SIX

RACHEL GASPED AND STIFFENED, THEN SCRAMBLED OFF THE counter. Decker snagged his towel from the hardwood floor and blocked her. No way was she answering that door or talking to anyone unless it was someone’s ninety-year-old grandma. And even then, he intended to frisk her for weapons.

“Are you answering the door in nothing but high heels?”

Panic flitted across her face, then she cursed. “No.”

“Go put some clothes on. I got it.”

“You don’t have any clothes either,” she screeched.

Decker pointed to his jeans on the table, then turned her toward the hall, urging her back toward the bedroom with a little slap. “Go. You expecting anyone?”

“No.” She jogged down the hall, carrying her shoes. “No one ever rings my doorbell, especially this early on a Sunday morning.”

Frowning, he watched her disappear into her room, then snagged his gun and jeans, putting the latter on and palming the former. He shoved the condom in his pocket again. Whoever stood on the other side of the door was going to get his nuts blown off if Decker deemed him unfriendly.

All kinds of pissed off for being cockblocked, he stalked down the hall. “This better be nothing.”

When he reached the door, he tore it open to find a man of average height with hazel eyes behind round glasses, a checkered shirt, and khakis. He had nondescript shoes and an even more blah cut of hair in an unremarkable color somewhere between blond and light brown. The only thing worth mentioning was the scowl on his face.

“Who are you?” the stranger asked.

Decker slanted him a menacing glare. “Who are you?”

The scholarly, sharp face told him the guy was a few years older. The hint of paunch suggested this dude was more sedentary. The permanent vertical furrow between his brows said to Decker that the stranger scowled a lot. He lacked a coat, so it wasn’t like he could hide a shoulder holster. The piece might be tucked into the small of his back, but . . . The man’s hands looked too soft to be lethal.

Whoever this was, Decker didn’t think he was threatening. Annoying? That he already believed.

“I’m here to see Rachel.” The other guy tried to look down his nose at Decker, but that had to be hard when he had to look up a few inches and through glasses to meet his stare.

“She’s . . . busy.” Decker flashed a tight smile and hoped the dude got the right idea. Whoever he was, no way was he homing in on Rachel.

Mr. Glasses straightened his rims and glanced down Decker’s body, rolling his eyes at the tattoos and hard abs. Then his stare bulged when he spotted the gun pinned to his thigh.

“What are you doing with that?” he backed away a step. “I hope you’re a policeman.”

Not exactly, but close enough. “Something like that.”

“Are you hurting her?”

“Would I be answering the door if I was?” Decker rolled his eyes.

“Are you taking advantage of her?” Though nervous, the stranger looked ready to dress him down.

Decker tried not to laugh. Taking advantage of her? Every chance I get . . .

“None of your business. Who the hell are you and why are you standing on her porch when you weren’t invited?”

If it was possible, the guy got even more uptight, and some suspicions about his identity took root. And if this was who he thought, that would really fuck up everything.

Before he could say another word, Rachel came skidding around the corner and into the foyer. She stopped at the door with a gasp. “Owen, what are you doing here?”

Yep, that confirmed his suspicions. Damn it. While it seemed awfully convenient that Four-eyes was in town when Decker had been solicited to kill her, the truth was Owen hadn’t been the guy on the next barstool, offering him twenty-five thousand down and another twenty-five when the job was done. Yes, Owen could have hired someone to employ him. But why? Rachel’s ex looked more like the sort who would protest violence, not create it. With a curse, Decker surreptitiously tucked his pistol in the small of his back before Rachel could spot it, and leaned against the wall.

If Owen hadn’t solicited him to commit murder, then he was back to square one, trying to figure out who had.

•   •   •

WEARING LITTLE MORE than a frilly robe with her hair in disarray, Rachel stared at her ex-husband, who gave Decker a derisive glare, then sent her a look filled with scorn. She bristled. He’d moved on with his life. Hers was none of his business now.

