“You okay, honey?”
Brooke Sullivan turned her head at the sound of her best friend’s voice. Grace Campbell Spencer sat in the chair beside her, frowning. Brooke pasted on a smile that she hoped didn’t shake at the corners.
“Of course I am. Why?”
Grace didn’t look convinced. “You seemed far away for a second.”
Brooke twirled the stem of her margarita glass. “I’m fine. Just thinking.”
Grace’s frown didn’t ease. From the next room, shouts erupted. Brooke flinched so hard she jarred the glass and spilled some of her drink. Grace didn’t miss anything, of course. She stood and marched toward the great room where the men were watching football, her expression stern.
“Grace, no,” Brooke called after her. “It’s okay. They just startled me.”
“I’m going to tell them to keep it down.”
Brooke bounded up and caught her friend by the elbow. Grace was a lot taller, a lot more elegant. But she stopped and stared down at Brooke with concern.
“Please don’t.” Brooke swallowed. Hard. “I have to get used to it. It’s been almost two years.”
She hated saying how long it had been since she’d been abducted by the terrorist group because it made her sound so pitiful. Two years and she still wasn’t over it? Two years and she couldn’t act normal when a group of men roared at a football game on television? How pathetic was that?
About as pathetic as the fact she’d given up her house, moved into a condo building because it had a secure entrance, and gotten a dog. Oh, and then there was the fact she’d quit her dream job—well, sold her dream business, actually—and started a consulting business from home. Because then she wouldn’t have to leave the house every day if she didn’t want to.
Grace folded her arms and frowned. But then she nodded and they returned to their seats at the island in Grace’s expansive kitchen. The other women were in the next room with the men, watching the game and eating snacks, but Grace had settled the two of them in here. Probably because she knew that a room filled with as much testosterone as a group of commandos put off was way too much for Brooke.
Grace picked up her vodka and tonic and took a sip. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Are you kidding me? I’m your best friend. Why would you ask me that?” Brooke was almost offended.
Grace set her drink down. “That’s not vodka. Or tonic. It’s Sprite.”
“Why would you drink Sprite and pretend it’s vodka— Oh.” Brooke put a hand to her mouth. “You’re pregnant,” she whispered. “Oh my God, you’re pregnant!”
Grace nodded as tears filled her eyes. “Garrett and I didn’t want to tell anyone yet. We need to tell Cammie first. But he won’t mind if I tell you. Just keep it quiet, okay?”
Brooke hugged her friend tight. “Of course I won’t tell anyone. Will Cammie be excited?”
Cammie was Garrett’s daughter from a previous marriage. Her mother was a stone-cold bitch, but Cammie was a good kid. She visited often and spent a couple of months every summer. But Brooke didn’t really know her all that well or how she might take the news.
“Garrett says so. I think so. But we want to ease her into it. Tell her it won’t affect her relationship with her dad or how much he loves her. It’ll be hard since she’s still in Georgia with her mother most of the time, but Melissa seems to have toned down the vitriol now that she’s in a new relationship.”
Brooke scoffed. “Really? You two geniuses think it’s her relationship with a new man that’s making Garrett’s ex be reasonable? You’re the daughter of the president of the United States. Garrett is his son-in-law. She makes nice because of the status it probably gives her in her hometown.”
Grace pursed her lips. “Probably. I keep expecting to see her splashed all over the front pages of a tabloid, quite honestly, telling her story. Whatever that may be.”
“Yeah, well, nobody believes those things anyway.”
There was another shout from the great room. Brooke managed not to spill her drink this time. “See, getting better all the time.”
Grace squeezed her arm. “I know, sweetie.” She slipped from the chair. “And now that I’ve told you the news, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I have to pee.”
“Nope.” Not that Brooke had personal experience, but she had a sister. And she’d had coworkers and other friends who’d been pregnant.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Grace commanded.
“I won’t. Promise.”
Grace hurried down the hall to the half bath. Brooke closed her eyes and let out a sigh. She hated this helplessness. This rage and fear. She’d gone to counseling, dammit. She’d worked hard to fix her life, and she didn’t let the fear stop her. Well, most of the time anyway.
