Read an Excerpt
“Kyle, I’m pregnant.”
The smile Kyle Morgan opened his front door with slid from his face. The cheerful greeting he’d worked hard to drum up lodged in his throat. For a moment, he could only stare, stunned, at the woman on the other side of the threshold.
He’d woken in a bad mood this morning. Another blinding headache had grabbed him last night and hadn’t let go. A detective for the Puyallup Police Department, the homicide he and his partner, Marsha, worked on reached another dead end. Four women had died in the span of two days, all left with the same calling card, and they weren’t one step closer to finding their killer. The perp had evaded them every step of the way so far. It made sleeping impossible and had put him in a foul mood.
Namely, because he couldn’t stop thinking about her. On the other side of the threshold stood the only woman capable of tying him in a million knots. Cecelia Anton had been his best friend since he was ten. Three years ago, hell, even six months ago, he might have picked up the phone and called her. He might have gotten home from work at two in the morning, but he knew damn well she’d have answered. She’d have known exactly what to say to talk him out of the angry regret and failure wound tight in his stomach. Except the thought of talking to her now left him more conflicted than this damn case.
How did you deal with falling in love with your best friend, knowing you could never have her? He’d been avoiding her. He hadn’t seen her in two weeks, and he hadn’t been able to stop missing her. Or wishing he could go back to a simpler time when her showing up on his doorstep didn’t leave him so conflicted. The mere sight of her through the peephole, and a goofy grin plastered itself across his face, only to sink seconds later as the familiar rush of attraction flooded his body.
Now, there she stood, dripping on his welcome mat. She was drenched from top to bottom. Her light brown locks, normally shiny and bouncing around her chin, now lay plastered to her head, water dripping from the ends. Her arms hung limp at her sides, her hands having gotten lost in the sleeves of the thick white sweater that now drooped on her slender form. Outside, a mid-March storm battered the building, sending gusts of wind howling up the stairwell and blowing past him inside his apartment. By the looks of her, she’d walked over to his apartment in it.
Her eyes caught his. Familiar, round eyes, the color of warmed honey and flecked with gold. Ceci had never been good at hiding her emotions. Everything she felt always showed on her face. Now, her eyes confirmed what he already knew. As much as he wished otherwise, he hadn’t heard wrong. The woman he loved was pregnant with a baby his heart yearned to be his.
The part of him that had protected her since somewhere around third grade told him he was being selfish. This ought to be about her, not him. He was her best friend, and she obviously needed him, but for several moments, he could only stare and remember to breathe. Emotions swamped him faster than he could stop them. An inferno of anger and betrayal ignited his blood. His hands curled into fists at his sides, itching to swing out and put a dent in the wall beside him. She had no idea how much it hurt to hear her say those words. No idea that the mere thought of her with someone else stabbed at his gut like a knife with a jagged blade. Because he could never tell her.
Thunder crashed overhead, shaking the thin walls of his apartment. The lights flickered once, twice, snapping him back to the present.
She needs you, idiot. Snap out of it.
Stepping into his role as her best friend, Kyle drew a deep, calming breath and blew it out, releasing the tangle of emotion caught in his chest. He gathered his wits about him and forced an impassive expression and his body to relax. If he didn’t, he’d say things he’d regret. Like tell her he was in love with her. Or, worse, he’d go find her boyfriend, Jimmy, the schmuck no doubt responsible for the tears in her eyes, and put a little fear into him. Experience told him she wouldn’t be standing on his doorstep soaking wet if Jimmy had been happy about the pregnancy.
Positive he had his wayward emotions under control, he reached across the arm’s-length space between them, took her gently by the shoulders, and pulled her inside.
“Come here.” He drew her to him, and she crumbled, sagging against him, wrapping her arms around his waist as if to hang on for dear life.
“Oh God, Kyle, I don’t know what to do.” She buried her face in his chest and sobbed. Gut-wrenching, shoulder-shaking sobs that slowly shredded his insides.
He tightened his hold on her and rested his cheek against the top of her head, steeling himself against the emotions threatening to choke him. The feel of her in his arms was both too much and not enough. Holding Ceci was like getting his hands on the forbidden fruit. He could see it and touch it, but he could never take a bite or taste its sweetness melting on his tongue. He couldn’t ever let her see how her admission affected him. He could never tell her he’d fallen in love with her. Aside from the fact that he was lying to her, he’d made a promise to a dying old woman to protect her at all costs. Who knew what lasting effects her post-traumatic stress might have on her? Not to mention that sitting in a prison in upstate New York was a man who, once upon a time, had wanted her dead.
