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Rafael Delgado wore jeans, a badge and black leather well.
As he uncrossed his long legs and pulled away from the black heavyduty pickup he'd been leaning against in the nearly deserted parking lot behind Kansas City's Shamrock Bar, Josie Nichols got a glimpse of the gun he wore on his belt, too. She smiled, unafraid, her pulse doing its customary flutter at the broad shoulders and fluid stride of the man who'd waited in the dark to walk her to her car nearly every night since she'd taken the job tending bar at her uncle's tavern four years earlier.
But then Rafe had been looking out for her almost ten years now, ever since he'd made a promise to her fatherhis first partner at KCPDon the night Aaron Nichols had died.
Josie locked the Shamrock's back door and shook off the sadness that tightened her shoulders at the memory of her father's senseless slaughter in the line of duty. She could hear the assurance of booted footsteps crunching on the asphalt behind her. The shadows wouldn't be so scary tonight. The loneliness she lived with wouldn't prick so sharply. Chivalry was not dead. At least not in Rafe's book. She tucked the keys into her backpack and fixed a teasing smile on her face before turning to meet him.
"You know, Uncle Robbie installed a security camera back here. And the city put in an extra light. You don't have to wait and walk me to my car after closing every night." It was hard to miss the lack of an answering smile on his ruggedly sculpted features. "Especially when you've put in a long day like this one."
"It's no trouble." The flat response was a recitation of duty. Her heart squeezed at the exhaustion she heard in his gravelly tone, and she simply fell into step beside him when he took her elbow and walked her toward the beatup Ford compact parked beside his shiny, supersize truck. "You warm enough in this?"
"I can buy you a new winter coat if you need one."
"No, you won't. And I don't."
"Damn it, Joseare you going to argue every little thing I say to you tonight?"
"Whoa." Josie planted her feet, forcing him to halt. What the heck? She tipped her chin to try to decipher the sharp bite to his tone. "What's going on?"
A white cloud of breath formed in the chilly November air at his chestdeep sigh. "Sorry. I've got too many things running through my mind to be civil, I guess."
She might have imagined the slight tremble she'd felt in his long fingers before they wound around the sleeve of her insulated jacket and resumed their pace across the parking lot. But she wasn't as concerned with the thinness of her thriftstore jacket as she was with her friend's cryptic remark. Rafe looked tired. It was that bonedeep kind of weariness that seeped into the soul and indicated a man who had seen and endured more than he should.
Although his stern face remained a mask just above her line of sight, Josie could see the signs. She was the kind of woman who noticed subtle details and read others the way most folks read a book. That talent came in handy working nights as a bartender, and she hoped to put those same skills to work once she completed her nursing degree next summer. Her senses were even more finely tuned when she cared about that person.
And Josie Nichols had cared about Rafe through a teenage crush, the loss of her fathera man they'd both lovedand the bond of adult friendship. In some ways, she was closer to Rafe Delgado than she was to any other person on the planet. But he'd made it clear his heart was offlimits to her, and so she'd buried those feelings of infatuation that had matured into something much more profound now that she was a twentyfiveyearold woman.
Except for times like thiswhen the hour was late and the night separated them from the rest of the world. When they were alone. When Rafe was hurting and the selfavowed loner needed someone and she knew she could help.
Josie could guess at the pain shading his amber brown eyes. She'd seen the tragic story played on the news over and over that evening. She'd listened to the sketchy details he and his friends on KCPD's SWAT Team One had shared when they'd come in to drink a beer after this afternoon's deadly, heartbreaking standoff against one of Kansas City's most violent gangs. And then, before they'd had any real opportunity to decompress from the stress of the day, his SWAT team had been called away to the scene of a bomb threat to help calm a restless crowd who feared a serial killer had struck again.
