For Throwback Thursday I'm spotlighting the THREE chapters of Dakota's first novel, Blurred Lines...what would you do if your ex returned as a ghost? Yeah, it's complicated. Enjoy the read!
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"Death is no more than passing from one room into another."
–– HELEN KELLER
Sierra Daniels had grown accustomed to solitude and redundancy. The freak spring storm at Lake Tahoe felt like a welcome excuse to close herself off from the world.
As she walked up the stairs to the cabin she'd once shared with the love of her life, she felt the weight of work easing from her shoulders. She'd fought with Alexander Blaine again about a scene rewrite. Being paired up with a screenwriter who shared her stubbornness had been the producer's way of 'pushing her toward greatness'.
Pushing me toward insanity, she thought as she struggled with the keys in her gloved hand.
She'd left Los Angeles for the mountains for a much needed and perfectly timed break, albeit with more drama than necessary. But, hey, if there's a mug with a stupid saying on it within throwing distance, then what's a raging woman to do? Ignore it?
She snorted with satisfaction and opened the door to what she'd always deemed her sanctuary. The small cabin in Lake Tahoe had been Shane's idea, his way of escaping the stress of being an assistant district attorney. They had met through a consultation on her hit series, 'Crime Scene LA'.
Correction...hers and Alexander's hit series. Hell, for all she knew, it wasn't hers anymore. The ratings had slumped, the lead actor had been denied a contract renewal, and she'd left the studio amidst mayhem. Everyone knew Alex could handle any rewrites for the last two remaining shows of the season, and this break couldn't have come at a better time for any of them.
She gritted her teeth at the thought of Alex and yanked the scarf from her neck. Even though they had hooked up once after an award show when they had been both drunk and high on success, that mistake had never repeated itself. The guilt had been too much to bear, having been less than a year after her fiancé's death. Alex's obnoxious self-confidence didn't help matters. Even in Los Angeles, a town fueled by ego, Alexander Blaine's smooth confidence and knowing eyes drove her mad. When her phone rang again in an eerie tone from a horror movie, she tossed her bag onto the chair and rifled through it.
"Hey, Alex, why don't you get a fucking clue? I have nothing to say to you," she said without pause before ending the call and glaring at the picture she'd taken of him across the table in their writing room at the studio when he'd been stuffing his face with a burrito—not exactly flattering. "Bastard," she muttered to the image, "how many times do you need to call before you get the message that I don't want anything to do with you?"
Sierra flipped on lights as she walked toward the bedroom and dumped her luggage onto the dresser. Her hands shook on the pill bottle she both needed and resented. She shook a pair of blues into her palm before gulping them down without aid of water.
"You don't need those." Shane's voice whispered in her ear, always present like an echo of conscience.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Even if only imagined, it comforted her thinking of her deceased fiancé. He had always known the right thing to say at the right time...but that was then. She shook off the feeling and tossed the pill bottle onto the bed. Voice of conscience be damned.
Walking into the main room of the cabin, she paused to look around the space. Even though she hadn't been here for over a year, she'd hired a property manager to rent it out to skiers. The place felt like a tiny version of a lodge with its stone fire place, log walls, wide windows with a view of towering pine trees outside, leather furniture and open flow from the living room to the kitchen. Cozy, Shane had called it.
Headlights streamed against the front window followed by the slamming of a door. Sighing, she went onto the porch and shielded her eyes from the glare.
"Sierra! You made it. We wondered if you'd beat the storm or not." Kevin, the property manager, wrapped her in a giant hug, his bristly beard scratching her cheek. "It's been too damn long."
She patted his back and fought against the tears. He smelled like snow, coffee, and crisp mountain air. "Thanks for plowing the driveway. It's getting pretty nasty out there."
She'd grown up in Lake Tahoe, her parents still lived here, but she hadn't told anyone except Kevin that she'd be staying at the cabin this weekend. Him holding her now brought back a flood of memories she'd been avoiding for a very long time.
He pulled away, hands resting heavily on her shoulders while he looked her over from head to toe. More like a second father figure to her, he and his wife Mary took care of the cabin while she worked her youth away in Los Angeles.
"Mary is looking forward to seeing you while you're in town. She stocked the place with some groceries and wine when she heard you were coming in on a later flight. This storm is going to be a whopper." Concern shadowed his hazel eyes before he finally released her from his clutches. "Are your parents coming up?"
"They don't know I'm in town." She cleared her throat and averted her gaze to his truck.
"We've missed you. Renting your place out is good extra money, I know, but you used to say the mountain air cleared your head. It's good that you're back."
"That was Shane's saying, not mine. He really loved it up here, no question about it." She couldn't look at him, didn't feel like talking, feared he would bring up the funeral, which was the last thing she wanted to discuss. Hating that she'd been the one to inadvertently mention Shane, she forced a smile. "Helluva storm, isn't it?"
"It's keeping me on my toes. All of the properties are rented except for yours. It's spring break for a lot of people and, you know, others just want to make sure they get on the hill before the end of the season."
"I'm sure it's hectic, I don't want to keep you." She stepped back toward the open door with a grin.
"We'll call you in a few days after the weather clears. It's really good to see you, Sierra. Stay warm." He squeezed her arm again before walking toward his truck.
Alone again, she pressed her forehead against the back of the closed door. Breath shuddered through her lips. She had purposely avoided Lake Tahoe and the memories here for the past year and a half. Facing them now felt like repetitive sucker punches to her gut.
The past eighteen months had been a disaster, a steady unraveling of all she'd ever known. The free fall had begun with Shane's murder.
Murder. The word still didn't roll off her tongue with ease. 'My fiancé was murdered..." she doubted she would ever get used to saying those words. Ironic, in a twisted way, that she wrote about crime for a living.
Shane had been killed during a high profile trial of alleged members of the Mexican drug cartel. Some teenager had been arrested for the crime, but she knew he'd been a punk hired to do the deed. Of course he wouldn't talk, was probably a folk hero south of the border.
Sierra and Shane...that's how she'd come to think over their four-year relationship. Always a duo, their names always said as one entity.
Palms against the door, she pushed herself away and forced herself into the room. She needed to make a fire, unpack, settle in...her gaze landed on the framed photograph above the mantel. Shane and Sierra, arms around each other and laughing, with Lake Tahoe as their backdrop—joy and love captured in a snapshot. Now he would always be forever tan and young.
She had been in a downward spiral ever since...now she clung by her fingernails to a career she'd fought and sacrificed for all these years.
I miss you, Shane, she thought with tears in her eyes.
She shook off the dark thoughts and resumed starting the fire.
"Sierra..." Her name whispered through the house, a memory of Shane saying it so long ago.
A tingle went up her spine, lifting the hairs on the back of her neck, before caressing her skin with a feather-like touch.
If only, so many if-onlys.
She poked at the kindling, wishing they had bothered to install a gas fireplace when they'd originally bought the property.
Her cell phone sounded with the horror movie music indicating it was the dreaded Alexander calling again. How many times did she need to hit 'decline' before he got the message? Didn't the man have a life beyond work?
He thought he was some kind of god simply because he was former DEA turned writer. She snorted again and poked at the sticks in the hearth. Ass. Know-it-all. She had a Masters in Creative Writing from Berkley, not to mention three Emmy's on her desk, and an Oscar nomination for a documentary she'd produced. She was a writer, not Alexander Blaine who bragged about 'stumbling into it.'
