Ally stared at Jack. What was wrong? Had he been injured? She knew his work was risky, took him into dangerous areas…but he looked okay.
“What kind of problem?” Her stomach tightened and quivered. God, who would have thought she’d ever be nervous in Jack’s company? What had happened to them? Why had he taken off like that? And why was he back?
The physical changes in Jack were enough to throw her off. He’d always been good looking, tall and rangy, his light brown hair a bit shaggy. Now he was gorgeous, his skin tanned a deep bronze, his hair, still longish, lightened by the sun into gold and caramel streaks.
And he’d filled out. Where before he’d been lanky, he was now broad and muscular and hard. His shoulders seemed impossibly wide compared to the last time she’d seen him. His faded jeans hung on lean hips and a white buttoned shirt was loose over them, the sleeves rolled back on strong brown forearms.
His hands, holding the beer bottle, drew her eyes. He had beautiful hands. The way he held a camera, cradled the lens, manipulated the focusing ring with long, lean fingers had always been graceful and...well, sexy.
“Never mind that right now,” he answered. “Tell me what happened between you and Carter.” His mouth tightened into a hard line. Her eyes went back to his face and there she saw the most changes. Those intense sapphire eyes that had been eager, hopeful, and trusting were now shadowed and wary. What kinds of terrible things had he seen in the last five years?
Ally hesitated. It didn’t hurt like it once had, but talking about her break-up with Carter wasn’t her favorite topic of conversation. “He cheated on me. More than once. So I kicked his ass out of here. That’s what happened.”
His jaw went slack. Another shadow crossed his eyes. “He cheated on you? Oh, Ally.”
She shrugged. “It was a while ago. I’m over it.” She lifted the beer to her lips and drank, and the sharp bubbles burned her throat.
He looked at her with an odd expression, sympathetic eyes but his mouth twitched...almost like he wanted to smile. “I hope you kicked his ass.”
She choked on a laugh. “At the time it was devastating, and it still kind of stings, but...” she shrugged. “I’m okay.”
“I’m really sorry,” Jack said slowly. “That sucks.”
Yeah. It sucked to have someone you thought loved you - someone you’d been friends with for years, someone you cared about - turn around and skewer you in the back, rendering everything you’d shared meaningless and hollow.
And since that was the second time it had happened to her, her already beat-up psyche had been whacked pretty good. And here Jack sat, sympathetic and...completely clueless.
But he said he’d kept in touch with Carter. How could that be? Why wouldn’t Carter have told her that?
Silence weighed heavy on them as they looked at each other, Ally’s mind full of questions and simmering resentment. They’d been best friends and there had never been awkward silence like this between them. Her chest squeezed.
“How long are you here for?” she finally asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. As long as it takes.”
“Well. That’s pretty cryptic. Are you going to explain anything?” He closed his eyes. “Look. I came here because I have a problem and you and Carter are my two best friends.”
At that, something snapped inside her. She stood up, trembling. “No,” she said from behind clenched teeth. “We are not your two best friends. Best friends don’t disappear without saying a word. Best friends keep in touch. Best friends don’t abandon each other for no good reason.”
His mouth dropped open. “But...”
She held up a hand. “Now you have a problem you think you can just show up here and expect us to help you out. Where were you when I needed you? When my life was ripped apart?” She glared at him.
He blinked rapidly at her attack. “Ally...”
Again she held up a trembling hand. “No.”
Jack stood and stepped toward her. God, he seemed taller. Could that be possible? Maybe it was just because he was broader, darker.
“Ally, stop.” She backed away from him, but he grabbed her hands and held her there. He looked down at her and his eyes, full of pain and sorrow, reached into hers and touched something deep inside her. “I had a reason for leaving.”
She swallowed. “Oh, yeah? What was it?”
His gaze skittered away from hers. “Well, uh...”
She sighed with vexation. “Never mind.”
“I had no idea you were so mad at me.” Bewilderment drew his brows together.
“What the hell did you expect?”
