Fake marry her brother’s best friend to catch a killer . . . sure, what could go wrong?
Growing up on a ranch with four older brothers, Ella Mae Hawkins is no stranger to rugged and tough men. But her heart has always belonged to the one man she can’t have.
After a secret romantic weekend three years ago with him leaves her broken-hearted, Ella Mae accepts an opportunity to go to Paris and pursue her fashion dreams. It’s supposed to be her chance to get away and start over. Instead, she’s going there with the same stubborn man who claimed he was too dangerous for her—as his fake wife.
Jesse McAdams, a former Army Ranger, has spent half his life away from his small hometown, but one thing has always remained true: one woman owns his heart. The problem? She can never know how he really feels.
But after their hot weekend in New York, it’s been harder than ever to resist the sassy, headstrong Ella Mae. Especially when they can’t share a room without arguing, which often leads to desire.
Joining the team at Falcon Falls Security was supposed to bring the redemption he needs so he can finally be the man Ella Mae deserves. Instead, the fabric of lies he’s woven over time quickly unravels, exposing his secrets, and places a target on the heads of everyone he cares about.
Despite her shock over his past, Ella Mae finds herself falling for her brother’s best friend all over again. But this time, the stakes are higher. This time she’s in danger. And the man who put her there is now her husband.
Can Jesse protect her and piece Ella’s heart back together . . . or will he shatter it for good?
From Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Brittney Sahin, comes a thrilling new standalone romance military novel with no cliffhanger and a happily-ever-after.
Release date: January 23, 2022
Print pages: 465
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (6) emotionally riveting (7) satisfying ending (5) suspenseful (7) happily ever after (6) realistic characters (3) strong chemistry (5) tearjerker (3) terrific writing (5) entertaining story (3) high heat (5) swoon-worthy (3) unputdownable (3) escapist/easy read (2) heartwarming (2) rich setting(s) (2) sex scenes (3) strong heroine (3) year's top 10 (1)
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The Broken One
Note: There is a prologue - too long to fit.
Walkins Glen, Alabama – Present Day
Jesse dropped to one knee, pivoted, and drew his Glock 19 in one smooth motion, locking the intruder in his sights. But he quickly let go of a heavy breath at the realization he knew the man now standing in his workshop.
Jesse bowed his head and slowly lowered the gun, preferring if it were someone actually trying to get the drop on him instead.
“Good to see you haven’t lost your touch.”
After pushing himself up from the dirty, sawdust-covered concrete floor, he secured the 9mm in the holster hidden beneath his tee at his back. “Turn around and leave. I don’t want to see whatever’s in that envelope you’re holding,” Jesse brusquely said. “Tell Suzette and the kids hello and wish them a happy New Year for me.”
Adjusting the bandana back in place over his mouth, Jesse turned to the slab of reclaimed pine he’d been sanding. A three-foot-wide and one-foot-tall drum-shaped coffee table. Mid-century style. That’d been his client’s request months ago, and he’d been too busy with his new gig to finish the job on time.
“You think I came all the way down here to let you give me the brush-off?” Thatcher shut off the radio, a signal he had no intention of leaving, not that Jesse truly believed his former boss would listen to him, anyway. “Nice work.” Thatcher casually strolled to the other side of the workbench where the slab of wood was anchored. Jesse had been sanding the surface using the old-school method. It was arduous and unnecessary. But it helped him work through some of the tension that tended to spiral up his arms and work into his chest. “You have a Black and Decker right here, and you’re using a piece of sandpaper?”
Jesse lowered the bandana from his mouth, his eyes cutting to the envelope in Thatcher’s hand.
Thatcher smoothed his free palm along the rough, unfinished part of the tabletop. The faint hint of cigar smoke, expensive and definitely Cuban, clung to his lightweight black Polo jacket.
It was a brisk forty-five degrees outside that morning, and despite the chill, Jesse had left the double doors to his workshop open for fresh air. He only had on a black tee and jeans, but the shirt was already sticking to his frame from working up a sweat as he’d sanded his way through his list of problems. One by one.
