“She died—overdosed.” She closed her eyes. “Mom…well, she was in love with being in love, you know? Went from one guy to the next and each one was ‘the one’ and none of them ever worked out. But each time she met someone, she gave away a piece of herself until there was nothing left.”
She sighed. “Thank you. It’s just… The thing is, I loved my mom. Even though she didn’t raise me, whenever she came around, she was happy to see me. I kept thinking that maybe I could’ve done something to, I don’t know, facilitate her need to love. That if I—”
“There was nothing you could’ve done differently,” he said passionately. “Trust me, I know. There wasn’t a damn thing my brothers or I could’ve done that changed where our parents ended up. They set their own futures. We were just along for the ride. Same with you. You had nothing to do with how your mom decided to live her life.”
Besides the bullet wounds, they had more in common than Alana really ever realized. Both of them had parents who were too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to them. If anyone would understand where Alana was coming from, it would be Chandler.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The hand on her hip stilled. “For what?”
She didn’t answer, unsure if she could put it into words. After a few minutes, Chandler started peppering her with questions and she found herself answering them with little reservation. How her grandmother always believed that Alana should’ve been born a man and because of her mother’s chaotic life, she was obsessed with keeping things orderly. She told him about the night she got the tattoo.
“Does the rose mean anything to you?” he asked, and she could hear the grin in his words.
“No.” She laughed softly. “It was just on TV that night and it reminded me of my mom. Like she had already started to wither, but if I could keep her in this protective vase, she would be okay.”
“Sounds like the rose does mean something to you.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Ah, good point.”
Chandler switched topics, telling her how they’d spend the holidays at the Danielses’ house and how everyone knew that little Maddie had been in love with Chase from the moment they crossed paths. She smiled at the childhood stories. It was obvious that Chandler had been the parental influence out of the three, getting the younger two out of trouble and basically taking care of them. It saddened her, because she feared that he hadn’t had much of a childhood and probably wouldn’t have had any if it hadn’t been for Maddie’s parents. Their home had been cold and sterile, but the boys had made the best of it and they supported one another above all else. Chase took over the family business, growing it in ways their father never could. Chad had used all those afternoons playing ball and turned it into a stellar career. And Chandler ended up doing what he had always done: taking care of others.
Mere minutes passed after the last word was spoken and she’d already begun to drift off. Unsure of whether she was dreaming or not, she felt Chandler’s velvety soft lips brush her forehead, and she sank a little deeper into sleep and a little further into Chandler.
Chandler jerked awake, slow to process what exactly had woken him up. Wasn’t his alarm or phone. The room was silent. Thin rays of early morning sunlight streamed through the blinds. Brushing the hair out of his face, he squinted and then reached out to find the warm body of—
The space beside him was empty.
He jackknifed off the bed, dropping his hands to where the pajama bottoms rested low on his hips. Son of a mother’s tit, where in the hell was she? If she was sleeping on that goddamn couch downstairs, injured or not, he might strangle her.
Spinning around, he stalked out of the bedroom and started toward the stairs, when he stopped. It was barely audible, the soft cry, but he heard it coming from the extra bedroom he’d put Alana in. A huge knot formed in his stomach as he stepped forward, pushing the bedroom door open.
Alana was unaware of him. That much was certain. She was wearing pink lacy panties, and her hair fell forward in soft, dark waves as she got one arm through her white blouse. Did she think she was really going to work?
“What are you doing?”
Her chin rose as she turned to the door. A faint flush stained her cheeks, her eyes wide without the glasses. “Don’t you know how to knock on a door?”
“It’s my house.”
Her lips turned down at the corners. “You still should knock!”
Walking into the room, he stopped a few feet from her and folded his arms. “Alana, you cannot be getting ready for work.”
“Whatever,” she muttered, turning around and giving him an eyeful of that perfect ass. His sex responded, swelling painfully. He tried to ignore it, because seriously, the hardness was f**king inappropriate at the moment.
He took a deep breath and inconspicuously adjusted his erection. “The doctors said you were off work until next Monday. You have a note. Your boss already knows not to expect you—”
“I feel okay,” she answered, turning slightly. Her brow pinched, and there was a wrenching sensation in his chest as he watched her struggle to get her bandaged arm into her blouse.
She might feel better, but this was ridiculous. People who got shot didn’t go to work the next day. Well, he had, but that was a different case. He stepped toward her, but she backpedaled.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a few days off and relaxing,” he reasoned in a patient tone that even surprised him. “We can chill at the house, watch some bad movies, and—”
“No!” Her voice cracked on the word. “I need to go to work. I just got the job and even though Mr. Patricks says it’s okay, I need to be there.”
“You do not need to be there.” As she started to button her blouse, covering the sweet swells lifted by the pink bra, he inched closer to her. “You need to be here.”
Her fingers stopped and she lifted her gaze. “Here?”
The way she said that one word, like it was the most horrifying idea, was confusing and f**king irritating. Opening his mouth to point that out, he stopped when he watched her gaze dart from him to the door and back again, as if she were judging the distance. But to do what?
It hit him then with the force of a Mack truck.
Alana was running.
Running from him, and the reason why seemed ridiculous, but this woman had more commitment issues than his two brothers combined. She had slept beside him all night and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that it had been the first time for her. Something like that shouldn’t be such a big deal, but it was to her.
A surge of male pride blasted him. It was wrong, considering how she was reacting now, but he’d been the first guy she’d slept beside and f**k if no one could take that from him.
He wasn’t going to let her run. That shit stopped now. “You’re staying here.”
