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With a name similar to a fabled outlaw, a passion for archery and a best friend named John Little, former Ranger Robin Sherwood had been the butt of many jokes, the bulk of which he'd accepted good-naturedly.
This, however, was different, because the situation he presently found himself in was a hell of his own making.
The maitre d's eyes rounded in alarm, presumably because Robin was in every possible violation of the dress code and, while it was October, it wasn't yet quite Halloween. The conundrum had clearly flummoxed him.
"My usual table, please, Branson," Robin instructed briskly, sparing the man their usual chit-chat.
"Certainly, sir." His gaze slid over him once againfurther confirmation that his eyes hadn't deceived him, Robin imaginedand, with a small gulp, Branson turned and led the way. "If you'll follow me."
"It's like Christmas has come early," John crowed behind him through fits of smothered, wheezing laughter. "And this is the best present ever."
Determined to see this humiliation through to the end, Robin released a long suffering sigh and soldiered on.
A series of gasps, snickers and the clatter of fumbled cutlery followed him through the five-star restaurant. Though he was generally shameless and couldn't be bothered to care what people thought, he came as close to blushing as he ever hoped to and knew a small measure of relief when they finally arrived at their table.
"Paybacks are hell," Robin told him, his tone mild. He casually placed his napkin over his lap. "Just remember that."
John, irritatingly, continued to beam. He was in custom Armani, naturallynothing off the rack would fit his Hercules-like frameand every blond hair had been gelled meticulously into place. "You shouldn't have accepted the bet if you weren't certain of the outcome. Isn't that what you've always told me? A glass of Cristal," he happily told the waiter. "i'm celebrating."
Robin ordered a nice red wine and pretended not to notice that almost every eye in the exclusive restaurant was trained on him. He glanced out the window and admired the view instead. Downtown Atlanta lay spread out in a sea of night, punctuated with glittering lights and the occasional flash of neon. Though many of the storefronts were decorated with pretty mums, hay bales and gourds, fall seemed reluctant to make an official appearance thus far. It was unseasonably warm in Hotlanta for this time of year, which made his current outfit all the more uncomfortable. He grimaced.
That would teach him to bet when drunk.
"You look positively miserable," John said, smiling.
Robin smothered a curse and glared at his friend. "I'm hot."
"I imagine so." John's gaze darted to the top of Robin's head and he heaved a grudging sigh. "You can take off the hat, I suppose, but be careful not the crush that feather," he warned with a scowl. "It's rented, not bought."
Thank God for small favors, Robin thought. Better that the damned thing was returned than put away for future use. Particularly his. And given how much fun his friend was currently enjoying at his expense, he could easily see John pulling this little number out again and again.
Robin's phone suddenly vibrated in the leather pouch attached to his waist and, though it was bad form to answer it in the restaurant, he couldn't dismiss the call. It was an old friend from boarding school, Brian Payne, and more recentlymore importantlyhis new boss at Ranger Security. After the hit to his leg in Mosul had shredded his thigh muscle and thus ended his career in the militaryas he'd envisioned it, anywayRobin was eternally thankful for the job. Though there were many who would argue that he didn't need gainful employment, he'd never felt that way. Trust fund or not, he'd always needed a purpose. Needed to be useful. What was that old saying? Idle hands were the devil's playground?
He didn't know if he completely agreed with thata battlefield seemed more aptbut he understood the sentiment. Busy people didn't have time to get into trouble. The only reason he'd been horsing around with John and had lost this damned bet was because he was between jobs at Ranger Security.
"Sherwood," he answered, turning away from the din.
"My Facebook feed just blew up with pictures of you, taken at Dolce Maria's, in what appears to be some sort of costume," Payne said, the humor barely registering in his cool voice. "I know it's been a while since you've been in polite society, Robin, but surely you haven't forgotten all the rules."
Robin swore hotly under his breath and Payne's chuckle echoed over the line.
"'The boy who wouldn't grow up,' one caption reads," Payne continued. He laughed appreciatively. "Clever."
Robin felt his eyes widen and he shot a dark look at John. "I'm not freakin' Peter Pan," he told him, outraged. "I'm Robin Hood, dammit." He glared accusingly across the table and lowered his voice. "I told you I needed the bow and arrows, but would you listen? No."
John blinked innocently. "I was afraid they'd call security if you came in with a weapon."
