“Okay,” he said. “So, let’s hear your plan.”
Shit! “I don’t have a plan, exactly,” I said. “It’s more of an outline.”
“I’m shocked,” he deadpanned.
“Look, smartass, we have too many villains and no way of knowing which one committed which crime. We do know that one of them wants me dead.” Jason flinched when I said this, but didn’t interrupt. “If we figure out a way to make him or her think they’ve got an easy shot at me, we’ll have ’em.”
“And how do you propose we do that, seeing as how we don’t know who they are?”
That was a good question, and I didn’t have an answer – at least not a good one. I did have an idea, but it was mediocre at best.
“We make sure all of them know that I’m breaking into Cara’s house to have a look around.”
“So, one of us calls up Bronson Elroy and says, ’Oh, by the way, Jessie’s going to scout around an abandoned crime scene tonight all on her lonesome. Please don’t show up and shoot her dead?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll have to be a little smarter.”
“And we do that how?”
“I said it was an outline,” I snapped. “I don’t the details worked out just yet.”
He sure as hell hadn’t come up with anything; it was his turn to contribute.
“Well, seeing as how a press conference would be a tad suspicious, I’m thinking we need to get all of our suspects in one place and let something slip.”
“And how are we going to do that?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, staring right over the top of me.
“Maybe we don’t have to. I’ll question them. Better yet, I’ll question some and let Dillon handle the rest. We don’t even have to bring them in. We can go to them.”
“Good. That’s good,” I said, impressed. He was thinking like a cop now, and this had a chance of working.
I shivered despite the rough sheet covering me up to my chin. I no longer felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. I was finally doing something concrete to learn the truth, to get justice for my family. I was going to catch a murderer and nail the bastard to the wall.
I once again took Jason’s hand in mine. “We’re going to do this,” I said. “We’re going to win.”
He brought my hand up to his lips. They stroked my skin like velvet and I felt a shot of heat between my thighs.
“You’d better be right,” he said. “Because I’m in no mood to say ’I told you so.”
Hell and damnation! Jason had believed there was nothing Jessie could say that would make him consider using her as bait to catch a killer. But what was he supposed to do? Every instinct told him to lock her up and keep her safe until the murderer was behind bars, but what was he willing to sacrifice? They had crossed a threshold, and they both knew it. They were on shaky ground yet, and if he took this decision away from her, she would resent him for it. Their budding relationship would fall victim to an early frost.
The idea of Jessie in danger sent licks of panic dancing up his spine. She’d been lucky once this week, what would he do if her luck ran out? He wouldn’t be able to live with that, but he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t let her be who and what she was.
“You’re sure about this?” he asked, knowing the answer but hoping she’d surprise him.
“Of course I’m sure,” she answered, dashing his illogical hopes.
“Okay. I’m going to talk to Dillon and get the ball rolling.”
“It’s going to take time to set everything up. It’s not like I’m going down the street to talk sports with the flower vendor on the corner. Don’t worry; I’m going to make sure you have plenty of time to recover. There’s no way you’re going into this at less than one-hundred percent.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I want to get this over as quickly as possible.”
Jason gave her hand a squeeze before standing. “I’ll be right back,” he said and stepped into the quiet hall to make the call.
“How’s Jessie?” Dillon demanded as way of greeting.
“She’s good,” Jason said. “Stubborn and irritating, so I guess she’s well on her way to being her old self.”
“Thank God. And good ol’ Elroy hasn’t uttered a peep, so I think you dodged a bullet on that one, buddy.”
“Thanks to you,” Jason said.
“Hey, that’s what friends are for.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going to be calling in that ‘friend chip’ again.”
“What now?” Dillon asked, his drawn-out words making his hesitation apparent.
“We need to interview about five hundred suspects this week.”
“I’m exaggerating,” Jason said with a sigh, but there are five people we need to talk to.”
“What’s this about?” Dillon asked.
“We’re going to set a trap for the killer.”
“And how are we going to do that?”
Jason looked away. “We’re going to use Jessie to draw him or her out.”
“Are you crazy?” Dillon exploded. “We can’t use a civilian like that, not to mention the fact that she was shot forty-eight hours ago. You can’t put her in that position.”
“Do you think I want to?” Jason said, his voice harsh. “This is all her crazy idea.”
“Well, tell her ’no.”
“I can’t. She’s dead-set on being a part of this and, honestly, the plan is a good one.”
“I don’t care, there has to be another way. You’re going to get her killed.”
“Damnit, Dillon!” Jason said, frustration clawing at his throat. He was having a hard enough time dealing with the idea of Jessie in danger. The last thing he needed was for his partner to highlight his fears. “We’re not discussing this, we’re doing it. Meet me at the station house in an hour so we can go over the details.”
“Fine,” Dillon snapped before cutting the connection.
“Fine,” Jason echoed, his head pounding.
Sometimes life was a real bitch.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Ms. Pinkston,” Jason said, two weeks later, to the pinched face filling his computer screen.
“Did I have a choice?” she asked tartly.
If she pursed her mouth any more tightly, she just might swallow her face, Jason thought.
“In any case, I appreciate your time,” he said, adding as much warmth to his voice as he could.
“Let’s just get this over with.”
Jason gave a quick nod. He wanted to get this over with, as well. As much as he was loath to put Jessie in danger, Candice Pinkston was a suspect, and he really did need to talk with her. He was tempted to ignore his promise to Jessie and do this his own way. He certainly didn’t need Jessie’s help to solve this case, and she would be safe if he kept her out of it.
He couldn’t do it, though. Not if he wanted a relationship of any kind with her. She was right. He had to let her make her own decisions. If he took that away from her, he would lose her forever.