“I’m here to talk to you,” Owen said stiffly. “I didn’t realize you were occupied. New boyfriend?”

“We just met,” she admitted softly.

But Decker talked over her, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Yes. I’m possessive, too.”

Rachel nudged Decker, wondering what the devil was wrong with him. Then she tugged him away from the door, pulling it open. “Come in, Owen.”

Val had other ideas. The fat orange tabby pranced to the door, sniffed at Owen, and hissed. Beside her, Decker laughed.

“You’ve still got that beast?”

“Of course.”

“Hmm . . . And now you’ve added another.” He shot Decker another disdainful stare.

Annoyance flared through Rachel. Who was Owen to judge? She hadn’t met his new girlfriend, Carly, but she sounded like she could be a bimbo. So she’d gone for the hot guy who was good in bed this time. So what? She was entitled.

Except Decker was way more than that. When she’d met him at the bar, then texted him for what amounted to a booty call, she hadn’t expected anything beyond a good time. Instead, he’d put her at ease while challenging her notions of herself and sex. He’d been patient, understanding, willing to listen, and ardent in bed. If he wasn’t a one-night stand, he might be everything she wanted.

“Can you make him put a shirt on first?” Owen sounded nothing less than acerbic.

Suddenly, Decker dragged her closer. “Only if you stop being a judgmental asshole. If you want to talk, you can wait while we put on some clothes, which I’m opposed to by the way.”

Rachel gaped at him. “Decker . . .”

“Hey, I offered to get dressed. After what he interrupted, I think that’s pretty magnanimous of me.”

She felt a furious blush creep up her cheeks. Why not just take out a billboard announcing that they were having sex. “Would you—Shh!”

“I think he could have guessed what we were up to, beautiful.” He grinned at her, and damn it, there was no way she could stay mad at him. Mercy, she must be out of her mind.

She turned back to Owen, doing her best to stand tall and look prim, despite wearing a robe designed for seduction, with her hair a wild tangle all around her. “The living room is straight to the back of the house. If you need coffee, I’ll make you a cup quickly before I—”

“No, you won’t.” Decker picked her up, lifting her against his chest. “He’ll survive without caffeine for five minutes.” He sniffed her and nuzzled her neck. “Or thirty.”

She gasped. “Decker!”

“I am not amused, Rachel.” Owen glowered.

He never was. She tried not to sigh.

Decker got in his face. “You came over here unannounced and uninvited early on a Sunday morning. Don’t expect her to just drop everything for you. You should have had the common courtesy to call first, but you didn’t because you’re either an inconsiderate bastard or you wanted to see if she’d be alone. Either way, that makes you a prick. If you’re just rude, then shut the fuck up and stop acting like you’re the most important person here. If you hoped to find her still alone, sorry to burst your little bubble. Rachel is far too gorgeous and kind to spend her life without someone who knows how great she is. You’ve moved on, and she’s doing the same. If that’s too much for you to handle, then scoot your annoying ass down the road. If you’re staying, then I expect to hear some courtesy and respect for her, especially since you knocked on her door. I’ve heard all the asshole I’m going to take from you. Are we clear?”

Rachel pressed her lips together to hold in a gasp—and a cheer. Decker had just defended her in the most beautiful way possible. She wanted to hug him, kiss him, tell him how grateful she was. Not only was he funny and great between the sheets, he was protective and kind in his brutish way. Everything she’d always wanted and never gotten from her ex. She melted inside, especially when Owen had the good grace to look contrite.

“Yes,” he mumbled. “I . . . You just startled me.”

Decker didn’t look like he believed Owen, but he let it pass. “Like I said, you can wait for us in the living room. We’ll be out soon.”

“I need to talk to Rachel alone,” her ex-husband protested.

She wanted nothing less than to spend quality one-on-one time with Owen.

“Not going to happen. If you have something to say, you can say it with me in the room,” Decker answered for her. Normally, she’d hate that, but if it kept her ex’s visit brief, then she’d agree to anything.