Ignoring the phone, she started the fire, knelt back on her heels, held her hands up to the warmth, and grinned with satisfaction.
Shane had called her a certifiable city girl. Well, look at her now.
She searched the kitchen for the supplies Mary had stocked before her arrival. Grabbing a bottle of wine, she smiled.
"Mary, you know me too well," she muttered as she turned the bottle around in her hands before reaching for the corkscrew.
"You're so beautiful," Shane's voice echoed through her memory. "I'm the luckiest man in the world to be loved by you."
She squeezed her eyes closed and indulged in remembering him holding her, kissing her, making her believe in fairy tales and love stories.
"I'm here. See me." The voice startled her from indulging. Clear. Deep.
Dropping the corkscrew, she swiveled around and glanced across the room. No one. Only the empty kitchen with its clean marble countertops and gleaming pans met her vision.
"I really am losing my mind," she muttered as she skipped the glass and drank straight from the bottle.
Endless days of work on the set of a hit television series took its toll. The stress of having to mesh with a partner had given her anxiety attacks, not that she'd ever admit that to anyone. In show business, writers were only as good as the ratings of the most recent show. Fickle. Not exactly the safe life in academia she'd once envisioned for herself.
She dropped her iPhone into the stereo after making sure to put it on 'do not disturb', scrolled down to her favorite playlist, and kicked off her shoes. Music filled the room, drowning out any imagined ghost voices. Settling onto the sofa with the bottle nuzzled against her chest, she watched flames snap and crackle.
She could see Shane without closing her eyes. Often she'd imagine seeing him in a crowd, his tall silhouette a head above the others on the street. Sometimes she would see him at their favorite restaurant sitting at the bar while she picked up her take-out after another late night at the office. She'd always do a double take only to find him gone, a figment of her imagination.
Dreams were the most vivid. She would wake up and swear she'd been touched, her skin tingling where she had imagined his fingers to be.
"I miss you so much," she whispered, allowing the tears to fall. She suppressed them most of the time by staying busy and immersed in her career. But now—in this place that had once been their hideaway—emotions bubbled to the surface despite the pills designed to keep them buried. "Without you I'm just a stressed out work-a-holic. No one's ever going to love me like you did."
"You're wrong, Sierra."
She took another swig from the bottle, in a way resenting that she still heard his voice in her head. People nagged at her to snap out of it, let him go, move on; but how was that possible when she saw him in her dreams and heard him in her head? The therapist told her that it was okay to talk to the deceased, that she could still have conversations if that made her feel better. Of course, she'd neglected to tell the doctor that often she heard a response.
Just my imagination.
"I'm here." Shane's voice.
A surge of energy rushed through her like an electrical shock. She closed her eyes and sighed.
A caress against her lips. She opened her eyes and saw Shane leaning over her. Despite being a lawyer who could wear a suit like an Armani model, he'd had the surfer dude look down to a tee. She grinned at the lock of blond hair falling across his tanned forehead.
"Always too handsome for your own good," she whispered to the image. "I miss you so much."
"I've never left you," he said.
She covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head. "You did, they took you from me, too young, never should have happened..."
"I'm here, Sierra. See me." He touched her hand. She felt it. Heavy. Warm.
Impossible. Too much work and too little sleep had pushed her over the edge, add pills and wine to the mix and everything felt unreal.
"I'm losing everything, you know. I can't function. The show has dropped in ratings despite some damn DEA expert slash pain in my ass who was supposed to save us from going in the ditch. I can't write anymore. Period. I can't do anything anymore, not like I used to, not without you. Now I'm going crazy."
"You're not here."
"I'm here, I've never left you. Look at me. It's taking all I've got to do this."
One finger at a time, she lifted her hand from her eyes. She swallowed disbelief despite the warm energy rippling through her body.
Shane leaned over her, contagious grin in place, body heavy on top of hers. She reached up, simultaneously scared and fascinated. When her fingers touched his hair, she froze.
"I don't believe in ghosts," she whispered.
"I've noticed. Do you know how hard I've been trying to connect with you?"
Frozen with fear yet driven by curiosity, she forced a whisper from her lips, "Why here? Why now?"
"You're so sad, I don't want you to be sad anymore."
Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes despite his words. "How can I not be sad? You were my world."
"That's not true." He kissed her, the touch like a breeze over her lips. "You had it goin' on when I met you, don't you remember? You ignored me because I looked like an uptight lawyer in my suit. You were at that restaurant with all of your artist friends and I couldn't stop staring. You avoided going out with me for a full month, always too busy working. Don't you remember? You never needed me. You wanted me. There's a difference."
She shook her head, unwilling to remember. Hanging onto sorrow had protected her from living without him. She didn't want to remember life pre-Shane...and she didn't want to think about life post-Shane. Limbo felt like a safer place to hide from reality.
Now she had conjured him up from memory; that had to be the only explanation. She'd taken talking to the void a step further.
"You're not real." She touched her fingers to his face even as she said the words.
"Want me to prove it to you?"
She shook her head 'no,' even as her thumb moved along his chin. The energy rippling beneath her fingertips zapped like electrical shocks, rather than a solid form. Maybe she had lost her mind, which was the only explanation she could believe.
"I see you everywhere," she whispered.
"I am everywhere." His smile made her heart ache with longing.
She slid her fingers over his lips with fascination and relaxed against the sofa cushions. Eyes narrowed, she stared at the image above her. She wanted to believe, but her imagination had gotten her into trouble in the past.
"You're not here," she said. "I just want you to be so badly I'm seeing things."
"You ask a lot."
She closed her eyes and shuddered with the need pulsating through her body. Her hand moved beneath her sweater, fingers tracing over her abdomen before sliding over her bra. Where her hands drifted, ripples of energy followed, creating a trail of sensation over her skin. Desire warmed her blood.
"I miss being loved," she whispered.
"I love you." Shane's voice against her ear. "Let me touch you."
"I wish you could." She ached for him, for the love they had shared, for the laughter, and the partnership.
With a sigh, she set the wine bottle onto the floor and pulled her sweater off. Another shudder went through her body, ripple after ripple of intensity. Closing her eyes to submit to fantasy, she moved her hands over the swell of her breasts.
She felt his lips against her neck, breath against her skin. Shane's blond head bent over her, the familiar scent of his shampoo overwhelming her senses, his voice whispering about how much he loved her.
She missed making love, holding a man against her, tasting him on her tongue, feeling him move between her thighs.
"Believe in this, Sierra. I'm really here," the whispered command made her squirm against the seat and reach for the zipper of her jeans.
But the zipper slid down without her fingers touching it. Her eyes snapped open.
"Is this really happening?" She choked out the words from a throat swollen with fear while her heartbeat raced with hope.
"Do you want it to be?" He loomed over her, a solid form, yes, but one zapping with an electrical current. "You see me."
"I see you."
He kissed her; energy sizzled between their mouths as he shoved her jeans down her legs. Where he touched, her skin reacted with an intensity born from loneliness and need. She ached for him.
He slipped the bra from her shoulders, kissed the swell of her breasts, and pinched her nipples. His breath moved across her skin.
She didn't care if this was a dream or if she'd finally slipped into insanity. She twisted beneath him, sensation overwhelming logic. Her hands moved along his back while she shut her eyes, worried that if she opened them the fantasy would end.
