When Jena called Jeb out of the blue, it was to ask him to give her last words to her family. She knew the risks when she took one final mission for the CIA. Suddenly, Jeb's riding to the rescue like her own personal Cajun knight. Yet now that they're both safe in New Orleans, he refuses to give her a second chance.
That's not good enough for Jena. Because when you find someone crazy enough to risk everything for you, the only sane thing to do is to hang on tight . . .
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Rain battered the condo roof, and for the fifth time in as many minutes Jeb DeVillier reread the contracts from the many accounting firms eager for his CPA experience. He wondered which job he'd pick to start his life over. All four positions were out of state, far away from his native New Orleans, which had been his comfort zone for too long.
Away from Jena Boudreaux.
Usually the rain soothed him and gave him the peace he needed to think, but since he'd come back from Paraguay nothing had filled the crater in his soul.
Her face had been cut from lip to cheekbone.
No matter how many times he went over what happened last month — especially the part where he stole his best friend's money to save that same best friend's sister from certain death — he hadn't been able to justify his actions to himself. At the very least he should have told Brandon he was taking the company coffers to Asunción, Paraguay, to save Jena.
She could have died. Should have, statistically.
He'd saved Jena by getting the ransom to the Paraguayan drug cartel in time, gaining a lifetime's worth of stress in the process. His first trip to South America had been a matter of life or death. There'd been no time to think, no chance to second-guess. He'd received the alarming text from Jena and acted on instinct.
The image of her motionless figure, bloody and battered, flashed into his mind for the millionth time. Unlike any other memory in his life, this one didn't fade. It grew stronger, the utter despair it elicited strangling out any flicker of hope left in his battered heart.
And he'd realized that he could no longer see Jena as a fuck buddy, and in fact, that he had never seen her like that. It'd been sheer stupidity to agree to her proposal in the first place. They'd reconnected last year at Christmas, after barely having seen one another in seven years. Like a fool, he'd convinced himself that the years and space had allowed him to see their shattered adolescent and college relationship for what it was: growing pains with a childhood friend and first love, nothing more. But their red-hot chemistry was still there, and it'd been too tempting to turn down no-strings sex with Jena. He'd gone along with her offer, anything to be able to be with her. Even risking his relationship with her older brother, Brandon Boudreaux, his lifelong best friend. They'd kept their sex-only relationship secret, and it worked. Until it didn't.
After seeing Jena at her physical bottom at the hands of her kidnappers in Paraguay — a haunted ghost of herself — the bubble he'd been living in exploded. While he'd happily engaged in their very private, indeed clandestine, relationship, he'd also fallen for what she'd told her family: that she was in the Navy Reserves and got called to active duty as often as she did because she was doing refugee work in various spots around the globe.
And it made sense, on the surface. Jena had her degree in social work, and she'd said the Navy had assigned her as a general unrestricted line officer, which gave her the ability to serve wherever she was needed, whenever. Jena excelled at channeling her compassionate tendencies in the most beneficial way — he'd witnessed it firsthand when she'd helped the teen daughter of his work colleague early last year.
He grunted. That was when he'd had work colleagues. The destruction his split-second decision had wrought on the boating company he and Brandon had built from the ground up was immeasurable. The fifteen million dollars of absconded funds were easily counted, a solid figure to wrap his head around. And as rough as stealing the money was, it had bought Jena her life back. But the damage between him and Brandon — irreparable. Brandon had been his best friend, his chosen brother, much as the Boudreauxes had been his chosen family since the day Brandon brought him home after school to play Atari.
The only commonality he'd shared with the Boudreaux children was school. Jeb's family struggled economically. His father left when he was still in kindergarten, and his mother struggled with alcoholism until he was almost in middle school. Jeb had felt responsible for his siblings, but also craved the attention and security he thought the Boudreaux children had. He'd met Brandon Boudreaux in gym class at the local private Catholic school where Jeb was enrolled as a charity case. Their bond had been immediate, as had his friendship with Brandon's younger sister Jena. He couldn't remember his life without her.
How had the girl he'd known, the woman he'd thought he'd loved on and off over the last two decades, been an undercover CIA agent and he'd never had a fucking clue?
The not-knowing about her work wasn't what painfully stuck in his craw, though. He hated to admit the truth of it, even to himself in the small apartment he might very well lose in a matter of days. What crushed him was that Jena had never needed him, had only used him for booty calls. And he'd been too blinded by his attraction to see through it. To be fair, he'd used her for the same things, but deep down he believed that Jena needed him, what only he could offer her.
He'd been a fool.
Jena never stopped calling him her best friend. When they were kids, when they dated in high school, and then, later, college, she never stopped saying that he was the only one who really "got" her.