Owen adjusted his glasses, bristling. “It’s quite private.”

“Too bad. If you want to talk to her, that’s the deal. I don’t have to negotiate.”

Owen’s hands curled into fists and he pinned them to his hips. “This is ludicrous. What exactly do you think I’m going to do to her?”

“I don’t know, but this craptastic attitude of yours isn’t giving me a warm fuzzy. If you want to talk to Rachel, we’ll be out shortly. If you want to leave, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. That’s the deal.”

Without waiting for a reply, Decker turned and carried her through the foyer and down the hall. Shock still pinged through her. What the hell was he up to? Why did he give a rip about Owen wanting to talk to her? Even with the uncertainty, she couldn’t hold in a smile.

He wandered back to the bedroom and set her on her feet. Rachel’s head raced as she shut the door and whirled on him. “I don’t know whether to thank you from the bottom of my heart or ask you if you’re psycho. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to set Owen on his butt?”

“I’m sure a while. It’s obviously long overdue, since the prick seems to think that you should ask, ‘How high?’ whenever he tells you to jump.” He cocked his head. “You did that for years, didn’t you?”

She frowned. “Probably longer than I should have.”

“Then he deserved what he got. You’re no longer his, and you don’t have to do a damn thing he says.”

“But I’m not yours, either.” And that was the confusing part. She didn’t really expect him to care about her problems with Owen, but he’d made sure that her demanding ex didn’t walk all over her. “You didn’t have to stick your neck out there.”

“Yeah, I did. You’re too good for him. I wasn’t about to let him treat you that way.”

Those words made her liquefy into a puddle of goo. Who was she kidding? It made her want to fling aside her robe and plaster her naked body to his. “Thanks. That means a lot. Asserting myself with him is something I’ve struggled with for years. I know I should. I just don’t like confrontation.”

And every time she’d tried, Owen had done his best to make her feel petty and regret it.

“Then I’ll take care of it for you.”

His words took her aback. “I-I don’t expect you to stay and listen to whatever Owen is droning on about. It will be long and dull and probably sanctimonious. If you want to take a rain check on the pancakes, I’ll let you off easy.”

Decker clenched his jaw. “I’m not in a hurry to leave, Rachel. And I’m not thrilled with the idea of leaving you alone with a man who doesn’t know how to draw the line between you two, much less be polite. I’ll blend into the background if you want, but I’d like to stay. One of the truths about being a protector for a living is that your instincts are well honed. I don’t like him being here. Why isn’t he in Florida?”

What did Decker think Owen would do to her? He was annoying, but harmless.

“I have no idea.”

“Let’s put some clothes on and find out.” He gave her a hot, lingering stare. “Or take them off and deal with him a lot later.”

Rachel sent him a playful swat. He was good for her ego, but she shouldn’t keep Owen waiting. Not only was it rude, but he’d make her pay for it eventually, when Decker had gone for good.

Within minutes, Rachel found undergarments, jeans, and a red, scoop-neck T-shirt in her closet at the back of her bathroom and dressed. She ran a brush through her hair and applied a little lip gloss. She wasn’t getting prettier than this without makeup, and that would take too long.

Emerging back into her bedroom, she saw Decker fully dressed in last night’s clothes. His five o’clock shadow had grown thicker, darker, making him look more disreputable. Dangerous. She shivered. That shouldn’t turn her on. She’d never been attracted to the bad boy.

Rachel couldn’t deny that she’d made an exception for him.

“Let’s go.” She smiled at him and found herself blushing as she remembered everything they’d done last night.

As if he could read her mind, Decker grinned back. “And get this over with so we can come back to bed.”

