True love really can be sweeter the second time 'round—especially when its with The One Who Got Away.
Tuesday, Day 1
It was still dark when Cole arrived at the Westchester County Airport thirty-five miles northeast of the city. The Cessna Citation 10 stood at the ready, the stairs lowered, the red carpet rolled out over the runway. Traxton’s chauffeur drove across the tarmac and drew up smack beside the plane. Talk about curb-to-curb.
He climbed out of the car, collected his luggage from the limo trunk, and walked up the lit steps to the jet. The three-person crew—Pilot in Command, Second in Command, and flight hostess—greeted him outside the cockpit door. With their broad smiles, perfectly placed hair, and maroon flight uniforms they looked altogether too chipper and crisply turned out for the early hour.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Whittaker.” The SIC reached out to take Cole’s luggage. “Ms. Kendall hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m sure she’ll be here shortly.”
“I’m sure she will. Thanks.”
Cole surrendered his suitcase and followed the pretty, perky blonde down the maroon carpeted aisle, the Traxton Biotech logo, TBT, an intricately woven monogram smack in the center. The jet seated eight, two side-by-side club-style chairs set on either side of the carpeted aisle. The cabin was a stand-up, which meant he wouldn’t be walking like Quasi Modo by the end of the almost five hour flight. The whole damned plane smelled like a shoe department—leather-covered walls, leather-topped banquettes and bar, leather upholstered captain’s chairs. For all Cole knew, the lavatory seat was covered in leather, too.
The twenty-something hostess waited until he’d settled into the plush captain’s chair and then launched forward with her spiel. “My name is Kim. I’ll be taking care of you today. Once we’re in the air, we’ll be serving a continental breakfast, bagels and assorted smoked fish from Zabar’s. In the meantime may I bring you a beverage while you wait?” Her china blue eyes, buried beneath a heavy coating of like-colored eye shadow, flickered over his face.
“Sure, what do you have?” He didn’t really want anything, but he sensed he’d have to order something to get her to go away.
As she ran down the extensive roster of refreshments, Cole realized his mistake. Since seeing Alex the week before, he hadn’t slept much and the temptation to interrupt and order a big cup of Go the Hell Away was almost too much to resist. He did, though, forcing himself to listen with a patience he didn’t feel. Where the hell was Alex?
According to Kim, the five kinds of juices were fresh squeezed and the coffee selections slow-roasted. There was also the ubiquitous fully stocked bar, including a pitcher of mimosas and another of Bloody Mary’s at the ready. He’d already had his coffee back at the hotel and drinking on the job was verboten, so he settled on a club soda.
She returned a minute later with a frosted glass and a bottle of Perrier dressed with a lime wedge. He pulled out his snack tray and poured the fizzy designer water into the glass. From everything he’d so far seen he should have figured Traxton wouldn’t stock something as pedestrian as generic club soda. What the hell did Alex see in a stuffed shirt like that, well, beyond his bucket loads of billions, that is?
He reminded himself that her personal life was none of his business. That was probably—definitely—for the best. He’d spent the past five years in love with a memory. Who knew, but maybe Fate in the form of Randall Traxton had done him a favor. People changed. Alex obviously had. If he was lucky, he might just find he wasn’t in love with her anymore. If the other day in Traxton’s office was any indication, she wasn’t exactly crazy about him.
Still, the thought of anyone threatening her, let alone coming after her, made him certifiably nuts. Even if the author of that threatening letter was just some techno-nerd out for his jollies, Cole was taking the message, the warning, very seriously.
He wished Traxton had. Findings from the lab analysis of the threatening note revealed a mother load of DNA leavings. There must be trace evidence from everyone employed by Traxton’s headquarters office including the CEO.
He pulled out his Blackberry, checking for messages. Messages, who was he kidding? He was checking to see if Alex had called or sent a text. Other than her assistant emailing him the required information, she’d gone radio silent for the past week. No doubt she was stuck in traffic but on her way. Maybe she’d stopped for coffee or regular, non-gourmet bagel. Christ, he didn’t even know what she ate for breakfast anymore or if she ate breakfast at all.
He put the Blackberry away and tried relaxing in his seat. The plane wasn’t leaving without her. Predictably she’d refused to let him swing by and pick her up, insisting his assignment didn’t officially start until take-off. He could have pressed the issue, but there wasn’t much point. So long as she was on American soil, she was safe.
Stirring at the front of the plane announced she’d arrived. Hating how his heart kicked into hyper drive, he pulled out the trip agenda and pretended to study it. One ear cocked, he heard her address the pilots as Bob and Jerry. Being on a first name basis with the flight crew meant she must come aboard a lot. He wondered how many of those trips had involved pleasure versus being business and felt his stomach fist.
