“No, the lavender room was the last,” William said.
“Who chose that color?”
Ellie was rinsing the salad bowl and putting it in the dishwasher. “You don’t like the color?”
“I didn’t say that. I just wondered who chose it.”
Her parents glanced at each other before answering. The question seemed to surprise them.
“No one chose it,” Ellie’s mother said. “We purchased what was on sale, didn’t we, dear?”
“That’s right. That particular color had been discontinued.”
Max could understand why. The color practically glowed.
“We got it for a song,” William said proudly.
“Would you like some coffee, Max?” Claire asked.
“No, thank you.”
By this time, most of the dishes had been cleared, rinsed, and placed in the dishwasher by Ellie. Her mother carried a pitcher to the counter, and Ellie practically wrenched it from her hands to begin washing it.
“Ellie,” her mother said, “why don’t you and Max get settled in your rooms for the night. It’s been a long day, and I know you two would like some alone time to catch up. And just maybe, after a good night’s rest, you’ll reevaluate your position on the wedding.”
“I assure you that won’t happen,” she said, and before her mother could start in again, Ellie rushed ahead, “Are you sure you don’t want me to finish the dishes?” Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed Max’s hand and headed for the back door.
Max made her wait while he thanked her parents for dinner, then followed her outside.
“I like your parents.”
She didn’t look over her shoulder as she crossed the yard at a fast clip to get to the steps.
“Uh-huh,” she agreed. “You’ve probably got a hundred questions about my family, don’t you?”
“No,” he answered. “Okay, maybe a couple.”
She rushed up the stairs and waited for Max to unlock the dead bolts. He leaned around her, wrapping her in his arms as he slipped the keys in the dead bolts and unlocked the door. If she moved at all, her lips would touch his warm skin. He swung the door open and pulled back so she could go inside.
She walked to the center of the living room, turned around, and folded her arms in front of her while she waited for him to lock the door and give her his full attention. As soon as he was facing her, she said, “Okay, start talking. Why are you here?”
He leaned against the door and grinned. “I thought it was my turn to ask questions.”
She sighed in frustration. “Okay, I’ll give you two. Then you start explaining. Go ahead. Ask away.”
“What’s a plus one?”
They were on round three of the argument.
Max had taken a shower, put on a clean T-shirt and jeans, grabbed the channel changer, and now sat on the lumpy sofa with his bare feet up on an ottoman, trying to watch the late news on a television screen the size of a breadbox while he patiently waited for Ellie to calm down and be reasonable. He doubted it was going to happen anytime soon.
The remote kept falling apart in his hand. It had been duct taped together, but the tape was obviously old. He made the mental note to buy a universal remote tomorrow or another roll of tape. It was downright barbaric not to have a decent channel changer.
“Are you listening to me?” she demanded.
“Yes, I am,” he lied.
God, she looked good. He watched her resume her pacing while she ranted. She had also showered and was now wearing a pale pink-and-white-striped nightgown that barely touched her knees, and a matching long cotton robe that tied at the waist. The robe was too big for her, and the hem dragged on the floor, but to him she looked sexier than if she had been wearing a flimsy negligee. She looked hot in everything she wore, even the baggy scrubs he’d first seen her in.
Unaware of where his thoughts were, Ellie continued her tirade. She had every reason to be upset. She hadn’t said a word while he’d explained his reason for coming to Winston Falls and his intent to be her shadow until the two of them returned to her home, but when he’d finished explaining, she’d reacted. She hadn’t flipped out on him, though. She’d become outraged, and he much preferred that reaction. Furious was better to work with than terrified or weepy.
“You are not telling my father or my mother.” She was so irate her voice shook. She wasn’t a screamer, and he appreciated that, too.
“Yes, I am,” he calmly announced for the sixth or seventh time now. “They need to be aware of the danger.”
“You aren’t even certain the Landrys hired anyone to kill Sean or me.”
“Yes, I am certain. Ellie, we’ve been over this. I’m staying with you until you’re safely back home.”
“If Willis Cogburn hasn’t been captured or killed, another agent will take over.”
“If he tries to hurt you, damn right I’ll kill him.” Anger swelled up inside him at the thought of anyone hurting her.
“You have to capture him, not shoot him,” she muttered. “Then you can make a deal with him for a lighter sentence so he’ll testify against the Landrys.”
“You’re a physician, not an attorney,” he countered.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? Ask a lawyer. He’ll agree with me. Willis Cogburn should stay alive to testify.”
“I am a lawyer,” he said. “And I’m telling you, hit men don’t usually testify. And if I have to shoot him, I’m shooting to kill.”
Hands on hips, she glared at him. “When did you become a lawyer?”
The conversation was becoming ludicrous. She was acting as though he’d pulled a fast one on her by going to law school.
“Right after I graduated from Vanderbilt.”
He smiled. “Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville,” he said.
“Then the FBI?”
“So you’re smart, too.”