Hand in hand, they made their way down the hall, Decker leading her through the narrow corridor. She had no idea why he hadn’t bailed when she’d given him the opportunity, much less why he’d stayed and seemed determined to stake his claim in front of Owen. It was kind of unnerving . . . but it was mostly nice. He’d defended her and was now standing by her side during what she feared wasn’t going to be a fun conversation. Not at all what she’d imagined when she’d invited Decker over last night, but she had to admit that she was pleasantly surprised. This was her first one-night stand, and she didn’t know the etiquette, but something told her this might last longer than a few hot, sweaty hours.

Back in the living room, Decker took a seat on the sofa and immediately began staring down Owen. She escaped to the kitchen and made coffee for all and tidied up, prolonging the moment she had to face her ex. A few minutes later, she brought out the steaming mugs, along with sugar and cream, and some homemade cookies she’d baked the other night out of boredom. They were still soft and fresh, and she didn’t think she could face Owen without something in her stomach. Even if his attitude might make her want to throw it all back up.

After she set the tray of everything on the table, Decker wrapped his arm around her and pulled her back onto the sofa with him. Then he leaned in and made coffee for her.

“Sugar and cream?” he asked.

“Please.” She wondered how he’d guessed. “Do you still like yours with cream Owen?”

He watched them stiffly. “Yes.”

When Rachel scooted forward to help Decker, he shook his head. “I’ve got it.”

Minutes later, he handed her a mug of morning goodness and an oatmeal raisin cookie. A moment later, Decker slid Owen’s across the coffee table to him. She couldn’t see his face, but his body language beside her was tense with a not-quite-friendly warning. Then he poured his own brew and drank it black, snatching up one of the cookies and groaning as he took a bite.

Decker was noisy and intrusive, and she had a feeling he intended Owen to be very aware of his presence. He was almost overly protective, and she probably ought to be annoyed, but she smiled a bit.

“So what brings you to Lafayette?” she asked her ex politely. “I assume you came here from Florida to see me for a specific reason.”

Owen sipped at his coffee, obviously savoring it. “You still make some of the best coffee. I need to remember to put some cinnamon in mine.” He set the cup on the saucer, then adjusted both to the little side table beside his chair. “Since you’re . . . occupied, I’ll make this brief.”

“Smart man,” Decker mumbled beside her.

Rachel elbowed him. “I’m listening. Go ahead.”

“As you might have heard, I’m dating someone now. Her name is Carly. She’s an aide at the university. Very bright woman.”

“I did hear. That’s wonderful. I hope you’re happy.”

Owen hesitated. “I’ve come here for her.”

Rachel cocked her head and frowned. Owen thought visiting his ex-wife would somehow make his current girlfriend happy? “I don’t understand.”

He sighed, rubbing his hands together and humming. Owen did that when he was uncomfortable. “Carly’s brother lives here in Lafayette. She had plans to come see him, and I didn’t want to spend these few days without her.”

What? Owen had never wanted to leave work. Missing her would have been the last reason he’d have torn himself away from everything he considered vital.

“We’ve been dating about eight months, you see. We started slowly at first. But we—” Owen slanted an annoyed stare at Decker. “Is it necessary to have this conversation with him in the room?”

“We’ve covered this. I’m not leaving.” Decker leaned into the sofa and threw an arm around her, sending him a tight smile. Technically, he didn’t bare teeth, but he might as well have. “So if you want to talk to her, I’m staying.”

Rachel tossed Decker a questioning stare. Wasn’t the morning after when the hot guy usually walked out and never returned the lonely girl’s calls? Instead, he looked not just protective, but possessive—a bit like he wanted to stake a claim so her ex would understand.

Owen looked ready to launch into one of his logical tirades where she felt reduced to an inch tall, even though he never raised his voice. He just talked in hundred dollar words and used analogies only a physicist could understand to make her feel dumb.

“I’m not asking my guest to leave for you, Owen. You and I aren’t together anymore, and I don’t owe you anything. If you want to talk, I’m listening.”

“As you wish.” He didn’t sound pleased as he glared at Decker. “I’d appreciate if you’d butt out.”

