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Chapter 18

I was nervous, anxious to have the whole thing over and done with. I wanted to look my father’s killer in the eye. And I was ready to cut Jason Anders out of my life once and for all. After tonight, we could go our separate ways.

I’m not sure why I was so angry, he had just proven to me what I had known all along. You can’t trust anyone but yourself. But I had trusted him. I had let down my walls enough to give him a peek inside. I had thought he was the one who would have my back. My mistake had been disastrous and humiliating, but I had learned my lesson.

I stuffed my hurt deep down and looked at my watch, a scratched Timex that I had been meaning to replace for over a year, but had never gotten around to doing. It was only one o’clock. The day was crawling along at a maddening pace.

I heard the thunk of my front door, accompanied by the clomp of heavy, booted feet. My back stiffened. Jason had returned, carrying two fast-food bags in his large hands.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded. I had no desire to spend an awkward afternoon pretending like he hadn’t wounded me at the core of my being, but I’d be damned before I let him see that. “How did you get in?”

“You hid your key under the door mat,” he said. “That’s a really bad idea. You have to be more careful, Jessie.”

Crap! “You had no right to walk right on in.”

“I came with a peace offering,” he said, holding up the food. The smell of French fries was enough to make my mouth water, and I grabbed one of the paper sacks. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I realized I was ravenous.

“Accepted,” I said with my mouth full of fried potatoes. Now you can go.”

“Not before I apologize,” he said, setting his meal on my small kitchen table.

My heart was racing and I felt light-headed, but nothing this man could say would erase last night.

“A burger and fries aren’t enough to buy my forgiveness,” I said, staring into his eyes with what I hoped was cold disdain.

“I know that,” he said, and his face did seem to be etched with misery. “I was completely out of line last night. I am so sorry for hurting you the way I did.”

He took both my hands in his strong, warm ones but I yanked mine back.

“Jessie,” he said, “please give me a chance to explain. I have no excuse for my behavior, but can we at least talk about it?”

“There’s no need for an explanation,” I said, and focused my attention on my burger. I didn’t want to hear his reasons. I knew them well enough. He thought I was the same type of cold-hearted bitch he considered Rachel to be. He was feeling guilty about this, for whatever reason, but I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. He was a judgmental, arrogant ass, and I would not give him the comfort of absolution.

“Dammit, Jessie!” he said, shedding his conciliatory manner as frustration apparently got the best of him. “I love you. I wish to God I could go back and take away the things I said, but I can’t. Please, give me another chance.”

My heart turned over and I wanted so very much to believe him, to believe that he did love me and wanted to make things right. But It was too late. He was right, there was no going back. He had shown me his true colors, and I couldn’t afford to be hurt over and over again like that, even if I did love him.

“Just go,” I whispered.

“Jessie . . .”

“Go!” I shouted, my voice echoing off the walls and windowpanes.

What was left of my heart shattered as his face twisted in agony, but he did as I asked. He turned on his heel and walked out the door. I stared at the empty space where, just seconds before, he had been standing. Then, I sank down into the chair and gave in to the tears I had been holding back for far too long.

I climbed behind the wheel of my Taurus, stony-faced, at eight o’clock on the dot. My tears had dried up about four hours ago, along with any sentimental residue that had lingered. I was feeling a bit shaky, but I attributed that to the fact that I hadn’t eaten much all day, my knotted stomach couldn’t handle the fast-food lunch Jason had presented. I was also hot and uncomfortable, thanks to the bullet-proof vest I was wearing. Jason climbed in beside me, unsmiling, and sat ramrod straight, muscles at rigid attention and mouth set in a grim line. I didn’t want him in my car, but we had agreed that the fewer vehicles, the better. I picked up my key and was mortified to realize that my hands were trembling too much for me to slide it into the ignition.

Jason’s harsh veneer crumbled and he placed his big hand over my trembling one. I jerked away, as if his hand were a hot poker.

“Jessie?”

“What if it doesn’t work?” I whispered, staring at him in terror. “What if no one shows up? What if we never solve this case and I spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, never knowing who I can trust?”

“You can trust me,” he said, sliding his hand up my arm to cup my cheek, gazing at me with those soulful green eyes.

I leaned my head into it, savoring the warmth of his rough, warm palm against my skin, the feeling of reassurance and safety. Then realization came rushing back and I ripped free of his touch.

“No, I can’t.” My words sounded resolute, gave no hint of my despair.

His hand fell as if a string had been cut. He turned back to stare at the windshield and said in a voice as devoid of emotion as mine had been, “Well, you can trust the VPD, and you’ll have their very best at your service.”

He glanced at me once again before continuing, “And we’re going to throw this bastard in a hole so deep he’ll never be able to claw his way out.”

I smiled at Jason; I couldn’t help myself. For some reason, his confidence made me feel better, more sure of our plan. Why was that? I wasn’t some weak-kneed damsel in distress. I was a freaking action hero! I snapped a clip into a gun I had never used outside of the shooting range, and slid it into the shoulder holster Jason had given me.

“Alright,” I said, “let’s do this.”

I managed to cling to my semblance of calm all the way to Kingsdale, but I felt it disintegrate when I saw the large blue Chevy parked only a block from Cara’s house.

