Truth or consequences, p.9

Truth or Consequences, page 9


Truth or Consequences

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  He spun. Spotting her, he racked the sword, then strode to the door and flung it wide. His smoky glance studied her tousled wet hair and the ample robe hugging her body before slowly moving down to her neon-pink toenails, and then back up again. When he finally spoke, his voice was husky. “That was fast. I didn’t expect you to finish so quickly.”

  His accelerated breathing expanded his wide, sculpted chest looming directly in her line of sight. She tried not to stare, but failed. Dark hair dusted his bronzed pecs and formed an enticing path, luring her gaze downward over taut abs to his washboard stomach, where the trail disappeared into his waistband. Everything inside her tightened in yearning. “I was afraid I’d use up the hot water.” Waste not, want not. And she wanted so badly she ached. She hadn’t even known the meaning of the word until now.

  She raised her gaze to his. Mistake. His eyes were more dangerously compelling than his magnificent body. His attitude might be cool, but his irises blazed with sensual golden fire. Hunger leapt between them like a starved tiger escaping from a cage. He quickly dropped his lashes, shuttering his expression. The tiger had razor-sharp claws; Aidan’s desire for her bothered him. Why?

  She gulped, attempting to swallow her confusion. “What were you doing?”

  “A Kata.” His full lips curved in a reluctant smile, and she understood how junkies felt, craving a taste of the ultimate high so badly it hurt. “Before you ask, it’s a sequence of specific movements of a martial art. It helps me stay grounded. Centered.”

  He stepped into the hall and closed the door, barring her from his sanctuary as firmly as he’d locked her out of his heart. Combined with his emotional withdrawal, he might as well have shouted that he didn’t want her involved in any personal aspects of his life. The loss hurt far more than she expected.

  Standing so close, his powerful aura was nearly visible. Nearly palpable. Awareness hummed in the air. Though he’d shut her out emotionally, their bodies still recognized each other on a basic, elemental level. The pull was more than desire.

  It felt like fate.

  Scared, shocked, Zoe gasped and lurched back a step. Whoa! Way too intense, way too fast! How could Aidan be her future? His world fit as uneasily on her narrow shoulders as his bulky robe. And though he wanted her—against his will—she wasn’t sure he even liked her.

  She fought to rein in her rioting senses. He probably needed centering after reliving his father’s murder. He didn’t need unwelcome advances. “It’s beautiful, as intricate and graceful as a ballet.” You’re beautiful.

  “It’s a great workout, both physical and mental.”

  “I’d like to learn.” You could teach me so many things.

  “Most community centers give low-cost classes. Some even offer free sample courses.”

  He meant to be considerate, but the reminder stung. He’d seen how she lived, and knew she couldn’t afford even a community class. Just as he’d furnished his apartment with high-class items all the way, Aidan would want to decorate his arm with an elegant, refined woman. Zoe was so far out of his league she wasn’t even in the ballpark.

  Floundering in deep, unknown waters, she turned away. She was used to window-shopping and not buying. Used to going without. She always managed to convince herself that what little she had satisfied her. This wasn’t any different. But for the first time in years, tears of longing burned behind her eyes.

  He cleared his throat. “After I shower and we’re waiting for your clothes to dry, I’d like to debrief you about the DiMarco situation.”

  “All right.” Maybe he had the right idea. Stick to business, and sort out all the crazy emotional stuff later…when she was alone. With great difficulty, she readjusted her focus. Perhaps if she shared select pieces of information about the case, he’d return the favor.

  He strode toward the bathroom. “Make yourself at home. Help yourself to a snack or whatever you’d like.”

  “Thanks.” Would he be surprised if she blurted out what she’d really like to help herself to? Or horrified? Mr. Large and in Charge probably wouldn’t appreciate a woman who made advances. Zoe wouldn’t appreciate him pulling a Casanova on such short acquaintance, either, but why did he go to such extremes to hide his interest? Maybe her enigmatic cop was leery of the powerful feelings simmering between them, too. Did he like her or hate her? What the heck was she supposed to do? Bewildered and frustrated, she headed for the kitchen.

  She had her head stuck in the fridge perusing the delectable choices when a brisk knock sounded at the front door. She glanced hesitantly down the hallway and heard the shower. Aidan couldn’t answer. Should she?