Where his body touched, pulsations surged over and into her skin like a million needle pinpricks. She wanted more, needed all of him filling her.
She kicked the jeans free and spread her legs wide. Her hands moved between her thighs, fingers sliding into her wet folds. Not enough, she reached for the wine bottle and slid its neck inside herself. She craved being filled up by a man again, but she'd use whatever necessary to come close to the satisfaction that always eluded her. She slid the neck of the bottle in and out, uncaring about the wine sloshing under her ass and over the leather cushions. She needed release.
Partially terrified yet immensely turned on, she watched Shane's ghostly fingers create indentations in her flesh where he touched. If this was some stress-induced-wine-assisted dream, she hoped she never woke up.
Shane pulled the wine bottle away and sent it crashing to the floor. Bending his head, he sucked between her legs, lapping up the spilled wine on her skin. Tasting. Licking. His hands cupped her ass, pushing her tighter against his face.
Pleasure flooded every molecule of her body. She moved her hands to her breasts while he sucked on her clit. Shockwaves crackled through her nervous system.
"How can this be happening?" she asked.
"You ask too many questions, sometimes you just need to trust that there aren't any answers." He flicked his tongue over her nipple as he propped himself over her and pressed his hips against hers.
"I want you inside me."
He complied, his mass thrusting inside her...more than that...through her.
A burst of energy so intense she feared losing consciousness shattered through her body and burst out of the top of her head. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move. Wave after wave of sensations tore through her. When they subsided, she opened her eyes and gasped for air.
Shane hadn't disappeared. He leaned heavily against her and smiled.
"You're a ghost. I don't believe in ghosts." She reached for his face, amazed she could feel him. "I thought you were a dream."
"I come to you in your dreams...you don't believe." He covered a breast with his hand and squeezed. "I need you to believe, Sierra."
"I do." She wrapped her arms around him and held on tight. "I can't believe I can feel you. How is this happening?"
"I love you so much. I couldn't leave you." His breath moved against the side of her face.
Her heart swelled with the idea that he'd been there through the all night crying jags, the tantrums at the office, the lonely walks on the beach, and the tangents in her journal where she'd talked about disappearing.
"I'm losing it all, Shane. I want to give up. Every day has been a struggle since you died. I just...can't."
"Yes, you can. You're my superstar."
"You were always my biggest fan, my only fan." She smiled with sadness and squeezed her eyes closed to prevent the tears from falling.
"You're not alone."
But when she opened her eyes, she was. She glanced down at her naked body stretched along the sofa before looking at the empty bottle on the floor next to her.
With a sigh, she rubbed trembling hands over her face. Over the last eighteen months, she'd gone through all the grief stages, but no one had told her that the hallucinations would feel so real. Maybe no one talked about it. Perhaps everyone kept that part secret for fear of spending the rest of their lives in a straight jacket.
She sat up, body still tingling from whatever had just happened, and looked at the mess she'd created.
"Symbolic of my life," she muttered before pulling on her sweater and reaching for her jeans. She needed a major clean up...and she wasn't referring only to the spilled wine on the leather sofa.
* * *
Screw Sierra Daniels and her diva attitude. They needed to rewrite more than a scene, they needed to fix this entire script or they would be out on their asses before the season finale aired. What didn't she understand about that? For a so-called professional, she acted like an amateur hell bent on self-sabotage.
Alexander Blaine squinted through the blinding snow and cursed his fate. When he'd decided to retire from law enforcement to write for a living, he'd envisioned a life far more glamorous than eating take-out in front of his laptop every night. At first, he'd been excited at the opportunity to work alongside one of the most talented writers in television, but enthusiasm soon gave way to disappointment because of the defensive, moody woman he had spent six out of seven nights a week with for the past year.
It only seemed right that his pursuit of her had been met with a freak spring snowstorm. He hated snow, avoided it at all costs. Lake Tahoe had been beautiful as he'd passed it, that he couldn't deny. The blue surrounded by peaks of white had been breathtaking at sunset, but now that he stomped up the road in blinding snow, he seriously hated the mountains.
His rental car had gone off the road about a mile back, but the navigator on his cell phone assured him he neared the cabin. He adjusted his bag across his back and glanced at the screen. Yep, almost there...unless he managed to freeze to death in the remaining fifty feet.
Snow came down harder than he'd ever seen. He'd grown up in Arizona, had spent a decade working as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Central America, and, although he'd taken a few ski vacations, storms like these were foreign to him.
The glow of the cabin windows coupled with the smoke curling from the chimney looked like heaven shimmering through the darkness. He slipped the phone into his pocket, locked his gaze on the light, and forced one foot in front of the other.
He couldn't get fired, not from his first major job in a new career. Unlike her, he didn't have Emmy's and an Oscar nomination on his resume. And, for reasons he never spoke about, he couldn't return to law enforcement either. He needed her, even if she was the most difficult woman on earth, and he intended to get through to her one way or another.
After what felt like eternity, he stumbled onto the front porch and knocked on the door. His hand ached with the force of the blows. He banged again, harder, and winced at the pain shooting through his knuckles.
She opened it with a flourish and a muttered curse. Standing in a flood of light with her long blonde hair a mess around her shoulders, sweater on inside out, face flushed, and blue eyes sleepy, she looked like a woman who'd been well fucked. Recently.
He wondered if maybe she wasn't alone.
"What are you doing here?" She propped her hand against the doorframe, effectively blocking his view of the interior.
"Freezing to death. Let me in." He pushed his way inside and looked around. He didn't see anyone, not that he cared about intruding when his jeans were frozen to his skin.
She slammed the door closed before taking in his appearance. "What were you doing walking around in a snow storm?"
"The weather is so n-n-nice I thought I'd take a s-s-stroll." He shook so badly he couldn't remove the gloves that seemed adhered to his skin.
"Damn it, Alex, let me do it." She pulled at his hands and shook her head. "Leave it to you to fuck up my getaway. Do you know they're predicting several feet of snow? You're stuck here."
"It's always about you." He forced the words from between numb lips. "In case you didn't n-n-notice, I'm a human icicle."
With a muttered curse, she grabbed for his bag and pulled at his hands. "Take off all of your clothes. I have a blanket there, wrap yourself in it, and sit by the fire. I'll get you something warm to drink."
"Always so damn b-b-bossy." Teeth chattering, he couldn't argue anymore. He welcomed her assistance at ripping his clothes off, making a mental note that he'd fantasized about that very thing too many times to count despite her aloof attitude.
Her eyes widened at the sight of the scars crisscrossing his chest, but she quickly averted her gaze. He grabbed the blanket and turned his back. Despite being nearly frozen to death, he still hated the shock that had transformed her face at the brutal sight of the scars and burns marring his naked chest. They had screwed each other blind once about six months ago, but it had been in the back of a limousine and neither had been completely naked—or coherent for that matter. It had been more of a push-this-here-and-move-that-there-stick-it-in-and-screw-me-blind kind of moment.
"I can take it from here," he muttered, hating that he felt so vulnerable when he'd come here to raise some hell.
"I'll put everything in the dryer." She gathered his discarded clothes before stomping away.
Naked, he wrapped the faux fur blanket around himself and scooted as close to the fire as he dared. The last thing he needed was to burst into flames in her living room. She'd probably sue him if he lived or go after his family if he didn't.
When she returned with a steaming cup of apple cider, he took it without comment.