Rafe had every reason to be in a mood. An innocent boy had died today. And while Rafe and his team had saved dozens of lives, it was the one life he'd lost that stayed with him. She'd heard the speech before. The first time was the night ten years ago when Rafe, little more than a rookie patrol cop himself, had come to the house to tell Josie and her half brother, Patrick, that their father had been mowed down in the street by a group of bank robbers in their getaway car. He'd glossed over the fact that he and her father had stopped the armed thieves, protecting bystanders on the street and recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen money. Instead, he'd sat on the couch between her and Patrick, with barely a tear leaking from the corner of his redrimmed eyes, even though she knew he felt as though he'd lost a father, too.
Rafe was thirtyfour years old now, but little had changed. Saving lives was doing his joblosing a life was personal. But that damn pride and noble code of honor he lived by kept him from grieving properly. Kept him from dealing with the rage and frustration and guilt that must be eating him up inside.
"Rafe, stop." She halted beside his truck. She couldn't keep her hands to herself when she saw the muscle twitching beneath the stony frown of his expression. Reaching up, Josie cupped his jaw, soothing the tension she felt in him. "That boy didn't die because of you."
"No. He died in spite of me." The sensitive skin of Josie's palm prickled at the rasp of latenight beard stubble that abraded her skin as he snagged her wrist and pulled her hand away. "His name was Calvin Chambers. And I can't get his blood off my fingers."
She twisted her grip to capture his hands between both of hers, angling them up toward the street lamp, turning them over. "I don't see any blood."
And then the floodgates of emotions opened. He spun away, raking his fingers through his hair, leaving a mess of short, tobacco brown spikes in their wake. He paced into the shadows beyond the circle of light illuminating them. "It's stuck in my head. The blood was so warm and he was so cold. He had bullet holes in his leg and chest. I tried to stop the bleeding. I had to pitch my gloves and uniform, there was so much of it."
"Oh, my God. The news never said it was that bad." Josie squeezed her fingers around the strap of her backpack, seeking a little comfort herself. "That poor child."
"He was so young. Ten years old. Ten freaking years old." Rafe stepped back into the light, startling her. "What the hell was I doingsittin' there while Calvin bled out?"
"Rafe." She'd seen him decked out in his SWAT gearblack uniform, flak vest, helmet, a handgun, a rifle and gear she didn't know the name for. "Horrible people who didn't give a damn about that little boy were shooting guns at cops. You broke up a gang, a drug ring. His killer was arrested. You weren't sitting there doing nothing. You were looking out for that boy."
"All I could do was hold him. I know what it feels like to be that young and that hurt. Nothing makes sense. All you know is fear and pain, and all you worry about is if it can possibly hurt any worse."
She watched his face contort as the grief welled up and he fought it back inside him. The anger, the selfrecriminations, rolled off him in waves. Josie knew that not one whit of it was directed at her. He needed to vent, and listening was another skill in her survivor's repertoire. Instinctively, she drifted closer, slipping her hand beneath his jacket to rest it over his thumping heart. "I know you did everything you could to save him."
He covered her hand with his, squeezing almost too tightly as he held it against the stuttering expansion and contraction of his chest. "I'm trained to take action, Josie. I'm not supposed to sit still and tell a child lies like he's going to see his mama soon and everything will be all right." He slid his warm hand along her jaw, tipping her face to trace the tears that spilled over her cheek with the pad of his thumb, as if touching the evidence of her compassion and sorrow was the only way to acknowledge the anguish he felt. "I couldn't get to a proper med kit. I couldn't get an ambulance to him."
She turned to press a kiss into his palm. "Your captain said there was a lot of gunfire. You were pinned down."
"Captain Cutler wasn't in that alley with me. I was lucky to pull Calvin out of that backyard at all." He stroked his thumb across her cheek again, wiping away another tear. "And damn it" Rafe's voice shook, "he kept trying to thank me for protecting him. He was scared to death, yet he was foolish enough or brave enough to try to make me feel better." He stroked his fingers across her temple, tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear and smoothing it back into the ponytail at her nape. "He died in an alley. In a stranger's arms. Walking home from school. That's not right for any child."