Not that knowing those facts, or even reminding himself a million times, ever helped. The feelings rose from a deep well he hadn’t even realized was there until one day he found himself reacting to her the way a man reacts to a woman, rather than just his best friend. Now, knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child made him long for everything he could never have with her. Yet he was grateful simply to have her in his life at all.
Her sobs slowly quieted to the occasional hiccup, and, with a deep, shaky breath, she lifted her head and pulled out of his embrace. She sniffled and laid a hand against the wet spot now covering the center of his chest. “I’m sorry. I got you all wet.”
“It’s okay. I can change.” He cupped her face in his palms, wiped the tears from her cheeks with the pads of his thumbs, and offered her a gentle smile. “How ’bout we go dry you off, hmm? Then you can tell me what happened.”
She nodded, and he slipped his hand into hers, threading their fingers. Hers were ice-cold. He led her down the short hallway toward the back of his apartment. Ceci lived only a ten-minute walk from here, but they were knee-deep in the rainy season. Washington’s west coast was well-known for its constant cloud cover and excessive rainfall. For them, fall, winter, and spring rolled into one long season, and they were in the middle of it.
That she’d walked to him in the pouring rain told him more than words could that she needed him as her best friend. Whatever he felt for her would be squelched and shoved back into the box in his chest where it belonged.
When they reached the bathroom, he released her hand. After fetching a clean bath towel, he crossed into his bedroom and pulled a set of clean, dry clothing from his dresser. When he rejoined her in the hallway, she was staring down at her hands, splayed across her flat stomach.
“What am I going to do?” Confusion and the heaviness of her predicament etched her features, seeming to weigh on her.
“First thing you’re going to do”—he moved to stand in front of her and lifted her chin with two fingers, offering a smile—“is change.”
“Thanks.” She accepted the clothing and returned a watery smile but didn’t move.
The need to see a genuine smile hit him hard and fast. He’d never been able to stand seeing the women he cared about cry, Ceci especially. Tears in her eyes left him helpless and brought out a strong protective urge. He’d always known he’d do whatever he had to in order to lighten her load. The same need hit him now.
“They’ll be big on you, I’m sure.” He flashed a teasing grin and darted an obvious glance at her waist. “The sweats have a drawstring that should keep them from falling off those little hips of yours.”
It was a stupid thing to say to her, really, but it had the desired effect. The soft laugh she let out was music to his ears, and the glimmer that flitted through the depths of her eyes made his chest swell in triumph. Now that was more like it.
“They won’t be little for long.” She glanced at herself and shook her head before moving around him and into his bedroom.
When the door clicked shut, he let out a heavy sigh and sagged back against the wall. He squeezed his eyes closed, conjuring the facts from the latest homicide case he and Marsha worked. Anything to keep from picturing Ceci undressing in his bedroom. The thoughts alone made his chest ache and had guilt rising over him. She hadn’t come here for him to ogle her. She’d come because she needed him. As her friend.
The wicked images came anyway, taunting his mind with what he couldn’t have. To be the one to peel away her wet clothing. To feel her bare, slender curves beneath him, her silky skin sliding against his.
Damn. He’d first realized his feelings for her changed three years ago, just before her grandmother’s death. Ceci had asked for help digging up information on her parents. Unfortunately, he hadn’t discovered what he’d expected to. Instead of adoptions records, he’d uncovered a nightmare, one that had put the puzzle pieces together very clearly in his mind. The bad dreams Ceci had suffered from for years weren’t the mere workings of an overactive imagination. She’d witnessed her parents’ murder. The police had put her and her grandmother into Witness Protection. Ceci wasn’t Ceci at all, but a little girl with a new name and no conscious memory of her previous identity.
Not knowing what to do with the information, he’d gone to her grandmother first. Surely there was a reason Ceci didn’t remember? Or had no idea?
The funny part was, her gran was the one to point out his feelings for Ceci had changed when she begged him to keep the information to himself. Her quiet words replayed through his mind. If you love her, Kyle, and I know you do—I’ve seen the way you look at her—please, you have to do this for me. If he gets to her . . . The fear in her pale blue eyes had convinced him.