“I need your help,” he told the annoyed secretary who was apparently unhappy despite his agreement to Skype rather than bring her in to the station. “You spoke with Jessie Wells a few days ago.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“There’s no use denying it,” he said. “I have the e-mail.”
“Okay, we spoke briefly,” she admitted, “and if you have the e-mail, then you already know what we talked about.”
“I do. You gave her a list of people who worked with you and the governor. Why was she interested in this information?”
“I would think that should be obvious. She’s looking for a story.”
“Hell,” Jason said with feigned indignation. “That damn woman is always underfoot. She’s just days out of the hospital and already she’s threatening to go back to the Montgomery home tonight. Does she think we’re incompetent fools, that there’s something we didn’t find?”
There, it was done. He studied Pinkston for any reaction.
“Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised,” she said, her expression betraying nothing but her displeasure with the reporter. “Someone needs to put a stop to her meddling once and for all.”
Those words made Jason’s blood run cold. Was this bitter woman capable of murder? His instincts were telling him “yes,” and he had just put Jessie in her sights.
That was the whole idea, he reminded himself, but that didn’t stop the anxiety from settling sick and hard in his stomach. It didn’t matter, the wheels were in motion and he was going to have to let it play out.
“Are we finished?” Pinkston demanded, interrupting his bleak thoughts.
“Almost. Just a few more questions.”
The trap had been set; it was time to catch a killer.
Jason felt like thousands of fire ants were crawling all over his body, tearing into his flesh and leaving a burning trail in their wake. He needed to see Jesse. That would soothe his unraveling nerves and give him a brief moment of peace.
He took the steps two at a time as he sprinted up to her apartment and banged loudly on her door.
“Jason!” she exclaimed as she opened the door. “I was hoping you’d come tonight.”
And then he was inside and she was in his arms. She felt so warm and soft and – right. How had it taken him so long to realize that this was where she belonged, where she would always belong.
“Good,” he whispered against the silk of her hair, pulling her even tighter against him. She had wanted to see him. He reveled in the fact that, for the first time in his life, a woman wanted him as badly as he wanted her.
“Yeah.” She drew back and looked up at him, her face aglow with excitement. “I want to go over our plan for tomorrow night again. I don’t want either of us to miss any small details.”
It was as if a bucket of ice water had been poured over his head.
“What?” he asked, sure he’d misunderstood. He had been imagining the many different ways he was going to make love to her tonight and she wanted to talk about the plan?
“We need to make sure nothing will go wrong,” she explained.
Jason dropped his arms to his sides. He had been desperate to forget about tomorrow and just enjoy being with her, while it was all she had been thinking about.
She must have noticed something in his face, maybe the flash of hurt in his eyes, because her smile slipped.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“What’s wrong?” he was livid. Did she not value her life, or the life they could have together? “Dammit, Jessie! You’re obsessed. Worse, you’re treating this whole thing like some sort of game. Life isn’t Warcraft or Mario Kart! You don’t get any do-overs. Dead is dead.”
“You think I don’t know that?” she flared, her own eyes snapping. “I’m the one who was in the hospital for a week because some crazed psycho decided I needed to die. And those bullets didn’t bounce off – they hurt like hell! Believe me, I know what’s real.”
“Do you?” he demanded, pushing his heated face mere millimeters from hers, and then something hot exploded beneath his skin. “Because here and now, this is the only thing that’s real!”
He yanked her to him and crushed his mouth to hers.
I wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of sensations that swept over me as those hungry lips met mine. In fact, a kiss was the last thing I had expected. One minute we were at each other’s throats and the next we were, well, literally at each other’s throats.
My skin burned as his lips dropped kisses at the nape of my neck, then trailed up to my ear, across my cheeks, my nose, back to my mouth.
I was shocked by my response, primal and hungry. I had experienced passion before – I was no blushing virgin – but I had never blazed out of control like this. I needed this man inside of me more than I needed to breathe.
“Jason,” I moaned helplessly as I fumbled with the T-shirt covering his beautiful chest. I could feel the hard, flat muscles of his stomach, the sprinkle of hair that dusted his smooth skin.
It wasn’t enough. I had to have more. I slid my arms around his waist and beneath the band of his jeans. I explored the contours of his buttocks and around to his impressive shaft, which pulsed with desire. It was his turn to moan as I stroked up and down its hard length.
“Christ, Jessie,” he bit out, voice hoarse with pleasure and pain. Stilling my hands, he began undoing my blouse, one tiny button at a time, with maddening slowness. He finally reached the top and slid the blue cotton from my shoulders. With a deft snap, he had my bra on the floor and his mouth covering my taut nipple. With each swirl of his magic tongue, fire climbed from between my legs and up my thighs.
“Now,” I rasped, ripping at the infuriating belt that held the denim around his lean hips. “Now!”
My pleas must have added fuel to the fire, because he brushed my hands aside and yanked the belt free. My pants followed, landing in a puddle at my feet. I was thankful I had been in too big a hurry to put on panties this morning.
He pulled a foil packet out of his back pocket and then his jeans also dropped to the floor, along with a pair of plaid boxers. He scooped me up in his arms as if I weighted no more than the empty, discarded clothes. I had never been carried before. The romance of the gesture arrowed through the haze of lust to strike at my very core. That was the reason why this was so different from my previous sexual encounters. It wasn’t just my body that was aflame, but my heart, as well. Every kiss, every touch was stirring me inside, as well as out.
Wow! So, this was what the whole love thing was all about.
I caught my breath as Jason laid me on the lumpy mattress and lowered himself on top of me, bracing his weight with his arms on either side of me.
“My Jessie,” he whispered before bringing his mouth to mine. I closed my eyes and let the glorious rush of emotions – fear, hope, excitement, joy – carry me into the abyss.