Posts tagged free read
Extreme Close Up Chapter 32

All the way to the thirty-five story glass tower that housed Carter’s law firm, Ally hoped and prayed he was there, because she didn’t want to call ahead and let him know they were coming. She also hoped and prayed she could do this. Confronting Carter had never been easy for her.
She’d dressed carefully in a slim-fitting, knee length dress, the gold color flattering with her auburn hair. High heeled pumps of a similar color made her taller and upped her confidence. She needed every bit of it to pull this off.
She eyed Jack as he drove. He wore his dark glasses, his thick sun-bleached hair shaggy and sexy, face and arms bronzed. Unlike her, he hadn’t dressed up, wearing baggy green cargo pants and a black t-shirt that emphasized his broad shoulders and muscular chest. He looked insanely sexy. She swallowed a sigh of pleasure.
She twisted the strap of her purse between her fingers while Jack found a lucky parking spot on a side street. They walked into the lobby of the building, all gleaming granite, stainless steel and glass. Ally marched right over to the elevator and punched the ‘up’ button, and when they stepped in, she stabbed the button for the thirtieth floor.
“You know where you’re going,” he murmured.
“Yes.” She nibbled her bottom lip, then composed herself to look cool and confident.
Stepping off the elevator, they faced an elegant reception desk of dark wood, the name of the law firm Chipman, Barratt displayed in shiny brass letters. Ally greeted the receptionist. “Hi, Stephanie.”
“Ally!” Stephanie’s eyes widened, then a small crease formed between her brows. Her eyes moved to Jack and recognition lit them. “Hi! Are you here to see Carter?”
“Yes, we are. We have some business. Can we just go on back?” Ally started toward the door to the left of the reception desk without waiting for Stephanie’s somewhat uncertain agreement.
Jack followed behind Ally as she pulled open the door and stepped into the long hallway. She started down the hall, her heels sinking slightly into the plush carpet. She remembered exactly where Carter’s office was.
As they passed by an open door, a man stepped out into the hall, almost bumping into Ally. She stopped. The tall, slightly balding man looked at her face and a broad smile crossed his.
It was Glenn Chipman, one of the senior partners of the law firm and Carter’s boss. This couldn’t be better.
“Hi Glenn.” She extended a hand to him. He took it and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you.” He studied her. “I haven’t seen you for so long. In fact, not since you and Carter split up. I was so sorry about that.”
She smiled and lifted her shoulders. “Yes, well. I’m fine. How is Jillian? And your new baby?”
His eyes lit up at mention of his wife and child. “They’re doing great. You knew about the baby? He’s nine months old now.”
She nodded, smiling warmly. “Yes, I heard. Congratulations. You must be so proud.”
“I am. The little guy is just amazing. And Jillian is well, too. She’s enjoying being a new mother.”
Ally’s smile felt stretched tight. “That’s great.”
“And you...your book is doing well, I hear.”
“Yes. It is.”
“Congratulations to you, too.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely, tipping her head. “Well, I’m so glad I ran into you. We’re just here to see Carter on a little business. Glenn, this is my friend Jack Templeton. Jack, Glenn Chipman.”
The two men shook hands and Ally and Jack continued down the hall. She found Carter’s office exactly where she remembered and luck was with them. The door stood open and Carter sat behind his desk, tapping away on the computer keyboard.
She knocked on the open door and stepped in as Carter looked up. His eyes widened, then narrowed, a small crease between his eyebrows.
“Ally!” he exclaimed. “And Jack. What are you doing here?”
Ally smiled and walked across the office. “That’s not much of a greeting.”
Carter’s frown deepened. He didn’t look happy to see them, but that was okay. He was going to be even less happy in a few minutes.
“We wanted to talk to you,” Ally said.
“Oookay.” Carter waved a hand to the chairs in front of his desk and she and Jack sat down.
She took a deep breath. “We came to talk to you about Sarah.”
Carter’s eyes flickered. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Sure there is.” She pasted on a smile. “Jack and I both think you need to do the right thing. You need to acknowledge she’s your daughter. And you need to meet with the oncology clinic and find out if you’re a good donor for her.”
Carter just stared back at Ally blankly. “I’m not going to acknowledge I’m her father,” he replied slowly. “I already said that. No way in hell. She’s not getting a penny out of me and she never will.”
“Carter, you know that’s not what this is about. This is about saving that little girl’s life. You may be the only one who can.”
He shook his head. “I said no, Ally. And if that’s what you came to say, you can go now.”
“No.” Now she shook her head, glanced at Jack. He gave her an encouragingly smile, although he looked both disgusted and expectant.
She looked back at Carter. “Brittany is going to get a lawyer.”
He shrugged. “Let her. She’ll need a damn good lawyer to fight me. Technically, she doesn’t have a chance.”
Ally lost patience. “Yes. You said that before. And you may be right. I’m not a lawyer, what do I know? But you know, I’m sick of hearing ‘technically’ this and ‘technically’ that from you. It annoyed me when you defended clients who were clearly guilty, getting them off on technicalities just because you could.”
“That’s what a good lawyer does.”
“Maybe so, but I hate it. Technically, you may not owe Brittany or Sarah anything, but Christ, Carter, what kind of monster are you?”
Ally studied the man she’d once thought she loved. He was a monster. A cold, callous monster. She almost shuddered at the thought that she’d been with him, cared about him. She swallowed, forcing herself to remain calm and controlled.
“It’s not that bad, Carter,” Jack put in. “I found out all about the donor thing. If you end up donating, you probably don’t even have to stay in the hospital overnight. You have a sore back for a few days, have to go back for a few follow up appointments. The risks are very small.”
“I don’t care about that.”
Silence expanded in the room, thick and pulsing.
Then Ally asked softly, “What if Glenn found out about all this?”
She sensed Jack’s head swivel and his gaze on her. She just kept staring steadily at Carter. “I just ran into him in the hall,” she continued. “We had a nice chat.”
The corners of Carter’s mouth tightened, then relaxed. “You wouldn’t tell him,” he said. “And even if you’s not that big a deal. The law is on my side here.”
“The law may be, but how about just plain ethics? How about your reputation? Don’t you care about that?”
He considered that, and she hated him for his coldness. “I don’t really think a hysterical woman who kept a child a secret for nine years is going to make people hate me,” he replied. “Besides, there is some doubt about the paternity of the child.” He glanced meaningfully at Jack. “You did have a relationship with her too.”
“It’s already been proven I’m not the father,” Jack reminded Carter quietly.
“But who knows how many other guys she slept with? After all, if she screwed around on you once, she could have screwed around on you more.”
The muscles in Jack’s jaw tightened.
“We all know you’re the father, Carter,” Ally said. “Are you going to get tested, or not?”
“Not.” He leaned back in his chair. “Look, I’m getting bored with this. And I do have to go to a meeting. You can tell Glenn about it if you want, but I don’t think I’m going to lose my job or my reputation over this.”
Ally paused for three slow heartbeats. Then she said, “How about if I tell Glenn you slept with his wife?”

Extreme Close Up Chapter 33
Extreme Close Up Chapter 31

“Oh, God, Ally.” Jack wrapped his arms around her, pulled her down onto his lap, buried his face against her breast. “Yes. You are. I love you so much.”
Time slowed while they sat like that, their hearts beating together in a hard, steady rhythm. Finally Ally took a big breath and drew back. He smoothed a strand of hair off her face, touched her cheek.
“I can’t leave you,” he said, now sure of that. He’d been struggling with the whole idea of leaving, pulled between his job and his love for his career, and his love for Ally. “I can’t be without you again. I was kidding myself that I could do it. I know that now.”
Her eyes widened more, her mouth open. She blinked, smiled tremulously. “You’re going to give up your job? Stay here?”
“If I have to do that, I will. I have to be with you.”
He met her gaze steadily.
“But can’t do that,” she whispered. “I know you love your job, Jack. And you’re so’ve won awards. What you’re doing is important. I can’t ask you to give that up.”
“You’re not asking me, I’m offering.” He frowned. “It is important to me, but I’ve come to see there are stories to tell here, too. I can stay here.”
She just gazed at him. Then she shook her head. “No. You can’t.”
He frowned. “Ally...”
“I’d already decided. I’m coming with you,” she said determinedly. “I can do my work anywhere. I can write anywhere. And you know what?” She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’ve realized from hearing you talk that I want to tell those stories too. I want to see the world, not just the nice beautiful places. Although I do want to see those too...maybe sometime we could go to Paris?”
He smiled.
“I’ve never been outside the States, other than a couple of trips to Mazatlan and Cancun. And that doesn’t even count. I want to see more...I need to see more. We can do it together.”
“Ally...” he shook his head. “I don’t know if you realize what you’d be getting into. Sometimes I’m sleeping in tents on the ground, in fleabag hotels. It’s not pretty.”
She nodded. “I know. I’ve seen your pictures, read your stuff. I know what I’m getting into. The thing is...” She looked down briefly, then back up. “I can’t be without you either.”
They sat there, staring into each others eyes. “There’s danger, too,” he muttered. “I don’t want to put you in danger Ally. I can’t do that.”
“You’ve put yourself in that danger all these years,” she said. “How do you think I felt?”
“It’s not the same.”
“It is the same. I may not have realized I was in love with you, but I was, and sometimes I was sick with worry.”
“Then you know how I’d feel with you in that kind of situation.”
“But we’d be together,” she insisted. Her fingers tightened on his.
“How about a compromise?” He looked down at their joined hands. “How about we have a home here in LA and we travel...a little, a lot, whatever we want...wherever we want to go. Paris, the Middle East, wherever the stories take us.”
He looked back up at her. She gave him a luminous smile, her eyes shiny.
“Yes,” she said. “That sounds like a good compromise. As long as we’re together.”
“There’s just one other problem,” Jack said slowly. “What is it?”
“Sarah.” Jack rubbed his forehead. “I thought if Carter and I stayed friends, I’d have a hope of convincing him to donate. Or at least get tested. But I kind of blew that.” He told her about his visit to Carter’s office.
She covered her mouth with her fingers, hiding the smile that tried to break through. It wasn’t funny. Really.
“So...we’ll figure out another way,” she promised him. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Their eyes met and held, the air around them charged with electricity. He nodded. And without another word, he pulled Ally up off the couch and led the way to her bedroom.
In the hall at the top of the stairs he turned, scooped her up into his arms and carried her into the room, then set her down gently on the rug, reached for the lamp beside the bed and flicked it on. Watching her intently, he reached behind his head and pulled off his t-shirt.

* * *

Ally’s mouth grew dry at the sight of his bare chest and she drew the straps of the slip dress she wore down her arms until the bodice fell to her waist. Then she pushed the dress over her hips and off. Slowly, her eyes held captive by his, she unfastened her bra and dropped it onto the nearby chair. At the same time, he stepped out of his jeans. Jack’s underwear went with his jeans, but Ally kept hers on until Jack gestured to them, his eyes warm and admiring, and she shimmied out of the little thong panties.
Then he opened his arms and she was in them, her body crushed to the length of his, skin to s kin, and his mouth covering hers. She wound her arms around his neck and pressed into him. His erection hot and hard between them, his mouth possessed hers, demanding everything. His hands slid down her back and held her hips.
“This feels like the first time we’ve done this,” he whispered against her cheek, nudging her hair aside.
“I know.” She tipped her head to give him access, delicious chills running over her at his touch, his words. “It feels right. Easy.”
They kissed again, then moved together to the bed.
Jack’s hands moved over her everywhere, gentle but hard, his touch thrilling her, making her wet, making her ache for him, and she sought his mouth over and over again, kissing him deeply as if trying to draw his soul from his body and meld it with hers.
Emotion rose in her, almost choking her, and she buried her face in Jack’s neck for a moment.
“Ally,” he murmured. “Ally, look at me.”
He gave her hair a little tug and she lifted her head to meet his eyes in the glow of the lamp. “It’s too much,” she cried softly. “I can’t bear it.”
“Yes, you can. You can. I know, I feel it too. We’re together. It’ll be okay.” He kissed her again, and her tears wet their mouths.
“I love you, Jack.”
“I love you, too, Ally,” he whispered. His thumbs stroked over her bottom lip. “I’ve always loved you.”
Something expanded in her chest, made it difficult to breathe.

He touched a finger to a tear in the corner of her eye then laid his mouth gently to hers. “It’s the truth. I love you. I loved you five years ago when I left. I would have fought for you, but Carter was my best friend. My second best friend,” he amended with a small smile. “He was the one guy I would never fight with over a woman. Even you.” His smile was pained. “I thought if you wanted him, if that’s what would make both of you happy, then I could never stand in your way. So I got the hell out of the way. But, I told you before, there was no fucking way I could stay around and watch you two together.”
“I’m sorry, Jack,” she whispered, another tear escaping her eye. “I never wanted to hurt you.”
“I know.” He wiped the tear away. “I know, Ally.”
“I want to tell you about what happened with Carter and me.”
His brows lowered. “I don’t know...”
“It’s okay,” she said softly. “The day you were taking my grad pictures I felt really strange. Like I was missing something, wanted something really bad, but I didn’t know what. I knew I was feeling anxious about you and your new job because you’d be traveling so much. Then you were acting funny, too. I didn’t know what it meant.” She paused and he nodded encouragingly. “So Carter took me out for pizza and we went back to my room. We were talking about stuff and he kissed me.”

