Really. Fucking. Slowly.
Jude Wilde groaned and leaned back in his office chair. Maybe leaving the Marines hadn’t been the best decision of his thirty years. Of course, nobody could ever accuse him of having good decision-making skills, so there was no sense in breaking that tradition now.
Still. Had it really been only a month since he got out? At least the Marines, with all of their political BS, had offered stimulation, distraction, entertainment.
He scanned the mostly empty office space of Wilde Security—industrial gray carpet, banged-up metal desks, walls that may have been white back in the days of Nixon—until his gaze found two of his older brothers, Camden and Vaughn.
“You know,” he said, “this P.I. stuff is not as cool as it seems in the movies.”
Ever competitive, the twins were busy arguing over another game of Battleship, and he got no response.
Sighing, Jude tilted his head back and spun his chair around and around until his stomach started to spin right along with the ceiling. He stopped. Straightened. Wobbled. Glowered at his brothers again. “Guys, seriously, I’m so freakin’ bored. I’m gonna lose my mind here.”
“Quick, hide the matches,” Camden said and finally looked up. “And the scissors, paper clips, and anything else shiny or pointy.”
“Can’t have little brother hurting himself,” Vaughn added with a shit-eating grin, then proceeded to sink Cam’s sub.
Jude grabbed a sheet of paper from the blank pad on his desk, wadded it up. He sent it sailing toward the twins and had the great satisfaction of watching it nail Vaughn in the face before it bounced and smacked Cam on the side of the head.
Jude held up his arms. “Goaaal!”
The twins shared a glance, communicating in their freaky nonverbal way, and—oh, shit!—he had just enough time to leap out of his chair before they launched across the office.
Two against one, just like when they were kids. Even calling on every ounce of military training he possessed, Jude didn’t stand a chance. Still, a friendly brawl with his brothers was a helluva lot better than stewing in his own boredom. A good wrestling match always livened things up, especially if he could turn the twins against each other. Then he’d sneak out of the fray, sit back, and watch the show.
Cam went in low, tackling him around the middle while Vaughn went high. The combined force of four hundred pounds of muscle made for a jarring impact and wrenched the air from his lungs, but he still croaked out a laugh.
“Guys, you’re getting soft—” An elbow plowed into his gut. “Umph.”
All right. Time to weasel his way out before a blow landed farther south. He grabbed two handfuls of someone’s T-shirt—ah, Camden’s. Perfect—and yanked the fabric up. Blinded, Cam lost his balance and slammed fist-first into Vaughn, who growled and shoved his twin hard. The three of them went down in a cursing knot of flailing limbs. Cam shrugged out of the tangled shirt and grabbed Vaughn in a headlock. Jude took the opportunity to scramble out from under the dog pile, skull dragging across the carpet until a polished shoe blocked his path.
Wincing, he gazed up from the glossy Italian leather, followed the crease of perfectly pleated trousers and the gray pinstripes of a silk tie to meet his second-oldest brother’s glowering hazel eyes. “Reece. Hi.”
At the sound of Reece’s name, the twins jumped apart like repelled magnets. Cam was still shirtless and had earned himself a swollen lip. Vaughn would be sporting a black eye by the end of the afternoon. Both were breathing hard, and Jude had to bite the inside of his cheek to stifle a laugh. Those two were just too damn easy to rile up.
Reece’s mouth turned down at the corners. A small frown, but enough to tell Jude just how pissed big bro was. Yet Reece effortlessly smoothed his expression into a pleasant smile and turned to the man standing beside him, who looked like a cover model for GQ with his streaky, salon-styled blond hair and straight, bleached teeth.
“Mr. Burke, these are our investigators, my brothers Camden, Vaughn, and Jude. They practice their hand-to-hand combat techniques daily and often test each other with surprise attacks. Unfortunately, that sometimes means a scuffle breaks out in the office.”
“In the office?” Burke looked down his straight nose at Jude, a slight sneer pulling up the corner of his mouth. “That’s highly irregular.”
“And what makes us the best at handling irregular situations.” Reece waved an arm toward the back of the building, where Greer, their oldest brother and founder of Wilde Security, held court. “If you’ll follow me, Greer’s office is this way. He’s anxious to talk specifics with you and your client.”
