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Never mess with your best friend’s sister. That was the rule. But what if she wants you too? Don’t mess with your best friend’s sister It was an unspoken rule But could Jake resist temptation? Temptation came in all shapes and sizes. It had been easier when Jake had an uncertain future and nothing to off er the sexy blond who’s very walk made him want things he knew he shouldn’t. Andrea didn’t care what her brother thought. He’d run off enough of her dates she’d long since given up caring. But things become serious far more quickly than she’d planned. Is she ready for what lies ahead? New York Times bestseller, Melissa Stevens draws us into her world with this gripping brother’s best friend romance. Buy your copy now to see how it all unfolds.
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About the Author
Also by Melissa Stevens
Copyright© 2015 Melissa Stevens
Created with Vellum
To all of you who think you can’t…
With dedication and effort, you can do anything you set your mind to.
I’m living proof.
To Wilmer Stephens for weapons details, I know I can always go to you for all kinds of info.
Jake’s heart thundered in his ears, but he didn’t let it show. He was about to meet his best friend's family and he was nervous. In Jake’s experience family was two or three people living together, fighting more often than not. Ben said his family wasn’t liked that. Jake hoped that was true. He almost regretted letting his buddy talk him into accompanying him home on leave. It was too late to change his mind now. They’d just landed in Phoenix and were headed down the gate toward baggage claim to get their duffels before Ben’s mom picked them up.
They arrived as the carousel started moving and stood watching it carry bags around the large oval, waiting for theirs to show up. Theirs were the only military issue bags on the flight, but habit made them check the bottoms for their last names before taking them off the carousel and lifting them onto their shoulders. They carried the familiar weight with the ease of practice. Jake and Ben made their way out of the crowd still surrounding the carousel and stopped for a moment. Jake watched his friend look around as if trying to figure out where to go next.
Waiting for his friend to move, Jake took in the unfamiliar surroundings. He spotted a red headed beauty, probably not more than twenty-one or two, walking through the crowded baggage claim area. Something about her made him look twice. He had the sudden, unexplainable desire to approach her, ask her out and maybe even go home with her. Ben elbowed him in the ribs.
"Look, there’s Andy," he said before taking off through the crowd. Jake knew Andy was Ben's sister. He'd seen her picture often enough he should be able to recognize her, but he couldn’t find the girl in the photo his friend carried anywhere in the large crowd.
The photo was a group shot, taken at Ben's high school graduation. Ben, his parents, Sophia and Charles and his little sister, Andy. Ben kept the photo with him everywhere he went. Jake scanned the crowd as he followed Ben, still not spotting her. It wasn’t until the red head he'd been watching when Ben elbowed him, threw herself against his friend that Jake realized he’d been looking for the gawky teenager in an old photograph. She’d done one hell of a job of growing up.
"BEN!" she squealed in delight. Ben dropped his duffel, so he could catch the girl.
"Geez, Andy, when did you start throwing yourself at men?" he teased.
She gave Ben a playful slap on the shoulder. "I don't throw myself at men. You’re my brother." She grinned. "You've been gone forever. I'm so glad you're home." She stopped for a breath as she hugged him again. "I was excited. I’m so happy to have you back, even for just a little while, safe and sound."
"I'm glad to see you too, Andy." Ben tousled her already messy hair. "I thought Mom was picking us up?"
"She was going to, but I was headed back this afternoon anyway so
I told her I'd pick you up and save her the trip." She grinned up at him.
"All right," he gave her an indulgent smile. "What do you want this time?" He lifted one brow as if he knew something more was coming.
"Just to spend some time with my brother.” Her voice was sweet and mostly innocent.
Jake saw the mischief in her eyes. She knew what she was doing. He bent and picked up Ben's bag, slinging it over his other shoulder. The movement seemed to remind Ben of his presence.
"Andy, this is Jake. Jake, my sister Andy."
"Nice to meet you," Jake said as Ben took his duffel back and hefted it onto his back. His arm free once more, Jake extended his hand to her. Andy gripped it firmly and gave it a brief shake. Her clear green eyes called to him.