Jack’s eyes closed briefly.
“It was nice. I felt weird and it was comforting. Then you came and saw us. I felt bad because I didn’t know what you’d think. Carter said we’d explain later. But I never saw you again. You left the next day.”
He nodded.
Ally’s eyes were wet. “After that, I guess I turned to Carter because you weren’t there. Carter was telling me he cared about me, and without you around, I just went along with it. I cared about Carter, and I suppose it did grow into something more. But then, like I told you, he started changing.”
“Or maybe you were just seeing the real him,” Jack said with an edge of bitterness.
“Maybe.” She touched his face. “But I have to think he did have some good qualities, or else we never would have become such good friends with him. Both of us couldn’t have been that stupid.”
His lips quirked. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“Anyway, he started changing, or I started seeing the real him, and I didn’t really like a lot of what I saw. That didn’t happen overnight, it took a long time. By the time he cheated on me for the second time, I’d had enough.”
She met his eyes. “I think I’ve always loved you too,” she whispered. “I just never knew it. I was stupid.”
“We were young.” He cupped her jaw and kissed her gently, his mouth warm and firm on hers. She kissed him back, wanting to absorb all the hurt she’d caused him, and all the crap he’d just been through.
“Oh, Jack,” she whispered against his lips, suddenly so overcome with longing her eyes filled with tears. Her emotions were close to the surface and raw after everything that had happened. It was all too much.
“It’s okay, Ally.” He dropped soft kisses all over her face, her eyelids, her nose, her forehead. He kissed away a tear that dropped from her lashes. “It’s all okay. I love you.”
He was so beautiful. She touched his face, brushed his mouth with her fingertips, traced a thick, dark gold eyebrow. “I love you, too, Jack.”
She knew now what it meant to be soul mates. When somebody you loved, loved you with the same level of intensity, when the connection between you went deep and far, when somebody knew how you felt and what you thought without words...that was a soul mate.
“I have an idea. Tomorrow we’re going to see Carter.”
Extreme Close Up Chapter 30
Ally sat in front of her computer, waiting for Jack to get back from Carter’s place. One more glance at the clock told her it was taking way longer than it should have for him to pack his things, make his flight reservations and come back.
He’d said he’d come back. He’d better come back. Even if just to say goodbye. Unless Carter had somehow said something...
Jack’s loyalty to his friends was one of his most endearing traits, but now he had to see Carter was pond scum. It was sad...because they had been such good friends. They’d shared so much, and even though Carter must have had some doubts back when Brittany’d been pregnant, he had supported Jack through all that. It was such a shame.
Her insides still a writhing mass of nerves at the thought of Jack leaving, she tried to focus on her work. But it wasn’t happening.
Her life was a joke. She was stuck on her book, her fluffy magazine pieces disgusted her. She wanted to do something real.
She was not going to let it happen again. Jack had left her once before. She’d been so lost, she’d turned to Carter, pretty much her biggest mistake ever.
So if Jack was leaving, she was going with him.
It was crazy, but not so crazy. It made sense. What would she be leaving here? Nothing at all. She had a few close friends she could keep in touch with; otherwise her life was empty. She could write anywhere, and maybe she’d actually find something inspiring to write about.
Her heart leaped in her chest and adrenaline slid through her veins, making her restless, stomach tight, impatient to see Jack and tell him.
Agitated, suddenly anxious and impatient, Ally gazed around her office. She could pack right now. She could be on that plane with him, when he left. Where was her suitcase? She jumped out of her chair.
Then she stopped. Reality stuck a pin in her bubble of excitement.
She couldn’t just leave her condo. She’d have to make some kind of arrangements...she sank back down. What would she do? Sell the place? Ask her friends to keep an eye on it? How would she pay the bills? Suddenly the enormity of what she was about to do overwhelmed her.
Okay. Okay. It was do-able. Just maybe not immediately. But she’d talk to Jack. Maybe he’d wait for her. If not, she’d follow him. She put her hand over her mouth. Yeah.
Then the sound of her door opening had her head whipping round.
Jack stood there in the foyer, his hair mussed, his t-shirt untucked over the most faded, shabbiest jeans she’d ever seen.
She noticed his bags sitting on the tile floor behind him. All packed and ready to go. Her heart lodged painfully in her throat.
“You’re back,” she said softly.
He grinned.
She frowned. “Why are you looking so happy, goddammit?” she snapped at him.
“I don’t know.” And he laughed.

She drew in a shaky breath.
“I’m scared as hell and pissed off and...I don’t know why I’m so happy," he said.
His grin annoyed her. She scowled. “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m coming with you.”
His jaw dropped. “What?”
She plowed on. “I’m coming with you to Iraq. You left me once, and I’m not letting you do it again. So, the only problem is...” she hesitated, bit her lip. “I can’t be ready to go, in like...when does your flight leave?”
“It doesn’t.” Amusement sparkled in his blue eyes.
Her jaw dropped. “What?”
“I cancelled it.”
“You...cancelled it. Why?”
“I’m not leaving.”
She blinked, shook her head. “Like...for how long?”
Once again, her eyes widened to an eyeball-popping width.
“I...I don’t...” She looked around for something to sit on, afraid her legs were going to give out. She stumbled into her living room and collapsed onto the couch. “I don’t understand.”
“I want you to see something.” Jack followed her with the case holding his laptop, opened it and booted up the computer. He slid a flash drive into the port and in a moment, Ally’s face was on the screen.
“Whoa,” Ally breathed. “When did you take that?” She put her fingers to her mouth. The photograph was utterly sensual, portraying a woman’s raw sexual yearning, a photographer’s adoration.
Jack told her how he he’d been feeling that night he’d taken their graduation photos, seeing something in her, not sure what it was, but wanting to find out. Carter interrupting them. Carter and him, looking at the photographs of Ally, seeing the tender, hungry longing in her eyes, her sexuality that had always been there but which was brought out by the obvious worship the photographer had for his subject.
“It’s...beautiful, Jack,” she said slowly. “I don’t usually like pictures of myself, but that’s amazing.”
“Yeah. Fucking amazing.”
Startled at the bitterness in his voice, she turned her gaze to him.
“He knew,” he ground out. “The son of a bitch knew how I felt. He could see it.”
“Are you talking about Carter?”
“Yes, goddammit.” He slammed a hand down on Carter’s coffee table. “He knew. And he went after you deliberately.”
“What...what are you saying?”
“Carter came to you right after that, didn’t he?”
“Um...God, I can’t remember.” She closed her eyes, thinking back. “Yeah. It was right after that. We went out for pizza.” Silent, she cast her mind back in time. “It was different. He was paying so much attention to me. When I said something about you, he said you probably had plans with some girl you were seeing, which was news to me.”
Jack growled again. “I wasn’t seeing anyone then.”
Ally nodded, met Jack’s eyes. “Then we went back to my room and that’s when...he kissed me. And then you came in.”
“He knew I was coming over to bring the prints. Fuck!”
“Are you saying that he only did that because he thought you and I...what are you saying?”
“We were looking at the photos on the computer and we were both blown away by them. He realized I was nuts about you. So he deliberately went and put the moves on you, just to keep me from having you. And God help me, it worked. I ran like a fucking wounded dog, tail between my legs, because I wouldn’t fight him for you. I was so fucking loyal to him. What an idiot.”
“You are not an idiot,” she said, putting her hands on his chest, staring into his eyes. “Carter was a good friend to both of us. We thought. Your loyalty is what makes you I love that about you.”
Whoops. That kind of slipped out.
He grimaced, thrust a hand through his hair, not even picking up on her words. “He’d slept with my girlfriend in high school, which I didn’t know about. He let me take the heat for getting her pregnant when it was him, pretending all the while to stand by me like a great friend.” His voice was bitter. “But that wasn’t the worst, because, even though I cared about Brittany, she wasn’t...the one.”
Ally stared at him, heart thudding in slow painful beats.
“The one girl who was the love of my life...he fucking stole her away from me, deliberately. And then he kept us apart for five years.”
“Oh, Jack,” she whispered. “Do you really believe that?”
“I know it,” he said harshly. He met her eyes, held them. “I know he did, Ally. It all makes sense now. All of it.”
She swallowed. Then she whispered, “Am I the love of your life, Jack?”

Extreme Close Up Chapter 31
Extreme Close Up Chapter 29

On his way back to Carter’s to pack his things and make flight arrangements, Jack used his cell phone to call Brittany.
“Are you okay?” he asked her immediately.
“I’m okay.”
“What are you going to do about Carter?”
“I have no idea.” She sighed. “I think I might need to get a lawyer. I want to know if there’s any way I can force him to get tested.”
“You’ll need a good lawyer to fight Carter,” Jack said. “He’s smart as hell and from what Ally says, he can be kind of unscrupulous.”
“No kidding.” Bitterness sharpened her voice.
“Listen, we can try again to convince him. I don’t know if we’ll have any luck, but we can try.”
She was silent. “You don’t have to do that,” she answered. “But if you could... She’s my baby, Jack.” Her voice hitched. “You and Ally have been great about all this. I want to apologize again, Jack.”
“It’s okay. I don’t know what it’s like to have a child, I guess, but I was getting close to understanding. I get that you’d do whatever you have to, to save her.”
“Yeah. And Jack, you need to call the clinic. They need to give you all the test results.”
“Okay. I have the number. Hey, okay if I come by later? Sarah and I are almost finished the tree house. And I need to clean up your yard.”
Silence. He waited, heard a sniffle. “Yes,” she whispered. “That’s fine.”
After he flipped his cell phone closed, he called the clinic and spoke to the oncology nurse. She confirmed Brittany’s message and gave him all the results of the physical he’d had. Good to know he was healthy, anyway.
When he got to Carter’s place, Carter was of course at work. Jack plugged in his laptop and booted up, checking e-mail from work. He sent off a quick message to his boss to let him know things had changed and he’d be ready to head back sooner than anticipated.
Then he paused. The thought of leaving Ally made him feel empty inside. Hell.
This was not good. He had a job, a career that was important to him. He should be desperate to get back to the action. But, strangely, he wasn’t. The image of Ally as he’d left her that morning came to mind, warm and rumpled and sexy. All he wanted right now was to be back there with her. He couldn’t help but smile even as he was just a tad worried about how he was feeling and the conversation he was going to have with Carter.
Jack had the rest of the day to kill before Carter came home and he took one more shot at convincing him to get tested to see if he could donate for Sarah. He packed a few things, and when he came across some DVDs he slid them into his laptop and started looking at images to pass some time - images of Baghdad, Falluja, the night that Mohim’s wife and child had died.
He changed to another DVD and Ally’s face appeared full screen - the college graduation pictures he’d taken. Whoa. He hadn’t seen those for a while. Christ, she was beautiful.
His chest ached.
He’d left the day after that. The only other person who’d seen these photos was Carter, that night when Jack was downloading them from his camera to his computer.
Jack remembered looking at the images of Ally with Carter at his side and how dumbfounded they both had been. He clicked to another image. A photograph of Ally came up, an extreme close up where she’d been shrugging out of the graduation gown. Because she’d been wearing a tank top, it almost looked like she wore nothing under the gown, one shoulder bare, her eyes full of naked longing as she gazed at the camera. At him.
Jack remembered Carter asking him why he’d taken so many pictures of Ally. He remembered the two of them standing side by side, looking at that one image and Jack had muttered something abut how gorgeous she was.
Two hours later he’d walked in on her and Carter kissing.
Everything sharpened into focus, clear and pure.
“Son of a bitch,” Jack growled. He stared at the screen, horrified suspicion seeping through his body.

* * *

Jack somehow found Carter’s office in an impressive high-rise office tower in downtown LA. Every sense was hyperaware – the smog and the exhaust fumes stung his nostrils, the roar of traffic assaulted his ears. The air of the office building chilled him as he walked into the lobby and his sneakers squeaked slightly on the marble floor as he strode to the elevators. He jabbed the up button, turned away from his reflection in the stainless steel doors.
Carter appeared surprised to see him but showed him into his office. “What’s up buddy?” He took a seat behind his desk, while Jack carefully closed the office door behind him. Then he walked towards Carter’s desk, went around behind it.
“Stand up,” he ordered, his voice low and tight. Carter gaped at him. “Stand up,” he said louder, rougher. Slowly Carter raised himself out of his black leather office chair. He had barely straightened when Jack drove his fist into Carter’s gut.
With a gasp, Carter doubled over, clutched his abdomen.
“You fucking asshole,” Jack growled. “I was pissed off enough after what I found out about you and Brittany. But even that wasn’t as bad as what you did to me and Ally.”
“What are you talking about?” Carter wheezed, looking genuinely confused as he struggled for composure. He stepped away from Jack’s clenched fists, gasped again for air.
“You knew I was into Ally,” Jack bit out. “That night before I left, when I did those pictures. You knew. And you deliberately went and seduced her, just so I couldn’t have her. Then you lied to her about my e-mails, told her you never heard from me, just to keep us apart. You are a fucking bastard and I want to kick your ass so bad...”
He took a deep breath. “Just tell me why,” he ground out through gritted teeth.
Carter lowered himself into his chair, blinking rapidly. He ran a hand through his hair, rubbed his stomach. “Uh. I have a meeting in a few minutes,” he said. “This isn’t really a good time.”
“Just tell me why you did that,” Jack said again. “I want to understand.”
Carter’s eyes narrowed. “Okay,” he said, his voice flat. “You two always had some special bond. You were friends before I ever came along, and even though we were supposedly the ‘awesome threesome’, I never felt like I was really one of you. You two spoke your own language; hell, sometimes you didn’t even have to say anything and you understood each other.” He gave a bitter laugh.
Jack stared at him. “You never said anything back then.”
“Yeah, right. What would I say? I’d sound like a whining little kid. And frankly, when I moved to Garden City I was just happy to have friends. I went along, glad to be included in your little circle. Even though I don’t think I ever really was included.”
“Yes, you were,” Jack said slowly. “Of course you were. We were all friends.” He moved away from Carter’s desk.
“Not like you and Ally were. Then, in college it was clear you were falling in love with her. That pissed me off. I figured, why should you have her? You had all the talent, you were going to be the famous hotshot photographer. She even loaned you money to go to New York so you could ace one of your courses.”
She had. When airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center, Jack had been so desperate to be there, to capture what was happening, Ally’d offered him money so he could fly there. His photos had earned him an A+ on that course.
“Well, I cared about her, too,” Carter continued. “So I just made my move first.” He shrugged.
“No.” Jack’s hands, still clenched into fists, ached, and he opened his fingers. “You didn’t just make the first move. You wouldn’t have made any move if it wasn’t for the fact that you figured out I cared about her. You did that on purpose to kick me in the teeth.”
Carter kept his face expressionless. “You can think what you want. It’s all moot. You left and gave Ally up.”
“I gave her up once. Hell, almost twice.” He shook his head grimly. “I’m not giving her up again. And if you have a problem with can go fuck yourself.”
“I should have known you were screwing her.” Carter’s mouth twisted. “When you didn’t come home the other night…”
Jack’s stomach rolled. “So do you admit you deliberately kept all my e-mails from her?” he asked slowly. “You really did want to keep us apart, didn’t you?”
Carter shrugged. “You took off. It just seemed cleaner if she thought you disappeared.”
“You bastard.” Jack stared at the man he thought he knew. He didn’t know him at all. He turned and walked out of Carter’s office.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 30
Extreme Close Up Chapter 28