He hadn’t been able to look at Ceci the same since. He’d hoped if he simply didn’t acknowledge the erroneous feelings, they’d go away. Six months ago, though, she’d started dating Jimmy. Their relationship made Kyle nuts. The guy had player written all over him, and he tended to talk down to her. More than a few times Kyle had walked away for fear of decking the asshole. His instantaneous reactions to the guy had caused more than a few arguments between him and Ceci.
It had taken him months to see the emotions for what they were—jealousy. Jimmy made him see red because he had everything Kyle coveted, yet he treated her like she was nothing special. He couldn’t count on both hands the number of times he’d thought, If she were my girl. . . .
Six months ago, he’d finally decided he had to put some distance between him and Ceci or risk ruining their friendship and going against the promise he’d made to her grandmother. He’d either go crazy or she’d end up hating him. The problem was, doing so was easier said than done. They’d seen each other several times a week for years. They spoke daily, usually in between shifts, sometimes even at two in the morning. When he had a bad night, he called her. When she had news to share, she called him. Now, he was lucky if he spoke to her once a week. Sometimes the only time he saw or spoke to her was at family dinner on Sundays.
He hated it, but he did it for his sanity’s sake, to keep those lines firmly in place. He could never allow himself to contemplate a romance with Ceci knowing he kept secrets from her, that he essentially lied to her. They’d always promised each other honesty.
One look at the vulnerability in her eyes, though, and six months of hard work came undone. Now it was as if nothing had changed. He was caught between acting like the friend she needed and the “more” his poor, misguided heart yearned to be. Regret tightened in his chest at the thought. He was also entirely too aware he shouldn’t be thinking about any of this. He ought to be focusing on her needs. One look at her tears and all he could think about was how much he yearned to take her in his arms and make her forget about Jimmy. God, he was such an ass.
The bedroom door opened, jarring him from his tangled thoughts, and he turned his head. Ceci stood awkwardly in the bedroom doorway, wearing his clothing, and for a moment, the sight of her caught him. At five foot ten, she stood taller than most women he knew. Feminine curves replaced the boyish figure he remembered from their childhood. Curves that looked mind-blowing in whatever she wore. His sweats hung on her slender form, swamping her lean legs, and the soft cotton T-shirt hung past her rump, but if you asked him, she looked incredible.
She also looked nervous. As she caught his gaze, she flashed a tight, forced smile but remained rooted to the spot, her back a little too stiff, her eyes shifty and edgy.
“Thank you.” Her hands slid up and down her arms, as if it was a soothing gesture.
Tension mounted in the air like a wall slowly erecting between them. When she dropped her gaze to the floor and her fingers slipped up into her hair to toy with the ends, bells sounded in his head. She was nervous. Why on earth would she be nervous around him?
Determined to set her at ease, he tossed her a smile and pushed away from the wall. “Feel better?”
“Much. I’m not so cold anymore. I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I didn’t mean to come here and dump all this on you. I started walking—”
“In the pouring rain, no less.”
She pursed her lips, regret written in her eyes, as she finally stepped out into the hallway. She halted in front of him, that look of confusion moving over her features again. “You opened the door and everything kind of exploded. I needed you. You always make me feel better.”
In her soft gaze, the answer to his quandary hit him, and his chest tightened. It seemed he’d succeeded after all in putting some distance between them. A little too well. Ceci sensed it, reacted to it, and was actually uncomfortable in his presence.
A knot of regret twisted in his stomach. What he wanted, more than anything, was to take her in his arms again, to eradicate the ever-growing rift between them, but he wasn’t sure he trusted himself. Being that close to her these days sent him into a tailspin of confusing emotions. Whether he wanted it to or not, his body reacted to her nearness, and it made him feel like a heel every time. What kind of a friend was he that he noticed how good she looked when what mattered was that she needed him? He couldn’t stop the wayward thoughts, though, and he wasn’t certain he had the right to touch her anymore. Hell, he didn’t know what to do anymore. He’d lost the boundary somewhere, and he hadn’t the foggiest idea where it was or how to act around her.
Still, the need to be closer, emotionally as well as physically, fired through him, too strong to ignore. He’d deal with the consequences to his sanity, but he couldn’t stand the tension between them. He’d known her since he was ten, yet somehow they’d become strangers, and his entire body rebelled against the idea.
“It’s okay. That’s what I’m here for. So, tell me what happened.” He set his hand on her shoulder, stroking with his thumb in an effort to soothe and encourage, hoping to replace the awkwardness with the connection they’d always shared. “I take it you told Jimmy?”
She gave a small nod. “Two weeks ago.”
He lifted a shoulder. “So, what’d he say?”