Andrea looked up at the tall, handsome man with her brother. "Nice to meet you, too." She smiled up at him. "I'm Andrea, only this oaf," she tipped her head in Ben's direction, "calls me Andy."
"Let's get going. We’ve still got several hours on the road before we’re done." Ben glanced around. He seemed impatient to get out of the crowded airport.
"I parked in the garage. This way." Andrea turned and headed back toward the elevator she’d come from less than a half hour earlier. Ben walked beside her. “How was the flight?” She glanced back at Jake where he trailed a little behind them. “You know, you’re welcome to walk with us. You don’t have to follow behind.” She flashed him a brief smile before turning back to find her way through the crowd.
“I’m good,” Jake said.
“Long and cramped.” Ben shifted the bag on his shoulder then hit the elevator call button. “What’re you driving these days?” He watched her while they waited for the elevator.
Andrea smiled and couldn’t resist teasing her brother. “Didn’t Mom tell you? I got a Bug a few months ago.” She found herself glancing at Jake often. There was something about her brother's friend that intrigued her. She didn’t have time to get involved with a guy right now. She was too busy with school and work to think about adding a relationship, much less a long distance one, but something about him drew her.
Ben groaned. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
She fought to keep her face blank as she shook her head and waited, hoping she could keep it up till they got to the car.
They boarded the elevator and after only a minute or two the doors opened again, revealing long rows of parked vehicles. She led the way, glad they were behind her and couldn’t see her face as they approached her car, well, SUV actually. As they got close she couldn’t keep herself from grinning. There, parked right where it had been when she pulled in was a canary yellow second generation Volkswagen Beetle. She’d hoped it would still be there when she’d told him she drove a Bug.
“Here we are.” She did her best to be cheery and bubbly and keep her deception off her face.
Ben groaned again. “I was really hoping you were kidding. This will not be a pleasant ride, three of us plus our gear in that thing.”
“We’ll make it work.” Jake moved to the back of the bug. “Unlock it and we’ll stow our gear.”
She raised her brows. “I’m surprised. Most people assume the trunk’s in the front like in the original.”
Jake glanced at her then looked back to the car, waiting for the trunk to open. “I knew someone who had one in high school.”
She wondered how long he would stand there, waiting for her to pop the lock. She considered digging through her purse for a few minutes, pretending to search for her keys, but decided she’d had her fun and hit the unlock button on her key fob. Stepping past him, she lifted the rear gate on her Escape. “Why don’t you put your stuff in here instead, so we can hit the road?”
Jake looked at her a moment, frowning.
“You little shit.” Ben shook his head. “You did it just to make me dread the ride, didn’t you?”
She grinned. “Would I do that?” She laid one hand against her chest and blinked in pretend innocence.
“The day you’re as innocent as you pretend to be, is the day the sun doesn’t rise.” Ben tossed his duffel into the back of the vehicle. Jake put his in without throwing it. Ben shrugged off his camo back pack and put it back there too. “You want yours back here?” He looked at Jake.
“No, I’ll keep it.”
They loaded up, Ben taking shotgun while Jake stretched out in the back seat and headed out. Andrea used traffic as an excuse to watch him as they made their way out of the airport.
"So," she glanced back at him again and pulled the car onto the interstate. "Where are you from, Jake?"
"Missouri, I grew up in St. Louis."
"I've never been that far east. What's it like?" The deep rumble of his voice spoke to something deep inside her, lighting fires in her body she hadn't known existed. It made her want to keep him talking.
"It's a city. Just like any city, there’s too many people and too much crime. I was happy to get out."
"Don't you ever go back to see your family?"
"The only person left is my mom. She's so high she has no clue if I'm there or not. I left for a reason. I don’t need to go back." His voice was firm, almost gruff.
"That's sad. If my mom didn't know if I was around or not it would tear me up. It must be hard."
"Not really. It's how she's always been."
"How are Mom and Dad doing, Andy? Really doing, not the fine, no problems bullshit I get over the phone." Ben drew her attention away from Jake.
