Kate Reynolds has just graduated from college and is determined to make it on her own. Her job as a junior political analyst at the CIA is a dream come true and the perfect opportunity to find answers about the night that’s plagued her for four years—the night she lost her fiancé, Matt, on a Special Forces mission in Afghanistan. Kate’s consumed with uncovering the truth and avenging the man she loved and lost, even if it means risking her own life to prove that his death wasn’t an accident.
When she gets too close to discovering what happened that fateful night and danger arrives on her doorstep, Kate’s stunned by the man who comes to her rescue. Together, they begin to dig for the truth, fighting to stay alive as they’re dragged down into a world of secrets and lies. But when the threat hits close to home, Kate must choose between vengeance and a future with the man who’s ignited a fire inside her that she thought died long ago.
Praise for the novels of Chanel Cleeton
"Flirting with Scandal by Chanel Cleeton has it all. A sexy hero, strong heroine, delicious romance, sizzling tension, and plenty of breathtaking scandal. I loved this book!"—New York Times bestselling author Monica Murphy
“A sassy, steamy, and sometimes sweet read that had me racing to the next page.”—New York Times bestselling author Chelsea M. Cameron
“I absolutely loved this book!”—Examiner.com
“Fun, sexy, and kept me completely absorbed.”—Katie McGarry, author of Nowhere But Here
“Scorching hot and wicked smart, Flirting with Scandal had me hooked from page one! Sizzling with sexual tension and political intrigue, Cleeton weaves a story that is as complex as it is sexy. Thank God this is a series because I need more!!”—New York Times bestselling author Rachel Harris
“Sexy, intelligent, and intriguing. Chanel Cleeton makes politics scandal-icious.”—USA Today bestselling author Tiffany King
“Chanel Cleeton knocked it out of the park with Flirting with Scandal. The banter was refreshing, the political storyline captivating, and the sexual tension was through the roof. Smart, emotional, romantic, and sizzling hot—this book is fantastic!”—Christina Lee, author of the Between Breaths series
“Chanel Cleeton delivers again! Featuring a strong heroine, a steamy romance, and juicy dose of political scandal, Flirting with Scandal is completely engrossing. Clear your calendars—you won't be able to put this one down!”—Brenda St. John Brown, author of Swimming to Tokyo
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Falling for Danger
I stared out at the vast expanse of dark, the Chesapeake Bay inky black in the sticky July night. A loud boom sounded, followed by an explosion of color in the sky. Red. Blue. The scent of burning wood filled my nostrils, mixing with the salty air. Beer flowed freely from two enormous kegs, hot dogs cooking on the grill.
I sank down onto the blanket in the sand, hugging my bare knees to my chest, staring up at the fireworks.
Music and laughter blended together, the birthday party my older sister, Blair, had thrown for me at her boyfriend Thom’s house showing no sign of winding down.
I wasn’t sentimental about birthdays, never had been. Being born on July Fourth with a U.S. senator for a father, I’d quickly learned that there was no contest between America’s birthday and mine. My parents needed to be out shaking hands and kissing babies and getting my father reelected.
When we were younger, they’d dragged me and Blair along with them—two girls in matching red, white, and blue dresses, ribbons in our hair, smiling for photos and looking like miniatures of our parents—Blair’s dark hair like our mother’s, mine blonde like our father’s. Only two years apart, we’d been bookends to the family photo op.
And then I’d hit eleven and that awkward stage—one that unfairly, Blair never seemed to reach—and started protesting having to spend my birthday smiling at strangers and behaving like a fucking doll. There went the family birthday celebrations. Which was fine, really. I had a bottle of beer next to me in the sand, a hot dog in my stomach, and one hundred of my closest friends—give or take fifty that were definitely total strangers.
What else could a girl want for her sixteenth birthday?
One more thing.
And he wasn’t here.
I turned back to the party, scanning the group behind me for what felt like the millionth time that night. My gaze ran over the crowd, settling for a moment on Blair and her boyfriend, Thom, sweeping back again . . .
Still not here.