Over the years she'd known Rafe, he'd occasionally hinted at the horrors of his own childhood. Something about today's tragic events must be resonating deep inside him, waking feelings he normally barricaded behind an internal layer of armor. "No. It's not."
He stroked his thumb across her bottom lip and paused, as if he'd felt the same electric shock she had. "Somebody else should have gone after him. Somebody else could have saved him."
" His need was waking something vital and primal and feminine deep inside her. "He couldn't have been in better hands."
"Damn protocol. Damn rules. I should have blasted my way out of that alley"
"Others might have gotten hurt."
"and gotten him to the hospital."
"Stop it, Rafe." Josie let her backpack slide off her shoulder and plop at her feet. She moved a step closer, framing his face between her hands. "Just stop."
He pulled his fingers through her long, dark ponytail, then flipped it behind her back. He smoothed his hands across her shoulders, touched his finger to the rip she'd mended in the sleeve of her jacket. She wondered at the tiny frissons of heat that followed his every touch. Josie no longer felt the nip of November dampness in the air. She no longer heard the whispers of traffic on the street at the front side of the bar, no longer knew the hour of night or the fatigue in her own body as Rafe leaned in and touched his forehead to hers. "When your dad taught me about being a cop, he didn't teach me how to
how to lose a child. I feel so damn helpless."
"You're tough, Rafe, but nobody's that tough." She gave him a little shake, worried at the raw loss shading his eyes. "Dad would be proud of the man you've become. He'd be proud of the cop you are."
His hands finally settled at her waist, his fingers biting into the flare of her hips as he pulled her close enough for their jeans to rustle together and new pressure points beneath her skin to awaken at the needy contact. "Your dad would have saved him."
Josie wound her arms around Rafe's neck, sliding her fingers beneath the soft collar of his leather jacket to find the smooth warmth of his skin to anchor herself to. "This isn't Dad all over again. You were the best chance Calvin Chambers had. If anyone could have saved him, it was you. At least he had someone strong and caring with him at the end. He wasn't alone." Tears burned in her throat and reduced her voice to a whisper. "How wonderful that you made him smile."
"If someone's going to die, I'm the goto guy to have around, huh?"
"No, damn it, Rafe." Words weren't working. He couldn't hear her. He wouldn't hear. Rafe Delgado needed to feel the truth. "I'm so sorry you're hurting like this. Don't keep it in. It's okay to hurt."
She followed her instincts, doing the most natural, right thing she could think of, and kissed him. How many times, since she was fifteen years old, had she wanted to press her lips against Rafe's? How many lonely nights had she dreamed about turning their friendship into something more? But she'd always held back, settling for a peck on the cheek, treasuring a hug. But his emotions were too far off the chart tonight to settle for anything less than complete honesty between them.
"Shh" She kissed him again, lightly brushing her lips across his, testing the will of this coiled panther of a man, cooing sounds of desire and comfort in her throat.
Josie's lips parted as shock made him go still. His fingers aligned her hips with his. The heat of his body surrounded hers. Had she just broken some unspoken rule? Or did he understand she was giving him permission to kiss her back? Josie waited. Wanted. Dreamed.
Then, as if some understanding had snapped into place inside his head, Rafe inhaled a groaning breath and took over. He drove one thigh between hers and backed Josie against the truck. He slipped his tongue between her lips and deepened the kiss. She tasted the tang of beer on his tongue and the salty notes of tears from her own mouth.
With an impatient, throaty sigh, he unzipped her jacket and slipped his hand inside to squeeze her breast. The tender skin ignited beneath his touch and lit an ember deep in her core. Josie held on to his strong shoulders, her toes leaving the pavement as his knee wedged tighter, sparking flames that licked through her blood until they met up with his hands and mouth and consumed her in heat.