The office door shut behind them, and Jude said, “Ruh-roh.”
“You are such a little shithead,” Vaughn replied and touched his already-swollen eye.
“Yeah, but you two make such easy targets.”
Cam parted his lips, no doubt to lash out with a retort, but the office door opened again, and Reece reappeared. Ruh-roh was right. Reece’s gaze all but singed as he zeroed in on each of them in turn.
“Cam, put on a goddamn shirt,” he snapped. “Vaughn, go ice your eye. And you.” He pinned Jude with a finger, much the same as their father used to when they were kids. “You better fucking behave. Kenneth Burke represents a big client. We’re talking a bigger payday than we’ve ever seen, and you are not going to screw us up.” The for once in your life part went unspoken. It never had to be said. They all knew Jude was the family fuck up, and he’d made his peace with that.
“Greer wants you three in here for this,” Reece continued. “So pull your act together and at least pretend you’re professionals.”
Jude snapped into a salute. “Yes, sir.”
Reece just shook his head and shoved back into the office, grumbling something under his breath about little brothers. Dude really needed to loosen up. It must be exhausting to stay wound so tight twenty-four/seven. Sometimes shit happened, and no amount of planning in the world stopped it from happening, so why worry? That was Jude’s philosophy. Have fun when life was good. Bend over and take it when shit got bad. And never, ever look back. Bridges burned for a reason. He made sure of it because the past hurt too damn much.
One of the twins socked him in the shoulder as they passed.
“Good going,” Vaughn said.
“Now he’s gonna be in a pisser of a mood all day,” Cam added.
“When isn’t he?” Jude wondered aloud as he fell into step behind the twins. Reece’s middle name was Stick-Up-The-Ass, and his smiles were few and far between.
But if smiling was a rarity for Reece, it was a completely foreign concept to the eldest Wilde brother.
Greer sat behind his disaster area of a desk, faint scowl lines creasing his forehead, his eyes narrowed in displeasure. Even though he’d been out of the military for almost a year, he still wore his dark hair shaved to the scalp.
And he looked like Dad.
The similarity smacked Jude in the face, and he stopped short just inside the door, struggling against an immediate urge to apologize for…well, everything.
Sorry I never listened, Dad. Sorry I caused you and Mom so much heartache.
Sorry I killed you.
No. He shook his head. Not Dad. Greer. It was Greer sitting there, watching him with those dark, dark eyes.
Jude turned away to shut the office door, needing that extra second to school his features back into an affable smile. His cheeks hurt, the muscles pulling, and he worked his jaw to loosen everything up until he could smile without wanting to scream.
Yup. Bridges burned for a reason.
With his usual smile firmly in place, he faced his brothers, who studied him with expressions ranging from worried—the twins—to disinterested—Reece—to completely unreadable—Greer. Burke, the new client, sat regally in a wood fold-up chair in front of Greer’s desk and acted like they were all too far below him to rate much of his attention.
“Go over it again for my brothers,” Greer told the man.
Burke’s gaze shifted to the twins, who no doubt made an intimidating pair if you didn’t know them. They both grinned like cats in sight of prey, and Burke sniffed disdainfully. “To be perfectly frank, this is a waste of time and money.”
“Again,” Greer commanded in his Army Ranger voice.
Burke pursed his lips. “Of course. I’m a lawyer, and the family I represent is facing a sensitive problem…”
Jude lounged against the wall and dipped a hand in his pocket, jiggling the ring he carried with him everywhere as he settled in for what was sure to be a mind-numbingly long story. If he had a dollar for every time a client came to Wilde Security in the past month with a “sensitive” problem… Well, he sure the hell wouldn’t be working here.
Aruba was nice this time of year. Or any time of year.
He’d be lounging on a white sand beach with a sissy frou-frou drink—because what else did you drink in beach fantasies?—and a beautiful woman cradled in his lap. A blonde. Yeah, but not an out-of-the-bottle blonde. Natural, with golden tones that matched the gold flecks in her light brown eyes. She’d be wearing a purple string bikini with ties at the hips, and as he offered her his drink, he’d reach down and pull the knots loose. She’d laugh and take off her square, black-framed glasses–
Wait. No. His Aruban fantasy woman did not have glasses. Or a purple string bikini. Or anything else that he associated with…her.
