I hope you'll enjoy revisiting the Bowens and getting to know Jack and Elle better.
Thinking with his dick was going to get Jack killed.
The guys he was dealing with wouldn’t hesitate to reach down his throat, rip his balls off, and make a Columbian necktie with them at the slightest hint of weakness. Or deception. Heck, just for the sheer fun of it. No big reason needed.
He logged in to his e-mail account, the one he was supposed to ignore, hands fucking sweaty. His heart leaped, lodging in his throat. Yeah, there it was. Unopened mail. From her.
He should have deleted this account the second she’d gotten her meddling, pretty little hands on it. Definitely before taking the new assignment. At the very least forget its existence. There was a reason for breaking all ties. Ties were dangerous, but here he was, literally unable to go a handful of days without checking that damn account. His only lifeline to the outside world. To her.
Yo, Borg, I thought I’d give you the immense honor of my company, even if you clearly don’t deserve it. It’s Christmas. No one should be alone in Christmas. Not even rude, insensitive assholes.
Such a smartass. He could see her in his mind’s eye. All sass, throwing attitude left and right. That blowsy dark hair all over her killer hourglass body, those big, bottomless black eyes narrowed at him, challenging him. Pissing him off and giving him the biggest hard-on of his life at the same time. Elle Cooper, the bane of his existence.
Is it snowing where you are? I hope you get a white Christmas.
Jack looked around him. He was in a helicopter in the middle of a jungle in Butt-fuck nowhere, supervising a weapons run, and the only thing coming from the sky was a permanent horde of motherfucking vicious mosquitos he’d long ago stopped caring about. Nope, no white Christmas for him. Not any other kind either.
Wherever you are, I’m sure you’ve booby-trapped the chimney, hell, the whole place, and Santa won’t be able to drop by to leave you anything without risking his life in the process, so I’ve sent you a present. A cyberpresent, as I’m positive you would have to kill me if you were to give me an address.
He clicked on the attachment and something exploded on the screen.
A Christmas card for badasses, it read, with Santa parachuting down sporting commando clothes and an Uzi.
Jack cracked a smile, the muscles of his face complaining at the rare gesture.
He hadn’t seen her since James’s wedding in August, yet her image was as fresh in his mind as if she were standing in front of him. All he had to do was close his eyes and there she was with him, in full 3-D and Dolby surrounding, exuding sex appeal and attitude and the most potent pheromones he’d ever experienced and against which he didn’t seem to have defenses.
He should have stayed away from her at the wedding, but with him being best man and her maid of honor, it had been virtually impossible, especially when the bride and the groom had insisted on them dancing. Against his better judgment he’d acceded and now the feel of her luscious curves were imprinted in his hands. In his brain really. Her sweet scent too. He’d avoided close contact and touching her for a fucking reason and this, his pathetic, juvenile behavior while undercover, in the face of frigging mortal danger, was exactly why.
He’d remained grim and silent during their dance, clenching his teeth. Trying to block the sensory bombardment, but it had been too late. And she’d known it. She’d smiled that all-knowing, teasing smile of hers. So fucking beautiful. And so fucking aggravating.
He’d been under for five months, monitoring the flow of illegal weapons to the rebels and watching motherfuckers use assault rifles and rocket launchers on civilians and peacekeepers. Five of the shittiest, most miserable months of his entire existence—which was saying a lot, seeing as he’d had pretty shitty assignments before—the only point of light were her wiseass e-mails. He’d gotten a zillion; well, ninety-three to be more exact. For a guy who only got encrypted messages and a couple a month tops, ninety-three e-mails were a shitload. Some of them were barely a line. A “yo, Borg, sweet dreams, wherever you are.” Others were pages long.
His brain had ordered him ad nauseam to block her address. End of issue. No more spam. No more Elle intruding into his personal space, forcing him to interact with the real world. Ha! Like there was a chance in hell his body would follow through on that executive decision. He’d reread her messages many times. Knew them by heart. The wise-assed cracks too. He couldn’t get enough of her. Even when she just talked about her day, he’d greedily read every word, soaking them in. What was said, and what wasn’t.