"They do all right. You being over there has been hard on them, Mom especially. They worry about you, though they try to keep me from seeing it. Since I'm not in the house all the time anymore it's easier for them to hide things from me, but I see more than they realize. I know they've both quit watching the news. Dad reads the paper to keep on top of current events, but he filters what he tells Mom."
"I know it's hard on them. It's not easy being in the midst of it either, but we do what we have to." Ben looked out the window to avoid making eye contact.
"I understand. We stand behind you one hundred percent. Mom and Dad just wish you hadn't felt like you had to be one of the men to stand up for our country." Andrea looked over at him a moment then back at the road. "Don't get me wrong, we're proud as hell that you did, but scared and worried too."
"Don't worry, sis, I know what you mean. I know they wish I hadn't joined up, but they stood behind me when I told them I felt like I had to and they’ve supported me every step of the way." Ben stared out the window at the passing landscape, watching the plants and houses speed past them as they made their way past the last outskirts of the city.
"Have you ever been to Arizona, Jake?" Andrea tried to draw him back into the conversation.
“No, this is my first visit.” He turned back toward her. He’d been watching the city fade into desert then blend into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains as they approached.
“I hope you have a good time.” She would only be spending the weekend at home. She had to be back for classes on Monday. It was probably for the best. Too much time around this man would make it hard for her to keep her resolve not to get into a relationship.
"Shit!" Andrea grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and carefully eased the vehicle onto the shoulder. "Damn, damn, damn!" She punctuated each word with a one fisted blow to the wheel.
Opening the door, she carefully stepped out of the car. The thin heels of her shoes sank into the gravel as she gingerly walked around the car to inspect the damage. Sure enough, she'd blown a tire.
She bent, balancing carefully on the balls of her feet and looked into the wheel well around the damaged tire. There didn’t appear to be any body damage, but she’d have to get the tire off to be sure. She stood and cautiously stepped back to the open driver’s door, she’d pulled far enough off the road that passing traffic wouldn’t hit her door, but that meant the blown tire was on the soft shoulder.
"Why now?" she asked the wind. "Why not when I'm wearing jeans and tennies? Or when I don't have somewhere I need to be?" She set the emergency break and had to turn back to flip the switch for the flashers before going to the back. Opening the back gate, she rolled up the carpet to get to where the jack was stored. After pulling it out she used the lug wrench to lower the spare from beneath the small SUV.
"Damn it all," she muttered, wishing she hadn't taken her gym bag into the house that morning. At least she would have had some way to protect her dress, not to mention shoes that would be easier to work in.
Freeing the spare, she grabbed the old blanket she kept in the back for emergencies and partially unfolded it before spreading it out next to the shredded tire. After retrieving the good tire and the jack, she kicked her heels off, preferring to work barefooted over trying to balance on the spikes.
She struggled for several minutes but managed to loosen the lug nuts, so the tire wouldn't spin in the air if she tried to do it later. Once she had all the nuts loose, she bent low, so she could see under the tilted frame, and placed the jack in the right spot.
Her head was still under the car when the pop of tires on gravel told her someone had pulled off the road behind her.
"Need some help?" A deep masculine voice asked as she pushed herself to her feet. When she saw him, she stopped short for just a moment. Something about this man niggled the back of her mind, told her she'd seen him before. He was tall but not bulky and the snug fit of his t-shirt and jeans told her he was all muscle. Something about him called to her and made her stomach flip-flop. She couldn't help but smile as he approached wearing a friendly smile under his baseball cap as he offered his assistance.
"I'd appreciate it," she admitted. "Normally I'd have no trouble doing it myself, but I'm not exactly dressed for the job." She spread her arms wide, showing off her turquoise dress. It was cut to flatter her thick frame, showing off all her curves well and stopping just above her knees.
"At least you had the sense to lose the heels." He took her place beside the car and bent to check the placement of the jack before he started lifting the car. "You already break the nuts?" He stopped and looked at her for a moment before the tire cleared the ground.
"Yes." She stepped back into her shoes and tried to stay out of the way as he finished changing her tire and put the blanket and damaged tire into the back of the vehicle. "Thanks so much." She extended one hand. "Can I get your name? I'd like to do something to thank you. This has been a huge help."