I wasn’t totally surprised. He was spending the summer working for his father’s security firm in D.C. He’d had to work today, but said he would drive down when he got off. Still, the traffic would be brutal, especially with the holiday. Besides, it wasn’t like he was my boyfriend or anything. It was a lot of trouble to go to for a friend’s birthday—even with a history as long as ours. But Matt Ryan had never made me a promise he didn’t keep, and I couldn’t believe he’d miss my sixteenth birthday.
I lay back on the blanket, watching the fireworks flicker overhead, my fourth beer blurring the colors a bit.
So he wasn’t here. It sucked, but whatever. It had still been a good birthday.
More lights. Boom. Hiss. Aaah. Back and forth. Over and over again.
And then the bright lights disappeared. I blinked and looked up.
Matt stood over me, blocking out the fireworks, wearing a pair of khaki shorts slung low on his hips and a blue button-down shirt, sleeves rolled. A beer bottle dangled from his hand. His feet were bare.
He smiled down at me, the curve of his lips sending my heart careening to my stomach.
I sat up, trying to steady myself. We’d been friends practically my whole life; this shouldn’t have felt so weird. My palms shouldn’t be clammy, my heart racing, my throat tight.
I winced at how strained my voice sounded, all of the excitement and nerves clogging my throat leaving little room for words to escape.
“I couldn’t miss your birthday.” Matt crouched down so that we were eye level. I stared into his dark eyes, his brown hair waving with the light breeze that had picked up over the water.
My fingers itched to reach out and touch.
He had an athlete’s body, honed from years of playing soccer. It was a body that I’d seen shirtless on so many summers playing at the beach, and never felt a thing. But now, even clothed, I felt lots of things.
Matt sat down next to me on the blanket, bringing his long legs up in a pose mimicking my own—knees to chest, wrists resting on top of his legs. Given the extra eight inches he had on me, I doubted it was comfortable.
“I’m sorry I’m late. Traffic was crazy getting out of the city.”
Why was it so hard to talk to him now? It was like all of my words had frozen up. I sat there on the blanket feeling like an idiot, wondering if we’d ever have a chance at just being friends again. Did he notice how weird things were between us? Was it just me? Did he know that somewhere along the way I’d stopped seeing him as just a friend and started wanting so much more?
My cheeks flamed.
I tilted my head to the sky, staring up at the sparkling lights, the light breeze hitting my face as I tried to hide all of the emotion that lingered in my heart and eyes.
Matt set his beer down on the sand, adjusting on the blanket. A whiff of his cologne hit my nostrils and I felt a familiar set of butterflies in my belly. His leg grazed mine. I froze. Was that an accident? But if it was an accident, why was his thigh pressing into mine?
I sucked in air, not sure if I was trying to sober up the rest of the way or keep from passing out. His leg felt good against mine—warm, strong, somehow both reassuring and terrifying. My heart pounded in a mad beat.
I didn’t move, not wanting to break the connection between us, waiting to see where this was headed, if it was even headed anywhere. Desperately praying that it was headed where I so badly wanted it to go.
“You okay?” Matt asked.
I nodded, turning to face him, realizing how close we actually were. I swallowed, staring into his dark brown eyes. He hadn’t just moved his leg toward mine; he’d leaned into me so that we were only inches apart.
He smelled amazing.
My gaze trailed down, and I could barely resist the urge to attack his mouth. We’d grown up in the same circles; I’d heard girls talk about what a good kisser he was, had wondered what it would be like if I were in their place. I wanted his lips for myself now.
“Do you want your birthday present?” he asked, a smile on his face.
I wanted him.
This was a tradition we repeated every year. Matt gave the best presents—an old edition of my favorite book one year, an Eiffel Tower snow globe the summer he’d gone to France with his family that I still kept by my bed, the fact that he’d thought of me while he was on vacation feeling like everything.
“Close your eyes,” he whispered.
This, too, was a tradition, although this year the words sounded huskier, the promise of them, more.
I closed my eyes.
He took my hand and I jerked back, ready to jump out of my skin with that simple touch. He stayed still for a moment, as though easing me into it, and then I relaxed as he uncurled my fingers, opening my palm to the sky. He set something down and my fingers closed around a small round box.