And yet he could picture it—and her—so clearly, he could almost smell the vanilla spice perfume she always used to wear.
Everyone in the room turned toward him, and he cursed again, silently this time. Greer’s eyes narrowed in warning. Reece made a low grumbling sound in his throat. The twins both struggled to maintain their professional faces.
“Sorry.” He scrambled to find a plausible excuse for his outburst, but all he came up with was a pathetic, “Saw a big-ass spider. Hate those things.”
Greer waved a dismissive hand. “Go on,” he said to the client, who appeared even more contemptuous now than before.
Jude pushed away from the wall and made himself pay attention to the man. He couldn’t screw this up or his brothers would murder him. So no more fantasies about Aruba or…her. He smiled at Burke, turning his internal charm-o-meter up from stun to devastate. “Yes, please, Mr. Burke, go on. I apologize for the interruption.”
Burke opened the briefcase on his lap and produced a slim folder, handing it to Greer. “I’m sure this is not necessary, but my client insists we hire one of you to protect his daughter. I have the file right here.”
Pushing aside a stack of papers to make room, Greer opened the folder. On top lay a dossier with a photograph of a woman clipped to it.
A blond woman.
With square, black-framed glasses.
She stared out from the photo, all cool confidence with her hair twisted up on top of her head and her eyes level on the camera, so different from the last time Jude had seen her. Eight years ago, her face had been splotchy and smeared with lines of mascara from the tears streaming down her cheeks. Her hair had been falling out of its clip. Her lips had quivered as she approached him at the bar. He’d fully expected her to slap him and had steeled himself against it, but the pain in her brown eyes as she dropped his engagement ring into his beer had been far more effective than a slap.
Those eyes had haunted him for years.
Jude moved closer to the desk to get a better look and experienced a dizzying sense of déjà vu. No fucking way. It couldn’t be her. It couldn’t be…
“What’s her name?” Greer asked.
“Elizabeth Pruitt,” Burke said at the same time Jude whispered, “Libby.”
Burke’s head snapped around so fast he must have given himself whiplash. “Do you know her?”
Greer arched a brow, but Jude ignored them both and picked up her photo. The last eight years had been kind to her. Very kind. Even his Aruban fantasy version of her hadn’t done her justice. He traced the elegant line of her cheek, remembered doing the same as they lay tangled together on the living room floor of her college apartment with the sun streaming through the open window…
“Jude!” Greer’s sharp voice brought him back to the present, and he forced his gaze away from the photo. “You know her?”
“Used to.” He set the photo back on the desk, but it took a lot more effort to let the damn thing go than it should have. “Not anymore.”
At that moment, the door opened, and in walked a barge of man that Jude never thought he’d see again. Time had been kind to Colonel Elliot Pruitt, too. Save for the receding hairline that he covered by shaving his head bald, Libby’s father hadn’t changed. He was still imposing as hell. The gleam of the florescent lights off his scalp only highlighted the fact that at fifty-five, he was still nearly seven feet of solid muscle.
“Mr. Pruitt,” Burke said with a tight smile. “I thought we agreed I would handle this—”
“No, I requested you inform me when you would be meeting with these men,” Pruitt said.
“I thought it would be better if we handled this as quickly and quietly as possible.”
Pruitt shook his head. “This is too important for me to handle by proxy. Now will you excuse us?”
The lawyer snapped his briefcase shut with definitive clicks and stood. “I feel as if I have to go on record as saying both Libby and I think this is a vast overreaction.”
“Noted,” Pruitt said. “You’re dismissed.”
Aiming a scowl at the colonel’s back, Burke yanked open the door and left the small room.
Pruitt crossed to stand in front of Jude. The man’s dark blue eyes took in Jude’s faded jeans, beat-up Nikes, and USMC hooded sweatshirt in one long, assessing sweep. “Lieutenant Wilde.”
“Colonel.” Jude resisted the instinct to salute. As an Officer Candidate struggling through OCS, he’d looked up to this man who had been one of his instructors at the time. Now all he felt toward Elliot Pruitt was an abyss of resentment, and he’d be damned before he showed the colonel one ounce of respect. “Didn’t ever expect to see you again.”