So what if she’d made changes? Maybe they were needed changes. She liked working from home. And she got out socially because Grace made her. So it wasn’t all that bad, right?
She heard footsteps and spun around. A tall, dark-haired man with muscles that went on for days stood with a beer in his hand and gazed back at her.
“Hi,” she said, her heart pounding.
“Hi. How’ve you been?”
Brooke laughed nervously. But was it because he was big and tough and capable of violence? Or because he made butterflies swirl in her belly?
“Fine. Nothing’s changed since the last time I saw you.”
“Which was a week ago at Buddy’s.”
“Yes.” She’d seen this man half a dozen times over the past month, each time for a few minutes only, but she still remembered the first time. At Colonel Mendez’s wedding last month when she’d been drunk and angry with herself for being so pitiful. She hadn’t had sex in forever, hadn’t felt a man’s touch or the comfort of being held close, and her inhibitions were down because she’d had too much champagne. If Garrett and Grace hadn’t shown up when they did, she probably would have gone home with Cade Rodgers.
And she didn’t know how that would have turned out because she still had so many issues she might have freaked out in the middle of the whole thing. Or maybe she’d have been thrilled she’d gotten over her fear of big men who lived lives of violence—but probably she’d have run home and locked herself away for days.
He ambled closer, heading around the island and depositing the beer bottle on the counter. He took another from the fridge and popped the top. But he didn’t hurry back to the other room.
“You don’t say much, do you, Brooke?”
“I…” She swallowed. “Of course I do.”
“Not to me you don’t.”
“I don’t really know you, do I?”
“We could change that.”
Brooke blinked. Her belly swirled faster. Heat flared in her cheeks. Why?
She might not have had sex in two years, but she’d dated. Sort of. She wasn’t afraid of men. Correction—she wasn’t afraid of certain kinds of men. Mostly. Accountants, for instance. Those tended to be men without huge muscles or semi-automatic weapons strapped to their sides. She was wary but not terrified.
“H-how?” was the word that came out of her mouth, though she’d intended to say no.
“How do you usually get to know someone?”
He grinned and the swirlies whooshed into a tornado. “By talking. Asking questions. Maybe sharing a meal or a drink.”
“You mean a date.”
“A date. A conversation. Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
He held up a hand. “Or you can say no thanks and I’ll be on my way. No pressure.”
The swirlies dipped in disappointment for a second. Her heart throbbed. “A conversation. Give me your number and I’ll call you sometime.”
“Give me yours and I’ll call you now. You can capture it.”
Brooke found herself rattling off her number before she could change her mind. A moment later, her phone rang where she’d laid it on the countertop. Then it stopped.
“Rodgers with a D,” he said, winking at her. “Whenever you’re ready.”
He ambled back toward the great room. Before he disappeared, he turned and shot her a look filled with heat and humor. Brooke gulped in air. Pressed a hand to her belly. Cade was gone, and Grace was striding back down the hall.
“Oh my God, I hate all the peeing. And the morning sickness.” Grace blinked. “What happened?”
Brooke tried to be cool. “What? Nothing. Cade came to get a beer. We talked. He left. No big deal.”
Grace looked wary. “Watch him, Brooke. He’s a good guy—they all are—but this life…” She shook her head. “I don’t think getting involved with an operator is for you.”
Brooke snorted. “Who said anything about getting involved with him?”
“You’re right. I’m overreacting.” Her expression brightened. “Want to see which room I plan to make into the nursery?”
Brooke shoved her drink away though she badly wanted to down it. “Of course I do. Lead on, Mrs. Spencer.”
Cade watched the game, but his mind wasn’t on it. No, his mind was back in that kitchen with the petite blonde sitting on the stool by the island. She’d been wearing a fitted olive-green shirt and faded jeans with spike-heeled boots. Her long hair tumbled down her back and her baby blues were captivating.
And then there were her tits. Big, beautiful tits that strained the buttons on her shirt. Not so much that the shirt gaped but enough that he kept wondering what would happen if they snapped off and exposed those pretty mounds.