After seeing what kind of horrible human beings she'd fought and fortunately won against, he had to face facts. The young kids they'd been — and, yes, even the more recent fuck buddies — had been based on his assumption that Jena needed him. That he was a requisite part of her life. And he'd thought it would be that way forever. That Jena knew he was the one she'd always be able to turn to, no matter what. While that part was true, what wasn't was his fatal assumption: that Jena wanted to turn to him all the time.
Because Jena Boudreaux was a self-made woman who required help from no one, least of all her grade-school friend who happened to know her body better than anyone else.
He slammed his laptop shut, stood, and stretched. Hadn't he had enough counseling about his alcoholic mother to know that he was a classic caretaker, that his codependency had spilled over onto Jena for too long? Fuck, he'd destroyed his best friend's business, their relationship, and his own livelihood, all because of a single text from Jena.
Not the text asking him to tell her family she loved them, to let the FBI know what was going on. No, that hadn't been the biggest revelation. It was the short, three-word text that came two hours later, when he'd thought it was too late, that he'd never reach her in time.
I love you.
As it turned out, he'd arrived in Paraguay soon enough to get the liaison the ransom the cartel demanded.
But his ability to continue any kind of relationship with her was over. She wasn't the woman he'd thought, and he couldn't pretend he was still okay with playing the role of her sexual safety net. She'd never mentioned the text again, never repeated the words. She had, in fact, behaved as if she'd been delirious, out of her mind when she sent it.
As if the words meant nothing.
As he stayed by her side those awful hours until the medevac got her out of Paraguay, he'd realized that she'd only sent the text to make sure he acted on her SOS. Jena hadn't remained conscious for long, but when she was, she'd told him she was sorry for the text, asked him to forgive her for being so emotional. She'd needed him to save her life, had counted on him to do so. But nothing more. Who he'd been before that insight, the man willing to have a relationship with her no matter what the terms, died. They both deserved more, so much more, but they weren't going to find it with each other. It was time to make a life for himself that didn't revolve around Jena.
His cell phone rang and he reached for it, ready to ignore another call or text from Jena. He couldn't do it, couldn't pretend to be friends again, to be anything again. Not after his epiphany that he was wallpaper in her life, nothing more.
His former best friend.
"Hi, Brandon." His gut roiled. The guilt over what he'd done would never leave him.
"Jeb. Nice to hear your voice, man."
Silence stretched, mocked what used to be an unbreakable bond.
"Still there, bro?" Brandon's concern reflected in his somber tone. And damn it, it hurt that he still called him "bro." He didn't deserve the familial reference.
"I'm here. What's up?"
"I was hoping you'd be willing to come over for brunch tomorrow."
"At your place?"
"Yeah. I thought it'd be easier." Brandon sounded almost shy. They'd met at a favorite diner at least once a week when they'd had a solid relationship.
"I don't know.... I'm in the middle of a job search." Weak, but he had to come up with something.
"And no one's calling you on a Sunday, bro. Besides, I'm sure you've got a slew of offers by now. Am I right?"
Jeb waited a beat. What the hell. "Yeah, I lucked out."
"No luck involved. You're the tops at what you do."
"Brandon, I — "
"Nope. Save it. We can talk tomorrow. See you around eleven?"
Jeb wavered, on the brink of declining the offer. But leaving NOLA the right way meant tying up loose ends. A meal with Brandon could do that.
"Sure, I'll be there." He hung up, headed for the shower. The fact that Brandon still read him so well, knowing that he needed to say again he was sorry, should bring him comfort. Instead, he felt the full force of his misery. But he couldn't fix what he'd done to their friendship.
Brandon didn't even know about his and Jena's relationship, or lack thereof. To Brandon, Jeb and Jena were childhood friends who'd dated on and off in high school and college.
He turned the water on full force and prayed the spray would knock some sense into him.
Jeb had built a life on taking care of others at his own expense.
No more. His tendency to overreach when it came to caring for others had led him to rock bottom. He might not have been attacked like Jena had, but her kidnapping was his crash point nonetheless. He was done with caretaking and enabling.
He was done with Jena.
* * *
Upon touching down in her hometown of New Orleans after six months of life-threatening, career-ending adventure in South America, Jena Boudreaux wanted three things. She'd accomplished the first two: a long hot shower, followed by a grocery run that made Brandy, the ancient clerk at her local Piggly Wiggly, raise her brows, and it took a lot to rattle Brandy's cage.
"Haven't seen you in a while, Jena. Another Navy mission?" Brandy rang up Jena's eclectic order with her signature air of nosy detachment. Yogurt, chocolate, cheese, yogurt, eggs, more yogurt.
"Yeah. But it was my last. I'm getting out. My active duty time is up." True, except for the part about the Navy. It was the CIA she'd resigned from.