He shrugged. Tired of pacing, Ellie went into the tiny kitchen. She got a Diet Coke out of the refrigerator, got another for Max, and went back to the living room. She sat down beside him, handed him his drink, and swung her feet up on the ottoman next to his.
“You saw the look on my father’s face when you got out of your car and he noticed the gun at your side. In that instant, he went from happy to scared.” She put her unopened can on the table, sat back, and said, “I’ve taught him to expect the worst.”
Max put his arm around her and pulled her into his side. “Ellie, you know I’m right. Your dad needs to be aware, and I’m required to inform him of the possible danger. It’s just the way it is.”
“I’ve put him through enough.”
“You’ve put him through enough? You haven’t done anything wrong. You are not responsible for Evan Patterson’s obsession.”
“Intellectually, I know that’s true, but in my heart, I feel as though I’m at fault somehow. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but there it is all the same.”
“How old were you when it started with Patterson?”
“I had just had my eleventh birthday.” It was a full year of hell, she thought but didn’t say.
“Reason it through. You were a little girl. You didn’t do or say anything to encourage him.”
“I wasn’t the only one affected by his bizarre behavior. Some days, especially when my dad wasn’t home, he would walk up and down our street, staring at our house as he passed by. He would do it for hours and hours,” she said. “Annie was terrified. She had to have all the lights on in her bedroom at night, and I could hear her crying under the covers. That’s why she’s becoming a lawyer. She’ll end up doing something in criminal justice. Ava went the other way. She lashed out. She was angry all the time—angry at me.”
“Come on. You know none of this is your fault.”
“That doesn’t change how my famil
y feels. My poor dad is quietly freaking out because no one can find Patterson, and now you want to tell him that there’s a killer out there hunting me.”
She stood, grabbed her can of soda, and put it back in the refrigerator. There was a door at the end of the kitchen that led down into the garage. She made sure it was locked, then checked the other door to make absolutely certain both dead bolts were in place, and headed to the bedroom.
She hadn’t even thought about the sleeping arrangements or a bed with Max in it until she opened the door to the room she’d slept in the night before. There was a queen-size bed her parents had gotten at a discount store. In the smaller bedroom was a double bed that used to belong to her aunt Eleanor, the woman she was named after. The bed had been in her aunt’s guest room, but when the older woman downsized, she’d donated the bed to the apartment.
Ellie thought she should probably sleep there because Max was so much bigger than she was.
Or she could sleep with him. That thought sent her heart racing. No, that can’t happen, she told herself. She wanted him to go away, not stay . . . didn’t she?
Talk about conflicted. Back home, after their date, he’d kissed her senseless, and when he’d left, she had regretted not sleeping with him. And now? Max was just feet away from her, and right this minute she couldn’t come up with a single reason why she shouldn’t throw herself into his arms.
The apartment seemed to be closing in on her. The air conditioner had stopped, and the temperature was rising. Thinking about wrapping her arms around Max’s hard body wasn’t helping her cool off. Just one night. What would be the harm?
Ellie went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth again just to give herself time to come to her senses. Yes, she wanted him. Okay, nothing wrong with admitting it, and, yes, it would be amazing and electrifying, but it would also just be a brief physical release. A great, mind-blowing release, she qualified.
The fantasies were bombarding her, but she blocked them from her mind. She couldn’t let her hormones or her animal instincts take control. Besides, Max would still be here in the morning, so she couldn’t pretend she’d had a temporary lack of sanity.
She took a good long look in the mirror and shook her head at her reflection. She wanted more than casual sex. She wanted romance. She felt silly admitting it, even though it was true. She had worked so long and so hard on her career that it had all but consumed her, leaving no room for the fanciful or the impractical. But deep down, it had always been there. She was a romantic at heart. There wasn’t anything practical or reasonable about it.
Okay, she’d made up her mind. She wasn’t a rabbit, and she wasn’t going to hop into bed with any man—no matter how hot he was—without first having an emotional connection.
As she was opening the door, it suddenly occurred to her that all her angst might have been for nothing. Max hadn’t made any moves or given any indication that he’d like to go to bed with her. Still, the electricity was there between them. If she could feel it, so could he.
When she entered the living room, Max was sitting on the sofa, leaning forward with all the broken pieces of the channel changer spread out on the ottoman in front of him. The old tape hadn’t held, and the plastic cover had broken in several places.
“Someone must have thrown this against a couple of walls,” he remarked. “Is there any tape around?”
“I’ll look,” she said as she retied the belt on her robe. It dragged on the floor when she walked into the kitchen, and she really wanted to take the thing off because the air was becoming stifling.
She found some Scotch tape in one of the kitchen drawers and two thick rubber bands.
Max quickly put the remote back together and reinforced it with the rubber bands, then he sat back and began to channelsurf. She sat down next to him.
“Men and their remotes,” she said, shaking her head.
“Women and their hair stuff,” he countered.
She laughed. “Hair stuff?”
He shrugged. “You know. That lacquer stuff they spray on their hair. You don’t,” he added, “but a lot of women do.”
“What do you mean, I don’t?”