Not that sanding fixed the problems.
But it prevented him from suffocating from the enormity of them.
One particular problem? Ella Mae Hawkins and her recent desire to speed date her way through Birmingham.
The number of potential suitors he’d wanted to break in half back in October, when she’d gone on date after date, had been one too many. He’d refrained. Some-damn-how.
Ella had put a pause on dating when one of their best friends, Savanna, had found herself in trouble back then, but he couldn’t help but wonder when she’d start up again.
He may have hacked into her account like a psychopath and done background checks on every guy she’d “matched” with during her bout of insanity this past fall. Her last “date” happened to be the same night Savanna’s life got flipped upside down. The same night he had to kill a man inside Savanna’s house to keep her safe.
And then, during that very same week, he’d had no choice but to take more lives. It’d been in self-defense and to protect Savanna, but Ella had still given him an earful about it.
Yeah, that whole situation was another reason he’d sanded the hell out of the slab of wood like the pine had done him wrong.
“How long are you going to be silent and act like I’m not here? You’re burning a hole through that piece of wood like you’ve got Superman’s heat vision.”
“Better the wood than you, then, right?” Jesse glanced out the open double doors to check the driveway for a black Suburban or the like, complete with a brooding guard wearing dark sunglasses standing beside the vehicle.
“I heard you’re working again. Not the same kind of work, but your kill count has gone up since I saw you last.” Thatcher’s comment had Jesse facing him.
Did his heartbeat quicken at the fact Thatcher knew this information? Not really.
And was he surprised that Thatcher knew Jesse had recently joined a security firm? Nope.
Or was he shocked by the fact Thatcher even knew the firm existed since there was zero online footprint? Hardly.
This was Thatcher. Thatcher knew everything. It was his job to know everything.
“I thought you didn’t want to operate anymore.” Thatcher set down the envelope and knuckled the wood with both hands. He pushed down a little as though checking the strength of the wood under the pressure of his fists. “I heard what happened to Marcus’s widow, Savanna Vasquez. She’s why you got back in, right? She’s why you joined that motley crew.”
“Motley?” A hearty laugh fell from Jesse’s lips at the image he’d painted. Motley wasn’t exactly a term used to define a team of Army veterans, all highly skilled operators that were also excellent intelligence gatherers.
“One of your bosses is a rogue CIA operator.” He paused. “Carter Dominick’s trouble. Not the kind of trouble you want to deal with,” he went on.
Yes, Carter had gone rogue from the Agency, but he’d had good reason from what Jesse had learned. Like his wife being butchered, and he’d wanted to find the real killers.
“And as for your other boss . . . Gray Chandler’s the polar opposite of Carter. Then there’s the fact that his sister is CIA, and their dad is the Secretary of Defense.” Another pause. Longer this time. “I’d love to know how Carter and Gray partnered, but they shouldn’t be your team leaders. That job should be mine.”
“I was never part of a team. I was a one-man show. You gave me orders. I executed them. Alone.” Usually, at least. “What I’ll be doing with them is the kind of thing I can be proud of—unlike what I did for you.” A gnawing sensation gathered in his stomach like acid roiling around as memories of working for Thatcher surged to mind.
He’d given almost five years to Thatcher. Five years too many. And for what? More buried secrets than he cared to think about, secrets he could never unearth. God, every time he looked Ella in the eyes, he felt like he deserved a bullet to the back of the head. Her pure heart would turn to dust if she knew all the things he’d done.
“So, your family knows you’re part of this—what’s it called—Falcon Falls Security? Are your parents aware of the bodies you’ve piled up since you started working with this ‘not-so’ motley crew?”
And now Thatcher was just fucking with him.
Thatcher lifted his fists from the wood and brushed them along the front of his jacket, leaving a bit of dust residue there.
“You really miss being in the Army? Working with a team? I didn’t see that coming. But fine. No more solo runs if you’re back with me. You can partner up. Fuck, you can have a ménage or a quadruple or a whatever. But I want you back.”