"It's really no problem. My name's Jake, Jake Walters." He took her offered hand and shook it. "But you don't have to do anything, it's always a pleasure to help a pretty lady, especially one dressed so nicely." He looked her up and down again, from the top of her head where her hair was pulled back in some elaborate style, down her curvy body, and well-shaped legs. He liked what he saw. She hadn’t changed much in the years since he’d first met her.
"Now I remember.” Her eyes widened, and a smile bloomed across her face. "You're Ben’s friend. He brought you home with him on leave a few years ago."
"You here for the wedding?"
"Yes and no. I’ll be there, but I've recently moved to the area."
"That's great.” A car blew past them on the road, barely slowing as it went by. “Look, I'm sorry to do this but I've got to go. I'm late already."
"No problem. I'm sure I'll see you around."
"You probably will. That tends to happen in a town this size."
Unable to resist the urge, he stepped closer, reached out and lifted her chin with one finger as he bent closer.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time.” He paused just a few seconds. “Say no if you don't want it, too." He whispered the words against her lips then slowly his mouth covered hers. Softly at first, because he expected her to stop him at any moment, but after a few seconds he poured more intensity into the kiss. Using his thumb on her jaw, he coaxed her mouth open and he swept his tongue inside, tasting her. After a few moments, and one thorough kiss, he broke away, looking down at her sweet face.
"I...I've really got to go." She blinked, trying to regain her composure, though she seemed to want to stay instead.
"Go, I'll see you again." He smiled again.
She climbed back into the same little SUV she’d been driving when he first met her and pulled back on the road.
Several minutes later, still flustered from the unexpected kiss, Andrea rushed into the church hoping her tardiness wouldn't be noticed.
"There you are!" Sophia spotted Andrea as soon as she stepped into the building. "You said you were going to be here twenty minutes ago. You're never late, I was worried."
Andrea hugged her mom. "I blew a tire and had to take care of it. I'm fine"
"Dressed like that?" Sophia frowned.
"I didn't have anything else. But I didn't have to do it all, someone stopped and changed it for me." She struggled not to blush. "Otherwise I'm sure I would be later than I am now. What still needs to be done?" She tried to distract her mother.
"Can you check on your brother? Make sure he's ready? We have a little while before everything starts but people have already started arriving and are being seated. I need to check on that. Once you’re through with Ben can you check in on Jeanie?"
"Can do. He's on the left, right?"
"Ben's on the left, Jeanie's on the right."
Andrea knocked on the door before opening it slightly. "Are you decent?"
"As decent as I ever was," came Ben’s voice.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside, closing the door behind her. "Mom sent me to make sure you're ready."
"Well? Do I look presentable?" He held his arms out so she could get a good look at him.
She looked at him carefully, starting at his feet and working upward, looking for flaws. He was wearing a soot-colored suit with a soft green shirt and emerald green tie. She knew that the groomsmen would be dressed similarly. His shoes had been polished to within an inch of their lives and she thought he looked pretty sharp, until she got to the knot of his tie.
"Who tied your tie?" She tilted her head to one side.
"I did. Why?" He turned to look at himself in the mirror.
"Because generally, the front piece, the wider one? It's longer than the skinny back piece."
"Crap, it took me twenty minutes to make it lay right." He fumbled with the piece, only making it worse.
"Don't worry about it. Come here." She drug a chair close while he took off his jacket. She kicked off her heels again and stepped up onto the seat.
Normally, the difference in their heights didn’t matter. Ben was nearly a foot taller than her at 6'5". She was used to it, but while tying his tie she needed a better angle. When she finished the new knot, she had him turn around, so she could flip down the rest of his collar, then patted him on the shoulder. "There, go check the mirror and see what you think."
He shrugged back into his jacket and checked the mirror. "Thanks, Andy." He narrowed his eyes. "Wait a minute. Where did you learn to tie a man's tie?" He gave her a shrewd look in the mirror.
She lifted one eyebrow. "We all have our secrets, don't we?" She glanced at the clock on the wall. "You about ready?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah, let's do this."
"A little, I mean who isn't? But I know Jeanie's the one and that makes it all worth it."