My eyes slammed open.
My fingers shook slightly as I popped the lid on the box, the contents causing a hitch in my breath.
The necklace was beautiful—a round disc in gold, a “K” etched into the metal. My finger traced the letter, my brain scrambling to catch up.
He’d never given me a gift like this. His gifts were always quirky and fun, things that spoke to my personality. Friend gifts. This felt like something else entirely.
I looked up from the necklace, searching his gaze, wondering if I’d find the answers I needed there.
“Do you like it?” Matt asked, his expression uncharacteristically unsure.
I nodded, not quite trusting my voice.
“Do you want me to put it on you?”
I opened my mouth, about to say that there was no need and I could put the necklace on without help, when suddenly I realized that if he put the necklace on me, he’d be touching me.
My voice shook a bit as I forced the word out, but if Matt noticed he was cool enough not to say anything.
He took the necklace from the box, shifting behind me. I lifted my hair off of my neck, a line of goose bumps rising over my skin as the breeze hit my bared flesh.
And then his fingers grazed me—holy crap—his touch warm, gentle, followed by the press of the cool metal against my neck. He fumbled with the clasp for a moment, his breath tickling my ear, his lips inches away from being on me.
I’d never wanted anything as much as I wanted him to kiss me. As much as I wanted him.
He fastened the clasp, but instead of moving away, he leaned me back against his legs, our bodies touching, the scent of his cologne once again surrounding me.
“Is this okay?” he whispered, his lips grazing my lobe.
It was a good thing we were sitting, because I was fairly certain that my legs were wet noodles.
Okay? It was amazing, and at the same time, I was climbing out of my skin. My heart pounded like I’d just run a marathon; my palms way past clammy. One refrain played through my mind on repeat:
Kiss me kiss me kiss me.
If there hadn’t been two years between us, if he hadn’t been so hot, if the hot dog in my stomach wasn’t starting to feel like deadweight, and I hadn’t been so completely clueless when it came to guys, maybe I would have just kissed him then and there. But he was eighteen, and he was gorgeous, and likely could get any girl he wanted. He’d been my best friend since I was four; he’d accidentally broken my nose with an errant baseball when I was eight. He’d seen me at my best and worst, and always been there for me. And I definitely felt like I was going to throw up.
I was young, but I wasn’t stupid, and I could tell we stood on the edge of something new, but the thought of doing anything to alter our relationship when he was the one person in my life I’d always counted on scared the shit out of me.
Matt’s arm wrapped around me, settling me against his body. He leaned forward, resting his head against my shoulder, his mouth once again inches away from my face.
Kiss me kiss me kiss me.
He sighed against my back, and for the first time it hit me that he might be just as nervous as I was, wondering what the hell had changed in our relationship, and where we could go from here. Nothing had happened, but everything was different, the change flickering between us like the fireflies off in the distance.
Matt reached out, turning me to face him, holding my chin in his hand, tipping my face toward his.
Everything stilled as I froze this moment, clutching this memory to my chest; whatever happened next, I’d always have this—the possibility of us—to savor.
Our gazes locked onto each other, mine dipping for a second to look at his mouth at precisely the same time he said, “I love you, Kate.”
With those four words, the hot dog settled in my stomach. The two-year age difference fell away in the face of a lifetime of friendship. And I found my voice.
“I love you, too.”
His body shuddered against mine as though I’d just given him the answer to a question that had been eating him inside. And with those four words, I tied a string around my heart and connected it to his.
The nerves disappeared. Everything disappeared. Maybe on paper we’d gone from friends to more in an instant, but I’d always loved him, and that love had changed until now it was this—Matt cupping my face in his palms, his thumbs stroking back and forth across my cheekbones, and then his lips descended on mine and he gave me my first kiss.
Since Blair was two years older than me and had been dating Thom for years, I’d asked her about kissing. She’d shrugged and said it was nice.
She was wrong.