“Jack! The booze must be making you violent.”
“Nah. I had that idea before we started drinking.”
She snorted with laughter. “Are you that mad at him for sleeping with your girlfriend?”
He paused. “No. Actually, I don’t even give a shit about that. I’m more pissed off that he won’t help Sarah.”
“Oh, Jack.” Her heart softened and she dragged in a shaky breath.
“I like your living room, Ally,” he said with an abrupt change of subject. “Did I tell you that?”
“, I don’t think so.”
“As soon as I walked in the door, I felt at home here,” he said. “Which is weird considering this is where you and Carter lived together.” He frowned.
“Well, this is all my furniture and stuff,” she explained. “So I guess it feels more like my place than Carter’s.”
“Yeah. It does feel like your place. It’s very you.” He waved a hand. “And I like it. And I like you.”
She giggled. “I like you too, Jack.”
He looked at her, lifted a brow. “You wanna have sex again tonight?”
Ally couldn’t help but laugh. “Apparently I always want to have sex with you. The question is, do you? You’re the one who’s been holding back.”
“Yeah. I have been. But suddenly all the reasons for us to not get together don’t seem so important.” He growled and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him for a hug. “Only problem might have had a bit too much to drink.”
Ally relaxed against him, loving his embrace. “S’okay,” she mumbled. “Me too. But you can still stay here tonight. You can’t drive back to Carter’s like this.”
He shook his head. “No,” he said solemnly. “Can I sleep in your bed, though?”
She giggled. “Sure. Where should I sleep?”
He gave her a nudge. “Witch. With me, of course.”
She laughed again. “But you’re too tanked to tango.”
He groaned. “Damn it.” He kissed her hair. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.”
She leaned back to look at him. They were both a bit lit but she could see the heat in his eyes despite their glassiness. She smiled slowly at him. “Promise?”
“Hell, yeah.” He paused. “Thanks Ally.”
“Thanks for what?”
“For being there for me. Again.” He raised his glass to her in a toast. “You’re the only one in the world I can always count on.”
She smiled at him, feeling very warm and fuzzy. “And I know I can always count on you.”
They gazed at each other through a slight alcoholic haze and she suddenly realized how true those words were. Carter had let her down. She had new friends – Katelyn, Kim, others she had worked with - and she supposed she could count on them in a time of need, although that had never been tested. But without a shadow of doubt, she knew that whatever happened to her, Jack would be there.
Something squeezed her heart and her breath caught in her throat. She gulped down a burning mouthful of Jose Cuervo. Oh, God. This attraction she had for Jack was feeling strangely
She stared at him, her mind whirling with a million thoughts. She could not fall in love with Jack. Again.
She swallowed more tequila. What did that mean? She blinked at Jack, trying to process her confused thoughts. Had she been falling in love with Jack before he left? Was that why she’d had all those strange yearning feelings, why she’d been so restless and anxious about school ending?
They went upstairs and curled up naked together in Ally’s bed and slept, or perhaps passed out was a better description after all the tequila, and woke up late. Ally had forgotten to set her alarm and when she saw it was ten-fifteen, she had to think for a moment to know what day it was. Wednesday. Then she had to think a little longer to try to remember if there was any good reason she had to get up. Yeah, she had work to do, but she didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything.
She snuggled deeper into Jack’s arms, and felt them tighten around her. “You awake?” she whispered.
“Don’t yell like that,” he answered with a moan. She gave a little snort of laughter.
“Do you need some Advil?”
“What I need is to find the asshole who’s shooting off that AK47 in my brain and kill him.”
Amused, she turned in his arms to face him.
“Don’t even think of kissing me,” he said, burying his face into the pillow. “Not until I’ve brushed my teeth.”
Mmm. Ally ran her tongue over her own teeth. Probably a good idea.
“I’ll go use the bathroom first, then I’ll get you some Advil and coffee,” she offered. “And toast.”
“No toast.”
“Whatever.” She’d bring him toast and make him eat it.
Strangely, although she’d been a bit looped last night, she felt fine. She slid out of bed and walked naked to the bathroom.
She paused, both hands on the edge of the counter and lowered her head.
What on earth was she going to do when he left again?
Because what was keeping him here now? Now he’d learned he was not Sarah’s father, nor could he help her by donating bone marrow, the only reason for him being in LA no longer existed.
Oh lord. Her stomach plunged all the way to her toes.
He was going to leave. She knew it. He knew it. There was no longer anything keeping him there.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 29
Extreme Close Up Chapter 27


Ally had spent another frustrating day at her computer, almost in tears over her inability to figure out what she wanted to do. The ideas she came up with were farfetched, she couldn’t invent any kind of motivation for what her characters needed to do and her head ached from going around in plot circles. Then her doorbell rang. Through the peephole she saw Jack leaning against the door frame.
Her heart slammed to a stop. She opened the door. My God, he looked like he’d been beat up.
He looked at her with a wry smile. “You want to say ‘I told you so’?”
She stared at him. “Huh?”
“About Carter.” Jack straightened and walked past her into her home. “You kept asking why I was so concerned about hurting him by getting involved with you, when he was a liar and a cheater. Well, you were right. He is a liar and a cheater.”
She followed along behind him, confused. “What’s going on, Jack?”
He threw himself down onto her couch and told her what had happened.
“Oh my God.” She put her fingers to her mouth, staring at him. “Oh, Jack. Are you okay?”
He shook his head. “I have no fucking idea. This is the most bizarre thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He fell back against the cushions of the sofa, closed his eyes, covered his face with his hands.

They were both silent for a long time.
“Wow,” Ally whispered finally. “I don’t even know what to say. Are you...are you disappointed? That you’re not a father?”
“Hell,” he growled, lowering his hands to the couch beside him. He stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t even know. I think I actually am, a little. On the other hand, all I’ve wanted since I got here was to get back to my nice, normal, bombs-exploding life.” He grimaced. “I’m really, really confused.”
That’s what he wanted ever since he’d gotten there - to leave. Well. Ally’s heart began a slow descent.
Then Jack lifted his head. “I need a drink.”
Ally nodded and jumped to her feet.
“Do you have anything stronger than beer?”
She went over to her small bar and opened it, revealing rows and rows of bottles.
“Excellent.” He got up and walked over to the well-stocked bar. “My old buddy Jose. Jose Cuervo.”
Ally pulled two glasses from another cupboard and set them on top of the bar. Jack poured golden liquid into each glass, recapped the bottle and set it down. Then he handed a glass to Ally and took one himself and they carried them back to the couch.
“Well,” Jack said heavily.
Again they were silent, processing the evening’s astonishing turn of events.
Finally, Jack turned to Ally. “I can’t believe it. That dickhead. He slept with my girlfriend and never said a word, even through the whole pregnancy thing. He was so supportive about it all, and it turns out it was actually him. It was his baby! God!” He rubbed his face. “I can’t believe he let me take the heat for that! Christ, my parents were so pissed off. Brittany’s parents probably hate me to this day. Oh, man.”
“ could have been the father, Jack.”
He stared at her and color washed into his cheeks. “Yeah. Okay. We had sex. But we were always careful. Unlike goddamn Carter. Didn’t it even enter his head that it could be his baby?” He frowned. “It probably did. He just didn’t say anything. Technically,” Jack’s mouth twisted wryly, “he didn’t have to.”
Ally drew a long breath into her lungs. She had been right about Carter - he didn’t deserve Jack’s loyalty. But she didn’t feel good about it. On the contrary, she felt crappy seeing Jack have his friendship trashed, all his memories of Carter and the experiences they’d shared now tainted. She knew how he felt, because she’d been through the same thing when she’d found Carter cheating on her.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” she whispered. “I know how it hurts when someone betrays you like that.”
He met her eyes. She could see the pain and confusion in them and ached for him.
He held up his empty glass and gave a rueful smile. “I am going to get totally shit-faced.”
She got up and went and got the bottle of tequila, splashed more into their glasses and set it on the table between them. She leaned back against the couch, sitting beside Jack, and they both lifted their feet to the coffee table, holding their drinks.
“You know what’s the worst thing?” he said, swirling the amber liquid in his glass.
“Carter is Sarah’s father and he isn’t going to help her.”
Ally was silent. “Shit.”
“Yeah. What a scumbag.”
“Ass wipe
“Rat bastard.”
“Numb nuts.”
They continued naming Carter the worst, most imaginative insults they could come up with until they both started laughing. Jack reached for the bottle again and refilled their glasses, leaning back with a sigh and a smile.
“Are you mad at Brittany?” Ally asked.
He thought about that. “Nah,” he finally said. “She was just doing what she thought she had to, to save her kid.”
“I meant...for sleeping with Carter.”
“Oh.” Jack gulped his drink. “Nah. It was so long ago, it doesn’t even mean anything.” He sighed. “I just wish she had figured out who was the father nine years ago. Wow, would things have been different.”
Ally considered that. “Yes.” She knew Jack’s relationship with his parents had never really been the same after that. ”You need to tell your folks.”
“Yeah.” He grimaced. “And think how different Carter’s life would have been. You and he would likely never have gotten together.” The curve of his lips looked endearingly satisfied at that thought.
“Probably not.” And how different would things have been for her and Jack? Would they have figured out their feelings for each other sooner? But what if they had? They’d been awfully young to know who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.
Yikes. Where the hell did that thought come from? There was no way she and Jack had any kind of future. She had to just wash those thoughts right out of her slightly drunk and fuzzy head.
“Thank God you and Brittany didn’t get married,” Ally said suddenly. “Wow. What a mess that would have been.”
Jack groaned. “No kidding. And, thank God we didn’t tell Sarah yet. Oh man.” They were silent again for a moment.
“This is good stuff,” Jack said, leaning back into the cushions of the couch and lifting his glass. “You know we have to do something about dickhead Carter.”
Ally grinned and leaned back too. “Like what?”
“How about beat the living crap out of him.”

Extreme Close Up Chapter 28

Extreme Close Up Chapter 26
By dirafum
sad this week

“Brittany’s coming over,” Jack told Carter a few days later.
Carter’s brows flew up. “Brittany’s coming here? What for?”
“She has the results of the testing. She wants to talk about it.”
“Oh.” Carter fidgeted. “I’ll go out for a while, then.”
“Nah, that’s okay. It’s your place, you can stay. Not like we have any secrets.” Except they did, guilt still eating at his gut over sleeping with Ally. He felt like a piece of shit hiding what they’d done from Carter. He sighed. Carter’s doorbell rang and he grimaced. “Guess that’s her.”
Carter looked strained as he went to answer the door, but when Jack saw Brittany’s face, he was even more alarmed. Shit. This was not going to be good.
“Long time no see, Brittany,” Carter said with his usual easy charm. “Come on in, have a seat.” Brittany’s eyes met Jack’s as she walked into the room and she gave him a weak smile.
They sat on Carter’s sleek leather furniture. Brittany’s fingers twisted the strap of her purse over and over again.
“Would you like a drink?” Carter offered.
“No thanks.” Her eyes sought Jack’s again and his heart sank. Oh man. This was going to be bad news, he could just feel it. He probably wasn’t a good match for donating and Brittany was upset and worried.
The churning in his gut started up again. He took a breath, smiled reassuringly at Brittany. “So what’s the deal?”
“Um...” Brittany’s eyes darted from Jack to Carter and back to Jack again. “I gather Carter knows what’s going on?”
“Yeah, I told him about Sarah.” Jack glanced at Carter, hoping Carter wasn’t going to start talking that crap about Brittany suing for child support. “It’s okay with you if he’s here, isn’t it?”
He watched as she visibly straightened her spine, fingers still tightly clasped on her purse. “I...I guess so.” She looked even more distressed. Jesus.
“Anyway,” Jack continued, his own nerves stretched like an elastic band ready to snap. “Did you get the results of the tests?” He looked at her expectantly.
She nodded, looked down again. “Yes. I’m afraid it’s not good news.” She paused, drew a breath, and Jack’s heart sank. The silence amplified as Brittany gathered her thoughts, then she looked up and met Jack’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she whispered. “I am so, so sorry.”
He nodded, felt his throat tighten. “It’s okay,” he said gruffly. “You don’t need to apologize. I’m sorry.”
She continued, licking her lips nervously. “The tests showed that you’re not a good match.”
He nodded again, chest aching. “I figured that.”
“Not even close, in fact.” She closed her eyes, opened them again. “In fact, the tests showed that you’re not even Sarah’s father.”
The room was so silent you could hear the faint tick of Carter’s Patek Phillippe watch.Jack shook his head. What did she say?
He frowned, peered at Brittany. Now she met his eyes steadily, her own shiny with tears. She nodded. “I’m really sorry,” she said again, her voice trembling.
“Uh...Brittany...what the hell?”
“I guess I screwed up,” she choked out.
She guessed she screwed up? Jack shook his head again. “What do you mean you screwed up? Are you serious? I’m not Sarah’s father?” His heart started a slow, heavy thudding in his chest.
She nodded.
“ said Sarah is nine years old.”
Brittany nodded again, biting her lower lip. “Yes. She’ll be ten in December.”
Jack’s mind whirled and he couldn’t do the math, but he’d done it before and it worked out. “I...I don’t get it,” he muttered, shaking his head. “If I’m not her father - then who is?”
Brittany lowered her eyes. “I really didn’t want to do this like this.”
“Brittany...” Jack’s face felt like it was going to crack. “Who’s the father?”
She lifted her head and looked at Carter. Jack followed her gaze, saw Carter grow visibly pale, eyes flickering.
No. No, no, no.
Jack looked back at Brittany. Questioning. Accusing. Incredulous.
She nodded, a small, jerky nod. “Carter. I’m sorry. Like I said, this wasn’t how I planned to tell you.”
Carter jumped to his feet. “You’re saying I’m the father?” His voice was loud, strained.
Brittany looked up at him, her eyes watery, and nodded.
Jack stared at Carter and Brittany, who were staring at each other, Carter standing there with fists clenched, Brittany in the chair, her fingers tightly knotted.
“You can’t be serious,” Carter finally said, with a short laugh. “That is ridiculous.”
Brittany’s eyes widened in shock. “Are you...denying it?”
“I sure as hell am!” Carter cried. “Jesus Christ! What the hell do you think you’re trying to pull on us, coming here like this, nine years later, looking for the father of your child?”
Brittany was speechless for a few seconds. “I...I’m trying to find the person who can save my daughter’s life,” she whispered. “She’s dying, Carter.”
He scowled. “Oh, please, spare me. This has nothing to do with me.”
Her head moved slowly from side to side as she continued to stare at him with disbelief. “ know. You have to know.”
“Are you saying that he...that you and he...” Jack stumbled over his words, shook his head to try to clear it. “Brittany, you and Carter...?”
Her face crumpled with shame. “Yes. I am so, so sorry Jack. Like I said, this wasn’t exactly how I saw things going. I was so sure you were the father. For the last nine years, I believed it, even though I never told you. I never dreamed...Carter and was only once. It just happened.”
“When we were going out?” Jack was incredulous. This was unfuckingbelievable.
“Yes.” She dropped her eyes. “I know I keep saying it, but I’m sorry. We slept together, but we both agreed we would never tell you about it. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“It just happened? How the hell did it just happen?”
Brittany looked nervously between him and Carter. “It don’t really want to know the details, do you?”
Jack stared at her. Then he shook his head abruptly. “Hell, no.” He turned his gaze to Carter. He glared at his friend with burning eyes. “You slept with my girlfriend? I cannot fucking believe this!”
Strangely enough, he was more offended by Carter’s betrayal than Brittany’s unfaithfulness. It was almost too much to take in. When Brittany had discovered she was pregnant, how had Carter not wondered? How had he faced Jack, knowing he’d slept with his girlfriend? What about all that talk about standing by him, supporting him if he became a teenage father?
“Once,” Carter bit out, his face pale and tight. “It happened once.” He turned to Brittany. “That does not mean I’m the father of your child.”
“There was nobody else,” Brittany said firmly, still struggling with tears. “And Jack has already been proven to not be the father. That leaves you, Carter.”
He shook his head, his jaw clenched. “No. No fucking way.” He drew in a breath. “I know what you’re trying to do. You have to know, Brittany, when you didn’t tell the father nine years ago, kept it secret all these years, chose to raise the child yourself, there’s no way you’d be successful if you try to sue for support.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s not what I want!” she cried. She, too, jumped to her feet and faced Carter, eyes blazing. “You asshole!” She poked him in the chest and he took a surprised step backward.
Jack’s mouth dropped open.
“All I want is a bone marrow donor for my daughter!” Brittany cried. “I chose to raise her on own my own, for my own reasons, and I’m not looking for anything more than that. I just want to save her life.”
Carter shook his head. “Well, screw that. I’m not getting involved in this. I am not the father and that’s that.”
He looked at Jack. “What a bunch of bullshit,” he snarled, then turned and left his home. He slammed the door behind him.
Brittany stood there looking pole-axed. “I can’t believe he just walked out on me.” She put a hand to her mouth, turned to Jack. He stood immobile, paralyzed with shock and dismay.
“You’re probably mad at me, too,” she said on a sob. “And I can’t blame you. I made you come all the way home for nothing. Got you all worked up about nothing. I can only say again, I’m sorry, Jack. For everything.” She bent and picked up her purse. “I guess I’d better go too.” She started to leave, then stopped and turned back. Her eyes were wet. “I want to thank you. For coming and for getting tested and agreeing to donate, even though it didn’t work out. Thank you, Jack.”
Jack just stared after her as she, too left the room, closing the front door more quietly behind her than Carter had.
Jack swallowed. Holy shit. What had just happened here? He covered his face with his hands and sank down onto the couch before his legs gave out. How could this be?
Jesus. He’d put his whole life on hold to come home and meet his daughter. Then he found out she might be dying and he was the only one who might be able to save her. Now ...he had no daughter. And found out his best friend had betrayed him all those years ago and he’d had no fucking idea.
He stared up at the ceiling with burning eyes, feeling like he’d just been run over by an Abrams M1 tank. Then he knew he couldn’t sit there alone. There was only one person who could help him deal with this shit.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 27
I'm reposting this because it's such a pretty New Years Eve picture!
Happy New Year everyone, wishing you all the best in 2010!