She smiled at him, surprised by her brother's philosophy. "I guess you’re right. If she's the one and you know it, then the rest is just icing. Hang on a sec, let me see if they're ready for you."
She got him to the front of the church with no problems and was headed back to the rear of the church when she spotted him seated a couple rows behind her parents. It had been more than an hour an and a half since she’d seen him last but her face heated. She’d known Jake would be there, why was she blushing? She smiled at him and headed back up the aisle to go check on Jeanie.
After the ceremony, guests and family made their way to the reception. It was an informal party with only a few scheduled events. While Ben, Jeanie and the rest of the wedding party were busy taking the posed pictures, Andrea helped get the meal set up. She was setting out utensils to all the dishes when Jake approached her.
"I told you we'd run into each other again." He grinned.
"You did." She smiled back, admiring how different he looked in a suit.
He bent close to whisper "Did you know Ben used to carry your picture in his Kevlar?"
She frowned. “I had no idea.”
"I saw it often. I know it took you a few minutes to recognize me this afternoon, but I knew who you were as soon as I saw you.” He looked down at her a moment. “Ben and I were battle buddies, you know."
"You said you moved here? Is that why?" She let his comment about being battle buddies go without comment.
"Yep. I was looking for a job on a police force somewhere in the area and Ben let me know about an opening."
"So you're a police officer." She put together the bits of information he was letting drop.
"That's good to know. You know, in case I need rescuing or something." She winked.
"I'd like to have dinner with you."
"I have to help serve, but if you'll save me a spot, I’ll eat with you when I’m done."
"Better yet, how about I help you serve? Then we can eat together."
"I can't let you do that. You're a guest."
He made a noise deep in his throat. "Ben and I got to be closer than brothers while we were deployed. Helping serve at his wedding is nothing. Just another family thing."
"Well," she hesitated.
"Besides, if I help serve then we’ll actually get to have dinner together. If not, I'll be done long before you get a plate." He seemed to be hoping to convince her. "It’s not like you're forcing me. I volunteered."
"All right, I guess it won't hurt anything."
She handed Jake an apron and put one on herself before taking up her position in front of the large roaster full of shredded beef. Jake stood next to her, manning the barbecue sauce, ready to serve anyone who wanted some.
Ben walked up behind them and tugged at the apron Jake was wearing. "Bro, what are you doing on this side of the table?"
"I insisted on helping." Jake shot Andrea a smile. "Why should the rest of your family do all the work?"
"I'm glad you're making yourself at home and known to everyone. Sorry I haven't had a chance to introduce you around. It's been crazy with the wedding and all."
"I get it. I don't need my hand held. You go enjoy your big day. I'll pitch in where I can."
"Thanks again." Ben clapped one big hand on Jake's shoulder. "When we get back, I'll have more time."
"When's that gonna be?" Jake asked.
"Not for a couple weeks.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got a cruise to Hawaii. It leaves tomorrow afternoon."
"It should be, as long as neither of us gets sea-sick."
"Nah, you’ve got an iron stomach, you'll be fine. If either of you does get sick, go to the customer service desk or the first aid station on the ship. They should have some Dramamine."
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
"Now get in line so we can serve you. The rest of your guests are getting hungry and won’t eat until after you."
"I'd hoped being discharged would make you less bossy. Guess not."
"Nope, wasn't a military thing, it's just me. Get used to it."
Ben chuckled. "You're gonna fit in just fine around here."
Andrea shot Jake a grin as her brother grabbed a pair of plates and started through the line, filling not only his, but one for Jeanie too.
"He seems different from the last time I saw him." Jake said to Andrea as Ben walked away.
"He is different. Jeanie's softened him some but somehow made him stronger at the same time."
They were soon too busy to talk, serving the guests that filed by. Andrea called everyone by name and had something unique to say to each person as she served them. After the last of the guests had gone through the line they fixed plates for themselves and took a pair of seats at a nearby table that had been filled and emptied again as people finished eating.
"There's quite a few people here." Jake looked around the room. "There weren't this many people at the church."