It wasn’t nice. It was indescribable. It was lips, tongue, teeth moving in a dance I didn’t know the moves to yet picked up as naturally as breathing. It was hungry and desperate and soothing. And right then, I knew—I was the luckiest girl in the world to have fallen in love with my best friend and to have him love me back.
We kissed for hours, my back on the blanket, the necklace he’d slipped on my neck warm against my skin, Matt’s body on top of me, showered by fireworks as America and I turned one year older.
Best birthday ever.
D.C.’s political elite is expected to attend this year’s concert at the U.S. Capitol to celebrate the Fourth of July. We can’t wait to see what scandals we uncover . . .
—Capital Confessions blog
Six years later
“Why are you still here?”
I looked up from the project I’d been working on—analyzing newspaper articles from Syria to assist with a leadership profile my boss wanted on a Syrian general—my elbow nearly connecting with one of several cups of coffee strewn about my desk. Sometimes intelligence work could be really fucking tedious. When it was completed, the profile would serve as a reference document providing background information on the general. The goal was to use this information to not only get a better sketch of him, but also as a predictive and descriptive tool to understand his motivations and attempt to guess at what he might do next.
My boss, Richard Standler, stood in front of me, staring down at my cluttered desk.
“Just trying to finish up this report,” I answered, hoping I looked like the dutiful employee.
I’d only been working at the Central Intelligence Agency for a couple of weeks. I’d graduated from Georgetown in May with a political science degree, and gotten an entry-level job working as a political analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. My job involved country risk analysis—looking at raw data, both classified and open source—things like media, Internet sites, public data, and professional and academic publications—to make assessments on how U.S. interests would be affected by a particular country’s goals and behavior. In my case, I was assigned to the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis. I’d taken Arabic in college and was pretty much fluent, so that definitely helped.
It wasn’t the glamorous, car chase “spy” job everyone envisioned when they thought of working at the CIA—my greatest health hazard was probably getting carpal tunnel—but for someone who geeked out on international relations and security policy, it was pretty much my dream job.
“You do realize it’s a holiday, right? You didn’t actually need to come in today.”
Ugh. It was. It was also my twenty-second birthday.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m about to head out. I just wanted to get this finished.”
It was important to me that I made a good impression. I wasn’t great at office politics, but I was a hard worker and I hoped that would take me far.
“Do you have plans to go see some fireworks later?”
“No, I’m just going to head home after this.”
He shifted from side to side as though he was looking for something else to say, but finally he just nodded and gave me an uncomfortable smile.
“Well, don’t work too late.”
I forced a smile. “I won’t.”
I listened to his footsteps walking away, and then I went back to the report, grateful for the silence. Maybe it made me a freak, but I sort of liked working when the office was nearly empty. It saved me from awkward, stilted conversations with my coworkers. I was here to do a job, not to make friends. I was here to learn everything I could about what happened that day in Afghanistan when my fiancé, Matt, had never come home from his Special Forces mission.
We’d dated throughout high school, gotten engaged my freshman year of college after Matt had decided to give up his future at Intech, his father’s private security firm, and instead enlisted in the Army. I’d only been eighteen, and my parents had definitely not approved, but I hadn’t worried or questioned my decision for a second. We’d had the kind of relationship that had been solid, and my future had always seemed like it was meant to include him.
Until I woke to a phone call telling me that his unit had been ambushed, and he’d been killed in Afghanistan.
There hadn’t been a body to bury; details had been scarce. Much of it was swept under the “classified” rug, leaving me with a whole lot of questions and a wound that seemed impossible to recover from.
I wasn’t stupid; I knew the odds of me finding out any information on Matt’s death were slim to none. I was at the absolute bottom rung of the CIA food chain, and my access to information was limited at best. Not to mention, I couldn’t exactly advertise what I was looking for. No, I had to hope I got lucky, or that I performed really well and they started increasing my access level.
It wasn’t just the need to know what had happened to him, it was the suspicion that there was more to the story, the mounting evidence that my father, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was somehow linked to what had gone down in Afghanistan nearly four years ago. It was a mission I’d picked up a little less than a year ago, a vendetta I wasn’t willing to let die. Even if it meant I was dead girl walking.