If you haven't read my Samhellion freebie, today's a good day to do it because it's New Year's Eve...Gavin and Melina are having a sexy celebration!

Love Me Tonight is a short story about Gavin and Melina, who you may recognize from Love Me and Love Me More. They're in for another sexy New Year's Eve adventure - but this one may surprise you!

Go check it out!

Extreme Close Up Chapter 25

Monday morning Jack met with a nurse at the oncology clinic.
“I’m Marlo Dixon,” she said, shaking his hand. She motioned to a chair and gave him a warm smile. “Please call me Marlo.” What type of person did it take to be a pediatric oncology nurse? He could only admire the way she made him comfortable, asked if he’d brought any family with him. He regretted not bringing Ally, but it was probably best not to get her too involved with all this stuff.
“Human leukocyte antigen or HLA testing is used to match patients and donors for bone marrow transplants,” Marlo told him as they sat in a surprisingly un-clinical office with cheerful yellow walls and brightly colored furniture. “HLA antigens are proteins found on most cells in our bodies. Your immune system uses these proteins to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not. A close match between your HLA antigens and the recipient’s reduces the risk the recipient’s immune cells will attack donor cells or that your immune cells will attack the recipient’s body after the transplant. We take a blood sample to test for your HLA tissue traits.”
Jack nodded, trying to remember to breathe.
“Don’t worry about remembering all this,” she said with a smile. “I have pamphlets and printed materials you can take with you when you leave. You can spend as much time as you like going over them before you make your decision.” She nodded to a stack of paperwork on her desk. “It’s very important to the success of the transplant to have a well-matched donor. The best chance of finding a match is with a brother or sister. Since we inherit half of our HLA antigens from our mother and half from our father, each brother and sister who has the same parents has a twenty-five per cent chance of matching a recipient.”
“Wow. Even that sounds low. And Sarah doesn’t have any brothers or sisters.”
She nodded. “I know. There is less chance that other family members will match. But we will certainly test parents to make sure we don’t miss out on a viable donor. There are a number of other factors that lead to improved transplant success rates.” She outlined some of the factors.
“So I’m good on all those.” Jack gave her a small grin. “I’m big, I’m young, I’m male, I’m healthy.”
Marlo smiled back at him. “Yes to all those. So, I’ll explain how the bone marrow donation process works. It’s a surgical procedure performed in a hospital. The donor receives an anesthetic and doctors use special needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the pelvic bones. Some donors receive a transfusion of their own blood. A donor’s marrow is completely replaced within four to six weeks. Usually the donor goes home the same day. Donors can expect to feel some soreness in their lower back for a few days, maybe longer. Some donors feel tired or have some difficulty walking, but are back to their usual routine in a few days, although some may take two to three weeks before they feel completely recovered.”
“Is it a general anesthesia or local?”
“Could be either,” she answered openly. “The anesthesiologist decides which the best option is. The two types of regional anesthesia used most often are spinal and epidural. They prevent the donor from having any feeling below the waist and the donor is awake through the procedure.”
Jack noticed how she always referred to the donor and recipient as a nameless people rather than him and Sarah. He supposed she was trying to make it as neutral as possible so as not to influence his decision.
“After receiving anesthesia, the donor is placed on his stomach. The doctor makes an incision through the skin on the lower back and the needles are inserted through the incision into the pelvic bones. The doctor then attaches a syringe to the hollow needle and draws out the marrow and repeats this aspiration process until the appropriate amount of marrow is collected. About a quart of marrow is collected, depending on the size of the donor and recipient. After the marrow is collected, a dressing is placed over the incision. Most incisions are small enough that there’s no need for stitches. The donor then goes to a recovery area and is monitored until the anesthetic wears off. When the donor is fully awake, he or she is either brought to a hospital room for further observation or goes home. As with all same-day surgical procedures, when a donor goes home the same day, someone other than the donor must drive.”
Jack nodded, immediately thinking of Ally.
“We follow up with you after a few days to see how you’re doing, and then we call once a week until you feel you’ve fully recovered.”
“I’ve been living and working in Iraq. I just came home this. How long do you think it would be before I could go back there?”
“Are you in the service?” she inquired.
He shook his head. “Photojournalist.”
“Ah. Well, I would think you should probably stay here for three to four weeks after.”
Jack nodded. Three to four weeks. Oh, man. He hadn’t really thought ahead that far. But in the big picture of things, a few weeks out of his life wasn’t that big a deal.
“Do you have any other questions?” she asked gently.
“Are there any risks involved?” he asked. “Just so I know.”
“Of course. As with any surgical procedure, there is some risk involved. Serious complications are rare but could include anesthesia reactions, infection, transfusion reactions, or injuries at the needle insertion sites. We take every precaution to ensure the safety and well-being of the donor. You must have a thorough physical examination before you donate.”
Jack nodded, recalling Brittany telling him that.
“What about Sarah?” he asked slowly. “Are there risks for her?”
“I can’t speak about Sarah specifically,” Marlo said. “I know you are her father, but without permission from her mother I can’t give out that information. But I can tell you generally a bit about the transplant experience from the recipient’s perspective. There are some risks, risk of infection, of bleeding, of interstitial pneumonia, and of course graft-versus-host disease. Acute GVHD can occur anywhere from ten to seventy days after a transplant, though the average time is around twenty-five days. About one-third to one-half of allogeneic transplant recipients - allogeneic transplants are where the donor is a family member - develop acute GVHD. It’s less common in younger patients and in those with better HLA matches between donor and recipient. Most cases are mild, and those who develop it usually have no long-term effects, although in some cases it can be serious or even life threatening. We try to prevent acute GVHD by giving drugs to lessen the immune response, but although these help prevent serious GVHD, mild GVHD will almost inevitably occur.”
“Oh,” Jack said. “That doesn’t sound good. You know, I’m not liking these odds.”
Marlo nodded sympathetically. “I know. But think of it this way - without a transplant, Sarah’s odds of survival may be even less.”
He nodded sombrely. “Okay,” he said decisively. “I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
“You don’t need to make a decision immediately,” she cautioned him. “You can go home and discuss it with your family. You may want to talk to Brittany more about it.”
He shook his head firmly. “No. That’s not necessary. Really, I knew before I came here what the decision would be. How could I not do this?”
She smiled. “All right then. In Sarah’s case, timing is a bit urgent. She’s almost at the point in her treatment where we would want to do the transplant. So we can get you in for a complete physical this afternoon. We’ll take some blood samples for testing and we’ll know this week if you’re a suitable donor.”
When Jack got back to Carter’s place, his mind whirled with all the technical information he’d heard, and he threw himself down on the couch to go through the printed materials they’d given him. Then he realized he should call Brittany and let her know his decision.
He heard the tears choking her voice when he told her he was willing to go ahead with it, but cautioned her that it would be a few days before they knew the results of the tests to know if he was a good donor.
“You will be, I know it,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “Thank you, Jack. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
He rubbed his face. “What about Sarah?” he asked. “Now do we tell her I’m her father?”
“Not yet. I’m not going to get her hopes up about the testing, Jack. It’s possible you aren’t a good match either, although you’re our best hope. But she’s sick. She has a lot of stuff going on. This is hard for an adult to deal with, never mind a nine-year-old kid.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“If the transplant goes ahead, then I think that would be a good time to tell her. I don’t even want to tell her this is happening, because it will get her hopes up and things don’t always work out. We’ve learned that the hard way.” She paused. “So, if it’s a go, we’ll explain things to her then.”
“Yeah. I can see that would be the best way. Okay.” He paused. “I’ll come by tonight. Sarah and I are going to finish painting the tree house.”
“Okay.” Brittany’s voice sounded strangled. “See you later.”
He hung up, tossed his cell phone on the coffee table and leaned his head back against the sofa. Jesus. Everything was so complicated.
He finished reading the information he’d been given, not that anything there was going to change his mind. A sore back for a few days was nothing compared to saving Sarah’s life.
The urge to talk to Ally about it all was so overwhelming he picked up his cell phone to call her. He flipped it open, stared at it, then slowly closed it.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 26
Extreme Close Up Chapter 23
“Dinner’s ready.” Brittany’s voice came from behind them. Ally turned and Jack wanted to kick the tree house as he walked past it and into the house. They took turns at the sink washing up and Jack pulled his T-shirt back on, but not before he’d noticed Ally eyeing him again. She seemed to like what she saw. Oh, man this was so bad.
They sat around Brittany’s small kitchen table eating hamburgers and home-made French fries, and Jack got that beer he’d been wanting. He talked to Sarah about her daycare and the trip they’d taken to the local pool that day, and even though it was surreal if he thought too much about where he was and who he was with, it was nice. Almost a family kind of thing, even with Ally there.
The truth was, Ally was the one who felt most like family. The one he was most comfortable with, the one he wanted to be with more than anyone else. He glanced at her occasionally. She didn’t say much through the meal, but he could tell she was listening intently. She asked Sarah the occasional question, too, laughed and smiled.
The strangest thought shot into his mind, a wish that Ally was Sarah’s mother and the three of them were truly a family. Not that he didn’t like Brittany. They could still be friends, despite their teenage relationship. The reality was - Brittany was Sarah’s mother. She always would be and he’d always have that link to her. But it was Ally he wanted to be the mother of his children.
Pain sliced through him and he set down his beer. This was what his life was going to be. Linked to a woman he didn’t want, by a child to whom he owed it to be the best father he could from the other side of the world, all while wanting a woman he could never have. Jesus, what a fucking dismal future he had to look forward to.
He couldn’t eat any more, pushed the plate away from him.
“Can I have your fries?” Sarah asked him.
“You’re having a hungry day, aren’t you sweetie?” Brittany asked with a little laugh.
“Sure.” He let his daughter take his plate. He swallowed past the golf ball that had materialized in his throat and smiled at her.
When they’d helped Brittany clean up and do the dishes, they all went back outside.
“How much more are you going to do tonight?” Ally asked him.
“I dunno.” The longer he worked here, the less time he had to spend with Ally alone at her place, or deal with packing up his stuff and telling her he was leaving.
He stared at the structure still in pieces. It was going to fill Brittany’s entire tiny yard. Shit. What had he done? Sarah didn’t even want it. “I guess I’ll work a bit longer.”
“Want some help?”
He looked at Ally. “You can hammer nails?”
She gave him a crooked smile. “Probably not. But if there’s anything I can do…”
“Hey, watch this!” Sarah ran over to her swing set and grabbed the two rings again.
They turned back to watch Sarah’s gymnastics. As she struggled to hold herself upside down on her skinny arms, Jack grinned. Then Sarah’s hat fell off, to the ground. And her pony tail went with it.
He stared at the hat on the ground with hair attached to it, his smile God! How had her hair fallen off? Then he lifted his gaze to Sarah as she righted herself and quickly grabbed for the cap. She was completely bald.