"No, the church wouldn't hold them all. They only invited their closest friends and family there. There were a lot more invited to only the reception. Ben and Jeanie both have a lot of friends, so naturally there are a lot of people to help them celebrate."
"Naturally." They chatted and got to know each other while they ate. Afterward, Jake helped pick up the extra tables and chairs, making room on one end of the room for a dance floor.
Later in the evening, after people started to leave, Jake asked Andrea to dance. It was a slow song and he had his arms around her. He leaned in until his lips brushed against her ear. "I'd like to take you home with me."
Andrea smiled. "I’d like to take you up on that but I need to stay, at least until Ben and Jeanie leave. I have to help Mom load the gifts. She's going to take them home and keep them for Ben and Jeanie until they get back."
"That's fine. I can hang around and help."
"That's really sweet of you, but you don't have to. I'm sure you have to be up early tomorrow."
"Actually, I'm off. There's nothing stopping me from staying out all night if I want."
"Well," her face heated. "I also don't want my family thinking I would pick someone up at my brother's wedding and go home with him." She looked down, so he wouldn’t see her blush.
"No problem." He smiled against her ear. "I'll hang around and help. When we’re done we can leave separately and meet somewhere else. We can go to my place or we can go out for coffee. I don't know about you, but after all this," he motioned around them, where the flashing lights and loud music vibrated through their bodies. "I'm going to need to decompress for a bit before I'm anywhere near ready to sleep."
She looked up at him a moment, seeing his point. "What part of town do you live in?"
"The northwest side, why?"
"So I don't tell you to meet me someplace in the opposite direction." She fell silent for a few seconds as she thought about places that would be open when they finally got out of there. "In the Ranch district, that's what that side of town's called, I don’t know why. There's a Denny's on the corner of Maple and Waterson. You know where that is?"
He thought for just a second. "It's in the shopping center with Grant's Market isn't it?"
"Yeah, I think so. Let's meet there. We can have some coffee, eat something if we feel like it and unwind a little. Then, we can decide where to go from there."
"That works. I’ll look forward to it." He placed a gentle kiss on her ear.
The music ended, and they made their way off the dance floor, each going separate ways. Jake went to Ben, Andrea saw them standing together talking while she made her way to her mother.
“How are things going?” She sat down beside Sophia.
“So far so good.” Sophia looked around the room, watching for anything that might need her attention.
“He’s around here somewhere. I saw him over there talking to Eddie Cruz a little while ago.” She motioned to one side of the large room. “Is the car ready for Ben and Jeanie to leave?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll check on it.” Andrea went out to see if the car was ready. She smiled at the balloons attached to the top and trunk. She thought the groomsmen had decorated it well and let her mother know it was ready.
Less than an hour later they had loaded the newlyweds into the decorated rental car and sent them on their way with shouts of good luck and have fun. People started drifting away faster after the couple of honor were gone. Within an hour there were less than ten people left. Andrea started cleaning up, picking up the abandoned plates and cups scattered around the room and depositing them in a large trash can she dragged with her, until her mother made her stop.
"We'll get this done in the morning, dear," Sophia said "Let's just get the gifts loaded and call it a night."
Andrea looked around and seeing that all the plates of food were gone, she nodded. "Alright, Mom. Do you want to back the car up near the door? I think that will be easier than hauling them all the way out."
"Will you do that for me? I don't trust myself to back it in, not in the dark." Sophia held out the keys to her car.
"No problem." She accepted them and headed outside.
Between Andrea, her parents, Jake, and a couple other friends who had hung around to help, they made quick work of stacking the gifts into the back of Sophia's car.
Closing the trunk, Andrea turned to Sophia. "Do you want me to follow you home and help unload these?"
"No, I'm going to pull the car into the garage and not worry about unloading them until tomorrow. I think your father and I can manage it."
"All right." Andrea started to walk away but turned back. "What time do you want to meet here to finish the clean-up in the morning?"
"Not too early. I plan to sleep late tomorrow."
"So about nine?"
"That sounds good." Sophia agreed.
"I'll be here, too," Jake interrupted.
"You don't have to do that, dear." Sophia told him.