Checking the sender’s details, he realized she’d written to him in the wee hours. Again. What the hell was she doing up at that time, on a regular Tuesday? And that was not an exception; it was the norm. Elle was a party girl. Always shit to do. Places to go. Men to entice. Not that she had to put too much effort into it; they trailed after her like lovesick puppies, ready to lick her toes and worship at her altar for just a smile of hers. She was the kind of woman for whom necks snapped whenever she entered a room and when she left it, there wasn’t a single guy not following her gorgeous behind. The kind of woman one could look at but should never touch. You touch her, you’d get burned. Jack was too old and jaded for that kind of crap. The aftermath of such a fucking rollercoaster would be a killer. He’d rather get shot in the stomach and be left to die, thank you very much. Less painful.
He repeated that to himself but continued reading.
you can see from the pictures, all is good here. We had a full house for Christmas. I was supposed to work but Aunt Maggie swore she’d haunt me down if I didn’t show up. Mr. Bowen came from Florida. Christy’s mom from LA. All the Bowen and their women were there. Lots of fun. It would had been funnier with you, of course, barrel of laughs that you are. Life and soul of the party, really.
Right. She was the life and soul of the party. Of any party. She just had to smile to be the center of attention. Hell, all she had to do was to show up.
He at the second attachment. Pictures probably. Elle always sent him pictures, which he normally refused to look at, stashing them into a file in the cloud. It was bad enough this idiocy he had going on, no need to go for the whole nine yards. But today he needed too much. In three minutes it would be his fucking birthday. Thirty-six and not shit to show for. No wife, no kids. A half-decent day at work was one he survived unscathed while dealing with crazy fanatics. He was so wound up he couldn’t contain himself and gut churning, he opened the file where he’d gathered all she’d sent.
One at them and his throat clogged. Fuck she always knew what he needed. There were shots of Alden and the Bowens, all laughing. Barbecues. Birthday parties. The newest were from Christmas Eve. Max with his hands on the pregnant belly of his new lady friend, the one Elle had talked to Jack about. The one prone to weird accidents. It seemed like the last Bowen had already bit the dust, willingly, with a big, sappy smile on his face. Jack’s chest tightened. Love and family and friends, exactly the very things he was missing the most.
He reached into his pocket and took an antacid. His stomach had been bulletproof. Until Elle. Now he had a fucking hole the size of Texas, or so he thought. He was still in denial and refusing to go to the doc, living under the illusion that whenever his exposure to her would end, the ulcer would disappear.
He popped the pill and continued with his foolish task. Rosita’s was featured very prominently too. Not so much Elle, who was always the one behind the camera. She was only in a couple of shots. In one she was showing her tongue and making a face. In the other she was laughing, hugging her sister Tate and James.
At that moment an e-mail appeared on his inbox from party girl. He looked at the time stamp: 00:01, rather early for her.
Without thinking, he clicked on it.
Happy birthday, Borg!!
Don’t look so surprised, you know I’m very resourceful. It wasn’t easy, let me tell you, to get it out of James. It was a slip, long time ago, but I have a great memory. He never said your actual age so don’t freak on me, big boy, your secret is safe.
I would have never pegged you for a Capricorn though. I thought you’d be a Scorpio, after all, most serial killers are born in November…
Then again, being a goat suits you too.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you have a fabulous day. You would have a much better time with us, but you can’t have everything in life, can you?
No, he couldn’t. Learned that long ago.
Don’t have much time now, too busy at Rosita’s. Just wanted to be the first to congratulate you on your birthday—or your assembly day—however your kind of people are made.
I’ll write to you later.
This time, the attachment was a video. Before he could realize the foolishness of it, He opened it and his heart tumbled the second he heard her laugh. Someone, Tate by the sound of it, was filming her and Elle was joking with her. Then, as she stood under the mistletoe, she threw an air kiss to the camera and winked an eye. His chest clenched so fucking hard his lungs burned from the lack of air.
Which he was. Drowning in filth and lies and human misery. Dealing with the worst of the worst, risking a Colombian necktie and God only knew what else for just a peek at Elle’s words and a world he didn’t belong to. His chest in a fist. His cock fucking hard.
He slapped the laptop closed, pissed at himself. This was no place to lower his guard. He was surrounded by scum. He ought to behave accordingly and stop daydreaming about the only woman in the world he couldn’t allow himself to have.