“No,” Jesse answered with zero hesitation.
“This,” Thatcher said while pointing to the tools hanging on the wall off to his left, “was only supposed to be a cover story. When I heard you’d turned furniture making into a full-time gig after leaving me, I gave you a year until you’d come back. You lasted longer, I’ll give you that. But not by much.”
Jesse looked to the wall of tools hanging in perfect order the way his father had taught him. God forbid he’d ever misplaced a tool or put one back in the wrong place growing up.
The hammers were lined up in a row. The screwdrivers all sorted and placed in order by size. And so on.
There was balance and symmetry. Harmony there, when on the inside he felt anything but.
Jesse swiped the pad of his thumb along the edge of the pine slab, his eyes slowly working over the wood, wondering what it’d been used for before it found its way to his workshop. A grandaddy’s rocking chair? A baby’s bookshelf? A coffee table to prop your feet up on after a long day at work?
He didn’t always know the “past life” of the wood he made into furniture, but he refused to use anything other than recycled material. He wanted to “save” the wood from being tossed. To reshape it. Carve it. Give something trashed or forgotten a new life. A second chance to be useful or beautiful again.
“I like doing this, by the way.” But I need more. I also need to be useful. In that regard, Thatcher was right. When his friend Savanna had been attacked in her home right in front of him in October, it reminded him he did have skills that could be, well, repurposed for a greater good. Maybe one day, he’d be able to look Ella in the eyes again without feeling like he deserved that bullet.
“We didn’t spend a fortune training you, far more than the Army ever did, by the way, just for you to go work with Carter and Gray.” Thatcher rounded the workbench and reached into his pocket, producing a business card. “If you’re back, you’re back with us. Your assignment is in there.” He tilted his head toward the 8x11 envelope and set the card on top of it.
Thatcher’s order caused the blood to drain from Jesse’s face, but only for a moment. That short-lived fear was quickly replaced with a white-hot rage that burned through his entire body. “You agreed to let me walk if I gave you one more year. And I actually gave you eighteen months.”
“You gave me those extra six months because Ella Hawkins got engaged,” Thatcher said smugly, a self-satisfied gleam in his eyes. Jesse had never shared that with the man, but Thatcher knew everything, so.
After his weekend with Ella in New York City, Jesse had resolved to walk away from Thatcher and his job. To turn his cover story into his real story and learn to be the kind of man Ella deserved. But Thatcher made him give one more year of his life as a trade for getting “out” without complications.
And over the course of that year, Ella had moved on, just as Jesse had instructed her to do. She’d announced her engagement exactly one year after their New York Christmas, which was two days before Jesse had planned to walk away from Thatcher.
“You’re why she didn’t walk down that aisle, I suspect?”
“I thought you knew everything,” Jesse grumbled, hating Thatcher speaking her name. Ella was innocent and sweet, and Thatcher was, at best, a necessary evil. “The night before her wedding, I told her I couldn’t watch her marry that dipshit,” he slowly confessed because as much as Thatcher’s presence pissed him off, the man had been like a second father.
“And you quit on me when she canceled the wedding. Eighteen months ago.”
“I would have quit regardless, and you know damn well why,” he hissed.
“What happened that day wasn’t our fault, but . . .”
But what? The words remained lodged in Jesse’s head though.
“Why aren’t you and Ella together?” he asked, throwing Jesse a curveball. “Because you know a woman like her deserves someone—”
“Different.” Thatcher paused. “Safer.”
“Stop with the mind games.” Jesse stepped forward, his hand going to Thatcher’s chest. This man was no longer his boss. Screw the chain of command and Thatcher’s former E-9 status in the Air Force. “I know what you’re doing. You taught me this fuckery. How to get inside your enemy’s head without ever lifting a finger.” Head games could be even more tortuous than physical pain. He knew that all too well.
“You slept with Ella in New York three years ago. That’s why you wanted out in the first place, right?”