Decker held up his hands. “Hey, if this is about your love life, as long as it’s got nothing to do with Rachel, you and I have no problems.”

“I’ve no idea how you can like this muscle-bound Neanderthal, but . . . Back to Carly. I see a future with her. I would like that very much. But . . . we’ve run into a snag. You know me, Rachel. I’m uncomfortable with feelings.”

The understatement of the millennium. “Go on.”

“She’s convinced that I need more closure with you before I’ll be ready to move on. She is adamant that until I understand my part in what went wrong between us, I can’t really embrace another relationship.”

Rachel sucked in a breath. The last thing she wanted to do was talk about her past in front of her current squeeze, even though they had almost no likelihood of sharing a future. She’d love it if there were possibilities for her and Decker; last night had been incredible—everything she’d fantasized about and more. He was still something like a dream this morning. But real life wasn’t a fairy tale, and she wasn’t expecting happily ever after.

“Owen, I think we’ve said everything important between us.”

“No.” He swallowed. “Tell me . . . Was I truly insensitive to your feelings?”

What a catch-22. If she said no, Owen would know she was lying. If she said yes, it would spark an unpleasant discussion. Good gravy, sometimes she hated her pathological need to do the right thing.

“Yes. We discussed this at the end, if you’ll remember.”

“I didn’t understand. Explain it again.”

Rachel heaved a sigh. “You were always very absorbed with your work, Owen. Before I even left the room, you were already pondering atomic particles or quantum entanglement or whatever the project of the moment was. When I entered a room, most of the time, I wasn’t even sure you knew I was there.”

Owen inhaled stiffly. “Of course I knew. I’m sorry if you thought otherwise. Not everyone understands my work. But Carly does. She finds it as engrossing as I do.”

Then she ought to be a regular barrel of fun. “Great. Maybe you two have more in common than we did and—”

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Decker interrupted. “If Carly wants you to understand how you fucked up the first time, let me clue you in. You were self-absorbed, dumbass. Dude, it’s not always about you.” Decker scowled across the room at Owen. “You didn’t care if you gave Rachel pleasure or made her feel loved. You were more interested in your job than your wife, and that’s never going to make any woman with a drop of passion in her blood or an ounce of love in her heart happy.”

Owen sputtered angrily, then gaped at her with his face full of betrayal. “You’ve spoken to him about us?”

“You’ve spoken to Carly about our marriage,” she pointed out.

Adjusting his shirt, Owen stiffened righteously. “Yes, but we’ve been dating for some time now. We’re contemplating a future together. If I’m not mistaken, you can measure the time you’ve known this obnoxious lothario in hours. Rachel, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but he’s using you for sex. Then he’ll leave you. I thought you respected yourself more than to act like a . . . cheap floozy for someone like him.”

She reared back as if he’d slapped her in the face. In a way, he had. “I was thinking about experiencing all the orgasms I never got when I was married to you. And Decker might not have phrased it nicely, but he’s absolutely right. I didn’t feel valued, Owen. I don’t think you ever truly loved me. If you came here for advice, I’ll give it to you. Start by caring about something besides work. Romance is important. Sex is more than a bodily function. Don’t make her feel like an interruption or your dirty necessity. You did that to me all the time, you . . . jerk.”

The enormity of what she’d just said hit her. She gasped. Had that really just spewed from her mouth? Her mama had taught her that if she didn’t have anything nice to say, she shouldn’t say anything at all. But if he’d come here for the truth, why not give it to him? Clearly Decker was rubbing off on her . . .

“What she said,” he added with a proud smile.

“I’m speechless,” Owen admitted, looking stupefied. “I didn’t know you felt that strongly about frivolous things like flowers and intercourse. I married you because I thought you were far too sensible to care much for such inane things.”

“You didn’t ask. And honestly, you wouldn’t have cared how I felt, Owen. And I’ll tell you the truth. Carly probably cares about those things, too, because she’s a woman, not a robot. If you want to keep her, you need to figure out how to meet her halfway.”

