Noah Clayborne was on the line. “I’m stuck in Seattle.”
“What are you doing there?”
“So you’re not coming to Chicago?”
“Probably not. Where are you? I hear music in the background.”
“I’m at a country club, and you’re hearing a band playing. I’m on duty,” he explained.
He sighed and braced himself for the razzing to come. “Bodyguard duty.”
“Huh. I guess that’s better than a suspension. What’d you do wrong?”
“What makes you think I did anything wrong?”
Noah laughed. “You’re kidding, right? You’ve been demoted to bodyguard. You did something wrong, all right.”
“Yeah, I did. I made the lieutenant look bad.”
Noah was nosy as usual. “How’d you do that?”
“I resigned,” he said, and then added, “look, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you all about it over a beer sometime.”
“Yeah, okay. So maybe I’ll see you in Boston. I’ll call to let you know.”
“Wait a minute. I want to ask you something.”
“It’s kind of an odd thing to ask, but I was just curious …”
“Curious about what?” he asked when Alec hesitated.
“Huh. I sort of thought your father or one of your older brothers would have given you the sex talk, but if you—”
“Very funny,” he snapped. “What I was wondering …”
“Yeah? Spit it out.”
“You’ve been with a lot of women.”
“I like women.”
“And you’ve been in a few relationships, haven’t you? You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? A relationship that’s lasted more than twenty-four hours, maybe even as long as a week? Short-term, but still a relationship.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Okay, so what I want to know is this. In any of those relationships, did you ever become possessive? Did it ever bother you that other guys were trying to hit on the woman you were with?”
“Ah, jeez. Who is she?”
“Just answer the question.”
“No, I’ve never become possessive.” There was laughter in his voice.
It wasn’t the answer Alec wanted to hear, and he was sorry he’d asked the question because now Noah’s curiosity was pricked.
“You’re in a relationship with a woman, and you don’t want any other man hitting on her. Did I get that right?”
He knew Noah was yanking his chain, but he still reacted. “No, damn it. That’s not right. I’m not in a relationship.”
“You’re not sleeping with her, but you’re still feeling possessive.”
Alec spotted Emerson heading toward Regan again. She was standing next to her brothers talking to the hospital administrator, who appeared to be hanging on her every word.
“Listen, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this conversation to Nick.”
Noah laughed. “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. Your brother’s my partner. I’ve got to tell him. We spend a lot of time on stakeouts together, and this is definitely stakeout conversation. Besides, how often do I get to make fun of one of his brothers?”
Alec could feel his temper rising. “There’s nothing to tell.” He pictured putting his hand through the phone and grabbing Noah by the neck and choking him. Odd, but that fantasy actually made him feel better. He was still sorry he’d brought up the topic, though, and he knew it was going to take a long time for Noah to forget about it.
“Listen, Alec. You better be careful, or you won’t leave Chicago a single man. I know what I’m talking about. I saw it happen to Nick and Theo. And it was pretty painful to watch. Both of your brothers went through the juvenile don’t-look, don’t-touch, don’t-even-think-about-it phase when they first met their wives.”
“That’s never going to happen to you, though, is it, Noah?”
Alec laughed, his good mood restored. He could almost hear the shudder in his friend’s voice when he’d given the denial.
“Are you about finished with the girly talk?”
Noah then moved on to a matter he considered far more important. He told Alec all about the fishing trip he and Father Tommy, another family friend, were setting up. “We’re thinking Canada. You interested?”
“Sure, if I can get away.”
Regan was now dancing with Sophie’s date. What was his name? Oh, yeah. Jeff something or other. He was harmless, Alec thought. Emerson didn’t look harmless, though. Anger radiated from his eyes as he watched Regan. He leaned against a pillar gulping down a tall drink while he waited for the music to end. He obviously wasn’t through pestering her.
“Gotta go,” he said and ended the call.
Emerson had just trapped Regan as she was leaving the dance floor. Alec started forward, then stopped. He decided not to interfere. She was a big girl. She could handle herself.
Regan’s expression went stone-cold, but she didn’t run from Emerson. She simply stood there as he rambled on and on. When she had had enough, she tried to walk away, but he grabbed hold of her arm just above the wrist and wouldn’t let go. Her demeanor didn’t change, but his sure did. She put her hand down on top of his, and from the look of shock and pain on the drunk’s face, Alec surmised she’d bent a couple of his fingers back into an unnatural position.
Thatta girl. Alec was proud of her. Being raised by three older brothers did have some perks after all—even if those brothers were overbearing and intrusive.
Regan didn’t come back to the table for a long time. She made the rounds, working the room, and she was fun to watch. The administrator followed in her wake to collect checks and pledges for more. People loved Regan. Most people, anyway. When Emerson’s wife wasn’t busy pushing her silicone br**sts back into her leopard-print dress, she was glaring at her.
Every once in a while, Regan would turn toward Alec and smile at him. He thought maybe she was checking to make sure he was still there.
A good forty-five minutes passed before she stopped selling the hospital. She scanned the crowd until she found Aiden. It took her a while to get to him because men and women kept stopping her, some taking her hand as they spoke to her. When she finally reached her brother, he started talking before she had a chance to say anything, and whatever he was telling her didn’t sit well. She looked stunned, but she was quick to recover. Her face was flushed, and she shook her head several times.
Then Spencer joined in, and it didn’t take Alec any time at all to figure out that the two brothers were united on some issue, and she was disagreeing. Alec would have bet a hundred dollars that the issue under hot discussion was Emerson.