She remained silent for a moment, chewing on her lower lip, as if caught in indecision. Finally, she drew in a deep, shaky breath, fire igniting her eyes.
“He was awful. He actually denied the baby was his. Can you believe that?” She drew her brows together and put her hands to her hips, glaring as if her predicament were his fault. “He was my first, for God’s sake. My only. How could it be anyone else’s?”
Kyle couldn’t stop his eyes from widening or his mouth from dropping open. “Your first? You’re kidding me.”
They’d known each other for twenty years. They’d always told each other everything. Sex, however, was the one subject they didn’t discuss, and he couldn’t hide his shock.
“No, I’m not.” Color stole into her cheeks, and she diverted her gaze to the floor. Her left hand slipped up to toy with the ends of her hair.
“I’m sorry. You surprised me with that last bit. I lost my virginity when I was sixteen in the back of Pam Waters’s Honda.” He let out a nervous laugh and squeezed her fingers. “Keep going. Tell me what happened.”
She sighed. “That’s about it. You were right. Jimmy’s an ass.”
Regret tightened in his chest. Damn.
He shot her an apologetic frown. “I didn’t want to be. I just didn’t like the way he treated you. He talked down to you sometimes, and it made me crazy. You deserve better than that. What’d he say?”
Ceci looked down at the floor, flexing her toes into the linoleum flooring. Dejection hung on her, rounding shoulders, as if it weighed her down.
“I should have listened. I found out I was pregnant about a month ago. It took me two weeks to work up the courage to tell him. Two weeks ago, I invited him over and I finally told him. God, I was terrified. I honestly had no idea how he’d react, but I didn’t expect . . . that. At first he just stood there, staring at me like I’d grown two more heads. Then his face screwed up in anger. He jabbed a finger at me and told me if I wanted a cent from him I’d have to prove he was the father. Then he stormed from the house.”
Kyle bit the inside of his cheek to keep his reaction from leaving his mouth. Ceci didn’t need to hear negativity right now, but the significance of her words struck his heart like a wayward arrow. The green-eyed monster reared its ugly head. She gave the schmuck something special, a gift. Something he’d kill to have received from her. Except Jimmy took it for granted, used her, and spit her out. To top it all off, the schmuck left her alone and pregnant. The cop in him couldn’t help wondering exactly how many times Jimmy had heard those words before.
He drew in a deep breath to stem the intense desire to find Jimmy and put a dent in his jaw and instead reached up to pull her hand from her hair, holding it in his.
Before he could gather his thoughts, she lifted her gaze, her brows drawn together in an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry. I came at a bad time. I’m going to make you late for work.”
Work. Right. He raked a hand through his hair, not caring that the ends were probably all sticking straight up, and glanced at the digital clock on his nightstand. Technically, he had five minutes to get dressed before he needed to leave. Traffic on Meridian could be hell this time of day. If he didn’t leave soon, he’d be late.
“Yeah, I need to finish getting dressed. Captain’ll kill me if I’m late again.” He stroked his thumb across her knuckles, returned the same awkward smile, and forced himself to release her hand. Then he slipped past her into his bedroom, yanking off his wet T-shirt.
Cecelia’s heartbeat thundered in her ears as Kyle trekked across the bedroom. As he tossed his plain white T-shirt onto the bed, she swallowed hard, unable to stop from staring in abject fascination at his now-bare torso. Kyle had a sleek, strong back, with thick, broad shoulders and a wide chest that tapered to a narrow waist and lean hips. Memories of summers past flitted across the recesses of her mind. Him wearing only a pair of khaki shorts, his bronzed skin glimmering beneath the sun. Heat curled low in her belly, her fingers itching to reach out and touch him.
“You might want to turn around.” He tossed her a glance as he tugged a clean shirt over his head and crossed the room to the metal, two-drawer file cabinet that served as his nightstand.
Cecelia clasped her shaking hands together until the knuckles turned white and jerked her gaze to his face. She prayed he couldn’t see the way hers caught fire. God, she had to stop doing that. He was her best friend, for crying out loud. She couldn’t pinpoint when exactly the thoughts started, but somewhere over the past three or four months, Kyle stopped being just Kyle.
The truth was, he was right about Jimmy. Jimmy could be sweet when he wanted to be, but when she wouldn’t give him what he wanted or cave to his demands, he could be a downright jerk. She and Kyle had argued a lot about the way he treated her, and every time they’d fight, she’d find herself comparing the two men. Sadly, Jimmy always came up short.