* * *

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jack growled.
They sat in Brittany’s living room. Sarah had gone to her bedroom after a tearful scene when she’d apologized to her mother for letting her hat with the fake ponytail fall off. Apparently Brittany had told her not to let Jack and Ally see her without her hat. Upset but not angry, Brittany had comforted Sarah, her eyes pleading with Jack for him to wait for an explanation.
“What’s wrong with her?” He rubbed the ache in his chest. Ally sat beside him, once again took hold of his hand, and he clutched it in both his as if it were life support.
“She has leukemia,” Brittany told them. “Acute lymphocytic leukemia.”
“Oh, dear God,” Ally murmured beside him.
“She started having a lot of fevers and then infection. She got bruises all the time and I had no idea how.” Brittany pressed a hand to her stomach. “She felt weak and tired and finally her doctor did some tests that showed she had leukemia.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of years ago. Then she had to have more tests, to see what kind of treatment she needed. She’s had a ton of drugs and chemotherapy, to try to heal the bone marrow. She lost her hair, was throwing up all the time.”
“That’s why she missed so much school,” Jack murmured.
“Yes. And now, she...she needs a bone marrow transplant.” She lifted her eyes and met his and his stomach dropped to his heels.
“Is she dying, Britt?” The words came out almost a whisper.
She nodded, shiny-eyed. “She could die if she doesn’t get the transplant.”
“That’s why you called me,” he said slowly, realization crawling over him. “You want me to donate.”
“I’m n-not a good match. I was hoping that you would b-be.”
Jack closed his eyes as the room spun around him momentarily.
“I’m really sorry to drop this on you out of the blue like this, but she’s my daughter, my b-baby. I’ll do whatever it takes to get her better, and I really hope you feel the same.”
Jack was taking it all in, absorbing it. The burger and fries he’d eaten earlier threatened to come back up. He glanced over at Ally and her glossy eyes shone with concern.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I wanted you to get to know her. I thought if I asked you to donate marrow to a total stranger, you’d probably say no. But if you got to know your daughter, got to love her...” She paused, swallowed hard. “I thought you’d do it.”
Jack took a breath. “What all is involved?” he asked. “For me.” God, that sounded selfish. “I mean...”
Brittany nodded. “I know. You have a right to have a lot of questions. I’ll tell you as much as I know, but it would be better if you met with the specialist. He can tell you more and explain it all better than I can.”
Jack nodded.
“Apparently you have to meet with the transplant team so they can give you information. Then they’ll do some blood tests. That will tell them if you’re a good match or not.” She paused. “I’m really hoping, because there are a lot of factors, and the fact that you’re a man, you’re big, and you’re young, are all good things.”
Jack nodded again.
“If you’re a match, you go into the hospital to donate. They give you an anesthetic and then they take some marrow out of your hip bones. You go home the same day and apparently you might have some back pain for a few days. But that’s really all there is to it.”
“It is a surgical procedure, though,” Jack said. “There are risks.”
Brittany slowly moved her head up and down. “Yes. There are. I don’t mean to minimize it, but I think the risks are pretty small, if you’re healthy. You’d have to have a complete physical before they do it, too, to make sure you are healthy and there aren’t any risks.”
She sat there, looking at him, waiting. Ally squeezed Jack’s hand and her support was all that gave him strength to go on.
“Will you come and talk to the specialist, at least?” Brittany asked quietly. “I know it’s a lot to ask.”
“Of course I will.” Was there any other answer? What was he supposed to do? Let his daughter die? Even though he’d had no idea she existed until a week ago, there was no way he could turn his back on her. He glanced at Ally and she smiled at him and he knew she was happy he’d agreed. Of course he had to do the right thing. Hopefully she hadn’t had any doubts about that.
“I’ll call the doctor in the morning and make an appointment,” Brittany told them. “Then I’ll let you know when.”

Extreme Close Up Chapter 24
Extreme Close Up Chapter 22
Eden by flambard Flckr
Ally knew Jack was going to feel guilty, and a twinge of anxiety fluttered in her tummy, but she felt so incredibly good it was hard to get too worried about it. They’d talk about it and she would convince Jack it was silly to be so worried about Carter.
She stroked his back, the rippling muscles and smooth skin, down over his tightly muscled behind, then back up. His weight squashed her, making it hard to breathe, but it felt so good she wasn’t going to complain. Wow.
After long moments, while his breathing gradually slowed and he regained control of his body, Jack rolled off her and off the bed. He went into her bathroom presumably to get rid of the condom, came out and picked up his jeans from the floor. His face looked like someone had died.
He stepped into his jeans then sat down on the bed beside her. She looked up at him, that small knot of fear growing.
“Do not apologize again,” she hissed and sat up, pulling the duvet cover over her. “I’m the one who instigated that, so you can just blame me. You don’t need to feel guilty.”
He gave a short laugh at that. “Yeah, right.”
Ally snagged his gaze. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
He closed his eyes. “Ally. We’ve been over this. We shouldn’t be doing this. Carter would be so pissed off at me.”
“But Carter and I are not together!” She sat up and held the sheet to her bare breasts. “I just don’t get this! I know you’re a very loyal person, Jack, but this is crazy.”
He was silent, his lips pressed tightly together.
“He cheated on me,” she said earnestly. “I don’t owe him anything.”
“But I do,” he said gravely.
Ally was silent for a moment. “You know, I was going to tell you that I think I was starting to have feelings for you, too, back in college,” she said slowly. “I was feeling very weird when we were graduating and I didn’t really know what was going on. I wish you had told me how you felt back then.”
His lips twisted. “I was about to, and then I found you and Carter together.”
Her heart sank. She had hurt him without any idea of what she was doing. What a mess.
Jack got up and left her room, quietly shutting the door behind him. She must have dozed off, sexually and emotionally exhausted, because the next thing she knew her alarm was going off at the usual seven-thirty. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if she had the guts and the strength to get up and face Jack again after what had happened.
But she didn’t need to worry because he’d already left.

* * *

Jack trekked back to Brittany’s home to do more work on the tree house. Even if Sarah hated it, he needed to distract himself from what had happened last night.
Christ. He’d slept with Ally. His body leaped at the thought, his dick twitching, yet he felt heavy with guilt. He rubbed the back of his neck as he drove. They were supposed to be friends.
Like hell. Since he’d discovered his feelings for her five years ago, the chance of them being just friends was about the same as him dancing naked in the streets of Baghdad. Coming back had driven that realization home.
Carter could never know about it. He and Carter were supposed to get together this weekend and somehow Jack was going to have to pretend it never happened, act as if he and Ally were the friends they’d always been. He could do it. Sure.
He parked in front of Brittany’s house and walked around to the back yard. She’d given him a key so he could come and go, and it was on his key ring next to Ally’s. He paused and studied the two keys, side by side.
The tree house was coming together and actually looked like a house, now. He hoped he could finish it today. Then maybe Sarah would be excited about it.
He’d pictured Sarah out here with him, handing him nails and pieces of lumber. He’d envisioned taking her back to the home center to pick out paint colors for the house once it was done, and the two of them laughing and slopping paint around. He chewed at his bottom lip as he got to work. Maybe they could still do that this weekend.
The familiar drone of a lawnmower stirring up the scent of freshly-cut grass made Jack realize how long it had been since he’d heard and smelled such things. He paused, closed his eyes, transported momentarily back to Garden City, to his own back yard, helping his dad saw and nail and put together a ramshackle tree house with a rope ladder that he’d loved beyond anything.
Emotions squeezed his chest and for a few moments, he longed to go home to Garden City, the last home he’d really known. His relationship with his parents had never really been the same since he’d had to tell them he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Disappointed. Ashamed. He didn’t really know he they felt. They hadn’t talked a whole helluva lot. He’d left for college, had only gone home for holidays, but things had been strained ever since.
He would go see his parents before he left, tell them they had a grand-daughter. God. How were they going to take that? They’d thought things had worked out for the best, but, he was, a father.
Hell, he hoped Sarah would be excited. She’d been so disappointed the house wasn’t exactly what she’d wanted. It wasn’t exactly what he’d planned either, but dammit, it’d be better.
He firmed his lips as he worked, sweating more in the late afternoon heat. He stripped off his T-shirt to work bare-chested. Steadying a nail with one hand he lifted the hammer and brought it down sharply right onto his thumb. “Jesus Christ!” He dropped the nail and the hammer and straightened, clutching his throbbing thumb. “Son of a bitch.”
“Those are bad words.”
He turned to see Sarah frowning at him. He hadn’t realized it was so late.
“Yeah,” he ground out. “Sorry.” He looked at the thumb. No blood. That was good. He flexed it and it moved, another good thing.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
“Yeah. Hammered my thumb.” He shook the hand vigorously. “I’m okay.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That you hurt yourself.”
“Thanks.” He picked up the hammer again with a sigh. “Are you here to help me?”
“I can’t help,” she said solemnly. “I don’t know how to build a tree house.”
“You can be my gopher, okay? Bring me that piece right there.” He gestured with the hammer.
Obediently Sarah picked up it up and brought it over to him. And for a while they worked side by side, Sarah doing whatever he asked of him. She’d gotten over the letdown of the house not being in a tree, apparently, but Jack still felt crappy that he wasn’t able to build what she wanted. He blew out a long breath.
“How’s it going?”
Ally’s voice behind him startled him and he damn near whacked his thumb again. He stood up and turned and her eyes moved over his torso with both heated interest and wariness. He felt himself get even warmer, memories of last night flooding his body with hot lust.
“Good,” he managed to say. “What are you doing here?”
“Just thought I’d stop by and see how you were doing. You’ve been talking about this tree house all week and I was curious.” She dragged her eyes off his body with apparent reluctance and surveyed the structure. “It looks great, Jack. Do you like it, Sarah?”
Sarah tipped her head. “I guess so. I still think it should be in the tree, though.”
“It has a ladder for climbing up into it,” Jack said. “See?”
Sarah nodded. “That’s cool.”
Ally smiled, shot him a told-you-so glance. “Need anything? More nails?”
“A beer would be great,” he muttered, dropping the hammer on the grass.
Ally moved closer. “Brittany just invited us to stay for dinner.”
“Oh. Good.”
Ally’s eyes moved away from his bare chest and abs and surveyed the mess. “Wow,” she said. “That thing is huge.”
“It’s going to take up the whole yard.”
“Um...not quite.”
He saw her lips twitch and his own curved in response. Trust Ally to make him laugh about it.
“And it’s not in the tree,” Sarah put in again, despondently. So she wasn’t quite over her disappointment. He put a hand on her head, wearing her usual ball cap, her long blonde ponytail hanging down her back.
“Sorry, kiddo, it’s the best I could do.”
She nodded. “I’m going to swing.”
They watched her go over and grab hold of two rings hanging from the top bar. She started flipping around like an Olympic gymnast.
Ally and Jack’s eyes met and they stood there, memories of last night coiling around them, drawing them together. Jack felt himself harden and cursed mentally. His body didn’t know that he and Ally couldn’t be together like that – ever again. Ally swayed toward him and he took a step back, saw her eyes darken with hurt.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 23
Extreme Close Up Chapter 21