“Unfortunately, it was unavoidable in this situation.”
Okay, this was bad. Ten minutes ago, Jude would’ve bet his balls that Pruitt would never voluntarily seek him out. Only something earth-shattering would mobilize the colonel into doing so. “What situation? What’s going on?”
Pruitt drew a breath through his nose and squared his wide shoulders as if fortifying himself. “Libby’s in trouble. She needs protection, and as much as it pains me to admit this, you’re the best man for the job.” The last was said with a faint sneer.
Jude ignored the flutter in his chest. It wasn’t worry. Just…indigestion. Right. “What kind of trouble is she in?”
“She has a stalker, and the threats are getting more and more personal. We believe someone is trying to get her to drop the charges against Richard ‘K-Bar’ Niles.”
“The gangbanger up for murdering that single mother in Anacostia?” Camden asked.
Pruitt gave one curt nod of acknowledgment in the twins’ general direction. “Yes. Libby’s the prosecuting attorney, and of course, she’s not going to drop it. The case is rock solid, but the trial isn’t set to begin until August, and K-Bar made bail. He’s free, and if he’s not personally terrorizing her, then he’s hired someone to do it for him.”
“So you want to hire her some protection,” Greer concluded.
“I want to hire him.” Pruitt tipped his head toward Jude. “He and Libby have a history that will make it all that much easier for him to protect her. His sudden reemergence in her life won’t raise any eyebrows.”
Jude stared at his former instructor, fury burning hot in his gut. “You want me to pretend to be her lover? Like none of the past shit happened and we got back together?”
“It’s a plausible reason for you to be around her all the time.”
“No.” Dread coiled its greasy fingers around his throat and squeezed. “No, no, no.”
Pruitt paid no attention to his protests. “If you agree to my terms,” he said to Greer, “he can start tomorrow morning.”
“Do I really have to repeat my answer? How about, hell no? That sink in, Colonel?”
“This is not a request, Marine.”
Jude got in Pruitt’s face, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw ached. How dare the man ask this, after everything? He had some massive, steel-lined balls to come in here and dredge up a past Jude had spent eight years doing his damnedest to forget. “I’m not active duty. You can’t order me around anymore. Sir.”
Pruitt’s rigid features softened—only the slightest bit, but Jude had seen that face screaming into his enough times that he noticed and backed off a step, his anger draining away. Sure, Elliot Pruitt was a hard-ass, in-it-for-life jarhead, but he wasn’t a deadbeat father. His love for his only daughter was deeper even than his love for the Marines, and that was saying something. The strain he felt for her situation showed in the lines around his eyes. He just wanted her safe, and nobody could fault him for that.
“Find someone else,” he told Pruitt softly and shook his head. “This plan? With me? Won’t work.”
“Yes, it will. I know the feelings you had for her, Wilde.”
“Had. It was eight years ago, sir. People change.”
“Not you.” Pruitt jabbed a finger into his shoulder to enunciate each word. “Not about this.”
What could he say to that? That he’d wanted the man’s daughter more than he’d ever wanted anything? That he’d contented himself with a slew of nameless, faceless women who all blended together in his memory because none of them were the woman he loved? That he’d been noble one fucking time in his life and it had cost him more than anyone could imagine?
No. He had too much pride to admit all that, but any argument he made to the contrary would bounce off the colonel like a rubber bullet, so he kept his mouth shut. At his back, he could almost feel Camden twitching with eagerness to ask him about Libby Pruitt.
Greer shifted in his seat, and the springs of his chair squeaked as his two-hundred-thirty-pound, six-foot-five-inch frame reclined, breaking the silence. He folded his hands across his abs and studied Jude for a long moment, then sighed. “Give us a moment, Colonel? There’s water and soda in the fridge out the door and to the left. Please, help yourself.”
Pruitt gave a curt nod, nailed Jude with another stern look that was somehow a cross between an order and a desperate request, and then let himself out.
“I don’t want to see her,” Jude said once he was gone. “It’s not fucking happening, Greer. Libby will castrate me if she sees me again. She won’t go for the whole pretend relationship thing. Pruitt’s out of his mind.”
