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"Happy New Year."
The shrill laughter and boisterous conversation at the crowded party should have made it impossible to notice even if a fire alarm went off, but Ellie Blake still had no trouble hearing those words, whispered by someone standing directly behind her.
Oh, yes, she most definitely heard.
What woman wouldn't immediately tune in to a sexy, throaty, male voice that seemed created solely for the purpose of saying I want you? Especially when the pounding of her heart and the shocked pleasure racing through her said she recognized that voice. Worsemade her remember when that same voice had once said those very words to her? I want you.
But no, it couldn't be. He wouldn't just come up to her and sound so casual, so normal. Not after everything.
"It's been a long time, Ellie," the man added.
Dear God, it was him.
She could no longer deny that she knew that voice. Knew it and reacted to it, her heart flipping and her stomach churning and her feet wanting to spin around so she could either throw herself in his arms or slap his handsome face.
Standing with her back to the dance floor, she'd been laughing with her friend and classmate Jessie over some of their typical New Year's resolutionslose ten pounds, lay off the chocolate, stop spending money on shoes. Despite the crowd, she'd been minding her own business, feeling happy and content as she envisioned the coming year. And, of course, looking forward to the major changes the year would bring.
Now, all of a sudden he had shown up and kicked her whole steady world out from under her. Rafe Santori.
It was Rafe, of that she had no doubt. It had to be. Nobody else had ever sounded like that. Like heat. Like heaven. Like sin. Like strength. Like temptation.
Unfortunately, temptation was one thing Ellie Blake could not afford.
She swallowed hard, watching as Jessie's eyes rounded to the size of dinner-plates as she saw the man who'd interrupted them. That was further confirmation of his identity. Rafe was the kind of guy women gaped at, with a face and body that were the perfect match for that sexy, throaty, I-want-you voice.
Taking a steadying breath and ordering her heart to go back into standby mode and quit the heart-attack-in-progress thing, she released her death grip on her friend. Jessie, apparently realizing this was the guy Ellie had talked about one sad, wine-filled evening, mumbled an excuse and scurried away. Ellie was left alone to deal with this hot blast from her past. Telling herself she was going to have to kill her best friend later, she glued a noncommittal smile on her face and bit into it, determined to keep it there if she had to bloody the insides of her cheeks.
Finally, when she felt as ready as one could to leap into a human volcano, she slowly turned around to face him.
Wow. That had sounded so normal. So unaffected. So "I didn't cry over you for months when you finally said goobye, really I didn't."
"It really is you," he murmured as if he'd been uncertain.
"In the flesh."
She shouldn't have mentioned flesh because it made her think of skin, which made her think of naked skin, which made her think of Rafe's naked skin.
Oh, Lord, allowing the words Rafe and naked to enter her brain at the same time was seriously dangerous. Like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters, theend-ofall-things dangerous.
Especially now, when she realized he'd grown even more handsome since she'd last seen him. When he'd left Chicago to go to boot camp, he'd been a breezy, smiling, dark-haired Italian-American fresh out of college. His deep-set, thickly lashed, dreamy brown eyes had dominated his handsome face, though the sexy mouth had definitely drawn a woman's attention, as well. The body had been something to see, toobig, lean and hard. He'd maintained the build of the quarterback he'd been in high school, with a wiry masculinity and ease of movement that hinted he'd been racing wildfire on the football field.
But the past four years had made his handsome face even more handsome, if that were possible. He appeared more mature now, fully grown into his looks, that rugged jaw outlined with the faintest rasp of dark beard.
And oh, he was bigger. He no longer had a younger man's wiry leanness but was instead rock solid with thick arms, a powerful chest and broad shoulders. He'd always made her feel delicate, as he had at least six inches on her.
Now she felt positively petite beside him; he'd packed on a good thirty pounds of solid muscle.
Wow. She wished she had a cold drink in her hand because she definitely needed to cool off. Though, to be honest, even walking out of this club into the snowy Chicago night and dunking her head in a snowdrift probably wouldn't be enough.
