Jack brushed a kiss over her mouth, a chaste, friendly kiss that did nothing to satisfy the sharp, aching need inside her. In fact, it only served to ignite the low burning heat low in her belly into a red-hot blaze. He pulled back and she almost fell against him as he moved away.
“Good night, Ally.”
She stared at him, her body aching for him, unable to think clearly. Her nipples tingled and hardened beneath the tank top she wore. She pushed down the frustration and arousal and tried to get her wits together.
“Yeah. Um, good night.” Heat slid through her at how close she’d gotten to doing something really embarrassing. She pressed past him and, trying not to flee with shame, flashed her teeth at him in a forced smile, then turned her back and climbed the stairs, one step at a time, fighting the urge to run.
Once in her room, she let emotion take over and sank onto her bed, trembling. She covered her face with her hands. What on earth had she been thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking. She’d been feeling, with every nerve ending in her body, feeling more than she’d ever felt in her life.
Since Carter’s betrayal, she’d been a lifeless mannequin. She’d had no interest in dating, a huge cold emptiness inside her. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong that had led Carter to cheat on her with another woman, and had wondered if she would ever meet someone that would make her feel alive, someone she would satisfy.
But not Jack. He was a friend. He was not someone to satisfy her sexual yearnings with. God.
* * *
They could try to pretend the moment had never happened, but it was there, making things awkward and edgy. Ally’d appeared in kitchen while he was eating his cereal in the morning, dressed in a swirl-around-the-knees flowered skirt and a camisole top that showed off smooth shoulders and arms.
She’d flashed a too-bright smile and headed for the coffee pot, and he’d responded with a similar smile. Now they sat at the counter on stools, eating, drinking coffee, Jack looking at Ally’s morning newspaper, the silence dense and heavy.
Jack finished reading the paper and folded it up.
Ally glanced at her watch. “I’ll call Carter at his office,” she offered, reaching for the phone on the counter.
He listened to her talk to Carter’s secretary.
“Oh, he is,” she said, eyes meeting his. “When’s he due back? Wednesday. You expect him in the office Wednesday morning?” She paused, listening. “Oh. Okay then. Thanks, Bridget.”
She pressed the button to turn the phone off and set it down on the counter. “He’s in San Diego.”
“I should have asked her for his cell phone number.” Jack shook his head. “Nah. Never mind. I’ll still be here Wednesday, I’ll call him then.”
“Okay.” She eyed him cautiously. She picked up a piece of toast, then set it down on her plate again. “I have to work today.”
“God, that’s fine Ally. I don’t want to get in your way of that. I’ll find something to do.”
“And tonight I’m going out.”
“Oh.” His body tensed. Was she going on a date?
“I’m going to a fashion show.”
A fashion show?
Ally got up and walked over to a closet. “Here’s an extra key, so you can come and go as you need.”
“Thanks.” Jack pocketed the key slowly.
She hesitated at the door of the kitchen, coffee mug in hand. “You can come with me tonight, if you want,” she offered tentatively. “It’s a different kind of fashion show.”
“It’s a charity event to raise money for Freedom House.”
He raised a brow.
“Freedom House is a shelter, part of a big international charitable organization. They help women with drug addictions get clean and get their lives back.”
He nodded, noticed the flare in her eyes as she talked.
“The fashion show raises money, of course, but the models are all women who’ve been through the program. It helps boost their self esteem and also gives them some recognition for what they’ve accomplished.”
Jack had once visited a photographer buddy in Milan who shot fashion. He envisioned stick-thin models strutting the runways in outrageous couture clothing and shook his head. “Sure I’ll come,” he said, somewhat doubtfully.
Rather than hang around Ally’s house again all day - especially if she was there – he made his way to the beach. A few people wandered there and Jack strolled along, two cameras hanging around his neck.
That brush of a kiss last night had been a huge mistake. It had been so hard to resist taking more, her multi-colored eyes all big and sparkling, her lush mouth just begging to be kissed. It had almost seemed as if she wanted it as much as he did. How could that be? Could it be?
The Pacific Ocean sparkled in the eye-stabbing sunshine, the morning warmth hinting of heat to come later, the fresh breeze carrying the salty tang of the sea. This was so far away from what he’d left in Iraq it was almost surreal.
There was a certain relief in being away from the pain and tragedy that haunted daily life there. Maybe he hadn’t realized how much it had been affecting him until he was removed from it. It weighed on a person, made every day, every simple daily act, an effort, fear and a low-level anxiety always present, coloring and shadowing everything.
He took a deep breath of fresh sea air, letting the ocean breeze stroke through his shaggy hair.
And yet, despite its beauty, its picture-perfection, its blatant wealth and shininess, LA wasn’t perfect either. As he passed a building housing washrooms and showers for beachgoers, he spotted a scruffy-looking man dressed in threadbare clothes. He’d apparently just used the facilities to shower, and carried what looked like all his worldly possessions in a plastic shopping bag. He stopped at the overflowing trash can to peer in and dig though it.
Jack lifted his camera and framed the man, his thin face concentrated on his important task, rotated the focusing ring until the image was sharp, and clicked. His long lens let him take the shot without the man realizing and he rapidly fired off a few more shots. As Jack continued his walk, he encountered other homeless people who’d found shelter near the beach for the night. Their lives were probably filled with fear and anxiety, a struggle for them that was different than life in Iraq but no less difficult.
Not for the first time, a feeling of gratitude swept over Jack, a realization of how incredibly lucky he was.
Extreme Close Up Chapter 12