“What did you do to her?” Camden asked.
“The usual college romance sob story. Young love and all that, then I went and broke her heart in the worst way I knew how.”
“You cheated,” Greer concluded.
It took every ounce of control he had not to show his internal wince on his face. Cheater. Man, he hated that word, but he shrugged like it was all no big deal. Just Jude being his usual fuck up self. “And rubbed her face in it. I was young and stupid.”
“You aren’t still?” Reece asked.
Jesus. Sometimes he wished his second-oldest brother’s snark came with a mute button. “We had something good, and I fucked it up. As usual. C’mon, you can’t tell me you’re surprised by that.”
“No,” Greer said. “I’m not.”
Jude refused to let that answer sting. It was the truth, after all.
“How long were you with her?” Camden asked.
He thought about the ring in his pocket and considered lying, because they sure as fuck wouldn’t believe that he’d wanted to marry her more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life. He finally settled on a half-truth. “A year. I met her through Pruitt while at OCS.” He still remembered the first time he saw her having lunch at a restaurant off base with her father. He’d approached them on the pretense of asking Pruitt a question, but he’d really just wanted to find out who the blond beauty in the strappy sundress and sandals was. “We dated during my senior year at Old Dominion and broke up after graduation, right after I was commissioned.”
His brothers stared at him.
“No way,” Camden said. “You’ve never stayed with anyone that long.”
“Well, I did with her, okay?” Jude snapped. “And don’t look at me like that. You all met her once at my apartment in Norfolk.”
“Then why don’t we remember her?” Greer asked.
“I do,” Vaughn said.
“That’s cuz you have the memory of an elephant,” Cam said and elbowed his twin in the side.
“Pretty girl. Smart. Very sweet,” Vaughn continued without missing a beat. “I thought she was too good for you.”
“Yeah, I can’t argue that.” Jude dropped into the chair vacated by Pruitt’s pretentious lawyer and rubbed both hands over his face. “When we were dating, I was always real careful about where we went, what we did, who we saw. Always took her out of town or to places where there was no chance of me being spotted with her.”
“And why was that?” Reece asked, his tone full of disgust.
Because he’d wanted her to himself. He’d wanted her to know the real him and not the image he projected. And because he’d been warned away from her—several times. But his brothers didn’t need to know any of that. “Because I didn’t want this third degree.”
Reece snorted. “More like you didn’t want one of your other girlfriends to catch you.”
“Yeah,” Jude muttered and touched the ring in his pocket again. “You know me too well.”
As his brothers processed the situation in silence, the dread tightening his chest started edging dangerously close to panic. He couldn’t face Libby ever again. If it came to it, he wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to hurt her a second time.
“So it’s settled.” He made sure there was no room in his tone for argument and got to his feet again, intent on making a quick escape. “I’m not doing it.”
“No,” Greer said. “You definitely are.”
“You always admit when you fuck up—I gotta give you credit for that—but you never really face your mistakes.” Greer leveled that dark, all-too-knowing gaze on him and handed over the folder containing Libby’s personal data. “It’s long past time, bro, and after I hash out the details with Pruitt, you’ll start tomorrow.”
“Dammit, I know.” Libby Pruitt shoved into her office, hooked her purse over the back of her chair, and searched her desk drawers for a hair clip. Noah Saunders, her intern for the semester, lounged in the doorway, his skinny arms crossed over his chest. He already had a coffee stain on his tie, even though it was barely eight thirty, and his kinky, orange-red hair looked as if he had styled it with an explosion.
Unfortunately, he was the more organized out of the two of them this morning. Where was that damn clip? Despite her efforts, her hair was already out of control.
“You can’t keep doing this,” he said.
“Again, I know.” Especially since her boss expected nothing less than 110 percent from his underlings. But it didn’t help that her father seemed intent on making her life into a special kind of hell. With one ten-minute phone call, he’d managed to ruin her entire day before she’d even had her first cup of coffee.
Noah frowned. “You never used to be late for work. What’s going on?”