"You followed me to Lake Tahoe," she said while looking at him as a scientist would study a specimen. "Please tell me you're staying somewhere else."
"I'm fine, thanks for your concern. I think all of my limbs will survive." He sipped the cider and slid her a glance over the rim of the cup.
"You don't have another place to stay, do you?" She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced at his bag.
That's when he noticed she wasn't wearing a bra. The sweater accentuated her breasts in sensuous and intoxicating ways. He slid his gaze down to her jeans before resting on her bare feet. Damn, she looked good.
"I can't have you here," she whispered more to herself than to him, her gaze locked on the sofa.
"Too bad. I'm here and there's a raging storm outside. I'm lucky I made it as far as I did before the rental slid into the ditch." His cock hardened at the sight of her nipples poking against the cashmere. He pulled his gaze from her and focused on the cider.
"Don't badass DEA agents learn defensive driving skills?" Her foot tapped madly against the hard wood floor. She glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting someone else to appear at any minute.
"Are you alone?" he asked, needing to know.
"Of course I'm alone," she said, unable to hide the sadness that clouded her face.
He hugged the blanket tighter around his body and ignored the urge to erase the sorrow he'd seen in her eyes too many times to count. The staff whispered about how much she'd changed, how she'd retreated, and grown distant. He couldn't blame her, but he wished he'd known her before the tragedy. From all accounts, she had been one prone to easy laughter and spontaneous adventures.
He glanced at her now and could envision her that way. With her hair down, bare breasts soft beneath the sweater, and bare feet peeking out from the frayed hem of faded jeans, she looked approachable...almost.
"Why are you here anyway?" she asked.
He grinned at her hostile tone. "If you'd bothered answering your phone and actually listening to me, you'd know why."
"How'd you know where I was going? I didn't tell anyone."
"I have my ways." He curled and uncurled his fingers and toes to make sure they still functioned. He couldn't get warm, not that his hostess cared about his wellbeing.
"Your ways...your DEA and other law enforcement connections, right?" She leaned back onto the sofa, gaze locked on the fire. "Maybe I don't feel like working, did you think of that? Maybe I no longer give a damn about the show."
Yeah, he had thought about that every step of the way here. He'd needed to follow her, though, for reasons he couldn't explain. He liked her straightforward, genuine approach to life, even if it wasn't exactly politically correct. She had a gift, too, a true talent. After she'd tossed a coffee mug at their boss's head and told him to go to hell, he had thought it best to follow her. If not for the show's sake or his future's sake, then for her own.
He gripped the ends of the blanket tighter and shifted closer to the flames. He didn't want to over-analyze his desire to make sure she was okay.
"Are you hurt? Was the accident bad?" she finally asked.
"Thanks for asking." He looked up at her before glancing around the cabin. Simple. Cozy. Completely unlike the high-maintenance Sierra Daniels he had come to know. "I couldn't tell where the road ended and the ditch began."
"Spring storms are nasty." She stood abruptly, gathered a wet towel and an empty wine bottle from where they'd been stashed in a corner, and walked toward the kitchen again.
"Tell me why you're here, Alex. The real reason, not some crap about writing. Did Charlie send you to find me?" She loomed in the doorway of what he assumed was the laundry room because she'd disappeared there twice now with wet clothes and towels. Hands on her hips, she looked more than a little edgy. "Why are you here?"
"Because I'm here." He shrugged, the answer obvious to him.
She chewed her lower lip, again looking over her shoulder as if expecting someone to burst into the room. With a long sigh, she stalked back to the living room, sat on the sofa, and turned her gaze toward the fire.
"Am I fired? Is that why you're here? Do you want to gloat?" she asked after a long silence.
"I could gloat in Los Angeles from the warmth of my condo." He frowned at the sadness emanating from her. He'd come expecting a fight, maybe even hoping for one. "No, I came to write. We need to figure this out if we don't want to be replaced for next season."
"The show's been picked up," she said.
"Barely. They're talking about revamping the writers. You heard Sylvia hasn't been offered a contract renewal. If they're letting the star go—"
"I'm not an idiot, you don't need to spell it out for me." She shoved her hands through her hair and closed her eyes.
He couldn't stop looking at the long tresses that snaked through her fingertips. Normally, she kept it in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. A few times he'd seen it loose and flowing down her back, but only when she'd left the building and headed toward her car.
"I'm not your enemy," he whispered because he felt he needed to say it.
She dragged her gaze toward his. "You shouldn't be here."
"You don't trust me, I get it. You were head writer for years and then suddenly I appear out of nowhere. But we need to work together, Sierra. I'm not going anywhere in this storm so, like it or not, we're going to hash this out and create a script that will blow their minds."
He stared at her face, saw the conflict in her eyes and felt she wanted to confess something. His former DEA agent instincts told him that she was hiding something, and despite himself, he wanted to find out what.
"I'm not exactly a mountain man." Shivers rippled over his skin. He'd never felt so cold in his life.
"I can tell." She hugged her knees to her chest and grinned. "What kind of man are you? I haven't been able to figure that out. I know the facts...the badass former federal agent facts...but you've never struck me as overly...I don't know...masculine."
He gaped at her. Never in his life had anyone questioned his masculinity. Okay, so maybe at the moment he sat wrapped in a faux fur blanket whining about cold weather, but he'd once wielded machetes through jungles, for God's sake!
"I mean you're not Mr. Macho-Caveman-Grunt-For-Your-Supper Man." Her grin widened to a smile when he continued to stare. "You look so offended. I love it."
"You would." He pulled the blanket tighter around himself and focused on the wood snapping inches away from his thawing limbs. "I don't suppose there's any food here?"
"You show up uninvited, demand that we write together during our break from the madhouse, and now you expect me to make you dinner?"
"You suck at being a hostess. I can make it myself once I can walk again. I've never seen snow like that. Thank God the navigation worked in my phone. I could have died out there wandering around." He resumed drinking the apple cider and savored the warmth sliding down his throat.
"I suppose you could have...things like that happen. People die all the time." She walked to a closet at the back of the room where she pulled out an extra pillow and some more blankets. "There isn't another bedroom. You can sleep out here. When the storm breaks, you can leave."
He thought about arguing, but then looked at her face. She stared at the picture above the mantel, a look of confusion and loneliness replacing the sarcastic grin she'd worn minutes ago.
"I've slept in worse places than your sofa." He set the empty cup aside and watched her look around the room again before shoving her hair from her face.
In that one movement, he saw such sadness transform her face that he momentarily questioned his intrusion on her retreat. She'd obviously come here with a clear set of intentions; he only hoped that they hadn't involved hurting herself somehow. In that brief unguarded moment, she'd looked completely lost.
"Sierra...don't go. Stay here and talk to me for a while. We'll watch some television, critique all the poor scripts, have some fun mocking our competition."
She squatted in front of him with the quickness of a mountain lion and grabbed his face between her palms. "Are you really here? I'm not imagining this whole thing, am I? This isn't a dream, is it?"
The panic in her eyes made him think twice about his impulsive trip. Maybe she was some kind of lunatic who would chop him up with an axe in the middle of the night.
"Do you often dream about me appearing on your doorstep nearly frozen to death?" He squinted at her, wishing he could break through the walls that she'd constructed around herself. Even after a year of working six out of seven days together, he felt like they were strangers. He wanted inside those walls. "Are you okay, Sierra?"
