Authors: Christopher Rice
Tags: #Christopher RIce, #MacKenzie Family, #Liliana Hart
Eliza nodded, but she was staring at the empty desk. She adjusted her hand just enough so that she hooked one of his fingers in between her own.
"I'm the reason my father left when I was fourteen," he said. "Well, not really. I mean, I'm not the reason he was driving truckloads of drugs over the Canadian border for the del Fuego cartel. But I'm the reason my mother found out about it, and I'm the reason he ran. See, he had two cell phones. One for us and his job with Rawley Beamis. The other was for the del Fuegos. And one day, I saw the second phone and I said something to my mom about it. That was all.
"I had no idea what he was up to. I just thought it was strange that he had two phones, is all. And I thought it was something Mom should know. Like maybe there was another woman or something. Anyway, once I asked the question, Mom turned around and started asking him questions and that's when he ran. That's when he picked drug money over us."
He had her full attention now.
"So for a week I blamed myself. I was the reason he ran. If I'd just kept my big mouth shut, he'd still be at home. He'd still be her husband and he'd still be my dad. I mean, people had always told me I talked too much so it made perfect sense, didn't it? Danny's big mouth blows it yet again. So I just stopped talking altogether. I held my momma while she cried but I barely said anything cause it was me saying too much that had caused all this pain in the first place."
Eliza shook her head to protest.
Danny held up his free hand to stop her.
"Finally, Momma backed me to the wall and asked me why I was being so quiet. And I just exploded. I broke down into tears and told her everything I was feeling. How I thought I was responsible for it all. I told her I was never going to speak again. That I'd speak only when spoken to. That I'd stop asking so many questions and having opinions about stuff. I swore it up and down the living room while she listened to me cry. I must've swore it a dozen times.
"Then, once I'd managed to calm myself, she told me something I'll never forget. She said my father was a bad man and bad men use your goodness against you. They take what you do to help others and they use it for their own bad ends, and when they walk away, leaving you destroyed inside, they count on you feeling like your goodness was to blame. Like your goodness was just a weakness and you should have known better. What destroyed my family was that my father decided to run drugs for the del Fuego cartel. And when we found out the truth, he chose them over us. Period. End of story.
"And I don't know if you've noticed, but I never kept my pledge. I never stopped asking all sorts of questions and I never stopped having opinions and I never stopped trying to talk my way to the truth of the matter. Because my mother told me I couldn't. Because my mother told me I wasn't allowed to let my father break me like that. To let his
break me like that."
The story had earned him her full attention. But there wasn't pity in her eyes, thank God. Instead, she was regarding him as an equal, as someone who shared in her pain without lecturing her about it or dismissing it or trying to call it something other than what it was—pain. And only now did he realize she'd taken his hand in hers while he'd talked. Now her grip was firm.
"Good," she whispered.
"Yes, that's good, and what'll also be good is if you don't allow yourself to think for one moment that you were almost killed last night because you were too trusting or too helpful, or just too determined not to see anyone get killed, even if that person was your ex-husband. What happened last night to you, to
, happened because Lance Laughlin is a criminal and he was determined to do whatever he could to cover his tracks and leave the country. It didn't happen because you're weak. It didn't happen because you cared too much. It didn't happen because you opened your heart and loved him once."
Now the tears slipped easily from her eyes. She closed her hand around his and gripped it firmly.
"Truth is I've only been on the job a year, Eliza. I've never fought in the military, and the most violent offenders I've dealt with up close are drunk and disorderlies and pissed-off horses. So I don't have some big wise speech to give you about the evils I've seen with my own two eyes. I only have my own story, my own past. So just know that if I'd kept my pledge to my mother that night, if I'd stopped asking questions and barging my way into things with my mouth in the lead, I never would have gone up there last night, and if I hadn't gone up there then…"
"I'd be dead," she whispered.
Three simple words, but they unleashed the full force of her pain and sadness. He rose, pulled the empty chair in front of the desk up close to hers and took her in his arms. The fight went out of her body. She wilted against him as the sobs shook her.
"But you're not," he said after a while. "You're not dead."
At these words, she held him tighter, as if the feel of him was the best confirmation of this fact.
"Where you headed, mister?" Eliza asked.
Danny had just tucked her into his bed, but now he seemed eager to leave her alone. One hand on the bedroom door, he turned and looked at her through the flickering shadows. While she'd showered, he'd lit some scented candles throughout his tiny house—maybe pumpkin spice, but she wasn't sure––and drawn the window shade.
His place was tiny and he'd been too busy during the run-up to the storm to haul the pieces of his outdoor gym inside, so when the two of them had walked through the backyard, they'd found his free weights and benches iced over like something out of a horror movie about the end of the world. Inside, however, the one-bedroom house was spotless and quaint, in that way that straight men try to make things quaint. By hiding their mess in drawers and hanging small family photos in random spots along the walls.
Now, after a shower and changing into some boxers and a T-shirt he'd given her, she was snuggled into the warmest and most comfortable bed she'd ever experienced. But she wasn't sure what made it feel that way—the awful night she'd had, or that it was Danny's bed.
"Thought I'd shower," he said. "Give you some time to rest."
"I slept most of the night. You're the one who needs some rest."
"Still. I wasn't sure if…"
"Wasn't sure if what?" she asked.
He bowed his head, blinked, trying to find his words, a series of moves that made him seem both innocent and chivalrous.
"I don't want to sleep alone, if that's what you're asking."
"Okay," he answered. "Okay. Sure."
"But I do want to sleep. I mean, I probably need to sleep some more. You
need to sleep, that's for sure."
"Take a shower, Danny. Then come get in bed with me."
"Sure," he answered, only this time the word didn't come out sounding robotic.