If I was going to go out, then I was going to go out in a fucking blaze of glory—
And take everyone down with me.
• • •
I left Langley and drove home, searching for a parking spot in my neighborhood. The city was even busier with the crowds celebrating the Fourth, and I had to park several blocks away from my apartment building.
I walked down the sidewalk, pushing through the crowded streets. It was dusk and the fireworks had yet to start, but the sidewalks teemed with people enjoying the warm D.C. summer. I lengthened my strides, hating the crowds, ready to collapse on my couch, watch TV, and finish off the Lebanese food I’d bought last night.
Suddenly, a chill slid down my spine. Again.
I froze. My head whipped around as my gaze swept my surroundings.
Groups of people walked down the street behind me, laughing and chatting as though they hadn’t a care in the world. How long had it been since I’d felt like that? Since I’d felt normal?
A body collided with mine.
“Hey, watch where you’re going.”
I mumbled an apology to the man, ducking my head and picking up the pace, my street nearly in sight.
It was stupid, and I’d probably become paranoid, but I swore it felt like someone was following me. I’d had the feeling for weeks now. I couldn’t pinpoint why, had never seen anyone behind me; it was just a feeling. One that had me looking over my shoulder, wondering when I’d pay for the shots I’d taken against my father’s reputation.
All it’s going to do is get you killed.
My sister Blair’s words when she’d learned that I’d been selling information about our father, Senator Edward Reynolds, to Capital Confessions hit me again. Okay, yeah, maybe I knew why I felt the way I did. Why I had trouble sleeping. Why I kept a safe-deposit box full of information in case of my death.
I wasn’t sure when my life had become a Greek tragedy, but I didn’t doubt my father would kill me if I got too close to the truth of what had happened to Matt in Afghanistan—if it were true and my father had really been involved.
I couldn’t resist the urge to peer over my shoulder again, not sure if I was relieved or annoyed to come up empty. After weeks of this, I was ready to face whoever was after me. Maybe I was crazy. I at least consoled myself with the thought that even my father wasn’t likely to have me killed on my own birthday.
Although, if he were going to do it in a way that minimized the scandal to the family and presented him with the perfect political opportunity, having me mugged on my way home would be the optimal cover.
I still lived in the same tiny one-bedroom apartment I’d lived in during college. It wasn’t in the best part of D.C., but it was cheap, and since I’d cut off ties with my parents after Matt’s death, I’d paid for my own college education and living expenses. I had some money in trust from my grandparents, but four years at Georgetown had been expensive, as had my apartment, shitty though it might be. The CIA paid okay, but it wasn’t anything crazy, so I tried to live pretty frugally.
It was a testament to twenty-two years of being a Reynolds that I could easily envision the speeches and the piece of legislation my father would sponsor decrying the high crime level on the streets. Yeah, if I were going to have me killed, I’d go with a mugging.
My heart raced as I walked up to my building, unlocking the front door and slipping inside, the door shutting behind me immediately.
I released a breath, my body sagging. I steadied myself for a moment and then I made the trek up six flights of stairs until I reached the front door of my apartment, unlocking it and heading inside.
I got comfortable, changing into a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top. My apartment didn’t have the luxury of central air—nothing like the seven-thousand-square-foot home I grew up in—and it was boiling today. I threw on an episode of an old nineties sitcom and feasted on the last of my chicken shawarma from last night’s dinner. As far as birthdays went, I’d had worse.
I read through texts from my sisters, Blair and Jackie, responding with promises to call later. Jackie and her fiancé, Will, had plans to attend the big concert at the Capitol this year. Will was newly elected to a state senate seat in Virginia so it helped for them to be rubbing elbows with D.C.’s movers and shakers. They’d invited me to join them, but I’d spent more of my childhood than I cared to remember being dragged to things like that, and it wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat.
Blair had moved to Boston with her boyfriend, Gray, and had decided to spend the holiday up there, working an event her nonprofit had put on for the families they served. Even if she had been here, I wasn’t sure we would have spent the day together. Things had been tense between us ever since she found out I had been working with Capital Confessions last year—and was responsible for the blog outing her relationship with her then–law professor. We’d mended fences for the most part, but our relationship remained strained.