More to the point, Jimmy’s lacking had her looking at Kyle differently, more so since she’d discovered she was pregnant. Hormones had her libido running amuck. The truth was, Kyle was good to the women he dated. He was sweet and kind and thoughtful, and he was a one-woman man. She discovered too late that Jimmy wasn’t. Before they broke up, one of the girls at the flower shop finally admitted to seeing him with another woman.
And somewhere over the past few months, Kyle stopped being the guy she’d known since before she liked boys. Suddenly, she noticed the man. The broadness of his shoulders. The curves of his well-defined biceps. The crooked smile she’d seen for twenty years began to make her heart skip a beat, and his gentle, giving nature made her stomach flutter in a very “schoolgirl with a crush” sort of way.
The thoughts always came out of nowhere, immediate and powerful, leaving her struggling with where in the world they’d come from. Kyle would pull her into a hug, the way he’d done her whole life, and she’d be noticing the hard muscle of his chest instead of relaxing into his embrace.
It made her doubt herself and filled her with questions. Had the thoughts always been there and she simply hadn’t seen them? She didn’t know, and she didn’t know what to do with them, except push them aside. Because falling for Kyle meant risking losing him and she couldn’t—wouldn’t—go there. Rational or not, he was the only family she had left, and the thought of losing him, too, scared her to death.
“Unless you’re feeling braver these days.” Kyle arched a brow as he pulled his keys from the pocket of his khakis and tossed them to the bed. He picked up a light blue dress shirt and shoved his right arm into the sleeve.
With an indrawn gasp, Cecelia clamped her hands over her eyes and spun around but managed to control the urge to flee the room altogether. That meant only one thing—Kyle was about to strap on his gun. All thoughts of her newfound attraction to her best friend deserted her. In their place, the icy hands of fear wrapped around her throat. Her heart began its familiar fierce thumping, her chest already tightening.
Oh God. She hated guns.
She took deep breaths. Desperate to distract herself, she latched onto the first thought to enter her mind. “I don’t know why you have to have that thing.”
Breathe. Just breathe.
Okay, so she did. She’d watched him go through college, then the police academy, from a rookie patrolling the streets to earning his promotion to detective a few years ago. All that mattered right then was talking, ignoring the sounds memory told her would follow as he strapped the weapon to his body. She’d been here before, had watched him as he prepared his weapon and strapped on the holster. Talking always helped divert her thoughts, helped her to ignore the fear that already overwhelmed her system.
She had no idea where the fear came from or how it had started, but for as long as she could remember, guns had always terrified her. She’d seen a therapist for it for a while to no avail. The mere sight of one sent her heart pounding out of control. Her palms grew clammy, and her lungs refused to function. Exactly how she felt now. It was as if she stared down the barrel of one and waited for someone to pull the trigger and end her life.
A panic attack, her therapist had called it. Clearly, she had a phobia. Hoplophobia, he’d told her. Not that giving her fears a name ever stopped the attacks from coming. The panic rose immediate and uncontrollable. That Kyle wore a gun every day scared her to death. It meant he might have to use it, which meant facing the possibility of him getting shot. And the thought of losing him wasn’t something she wanted to ponder.
“I’m a cop. It’s part of the uniform.” Kyle repeated his part of the conversation, his voice somber, understanding. “Keep talking. I’m almost done.”
The sound of metal sliding against metal sounded in the silence, followed by a click, sending goose bumps shivering down her spine. Her stomach lurched, and gruesome images popped into her thoughts. Blood spreading across a floor, bullet wounds, cold, lifeless bodies with sightless eyes. Where they came from, she didn’t know, but they resembled the horrible nightmares that had plagued her off and on since childhood.
“You know, you can always force Jimmy’s hand if he won’t come willingly. In fact, you should. He doesn’t get to decide he doesn’t want to be a father. A blood test is all it takes.”
His comment dragged her mind back to the subject she didn’t want to think about anymore that night. Namely, her unexpected pregnancy and all the tangled emotions it wrought. The tightening in her chest eased a fraction but didn’t completely let up.
She took another slow, deep breath and released it, then grabbed Kyle’s conversation thread and ran with it.
“No.” She shook her head, but the thought had anger and hurt rising all over again. She’d wanted her relationship with Jimmy to last. She had yet to have her first love, and she was beginning to wonder if something was wrong with her that she hadn’t. “It’s not like I need the money. The house is paid for. The flower shop covers the rest of the bills, and I still have the trust fund Gran gave me when I turned twenty-one. I haven’t needed to use it yet, but it’s there if I ever do. If he doesn’t want to be a part of this, then I don’t need or want his help.”