Anger flashed in her eyes, turning them nearly black. “Are you telling me what to do?”
“Yes.” He flashed a quick grin. “Someone has to.”
“No one needs to.” Her hands dropped to her sides, balling into fists.
“I disagree. See, that’s your problem. You’ve spent your whole life bossing people around and taking care of other people’s lives.” Pointing out that she also spent her life running from intimacy was so not a good idea right now. “That changes today. I’m telling you what to do and I’m going to take care of you.”
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him. Then she swallowed. “I don’t know if I should be pissed off or flattered by that statement.”
“I say we go with flattered.”
Turning away, she lifted her arm and pressed her palm to her forehead. “I…I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I need to go to work.”
“That’s the last thing you need to do.” He took another step, catching the scent of lilacs and vanilla. “Come on, don’t fight me on this. Anything but this. You were shot yesterday, Alana. For crying out loud, let me take care of you.”
Her chest rose swiftly. “Why…why would you want to?”
Had she really just asked that? “Why wouldn’t I want to?”
As she watched him wryly, her lower lip trembled. It was the only real emotion she showed and for a moment, he thought she was going to cave, that the woman would finally listen to him, but then she shook her head and started reworking the buttons.
Reaching deep inside for a patience he didn’t really have but seemed to grasp whenever he was around Alana, he crossed the distance between them, then stopped short when he saw the tiny drop glistening on her face.
Like someone had reached in and squeezed his heart, he closed his hands around empty air. “Alana, baby…”
She blinked rapidly as she backed away, hitting the edge of the bed. “No. I’m fine. I can go to work.”
He was at a loss as to what to do, so all he could do was try to understand. “Why? Why do you have to do this?”
Her fingers shook as she lowered her hands. “Because it’s my job.”
“That’s not a good enough reason.”
Her throat worked and when she blinked again, her lashes were damp. “It’s the only thing I have. Is that a good enough reason for you, Chandler? My job is it. There’s nothing else and focusing on my job, well, that allows me not to really dwell on the fact that I have no one. I’m not like you. I don’t have brothers and I don’t have a surrogate family. I…” She broke off, the tears welling and spilling over her cheeks. Frustration pulled at her lips as she squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t know what else to say, and I don’t want to think about this. I don’t want to think about anything.”
Chandler did the only thing he could think of in that moment, because all he wanted was for her to stop crying. Cupping her cheeks, he smoothed away the tears. Their eyes locked, and the flicker of arousal in her stare was greater than the distrust he also saw.
“You have me,” he said, meaning it. The moment he said those words, he knew how true they were. She had him.
Her mouth opened, but he snaked an arm around her waist and carefully hauled her up against him and kissed her.
He kissed her in a way he’d never really kissed a woman before.
It was a sweet brush of lips and tender pressure, a kiss of reverence, and it shook him to the core. His hand shook as he smoothed his palm over her cheek, slowly deepening to the kiss. He expected her to fight him, but her lips parted and her tongue flicked over his first. His arousal surged hard and heavy, but he slowed it down, not wanting to hurt her or to send her running again.
But she wasn’t running now.
Alana looped her uninjured arm around his neck, her hand delving deep in his hair, holding her to him. The kiss turned fiercer, harder, and it was all her.
“Stay here,” he coaxed, letting his hand slip down, over the curve of her breast, to her hip. “Stay here and I’ll make sure you don’t think about anything.”
Alana shuddered against him and her damp lashes lowered.
He kissed the corner of her lips. “Let me take care of you, Alana.”
Her fingers tightened in his hair, causing sharp, delicious sparks of pain in his scalp. Yep, that turned him on. “Why?” she whispered against his mouth. “Why?”
“Because I want to.” He pressed his lips to her temple. “It’s as simple as that. I want to. And if you let me, you won’t regret it. You won’t think about a thing. I promise you.”
She was silent and still and then she removed her hand from his hair. His stomach tightened and he prepared for another bout of fighting.
But she placed her cheek against his bare chest and let out a deep, troubled sigh. “Okay,” she whispered. “Okay.”
Not one to waste time, especially with this woman, he slid his arm under her knees and picked her up so that her injured shoulder wasn’t placed against his chest. She didn’t say anything, just turned her cheek farther into his chest. His heart thumped heavily when he felt her lips pressed against his skin.
Oh yeah, she wasn’t going to be doing any thinking any time soon.
Carrying her back to his bed, he laid her down gently. He hovered over her, his fingers lingering above the buttons on her blouse. “How is your shoulder?”
She stared up at him, her cheeks flushed. “It burns a little and is tender to move, but seriously, it’s not bad.”
“Good.” He made quick work of the tiny buttons, parting the soft material. Sliding an arm under her back, he sat her up, and it did strange things to his heart when she rested against him. “Wait until you’re healed. The things I want to do to you…”
He carefully removed the shirt from her shoulder, sliding it over the small bandage covering the patch of skin. Dropping the material aside, he reached around her, unhooked her bra, and placed a kiss to the side of her neck.
“Is this how you’re going to take care of me?” she asked.
“One of the ways.” Guiding her down, he leaned over her, soaking in the way she looked in his bed, only in her panties. She started to cover her chest, but he caught her arms, easing them back to her sides. “You’re absolutely beautiful. No reason to hide yourself.”
A flush traveled down her throat and over her chest. Her ni**les tightened under the intensity of his gaze. He smiled and then dipped his head, flicking his tongue over each nipple before sucking one into his mouth. Her moan reverberated through his skull, an erotic cocktail that made his arousal almost painful.