  The knock sounded again, more insistent.

  “Okay,” she muttered. “I’m coming.” She hurried to the door and flung it open. And came face-to-face with Aidan’s mother.

  Maureen O’Rourke had a plastic-bagged tux slung over one shoulder of her crisp, dark-green pantsuit. A much older woman wearing a jaunty yellow feathered hat and a black-and-yellow polka-dot dress stood beside her, bearing a covered casserole.

  Maureen’s striking, intelligent emerald eyes were an exact copy of Liam’s, and the same shade as her pantsuit. Her surprised gaze traveled the path her son’s had earlier, from Zoe’s damp, rumpled hair to her pink toenails. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Maureen O’Rourke, Aidan’s mom.”

  “Um, hi, I recognize you from Aidan’s pictures. I’m Zoe Zagretti.”

  “Hello, Zoe.” Maureen indicated the woman beside her. “This is Letty Jacobson, our longtime neighbor and dear friend. She’s an honorary grandma to my clan.”

  “Nice to meet you.” Letty’s lively blue eyes twinkled merrily. “I would shake your hand, but I have a hot dish for Aidan. Though I suspect it’s redundant.”

  Maureen pressed her lips together. Stifling a smile, or abject disapproval? Zoe couldn’t tell, and her stomach pitched in unease. When Maureen spoke, her voice was carefully neutral. “Is Aidan home?”

  “He’s in the shower.” Maureen’s perfectly groomed brows arched a fraction, and a flaming blush inched up Zoe’s neck. Whoops. Aidan’s mom could only jump to the conclusion that Zoe had spent a lusty afternoon frolicking in her son’s bed, followed by round two in the shower. Zoe wished. “Uh, I’m only here so he can debrief me.”

  Letty chuckled. “I’m happy to see our boy did the job with his usual single-minded efficiency.”

  Zoe choked. Was it too much to hope the glossy oak floor under her feet would open up and swallow her?

  Fighting roiling shame, she sucked in a deep breath. “Let’s start over. Aidan and I aren’t dating or anything. We had a minor mishap at the city landfill, and being the gentleman he is, Aidan offered to let me clean up at his place.”

  Maureen murmured a noncommittal “I see.”

  Belatedly, Zoe realized she was blocking the doorway and moved aside. “Come in, please.”

  Standing under the pounding spray, Aidan scrubbed rigorously. He never brought women to his apartment. Instead, he went to their places, so he could leave when he wanted. And he never spent the night. Waking up with a woman was too uncomfortable. Too vulnerable. Way too intimate. Yet, he’d brought Zoe here. Worse, he wanted to keep her here.

  He worked up more suds on the washcloth. If only he could wash away his attraction to the sexy little gypsy traipsing around his apartment wearing nothing but his robe. At the thought, his aching arousal tightened further. Zoe shouldn’t have bothered to save him any hot water. He was taking a badly needed cold shower.

  Dammit, what was wrong with him? His past relationships had been easygoing and casual. No angst, no conflict, no snapping and growling like a grizzly with a sore tooth. In fact, ladies normally complimented him on his sense of humor. He’d never had trouble with runaway desire. Never lost his temper. He’d certainly never dropped to his knees and spilled his guts, barely staunching the urge to cry in their arms. He shuddered in self-loathing.

  He grabbed the shampoo and lathered his hair. Zoe ha
dn’t used subterfuge to make him confide about Pop. She had a way of listening not merely with her ears, but with her heart, a deeply rooted compassion that showed how much she cared. Her genuine interest combined with abundant, unashamed empathy made her ominously easy to talk to.

  Around Zoe, his imagination taunted him with erotic, heart-shaking scenarios he wouldn’t normally think. He did ridiculous, irrational things he wouldn’t normally do. He blurted out stupid, angry words he didn’t mean.

  With a soft smile, a mere glance, she triggered his most frightening, primitive emotions. Emotions he’d battled all his life to keep the safety on. She made him want things he’d never thought he could have, feel things he’d never thought he could feel. She made him laugh. Made him yearn.

  Worst of all…she made him hope.

  Zoe Zagretti scared the everloving crap out of him.

