not his life.
“If you could all just open your eyes to—”
His scowl was back. “Hah? That’s your big retort?”
“If Mia could open her eyes? If I could? Your mom? Please. You’re the only blind one around here.”
“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
I tipped my head sideways. “Do you ever notice any of the people who stare at you as you drive down the street, Officer? Do you ever see the people who try and talk to you or flirt with you? Do you?”
“I fail to see what any of that has to do with—”
“Getting laid,” I announced. “It has to do with getting laid.”
“Which again, has no bearing on what we’re fuckin’ talking about,” he insisted.
“It has to do with your entire reasoning for taking this job, which is your perceived value.”
“Oh dear God, I knew it was a mistake to take you with me to see the shrink at the VA. Why did I do that? Why?”
“You say you don’t want to be a burden,” I said gruffly, advancing on him. “So you take the only job where there is the possibility that you could get killed. Why is that?”
“I have no idea, but I’m sure you do, so please,” he prodded, “enlighten me.”
“Because this way, you don’t actually have to live.”
“You’re not! You’re pretending to, but you take no chances and you haven’t fucked anyone in the two years since you got back.”
“Just because you fuck everyone—”
“We’re not talking about me,” I snarled, because he always turned the tables—but not this time. “We’re talking about you, and because you’ve stopped living, you took a job doing the only thing you could think of to help.”
“And what the hell is wrong with that?”
“There’s a crapton of other shit you could do where you wouldn’t have to carry a gun.”
“You were gonna come home and go to school to be a teacher. Why don’t you do that?”
He shook his head. “No kid is gonna listen to a guy with only one arm.”
“For fuck’s sake, Coz, do you even listen to yourself? Why does you not having an arm define anything about you?”
“Because it does.”
“But why does it?”
“It just does!”
“And see, that’s what I mean about you being blind.”
“Listen, nobody wants a guy with only—”
“You’re ridiculous,” I snapped. “Everybody wants you.”
They did. I knew so because I saw the looks he got, heard the come-on lines, and tracked the hunger in people’s eyes. He missed it because he didn’t believe it, didn’t see himself the way the rest of us did, the way I did. It made me crazy that his missing arm had skewed his perception of his own value—but I was, for my own selfish purposes, secretly thrilled at the same time. I still had him, had my best friend in my life, in my space, but any second now he’d actually see himself and find his guy. One of these days, he was going to wake up and realize he was strong and beautiful, and whoever was there worshipping him at that moment would be in for the ride of their life.
“I love that you think my life is some big Hollywood blockbuster where bullshit like what you just said is actually true.”
“You’re so deluded,” I said miserably.
He shook his head, not believing me, as usual.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Which is funny, coming from a man who just ran away from a guy he hasn’t seen in, what? Ten years?”
I scowled. “Go away. Go ticket some jaywalkers or something.”
“You see,” he said, smacking me in the abdomen, “that’s all you think is gonna happen around here. All that shit you said about me being in imminent danger, that you’re worried about me getting shot—gimme a fuckin’ break.”
I growled under my breath. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Standing still, I watched as he stalked back to his car, got in, and drove away, flipping me off for good measure when he hit the corner.
Pivoting to run back the other way, I plowed into a woman. “Oh shit,” I gasped as I grabbed hold of her so she wouldn’t fall down.
“For fuck’s sake, man!” The guy following her was quick to yell and would have tugged her out of my hands, but her forward lunge into my arms stopped him.
“There you are!” she announced, hugging me tight, arms coiled around my neck before she kissed my cheek. “I told this nice man that he didn’t have to follow me, that you were right around the corner, that I was meeting you for breakfast, but he didn’t believe me.”
I uncoiled her arms from around me, took hold of her upper arms like I was going to shake her, and then glowered, going for stern. “Why were you even talking to this guy?”
I got a trace of a smile from her, because yeah, we were on the same wavelength. “I didn’t. He talked to me.”
“Oh really?” I asked, my voice rising.
“Yes, really,” she snapped, matching my volume.
I let her go and put my hands on my hips. “Because this seems like Tampa all over again, and we know how that turned out and what you made me do to that guy!”
She covered her face with her hands, bursting into tears. “You went too far! Why did you have to—I told you it was nothing!”
“And I told you I didn’t care!”
“We had to move,” she cried. “So you wouldn’t have to go back to jail.”
I crossed my arms, glaring at her before lifting my gaze to the man hovering close. Never in my life had I actually seen color drain from anyone’s face in absolute fear. It was interesting to observe.
“Hey man, I don’t want any trouble.”
“Too late,” I replied menacingly.
He bolted, leaving the tiny sobbing woman with me.
“Wow,” she said as he turned the corner. “Chivalry actually is dead.”
“He totally ditched you,” I said, chuckling as I turned back to her. “And clearly, I’m a psychopath, because I did something heinous to that guy in Tampa.”
She laughed as she took hold of my hand. “Thank you so much. I’ve never had a better impromptu acting partner.”
I squeezed back. “Where’d you pick him up?”
“I was running on that path along the beach and he came up beside me and started talking.” She sighed. “I thought he’d get the hint from the monosyllabic answers.”
She coughed. “I got lost when I turned one corner, then another and another, and there was an alley back behind a restaurant that was a bit dark, and he stopped me to talk and got a little handsy… so when I saw an opening, I ran.”
She exhaled sharply, clearly a bit more shaken than she wanted me to see. “I mean, I don’t think he would have done anything, but—thank you for being my knight. I needed one, and they’ve been few and far between here lately.”
“Not a problem,” I said, smiling, changing her grip on my hand so we were shaking. “Kelly Seaton.”
“Olivia Lassiter,” she answered, beaming at me, taking my hand in both of hers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kelly. You have to come have lunch with me and my family.”
“My whole family is here visiting,” she continued excitedly. “We never have time to get together anymore, but my brother is moving here to become a partner at a law firm, and I just got accepted to graduate school at Cornell and—”
“Sounds like a real celebration,” I said, extricating myself from her, needing to get out of there. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re not intruding,” she assured me, grabbing me again, making sure I couldn’t get free without prying at her fingers. “You saved me—you’re wonderful.”
“Come and have lunch with my family,” she insisted, trying to tug me after her.
Lassiter… holy crap…. “I wish I had time, but I have trees to check on and my boyfriend is expecting me for dinner so I can’t eat a big lunch so I should just go.”
Oh yes, the easy out. “Yeah, I’m gay, so I—”
What? “I’m sorry?” She was the strangest girl.
Her eyes opened wide like I was the one who was odd. “It’s a simple question: is the boyfriend serious or not?”
“I—he’s more a friend than… why?”
“I have a super hot brother.”
Yes. I knew that. “Who’s about to become a partner at a law firm here in town,” I reminded her. “And I’m sure he doesn’t need any distractions or—”
“No,” she said quickly. “He could use a distraction.”
I had my out. “Actually, I have never been a one night stand guy myself,” I said flatly, pulling out of her grip. “But thanks for thinking I was trashy.”
“Oh no,” she blurted, “that’s not what I meant at all.”
“I’ll see you around,” I said, turning and jogging down the street, back on track to get to checking on the Italian cypresses.
“That’s not what I meant!” she yelled after me.
I waved a hand in the air to let her know there were no hard feelings.
“My brother needs saving, is all!”
That was not my job. He’d have to do that all on his own. I learned that lesson the hard way. I was no one’s knight in shining armor, and the days when I was looking for one were long over. I could ride to my own damn rescue.