I missed my sister. Our personalities couldn’t have been more different—Blair was poised and polite and I was more of a bull in a china shop—but we’d still been pretty close. Growing up the way we had, we’d banded together out of both love and necessity. Besides, living our lives in the public eye had made it difficult to let a lot of people in. Trust was the ultimate commodity, and you learned pretty quickly that this town ran on power and everyone wanted to get close to the people who held it. As the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, my father was the ultimate power broker. He was also an asshole.
It wasn’t just the affairs, or the way he’d treated my sister Jackie, the illegitimate daughter he’d fathered and abandoned, or how we butted heads at every turn. He wasn’t just an asshole; he was the kind of guy who would take anyone down if their interests threatened his—including me. And he was definitely involved in some dark shit.
I grabbed the old, worn file folder sitting on my coffee table, flipping through the pages I practically knew from memory. Several months ago, the first packet had arrived in the mail addressed to me with a preprinted label and an Arlington postmark. Every few months or so, more came. Each packet came from a different city in the metro area. Each packet had a little more information about the security firm Intech’s operations in Afghanistan.
The first packet had contained two important pieces of information:
My father’s name and Matt’s father’s name. And then came the documents with Matt’s name, surrounded by a whole lot of blacked-out bits.
Matt’s father, James Ryan, owned Intech, one of the world’s largest private security firms. He was also one of my father’s largest campaign contributors.
I didn’t even know what I had exactly—a lot of it was redacted—but the fact that someone had sent me this was enough to make me think there was more there. The conversation I’d accidentally overheard days after Matt’s funeral filled in the other missing piece, shattering any ties I had to my parents.
Blair had accused me of being obsessed with what happened to Matt, and she was probably right. She’d told me I needed to move on, needed to find a life for myself. I just didn’t know how. We’d been a couple ever since my sixteenth birthday; before that we’d grown up together as best friends. I’d loved him forever. I hadn’t just lost my fiancé; Matt’s death created a hole in my life that I couldn’t fill. And more than that, it created a hole inside of me.
You didn’t bounce back from that.
• • •
I jerked up in bed, a loud crash coming from the direction of my living room.
My heart pounded, my gaze darting to the nightstand and the alarm clock next to my bed. Instead of the neon numbers I expected to see staring back at me, the screen was dark. I fumbled with the lamp, reaching for the switch. I flicked it on. Nothing happened.
A chill slid down my spine, my limbs filling with ice. Maybe there’d been a storm. Maybe it was just a normal power outage. Maybe someone had come to kill me.
Another crash—the sound of breaking glass—the noise once again in the direction of the living room.
It wasn’t a dream; someone was definitely in my apartment.
I reached for my cell, only to come up empty.
I’d left it in my purse, which was not-so-conveniently sitting on the coffee table in the living room.
I got out of bed, heading to the closet. I fumbled around in the dark for a moment, until finally my hand connected with the wooden handle of a baseball bat. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. If I were lucky, maybe I could catch the intruder off guard. I definitely wasn’t going to stay here like a sitting duck, waiting to be killed. If I could get a good swing in, then maybe I could make it to the front door. I had a few neighbors—surely someone would hear me. Hopefully, they weren’t all gone for the holiday. Not to mention, since this wasn’t the best area, fights weren’t exactly something new. The hope that someone would overhear and call the cops was probably in vain.
My hands tightened around the bat, sliding over to the bedroom door, cursing the old construction and the fact that none of the interior doors had locks on them.
Adrenaline slammed through me, my body tense and poised for a fight as I waited, my gaze locked on the handle of the door, waiting to see it turn.
A shout came from the other side of the door.
My breath caught.
Oh god, there’s more than one of them.
A loud thud, followed by a series of grunts, filled the night air. Then another thud—like the sound of bone connecting with bone. More grunts. A shout. Popping sounds.