  She was a dangerous, confusing woman. And he wanted to throw her down on his bed and make love to her until she cried out in his arms with completion. He burned with the temptation. Ached with the need.

  He stuck his head under the freezing water, welcoming the sting. He didn’t know what to do, where to turn for answers. Hell, he didn’t even know which way was up any more.

  He hadn’t been this disoriented and afraid since Pop died.

  Aidan cranked off the water and reached for a towel. Best not to leave the persistent journalist alone in his apartment too long. Anyway, he was probably getting all torqued out of shape over nothing. After what he was about to do, she’d probably never speak to him again. If he was lucky.

  Reason had failed. Taking what he wanted using ruthless force was a last resort, but Zoe had left him no choice. No matter how distasteful. In this case, the end definitely justified the means.

  A man had to do what a man had to do.

  In the midst of toweling his hair, he paused. Were those female voices? Ringing feminine laughter? He cocked his head, listening intently. Recognition dawned, and he blanched. Holy freaking hell. Zoe was on the loose in his kitchen with his mother. And Letty. He bolted for the door, then froze. He was naked. He and his family were close, but not that close.

  Panic screamed through him as he stumbled into his clean jeans. Who knew what kind of damage Ms. Zagretti could wreak, had already wreaked? At this very moment, she might be deftly eliciting information—prying every family secret—from both women. He had to get out there. Now.

  He needed to send his mother and Letty packing in enough time to accomplish his objective and finally achieve some peace.

  Three hours later, Zoe slammed her car door and stomped up the sidewalk toward St. Matthew’s church. Stupid. She was a flaming idiot. After his mother and Letty had left, Aidan had flashed his charming smile and strutted his magnificent bod, and Zoe had swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. Over hearty club sandwiches and home fries he’d prepared with his own hands, he’d dazzled her with solicitous conversation and intense concern for her wellbeing.

  And she’d fallen for it. He’d completely breached her defenses. In the end, she’d done exactly what he’d wanted. Her of all people, the woman who possessed an infallible BS radar. Only after she’d gone home and the sensual cloud had dissipated, had she realized how badly he’d betrayed her.

  She marched up the church steps. If looks could kill, she was gonna fry Aidan O’Rourke’s gorgeous butt into a charcoal briquette. She didn’t lose her temper often, but right now, it sizzled through her veins as hot and explosive as a lit fuse in a firecracker factory.

  SWAT…sneaky, weasely, amoral traitor.

  A good-looking guy wearing a tux approached her as she stalked into the flower-laden sanctuary. “Hello, and welcome.” She didn’t recognize the man, but he had cop’s eyes. “Friend of the bride or groom?”

  Neither. “Groom.” She self-consciously smoothed her red beaded gown, the only semi-suitable formal dress she’d found in her size during her last-minute dash to the thrift store. The matching three-inch sandals for two dollars were a bonus. She didn’t belong here, either. But wild horses weren’t about to keep her away. “In the back, please.”

  The usher escorted her to a seat in the last pew, and she forced herself to take slow, even breaths. She would not cause trouble at Con’s wedding. But afterward would come the mother of all showdowns. Aidan would not get away with this. She wasn’t letting the cheating, lying Benedict Arnold out of her sight, until he handed over the evidence he’d stolen. Her evidence.

  She glanced around the packed sanctuary. Classical music drifted above the murmuring crowd. Sweet-scented pink roses spilled from every nook and cranny. Dozens of white candles twinkled like miniature stars. She gritted her teeth. Hanging on to her mad in the magical, romantic atmosphere grew tougher by the moment.

  A lush melody floated out, Vivaldi’s “Summer: Adagio.” Four tuxedo-clad men strolled out a side door, and the murmurs went silent. Aidan, Con, Liam and Grady took their positions in front of the altar and then turned around.

  A collective feminine sigh rippled through the room. Zoe lost her breath, as if all the oxygen had suddenly been sucked from the stratosphere. Dear Lord in heaven. Talk about weapons of mass distraction. The O’Rourke men en masse, their potent masculinity showcased in formalwear, were enough to bring the entire female population to their knees. She clenched her fists. Get a grip, girl. No matter how magnificent, she was still going to wring Aidan’s neck.