"You haven't changed at all," he said.
He shrugged, a small frown tugging his brow down over those dark eyes. "I guess I'm carrying a few more scars."
She hadn't even noticed the damn scars until he'd pointed them out. One was on the side of his neck just below his right ear, another barely visible beneath the stubble on his jaw. She wondered if that's why he'd gone with the whole unshaven look, to cover it up. As if a small scar could make the man anything less than mouth-watering? Good grief, adding the faint beard just made him that much more sexy; any woman would instantly be wondering how that sandpapery skin would feel brushing against the most sensitive parts of her body.
Some of her most sensitive parts woke up and did back flips to try to get her attention, ordering her to find out.
"You just look older." Harder. Hotter. Sexier. "More mature." She tapped the tip of her finger on her lips and studied him more closely and admitted, "And a little weary."
Despite her determination to steel her emotions against Rafe, she couldn't stop her heart from twisting a little as she noted the faint, haunted quality in his eyes and the shadows beneath them. There was also a hint of gauntness in his cheeks. She wondered about the life he'd been leading that had both aged him into an even more spectacular man, but had also left its mark on him, a glimmer of sadness he couldn't disguise.
Rafe had been in Iraq for the past few years, she knew. Every time she saw a news story about soldiers being killed there, she went into a frenzy to find out the names, dreading the day she would recognize one. Thankfully, she never had.
He nodded. "Weary. That's probably a good word for it."
"Are you okay?" she asked, her voice low. She didn't want him to know how much she cared about the answer to that question. But she cared too much about the answer to not ask it.
"I'm fine. Really." He forced a smile. "I can't believe it's been over four years since I've seen you."
"Not quite," she said. "The video chats, remember?"
"Of course. But they hardly counted. I mean, they only made me more frustrated because I couldn't be with you in person."
She understood the frustration. She'd shared it.
Rafe had been her lover for such a brief time. It had indeed been four years ago, during the first semester of her senior year of college. She hadn't even started applying to vet schools yet. She'd been young and inexperienced, he a little older, cocky, with killer looks, an easy wit and a ton of confidence.
She hadn't understood what he'd seen in her, why he'd pursued her after a chance meeting at his cousin's restaurant. She'd figured it was simple chemistry. But the attraction, purely physical at first, had evolved into much more, at least on her part.
As for him? Well whatever his feelings had been for her, they hadn't been as strong as his desire to go off to war. He'd joined the army, his goal to become a ranger. Before leaving, he'd told her that since his military obligation would last a minimum of eight years, he thought it best if they just remained friends. She should move on with her life and not wait for him.
She'd waited. Of course she'd waited.
But after a year, his letters had grown scarce, the video chats even more so. Until finally he'd said he didn't feel right about keeping the lines of communication open at all. She suspected he'd realized that even those tenuous strings had bound her to him, making it impossible for her to even look at another guy, much less give one a chance. And Ellie, knowing in her heart that he meant it, had done what he'd suggested and moved on.
So how rotten was it for Rafe to come back into her life now, of all times, when she'd just made a serious commitment to another man?
"Happy New Year."
"You said that," she replied.
"Are you going to say it back?"
"Sure," she mumbled.
He laughed softly. "You still didn't say it."
"Happy New Year, Rafe," she said, meaning it, hoping he had a lovely, wonderful, safe yearfar away from her.
"You look great."
Silence. What did one say in a moment like this? Other than, What the hell are you doing here? Are you intentionally trying to mess up my life again?
"No, not great," he said, that intense stare never leaving her face. "Beautiful."
"Don't," she whispered.
"Can't help it."
"Yes, you can. And you have to. It's been years, Rafe, you can't just stroll up to me at a party and act as though we saw each other last week."
"I'm sorry. I just I guess I've thought about you so often, it feels like we did see each other last week."
He thought about her? As much as she thought about him?
Damn him for saying that. For suggesting she might have made a mistake and given up too soon. For waiting to tell her until it was far too late.
"Would you like to dance?"