Someone was fighting in my living room. The realization surprised me enough that the bat slipped through my fingers and dropped to the ground. Judging from when I’d gone to bed and the sliver of moonlight in the inky sky shining through my sixth-floor window, it was two or three a.m. And there were strange men fighting in my apartment.
All it’s going to do is get you killed.
Maybe I should have listened to Blair. Maybe I should have just let everything with Matt go. He was dead; why did I need to go dredging up old ghosts? What would it accomplish, really? And after nearly a year of trying to research what had really happened to him, all I had to show for my efforts were a few cryptic pieces of paper, men fighting in my living room, and my imminent death.
But why were they fighting? If my father—or someone connected to him—had sent someone to kill me, why hadn’t they done it already? Why were they fighting each other? Assassin’s quarrel?
I picked up the baseball bat, my knuckles white. Silence filled the apartment.
I stayed in the corner, directly behind the bedroom door, my gaze trained on the doorknob, struggling to control my breathing, trying so hard not to make a sound. My limbs felt frozen, pulled down by fifty-pound weights. I was afraid to move, afraid to breathe too loudly, afraid to do anything except grip the baseball bat as though it were an extension of my body.
No one came to kill me.
Were they gone?
Indecision filled me as I struggled with what to do next. Part of me wanted to go into the living room and try to grab my phone so I could call the police. It was so quiet—maybe they really were gone. At the same time, it seemed crazy to run toward danger. And part of me couldn’t have moved if I wanted to—my body plastered against the wall, my legs frozen with fear.
And then the doorknob made the decision for me.
Horror filled me as I watched the knob turn, heard the creak of the hinges as it opened, and then I swung with all of my might, the bat connecting with muscle and bone with a sickening thwack.
The intruder crumpled to the ground with an oath and I leapt over the body, the bat dangling from my hand, running toward the living room, panic clawing at my throat. I grabbed my bag off of the coffee table, running toward the front door, my heart pounding as I prayed that I’d hit him hard enough to keep him down for a while.
I gripped the front door, pulling it open, when all of a sudden—
I froze, my hand slipping from the doorknob, the sound of my name hitting my body like a blow.
Oh my god.
Oh my god.
I knew that voice. Had heard it say my name hundreds of times. Thousands of times.
I told myself it was the stress of the night catching up with me, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, hoped it was. I told myself to keep running, to call the police, told myself not to turn and face the intruder in my apartment.
It can’t be.
I struggled to calm my breathing, to keep it together, when suddenly I felt like I was falling apart.
My hand left the knob, the baseball bat falling from my other hand, my body turning as the power of memory beat out any fight-or-flight response I might have had.
It was dark in the apartment—too dark to see anything but a shape looming in my open bedroom doorway. A strangled gasp escaped my mouth.
He was tall. Just like Matt had been.
Broader than Matt, though.
It can’t be.
And then I heard that voice again. “It’s me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
My body sagged against the front door. This had to be a dream. All of this. Maybe I was still sleeping.
He began walking toward me, slowly, nothing menacing in his stride. He approached me without a sound, gliding through my living room like a ghost. With each step, he sucked the air out of the room.
My throat clogged with unshed tears, my entire world reduced to each step he took. And then he was in front of me, and I looked up, up, and stared at the man standing before me, searching for some sign that I wasn’t crazy, that this wasn’t a dream.
That it really was him.
I blinked, for a moment wondering if I was wrong, if I’d just walked into a trap and gotten myself killed. His face was covered in a dark beard, his hair obscured by an even darker ski cap. Up close, his body was even bulkier than I’d previously thought. His mouth was slanted in a hard line, nothing like the teasing smile I was used to seeing on the boy I’d loved and lost.
He reached out and I flinched.
Maybe this was it. Maybe Blair was right and I’d totally and completely lost my mind.
But he didn’t kill me.
Instead, his fingers curled around the gold chain at my neck, his hand grazing my skin as he touched the little gold disc with my initial etched on it. The one he’d given me six years ago.
Our gazes connected and I stared into familiar dark eyes—
I stared at a ghost.
Senator Reynolds and his wife attended the concert at the Capitol. Rumor has it the senator might be considering a presidential bid in the next election cycle. Does he have what it takes?