The staff would make them leave, more likely, thus ruining John's prank, Robin thought. Bastard.
"Ah, I see it now," Payne remarked, as though he'd just noticed something in the photo he'd missed before. He paused. "Fine. I'll ask the obvious question. Why are you dressed up like Robin Hood?"
Robin chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment before responding. "Because I lost a bet."
Payne grunted knowingly, as if this explanation made perfect sense. Which it did, Robin knew, because like him, Payne was a man who believed reneging on a betno matter how ill-conceived or asininewas the same as lying.
He'd agreed to the terms and given his word. Balking was out of the question.
"And what if you hadn't lost?"
Robin grinned and glanced across the table at his completely unrepentant friend. "Then John would be dressed up like a vampire, acting out the Twilight saga via interpretative dance outside the High Museum. For tips."
Payne laughed softly again. "Oh, I would have liked to see that," he said. "Too bad you lost."
"There's always tomorrow," Robin told him, firmly in the glass-halffull camp. He took another sip of his wine. "Did you need anything else? Any new assignments come in?"
"No, that was all. Everything's covered for the moment. Enjoy the downtime. I'm sure it won't last."
Robin certainly hoped not. Though he had plenty to do to oversee his own businesslook at financial reports, review his various charitable endeavorshe'd hired good people to attend to those things in his absence while in the military and, though he'd had a career change, he didn't mean to impose one on them, as well. That was not how one repaid good service.
In fact, everything he'd learned about being a good boss had come from following his father's short-lived example and by not taking any advice from his grandfatherrailroad mogul, Henry Sherwoodwho was a notoriously hard man. Robin inwardly snorted.
Hard hell. He was greedy and mean, a textbook narcissist whose first love was himself, his second, money. The old adage "only the good die young" had certainly proved true in Robin's experience. He imagined his grandfather would outlive Methuselah.
Currently, the old bastard was confined to his bed, a rotation of nurses on staff to see to his every need. His master suite had been outfitted to look like something that would no doubt rival NASA's Mission Command center, with banks of televisions streaming information from all over the globeand the house and grounds, of courseattached to the walls and portable computers a mere roller table away at all times. He was just as formidable at eighty as he'd been at forty-eight and kept an eagle eye on his vast business and estate domains.
Though he'd always accused Robin of "being weak just like his father" and had never shown any interest in his grandson, evidently the significance of his own mortality had finally surfaced. Now the old man was acting as if he'd like nothing better than to groom Robin to take over the reins. Robin's response? Not no, but hell, no. He didn't have to own a crystal ball or possess any supernatural powers to know that they'd never see eye to eye, particularly when it came to how to treat employees. How the old man had managed to sire Robin's unbelievably kind father was an unsolvable mystery, one that had always baffled him.
Having lost his mother to an aneurysm while just a toddler, Robin had no memories of her, but he cherished the ones he had of his dad. And those were too few. Robin had been officially orphaned at fifteen, when his dad had died in a car accident. Gavin Sherwood had been buried less than a week before Robin's grandfather had shipped his grandson off to an exclusive boarding schoolone notorious for corporal punishment, of coursein Maryland. That's where he'd met Payn, and a lifelong friendship was formed. Robin inwardly grinned. Nothing like a good thrashing to forge a bond.
As for Johnhis gaze darted to his friend across the tablethat bond had been formed from the cradle. John Little was the son of Robin's father's best friend and as such, they'd grown up more like brothers than friends. Laughing one minute, pummeling the hell out of each other the next. Robin inwardly grinned. Good times.
John's father, Vince, had stepped in to fill the gap after his father had passed away and for that, Robin would always be thankful. Despite the distance once he'd been sent away to school, Vince and John had kept in constant contact, always writing and calling, occasionally visiting. And it was Vince who came to his graduationboth high school and collegeand Vince who'd clapped him on the shoulder, tears in his eyes, and told him how proud his father would have been when he'd been accepted into Ranger school. It was Vince who shared memories of his dad, who'd painted a picture of him that he'd been able to hero-worship as a boy, and later appreciate as a man. A priceless gift, indeed.
Still thoroughly enjoying himself, John waved at a table of friends across the room and continued to savor his victory champagne. He sighed deeply. "Other than sex, there is absolutely nothing I like better than winning."