"But I do. I can't leave you two to do all the work. Those tables are heavy and you're not moving them by yourselves. Besides, Ben told me I could adopt his family and I won’t let you do all this work alone. You're just going to be stuck with me." He grinned, letting them know he was as serious as he was teasing.
"If you insist, I won't turn down the extra help." Sophia gave him a smile. "Besides, it'll be good to have something nice to look at while we work." She patted him on the arm before turning back to Andrea. "I guess I'll see you in the morning. I'm going to get your father home and to bed." She climbed into the passenger’s seat beside Andrea's father, Charles, who waited in the driver's seat. Andrea watched them pull out before she turned to Jake.
"I just have to lock up here, why don't you go ahead? I'll be right behind you."
"Nope, I'm not leaving you."
"Do you think I'm not capable of doing something so simple?" Andrea was instantly indignant.
"Not at all. I'm just worried about who may come along, find a woman alone in an empty building and take advantage of the situation. I wouldn't let my mom do it, my sister, if I had one, or a stranger. It has nothing to do with how capable you are, it's just my nature."
"Well, when you put it that way." The fight went out of her.
"How about you give me the keys. I'll lock up and meet you at the restaurant."
"But what about you being here alone?" Andrea lifted one brow at him.
"Babe, I've got training most men’ve never dreamed of. Unless there's a half dozen, I'll be fine."
"All right. There's one small door on each of those sides." She motioned in the direction of the doors. "As well as this one and the big one. All but this one get locked from the inside. And the lock for the overhead door is hanging on it." She pointed up to the lock dangling far overhead.
"Got it. You head out, I'll just be a few minutes behind you."
"All right. I'll get us a table and wait. You want me to order you something to drink?"
Her brows shot up. “Coffee, this late? Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I’m used to it.”
“All right.” She climbed in her car and headed for the all-night diner.
Jake arrived at the Denny's and made his way inside, shivering from the chill in the late evening air. He spotted Andrea sitting at a booth way in the back of the small restaurant and waved at the waitress before heading in her direction. He slid into the seat beside her instead of across the table.
"Found anything that interests you?" He took a deep drink from the waiting cup of coffee and leaned over to look at the menu she was holding.
"I'm debating a burger. Dinner was a long time ago and I'm getting hungry."
"I was thinking the same thing on the drive. Especially after my stomach loudly complained that it has been too long since I ate."
Andrea laid the menu down on the table between them. "Here, you look. I've decided what I'm having." She leaned back and took a long drink from the glass of iced tea sitting in front of her.
"I thought we were going to have coffee?" Jake asked, nodding at her glass.
Andrea shook her head. “If I drink coffee this late I’ll be up all night. Even decaf keeps me up, I think it's the flavor."
"Could be." He went back to perusing the menu. "I drink it day and night. It’s never bothered me, but we had a guy in our unit who couldn't drink more than two cups a day or he'd never sleep. It was handy when we had to stay up for days, but a pain when he'd had too much and wanted to sleep."
The waitress approached. A young woman, probably no more than 20, with pale skin and red hair that obviously came from a bottle. "Have you decided if you’re going to eat?"
"Yes, please." Jake hadn’t even picked up the menu.
"All right. What can I get for you?”
Jake looked at Andrea, waiting for her to place her order.
Once they'd both ordered, and the waitress left to turn it in and get a pot to refill Jake's coffee, he turned back to Andrea. "So, I know all about your brother, and what he told me about your family, but there’s one thing I’d like to know.”
“What?” she gave him a confused frown.
“What do you do?"
Andrea laughed, realizing her brother had probably never told him what she’d been studying the last time she’d seen him, and really why would he? "I'm a nurse."
"You work at Grant County Hospital?"
"Yep, been there for a little over a year."
"I don't work the wards. I'm strictly an emergency room RN."
"That's pretty high stress.” He tilted his head to one side and watched her.
"At times, yes. Thankfully, those times aren't often here. I mean, sure, we see the occasional car wreck, or traumatic injury. Most of those are sent out to Tucson though, we only have to deal with stabilizing them until they can be transported. Most of what we deal with are accidental injuries and weekend illnesses."