* * * *
Two months later, Boston
Elle looked around at the hospital chapel. It couldn’t been denied; Bowen men were extremely original when it came to weddings. First it had been James with that romantic midnight ceremony on the backyard, a thousand small lights illuminating the garden. Then Cole had pledged himself to Christy surrounded by aliens in Las Vegas. Elle hadn’t been there, but she had irrefutable proof of it at Rosita’s, framed in central position on the wall of fame.
And now Max had gathered a bunch of trigger-happy preppers on one side and some stick-up-their-asses socialites on the other and was getting hitched in a hospital chapel, before taking his woman and his newly born daughter home with him. A last-minute, simple ceremony. what had happened, Elle couldn’t blame Max for not wanting to wait. Staring death straight in the eye—even worse, watching the woman you loved almost be killed—would do that to you.
The brothers were talking while waiting for the bride. Mr. Bowen by their side, standing proud. . fussing over Tate, James joined them
Elle walked to where Tate was sitting. “How are you doing, sis?”
“Can’t wait to be able to tie my own shoes again,” Tate grumbled looking at her distended belly. “And to get James off my back.”
Right. Like she needed to tie her own shoes with James around. “Come on, he treats you like a queen. He worries.”
Tate smiled softly, looking at her husband. “I know.”
Elle still couldn’t get used to the image of her prim and proper little sister married to the tattooed-up-to-his ears, possessive James Bowen. And yet she couldn’t think of a better husband for her.
“How’s Rosita’s?” Tate asked.
“Still standing,” Elle assured her. Man, her sister had been away from the restaurant for a couple of days and she was already fretting. If it were up to her, she’d be there this last month of pregnancy, but the doctor had ordered her to rest and James wasn’t taking any chances.
“Mom offered to come to help,” Tate insisted. “We can call her. She’d be here in a flash, and you wouldn’t be alone in that big house.”
Elle shook her head. She could manage just fine. Her mom liked it in Florida, where there weren’t so many reminders of her deceased husband and son, and being with Ron was good for her. “Rosita’s will be fine. And I like my space.”
Tate didn’t believe her, not for a second. “Why don’t you just rent it and with the money pay for a place of your own. You know, somewhere not so full of…”
Memories. That was the word Tate was probably working herself to.
“I’m fine there,” Elle assured.
Before Tate could say anything, Annie walked in with the baby in her arms, her mother by her side. Max darted right away to them, face beaming with love.
Elle had known from the very beginning that Annie was going to be the one for Max. He’d had that look in his eyes, the same one James and Cole had when they looked at their wives.
“Let’s get this show rolling,” Max said after the priest arrived.
As they took their places, Elle scanned the premises. No sign of Jack. He was still doing whatever commando shit he’d been doing since summer, but she’d sent him an e-mail with the info about the wedding a couple of days ago, hoping he’d read it on time.
Suddenly the doors opened and a big black shadow stepped in. The air that she didn’t know she’d been holding came out in a whoosh. Jack. She didn’t need the man to remove the hood to recognize him. The massive force field around him gave him away. When he revealed his face though, she froze. His demeanor had always been severe, but now he looked like a real cyborg. Deep, soulless eyes. Sharper features. Skinnier, if the massive tank he still was could be called that.
Elle approached him and stood in the same aisle he did. “So you do read my e-mails,” she whispered to him, her eyes never leaving the priest. “You’re just too rude to answer to them.”
She didn’t need an affirmation from him, because one, she knew he was that rude and two, there was no doubt he’d read her e-mails. And thank God for that; otherwise Max and Annie wouldn’t be here, getting married, and their story would have ended very differently. Just the thought of it made her sick. What would have happened if she hadn’t sent Jack those shots of Max and Annie? She didn’t even want to think about it.
“Quiet, pet,” he answered back. She couldn’t see, and it was just a flash, but she felt his smile on his voice.
Pet. How she got that demeaning nickname from him, she didn’t know. He’d barely talked to her in all the time they’ve known each other, just grunts and scowls. Then James had gotten hurt last summer and ended up in the hospital, shaking the living shit out of everyone, her included, and when Elle had tried to drive out of there to go open Rosita’s, Jack had blocked the door, snatched the car keys away from her and not only forbade her to drive, but called her pet. Worse still, when she replied that she didn’t recall giving him permission to call her pet, the asshole dared to say I don’t recall giving you permission to talk at all, pet with that frigging arrogant tone of his too, the one that gave her those embarrassing shivers. Modern women shouldn’t get shivers at that. So politically incorrect, dammit.