Ah-ha. Hair clip. She twisted her hair into a ponytail and clipped it up. “We need to analyze the police reports regarding the Gatewood case—”
Noah straightened. He may have been a toothpick, but he was a tall toothpick and used his entire height to block her escape. “Libby, slow down a second. You can talk to me. Is something wrong?”
Her heart tripped, but she managed a smile she hoped didn’t look as fake as it felt. “Of course not. It’s just stress.”
“Over K-Bar’s release?”
Sure, she’d go with that. In a roundabout way, it was the truth. “He shouldn’t have gotten out, and I feel somewhat responsible that he did.”
“You did everything you could.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t enough. He’s still free to terrorize people.” One of those people being her, but she didn’t mention that to Noah. He didn’t need to know about the messages. The dolls. The disturbing voice mails. The distorted videos sent to her e-mail. Besides, she honestly didn’t think K-Bar would try anything more than make scary, but idle, threats. She’d spent enough time studying him to know that if he’d wanted her dead, he would have convinced someone from his gang to get rid of her a long time ago. It would’ve been a quick, execution-style kill that she never would have seen coming.
So, no. K-Bar didn’t want her dead. Of that, she was certain. He just wanted her terrified.
Now if only she could convince her dad of that. He was just compounding her stress by inviting a bodyguard into the mix—one he expected to play her boyfriend, of all crazy things.
“Libby?” Noah’s hand passed in front of her face.
She blinked. “Sorry. What?”
“This zoning out… It isn’t like you, either.”
“I know.” Shaking off her fears over her father’s mental health, she bit her lower lip. “I’m okay. Really.”
“If you’re worrying about K-Bar walking, don’t. Your case is airtight. He’ll be back in jail before the end of summer. You got him,” Noah said and offered a shy, goofy smile. “You’re amazing.”
Libby laughed and patted his arm. “I already told you, I’m too old for you.”
His face flushed to a color that nearly matched his hair. “I-I didn’t mean…”
“Joke. Relax.” She gave his arm another pat, then ducked under it. Noah raced after her, stammering apologies for once again being unable to tell when she was joking with him.
“Noah, stop. It’s fine. You have no need to apolo—” At the other end of the hall, a man stepped off the elevator with Kenneth, and her heart did a loop-de-loop. The stranger was around six one, his wide shoulders tapered into slim hips, and his jeans clung to his thighs as if they never wanted to let go. His dark hair was short on the sides and spiky on top, and she could just barely make out the ink of a tattoo on the side of his neck. Another peeked out from under the sleeve of a dark blue T-shirt. The shirt declared, “Trust me, I’ve done this before,” in white letters. A wide, stainless steel hoop glinted from his earlobe as he nodded at something Kenneth said.
Libby willed her heart to start beating again. Her imagination must be playing tricks on her, conjuring the image of the one person she thought about far too often but never wanted to see again, because for a moment, she thought this man was–
As if sensing her, he glanced up from his conversation and met her gaze with eyes the color of a cloudless morning sky. A flicker of unease passed over his expression before he gathered himself and straightened his shoulders as if preparing for battle. His dimples flashed, and the entirety of her existence flipped on its axis.
What. The. Hell?
Before she realized she was moving, she stalked down the hall and stopped in front of him. His grin only widened, and he snaked an arm around her waist, pulling her against all that hard muscle she remembered too well. He used to pull her in like this and kiss her every time he saw her, no matter if she had been gone for an hour or a week. It had made her feel special, wanted, adored.
What a crock.
“Hey, babe,” he said with the same crooked half smile that at one time made her go all gooey-kneed. Except there was something different about him now, a tentativeness as he held her, a trait she’d never associated with him before. “I missed you.”
She opened her mouth to tell him off—but his lips descended, hesitating only the barest of moments before lightly brushing hers. He lifted his head and stared into her eyes with an unreadable expression in his own. Then, with a groan, he drew her tighter against his body, and his lips dropped to hers again in an overwhelming, desperate kiss that crushed the last eight years into mere moments and short-circuited her mind with an electric pulse of sheer desire.
But she was…angry. Right? At him. Yes, the man who was currently rubbing his tongue over her bottom lip, seeking entrance, the man she didn’t want to want—she should be furious at him right now. She just couldn’t remember why as his kiss sizzled over her nerve endings and filled her head with white noise. God, did the man know how to use his lips or what? He always had, could always make the world melt away until she was nothing but a bundle of sensation.