"Good for you. Staying here, then? For good?" The wizened woman's perfectly lined eyes regarded her with patience and a wisdom that comforted Jena. Brandy and Piggly Wiggly were as much a part of her as New Orleans and her family.
"Yes, that's the plan!" She paid for her order, throwing in a fresh bunch of flowers from the rack next to the checkout. Anything to remind her that she was more than the CIA operative she'd been for the better part of the last eight years. She had a life to live, things to do.
If only she could figure out what those things were. All she'd ever wanted was here, in New Orleans. Her social work degree, always her civilian cover, was what she planned to put to use now. But the thought of going back to work at the state government social services offices made her stomach sour. If she was going to settle, really settle down in her native city, it had to be to infuse energy and life into it. Her way. With the horror of her kidnapping growing smaller in her mental rearview mirror, it was time she found a job that utilized her degree. But what?
As much as her passion for social work and a full-time return to NOLA had been her carrot through the toughest missions she'd run with the CIA, they weren't everything. She'd figured out too late what everything really was to her. And in a terribly weak moment — okay, a life-or-death split second — she'd reached out to Jeb. And, worse, she'd texted him those three little words that she knew would be the end of their relationship. Jeb had never, ever indicated that he wanted anything more than their friends-with-benefits deal. But she'd needed him to know how bad it was for her in Asunción, that it wasn't some kind of bluff. So that he'd give her family her message. Her life was at stake, and even her CIA team couldn't reach her; the cartel had cut them all off from her.
She'd expected him to tell her family, and definitely alert the authorities, who'd in turn get the information to her team back at headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Instead, Jeb had blindsided her by draining her brother's company funds and paying the ransom to the sorry sack of shits that were the Jardin cartel. He'd flown to Paraguay to make sure the money was delivered via the State Department and refused to leave until he saw for himself that she was free.
Her weak moment had cost her brother his entire livelihood, along with Jeb's, since Jeb worked alongside Brandon as his CFO and effective partner. Boats by Gus — her brother's dream built from the bayou up — had closed, and Brandon had filed for bankruptcy.
It'd also cost her her relationship with Jeb. Their sexy-friends deal.
That part wasn't bothering her as much as knowing she'd hurt too many people by reaching out for help. She had no idea how she was going to make amends to Brandon or Jeb.
Jeb. He'd never acknowledged that last text, never reciprocated her sentiment. Had he thought she'd meant those three little words, that she'd really meant to put her heart on the line? Or did he think she'd used the words to manipulate him into coming to Paraguay? Either option appalled her.
The look of horror and shock on his face when he'd found her, right after the cartel's thugs let her go, told her all she needed to know. He was shut down, showed no signs of affection — only relief that she was alive and a determined set to his jaw that she'd seen when they were kids and he decided to climb the highest tree on her parents' property just to win a bet. It was Jeb's I'll- show-you expression.
She'd put too much faith into their lifelong friendship. He'd come to her rescue in Paraguay as only Jeb could, with nothing but total focus on saving her. But he hadn't talked to her since, and she knew she'd pushed him too far. He'd been good with their sexy friendship — they both had. Why couldn't she have accepted that and not sent that stupid text?
You'd hoped for more.
Yeah, she'd fantasized about them growing into more, why wouldn't she? She was gone so often on life-or-death missions, it was only natural she'd dream about her future. Jeb was the obvious object of her desires, as he'd always been. She did not need to feel guilty about the I love you text.
But she still did.
They were childhood friends, period. Sexy times aside, Jeb had never signed up for more than that with her. And she had to respect that, move on. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how much she knew there'd never be another man with such a shared history. Most people moved on from adolescent relationships — she'd just been slower to, that's all.
But she owed him a thank-you for saving her life, and an apology, a closure for both of them.
Back home from the Piggly Wiggly, she stared at her open refrigerator. Her favorite Greek yogurt was stacked in pretty rows, the banana flavor in front, with cherry vanilla in the back. She couldn't stop the smile. A full refrigerator said, "I'm home for good."
There hadn't been any yogurt while was a captive of the Jardin cartel. Her stomach twisted and her shame and humiliation rushed back, reminding her why she'd quit her eight-year-long career with the CIA. She sucked as an operative. Good undercover case officers did not get themselves kidnapped. Nor, once they were kidnapped and their life was in danger, did they text their childhood friend to tell him that they loved him.
A good agent didn't contact their childhood friend and ask him to bail her out, which she hadn't done directly, but, Jeb being Jeb, he'd taken matters into his own hands and had not only contacted the FBI and the State Department, but had also withdrawn a cool fifteen million of her brother's money to pay her ransom.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bayou Vows"
Copyright © 2019 Geri Krotow.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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