“I thought you’d be happy to see me.” He shook his head. “I had no idea...Carter never said a word. Like I said, we e-mailed back and forth. I was traveling in some pretty remote areas, technology was iffy at times, and I didn’t always have time, but I did keep in touch. He told me you were doing great and you said hi and Merry Christmas and all that crap.” He let go of one hand to rub his face. “I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I.”
With the hand that still held her, he gave a tug and pulled her over to the couch and down, so they sat side by side. She inhaled Jack’s scent, a spicy musk scent warmed by his skin, as unfamiliar as if he were a stranger. She dug her trembling fingers into the upholstery.
“Do you have a new number for Carter?” he asked. “I want to call him.”
“Yes. I have it somewhere.” She paused, then stood and walked over to her purse sitting on a desk and pulled out her cell phone. She thumbed through her contacts and found Carter's new number. Jack called the number from his cell phone but there was no answer.
“Well, damn.” He snapped the phone closed. “Why wouldn’t he have told me he’d moved? I guess he never expected me to show up here.”
Ally took a deep breath, trying to come to grips with what was happening. Holy crap. Jack was back, sitting beside her and he was okay. Whole. In one...big...
She’d worried about him over the years. The day she’d come across his name in a photo credit had jolted her out of her wounded huff and led her to Google, which had revealed Jack’s incredible success. His photographs had been published in national magazines, newspapers, even international publications, winning award after award. But the things he’d had to do get those photos! After that, knowing where he was and what he was doing, she’d been terrified every time she heard in the news about any journalist or photographer injured in Afghanistan or Iraq, desperately searching the newspapers and the Internet for names.
She’d been proud of him, too, although reluctant to admit it because of her anger and hurt. She’d surreptitiously tracked his amazing photographs and career with pride and admiration...even a little envy.
But no way was she going to tell him that, now. The big jerk.
“Tell me about your work,” Jack said, leaning forward. She shifted away from him.
“I’m doing okay.”
Jack gestured to her home. “Looks like it.”
“I didn’t mean financially,” she said dryly. “Carter and I bought this place together. I had to buy him out of his half when he left, meaning I am now deeply in debt. But, whatever.” She paused. “After college, I took that job at LA Life Magazine as a junior editor. I learned a lot, and I started freelancing. I sold a fair bit, enough to make a living at it. Then, last year...” she paused, looked at him uncertainly. Hard to believe he hadn’t heard. “I sold my first book.”
His eyes widened. “You’re kidding.”
“You don’t need to look so shocked.”
“No, no. I’m not shocked. Of course I’m not. You’re a great writer. I’m impressed.”
“Thanks.” Her stomach cramped as she thought about her work in progress. Or rather, not in progress. So not in progress.
“Wow. What’s it about? What kind of book?”
“It’s a novel,” she told him. “Mystery/suspense.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment.”
She smiled. Yeah, it had been an accomplishment for her. She’d never really known that’s what she wanted to do. The book, strangely enough, had come out of the pain of Carter’s betrayal and her imaginings about revenge. Not long after that had happened, she’d started playing around with an idea and the words had spilled out of her. Which she could not say about her second project.
“I can’t believe I didn’t know about it,” Jack said slowly. “Carter never told me.”
“Well, it was after we broke up.”
He nodded, his face thoughtful. “But still...” He shook his head. “Congratulations. That is really fantastic.”
“Thank you.” Now was the time to congratulate him, too, on all his accomplishments - but she couldn’t bring herself to admit how she’d secretly tracked his career.
“I’d love to read it. I don’t suppose you have a copy?”
The thought of Jack reading her book made her feel like she was about to jump out of an airplane. “Uh...sure. I’ll see if I can find one.”
“That would be awesome.”
Silence expanded around them. Jack looked at his watch. “I guess I should go.”
“Where are you staying?”
He shrugged. “I thought I might impose on you and Carter, but of course I didn’t realize...the situation. I’ll track Carter down.”
Jack shrugged, gave her a crooked smile. “It doesn't matter. I’ve slept in some hellish places. If I have to find a hotel room it won’t be the end of the world.”
“Are you just going to leave without even telling me why you’re here?”
Jack looked away and shoved a hand into his hair. He blew out a long exhalation. “Hell. No.”
She waited, curiosity and anxiety zinging through her.