Why was he fishing for more information? What did it matter to him? And how in the hell did he know that?
“Does she know you strangled the life from a man not even a week before that romantic New York getaway? The hands you used to touch her took the life of another.”
Jesse sucked in a sharp breath, his palm swiftly clamping on to Thatcher’s throat. They were at eye level, both six foot one. Thatcher kept his gaze locked with Jesse’s and didn’t flinch while Jesse contemplated actually squeezing.
“Does she know your kill count?” Thatcher whispered as Jesse tightened his grip a hair more. “Your kill count after you were no longer a Ranger, I mean.”
“Fuck. You.” Jesse released his hold and retreated three steps before lifting his palms in the air as a signal for Thatcher to get-the-fuck-out. “You need to go before my number goes up by one.”
The smile that lit Thatcher’s face wasn’t cold or calculating, nor was it menacing. It was the smile a father gave a son after he’d done something to make him proud—a smile his own father had never once given him.
Over the years, Thatcher hadn’t hidden the fact that he admired Jesse’s passion, his fierce and loyal devotion to those he loved. So pressing Jesse’s “Ella buttons” must have been his way of trying to get Jesse to snap. Thatcher was actively trying to provoke the beast inside Jesse, the beast he’d been working to rid himself of since the day Ella canceled her wedding.
Thatcher was also aware that no matter how hard he pushed, Jesse would never actually hurt him.
“You need to leave before my sister sees you here and sics her dog on you. Bear will smell a threat the moment he sets his eyes on you.”
Jesse’s sister, Rory, and her husband, Chris, were staying with him for the holidays. But Chris had left an hour ago to meet up with A.J.—one of Ella’s four brothers—and Griffin, at the outdoor shooting range at the Hawkins Ranch. Jesse now wished he’d accepted Chris’s invite to join them.
Griffin Andrews was one of his teammates at Falcon Falls Security as well as Savanna’s fiancé. He’d met Griffin in October right after Savanna was attacked in her home, the night Jesse had no choice but to take a man’s life before her eyes.
The team, now known as Falcon Falls Security, had been called in to help, and Griffin, a former Army Delta guy, had protected Savanna during the hunt to bring down her attackers. Jesse hadn’t been sure if Savanna would ever love again after losing her husband in 2015, but Griffin managed to sweep her off her feet.
He was happy for Savanna, and although he hadn’t worked with Griffin very long at the firm, he was a solid and upstanding guy. Griffin had his stamp of approval.
“Jesse, I need you back.” Thatcher’s voice grew deeper. “At least for one more case, and if you want to work with this Falcon Falls, then so be it.” Thatcher tilted his head, studying him. The man looked like a slightly younger version of Harrison Ford and could have been his stand-in or stunt double. Hell, even though Thatcher was in his mid-sixties, Jesse didn’t doubt he was capable of doing stunt work. “It hurts that you came back, and it wasn’t with me, but I’ll forgive you if you work this one last job.”
“It’ll never be one last job. You’ll keep coming back. I know you. You won’t give up if I say yes.”
“You’re the best we’ve ever had. Will probably ever have.” His compliment only made Jesse feel more like a piece of shit because he didn’t want to be the best in the way that made Thatcher proud. He only wanted to be the best version of himself for Ella, and the man he used to be would never be that for her.
“Take a few days. Think about it.” He lifted his arm, pushed his sleeve up, and checked his watch. “I have a plane to catch. I’ll be back Stateside the day after New Year’s. You have until then, but I have a hunch you’ll call me before my plane even leaves Alabama.”
“And if I don’t open that envelope?” Jesse folded his arms across his chest, trying to remain strong. To not cave to Thatcher.
“What makes you so sure?”
Thatcher set a finger on top of the business card, his head swiveling toward the reclaimed pine. “Because you can’t help yourself. You’re curious. You like to . . . fix things.”
Jesse kicked the toe of his work boot against the dusty floor. “Take the file with you. I’ll burn it. I said I’m done, and I’m done.”