The mention of her grandmother sent the old familiar pain wrapping around her chest. Her grandmother raised her, officially adopting her when she was seven. Or so Gran had told her. Cecelia didn’t actually remember. She didn’t remember much of anything before the day she’d come to live with Gran, next door to Kyle and his family. Gran was the only mother Cecelia had ever known, and yet deep inside lay the knowledge that she’d had parents at some point. After all, you couldn’t come into this world without them, so, what happened to hers?
The thoughts had filled her with questions over the years. Rather than answer, though, Gran would always evade or outright change the subject. Once, when Cecelia was about fifteen, she’d demanded an answer. Gran had smiled that sweet smile and very calmly told her, “They’re gone, sweetie. You have me now. That’s all that matters. We have each other.” Then she’d hugged her and walked away.
Three years ago, her grandmother had come down with a case of pneumonia she hadn’t been able to shake. Her grandmother had a chronic lung condition from years of smoking. It never failed that every winter she’d end up in the hospital. That winter, three years ago, she’d spent two months there. Eventually, her body gave out.
She got her love of flowers from Gran. Gran had had one of the best gardens in the state. She was always outside, with her hands in the soil, tending her plants. She’d shown Cecelia everything, from when to water, to how to fertilize to produce the best blooms, to how to group the plants together so they complemented one another.
Over the years, word had gotten out. Gran placed in several gardening contests, which landed her in the paper. Her garden was labeled one of the top in the state. People came from all over to get tips for their gardens and bouquets to put on their table. About ten years ago, Cecelia finally convinced her to open a small shop nearby. Full Bloom sat in a small shopping center on one of the busier streets in the area. The shop was a work in progress, but like everything else, Gran had had a knack for business. She’d been good with people, and with each regular customer they gathered, the store grew steadily every year.
After her death, Cecelia had taken over the shop. She had to admit, she loved being there, loved working with the flowers. Every day at the shop was like spending time with Gran. Some days, she swore she could still hear her calling out. Cecelia, sweetheart, go in the back and bring up those roses I just clipped . . .
Cecelia sighed, her chest aching. She missed her the most on days like this. If Gran were here now, she’d know the exact right thing to say that would ease all her fears in one fell swoop.
“Well, you know you can always count on me.”
Kyle’s gentle encouragement had the last of the panic finally releasing its hold on her chest. She smiled, warmth and relief seeping into her heart. This was why she’d walked over here in the pouring rain. She always knew she could count on him, that no matter what happened between them, he’d be there. And for the first time in a long time, she wanted to take advantage of that.
“Can I stay here tonight?” She folded her hands together and prayed he wouldn’t turn her down. “Jimmy’s supposed to come over to pick up his belongings, and I don’t want to be there when he does.”
Okay, so that was an excuse and a flat-out lie. She’d stopped seeing Jimmy two weeks ago, the day she’d told him she was pregnant. He’d stormed from her house with a slam of the screen door. What little he kept at her place could fit in a shoebox, which currently sat out in the grass beyond her porch. She’d hurled it out the front door after him that day.
Today, she needed her best friend. Her grandmother’s house felt too large, too quiet, as it often did. She needed Gran’s advice, but all she had was the big, empty house echoing around her. It made her feel alone, more than she had in a while.
She might not have meant to come here when she started walking ten minutes ago, but she didn’t want to leave. She knew darn well she’d taken a risk, wanting to stay with him, having to face this newfound attraction. But she needed her best friend. His strong embrace always made everything right, reminded her she wasn’t all alone in the world, and right then, she needed that the most. Whatever emotions being close to him brought, she’d deal with them.
“Sure you can trust Jimmy not to steal anything?”
Kyle’s question was a serious one but spoken with enough sarcasm she couldn’t accuse him of sounding contemptuous. A tone he used often in reference to Jimmy. Kyle had never liked him, nor had he bothered to hide it.
Cecelia heaved a sigh, the heat of shame creeping up her neck and into her cheeks. “You must think I’m a complete idiot.”
Twenty-seven years she’d waited, for the right man, the right time, afraid to trust her heart. Most of her boyfriends lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before the panic set in. Her relationship with Jimmy had lasted longer than any other. Letting someone close meant opening up and inviting them into her heart. That kind of intimacy terrified her. It meant a leap of faith she’d never been able to make before with any man except Kyle and his brothers. And even then, the Morgan family had grown on her over time, in large part because they were friendly and patient.