By the time Regan walked back to the table, she was trembling. He knew her reaction was due to anger, not fatigue. She was too furious to sit, and so she stood next to him and tried to calm down.
“Anything I can help with?” he asked.
“No, but thanks for offering.”
“Then I suggest you take a couple of deep breaths and shake it off.”
He didn’t miss a trick. “You saw?”
“My brothers are so …”
He waited for the zinger only a sister could come up with.
“So what?” he asked, trying not to smile.
He blinked. She made practical sound like a sin. “And that’s pretty awful, is it?”
“In this instance it is,” she said. “And stop laughing at me.”
Her hands were balled into fists and her spine was as rigid as one of the marble columns. He put his arm around her shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze.
She turned to him, her back to the room, thinking to tell him that they didn’t have to stay any longer, but the words got all tangled up. It was his fault. The way he was looking at her, with such warmth and obvious amusement … she’d never met anyone like him.
She took a step closer and whispered so she wouldn’t be overheard. “I was wondering …”
He didn’t say a word. He simply waited until she continued. She could feel herself blushing now.
“If we had met in a different place … at a different time … would you …?”
She didn’t go on. She didn’t have to. He nodded and quietly said, “Oh, yeah, I would.”
Neither one of them said another word for several minutes. An old Roberta Flack song was playing in the background. She picked up her wrap, folded it, and draped it over her arm.
She looked into his eyes. “What are you thinking?” she asked before she could stop herself.
His smile could melt steel. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me now.”
He looked over the room again. She thought he’d dismissed the question until he said, “I’m on duty now.”
“And?” she prodded.
He grinned. “I won’t be later.”
IT WAS MORE SHOW THAN TELL.
There was very little conversation on the way back to the hotel. After making certain they weren’t being followed, Alec put the car on cruise control, settled back, and thought about his current situation. He was determined to figure out why he was having so much trouble keeping his professional and his personal life separate.
He knew what he should do. He should leave Regan the hell alone, tell the lieutenant he was through, and then pack up his things and get out of town. Yeah, that’s what he should do.
He had the feeling he wasn’t going to, though. She’d already gotten to him and was now messing with his mind. He wasn’t sure how it had happened or what he could do about it, and not knowing was making him as anxious as a caged animal.
Next to her, however, he looked absolutely tranquil. Ever since they’d left the country club, she had been staring straight ahead and sitting ramrod straight. The woman was so stiff, he thought he could probably bounce a quarter off her.
Regan was trying very hard to look calm and cool. She didn’t want Alec to know how nervous she was, and she was pretty sure she was doing a fair job of concealing it.
She’d never felt this way before, all twisted up in knots inside. Everything about him disrupted her concentration, the way he smiled, the way he moved, the way he looked at her. He’d probably used just that look on at least a hundred other women and most assuredly had gotten exactly what he wanted from them. As crazy as it was to admit, just sitting this close to him in the car was making her breathless.
Alec noticed she had folded her arms and she was frowning intently. Whatever she was thinking about wasn’t pleasant.
“Is something wrong?”
Of course something’s wrong. I’ve just realized I’m a complete idiot. “No, nothing.”
“Okay,” he said, going along with the lie. “Then what are you thinking about?”
“Just now?” She was stalling for time while she tried to come up with something mundane.
“No, a week ago Tuesday.” He smiled. “Yes, just now.”
“Physical attraction,” she blurted.
“No kidding. I never would have guessed that.”
She pretended indifference. “You asked. I answered.”
“So, what about it?”
“I just realized that you can’t control who you’re attracted to,” she said. “It can be … instantaneous. Yes, instantaneous.” She nodded for emphasis.
It wasn’t until he reached over and put his hand on top of hers that she realized she was digging her nails into her skin. She immediately stopped.
He pulled his hand back as he said, “You’re just now figuring that out?”
She shifted positions and folded her hands on her lap. “I was just now thinking about it.” Her tone was definitely defensive.
He wouldn’t let her get away with that. “No, you said you just realized that sometimes—”
She interrupted. “Okay, maybe I was just now figuring it out. I haven’t taken the time to think about it until now.”
“The ‘it’ is physical attraction?”
From the laughter in his voice, she could tell he was having a good time.
“Oh, be quiet.”
“You’re easy to get riled up.”
“Sometimes,” she replied. “But I’m very good at concealing my feelings when I want to.”
He laughed. “No, you’re not. You’re terrible at it.”
She was floored he’d think such a thing. “I beg to differ. I’ve had years of experience,” she said. “And if I didn’t want you to know what I was thinking, then, trust me, you wouldn’t.”
Exasperated, he said, “I don’t care how many years you’ve practiced, you still aren’t any good at hiding anything. Your every emotion shows on your face.”
She wasn’t going to continue to argue with him. She certainly didn’t need to have the last word. “You’re wrong.”
He changed the subject. “All those guys at that club tonight …?”
“Did you ever date any of them?”
“Are you dating anyone now?” he asked.
She smiled. “Huh, what?”
“I never would have guessed that.”
“Are you dating anyone now?” she asked.
He began to laugh. “Huh, what?”
“I never would have guessed that.” Then she added, “We should probably talk about something else.”
“We just should.”
“Okay,” he said. “Have you ever been in a long-term relationship?”
“That isn’t talking about something else.”
He changed lanes, checked the rearview mirror, and then glanced at her. “Are you going to answer or what?”
“I was … sort of in a relationship with a man named Dennis, but it ended several months ago.”