"That's good, too. It means you live in a good community, where people aren't trying to kill each other on a daily basis."
"It's good for you, too, fewer violent call outs, less chance of being hurt on duty." She agreed, it was a good town. Big enough to have the services most people wanted and retailers that handled most of what you could want, without having the impersonal, lost in the crowd feeling of a city.
"There is that." He drained his cup and held it as the waitress refilled it.
“You sure you don’t want any cream?” the waitress asked.
“I’m good, thanks.”
"Your food should be out in just a few minutes. Is there anything else I can get you until then?" She looked at Andrea. "Would you like some more tea?"
"Yes, please." Andrea said.
"I'll be right back with that."
True to her word, she was back in just a few seconds with a pitcher and after she refilled the glass she left them alone, going back to refilling salt and pepper shakers on the other end of the restaurant.
"So, now that you've spent some time with all of us, not just heard Ben talk about us, you still sure you want to adopt us?"
"Without a doubt. The way everyone pitched in and did whatever needed to be done to ensure that today was successful and happy for Ben and Jeanie. That's what I’ve always dreamed a real family does."
"I'll warn you though. We were all on our best behavior to make it special for him. We often bicker and argue, sometimes at the top of our lungs."
"But at the end of the day, you're all willing to set aside any differences of opinion in order to do this for him, right?"
"That's what I mean."
“But if you’re family, then I’m not sure I should be going home with you tonight. It would be too much like incest.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye, as if trying to see if he bought it.
He laughed. “There’s more than one way to be family. You consider Jeanie family, don’t you?”
“I can adopt you as my family for now, maybe I’ll find a different way to make it official later.” He gave her a cheeky grin
“You’re getting ahead of yourself there, but I see what you’re saying.” She shot him a shy smile. "You know Ben well enough to know what you're getting into. You should know though, he’s scared off every one of the few guys I’ve ever brought home to meet my family."
"Then you've been dating the wrong kind of guy, sweetheart."
"That may be true, but it wasn't my family like you saw tonight that scared them off, or even our bickering and yelling. It was Ben."
"Ben's been scaring off anyone you bring home?"
"Yep. He puts on this big tough act and uses his size to intimidate them. Even if I've told them that he's just a big softy they end up running. I’m sure if he finds out there’s something between us, he’ll try to do the same to you"
She was sure he knew how Ben used his size intimidated people.
"Ben doesn't scare me. We've been through too much together. Besides, I know all his secrets." He laid his hand on top of hers on the table. "Last time, I didn’t recognize you from the picture Ben kept in his Kevlar, but you're not that shy teenager anymore. You look just like the playful girl I met a few years ago though I’m sure you’ve changed since then, too. I knew as soon as I saw you on the side of the highway that you'd become someone special."
"I can't believe he carried a picture of me." She shook her head and looked down at the table.
"He did and one of your parents, too. One tucked into either side. Carried another photo of all of you in his pocket. He used to read letters to me, too. I've always wanted a family like his and he was sharing what he had with me."
"Don't you have a family?" She frowned.
"Not really. I had parents of course, but not a family. My dad was in and out of jail for different things and Mom hid behind a series of pain pills and alcohol. I was on my own most of the time."
"Nah, it's just life. I survived until I was old enough to join up, then I got out."
"Did you ever go back?"
"Yeah, I went to Mom's funeral a couple years ago. It seems she mixed some pills she shouldn't have and overdosed. They finally nailed Dad for something that put him away long-term. I haven't seen him since I left the first time. I made a clean break from him years ago."
"That's so sad."
He shrugged. "I did what I had to do. I knew I didn't want the life they had. I didn’t want to be just another link in the cycle. So, I broke loose. I got out."
"I can see why you’d need to break free and leave it all behind. I just hate to think of any kid living through that, having to survive what you did. I'm glad you had the strength to know what you had to do and to do it."
"It's not what I would have chosen and it's not what I want for my kids, that's for sure."
"You have kids?" She looked at him, alert.
"Not yet, but eventually I'd like to have a couple." He met her gaze.
She nodded and looked away without saying anything.
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