And the asshole was immune to her. She got her way with everyone but him, who aggravated the living hell out of her by ignoring her. And the more he ignored her, the more she felt like pissing him off. A vicious, rather enjoyable circle.
She stood by his side, their hands brushing during the service, feeling the tension rolling off him. The darkness too. He was in a bad place. Not caring that he would probably rebuff her, she slid her hand in his and gave him a tight squeeze. He needed that, whether he would admit it or not. He froze for a second and to her utter surprise, when she tried to break the embrace, he didn’t let her, holding her tighter.
They didn’t exchange a word during the ceremony. Elle didn’t even move a hair, afraid it would break the spell and Jack would remember he was a badass in no need whatsoever of comfort. He was a badass, true, but whatever he was involved in, it was eating at him. He was tense and grim. Worn out, although he was standing stoic and would rather die than admit it. He needed the comfort, the human touch, even if it was just a small gesture, and damn if she wasn’t going to give it to him.
After Max and Annie were presented as husband and wife, everyone rushed to congratulate them.
Jack loosened his grip on her, and Elle moved to kiss the newlyweds.
When she turned around, Jack had already disappeared.
One and a half months later, Alden
Jack adjusted his tie, feeling uncomfortable as all fuck. The service at the church had been bad, but the mingling and the chitchatting of the reception was much worse. That it was a very informal one, barbecue style, at James’s, didn’t make matters better. The other way around, actually. It made them chattier. He’d rather eat glass.
He couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
“What have I ever done to you to deserve this?” Jack muttered to James.
He hadn’t been forty-eight hours back from his eight s undercover sting and he was already in Alden, neck deep in babies, parties, and marriage bliss. Under normal circumstances, this family fest would have been hard. In his present state, it was unbearable. He was still too raw inside. All he wanted was to be alone, drink himself unconscious, and zonk out for at least a week .
“Come on, man. You know I love you,” James said laughing.
“Thank fucking God. I don’t want to know what you would do to me if you hated me.”
Being back among normal people doing normal stuff was fucking hard. Not life-reassuring. Just uncomfortable and pointless. Making him feel disconnected and more of an outsider. The small talk, the smiles. His stomach roiled at it all, but James was a persistent son of a bitch who had refused to see reason.
“You could have declined to be my son’s godfather.”
“And I would have if you would have told me who the godmother was,” Jack grumbled.
James chuckled. “No, you wouldn’t have.”
True. Refusing wouldn’t have been an option for Jack. Whatever James would ask of him, he would do, no questions asked. And the motherfucker knew it.
“And I didn’t lie to you about the godmother,” James continued with a smirk. “You never asked. You must be losing your touch.”
True again. It was all this happy-happy, love-is-in-the-air, pink-marshmallow gooeyness around Jack that was melting his brain.
Alden and the Bowens were bad for his mental health.
“I told you I wasn’t up for this.”
“And that’s exactly why you need to be here,” James stated. “You were too long under this time. You need to be reminded of the good things in life. Get a haircut. Shave and go get laid.”
“Whatever.” Like it would be so easy to unplug. The stench of misery was still stuck in him, even though he’d scrubbed himself bloody. It was difficult to wash away.
At that moment, one of the main reasons for his piss-poor mood tapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on, T-800,” party girl said from behind him. “The photographer wants a picture of Jonah with his godparents. I tried to convince him that the godfather is not really photogenic and might break the camera with his growls and shitty disposition, but he wants to risk it, professional that he is.”
Without waiting for a response from him, she briskly walked away.
James clapped him on the back. “As I said, the good things in life.”
“T-800?” That was a new one.
“Infiltration unit. Model 101, series 800,” James whispered. Then, probably realizing that meant nothing to Jack, added, “The dumbest of all terminators?”
“Don’t complain,” James continued. “It could be worse. There’s one series who is a woman with big boobs dressed in red leather.”
He’d been told many times he came across as threatening and unapproachable, that everyone was intimidated by him. He liked it that way. The less human interaction, the better. Yet, for some surreal reason, everybody didn’t include her.