Jack covered his eyes with his hand after Ally left the room. Shit. What was wrong with him? He had to keep his hands off Ally. Never mind leaving tomorrow – he’d get the hell out of there now.
He climbed the stairs and knocked on Ally’s door. He turned the knob and pushed the door open a sliver, saw her sitting on her bed, head bent, shoulders slumped. She looked so forlorn and adorable, his chest tightened.
She looked up and saw him. “Come here,” she said.
He moved into the room intending to tell her he was leaving. He was vaguely aware of her bedroom, of the inviting impression of intimacy. She hadn’t turned on the lamp and the light from the hall sliced the room in two, Ally sitting in shadow.
A pouffy dark green duvet and piles of pillows layered the bed. Another soft carpet adorned the floor, funnily enough like the ones he’d seen everywhere in the Middle East...Persian carpets. Rich green, gold and russet glowed in the stripe of light from the open door. More mismatched antiques gleamed faintly in the shadows, all old golden wood.
She extended a hand, and he took it as he got closer. That exotic floral scent of her shampoo or whatever she’d used in the bathtub enticed him. She tugged him forward then down onto the bed beside her.
Then his heart stopped as she stood, straddled his legs, and sat on his lap. His mouth dropped open when her hands reached for the edges of her robe and drew it apart. His heart resumed beating with a slow, painful thumping. The soft cleavage she revealed drew his eyes helplessly. Oh God.
With a small shrug of her shoulders, the robe dropped off and crumpled around her hips.
She was sitting on his lap, bare from the waist up. Holy Christ. He swallowed hard.
“What are you doing?” he whispered hoarsely.
“This.” She leaned forward and kissed him, putting a hand on each side of his face to hold him there. Her mouth was soft and warm and sweet and he opened for her automatically. Her small tongue licked his lips, licked her way inside his mouth and his still-hard cock swelled even more, pressing painfully against the fly of his jeans. His hands went mindlessly to her narrow waist, her skin silky soft and warm.
Then her hands tugged at his T-shirt, shoved it up his chest, and with some struggle she yanked it over his head and off. Now he was bare-chested too, and she leaned in for another kiss, her breasts pressing to his chest. Her hard little nipples and soft flesh rubbed against him and it made him ache. He swallowed a groan.
She slid her hands into his hair, then yanked, raising herself up so her breasts were right in front of him. Christ. She pulled his head toward her and he buried his face between the soft, generous curves there, inhaling the warm, flowery scent of her. It made him dizzy.
She shoved at his chest and he fell back onto the bed, feet still on the floor. She laid over him, kissed him again, her breasts rubbing back and forth on his chest, sending zings of pleasure down to his groin. She shifted closer so her crotch pressed against him, and rubbed there too. Lights exploded behind his eyes as his balls tightened and he was afraid he was going to come in his jeans. What was she doing?
But she backed off again, stood before him and shed the robe to stand there in a pair of tiny yellow panties. Concentrating, she bent forward to unbutton his jeans, lower the zipper, paused to cup his fullness and rub him there. He bit his bottom lip, closed his eyes. Christ. He was going to explode.
“Ally, what are you doing?”
“Seducing you,” she whispered. Then she curved her fingers into the waistband of his jeans and yanked them down over his thighs, pulling his boxers with them, and knelt before him to tug them right off his legs. She climbed on the bed, straddling him again, and looked down at him.
Her flushed face glowed, her multi-hued eyes sparkled with admiration and lust as she looked at him. He was lost. Gone. Done. He reached for her and pulled her down onto his naked body, revelling in the feel of her soft flesh against his, skin to skin.
Her mouth met his again and he opened for her hungrily, like a starving man. He had been starved for five long years. He’d been with other women, but nobody else could ever satisfy this deep, yearning hunger. He ate at her mouth, devoured her, hands sliding up and down the silky smoothness of her back, tracing over the firm ridges of muscles on each side of her spine, down lower to the curves of her ass, making her shiver. He loved that he could do that to her.
His fingers traced the bottom curve of her ass where it joined her thighs, and she wriggled against him, moaned a little into his mouth, rotated her pelvis against his in a way that was so sexy and seductive it made his head spin.
Her mouth left his, kissed his cheek, his chin, his throat, licked there, tasting him, and she gave a little murmur of enjoyment that set his blood on fire. Hot chills rippled through him and he rolled her, so she was flat on her back and he was on top.
He reached for a breast, filled his hand with her soft flesh, squeezed gently. He palmed her stiff nipple, then drew his fingers together to tug on the tight bud, and she groaned. He kissed his way down her neck to her collarbone, tasted her there, then lower to her breast, desperate to take her into his mouth. He closed his lips over the tight peak, drew gently on her, felt her arch beneath him. God, she tasted so sweet. His tongue swept over the puckered nipple, swirled around it, and he scraped his teeth gently over it.
Her head tossed on the mattress, damp auburn waves spread around her. He looked at her, eyes closed, teeth sunk into her full bottom lip. God, she was gorgeous. “This is crazy,” he muttered.
“No, it’s not,” she whispered, eyes still closed. “I want to show you how I feel.”
“Oh, Ally.”
He moved to the other breast, covering the damp nipple with his palm and using his fingers, his lips, his tongue and his teeth to make love to her breasts. Then he reached for her legs and swung them up onto the bed so they were lying lengthwise, shifting his own position so he was beside her, their heads on the pillows.
He kissed her again, a wet, sliding, open-mouthed kiss that was urgent, desperate and hot. She embraced him, her hands on his back, holding him close, stroking over his muscles.
Then she shoved at him, rolled him, straddled him again and he gazed up at her. Her hands slid over his chest, over his nipples, pinched them lightly and he gasped. She smiled, did it again. Then she bent forward and kissed each nipple, using her teeth a little, too, to arouse him even more. She licked him there, nuzzled the fuzz in the center of his chest, kissed his flat abdomen.
“This feels good, doesn’t it, Jack?”
He sucked in a breath as she shifted her body lower, between his legs, her soft hands tracing down his sides, making him shiver. She clasped his hip bones, her mouth moving lower, pressing into the curls at his groin. She inhaled deeply, then drew back, taking his cock in her hands.
“Oh Christ, Ally.” He was blind with lust and excitement. She stroked her hands up and down him, over the sensitive crown, wringing another gasp from his lips. Then the top of his head almost blew off when she lowered her mouth and kissed the tip of his cock, and he could feel he was wet there. She licked at him with her little tongue, kissed him again and then, sweet Jesus, she took the head of him into her mouth and sucked. His hips bucked, hands fisted in her long thick hair, holding her there.
Now it was his turn to yank her hair, pulling her off him. She looked up at him questioningly, her swollen lips gleaming wet, eyes shining.
“Not yet,” he muttered. She cupped his balls and squeezed gently, then released him and slid back up his body, the friction of her skin against his insanely pleasurable.
Impatient, desperate, he rolled her again, tucked her under him, threw one leg across her hips to hold her down. He kissed her, eating at her mouth with hungry, biting kisses, then licking her lips, sucking her tongue.
He wanted to be inside her so bad it was killing him. He slid a hand between them, down through the tiny patch of auburn curls at the juncture of her thighs, into her folds. She was so wet. God. He shifted off her so he could part her thighs, cupping her mound as he moved. Her little clit poked out from between her surprisingly, beautifully, smooth and hairless labia, and she was dripping. He put a hand on her thigh, pushed it wide and gazed at her sweet feminine folds, all pink and glistening and ready.
He swallowed hard, his mouth filling with saliva at the sight of her. He could smell her arousal, warm and sexy. He wanted to taste, wanted to touch, wanted to fill her up. He slid a finger down through the slick folds, into her. Tight. Soft. Wet.
“I want to make you come,” he whispered.
“Yes.” The way she watched him so intently, so hotly, almost made him lose control.
He moved between her legs and opened her wider to him with a hand on each thigh and the scent of her arousal filled his head, intoxicating him. Then he bent his head to taste her. Oh man, she was sweet. He licked her up and down, his tongue moving through the folds, licking up, down, over and then inside her, tasting her deeply. She arched beneath him, head tossing on the pillow, making little whimpers of pleasure. When he touched his tongue to her swollen clit, she jerked and writhed.
He kissed the soft folds, one side, the other, licked again, then sucked the tender flesh gently into his mouth. She cried out, and he kissed her clit, suckled it, too.
“Oh God!” He flattened his tongue against her and let her set the rhythm, moving up against him with pulses that got tighter and tighter until he felt her whole body tense...and then shatter. He thrust two fingers inside her to feel her come around him, her hot, wet inner muscles contracting on him as she shuddered and shook through a hard orgasm.
“Beautiful,” he murmured, then kissed her belly softly again and again, until she was still, panting for breath, but quieter. He moved up her body to kiss her mouth.
She slid her mouth to his chin, where he was still wet with her juices, and licked him there. Heat flashed through him straight to his cock and he groaned again.
He reached over the side of the bed for his jeans, praying the condom he’d carried around in his wallet forever was still there and still usable. With some scrambling and frustration and cursing he managed to finally find the pocket, then the wallet, then the little packet which he hastily ripped open.
He rolled the condom on while Ally watched with hazy eyes, then moved over her.
“Is this what you wanted?” he asked. If she said no, he didn’t know if he could stop, but he felt he needed to make sure.
“Oh, yes,” she whispered, reaching for him. She closed her hands around his shoulders, and he took his cock in his hand and found her entrance, probing there. He thrust in as far as he could without hurting her, withdrew, pushed in again a little further. “One more,” he murmured. “Almost all in. Okay, Ally?”
When he said her name, he almost had a heart attack. Ally. This was Ally. His body tightened, feeling like his heart was going to explode like a grenade.
She nodded, eyes huge and dark. He thrust one more time, felt her take him right to the root, and stopped, heart pounding heavily in his chest, his lungs feeling shrunken, like he couldn’t get a breath. Balls full and tight, he knew he wasn’t far off. He kissed her mouth.
Her nails dug into his shoulders, then her hands slid down his back to his ass, pulling him closer. “Do it, Jack,” she whispered. He lifted his hips, the slow drag of her flesh pulling on him an agony of pleasure, then her hands on his ass pulled him hard against her, into her, and he pounded into her over and over until his orgasm washed over him like a tsunami, roaring in his ears, blinding him, waves of ecstasy washing over and over him as he pumped in to her, swept him away on a storm of pleasure. “Oh God, oh God,” he muttered through gritted teeth, collapsing onto her, knowing he was heavy but unable to move even a finger at that moment.
Her hands slowly stroked his perspiration-damp back as he fought for breath, heart thumping. He buried his face in her warm neck, sweet and fragrant, unable to speak or form a coherent thought.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 22
Extreme Close Up Chapter 19
Why should she care that Jack had found her scrapbook about him? He was her friend. Wasn’t it natural she’d be interested in and proud of what he was doing? Maybe it was a bit much, which perhaps was the embarrassing part.
“I found this.” He looked up at her, his blue eyes full of questions.
“I hadn’t heard from you.” She could hardly speak through her tight throat. “When I came across something you’d done, I kept it.”
“I see that,” he said slowly, turning another page. “This is basically my whole career in here.”
He looked up at her again, and her glance skittered away from his.
He got up off the floor, unfolding his long legs in their faded denim, the scrapbook in his hands.
“You want to tell me why you collected all this stuff about me?” he asked softly.
Her mouth went dry. “’s no big deal. I was relieved when I saw your name in Newsday, I started keeping an eye out for more of your work.” She gathered the sides of the ridiculous fluffy robe together over her chest.
“Relieved?” One straight brow eyebrow lifted.
Shit. “Well, yes.” She blew out a long breath. “Yes, okay? Relieved. I thought maybe you were dead.”
He frowned.
“Then when I found out where you were, I was even more worried. It’s so dangerous, Jack,” she told him earnestly. “Every time a journalist or a photographer got injured or killed, I worried about you.” She’d thought about him a lot more than that. Damn it.
If it hadn’t been for that crazy, hot kiss earlier, she’d be fine telling him so much more...about how much she’d missed him, how hurt she’d been that he’d left like that, how she worried about him all the time. She’d tell him how much she’d wanted him there to talk to and comfort her like nobody else ever could when she’d been crushed and betrayed by Carter.
But she couldn’t say all those things, because there was still that arc of tension between them, that edge they were both balancing tenuously on.
“You were worried about me?” he murmured, moving closer to her. She backed up, clutching the robe. Her damp hair dripped water and a drop ran down between her breasts. She was surprised it didn’t sizzle, she felt so hot.
“Well, yes. Of course.”
“That’s nice, Ally. At least I know you cared.”
She swallowed. “You were my friend, Jack.”
His brow lifted again. “I was your friend?”
She frowned and put a hand out to stop him from coming closer. She wanted him closer, so, so much, but she was not going to embarrass herself again. “I mean, you are my friend. Of course, you are. Even though you didn’t contact me the whole time you were gone. I know, I know, you and Carter e-mailed all the time.” Christ, she was babbling like a baby but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “And even if Carter didn’t bother to tell me about it, and it’s true that you did e-mail him, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is, you never contacted me.” She jabbed a finger into his hard chest. “We were friends, even before you and Carter were friends. You should have e-mailed me. And you should have told me why you left like that so I didn’t have to hear stupid rumors about you.”
His eyes narrowed and he put up a hand to clasp the one she’d poked him with, keeping her from continuing to jab at him. His warm, lean fingers closed around hers and held them between them, pressed against his chest. “What rumors?”
She sighed. Hell. “Carter told me he’d heard a rumor that the reason you’d left in such a hurry was because you’d gotten another girl pregnant.”
“Whaaat!” Jack’s face was comical, his mouth open, eyebrows up near his hairlie .
She nodded, frowning. “I knew it wasn’t true.” She looked up at him through her lashes, practically begging him to deny it categorically even though she’d never believed it.
“Hell, no, of course it’s not true!” He ran his other hand through his thick, sun streaked hair. “Jesus Christ. Who the hell would start that rumor?” He laughed shortly. “I barely even dated in college, and believe me, when I had sex, I used protection. I learned my lesson the goddamn hard way.”
Um. She’d known how much he had dated. After all, they’d been best friends. But she was disturbed to hear him talk about having sex. She frowned. She wanted so badly to ask who he’d had sex with, but that was a stupid question, none of her business and she was probably better off not knowing.
“I know,” she said. “I told Carter that couldn’t be true.”
“He believed it?” Jack asked incredulously.
She shook her head rapidly. “No, no. Of course not.” She bit her lip. “Although he did say it kind of made sense because you’d done that before.”
There was silence for three heartbeats.
“Fuck him!” Jack burst out. His fingers tightened painfully on her hand. “I may have gotten a girl pregnant, but I never abandoned her!”
“I know, I know,” she soothed him, surprised this conversation had gotten him so riled up. She put her other hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “It doesn’t matter, Jack. I knew it wasn’t true, and Carter did too. And I don’t know who would have started such a crazy rumor, but I don’t think anybody else would have believed it either.”
Jack stared down at her, his blue eyes stormy and flashing. “You want to know the real reason I left?”

Extreme Close Up Chapter 20
Extreme Close Up Chapter 18

Jack sat there, feeling like a fucking idiot. How could he have done that?
Not minutes after his friend had left, he’d kissed his ex-girlfriend. What a low life scum he was.
He leaned back and covered his face with his hands. Ah, man. He should never have come here. Of course, he’d thought they were still together when he’d arrived. But as soon as he’d found out they weren’t, he shouldn’t have agreed to stay with Ally.
Not only were his feelings for Ally still alive and well...he’d fallen in love with her all over again. With the woman she’d become. Not a pacifist, conflict-avoiding, see-the-best-in-everyone young girl, but a woman – strong, assertive, who could bring out the best in people but who could also see their flaws.
He let out a long groan. Fuck.
He stared up at the ceiling.
He’d leave. Tomorrow. He’d call Carter and see if he could stay with him. It was for the best, despite the tension still simmering between them.
He stood and wandered around the room, until he stopped in front of the book shelves where he’d found Ally’s photo albums. He pulled out another one, this one full of Ally’s family pictures. Photos of her as a little girl coaxed a grin out of him. He slid that one back and pulled out another album, a newer one. Only it wasn’t a photo album, it was a scrapbook. He opened it up, flipped a couple of pages...
Holy shit.
He flipped another page. And another.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up and saw Ally in the door, clutching that fuzzy pink robe at her throat, staring at the album he held.