Off to her left, Kenneth rudely cleared his throat, and the world snapped back into sharp focus.
Libby ripped away from the kiss and stared up into pale blue eyes rimmed with ridiculously long lashes. “Jude?”
His expression was a little dazed and his breathing ragged, but that didn’t stop his gaze from dropping to her mouth. “Yeah?”
She rolled her hand into a fist, hauled it back, and punched Jude Wilde so hard the impact rung up her arm and into her own teeth. “Don’t call me babe ever again.”
The woman had a fist of steel.
Jude’s head snapped back at the impact of Libby’s punch, and he was pretty sure he had cartoon Tweety Birds circling his noggin when he straightened. Even getting socked in the face by Vaughn, who expressed some of his more aggressive urges as a cage fighter, didn’t rattle him half as much, but he’d long suspected his brother of pulling punches whenever they got into it.
Libby wasn’t going to afford him that courtesy.
She balled up her fist like she planned to hit him again, but a giant matchstick, complete with the flame-red hair, stepped in front of her.
Burke sucked in a sharp breath through his nose. “Libby, what is wrong with you?”
She shook out her hand and drew a shuddering breath. Then, like nothing had happened, she straightened her suit jacket and turned on her heel. Matchstick spared Jude a confused glance before chasing after her.
Holy fucking ouch.
Jude worked his jaw. He’d be surprised if he didn’t end up with a bruise as bad as the one Vaughn currently sported around his eye from yesterday’s office rumble. “I thought Pruitt explained this charade to her?”
“He did,” Burke said stiffly.
“Did he mention that I’m the guy he hired for the job?”
“It didn’t come up.”
“Of course not.” Goddamn Pruitt. If he really loved his daughter so much, why would he spring this on her without preparing her first?
Burke paced the hallway, indignation seeping from his every pore. “I told Elliot this was a bad idea. We should have handled this on our own. We didn’t need to bring in outsiders.”
Jude didn’t waste time with I-told-you-sos, even though he sorely wanted to say it. Maybe he was becoming a masochist, but now that he’d seen Libby again, and had tasted her, he couldn’t leave without talking to her for real, no pretense.
And maybe one more taste.
Christ, that kiss. It should have been just a quick hello, a smooch from him playing the part of her lover. But once he felt her soft lips yield under his, he’d lost his fucking mind. He’d needed to kiss her.
So much for his acting skills.
He started down the hallway, intent on finding Libby and apologizing for the way her father blindsided her with him—but Burke caught his arm.
“Who are you to her?” Burke demanded. “Elliot won’t tell me why he trusts you of all people to protect Libby.”
The lawyer had the hands of a pansy, soft and thin, and Jude peeled those fingers from his arm with ease. “I could ask the same of you, GQ.”
“We went to law school together.” Burke sniffed, straightening the lapels of his suit coat. “We’re friends.”
Man, that uppity tone of his really grated on the nerves. “Friends. Aw, that’s cute. I was her fiancé, so back off and let me do what Pruitt hired me to do.”
Scowling, Burke backed up a step and then another. He kept backing away until he reached the elevator, then turned and jabbed the button.
Jude waited until Burke disappeared into the elevator before continuing down the hallway on his mission to apologize to Libby. The place was a maze of office doors. After two wrong turns and a set of ass-backward directions from a flirty brunette paralegal, he found her seated at her desk in her office, flipping through a stack of files. Matchstick stood beside her with a clipboard in hand and seemed to be taking notes.
Jude tried the doorknob. Nope. Locked. Damn.
Going with plan B, he tapped on the window with his knuckle. Matchstick looked up and scowled. Libby’s shoulders stiffened, but she didn’t lift her eyes from the papers on her desk.
He doubled his fist and gave the lightly frosted glass a few good thumps. Matchstick, the flame-haired prick, positioned himself like a human shield between the door and the desk, then went back to note taking. Libby still didn’t move.
Plan C then.