She ground her lips against his. The force nearly knocking him backward. Her mouth was hot and desperate against his. He tasted the wine, felt the need. Despite the alarm bells screeching in his brain, he opened his mouth to hers and deepened the kiss, allowing her tongue access. He'd had a dream like this once or twice or a thousand times. All those late nights working together at the studio with their creativity feeding off of one another had stirred his desire into a frenzy.
Abruptly, she pulled away. Her breath tickled his skin. Her fingers splayed over his cheekbones. Her eyes mirrored his confusion. "You're real. I thought maybe I was hallucinating again."
"I'm so confused."
"You and me both." He tried to smile but his lips trembled from the need to resume their kiss.
"I think I'm losing my mind." She pressed her forehead against his for a minute, closed her eyes, and let out a long sigh.
The momentary show of weakness stirred his protective instinct. "Talk to me. We're partners. You can trust me." A tear slipped from beneath her closed eyes. He brushed it away with his thumb and grinned. "C'mon, Sierra. I risked my life to see you, doesn't that count for something? Trust me."
She shook her head and stood without saying a word.
He watched her exit, unable to stop himself from looking at the way her ass filled out her jeans and wondering why her sweater had been inside out. Their gaze connected when she turned at the threshold of the bedroom.
"You really shouldn't be here," she whispered again before closing the door.
He released the breath he'd been holding and looked up at the framed photograph on the mantle. She looked happy and in love with Shane. He knew more about the murder than he'd let on to her or anyone at the studio. He had met the assistant district attorney two weeks before his death. As a DEA agent, he had information on the cartel and had actively been pursuing leads in Central America linked directly to Shane's case.
He swallowed hard at the memory of the friendly and smart attorney. Ambitious had been the word he'd thought of first when they'd met. The man had had guts pursuing the case despite the death threats.
The irony of working with Sierra now wasn't lost on him. He hadn't actually known she'd been engaged to Shane until weeks after their partnership had formed, but he doubted she'd believe that. Trust wasn't exactly in her vocabulary.
He touched his fingertips to his lips and wondered what the kiss had been about. She'd mentioned hallucinations and muttered something about him being real. Her clothes were on inside out...maybe she danced closer to the edge than he'd realized.
* * *
Shane watched from the other realm, having used all of his energy manifesting over Sierra. He'd tried so long to connect and finally she'd let her guard down enough for him to get through. His heart ached at not being able to reassure her and witnessing her descent into despair. He knew she thought of death more than life these days.
He looked back at Alexander sipping the apple cider on the floor. The DEA agent had nearly been tortured and nearly died from his injuries, he knew. From this side, he could see all things, except for the memory of his own death. He couldn't remember that.
A part of him—the part he wasn't proud of—wished it had been the other man and not him who'd taken a fatal bullet.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, knowing he couldn't be heard.
He squatted next to Alex, resenting him for being alive while he struggled to remain connected to a life he could no longer claim. With clarity, he remembered meeting Alexander about the case. Both had been so certain that they'd win...now look at where they'd ended up. Neither had been the heroes they'd imagined themselves to be.
Needing to see Sierra, he left Alex sitting alone and followed her into the next room. She sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the wall, hair falling forward over slumped shoulders. She had shut herself down, convinced herself that she'd imagined it all.
"Sierra. Hear me."
He saw the darkness around her so clearly from this side. Fear and despair threatened to consume her and he needed to do something more than lurk and watch. For now, all he could do was sit with her, walk beside her, come to her in dreams, and will her to live her life without him.
But that was partially a lie. Her deep grief reflected on the strength of their love. He liked knowing he had been that loved in life, even though he knew it was wrong to linger.
When she moved to lay beneath the covers, fully clothed, tears on her face, he reached out to smooth his hand over her hair.
"I miss you so much, Shane," she whispered.
He leaned close to her ear and whispered, "I will always love you."
She grinned and moved her hand over his, even though she didn't consciously know it.
He pulled his hand away and thought of their encounter on the sofa. He needed to make her believe he was real, to see and hear him without thinking she had lost her mind.
He'd enjoyed connecting with her, touching her again and knowing she could feel him, having her look into his eyes, and being present with her. He wanted that again, even if it was the worst thing he could do. Maybe he was selfish, but he didn't want to leave yet. He'd had so much to accomplish. They were supposed to raise a family, share adventures, and grow old together. Dying at age thirty-four simply wasn't fair.
He lay beside her and kept his hand on her hip even as his energy began to fade and he knew he only had a few more minutes left before disappearing into the void again. He hated going there, always fought to return, afraid of what would happen if he surrendered to the unknown.
He moved closer to her back, heard her sigh as if feeling his energy, and wished he'd been able to live all those plans he'd had for them. Coldness enveloped him and pulled him toward oblivion.
"Stop resisting," an unseen voice whispered to him. "You need to let go."
He stared at Sierra's profile against the pillow. He wouldn't move on until she did, although he hoped that she wouldn't for a very long time.
* * *
Sufficiently warm and dry, Alexander looked through his bag for a pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt. He couldn't shake the idea that something was really off about Sierra. Maybe they weren't friends, but working together so closely over the past year had familiarized him with her moods. In the past hour while he thawed out, he thought about the real reason he'd followed her from the studio after her tantrum. Although he didn't quite know how to define it, he cared about her even if she did know how to push all of his buttons—or maybe because of it.
He needed to tell her about knowing Shane.
Hungry, he decided to help himself to whatever she had in the kitchen. His flight from Los Angeles had been rocky and the drive on the road from hell had sapped his energy.
Annoyed at the anxiety rustling beneath his skin, he slammed open a few cabinets before finding a box of pancake mix. Nothing made sense anymore. Not the loss of his best friend in Nicaragua, his sudden career change, the fact that his family thought he needed serious therapy, or that he felt guilty as hell for not telling her that he'd known her murdered fiancé. Fuck it all.
"You make a lot of noise," she said as she crept up behind him on bare feet. "What are you doing?"
"Making pancakes." He motioned to the skillet in front of him.
"So it is. That's early for us, isn't it? We've pulled a lot of all-nighters together, what's one more?" He poured milk into the bowl in front of him. "I thought you'd gone to sleep."
"Couldn't sleep, too much thinking."
"I can relate to that." He grinned over his shoulder, hoping to relax her again and maybe coax out another smile.
She'd changed into pajama pants and a t-shirt, too, in the hour she'd been locked behind closed doors. They almost looked like a pair. He tried to ignore how her breasts looked beneath the thin material. Damn it, did she abandon bras when out of the office? Crazy or not, she looked like sex personified.
His dick twitched to life. He shifted his hips to hide the sudden tenting of his pants.
Just stir the damn mix and ignore her. She's harder to handle than a box of angry rattlesnakes. Stay focused on work. Only. Work.
"I might quit the show."
Her admission stilled his hands. "What do you mean?"
"Quit. You know...leave. End it all."
Alex dropped the wooden spoon and faced her. "What in the hell are you talking about? You want to quit a hit series that you helped create? Why would you do that?"
"I can't write anymore, not like I used to. I don't give a damn. It's useless." She folded her arms across her chest, which only drew his focus squarely on the nipples poking against the material.
"What is wrong with you? Is this all because of your grief about your ex? He died, not you. Are you going to let one shitty thing in your life define you? Is that it?"