He put his arm around her and his fingers slid through her hair. “It’s soft, not stiff, and my fingers don’t get caught.”
“What kind of women have you been going out with?”
He didn’t answer. He was rubbing the back of her neck, though, and it felt wonderful.
“Your hair’s so soft. Smells good, too. Like strawberries.”
“How do you know . . .”
He smiled. “I’ve got a good memory.”
Whoa. So did she. She remembered his mouth on hers, the touch of his tongue rubbing against hers, the taste of him, the way he’d held her in his arms, his masculine scent . . . oh yes, she had a good memory, too.
She cleared her throat. “It’s hot in here.”
“Yes, it is,” he said, turning back to the television. “Did you turn the air conditioner up?”
“I should explain how the thermostat works. It’s right outside your bedroom door,” she said. “You get the bigger bed because you’re . . .”
Wow. All he had to do was look at her, and she lost her train of thought. There was a warm glint in his eyes that captivated her. The man just kept getting better and better.
“Because I’m what?”
She didn’t have a clue. “What?”
He grinned. “You said I get the bigger bedroom . . .”
“Because you’re bigger than I am. It’s a queen, so your feet may still hang over.”
“And the thermostat?”
“What about it?” She really needed to stop staring at him so she could concentrate.
“What is it I need to know?”
She forced herself to look at the television when she explained. “It only has two settings no matter where you turn the dial. Hot, like now—only it will get hotter—or cold—and not just cold, arctic cold. You choose,” she said.
“Sweat or freeze are the choices?”
She patted his knee. “Then that’s what we’ll hope for.”
He laughed. “You don’t have any control over it?”
She’d found out the night before how faulty the air conditioner was. She had alternated between near heatstroke and frostbite all night long. It was miserable. She had intended to mention the problem to her father this morning, but she’d forgotten about it until now, and the heat index was rapidly rising.
She loosened the neck of her robe and fanned herself. “Do you mind if I watch SportsCenter? The roundup is coming on soon.”
He handed her the remote as he asked, “How old is the air conditioner?”
“Then why . . .”
She found the channel, muted the program that was ending, and turned to Max. “Daddy got a deal,” she explained. “He doesn’t buy anything unless he can get a great deal.”
“I don’t care if he got it for half price, if it doesn’t work—”
“Half price isn’t a deal to my father. Eighty percent maybe, but not fifty.”
He shook his head. “He should take it back.”
“Yes, he should,” she agreed. “But he won’t. He’ll get a repairman to fix it one of these days. I’ll mention it to him tomorrow. Would you like a beer? You can’t watch SportsCenter without a beer.”
“Sweetheart, you’re a dream come true. A beautiful woman who likes SportsCenter and drinks beer.”
“We’re not such a rare breed,” she said.
She put his unopened can of Diet Coke back in the refrigerator, got out two bottles of Bud Light and a jar of mixed nuts, and went back to the sofa. She handed Max one bottle, twisted the cap off the other, then tapped his bottle and took a drink.
She put the jar of nuts on the table and sat down next to him. “It’s getting hotter in here,” she said as she plac
ed the cold bottle against the side of her neck. She adjusted her position on the couch a couple of times and ended up leaning into him. “I’d move over and give you some room, but there’s a lump, and it’s very uncomfortable. I think a spring’s about to pop through.”
“I like you pressed against me.”
“I’m not making you hot?” After asking the suggestive question, she put her bottle against his cheek. “Feel good?”
“You feel good. The roundup is on.”
It was one of her favorite shows, and tonight the topic was once again the upcoming football season. Simon’s name was mentioned about a dozen times. Max was answering texts, but she noticed he smiled whenever one of the commentators complimented his brother. He didn’t show any reaction to the criticisms.
Halfway through the program, Ellie removed her robe. She didn’t care whether it was appropriate or not. She was burning up.
“We could open the windows in the bedrooms, maybe get a crosswind. They’re the only windows that open.”
“What’s it like outside now?”
She found her cell phone, looked up the weather, and groaned. “It’s ninety and humid. I think we’re going to have to sleep in the house tonight. This is worse than paint fumes.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s not so bad.”
“I can suffer through it if you can,” she said. “And it’s only for one night. We’re leaving tomorrow.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said. “I was going to bring it up if you didn’t. We can’t stay here. If there were a fire, we’d be trapped, and walking down the outside steps would give anyone a clear shot. We’re going to have to find a better place to stay, one that isn’t open—”
“We’re not trapped here,” she argued. “We could go down the stairs that lead into the garage or even go out one of the back windows. There’s a rope in the garage, and it really isn’t too much of a jump . . .” She stopped, realizing there was no need to protest. “You misunderstand. I want to leave Winston Falls and go back to St. Louis. If I stay here, I’m putting my family in danger.”
Ellie stared at the television but she wasn’t paying attention to the program. Frustration was building inside her again because she didn’t have any control over what was happening. She put her beer down and went to check the thermostat. She hadn’t even touched it when she felt a blast of cold air come through the vent in the hall.