The soft click of heels heading his way had him holding back his breath. Her throat clearing had him looking up. “I don’t suppose you could shift over and let me have the aisle?”
“No problem.” He slid back his tray, put away his papers and got up.
He’d only left her the window seat to be polite. In a cabin this spacious, you didn’t need access to the aisle to stretch your legs. Each captain’s chair was like a mini-recliner with plenty of room between seats.
The next few minutes were spent making the switch. He tried not to notice how good she smelled and looked. Today’s ensemble was a white silk collared blouse and a pale yellow linen suit, not beige but close enough. She bent to slide her laptop case beneath the footrest, treating him to a bird’s eye view of her behind. Her ass looked just as firm and delectably packaged as he remembered, the brief glimpse of panty line showing she was wearing a thong. Apparently not everything had changed.
She slipped into the seat and pulled out the tray. “Thanks. The sunlight bleeds out my screen.” She lifted the computer case from her lap onto the tray and unzipped the side.
“You and that thing don’t part company much, but then I guess time is money.” He hadn’t really meant to start off the trip being an asshole. But seeing her, his mouth tended to go off like a runaway train.
“Yes, it is.” She reached for her safety belt. “By the way, I think it’s best if we keep things over the next four days strictly professional.”
He stiffened. Did she think he planned on hopping her bones? Not that he’d mind doing so, but the implication that he couldn’t control himself rankled. “Fine by me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Good, we’re on the same page then, Mr. Whittaker.” Gaze glacial, she fastened the seat buckle with a snap.
She turned her head to look at him, gaze glacial. “I’d prefer no first names assuming Cole is even your real name—or was that a lie, too?”
So much for letting bygones be bygones. “It’s my real name all right. So is Calhoun. It’s my middle name and my mother’s maiden name.”
She rolled her eyes as if to indicate just how not fascinating she found all that to be and pulled out a folder filled with computer print-outs.
Now that he’d pushed the envelope, he might as well tear it open the rest of the way. He waited until they were alone again, and then said, “Speaking of names, once you and Boyfriend tie the knot, are you planning to hyphenate? Kendall-Traxton, that’s some mouthful. Your kids will have a swell time filling out college applications.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ll be changing my name.”
“Well, that’s not very feminist of you but whatever floats your boat. I’m sure Little Buffy and Randall Junior will appreciate you two keeping things simple.”
Her smile thinned. “I think this is the point in our conversation where one of us changes the topic to the weather.”
Now that she’d gotten him all fired up, he meant to see this…thing through. “Not in my world.”
Her gaze shuttered. “You’re in my world now.”
Other than a slight tightening of her jaw, her expression remained blank, a perfect game face. The Alex he remembered didn’t even have a game face. Five years ago he’d been able to read her inside and out, in bed and out of it. He knew the exact spot where teasing her with his fingers and tongue was guaranteed to drive her crazy, the little sounds she made deep in her throat that signaled she was closing in on her climax, the tenderness on her face afterward when he held her close and she melted against him. In ways large and small the woman sitting board stiff beside him doing her level best to make sure their shoulders didn’t so much as brush was a stranger.
Cole shrugged. “Have it your way…Miss Kendall. Or are you one of those feminists who insist on being addressed as Ms.”? The latter he’d added purely to jerk her chain.
He liked her better when she was pissed off. Anger put some color in her Manhattan pale cheeks, sparked some life into her stone dead eyes.
The scowl dawning over her features didn’t disappoint. “You are positively Simian.”
He started to point out that once she’d more than enjoyed bringing out the beast in him, but before he could the plane started taxiing toward take-off and flight attendant returned to run through the safety procedures.
She slanted her gaze away to look out the window though there was nothing to see but the same gray drizzle making a black ink stain of the tarmac. Her right pointer finger, restless in her lap, traced invisible circles on her skirt—a textbook signs of evasion. People who dodged seemingly standard questions usually did so with good reason. They didn’t want to be unmasked, found out. Staring at her stony profile, he felt a rush of guilt. Whatever had happened to her, was it really all his fault?
What are you working so hard to hide from me, Lex? That you’re unhappy? That all this glitz isn’t cutting it? That you want—need—something more, something real? That after all this time, you still want…me?
He still had the hots for her, that was a no-brainer, but what he was feeling didn’t stop at lust. Lust couldn’t begin to explain how he could feel so pissed off at her one minute and so completely tender the next.