His dick lifted its sleepy head, wondering what all the fuss was about. He forced it down again with an act of sheer will. Not getting a hard-on in the middle of this room filled with his teammates and their women.
He wanted to go back in there and talk to Brooke Sullivan, but she seemed as skittish as a newborn foal. After that moment at Mendez’s wedding, Cade had been thinking about Brooke and why her friends were so protective. Grace had specifically said that Brooke wasn’t ready for this. She hadn’t said what this was, but Cade could guess.
Grace and Ice—Garrett “Iceman” Spencer—both had thought that Cade was only after sex. And maybe he was, but damn, he also wanted to talk to the girl. Because she was sexy and cute and he wanted to know her better.
Maybe it was a sign of impending age or something, but he was getting kind of tired of the singles game. Not that he wanted to get married or anything, but it might be nice to see someone he liked on a regular basis. He’d watched some of his teammates with their women, and he envied that easy camaraderie they seemed to have.
Brooke was part of this crowd. She understood how they lived. She’d also experienced firsthand what their job was when Alpha Squad rescued her because she’d been kidnapped by a group that wanted to trade her for Grace. That kind of knowledge was hard to come by. But it meant there would be no need to explain his life to her if they dated. No apologies for broken promises because he’d been shipped out on a mission. She would get it, and he’d make it up to her after.
Cade shook his head and stared at the television. What the hell was he doing anyway? Making up fantasies about a woman he didn’t actually know? What did that say about him? She might be psycho for all he knew. Just because Grace liked her didn’t mean the woman wasn’t nuts.
He made himself wait until halftime to return to the kitchen. Everybody else had the same idea, and the kitchen was soon teeming with people piling snacks onto plates and laughing about one thing or another. It was loud and boisterous and fun.
Brooke had moved around the island, putting it between her and almost everyone else. Grace was at her side as they talked to Evie Girard and Annabelle Davidson. The other three women seemed relaxed and happy, but Brooke looked tense. She shot glances at the guys from time to time, and the corners of her mouth whitened with every instance.
She glanced over again, her gaze darting around the room—and then it stopped when it met his. His chest tightened for a second as her baby blues seemed to reflect fear. A moment later, she dropped her lashes. When she lifted them again, it was curiosity in her gaze.
He gave her a grin. He didn’t think she’d respond at first, but after a moment she grinned back. It didn’t last long before she focused on the women she was talking to and didn’t look at him again.
He headed back to the television with everyone else when it was time and settled in to enjoy the game. The third quarter was nearly over when his phone pinged. He glanced at the notifications. Shock smacked him between the eyes.
Brooke: You enjoying the game?
He quickly texted back. It’s all right. I’m a Cowboys fan myself.
Dude! San Diego rules.
He snorted. Seriously? Aren’t they like in last place or something?
Brooke: What? No, they are not. Don’t get all high and mighty. Dallas hasn’t been so hot lately either.
Nope, sure hasn’t. He frowned for a moment. Wouldn’t this be easier in person? We’re in the same house…
Not for me. Can we keep it to text for now?
It was a little strange, but he’d go along with it if it got her talking to him. Sure.
Brooke: I know it seems odd, but I’m more comfortable this way.
You talked to me at the colonel’s wedding last month.
Brooke: I did, but in case you didn’t notice, I was a bit drunk.
So you had to be drunk to talk to me. Guess I should have put a bag over my head or something. ;)
Brooke: Maybe this isn’t a good idea…
No, sorry, I was trying to be funny. You can text me anytime. I want to get to know you. There, he’d said it. He didn’t know why, but it was the truth. Now how would she react? That was the kicker.
It took a few moments, but she finally replied. Why? I’m a little weird, in case you couldn’t tell.
Maybe I like weird. But aside from that, I like your smile. Makes me want to know the woman behind it.
Brooke: I have to go now. But thank you, that was sweet. I’ll text you again sometime.
Cade sighed as he put the phone down. Apparently he was becoming a pro at scaring Brooke Sullivan off. Maybe he just needed to let the idea of getting to know her die a quiet death, and move on…