She’d tried with Jimmy, though, and now she felt like a fool. Her grandmother’s stern warnings echoed through her mind. You have to be careful, Cecelia. People aren’t always what they appear to be.
“Gran always warned me to be careful about whom I trusted, to only give my heart to those worthy. She drilled it into me, over and over. Every friend I brought home, every boy I wanted to date. Are you sure you can trust him, Cecelia? There are bad people out there who can hurt you. You have to be careful. God, I can still hear her.” She shook her head. She used to think her grandmother had lost her mind, her distrust of people had been so encompassing. Gran was the epitome of overprotective. Now, she had to admit, maybe Gran knew something she didn’t. “I should’ve listened.”
Gran had been right, at least as far as Jimmy was concerned. Only now that their relationship was over did she see all the problems within it. Jimmy could be a sweet talker when he wanted something. Usually, it was sex. Even if the shop had been busy and she was exhausted, he’d sweet-talk her into giving in, even going so far as to convince her she wanted it. Despite all the years of growing up with Gran, Jimmy had slipped past her radar.
“People make mistakes, Ceci. God knows I have. You remember Kaitlyn?”
Oh, she remembered Kaitlyn, all right. Just thinking about the tall blonde had another confusing array of emotions knotting her stomach. Kaitlyn was Kyle’s last girlfriend. The woman had a fetish for men in uniform. She’d hung all over him. Kyle found out a little too late he wasn’t the only cop she had a fascination with. Cecelia had loathed the woman to the point she’d make excuses why she couldn’t see Kyle if he had Kaitlyn with him. She didn’t want to contemplate what it meant that she’d gotten so upset over her. She definitely didn’t want to face the possibility she was actually jealous. That was a road she refused to travel.
“All right, I’m done. You can turn around now.”
She dropped her arms to her sides and turned to face him. He stood in the same spot, staring at her, a tender smile curving his mouth. The sight of him caught her, and Cecelia couldn’t help smiling in return. She loved the way he looked when he dressed for work. He currently wore a crisp, clean light blue dress shirt that brought out the same color in his eyes, over which he wore a dark blazer. Khakis hugged his lean hips yet fell loose down his long legs, barely hinting at the corded muscles memory told her lurked beneath.
He kept his hair short and neat, completing the tidy appearance. The rich golden brown combined with his lightly tanned skin gave him a sun-kissed appearance. His eyes were her favorite feature. A beautiful mixture of sky blue and rain-cloud gray, they were intense and focused. She could always tell his mood by the color of his eyes. When he was playful and upbeat, those eyes were bright blue, like a cloudless sky on a summer day. When he had more on his mind than he wanted to share, when he was broody, they reminded her of the dark clouds that normally blanketed the sky this time of year.
Her gaze drifted to the curve of his right shoulder. Her head fit so perfectly there, as if the spot was tailor-made for her. Heat shivered up her spine, spreading throughout her body to settle liquid and delicious deep in her belly. If she closed her eyes, she could almost feel his long, lean body against hers, his addicting warmth infusing her, the way his strong arms closed around her . . .
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Kyle quirked a brow as he slid his watch onto his left wrist and latched the clasp.
Her hands resumed their trembling. Oh God, what was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she stop doing that? She needed to get back the simple connection they’d shared before her attraction.
Kyle and his family had always been there. She recalled the day she’d met Kyle, down on the bank of the river running past the end of their combined properties. Something about his easy smile had drawn her in. She hadn’t trusted anybody back then, and all she remembered about that time was being full of fear. But Kyle had a smile for everyone. He’d sat down on the bank, pulled off his socks and shoes, and dangled his feet into the cool water. She couldn’t remember what he’d said anymore, but he’d talked, drawing her in with his easy personality as he tossed rocks into the water.
Turned out, he’d lived next door. He’d introduced her to his brothers, Chase and Evan, and his sister, Becca. She didn’t remember when exactly she’d started calling him her best friend. Those beginning years were a blur, a mishmash of memories. They’d met down by the river after supper every night for months. There were memories of playing tag or hide-and-seek between their combined properties. Until, slowly over the years, it became more abnormal not to see him every day.