Her lower lip trembled, but her eyes spit fire at him. "Who the hell do you think you are anyway? You come up here uninvited, spew out your opinions on my life, make goddamn pancakes in my kitchen, and I'm supposed to accept it all? Why? We work together; we're not friends."
He squinted at her, sick of this never-ending day. He'd spent good money on a last minute airline ticket to Lake Tahoe, had trekked through blinding snow, and wasn't in the mood to have a heart-to-heart. He wanted to eat and sleep. That's it.
"We're not friends, huh? I've spent more time with you than anyone else this past year," he said.
"That's pitiful. You probably shouldn't tell people that story." She motioned toward his t-shirt. "What happened to you anyway? To your chest? What tore you up like that?"
"That's a story I only tell my friends. What do you care?" He turned away from her, hating that she'd seen the result of his torture.
She paced behind him, her restless energy eating up the small space. "I don't like you being here."
"You've made that clear." He poured some batter into the skillet and pretended not to care that she'd acted horrified at the sight of his naked chest.
"Why is it so important to you that I stay on as head writer? You'd be in line to take it over. That's what you've wanted, isn't it? I went a little nuts today. I'm surprised Charlie hasn't had my credentials revoked at the studio."
"Yeah, there's no denying you overreacted." His lips twitched at the memory of her meltdown. She had merely said—yelled—what the rest of them had been thinking.
"I don't understand why you care so much about what I do or what's going on with me." She kept up with her pacing. "I hate that you pulled some strings or whatever it is you did to find out where I went. If you're such a clever federal agent—"
"Former agent," he corrected out of habit.
"Then what do you care about some screenwriter with a bad attitude? I'm no one's favorite person anymore."
He spread his arms wide and motioned toward their surroundings. "Can we make the best of this instead of overanalyzing? As for not being anyone's favorite person anymore, that's not true. I don't want you to quit. You can't."
She slammed her fist against the counter next to his hip and glared at him. "You need me more than I need you, that's why you really followed me up here. If I quit the show, I'll be fine. Is that what this is really about? You're afraid they'll revamp the entire writing team because of me, right? The show is all you have, all you know because you quit the Drug Enforcement Agency for reasons you like to keep secret. What happened? Did you get fired? Did the heat get to be too much for you so you left before you got hurt?"
"Wow, you really are a bitch."
"Yes, I am."
"Or maybe that's what you want people to think so they leave you alone to wallow in your misery."
"What do you know about it?"
Damn it, she pissed him off like no other human on the planet.
"I'll show you what I know about it." He grabbed the bottom of his shirt and yanked it up to mid-chest to show her the scars and burns zigzagging across his chest and abdomen. "I was tortured in Nicaragua, left to die in the jungle while my partner and best friend bled out next to me. I guess you could say that all made me reevaluate how I wanted to live the rest of my life. People have accused me of wallowing, too, but they can all go fuck themselves because they have no idea what I'm thinking."
He yanked his shirt back down, immediately hating his confession. A good-looking man, he had used his charm to get him places during his undercover work. He'd used his appearance as an asset and it had always gotten the job done. What vanity remained made him hide his bare chest from anyone and everyone. Hell, he even wore a t-shirt or a rash guard at the beach these days. He never spoke about that with anyone and had no idea why he'd needed her to know he hadn't slinked off like some coward.
She took a step back, anger transitioning to regret. "I'm sorry. I'm...I didn't mean it."
"You push all my damn buttons and I don't know why, but I sure as hell know you can't give up." He grabbed her forearm when she tried to retreat and made her look at him. Maybe this wasn't the best way to tell her, but he'd never been one to pass up an opportunity. "The same people who killed Shane tried to kill me on the same day. We were working together...Shane and me."
"What?" Eyes wide, she met his gaze.
"Yeah, I knew your ex, but I didn't know he was your ex until after we were working together. I had been consulting—"
"What is this? Why are you saying this to me?" She yanked her hand free and backed up until she hit the wall.
"I worked with him on that case. I was his expert witness, but I swear to God I didn't know your connection to him until after I started with the show." He followed, unwilling to stop now. He'd come here to hash out their differences and save their careers. Maybe it was time she heard the hard truth.
"You're cruel. Stop this."
"Maybe I am a coward because I quit the agency, but I'd always wanted to write. The opportunity fell into my lap, that's true. I didn't work my ass off for it like you did. I didn't want to die in a jungle face down in the mud with nothing to show for it besides my mother receiving condolences at my funeral. Fuck that." He had her pinned against the wall, noticed the fire in her eyes and the balled fists at her sides, but he couldn't stop now.
"You knew Shane, worked with me all of this time, and said nothing. Why?"
"Because you're like a borderline insane person. Don't you notice how people walk around you like they're on eggshells? You snap at everyone, retreat into silence in your office when you're not on a rampage, and then...you look so damn sad all of the time." He stepped back, hating himself for pushing her and not knowing the right thing to do.
She frowned, but didn't make a move to leave. "Do I really?"
"Do you really what? Go on rampages, scare people, or look sad all of the time?" He grinned at her question, knowing full well what grief felt like.
"All of the above, I guess," she whispered before looking away from his face.
"Yeah, you do. I've heard stories about you, though. I hear you used to be a really fun person to know, although I see no evidence to support that."
"He died...not me," she repeated with a twist of her lips while staring down at her feet. "Do you know how many times I've heard that? Everyone says that to me. He died, not you. Repeat. No one gets it. I don't want to live like this, trapped in numbness."
He sighed, realizing that maybe he'd gone too far. Maybe he'd wanted to shock her, he didn't know. Too late now. He'd not only crossed a line, he'd bulldozed over it.
"I know grief sucks, Sierra. I know it's been rough for you."
"I'm not a borderline insane person." When her bottom lip trembled, he felt like the biggest ass on planet earth.
"Yeah, right. I'm sure every person currently in a mental institution says the same thing." He couldn't look away from her face. Ever since he'd met her, he'd thought her beauty eluded any stereotype.
Her lips twisted into a crooked grin that pulled at his heartstrings. "You didn't happen to bring a straightjacket with you, did you?"
The idea of restraining her turned him on in ways he had denied himself for far too long. "You are a walking contradiction, has anyone told you that before? One minute I want to throttle you and the next," he shook his head and turned away from her, "it's a shame, that's all."
She grabbed his wrist and closed the space between them in one stride. "I want to feel again, I do."
He looked down at her, torn between lust and fear. He wanted to fuck her. Hard. Make her feel him inside of her for days. Relieve his frustration at the same time. Expend all of this manic energy.
Without saying another word, she stood on her tiptoes and mashed her mouth against his. The soft breasts he'd been fantasizing about pressed into his chest and he ached to touch them.
"You don't know what you're doing," he said because he knew he needed to warn her. His self-control bordered on paper-thin and he'd been jacking off to fantasies of her for months.
"You're real," she said against his lips. "I need a good dose of reality. Isn't that why you came here? To wake me up?"
"Wake you up, yes; not fuck you blind."
"But that's what you want to do, isn't it? It wouldn't be the first time we crossed that line."
"Alex...We both want the same thing. It's just sex, who cares? Fuck me." She flicked her tongue over his lips.
"You've lost your mind."
"You'll hate me afterward, just like last time."
"I hate you now so you have nothing to lose."
One look into those blue eyes of hers and he knew he'd do whatever she asked. Lunatic or not, her body had been made for a man's hands.