Switching gears, he asked, “You ever finish that novel you were working on?”
She kept her gaze fixed out the window, though he sensed her stiffen. “Why do you ask?”
Resisting the urge to reach out and rub the spot between her shoulder blades, he answered, “No particular reason. Just curious.” The truth was he’d been rooting for her all these years.
“Yes, I finished it.”
“That’s good, real good.”
She pulled away from the window and flopped back against the seat. “The reviews were stellar, the sales less so.” She stared down at her hands, spread out her fingers. He’d bet anything she was wishing she could take a bite out of one of those gorgeously manicured nails. “It tanked.”
“I’m sorry.” And he was. Working years to achieve your dream only to have it shot down was tough stuff. He figured he knew how she felt.
She rolled her shoulders, which did interesting things to the front of her cream silk blouse. “Don’t be. It’s all worked out for the best.”
“At least you finished it. Better than finished, you got it published. Think of all the people who say they’re going to write a book ‘someday’ but never do.”
She angled her face to look at him and rolled her eyes. “Do I look like I need cheerleader?”
Jesus, he’d only been trying to be nice. “Maybe this is a good time to go over logistics.”
He nodded and pulled out the site plan for resort in Belmopan where they were staying and unfurled it over both their tray tables. He’d drawn up similar diagram for the British High Commission, the site for that night’s welcome reception, and the Belizean ministry’s main building where on Day Two the presentations would take place.
“A bank of elevators leads up from the lobby here.” He slid his index finger along the twin boxes representing the elevators. “We have the suite on the second floor. There’s an adjoining door leading into a shared living room and kitchenette.”
She frowned. “We don’t need a suite. Once we get to the hotel, I’ll have the clerk switch us to two regular rooms. Better yet, I’ll text Terri, my assistant and have her call ahead and make the change. She must have misunderstood me when I had her book the reservation.” She picked up her Blackberry and started working it with her thumbs as though the matter was settled.
It wasn’t. Feeling his tolerance level begin to dip, Cole said, “There’s no misunderstanding. I had Terri change the reservation earlier in the week. A suite gives me better access and control, allows me to contain the environment if need be.”
Her expression froze, her skin flushed. “Terri reports to me, period. You have no right giving her orders behind my back. While we’re on the topic, you have no right interfering with my job in any way.”
That did it! Cole stabbed a finger into the space between them. “You and I had better get something straight here and now. You are my job for the next four days. If you so much as fall down and get a bruise on your butt, my ass is on the line for it. I’ll be damned if I’ll let your feminist pride or your little girl tantrums or whatever bug has crawled up your butt jeopardize my professional reputation or my firm’s. If you have a problem with any of that, say the word now. I’ll phone Boyfriend and he can have the pilot turn back now. And I’m pretty sure you know what that means. If I don’t go, you don’t go.”
Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Cole snorted. “Try me.”
Seething silence met his challenge. He had her exactly where he wanted her, for the moment at least, and they both knew it.
“Okay, you win—for now.” She folded her arms over her breasts—classic protective posture—and glared. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine. You can start by waking me up when we’re a half hour from landing. I’ll need the time to prep. For now what I mainly need is a nap.”
Giving orders was something she’d gotten a lot better at since they last met. The Alex he’d known had refused to say a word whenever a server delivered the wrong food order and had begged him not to speak up, either, though of course he had. Not so now.
He opened his mouth to say he was her bodyguard, not her lackey. Before he could, she’d grabbed her complimentary pillow, twisted in the seat, and turned her back on him.
Sitting beside her former lover for a five hour flight, Alex hadn’t expected to sleep, not really. She’d hoped closing her eyes and blocking out the sight of Cole would give her a reprieve, or at least time to reclaim some of her composure, but no such luck. With her eyes closed, her other senses leapt to life, making her even more attune to him—the warm press of his shoulder against hers, the soft sounds of his breathing, and the fresh, clean scent of him, which always reminded her of the beach. The last time they’d been this close for this long, she’d been wrapped in a bath towel, still damp from their shared shower.
Opening her eyes, she made a show of stretching her arms and arching her back and patting away yawns as though she’d just woken up refreshed from a long, satisfying nap instead of a fitful fake-out. She hadn’t logged in a solid night’s sleep since she’d walked into Randall’s office and saw him standing there. Last night was the worst. Between checking the alarm to make sure she hadn’t overslept and getting up to take inventory of her laptop case for the umpteenth time lest she forgot something, she’d logged in more time out of bed than in it. After four hours on a plane, the dark circles she’d seen in the bathroom mirror that morning must be raccoon eyes by now. There went her plan to show up at the airfield that morning looking chic and self-assured.