Every year for Thanksgiving, Georgia invited them over. Turned out, Kyle and his family were all alone as well. No father in the picture, no family nearby. But it had taken Gran three years to finally accept one. All Cecelia knew was being with them made her feel like part of a bigger family. They all just . . . fit. Like somehow she’d always known them. The next year, Gran invited them over for Christmas dinner. Eventually, it became tradition to spend the holidays together. They’d combine fireworks on the Fourth of July and set them off together out the field behind the houses, and Gran and Georgia took turns cooking. It was a tradition they kept up even now.
Over time, Kyle’s family had become her family, and they treated her as such. But letting in others didn’t come easily. The doubts about the people she came into contact with hit her like the panic attacks—instinctive and immediate.
Now Kyle was the only family she had left. Whatever nonsense this attraction was, she’d squash it. Yes, being attracted to him made her wonder what it would be like between them. She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t. Could Kyle be the relationship that actually worked? After all, she’d known him for more than twenty years. Outside of Chase and Evan, he was the only man she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt she could rely on.
But the fear of losing him always cut that wondering short. Besides, Kyle didn’t think of her that way. He saw her as another sister; but if by some odd twist of fate he thought of her as something more, she couldn’t risk their relationship for the sake of sex. Okay, yes, he was a man, and he was good-looking—she’d always thought so—but she didn’t do relationships well. What if a relationship between them didn’t work? Then she’d lose her best friend. She couldn’t go there.
“Actually, I was thinking about how you dress.” She swallowed hard, praying he didn’t notice the way her voice shook, and offered him what she hoped was a bright smile. She didn’t know what she’d do if he ever caught her drooling. “You’re a perfectionist if ever I’ve seen one. Right down to the crease in your khakis.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He picked up his tie off the bed and looped it around his neck, the left side of his mouth lifting into his trademark lopsided grin. His eyes twinkled at her, a genuine contentment there that seeped inside and wrapped around her heart.
Truth was, they hadn’t been very close lately. Kyle had never said anything, but there was a distinct distance between them she couldn’t put her finger on. It was a bunch of little things. He didn’t call her as much. Once a week or every two weeks, instead of every morning the way he’d done for years. When he called, the conversations were tight and awkward. They weren’t as open with each other. Kyle held back, so she did, too. When they saw each other at get-togethers with his family, he always seemed to watch her but kept his distance.
He didn’t touch her the way he used to, either. In the past, whenever he wanted to feel close to her, he simply did. It wasn’t unusual for him to pull her into his arms for a hug or slip his hand into hers and pull it into his lap. He’d done it for so long she’d never thought twice about it. With the exception of today, he hadn’t done anything like that in at least six months. Instead, a distinct tension had risen between them, an awkwardness that hadn’t been there before.
She’d told herself it was because their lives were so busy. Most days she left the flower shop about the same time he started his shift. She opened the flower shop at seven and went home at three, leaving it to Jeanine to close up at nine. Kyle worked second shift, four to midnight, five days on, two off. Not to mention he’d worked a lot of overtime lately, and she’d spent most of her free time with Jimmy. They hadn’t gotten together, simply to spend time together, in months. They used to make dinner and watch a movie together every Saturday night, but she couldn’t remember the last time they’d done that.
He was still her best friend, though, and she missed him. Badly. Hadn’t even realized how much until he’d opened the door and stood in front of her. It made her realize that half the empty ache in her chest lately was him missing from her life. It was past time to do something about it. Whatever went on between them, it stopped now.
She squared her shoulders, firmly ignoring the butterflies that took flight in her stomach, and crossed the room to him. She took the tie from his hands and began to make the knot. Ironically, he was the one who’d taught her how to tie a tie in the first place. “Tell me something. If I were to go open your closet, what do you suppose I’d find?”
One corner of his mouth twitched, and amusement danced in his eyes. “Contrary to what Becca says, I do not alphabetize my closet.”
She couldn’t help reciprocating a smile. “Yes, but I’ll bet you five bucks it’s all arranged in a systematic fashion. Most likely by type and then by color. You probably even line your socks up in your drawer like a bunch of little soldiers in a parade.”
“Again, I ask you, how is this a bad thing?” He cocked a playful brow and leaned down, touching his nose to hers.
The twinkle in his eye and his sudden closeness had her brain shorting out. He was so close his warm breath fanned her mouth, filling her head with visions of his soft lips closing over hers.
Goose bumps popped up along her arms, and her fingers fumbled over his tie. She swallowed hard, ignoring the images bombarding her mind, and refocused on her task. “Actually, it makes you dependable.”