Hands beneath her ass, he lifted her to the counter and ground his mouth against hers in a kiss meant to punish as well as satisfy his lust. He tugged at the hem of her pajama pants, anxious to prove her wrong about everything, especially him.
Her hand slid over his hard cock while her feet slid up the back of his thighs. Desperation transmitted through her kiss, but he didn't care. Maybe they were both desperate to connect with another human. Their one night stand six months ago had kept him tossing and turning every night since wanting to ask her about it or thinking about going on a date with someone else; but he'd remained behind closed doors masturbating to fantasies of the exact woman who now held his dick in her palm.
Without hesitation, he yanked the t-shirt over her head and feasted his eyes on her naked breasts. He cupped each one before bending to kiss her neck. She tasted like vanilla and wine. He liked the combination.
Her toes looped into the back of his pants and edged them down past his bare ass. Her hand increased its rhythm over his erection with an urgency that matched his own.
"Fuck me, Alex," she muttered against the top of his head.
He rolled his tongue over her hard nipple, skimmed his teeth across it, until she squirmed with need beneath him. One hand remained on the other breast while he sucked at her flesh. His other hand pulled at her pants as she wiggled her hips until they fell free.
Without pulling his mouth from her breast, he slipped two fingers inside her wetness. "Damn, you're so hot."
"I need you inside me." She yanked at his hair and brought his face up to hers. "Fuck me now like you've never fucked anyone else."
Oh, he'd fuck her hard. If that's what she needed, that's what he'd give her. He thrust inside her, pushing deep into her wet tightness until he felt the tip of his penis up against her cervix.
He shoved his tongue into her mouth as he rammed his cock into her cunt, going as deep as he could go, filling her to capacity.
Her nails sank into his shoulders, holding on tight. The heels of her feet dug into his ass, holding him tight.
Her tongue slid against his. Their mouths devoured one another as if they'd been long starved for the taste of another human being.
He broke the kiss long enough to look down at the weight of her breasts jiggling up and down as they rocked against each other.
"Deeper," she said, hands squeezing his ass.
Surrendering to the sensation of her pussy clenching around his girth, he plunged harder and deeper until he felt he would surely break her in two.
Her abrupt laugh shouted through the room as her entire body shuddered with ecstasy. He came then, holding her as close as two people could ever be, and buried his face into her neck.
He rested there for a minute, listening to his own heartbeat drown out all other senses.
"You're definitely real, better than a wine bottle or any dildo I've ever had," she said against the side of his face, her hands stroking his hair. "Damn, I'm not sure I can walk after that."
"You say such strange yet fascinating things." He grinned against her shoulder before lifting his head to look into her eyes. He pushed his hands into her hair and held her still. All of his life had consisted of one-night stands or temporary relationships. Undercover DEA agents didn't have a good track record with long-term personal commitments and the Los Angeles crowd didn't handle scars well so he'd been focused on work—and her—for too long. Not that this would be more than what it was—a hard fuck to prove he was 'real', whatever that meant.
Face flushed with sexual satisfaction and eyes alive with curiosity, she slid her feet down the back of his thighs and smiled. "That was unexpected."
"We both needed a good release." He caressed her cheekbones with his thumbs. "I think I'll get back to making those pancakes. I'm starving."
She blinked a minute before laughing again. He hadn't seen her laugh like this until now. Genuine, unguarded amusement transformed her face from beautiful to stunning.
He took another long look at her bare breasts, stroked his fingers over them, and slipped himself from her. He liked that she let him look at her without bothering to rush to get dressed. He slid his hands from her breasts over her flat abdomen before moving them along her thighs.
"You're so beautiful."
She grabbed a fistful of his shirt and held him when he would have stepped away. Amusement slipped from her eyes and he wished he could bring it back. For about thirty seconds, he'd glimpsed the woman she must have been before tragedy had dimmed her light.
"I'm not crazy. I'm not," she said.
"Jury's still out on that."
A one time fuck wouldn't be enough, he knew that with a certainty that reignited his desire. Now that he'd had a taste of her, he needed more and that could be dangerous for both of them. He doubted either would be considered 'stable' by the masses and to label their volatile relationship as complicated would be an understatement.
Smoke wafted from the skillet where one pancake had burnt to a crisp. Sighing, he tossed onto a plate before focusing on the batter.
His heartbeat slammed against his ribcage and his body hummed from the orgasm. Every move he made felt like dragging limbs through water, heavy and warm.
She moved from the counter and dressed in silence while he washed his hands.
"I'm sorry about what I said," he muttered before picking up the wooden spoon to resume his pancake making.
"About what? Me being a crazy bitch or about Shane being dead and not me?" She reached around him for a glass from the cabinet, careful not to touch him, but he noticed the shaking of her hands.
He closed his eyes and sighed. "Sierra..."
"It's okay. Really. I get it. I know what people say, nothing you told me was a surprise." She washed her hands before reaching into the freezer for ice. Her long hair fell back around her shoulders. Once again, he realized she'd put her shirt on inside out.
"It would help your image if you knew how to dress yourself." He poured more pancake batter onto the skillet and tried to ignore the primal urge to toss her over his shoulder and carry her to the bedroom.
Yep. Once would definitely not be enough.
A crash from the living room startled them both. The framed picture from above the fireplace lay on the floor, the glass shattered.
She moved around him, squatted above the mess, and shoved her hands through her hair. "Oh, my God. What have I done?"
"How did it fall?" He looked beneath the counter for a trashcan.
"I'm haunted," she whispered without looking away from the mess. "I see him everywhere. He was here earlier, with me. I could touch him, hear him," she looked over her shoulder, eyes shrouded with pain, "I'm not crazy, I'm not. Shane haunts me."
He froze and met her gaze. She believed what she said, every word of it. He could see the truth in her eyes. Swallowing the words he wanted to say, he exhaled a slow breath.
Nerves still amped up from sex, he rubbed the center of his chest with a closed fist. In front of him sat the most beautiful, passionate, talented woman he'd ever known, but he feared that no one would ever break whatever bond she shared with her deceased fiancé, that she had trapped herself in despair.
If that turned out to be true, that would be the tragedy.
* * *
She picked up shards of glass delicately with her fingertips and tried to ignore the silent man behind her making pancakes. Dread and anger cooled the satisfaction she'd had after spontaneous sex.
If Shane is here, then he saw me having sex with Alex.
Why would he be here?
What if I have lost my mind? What if everyone is right?
Damn it, he's dead and I'm alive. Why should I feel guilty for living?
I feel guilty for living, for being attracted to someone else, for not believing, for so many things.
All the thoughts tumbled through her mind like somersaults over a spongy mat, rolling and bumping in every direction.
"I don't not believe in ghosts," Alex said after she had cleaned up the mess and stood on trembling legs. "I've seen too much in my life to rule them out."
"You don't need to patronize me." She met his gaze and, for the first time, saw him as a sexy man standing in his pajamas rather than her archenemy from the studio. She could still feel him inside her, knew she would for days. The memory of his cock stimulated both desire and regret.
Him standing there with his shaggy black hair falling past his ears and sticking out at intervals from where her hands had been, wearing frog covered pajama pants, and a t-shirt that declared DEA across the front, created an endearing image that threw her off her game.
Since when was she someone who had game?
Sighing, she walked past him toward the garbage. She'd practically begged the man to screw her brains out, had confessed about seeing the ghost of her deceased fiancé, and now he made her pancakes. This night couldn't get any stranger.