“I never meant to hurt you,” he offered.

Too little, too late. Rachel sighed. “I know. It’s water under the bridge. I just hope you’re ready to be a better man and partner with Carly.”

Owen didn’t answer. He simply sat there, looking disoriented and lost in thought. Rachel had never seen that expression on his face. He was actually worried about losing Carly. The woman mattered to him.

Amazing. Maybe she should have been more honest with Owen while they were married. Instead, she’d done her best to be understanding. The minute he’d started taking her for granted, she should have said something. But the few times she’d tried, Owen hadn’t understood or hadn’t thought it important. His dismissive attitude, as if her feelings were nowhere nearly as important to him as subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light at CERN, had really hurt. In the grand scheme of the universe, of course his work was important. But at the time, she’d wondered why she hadn’t mattered, too. He’d been far too interested in chasing what Einstein had never been able to prove. In fact, when she’d said she wanted a divorce, his long sigh of irritation—with nary a word of protest—told her they were never meant to be. If she’d faced that sooner, she could have saved herself a few years and a lot of heartache.

“You’ve gotten what you came here for, pal. Thanks for stopping by.” Decker stood and rounded the coffee table to stand over Owen expectantly.

“I . . .” He looked at Rachel. “That’s so much to contemplate. You’re talking about changing the way I do everything, the way I approach life. Sex is actually important to women?”

“Yes, Owen. I know it’s a lot, but—”

“Look, this girl is either important to you or she isn’t,” Decker cut in. “If she is and you want to keep her, then use your head. There’s a reason she sent you to talk to Rachel. Women don’t usually want their man talking to an ex unless they’re at the end of their rope. And when did you get the stupid-ass idea that sex wasn’t important to women?”

Owen frowned, gaping. “I know it’s important to most men, but . . . I assumed women were less interested in such things.”

“The amount of pleasure you give her is a direct statement about how important she is to you, ass-hat. If you can’t make the effort to make her feel good when she’s yielding her time and body to you, then how can she feel valued?” Decker shook his head. “Didn’t you ever learn to kiss and sweet-talk girls in high school out of their bras and into their panties?”

A red flush swept up Owen’s face. “No. I let beer in college do that for me.”

Which probably explained why he’d kept a few bottles of good wine in the house when they’d been married and given her a glass or two when he’d been “in the mood.”

“Well, now you know that females like conversation with their orgasms. They like to feel special.” Decker dragged Owen to his feet, and her ex stood as if in a daze. “Try that with Carly. Ask her what she likes and listen. Put a smile on her face. And fucking call next time you’re thinking of dropping by to see Rachel.”

He managed to scoot her ex out of the room, down the hall, and out the front door without a protest from Owen. The way Decker had handled her ex had been nothing short of brilliant.

The second Decker shut the door behind Owen, he locked it and flashed her a sharkish grin.

“Decker?” She backed away.

“Beautiful . . .” He urged her against the foyer wall, kissing her absolutely breathless. A girl could get used to this . . .

Too bad he wouldn’t be around.

Rachel broke the kiss. The thought that he would soon leave and she would probably never see him again bothered her way more than it should. It was a good idea to part ways soon, before she started losing her heart to Decker. Or maybe it was already too late?

“Do you want those pancakes now? I really do know how to make them. I don’t want to send you off hungry.” She tried to wink and tease and not let on that his imminent departure was breaking her heart more than it probably should.

She expected him to agree, maybe share a casual breakfast with her. Then she supposed he’d smile, offer some thanks, along with a kiss or two, then climb on that gleaming motorcycle of his and leave. The last thing Rachel had ever imagined was for his face to thunder over, for his blue eyes to penetrate her bravado, and for him to press every inch of his hard body into her possessively.

“If you want pancakes, fine. If you don’t want to send me away hungry, then let’s skip the kitchen and go back to bed. I’m famished for you.”

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