Thatcher shook his head. “And if I told you what’s in that file is linked to the last assignment you took?” He paused, allowing Jesse a second to absorb the news. “Are you so stubborn you’re willing to put Ella’s life in danger?”
Jesse squinted as though the sunlight was in his face instead of to his back. “What?” His eyes went to the damn envelope, and his pulse climbed with every millisecond he waited for Thatcher to elaborate.
Thatcher maneuvered around Jesse, ignoring his question. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again real soon.”
Jesse swallowed the lump down his throat as he turned and watched Thatcher toss a goodbye wave over his shoulder on his way out the double doors.
Damn it. Thatcher would do anything to try and lure him back into the fold. But could he take a chance that his former boss was merely full of shit, letting him think Ella was in danger unless he returned for this one last job? And of all the assignments for this new one to possibly connect to.
Jesse removed his black ball cap and set it down, then clawed at his unruly hair while staring at the envelope. He wouldn’t put it past Thatcher to lie just to rope him back. Play those mind games.
But he also couldn’t light up the envelope like he’d contemplated doing a minute ago without knowing the mark to determine if it was a legit target. And somehow a risk to Ella.
Jesse picked up the envelope, and it trembled in his hand as he broke the seal. A manilla folder was inside, and when he scanned the contents, his breath hitched, and his entire body went cold.
An overwhelming feeling of dread swelled within him. Death knocking on his door, there to collect his soul and take him back to his old life.
Jesse shut the folder and set it on the table before eyeing his newly plastered wall by the perfectly placed tools. Without thinking, he stalked toward the wall, rounded his fist, and began punching. Burying his fist into the plaster, he tore at the sheetrock.
His vision grew blurry as he lost control. As he lost his damn mind.
“Jesse McAdams, what in God’s name did that wall ever do to you?”
Jesse went still at the sound of Ella’s voice behind him.
Working to catch his breath, he eyed the damaged wall, then slowly turned to face her. To explain away the insanity. “I thought there was an animal trapped in here.”
“An animal is why you look madder than a wet hen?” Ella lifted her chin, taking him in from bottom to top. Boots. Jeaned legs. Ripped black tee. Messy hair. And when her eyes finally reached his face, she appeared bewildered. Most likely by the angry look on his face, the hard clench of his jaw, and a whole lot of crazy in his blue eyes.
“It was . . . noisy. Bothering me.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” she drew out, calling him on his shit, folding her arms in the “don’t cross me, mister” stance she used on her grade school students.
She moved closer to him as if assuming his dumbass excuses would continue, but now she was too close. He could see the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her makeup-free nose. Smell her perfume that reminded him of summertime and lazy beach days they spent on the Gulf when they were teenagers. Well, he’d been a teen back then, and she’d been a preteen, he supposed.
Her gaze remained steady on him. She’d been pissed at him for some time now, and he knew, in part, it had to do with the fact he continued to honor their New York deal to “forget” the ten times they’d had sex that weekend three years ago.
Had he actually forgotten? No.
He replayed the nights they’d spent together in vivid detail while working his hand over his cock almost every night since then.
But he’d never brought it up to her, and anytime she’d dared to broach the subject before or after her engagement to Banker Boy Brian, he’d shut her down within seconds like a grade A asshole.
If he talked about it with her, his control would snap. If she so much as mentioned any of the things they’d done to each other that weekend, he’d unleash his inner beast, and it’d be to fuck, not fight.
Ella deserved better. That weekend in New York should have never happened. He should have waited until he became the kind of man who could look her in the eyes without guilt staining his vision, making him see red.
Always red. Everyone he knew was a die-hard Bama fan. But that Roll Tide crimson red held a different meaning for him.
“Does your wall-hittin’ have anything to do with that SUV with tinted windows that I saw leave before I pulled in?” She unfolded her arms and waved a hand like a magician doing a trick. “It felt very cloak-and-dagger. You have a new job for Falcon? One you’re not happy about?”