Soon FBI agents would arrive in Surrender with more questions. Soon she'd have to dig up the entire sad story of her marriage for a room full of impassive government men. Or at least she thought they'd be all men and she thought they'd look impassive because that's how it always was in the movies, and right now movies were the only frame of reference she had for a situation this insane.
But those were worries for tomorrow or the next day. In the meantime, the agents had made it clear that Lance was going down, and they had his new girlfriend to thank for that.
Today was about Danny's bed, and Danny. Today was about imagining what Danny looked like in the shower as water sluiced down his hard, young body.
Maybe she should join him. Had he refrained from joining her under the spray moments before because he thought she wasn't ready to be touched?
She did want to be touched.
! Just shameful to be thinking such lustful thoughts in this moment. She should be devastated, destroyed. Tearing the room apart in a rage. She'd almost died, after all. Worse, she'd almost been murdered.
, thanks to the gorgeous young man showering a few feet away.
Was she obligated to be upset? Was she obligated to ignore her attraction to Danny for at least another twenty-four hours? If so, that just seemed like another win for her bastard ex. And if the answer to those questions was no, that left her with another dilemma.
Was she using her desire for Danny as a distraction and nothing more?
He probably wouldn't mind if that was the case. But she would.
The more she thought about it, the more the answer to her question seemed implicit in the phrasing she'd just used.
Being an English teacher for years had taught her one incontrovertible fact.
No matter what the dictionary said, everyone had their own personal definitions of the words they used. And for her, desire was more than lust; it was more than hunger or passing fancy. Desire was what you felt for the man under the muscles when he did something more than ask you to follow him on Instagram.
Desire was what you felt when a man used his muscles to save your life.
Desire was what she felt for Danny Patterson right now as he stepped into the bedroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, the hard ridges of his torso glistening with droplets of water.
Yes, it was a young body—a young, hard body that would have made most of her girlfriends squeal—but most men twice his age weren't capable of doing the things he'd done for her these past twenty-four hours. Not because those things required stamina or physical strength. They'd required courage, a level of courage that had nothing to do with age and everything to do with character. And if he'd just been some smooth, skinned hulk of muscle, she would have felt nothing for him in this moment. But the things he'd done for her, the risks he'd taken, the sacrifices he'd made, those things had stepped out of the shower with him and now electrified the air in the darkened, candle-lit bedroom.
"Just need to get some clothes," he said quietly.
"No, you don't."
He went still, straightening.
"I wasn't sure you…"
"Wasn't sure I'd what? Be in the mood?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"After you saved my life? Lord, what do women usually make you do to win their affection? Wrestle grizzly bears in a pit of vipers?"
"I hate snakes."
He started toward the bed, still holding the towel at one corner of his waist, steps slow and careful.
"And I wouldn't know anything about other women," he said.
"Don't tell me you're a virgin."
She wasn't sure if the idea frightened her or thrilled her. She'd never taken a man's virginity before, unless, of course, you counted the man who'd taken her own, a nervous high school boyfriend. And it hadn't felt like either of them was
much of anything, per se. More like they'd just sort of bumped into each other in the dark and ended up sweaty and confused. Kind of like stumbling into someone in a haunted house only to discover they were another frightened visitor and not one of the actors dressed as psychotic clowns.
"So if I was, you wouldn't want me to tell you?" he asked. He took a seat on the edge of the bed, just within her reach.
"I didn't say that."
"You said not to tell you if I was a virgin," he reminded her.
"You're not a virgin."
"How would you know?"
"Because you look like that. Girls are probably throwing themselves at you all the time. And here I am, looking like I should drive carpool."
"Some of the best women in the world drive carpool, Eliza."
"True, but it doesn't exactly burn calories."
"Yeah, well, I've got a good plan for that, Miss Brightwell."
"You're just saying anything to get me in bed. Which is kinda silly considering I'm already in your bed and I want you to get in here with me."
"Yeah, but you've still got clothes on," he said with a grin.
"You gave me these clothes."
"Doesn't mean you can't take 'em off."
"You sure you don't want to rest?" he asked.
"No, I'd much rather use every inch of your body to avoid dealing with post traumatic stress or whatever it is I'm probably about to be diagnosed with."
"I'm not sure how I feel about being objectified," he said with a huge grin that said he loved the idea.
"Well, you're not feeling anything yet. You need to get in bed for that part."
"Still, I'm nervous..."
"I just...I want this to be just right," he said. "You're not some girl in a bar. You're Eliza Brightwell and I want to do everything to make this perfect."
"Tell me you're not serious," she said.
"Of course I'm serious," he said, the hurt evident in his voice.
"No, Danny. That's not it. It's... You saved my life. You kept me alive during a blizzard with just some wood and a stove."
"And a Buick. Don't forget the Buick."
"I haven't. I won't. My point is, what else could you possibly do to make this perfect?"
"You really mean that?"
"I can't lie to you, Danny. Not after last night. And not after what you told me back at the station. I could never lie to you again."
Only once the words were out of her mouth did she realize they sounded like some kind of vow. Because they were here. A promise. A promise that wasn't about the next forty-five minutes they spent together in his bed, or the next few weeks she was probably going to be forced to spend in Surrender. The promise she'd just made to Danny was about the future, a future she wanted him to be a part of.
"Never lie to me again?" he asked with a broad grin. "That makes it sound like we're going to be spending a lot of time together. Are we?"
"Can we? Please?"
"You don't have to say please, Eliza. Not this time."
"Okay... Then get in bed with me."
"All right, well, just as long as you're sure you're not doing this because you think you owe me."
"What?" She pulled the towel free of his grip with one tug. It slid down his hard thighs then slipped over his knees before falling to the carpet, revealing his cock at the ready. "This?"