She shook her head.
"Come on, El," he said, and she knew he was asking for more than a dance. He wanted her to give him a chance. To do what, she wasn't sure. Nor was she going to let herself find out.
"I can't dance with you." She swallowed and stiffened her spine, staring directly into his eyes. She knew what she had to say, knew she had to nip this whole unexpected reunion in the bud before she made the mistake of doing something like dancing with him. Rafe Santori's arms might be the most wonderful place in the world but she had no business being in them.
A moment's hesitation. There would be no going back from this. But of course there was no other way to go.
"Because my fiance should be here soon. He got called away on an emergency but I expect him any second."
His whole body stiffened and the small amount of color he had fell out of his face. She saw those dark eyes flash with emotion, saw him physically withdraw a half step, as if his feet had forced him to move away even before his mind had caught up with the new reality of this situation.
"You're engaged." His voice was toneless, his expression completely unemotional.
"Who is he?"
"Nobody you know. He's a vet." His brow furrowed, and she immediately clarified. "I mean a veterinarian."
"When did you "
"We met last year and got engaged last month." It had been a happy day, and saying yes had been the right decision. She had believed it then, she believed it now.
But noting the shock and possible dismay on Rafe's face suddenly had her asking questions a newly engaged woman had no business asking. Like, Why didn't you come back sooner? Why didn't you stay in touch? Why wasn't I enough why was the army so much more important?
Why did you come back into my life when I'd finally gotten over you?
"When's the happy day?"
Rafe's whole body, already so tall and strong, went even straighter, and his jaw pushed out. He was putting up a wall, respecting her status, ready to back away. She wasn't surprised. Rafe's sense of honor had been one of the things she'd found most attractive about him.
"I suppose he wouldn't be happy if you were dancing with another man."
She replied without thinking. "He wouldn't mind. Denny is the most easygoing, laid-back person I've ever known."
Her fiance was a good guy. A very good guy with a big heart, a great sense of humor and a genuine love for animals. Most of all, he was here. He was stable. He wasn't half a world away, putting up barriers between himself and anyone who loved him, refusing to allow anyone to get close or to wait.
"Oh. So you just don't want to dance with me?"
"You mean the invitation's still open?"
A sigh escaped her mouth. "It's not that I wouldn't "
"Ahh, I get it." The tiniest of smiles appeared on those lips. "You don't trust yourself, huh?"
"I see that ego of yours hasn't gotten any smaller."
"For old times' sake, Ellie," he said, lifting a hand and brushing the tips of his fingers across her cheek. "I've dreamed about having you in my arms again. Spent long, miserable nights clinging to that dream."
She closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath. He dropped his hand, as if realizing he wasn't playing fair.
"Now that you're engaged, one dance is the only chance I'll ever have to make my dream come true. For auld lang syne, and all that. Whaddya say?"
She tried to resist, but that sexy voice, the need in his eyes and the hint of true emotionas if he were mourning for something they'd had and lostmade her finally lower her guard.
One dance. One more time in Rafe's arms.
Then she'd put him out of her mindand her heartforever.
"All right, Rafe," she said, breathing the words out through closed lips. "For old times' sake, I'll dance with you."
He should have let it go. Should have let her go.
The minute Ellie Blake had told him she belonged to another man, Rafe should have swallowed his disappointment, ordered his heart to go back into the hibernation in which it had existed for the past few years and walked out of the party.
But he just couldn't do it.
He hadn't planned to seek her out during his holiday leave, which would end the day after tomorrow. His situation hadn't really changed. He had another four long years in the army, several of which would be in active combat. Iraq had been hell, but his next stop on his round-the-world tour of war zones, Afghanistan, was going to be even worse. So when his cousin's wife had told him she'd run into Ellie, he should have just ignored the information. Should have pretended Noelle hadn't mentioned Ellie was attending a New Year's Eve fundraiser for abused animals at a downtown Chicago hotel.
He just wished his cousin's wife had heard the tidbit about Ellie's engagement.