  Following three bridesmaids in sleek, pink satin gowns, a tiny flower girl scattered pink rose petals on the pale blue carpet. The “Wedding March” rang out, and everyone stood as the radiant bride glided down the aisle on the arm of a beaming African-American man. The awed, tender love on Con’s face as he watched Bailey approach jammed a lump in Zoe’s throat and sent hot tears trickling down her cheeks. She’d give everything she owned to have a man look at her with such yearning expectation. Such unfailing hope. Such immeasurable joy.

  She cried silently through the entire, beautiful ceremony, attacked by an unsettling cocktail of sentiment, frustrated regret and empty, aching longing.

  She had time to rebuild her fury as she furtively followed Aidan’s car to the reception at the Ambassador Hotel. His generous offer to clean up at his place had been a sham. A clever fraud, designed to lure her to his apartment so he could get her alone and defenseless, use her and then dump her.

  The rat was a terrific actor. His performance this afternoon merited an Oscar. And she was in terrible trouble. Her inborn lie detector had failed where he was concerned. Which meant she couldn’t believe anything he said or did.

  A horrifying fact she’d discovered too late.

  She lost track of him in the parking lot while removing the wedding gift from beside her now-mended survival bag in the trunk. Carrying the wrapped Atlantis crystal wineglasses she’d also found at the thrift store, she marched inside. The dress, shoes and gift had blown a week’s grocery money in ten minutes.

  After a fruitless search for the object of her ire, Zoe accepted a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and surveyed the crowded dance floor. Letty bustled over to say hi, resplendent in purple organza set off by a hat piled with faux sugared grapes.

  Zoe sipped the dry, bubbly champagne, a rare treat. She couldn’t afford Kool-Aid, much less wine. “Liam’s had three partners since I’ve been standing here. Does he ever dance with the same girl twice?”

  Letty heaved a sad sigh. “Unfortunately, dearie, poor, heartbroken love-’em-and-leave-’em Liam never does anything with the same girl twice.”

  Heartbroken? Liam, the charmer? Not likely. Zoe’s tongue burned with the urge to ask about Aidan’s girlfriends, but she quenched the urge with the remaining champagne.

  Thirty aggravating minutes later, she finally spotted Aidan’s tall, handsome form leaning against the wall at the back of the huge ballroom. Alone. All the better to make mincemeat out of your mangy, spurious hide, my dear.

  She wove through the throng, and stormed up to him.

  He frowned. “This is a private celebration for friends and family. The press is not invited.”

  From the remote look on his face, she might have been a complete stranger instead of a woman with whom he’d spent an extraordinary afternoon. Obviously, their time together had only been meaningful to her. Their unique link one-sided. She’d thought him unable to hurt her any worse, but her heart twisted in pain. “I’m not here in an official capacity. Reserve a slot in your busy, scheming schedule for a chat after the reception.”

  “We have nothing more to say to one another.” His frown deepened. “I warned you to leave my family alone. Go home.”

  Like a magical faerie queen from a Celtic myth, Aidan’s mother materialized from the open doorway beside him. “For shame, Aidan James O’Rourke. I taught you better than to speak to a lady that way.”

  Red streaks slashed his cheekbones. “She’s not a lady. She’s a reporter, Mom.”

  “The two aren’t mutually exclusive, boyo.” Maureen smiled warmly at Zoe. “When I was in San Francisco with the rowing team last fall, I saw her on TV with a touching report about hard-to-place children awaiting adoption. Thanks to her insightful story, I imagine some of those children got loving homes.”

  Aidan’s gaze flicked to Zoe. The painful uncertainty shadowing the mahogany depths slammed her with a startling, hit-and-run revelation. He wasn’t unaffected by her. The exact opposite, in fact. Perhaps her cop wasn’t going to such lengths to protect only his family. Perhaps he was also protecting himself. He scowled. “She barged in uninvited.”

  “She did no such thing.” Maureen planted her hands on her hips. “I invited her, back at your apartment.”

  “Great.” Aidan’s expression turned thunderous. “Enjoy the party. But stay the hell away from my family.”

  It was time someone called him on his self-delusions. Past time someone pointed out a few hard, cold truths. Zoe was just the girl for the job. She angled her chin and murmured sotto voice, “When this is over, you and me are gonna rumble, SWAT.”

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