Jude grinned and started banging out a rocking drum solo on the window. Before he was even half way through “Another One Bites the Dust,” Libby shoved away from her desk. By the time she twisted the lock and yanked open the door, an aura of pissed off all but sizzled the air around her. She had never looked hotter, and his cock took instant notice. Man, this woman could still turn him on like no other, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
She grabbed hold of his arm and dragged him into an empty conference room across the hall from her office.
“What grade are in you in?” she demanded as soon as the door clicked shut behind them. “Second?”
“Fifth. Never grasped the concept of long division and they kept holding me back.”
“Unbelievable.” She pushed out an exasperated breath. “You’re still the same asshole I know and hate.”
“Whoa, now, Libs. Hate? That’s a strong word.”
“So is restraining order. Now are you finished?” She spun away and reached for the doorknob. “Because if you’re done making a fool out of yourself, I’m going back to work.”
Guilt left a bad taste in his mouth. As the woman he once loved to distraction, she deserved better than childishness from him. They were stuck in this less-than-ideal situation together, so why make it more difficult by being a jerk? The end of their relationship hadn’t been her fault—that was 100 percent on his shoulders. And he was okay with that. Mostly.
He caught her hand. “Libs, wait.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Assistant District Attorney Pruitt to you.”
His jaw tightened against the barb in her tone. Her coldness toward him shouldn’t hurt. He deserved it and more. But, dammit, it did hurt. “All right, A.D.A. Pruitt, can we start over here?”
Her ponytail flopped as she shook her head. “Not possible.”
Another barb, and it cut deeper than the first. “The fuck up.”
“Yes. No.” Sighing, Libby rubbed her eyes under her glasses with the fingers of one hand. “Jude, I’m not the girl I was eight years ago, okay?” Finally realizing he still held her other hand, she shook off his grip and reached for the door handle. “And I don’t want any kind of relationship with you ever again.”
No, he thought and touched the ring in his pocket to anchor himself, not ouch. This had been his goal when he hurt her—but that was supposed to have been all there was to it. Hurt her, move on with his miserable life without her, the end. He never would have guessed the whole nightmare of a situation would come back to bite him in the ass now.
Hand still on the doorknob, Libby stared at him over her shoulder as if she expected some kind of response to her declaration.
“Well,” he said finally, “that’s unfortunate, since your father hired me to be your bodyguard-slash-pretend-boyfriend.”
Did she just go pale? Maybe it was the harsh lighting in the conference room, but it sure looked like her complexion had lost a few shades of color when she spun back to face him. And, damn, there was that surge of guilt again. Even so, he couldn’t tell her any of the whys because the truth would be much more painful than anything he’d done to her.
“W-what about the Marines?” she asked.
“Officially out a month ago.”
“And seeing as we now have to convince everyone I’m your main man,” he added after a beat of silence, “we need to learn to play nice with each other.”
“Oh,” she said again, apparently at a loss for words.
Another beat, longer this time.
“So,” he prompted. “Can we start over?”
Libby chewed on her lower lip, naturally drawing his gaze to her mouth. Christ, the dreams he’d had about that mouth… He could still taste her, too, from his earlier attempt at playing his part, which didn’t help dull the throb of need behind his fly. He remembered exactly how good it was between them and wanted that mouth on his again. And on other, lower portions of his anatomy.
“Meet me in the parking lot after work,” she said finally, interrupting a particularly X-rated fantasy that had to do with her lipstick and his cock. “Jude, hello, did you hear me?”
“Er, right.” He shook himself. “Parking lot. Gotcha.”
“Five. Don’t be late. I need to get home.”
“Sure. See ya around.” He gave a dorky half wave as she shook her head and opened the door. Cursing at himself, he stood in the empty conference room and shut his eyes.
See ya around?
Shit, maybe he was mentally stuck in the fifth grade. Where was his head?
Okay, dumb question. As soon as he’d seen Libby again, his brain had migrated south. She just looked so good, all curvy and womanly, and the fire in her eyes every time she looked at him…
She’d always been fierce, but as a young college co-ed, she’d kept it carefully leashed and hidden behind a sweet exterior. At least until they hit the sack, and then she’d rock not only his world, but his whole freaking solar system. Adult Libby—now she was something else. She all but crackled with passion. Made a guy wonder…
Oh, man. He needed an ice bath, a-sap.