She turned slowly back to him, wondering how her hair and makeup had fared, wishing she didn’t care. “Are we close?”
“We’re closing in on thirty minutes from landing.” He answered without bothering to look up from the papers on his tray. “I was just about to wake you as per orders. It’s time to go over the agenda.”
“Again? That’s a little anal, don’t you think?”
“Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Okay, shoot—so to speak.”
She’d been trying for a joke, but her lame attempt had his face turning ashen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She back peddled, wondering why he suddenly seemed so angry. “Nothing, well, I mean, you were a sniper, right?”
“I still am.”
She studied him out of the corner of one eye, looking at him in a new light. Since the other day, she’d gone to the Guidepost web site and read his bio and resume not once but many times. The FBI Medal for Bravery topped the laundry list of his accomplishments, but it was by no means his only commendation. The extent of his overseas travel was mind boggling—thirty-five countries including terrorist hot zones such as Mogadishu and Darfur.
If she were honest with herself, it wasn’t only his career that interested her. She’d hoped to get some sense of what had happened in his personal life these past five years. So far, no clue other than he’d kept Denver as his home-base. She remembered his mom had lived there, and he had a younger brother, the one responsible for the soup can scar. Then again, those could have been lies, too.
Not for the first time she wondered if he had a serious girlfriend, maybe even a live-in. Hell, for all she knew he had a wife. Just because he didn’t wear a wedding band didn’t mean he was still single. Not everyone was a late bloomer like she was.
One of life’s built-in inequities was that men grew distinguished while women just grew old. When they’d first met, Cole had been a good looking guy, borderline handsome. Thanks to the patina five years had put on him, he was heart-stopping. She didn’t miss the way the flight hostess, Kim, hovered. The number of times she’d stopped by to see if she could refresh his—their—drinks or bring him—them—a snack was almost annoying. It was annoying.
“Clock’s ticking, princess.” Cole’s voice startled her back to the moment, “About that agenda.”
“Are you always this anal?”
He cocked a brow at her. “I prefer ‘thorough’ but yes. That’s why I’m the best at what I do.”
“Hmm, modest, too, I see.”
One side of his mouth curved upward into the slow, sexy smile she used to love, the smile that had turned her inside out. “What can I say? False modesty isn’t modesty at all.”
Seeing that smile after all these years had her feeling foolish and unsure, like a little girl playing at dress-up—or in her case, corporate executive. To break the tension—hers—she threw the pillow at him. He dodged it, and the makeshift missile sailed over his shoulder. And suddenly the tension between them burst like a bubble. They both broke out laughing.
Pillow in hand, Kim materialized before them. “Did you want me to take this away, m’am?”
M’am. Alex sagged back in her seat. Amazing how one little word and a matter of a few seconds could carry her from feeling like a kid again to middle-aged—old.
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Setting: Every Breath You Take... has a dual setting: my beloved Manhattan, where I now make my home and tropical Belize where I now aspire to vacation. Manhattan hot spots mentioned in the book that are very near and dear to my heart: Union Square–the Ghandi statue really is a must-see—The Strand, and Zabar’s. As for Sardi’s, never been, but I’m accepting offers.
Hero Worship: I hate to disappoint, you know I do, but per my sexy former FBI Special Agent Cole Whittaker, I made him up—yes, really. To paraphrase Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, Cole is entirely a product of my “little gray cells.” And what a product, yes? Silver hair, penetrating blue eyes, and six feet four inches of muscled flesh-and-bone to die for. There’s something to be said for having a rich interior world. I’m just saying…
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We have two feline heroines in Every Breath You Take..., Tessa and her daughter, China Blue. Based on my real-life rescue pets, these fur-girls are so inseparable in real life that separating them fictionally seemed well, just wrong. I know they won’t mind sharing their fifteen minutes of fame, so here goes:
Tessa is also the mom of Willie, the Maine Coon hero of The Haunting. China is his littermate and having raised them all, I’ll tell that though she was the “runt” of the litter, she took no guff. For the full story on their rescue and Happily Ever After, read Willie’s bio in Animals in the Story for The Haunting.
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"Fury and passion go head to head in Every Breath You Take... The emotional swings are dizzying, and will keep you captivated right up until the end."
"Tarr paints a realistic, yet beautiful picture of a couple’s struggle between chemistry, secrets and lies..."
"...an engaging second chance at love suspense starring two fascinating lead characters..."
“You will be rooting for Alex and Cole in the touching second chance at love story.”
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