“What the hell?” I said, stomping on the brake so hard our heads whipped forward and the equipment resting on the back seat went crashing to the floorboard.

“Careful,” Jason said, “that’s expensive stuff back there.”

“Why is there a police car here?” I demanded, staring daggers into his bewildered face.

“You knew there was going to be a team of officers,” he said. “They’re going to monitor you just like planned.”

“I knew they were going to be listening, be close enough to intervene, but they might as well put a neon sign over the house announcing ’It’s a trap!”

“They’re not going to stay there,” Jason explained in a reasonable tone that set my already jangled nerves even more on edge. “They’re just waiting for me to put them in position.”

“This isn’t going to work,” I said. After all the plotting and planning, it wasn’t going to work.

“What are you talking about?” Jason asked, incredulity written all over that chiseled face.

“You have to send them away,” I said.

“I told you, they’re not staying. I’m going to put them somewhere out-of-sight.”

“Fine, but what about the rest of the team? Where are you going to stick three Crown Vics? And the men stationed inside the house? Are they going to be hiding in the bathroom?”

“We talked about this, Jessie.” His voice was harsh with exasperation. “In fact, we’ve spent weeks talking about this.”

I forced back my panic and took a few deep, calming breaths before responding. It wouldn’t help me to plead my case while in the throes of hysteria.

“I know we did,” I said, “but I needed to see it to know it wasn’t going to work.”

“We’ve planned hundreds of ops. We know what we’re doing,” he said.

“Yes, but so does our killer. You have to send everyone away.”

“Absolutely not,” he ground out through clenched jaws.

“This may be our only chance,” I said. “We can’t risk making a mess of it because you’re afraid.”

I knew I had made a mistake the second the words had left my mouth. I had let my anxieties get to me and had returned to my old habits, attacking his pride. He grabbed my shoulders and yanked me to face him, fury radiating from his entire body in burning hot waves.

“You’re damn right I’m afraid! You’re getting ready to put yourself square in the crosshairs of someone who’s already murdered two people.”

“I know,” I said calmly, reminding myself that, despite everything, this man did care about me in some way. “I’m not thrilled about it, either, but we can’t screw it up. You’ve had your people watching this house since before you put the whole thing in motion. Elroy’s not in there right now. We can get in place and leave one surveillance team to let us know when he gets here. And,” I added before he could interrupt, “we’ll leave the sniper I know you have stationed somewhere around. We don’t need a battalion.”

Jessie was right, Jason knew. He had gone overboard in trying to keep her safe, but dammit, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. No, that wasn’t true, he corrected himself. She was the one who had been shot. She knew better than anyone how high the stakes were. She wanted her life back, and he couldn’t blame her for that. And in order to make that happen, they needed to be smart.

“Okay,” he sighed in resignation. “One team will stay and monitor our mics; one man will stay . . . where he is. Everyone else goes.”

It took only a few minutes for Jason to contact the inhabitants of the police cars, which were not actually Crown Vics, but sedate unmarked sedans, and the four officers inside the house. Two cars were sent on their way and one nondescript Chevy was parked in a driveway one block over – close enough to hear what was going on without being in the thick of the action. The sniper was left on his perch upon the roof of the neighboring house.

“Happy?” he asked as the final police vehicle disappeared down the road.

“I’m not sure ‘happy’ is the right word,” she answered, “but I’m definitely more comfortable.”

“Wish I could say the same,” Jason mumbled, but Jessie was already on her way up the walk, so the comment was wasted breath. He jogged a few steps to catch up, ducked under the police tape, and unlocked the door.

“I figure we’ve got a good three hours before we need to start watching for our invited guest,” he said, “but I want to get in place just in case he’s overeager.”

Jason knew it had to be his imagination, but the smell of death crawled up into his nose and down his throat, made him want to gag. The stale, fetid air was stifling, but he didn’t dare search out the thermostat to turn up the air. With the drapes drawn, the house was as dark as a tomb and felt hot, heavy, and dead.

He dropped into the plush sofa, hoping to relax, but he couldn’t stop his knee from bouncing and he caught himself raising a hand to run through his hair. He watched Jessie walk back-and-forth, wearing away his already thread-bare nerves. Jason rose to his feet and placed his hands on her shoulders, halting her in mid-stride.

“Stop,” he said, holding her in place. Her bones felt as delicate and fragile as Dalia’s china doll.

“What?” she asked, her voice tight, the pitch just a little too high.

“Stop pacing. If you keep that up, you’re going to fall through to the basement.”

“I can’t help it,” she said. “I’m too edgy to sit still. If you want me to settle down, you’re going to have to distract me.”

They stared at each other in silence, and Jason knew the precise moment that Jessie realized what she had said. He watched a slow flush paint her face deep red.

“Nice weather today,” she said in a tone reeking of artificial animation.

“Sure is,” Jason replied in his slow, easy drawl.

“This is the first day in a long while that we’ve had a break in the heat.”

I’m going to go stark, raving mad, Jason decided as he listened to her mindless prattle about barometric pressure, and what did it really mean, anyway. He was stretched to the breaking point, and the inane chatter was more than he could take.

To hell with it! He grabbed Jessie and pulled her hard against him, stopping the flow of her words by covering her mouth with his own.

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