—Capital Confessions blog
I’d thought I could handle seeing her again. Told myself that if I ever did, I would be able to keep it together. Apparently, I’d lied.
It was too dark to do more than make out the shape of her—her face, the blonde hair that fell to her shoulders. Lips I’d kissed so many times.
The sight of her was a punch to the gut. I released the necklace she wore—the one I’d placed around her neck years ago—the gold slipping through my fingers like sand, my knuckles brushing her soft skin.
I remembered that, too.
I staggered back, my hip still throbbing from where she’d hit me with the baseball bat. I should have anticipated that Kate would be armed. Thank god she hadn’t hit my head.
Neither one of us spoke, adding to the surreal quality of the night. I’d dreamed of this moment, but I’d never thought it would actually happen. I didn’t know what to say to her or how to handle this. And, after fighting a guy off in her apartment, I was starting to think the most important issue that needed to be addressed wasn’t my reappearance, but rather why someone had broken in—by the way he’d fought and the ease with which he’d slipped in, clearly a professional.
I broke the silence between us, my mind racing as training took over. “Where’s your breaker?”
“My breaker?” she squeaked.
God, her voice. For a moment, the memories hit me hard. It took everything I had to push them back and focus on the mission.
“Yeah. The guy disabled your power.”
It sounded like she was in shock, a tremor filling her voice.
“The guy in your apartment. The one that broke in.”
She took a deep breath. “That wasn’t you?”
Her gaze darted around. “Where did he go?”
“Ran out your door. I went after him, but I lost him when I hit the street.” My jaw clenched. “He knew what he was doing. I came back to make sure you were okay.”
Kate reached out and clasped my face. “Did he hurt you?”
I swallowed, the familiar scent of her hitting me hard, the ache in my chest intensifying. “No.” I took a step away from her. “Where’s your breaker?” I repeated.
It took her a few beats to answer me, and when she finally did, I heard the tremor in her voice again.
I left her and walked into her kitchen, feeling my way around until my palm connected with a metal panel in the wall. I flipped it open, flicking switches. Sure enough, he hadn’t cut the power, just switched off the breaker.
I turned on the kitchen light, walking into the living room and turning that one on, too.
Kate sat on the floor, her back to the front door which she’d closed when I went into the kitchen, her face pale, eyes wide.
“This isn’t a dream,” she whispered.
I shook my head, not sure I trusted my voice to speak. I put my hands in my pockets to keep from reaching out and touching her. Kept several feet between us for safety’s sake.
This was not how I’d intended for this to go down. Of course, I also hadn’t imagined that I’d find someone trying to kill her. Whatever she’d gotten mixed up in, it was bad.
The need to stay dead no longer felt as important as the need to keep her safe.
He was alive.
The room spun around me. My body trembled. I’d sunk to the ground, my legs too weak to keep me upright. I couldn’t get my bearings, couldn’t reconcile the sight of Matt—or whatever version of Matt stood before me—alive, in my living room. It felt as though I’d gone to sleep and woken up in the Twilight Zone.
He’d died. I’d grieved him. Still grieved him. Except apparently, he hadn’t.
“How are you here?”
Of all the questions swirling around in my head, that one seemed like the most obvious one to ask. Or maybe it was just the answer I needed most.
He folded his giant arms in front of his chest, his expression inscrutable. “Every man with me that day died. I didn’t.”
I blinked. That was it? This was the reunion I received after nearly four years of thinking he was dead? What the fuck? Everything about this felt wrong. He was alive. Why wasn’t he kissing me? Why was he standing so far away? And why did it feel like an impostor stood where Matt should have?
“Yeah, I figured that out.” My gaze narrowed, anger breaking through the wall of numbness surrounding me. “Why did someone tell me that you did?”
“Because everyone thinks I’m dead.”
His voice had changed in the years since he’d been gone. The teasing note had died, the happiness that I’d heard every time he talked to me forgotten. He spoke now like I was a stranger.
He was back, and yet, he wasn’t.
“So you just let me think it, too?”