Shit, if he lied and said yes, and Ella mentioned a job to Griffin, Griffin would be clueless. “A guy I used to work with offered me a job. I told him I’m with Falcon now.”
Oh. Such an insignificant little sound. But it would live in Jesse’s memory as the sound Ella had whispered, whimpered, and even screamed out during the many times they’d had sex that weekend.
Now in a bit of a daze, Jesse stared at her full lips, still rounded as if she were about to utter another Oh, and felt a pang of loss.
Was it his fate to always be alone? To be a crotchety seventy-year-old sitting on his porch with a shotgun across his lap, daring anyone to breach his property so he could shoot them. Would he be that guy? Hell, would he live long enough to be that guy?
“You worked together in the Army?”
He didn’t want to lie, so he made a hard subject change. “Have you talked to Natasha yet?” He was usually a bit more skilled in the art of the dodge, but he wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment.
“Talked to her on my way here. Natasha and baby Emory should be getting discharged from the hospital later today.”
Natasha was Gray’s CIA sister. And Natasha’s husband, Wyatt, was a SEAL who worked alongside A.J.
A.J. also had a child now, and the last three months since he’d been born had flown by.
Jesse wouldn’t be surprised if Savanna and Griffin had a little one soon.
Griffin was the only engaged one on their immediate five-man and one-woman team at Falcon Falls. But surely that’d change eventually. Two of his teammates, Jack London and Sydney Archer were divorced. And Sydney was a mother to a teenage son. But he doubted they’d stay single forever. Same with his team leader, Gray Chandler, or his other teammate, Oliver Lucas.
Jesse had a feeling Carter would stay single forever after losing his wife, though, but then again . . . he’d thought the same about Savanna.
“Did you also hit your head against that wall when you were hammering it with your fists?” Ella snapped her fingers before his face, startling him back to the fact she was standing there and had probably been talking.
“Your yammerin’ always does have me fallin’ asleep.”
“I wasn’t talking, smartass.” She rolled her eyes. Standard for Ella, and she turned her saucy self toward the table. “But I am a little surprised Wyatt drove Natasha down here for the Christmas Eve party so close to the baby’s due date, which was supposed to be next week. They’re lucky her water didn’t break on the way home.”
“That woman worked all the way up until Christmas Eve, so it seems like stubbornness is in her DNA. Like someone else I know.” He shot her a quick grin, and she swatted the air in his direction.
“But,” she began, “I suppose Natasha had good reason. Celebrating Savanna and Griffin’s engagement wasn’t just a joyous occasion for everyone, it was also their goodbye to Marcus. Granted, it wasn’t their first farewell, but it was probably the most touching, in light of the circumstances.”
Savanna’s late husband, Marcus, and Ella’s brother, A.J., had been college best friends at Bama. Served together in the Navy, then worked clandestine ops for the President that Jesse wasn’t supposed to know about. And sadly, Marcus was killed by terrorists during one of those ops.
Jesse knew A.J. and the others had said their goodbyes more than once since Marcus had died, particularly after the terrorists responsible were finally killed. But with Savanna planning to remarry, the team had felt it appropriate to say another one.
“True,” he finally spoke up.
“Natasha said Gray’s going to stay in D.C. until New Year’s. And Sydney’s in D.C. with her son for the holidays. Does that mean we have you until then?”
“I don’t know.” His plans now hinged on the call he’d regrettably be making to Thatcher as soon as Ella left.
“So.” She hooked her thumbs in the front pockets of her jeans as her gaze darted to the folder.
He quickly sidestepped her and casually reached for it, tucking it back inside the envelope. “Just the job offer.” He faked a smile, one she’d read as another load of bullshit.
He set the envelope on another workbench by the battered wall, laying the business card facedown by it.
Ella shot him a puzzled look before returning her focus to his current project. She smoothed her palm along the top of the slab of wood he’d been sanding before Thatcher had arrived and dropped a bomb on him.
“How do you do that?” he found himself muttering.
“Look at something broken and see beauty. Already see the finished product. This rough slab of wood isn’t ugly in your eyes,” he commented while rounding the workbench to stand opposite her, and she peered up at him.