* * *

Four years earlier

“Carter! Look at this!”
Ally found Carter in the bedroom, tying his silk tie around his neck.
“What?” He frowned. “I’m trying to get ready.”
She thrust the news magazine in front of him, stabbed a finger at a photo credit. “It’s Jack! Jack’s photo!”
This was evidence that he was alive! “He’s in Iraq!” Then, “Oh, my God. He’s in Iraq.”
Carter glanced at the photograph, then back into the mirror. “I guess that’s what he wanted to do.”
Ally sank down onto the bed, the full skirt of her black party dress spreading around her. She studied the photograph. It was a powerful image of a street, deserted and littered with various articles - military-looking debris, a shoe, a child’s toy. The street had clearly been a residential area, the houses now bombed shells. Dramatic lighting and the starkness of the image made her imagine her own street, her own home, looking like that. She shook her head in dismay for the people who lived there. “Wow,” she breathed. “Oh, God, I hope he’s okay.” She glanced through the article. “Carter, why do you think he took off like that? And we’ve never heard from him. It’s been nine months.”
Carter shrugged, adjusted the knot of his tie. “I really don’t know. I did hear rumors, after he left, but I know they weren’t true.”
Ally frowned. “What kind of rumors?”
“Nothing,” he said dismissively. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes, I’ve been ready for ten minutes,” she told him. “I was waiting for you.”
“No you weren’t. You were still in the bathroom a minute ago.”
She held back a sigh but didn’t bother to contradict him.
“I don’t want to be late for the party,” he added.
“No one gets there right on time. You’re supposed to be fashionably late.”
“Glenn hates tardiness.”
“Glenn hates tardiness,” she mouthed exaggeratedly behind his back. She hated the way Carter sucked up to his boss. She sighed. “He’s not going to fire you or demote you if you’re late.”
He turned to her and smiled. “How do I look?”
“You look very handsome and professional.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
As she followed him down the stairs, she persisted with her question about Jack. “What were the rumors you heard about Jack?”
He gave a heavy sigh. “If you must know, I heard he got another girl pregnant. That’s why he took off.”
Ally gasped. “That can’t be true! He wasn’t even going out with anyone!”
“That you know of.” He held the door for her as they left their home. “I think he was. Don’t know what the big secret was.” He shrugged. “I don’t believe he would take off and leave a girl hanging like that. But then again, it was the second time it happened. He got lucky the first time.”
Ally looked incredulously at Carter. “You think he was lucky?”
“Sure. If Brittany had had that baby, his whole life would have been ruined.”
Ally wasn’t sure if she totally agreed with that. Yeah, Jack’s life would have been different, but eventually she knew he would have done something great, even if he’d had to work for years at the Garden City Sun. It wasn’t worth arguing with Carter, though. You couldn’t win an argument with him.
They arrived at the party at Carter’s boss’s opulent home, and Carter immediately started fawning over Glenn and his gorgeous, much younger wife. Trophy wife. Shame washed over Ally. Glenn Chipman was clearly in love with his wife, Jillian, despite their age difference. She could tell by the way he watched her as she talked, how he touched her possessively. Ally just hated to see Carter being so sycophantic. He was smart and talented, he didn’t need to kiss his boss’s ass like that to get ahead, and he especially did not need to flatter his boss’s wife with those ingratiating compliments that almost made Ally gag. But Carter’s career and this job at a successful, prestigious law firm were so important to him.
Thoughts and questions about Jack distracted her the entire evening, and the next day, when Carter had gone out, she went on the Internet and Googled Jack. She found lots of stuff – he’d been busy! Damn, why hadn’t she thought of doing this sooner?
She clipped the magazine article she’d found the day before and printed some stuff she found online, carefully pasting them into a scrapbook she’d found. Jack may not want to keep in touch with them, but at least she could follow his career and know he was okay. Somehow, though, she knew Carter would think she was crazy, and she kept the scrapbook carefully tucked away with her own books, only working on it when Carter wasn’t around.

* * *

“What are you doing?” Ally asked.
Jack was sitting on the floor in front of her bookcase, long denim-clad legs stretched out in front of him. He glanced up at her words. “I...uh...”
Her cheeks burned as she spied the scrapbook. Oh shit.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 19
Extreme Close Up Chapter 17

Jack searched Ally's pretty face.
“What?” she asked.
“You okay?”
“Yeah. Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“That was pretty tense.” He shrugged. “It can’t be easy seeing the guy who cheated on you.”
She waved a hand. “Whatever. I’m not buying his explanation about why he didn’t tell me he’d heard from you, but hey...water under the bridge, right?”
“Right.” He studied her. She really seemed okay. She was tougher than the Ally he’d known five years ago. And it looked good on her. Thank God she wasn’t still carrying around feelings for Carter, because he sure as hell didn’t deserve her.
They stepped back into the living room and sat side-by-side on the couch.
“That was freaky,” Ally said.
He laughed. “Freaky?”
A smile tugged the corners of her mouth but her eyes held sadness. “Yeah. Freaky. What happened to us, Jack?”
He stared at her. “Uh...”
“We were such good friends. The three of us. When Carter moved to Garden City and started hanging around with us...we were the Awesome Threesome.”
“Yeah.” They’d had a lot of fun. Good times. Tough times. Ally and Carter had helped him through the whole nightmare of Brittany’s pregnancy. He didn’t know what he would have done without them. “I know.” He sighed. “I guess things change.”
Their eyes met. The room heated and faded away.

* * *

Ally didn’t know if she moved toward Jack or if he grabbed her, but his hands were on her shoulders, her breasts pressed against his chest and his mouth was on hers, hot, hard and fiercely demanding. The slow yearning inside her exploded into feverish lust, and she burned, hot, blind with need. She clutched his shoulders, feeling the big hard bones beneath his shirt, the almost-scorching heat coming off him.
Lost in it, swept up in his arms, her own arms slid around his neck. Her breasts ached to be touched and she pressed against him, unable to get close enough.
Jack’s mouth opened wider on hers, and she matched his movement. His tongue filled her mouth, and more liquid heat ran through her, pooling low in her tummy, between her legs. A sharp, exquisite heat throbbed there. A small moan leaked from her mouth into his.
His hand moved up to her head, dug into her hair, turned her head for a better angle, and the kiss grew deeper, hotter. The hardness of his body pressed against hers, including that bulge in his jeans she’d tried not to notice before. She pressed herself there, desperately seeking something, loving the feel of his arousal.
Then the kiss ended and Jack set her away from him. Coolness washed over her with the warmth of his body removed. His stormy eyes gazed at her, and he slowly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “God, I am so sorry,” he muttered.
She didn't know what to say. She stared back at him, blinking rapidly.
“That shouldn’t have happened.” He shifted away.
They were supposed to be just friends. But...if they both felt the same way...what did it matter?
She still couldn’t speak. She touched her fingers to her swollen lips.
“Just tell me to leave and I’ll go,” he offered, his voice gritty.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
He closed his eyes briefly, adjusted the hard-on in his jeans with a quick movement that made her weak again.
He held up a hand. “Look, I apologize. I don’t know what the hell got into me. You’re still my friend Ally, even after all these years, and I should not have done that.”
“But you said...things change.”
He tipped his head back. “Yeah. But some things don’t. Christ. You don’t hit on your friend’s ex.”
For a moment she couldn’t make sense of what he said. Than she realized. She was Carter’s ex.
But it wasn’t like that.
Carter had cheated on her. It wasn’t like he was all devastated and heartbroken. Ha. They were talking about Carter here.
“Jack,” she whispered. Then she was afraid to go on. What was happening? She was having these intense, agonizing feelings for him and it seemed like something was going on with him, too, but what if...what if she was wrong? What if she was about to humiliate herself by trying to take their friendship somewhere he didn’t want to go? “I’m going” Where? How could she escape this freaking nightmare? “Um...have a bath,” she decided. She leaped to her feat. “ yourself to another beer if you want.” And she fled.
Jesus. As floral-scented steam filled the small room and she immersed her body in scalding water, she realized even when she’d been with Carter, she’d never been aroused to such a peak of raw sexual excitement. She burned for Jack, still pulsed and throbbed, especially her breasts and between her legs. She covered one breast with her hand, pressing hard, almost painfully, her nipple tight and sensitive. Her other hand slid between her legs under the water, and she touched the heat and wetness there. Oh God.
Frustrated. Confused. Embarrassed. She let out a little moan that turned into a sob and squeezed her eyes shut. The humiliation was almost as bad as the unsatisfied ache inside her.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 18
Extreme Close Up Chapter 16
Jack followed behind Ally, admiring the curve of her butt in her jeans despite his muddled thoughts. His gut churned for a myriad of reasons. He was curious about seeing Ally and Carter together, curious and afraid, worried he would see something between them that he’d rather not see. He was also damn interested in what Carter had to say about the e-mails they’d exchanged over the last five years and his failure to tell Ally. And how would Carter feel, ringing the door of the home he had once shared with Ally?
“Ally,” Carter said, stepping into the hall, his voice surprisingly warm but cautious. “I haven’t seen you for so long. You look beautiful as ever.”
“Thanks.” Her voice as frosty as the beer she’d been drinking. “How are you?”
“Great.” Carter’s gaze moved around Ally to Jack. “Jack! Buddy! I can’t believe you’re here!”
He moved to him with open arms, and they exchanged a male hug, Carter slapping Jack’s shoulder.
“Man, you look good, too,” Carter said, studying Jack.
Jack smiled tightly. “Thanks. You too, bud.” Carter hadn’t really changed much at all, other than the expensive haircut, Patek Phillippe watch and quality clothing. He was dressed casually in chinos and a golf shirt but Jack could tell they’d cost a bundle.
“You’ve bulked up, buddy,” Carter commented, eyeing Jack’s shoulders and chest. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Come in, both of you,” Ally invited, and led the way into her living room. “Would you like a beer, Carter? Or something else?”
“Do you have any Scotch?”
“Maybe.” She went to a small cabinet that housed a bar, found a bottle and poured a glass of amber liquid for him.
“Thanks.” He took the drink and seated himself in an armchair. Jack sat on the couch. Ally went to get another beer for her and Jack, and both men watched her leave the room, then looked at each other. A million unspoken thoughts and questions filled the silence.
“How was San Diego?” Jack asked casually, crossing one ankle over his knee and leaning back into the couch.
“Uh...fine. Great. Things went well there. Big corporate case I’m working on right now.”
“You’ve done well at...what’s the name of the firm? Chipman, Barratt?”
“That’s right. And, yeah, I’ve done pretty well.”
“That’s great. It’s what you always wanted.”
“Yup.” Carter paused. “And you too. Photography’s going good?”
Jack nodded slowly, lips pursed. Did Carter even know successful he’d been? They’d exchanged e-mails but, not one to brag, Jack couldn’t remember if he’d told Carter about all the awards he’d received, the big money his photos commanded. Whatever.
Ally returned and handed a bottle to Jack, then sat beside him on the couch. She sat close beside him on the couch. He didn’t mind, but wondered if Carter noticed.
“So,” Carter said, looking at them with a smile. “This is pretty amazing, isn’t it? The Awesome Threesome together again.”
Jack showed his teeth in a grin, and saw Ally nodding beside him out of the corner of his eye. Their old high school nickname brought back memories – the three of them working on the yearbook together, the school newspaper, going out together as a big group with Brittany, Jenn, and Ally’s boyfriend Jeff all through high school. They’d shared a lot of fun times, but some rough ones as well, and both good and bad had bonded them.
“What brings you back to the States, Jack?” Carter lifted his glass to his mouth.
“Well, that’s a long story.” He glanced at Ally, met her gaze, turned back to Carter. He was too impatient. He needed to know.
“Before we get to that, Ally and I have been wondering ...why the hell didn’t you tell her about all my e-mails?”
Carter blinked, his face neutral, blinked again. He looked at Ally and she stared back at him, waiting. Then he gave a wry smile. “I should have known you’d ask about that. I’m really sorry about that, Ally. I only did it to protect you.”
“Huh?” She frowned.
He nodded, leaned forward, glass between his hands. “I knew how hurt you were that Jack took off without even saying goodbye. When he finally e-mailed me about where he was, I just thought it was better to not say anything.”
“How could you possibly think that?” she whispered, eyes dark with confusion and pain.
He shrugged, leaned back in his chair. “It seemed the best idea at the time. You were hurt, angry...I thought it would just make things worse if I told you Jack had contacted me, but not you.”
Jack shook his head. “I assumed you would tell her,” he said. “I asked how she was doing, told you to say hi from me. You never once mentioned she was pissed off at me, or hurt.”
Carter looked surprised. “I didn’t?” He shrugged. “I don’t remember you asking about her. You’re going back quite a few years, Jack.”
“Yeah, that’s true. So you’re saying you thought you were doing Ally a favor by not telling her about my e-mails?”
“Yeah. That’s right.” He glanced between Jack and Ally. “You two have obviously talked about this. When did you get into town?”
Jack smiled slowly. “Friday night.”
“Ah.” Carter would now know they’d had ample time to compare notes about what had happened. He nodded. “I’m sorry if I caused any problems, really I am. I had no idea. I just thought I was looking out for you, hon.”
Carter’s use of the endearment for Ally jabbed at Jack. His fingers tightened on the cool smooth bottle in his hands.
“I really thought it was best.” Carter looked so apologetic and concerned that Jack almost relaxed a little. Carter seemed sincere and it sounded plausible enough. But Jack wasn’t quite the blindly trusting fool he’d been five years ago.
Jack waved a hand, forced a smile. “Water under the bridge,” he said lightly.
He felt Ally glare at him and knew she wasn’t prepared to forgive and forget that easily. Amusement curled through him despite the tension. Ally wasn’t quite the little peacemaker she’d always been. And if she wanted to be pissed off at Carter, Jack was good with that. He could sense her animosity and if he was completely honest, he’d rather she felt that way about Carter than any other...softer...way.
“I’m also curious about why you never told me you and Ally had split up,” he told Carter.
Carter’s mouth twisted in a crooked smile and he lifted a shoulder. “Well. That wasn’t something I was really happy to talk about. It was embarrassing. It was...well, I was kind of messed up after that. I...took it hard.”
Jack felt Ally tense up even more beside him. He nodded. “Yeah, I can understand that, I guess.”
“Carter, what do you mean, you took it hard? You were the one who cheated.” Ally’s mouth was a straight line and her hazel eyes flashed. One corner of Jack’s mouth kicked up.
Carter shrugged. “I made a mistake, Ally. I told you that. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”
Jack did so not want to hear this.
“The truth is...” Carter smiled with a mix of sadness and embarrassment, met Jack’s eyes. “I kept hoping Ally and I would get back together. I guess I thought if I didn’t tell you we’d broken up, it would be like it never happened.”
Ally just shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. We barely even talked after we split. Only to sort out legal stuff about the condo.”
“Well, I know you didn’t believe me,” Carter said. “But I was still in love with you, Ally. I told you that.”
She nodded. That much was apparently true, at least. Ugh.
“Well,” Jack said, not wanting the conversation to go that direction. “Anyway. The reason I’m here is...” And he told Carter about Brittany and Sarah. Carter looked as shocked as he and Ally had been to hear Jack was a father and hadn’t known it for nine years.
“Holy shit,” Carter said slowly, gripping his glass. His eyes moved around the room. “So, out of the blue she contacts you and drops that bomb on you?”
Jack nodded and told him about Sarah. “Anyway,” he shrugged. “I had to come home and I thought it would be good to see you again.”
“Well, yeah. Of course. Listen, man, let me know if there’s anything I can do. You’re going to need a lawyer. She’s probably looking for support for the last nine years, which you do not have to pay, since she didn’t even tell you about the kid.”
Jack stared at Carter. “I don’t need a lawyer.”
Carter met his gaze. “You will. This could get ugly. You have to know she’s after money.”
Jack shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.”
“I didn’t get that impression, either,” Ally said, her gaze moving back and forth between the two men. She nibbled her bottom lip. “I think she just wants Brittany to know her father.”
Carter laughed. “You two are so naive. Just because Brittany was a sweet little teenager, just because she’s an old friend, doesn’t mean she she’s not after something here.”
Jack and Ally shared a dubious glance. Jack should have known Carter would have a different take on this whole situation.
“Well, I’m here if you need me, buddy,” Carter said. He set his empty glass down on the table. “It’s been great seeing you again, too bad it’s under such difficult circumstances. How long are you here for?”
“I don’t know.” He and Carter both stood, the visit apparently at an end. “Depends on when Brittany decides to tell Sarah who I am. A couple of weeks, at least. Hey, I’ll call you this weekend. Maybe we can get together again.”
“Sounds great.”
Jack walked Carter to the door, Ally hanging behind them, apparently content to let him play host with Carter.
When the door closed behind Carter, Jack turned back to look at Ally. How was she taking this? Did she still have some feelings for Carter, despite her assertions that they were over a long time ago.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 17
Extreme Close Up Chapter 15
Jack drained the last of the warm water from the bottle. Shit.
“I’m so sorry,” Brittany said, her voice strained.
“It’s okay.” He wiped a drip of perspiration from his face. “Maybe I should stop ...”
“It’s such a lot of work, Jack.” She surveyed the material cluttering her small yard. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Hell, yeah.” He forced a grin. “I’m figuring it out. It’s a little different than the house I built with my dad when I was a kid, but’s way nicer.”
“I’m sure she’ll love it when it’s built.”
A gaping hole in his gut ached. Christ, he hoped so. He was doing this for her. He firmed his lips. “Back to work,” he said, trying to sound confident.