"And since you do both so infrequently, I'm sure this is a novel experience for you," Robin drawled.
John merely laughed and his gaze drifted fleetingly past Robin's shoulder before finding his again. "Smart-assed bastard," he groused good-naturedly. "I'm entitled to gloat. That's what happens when you win." He snorted. "You should know, you've done it often enough. By the way, have you been by the clinic to see Marion or are you still avoiding her?" he asked suddenly, his tone light.
Tone aside, the question itself carried enough weight to flatten an anvil and John bloody well knew it.
The clinic in question was the Michael Cross Clinic, one that Robin had founded as soon as he'd inherited at twenty-two in memory of a dear childhood friend who'd died officially of sepsis, but more truthfully of being poor and not having health insurance. Michael's family had lived on the estate grounds and worked for his grandfather. His mother was the cook, his father the head gardener. By all rights, as a capable employer, Robin's grandfather should have offered them coverage, but he'd been too tight-fisted to provide it.
Michael's younger sister, Marionthe mere thought of her made something in Robin's chest shift and acheran the clinic. She was a former friend, a onetime lover and the only woman Robin could honestly say ever terrified him.
Though his grandfather hadn't approved of the Cross children as proper playmates for him, that hadn't kept the four of themRobin, Michael, John and later, Marion, who couldn't bear to be left behindfrom spending as much time together as possible. They'd built a tree house and forts in the forest around the estate, swum in the creek that cut through the woods. They'd invented their own type of Morse code with flashlights and had communicated late into the night. They'd caught lightning bugs, played hide-and-seek and I Spy. Though five years younger than the rest of them, Marion had been determined to keep up and though she occasionally got on her older brother's nerves, Robin never minded when she came along. She'd been special, even then.
And the adult version of Marion was even more potent. She made him feel things he couldn't recognize much less name, stirred a longing, an ache, a need beyond the basest level of attraction.
Because he'd needed to do something to show her that first, he wasn't like his grandfather and second that he had genuinely cared for her brother, Robin had founded the clinic and then handed her the reins to run as she saw fit once she'd graduated from college. He'd run into her half a dozen times in the ten years since she'd officially opened the door to the clinic and each time, no matter how fleeting, was more powerful than the last. It wasn't enough to talk to herhe needed to see her. It wasn't enough to see herhe had to touch her. Even if it was the merest brush of his shoulder against hers, it electrified him. Though he'd been with countless women over the past ten yearsand had been with others prior to herthat single ill-conceived night with Marion a decade ago was still somehow the most significant experience he'd ever had, and had become the measuring stick by which any other coupling was evaluated.
Ridiculous, he knew, but there it was.
He'd been back in town for nearly three months now and, while he'd done on-site visits to the other charities and businesses he supported, he'd avoided going to the clinic.
Why? Because he knew what would happen when he saw herwhat he'd feeland he had enough self-preservation instincts to delay it as long as possible.
Though there'd always been an easy camaraderie between them before, the tension now was palpable. She deliberately kept her distance and made sure they were never alone. It was obvious that she regretted their night togetherand to some degree, he did, too, because he'd never been able to forget itand wanted to keep their relationship on a strictly professional level.
His consolation? He knew she still wanted him, as well. He could practically feel the desire humming off her, caught glimpses of it when she thought he wasn't looking. He never left that clinic without feeling emotionally drained and wound tighter than a three-day clock.
"I'm not avoiding her," Robin lied, annoyed that John had noticed. "I've been busy. She has everything in hand at the clinic. There's no reason for me to check up on her." There. That sounded perfectly logical. Even John should appreciate that.
"How about just checking in on her then?" John pressed, the dart penetrating. "She's a friend, isn't she? You've known her most of your life."
Robin scowled, growing increasingly uncomfortable with this topic of conversation. "I know how long I've known her, dammit," he snapped, reaching again for his glass. "I don't need you to tell me."
John shrugged, seemingly unconcerned, then leaned forward and smiled with all of his teeth. "Maybe so, but do you know what you do need me to tell you?"
John's gaze shifted past his shoulder once more and a prickling of uneasiness slid up Robin's spine as a grin that wasn't directed at him broke impossibly wider over his friend's face.
"What?" he asked ominously.
John beamed at him. "Marion's here and headed this way. Put the hat back on."