“How do you know I see this as beautiful right now?” she asked, her tone softer than it had been lately. Less saucy and more sweet.
“I can see it in your eyes.” Because of how you look at me. Look at my dark soul and somehow still see . . .
Ella’s throat visibly moved with a swallow. He’d made her uncomfortable. He’d shown a sliver of “something more,” which he’d worked hard not to do until he was sure he could actually give her “something more,” something other than a meaningless four-letter word. Hope.
“You did hit your head, didn’t you?” Ella’s blue eyes tightened on him as she whipped her high ponytail to her back, then quickly shifted her gaze to the envelope.
“What are you doing here so early?” he said as nonchalantly as possible before coughing into his fist while leaning his back against the other workbench, concealing the envelope.
“I’m here to pick up Rory. We’re heading to Savanna’s café. We’ll be baking up a storm for the New Year’s Eve party.” Ella unexpectedly frowned. “Why are you here? Everyone is at the ranch. A.J., Chris, Griffin and—”
“I know. I wasn’t in the mood.”
“Not in the mood to shoot? Just in the mood to destroy your new wall.” Her eyes moved to the open doors. “Or did you know that, um, old friend of yours was going to show up?”
She didn’t believe his story. He didn’t exactly blame her.
“That was an unanticipated visit,” he offered her the truth.
“Okay, Mr. Mysterious. Unexpected visit from a guy in a government-looking vehicle two days before New Year’s Eve with a job offer from a friend that may or may not have served with you in the Army.” She laid the sass on thick that time and added another eye roll for good measure before turning toward the open doors, presumably to escape his “den of lies.” Jesse couldn’t help but grin because that was definitely something Ella would say.
Without thinking, he swiftly reached out and snatched her wrist. He wasn’t ready to lose sight of her crystal blue eyes.
He needed to be reminded there was light at the end of the dark tunnel he’d been walking through for years. And that light was her.
But he felt like he was in one of those weird dreams where he could barely move. Where time stood still, and he was stuck in place, only able to watch her from afar, worried he’d never make it out and to her.
She jerked free of his touch, shaking her head. And he deserved that.
“My mom wants me to invite you to dinner tonight. I almost, um, forgot to ask,” she noted, a hint of hesitation in her voice as if part of her hoped he’d say yes. And the other part of her screamed, Don’t come. “Everyone will be there.”
“That include my parents?” He shifted to the side and thought about the envelope sitting on the workbench.
“No, your mom said they have other plans.”
Good. The last person he needed to deal with tonight was his old man. “I may not be able to make it.”
Damn that “oh” when it conveyed sadness instead of pleasure.
He grabbed his hat from the tabletop and positioned it on his head, brim facing backward.
“You need a haircut.” She tipped her chin.
“I need a lot of things,” he glibly said, turning his back to her to lay his hands on the pine that wouldn’t be touched again until he finished what he hoped would truly be his last job with Thatcher.
When he caught sight of movement from over his shoulder, his heart leaped from his chest as he moved into action.
“Ella, damn it!” He cursed again as she pinned the envelope behind her back. “You’re thirty-five, not five. Don’t—”
“Fuck with you?” she challenged, eyebrows raised.
Jesse didn’t move a muscle as he stared her down. Do not tempt me, darlin’, or I just might put you on all fours and take you right here.
“What? You don’t like it when I say ‘fuck’? You sure didn’t mind it while we were having sex that weekend.”
Ella’s sentence drifted off at the sound of an excited canine’s yip. She pressed up on her toes and peered over Jesse’s shoulder, lifting her chin to put eyes there.
“Jesse,” Rory hissed. “I flippin’ knew it. I knew you two had to have done something.”
Jesse looked back to see his pissed-off sister standing in the doorway, her Belgian Malinois obediently at her side.
Rory kept her eyes laser-focused on him. “I suppose you have some explaining to do. And you better talk fast before I give Bear orders to attack.”
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