* * *

Ally had waited until two o’clock on Wednesday to call Carter, knowing he was driving back from San Diego that morning.
“Hey, Ally,” he said, surprise roughening his voice. “What’s up?”
“Jack is in town.” No sense making small talk.
A short silence, then, “Jack? Holy shit!”
“I know.” She paused. The question was on the tip of her tongue, ready to burst out. Why the hell didn’t you tell me about his e-mails? But she bit her tongue. “Why don’t you come over tonight and see him?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he said hastily. “It’d be great to see him again.”
She thought she detected a faint hint of anxiety in his voice but couldn’t be sure. “Great,” she said. “Come over around seven.”
Then she called Jack’s cell phone.
“Hi,” she said. “Where are you?”
“At Brittany’s. Working on this damn tree house.” Of course he was. He’d spent most of yesterday either buying or building the house, had come home late last night. She’d already been in bed, listening for him, wondering what he and Brittany and Sarah were doing so late.
“How’s it going?”
“Crappy.” He sighed. “I didn’t realize what a big job this was. And she doesn’t even like it.”
“It’s not in a tree.”
“Oh. But she’ll like it when it’s done.”
“Yeah. That’s what Brittany says, too.”
“I’m sure she’s right. Anyway, I called to tell you I got hold of Carter and he’s coming over tonight to see you.”
When she hung up and turned back to her computer, her stomach was in knots. She had a very uncomfortable feeling about how the meeting was going to go. She was going to have to confront Carter, something she never liked doing. It wasn’t that she cared about him any more. He was just so...overbearing. Annoyingly confident. He was always right.
It pissed her off, made her feel like she was in the wrong, made her feel small and impotent when it came to trying to deal with him. She pressed her lips together.
That was in the past. If Carter had lied to her about Jack, she wanted to know. And Carter was going to know how angry she was.
She tried to focus on her work, but her mind kept going off in different directions and she ended up sitting there, hands idle on the keyboard.
A while later, she looked down at the denim shorts she’d worn all day and grimaced. Okay, maybe this meeting between the three of them after so many years called for something a little better than this. Something confidence building.
In her bedroom, she stepped out of the shorts and pulled the faded grey T-shirt she wore over her head.
She heard the door as Jack arrived home and stood there in her underwear indecisively for a moment, then grabbed a fluffy pink robe and shoved her arms into it. She never wore pink, it was a horrible color on her, but the robe had been a gift. She hurried across the room and out the door to greet him.
He was just coming up the stairs.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him. Baggy beige cargo pants hung low on his hips and a snug black T-shirt showed off all the muscle definition he’d acquired over the years. His tanned face shone with perspiration. She warmed inside at the sight of him.
“Hi,” she said breathlessly. He eyed her apparel. “Sorry, I was just changing.” She pushed her hair back and tugged the robe tighter around her, standing at the top of the stairs.
“That’s okay,” Jack said, still looking at her body. Now she really felt warm. “I was just going to shower and change, too. What time is Carter coming?”
“In about an hour.”
“I brought home dinner. Pizza.”
“Oh. Thank you. I’ll go finish getting dressed.”
She turned, acutely conscious of her lack of clothing, and he went into his own room. She returned to her bedroom and dug in her drawer for her powder-blue lace panties and bra. She pulled out her best jeans, really low-rise ones that fit perfectly, and a swingy camisole top in the same shade of blue as her bra. Then she smoothed her hair with a brush and put some shiny gloss on her lips.
Downstairs she found Jack already in the kitchen opening the pizza box, damp-haired from what must have been a speedy shower. “Want a beer?” she asked.
“Hell yeah.” He moved toward her fridge. She liked that he felt comfortable enough there to go in and help himself. She followed him.
He grabbed a beer, popped the top and held it out to her. “Here.”
Ah. That was nice. “Thanks.”
They stayed in the kitchen, eating pizza and drinking beer. When they’d finished, Jack loaded their dishes in the dishwasher while Ally put the leftover pizza in the fridge. Ally glanced at her watch. Carter would be there soon.
Jack’s posture as he leaned against the counter holding his beer looked relaxed, long legs crossed at the ankle, but she could see how taut his body was, the muscles in his arms hard with tension, his lips firm, jaw rigid. Her own shoulders were tight with apprehension at seeing Carter again, and about confronting him. She hated fighting, would almost rather just forget about the whole thing, except was important. Jack said he’d kept in touch, and Jack wouldn’t lie about that. But why would Carter? She had to know what had really happened. It made a difference. Her tummy quivered with nerves.
“You okay?” Jack asked her. Their eyes met, connected, held.
“Yeah, sure.” But her voice came out higher pitched than she’d intended. She licked her lips.
“You don’t want to do this, do you?”
“No. But I have to. I want to know what Carter was doing.”
“Is it hard? To see him again?”
She lifted a shoulder. “I’d rather not see him again. Ever.”
“I’m sorry. It’s because of me that you’re having to go through this.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s not because of you. If Carter did something - if he lied to me - it’s because of him we’re doing this.”
“You wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t shown up unexpectedly on your doorstep.”
“Maybe not right now.” She sipped her beer, and the fingers holding the bottle trembled. “I can do it, Jack.”
His eyes warmed as they looked at her. “I know you can.” His eyes fell to Ally’s mouth and she felt his gaze like a touch. Her lips parted and she forgot to breathe.
Then the doorbell rang.
“Showtime,” Jack murmured, and they stepped apart.
Ally paused, took a breath, then headed to the door

Extreme Close Up Chapter 16
Extreme Close Up Chapter 14
“So you have no tools,” the salesman said, and Jack could clearly hear “you are an idiot” in his tone. “Well, then I’d recommend one of our tree house packages.”
He stood in the monstrous home center gazing at piles of lumber. He ran a hand through his hair.
“Is that a pre-fab kind of thing?”
“Come this way.” The salesman led him through the huge warehouse and stopped in front of a structure. It was a house, all right, but it wasn’t in a tree. It was a raised structure with a small house – an awesome house, Jack had to admit – a slide coming off it, and a set of swings.
“She already has a swing set,” he said doubtfully, eyeing the structure. “And it’s not in a tree.”
“Well, no,” the man said, patience stretching out his words. “But it’s ready to build. The walls, roof and floor are all modular and pre-assembled, so there’s nothing to saw. All wood components are painted to protect them from weather. You can paint the outside and shingle it however you like. Paint and shingles aren’t included.”
“How much?”
Jack gulped. He was pretty sure that didn’t mean twenty nine dollars. But what the hell. He had nothing but money. No home. No car. Not even a single piece of furniture. He’d basically banked and invested all his earnings the last five years, so yeah...he had money. “How do I get it home?” As he said the word “home” he knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t his home. Whatever.
“We’ll deliver it to your door,” the man replied. “We can have it there this afternoon. Somebody has to be home to take delivery, though.”
“Yeah, okay. I can be there.” He had nothing better to do.
The salesman helped him with the basic tools he was going to need to put the thing together, then he pulled out the credit card and made arrangements for it to all be delivered.
Brittany met him at her place to let him in, then went back to work. Sarah was at daycare. As he waited at their home for the delivery, he felt as much in a foreign place as he had when he’d arrived in Iraq. It was just too weird to contemplate, sitting on Brittany’s worn couch in her little duplex, watching daytime TV, studying Sarah’s paraphernalia lying around – a doll, a pair of pink runners, a baseball cap.
He couldn't help remembering how close he'd been to jumping all over Ally last night. He'd seen something in her eyes that looked a lot like the need and hunger he felt. But she'd said good-night and turned away and that was probably a good thing. Dammit.
He jumped up when the big truck arrived with the delivery, relieved to finally be doing something. Soon he had Brittany’s entire back yard filled with pieces of wood, shingles, a big plastic slide and stuff he didn’t even know what to do with.
He considered reading the directions on how to assemble the house, then set them aside. Nah. He could figure it out. How hard could it be?
The California sun grew warm and eventually he had to shed his sweatshirt to work in a short-sleeved T-shirt. He wiped the sweat from his brow but it trickled down his back, and he knew part of it stemmed from frustration and fear, rather than the sun. The volume of pieces and different types of materials overwhelmed him.
He took a break for a bottle of water from Brittany’s fridge, at her invitation before she’d left for work, and stood surveying the mess he’d made. Hell. This wasn’t going well and-he glanced at his watch-Brittany and Sarah would be home in a couple of hours. He hadn’t planned to finish it by then, he knew that wasn’t realistic, but he’d hoped to have a good start. All he had was chaos.
When all else fails, read the directions. He sat down on the grass with his bottle of water and the book of instructions and started reading.
Okay, he just needed to take an organized approach to this. He sorted parts and pieces, and little by little began to assemble the structure. He’d completed the base of it by the time Sarah and Brittany arrived home.
“Hi Jack.” Sarah ran into the yard and stopped dead. “Wow.” Her eyes were huge in her small face. Brittany came to a stop behind her, stunned amazement also shading her face.
“Um...that’s really big,” she said in a choked voice.
Jack nodded, pleased with what he’d managed to accomplish so far.
“But it’s not in the tree,” Sarah said, and her bottom lip jutted as she gazed at the beginnings of the house.
“No, but it will be up high,” Jack said. “Come see the picture.”
Sarah took a step nearer. He showed her the picture on the front of the instruction book. “See. It has a slide and swings attached.”
“But I already have a slide and swings.” Her bottom lip quivered. “And it’s not in the tree.”
“Sarah,” Brittany’s sharp voice interjected. “Jack is going to a lot of trouble to build this for you, you know.”
Jack looked from Sarah’s pout to Brittany’s frown. “That’s okay ...”
“No,” Brittany said. “Sarah, when someone does something for you you’re supposed to be grateful, not complain.”
“But it’s not what I wanted!” Sarah turned
and ran back into the house on her skinny legs.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 15
Extreme Close Up Chapter 13

The fashion show began, the least professional fashion show he’d ever seen, but the most moving and emotional. As Ally had told him, the models were all women who’d kicked drugs and reclaimed their lives, all beautiful in their own way. Some walked the runway with hesitant steps, others with proud confidence, others with shy embarrassment.
Jack’s attention was momentarily diverted by the photographer shooting each model as she came out, and he studied the man as he worked, checked out his camera. Then Ally next to him distracted him as she clapped, cheered and laughed. The pleasure she took in the women’s success humbled him. At the end, the models all came out, hugging, laughing through tears, and Jack, Ally and her friend Kim stood with the rest of the audience to applaud them enthusiastically.
When he turned to Ally, she was wiping a tear from her eye and he smiled at her with concern. “Hey,” he said. “You okay?”
“Yes,” she said with a laugh and a small sniff. “I’m fine. This was so good for me tonight. When I feel sorry for myself, working with people like Toya always puts things in perspective.”
He knew exactly what she meant, had gotten the same reality-check just that morning. At that moment, he felt the deep connection he had with Ally, a connection he had never felt with anyone else, and their eyes met and held in the crowded room.
“You’re so special,” he told her softly.
She smiled tremulously. “Thank you.”
He wanted to wrap her in his arms and never let her go. It took all his self-control to resist the urge, and he shoved his hands in the pockets of his cargo pants as he followed Ally and Kim out of the ballroom.
“There’s a small party after,” Ally told him. “Kim and I are invited as volunteers. We should make an appearance.” Her eyes questioned him. He realized he probably looked moody, scowling in his efforts to resist Ally, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched.
“Of course,” he said immediately, only too happy to watch her with her friends.
He accepted a glass of non-alcoholic punch and sipped it as Ally and Kim mingled and talked with other volunteers and the evening’s models. Ally looked so sophisticated, so confident, laughing and talking with the others, accepting hugs of thanks from some of the women she’d worked with. And yet, she hadn’t ditched him. She made sure to include him in conversations, introduced him to people, took his arm when she moved on and towed him with her.
Being in her world entertained and enlightened, and he wished he could be more of a part of it. He pushed gloomy thoughts like that out of his mind. He was trying to take one day at a time right now, deal with one issue at a time, and a relationship with Ally was not something he could even think about.
Later, he followed her into her house, feeling like a teenager on a date again, waited while she turned on lights. She turned to him and smiled. “I hope it wasn’t too much torture for you tonight,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
“No. Thank you. You’re amazing.”
She flushed a little, dropped her eyes. “No, I’m not. I really don’t do very much. Not as much as some people.”
“There you go again, fishing for compliments.”
Her gaze flew up to his. “I was not!”
He laughed. “I’m kidding. By the way, what you do is just”
She laughed a little breathlessly. “Okay.”
He stared at her longingly, wishing for things he couldn’t have. Her eyes warmed and her pupils expanded. Was she thinking the same things?
Their gazes locked. A tension between them drew them closer and he wasn’t sure, but he might have moved toward her. Silent darkness surrounded them. His heart thundered his chest and he felt like he was in a dream where he wanted to move but was frozen. He wanted to touch Ally. He wanted to say to hell with all the sensible reasons he shouldn’t touch her, he wanted for once in his life so badly to do the wrong thing. Because taking her into his arms, holding her, ravishing her, would feel so right.

Extreme Close Up Chapter 14