"How do you manage to pull off sexy in those frog pants?" She grinned despite herself when she met his gaze, determined to ignore any topic involving the supernatural.
Why did I mention being haunted?
"Senor Frogs, Cancun." He looked down at his pajamas as if they were his most prized possession.
"I've been there." She folded her arms across her chest. "My friend Jane and I sang 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' to karaoke. We managed to silence the place. It was pretty bad. Too many jello shots and borderline heat stroke, I guess." She looked away from his steady gaze.
"I bet it wasn't so bad." He plopped two pancakes onto a plate, poured some syrup on them, and slid it toward her without looking at her face. "You're a master at changing the subject. You should have been a lawyer."
Her grin faded as she picked up the plate and walked into the living room.
At thirty-two, she'd expected her life to be a helluva lot different than this. Ghosts. Career in jeopardy. Screwing her writing partner. With a sigh, she cut up a pancake and shoved it into her mouth. The rush of flavor sent her back toward ecstasy.
"What did you add to the mix? These are amazing."
He sat on the sofa with her, his plate propped on his knees. "I found some cinnamon and vanilla in the cabinet."
She savored another bite and propped her back against the arm of the sofa so she could study his profile. How many nights had they worked until dawn? They'd spent more time together in the past year than they'd spent with anyone else, yet she had no idea who he was outside of work.
He mirrored her action, their bare feet touching in the center of the sofa while they ate their pancakes with the fire crackling next to them.
"Should I be worried about the ghost?" he asked with an arch of his brow. "I mean, is he the jealous type?"
Embarrassed by her confession, she shrugged. "I'm probably imagining things."
He set his plate on the floor before looking her in the eye. "You can trust me, Sierra. I want to know what's happening so I can help. I'm not judging you...well, I did. Initially."
Warm tears burned her eyes, sudden and unwanted. She fought to hold them back. It was all too much. She scrubbed at her eyes with a closed fist and shook her head. "What do you do outside of work?"
The question obviously surprised him based on his expression. He tilted his head back and blinked at the ceiling before answering, "I sleep. I work. That's it."
"That can't be all that you do." She reached for the blanket she'd wrapped him in when he'd arrived at her door shaken and nearly frozen to death. "I'm sorry I didn't react better when you showed up earlier."
He looked at the blanket in her hands, his crooked grin doing strange things to her heart. "We have a complicated relationship, sort of a love hate thing. I get it."
"I admire you and your work. I watched your documentary on illegal immigrants. Not only was it brilliant, it captured the human element so clearly I felt heartbroken at the end." He pulled his knees to his chest and stared at her. "I think you're sexy as hell and all those late nights writing together sparked a lot of 'me' time, if you know what I mean. But you're a ballbuster, a hard person to know. Aloof. Scary."
"I'm not scary." She paid extraordinary attention to smoothing out the lines on the blanket.
"That cup you threw could have killed Charlie."
"He deserved it, the moron. Do you know how much money I've made him? I'm sick of the writer being the one who gets screwed. Where would any of them be without us? Huh? Unemployed, that's where. I wish I would have hit him squarely between the eyes." His burst of laughter made her smile. With a sigh, she met his gaze and shrugged. "Okay, so maybe I'm a little scary."
"And you hate me." His smile faded as he stared at her.
"I'm not your enemy. We're partners. If you leave the show, I go with you." He swallowed visibly and conflict shadowed his dark eyes. "And if you say there's a ghost haunting you, I believe you."
She frowned. He didn't make sense. Not just his words, but his entire way of being in the world confused her. "Why? I'm horrible to you."
"Not really." He grinned, his gaze sliding over her face like a caress. "You bring me coffee every morning, although sometimes I don't think you realize it. The first time you did, I couldn't hide my shock that you actually remembered how I liked it. You stand up for me with Charlie, even though I can fight my own battles. You always refer to us as a team in public, but everyone knows it's your show. You gave me one helluva rocking orgasm less than forty minutes ago. Not so horrible."
She blushed at the memory of the way she'd grabbed his dick and urged him to go deep. "Yeah, about that, we didn't use a condom, which was pretty reckless of us." She met his gaze again. "I'm on birth control but...I don't suppose you have any with you? For next time?"
"I'm a realist."
"Who believes in ghosts."
She sighed and rubbed her hands over her eyes. Exhaustion drummed in her head, making it hard to concentrate. Between the long day at the studio, traveling to Tahoe, having sex with both a ghost and a man, drinking too much wine, and eating pancakes, she'd maxed out her stamina for one day.
"I need to sleep." She pushed away from the sofa and walked toward the bedroom. As an afterthought, she turned toward him. "You don't need to sleep on the sofa. You can stay with me if you'd like."
He stared at her without saying anything. Perhaps she'd gone too far, said too much. Sex was one thing, sleeping together was quite another. That implied intimacy, shared breaths and embraces.
She walked into the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she looked into the mirror, she saw Shane's reflection standing behind her. When she turned, no one.
"Why are you doing this to me?" she asked the empty space.
"I love you so much, Sierra." A whisper. Faint. Barely noticeable.
Every inch of her pulsated with restrained emotion. She gripped the edge of the sink with both hands and cried because she felt torn between wanting the confusion to stop and needing it to be real to save her sanity. Some days it took all of her strength simply to fake normalcy.
She'd cheated with another man. Right or wrong, that's what it felt like. She had had sex with Alex and loved it, wanted to do it again. But if Shane still existed, wasn't it wrong? Confusion rocked her world.
She held onto the sink as if were the only thing keeping her upright. Sobs began deep in her gut before ripping through her body with deep convulsions. Silent screams caught in her throat. Tears she'd been battling to hold back for too long streamed from her eyes. Unchecked.
She'd come here wanting to quit her job and her life, to hide away, to give up. All of these months spent working and fighting and pretending to have it all together had taken a toll. She couldn't do it anymore. She had come here to break down.
A ghost? How many times in the last months had she prayed Shane would walk in the door and tell her it had all been a mistake? Why hadn't he come to her then? Why now?
Every inch of her vibrated with unrestrained agony. For an hour, she'd felt normal again, with Alex of all people, and it had felt damn good. But now guilt ate her up like an infection devouring her from the inside out. Each sob abused her body and twisted her gut into knots. She couldn't stop. She'd held the grief at bay for too long and now it had busted loose.
"It's okay." Alex wrapped his arms around her from behind and whispered against her hair, "I'm here. You need to trust someone, let it be me. It's going to be all right. I'm not leaving. I'm here."
She turned within the circle of his arms; eyes closed for fear of seeing Shane's face again, and gripped Alex's shoulders as if he were a lifeline.
She cried, unable to hide her pain any longer. Tears of both confusion and sorrow fell. She clung to the one man she'd never anticipated trusting or needing while he whispered against her hair, "I'm here, it's going to be okay."
"Sometimes I feel like I'll never be normal again," she confided against his shoulder once the sobs had subsided and her voice returned.
"It's all going to be exactly as it needs to be."
But that's what she worried about...that she'd go so far away from what she'd ever known herself to be that she'd be lost forever. She'd been fighting to hold on to who she'd been with Shane and who'd she'd been before him. The two images didn't mesh and the battle seemed pointless.
What if surrendering—accepting—meant that she'd be like this, an angry woman who couldn't break free of the sadness? Every fiber of her being begged her to stop fighting; she didn't know if she had the strength for surrender.
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