He hadn’t known Elle was the godmother although he should have imagined James would pull a stunt like this. Not that Jonah was unlucky to have her on his corner. On the contrary. She was fierce and protective. Damn abrasive and infuriating also. Too bad when he closed his eyes, she was the only woman his mind invariably conjured.
“Come on,” she called at him, turning around and wiggling her index finger at him. “Try to keep up.”
He followed her, trying very hard but failing not to notice her sandglass figure and the hypnotic sway of her hips. That gorgeous ass. The way her long, glossy dark hair seemed to float on her back. And that smell. Fuck, that smell always straight to his cock, never mind how inappropriate the moment was.
The photographer wanted several so the ordeal was cut short, ending while he was sitting on the porch sling. He would have stood up and left if he could have, but his legs weren’t obeying him. Besides, the way out of there was through a horde of giggling, happy people, all nice and friendly. Living oblivious to all the darkness in the world. Wanting to know why he looked so gloomy and trying to cheer him up. s of them in different locations, but Jonah took pity on Jack and decided to start fussing,
With Elle cooing at the baby, Jonah calmed down pretty fast, and Jack found himself staring at the both of them. He never felt disconnected or like an outsider while being around Elle. He felt pissed at himself and bothered beyond belief and amused and aggrieved all at the same time, but never disconnected.
She turned to him, smiled, and he got the full impact, like a fucking 18-wheeler slamming against his chest. Olive-color skin. Delicate features, sultry, extremely fuckable lips. Killer body. Too bad every inch of her being radiated that belligerent disposition of hers, the one that made his cock so fucking hard he couldn’t breathe. Fuck, he’d hoped her effect on him would have worn down with exposure but no dice. She’d gotten even more beautiful, which should have been impossible, because she was stunning to begin with.
He could still remember the day he’d seen her for the first time at Rosita’s. She’d looked at him with those black eyes of hers full of attitude and the world had tilted on its axis. He’d tried to get it back straight, but so far he’d had no luck whatsoever. With her around all was a mess—which he fucking hated it—but without her nothing felt right. Go fucking figure.
“So you finally resurfaced. You sticking around this time, or is this just another of your quickies?”
He all but choked. “What?”
Max’s wedding, another of his lapse of judgment a bit over a month ago. He’d flown into Boston and then driven for two hours to make sure he didn’t have a tail, arriving just in time to see the couple walk down the aisle.
Going there had been his first mistake. Letting Elle touch him had been his second and even far more dangerous. He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t allowed Elle to let go of him. She was small and delicate, but despite how hard he’d held unto her, she hadn’t complained, gripping his as tight. Standing there, in silence, holding hands, had been the most at peace he’d felt for months.
Whatever Elle had seen in his eyes must have been pretty bad, because she hadn’t said anything, but after that, she’d started writing to him daily and sending him more pictures than ever.
“Done. For the most part.” The mission had been to infiltrate the illegal arms trade, investigating the source of arms flowing to scumbags all over the world. The sting undercover had been a success, managing to shoot down several routes without getting his cover blown, but there were always loose ends to be tied up.
“Where were you?” He didn’t answer but she didn’t seem to take it personally. “Got it. State secret.” She gave him a once-over and not giving him time to pull away, brushed his beard with her fingertips, the unexpected caress sending a jolt through his body and zapping his brain. “You look different. Scruffy. I like it.”
Jack pulled away and ran his hand through his shaggy hair, trying not to think about how good her touch had felt. “Don’t get used to it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said with a laugh.
Before he could censor himself, his dumb mouth opened. “Where is Kai?”
She studied him with big inquisitive eyes, the corner of her mouth tilted up in amusement. “Where’s the blonde?”
Blonde? Ah, that babysitting job he’d been guilt-tripped into during James’s wedding. Gorgeous woman, no two ways about it, but Jack hadn’t even noticed her. Elle was all he had seen. Her and her date, Kai, grinning like a fucking fool, his hand on the small of Elle’s back.
Man, he’d wanted so badly to chop off that hand.
“Forgot her tied to your bed?” Elle continued. “That’s what it has to gag your dates, that they can’t scream and one forgets they are there.”
“You speaking from experience, pet?”
“No one would ever forget I’m in their bed.”
He looked into her eyes. No, of course not. Any man with blood in his veins would kill for that memory. Instead, he answered, “I bet. You’re that obnoxious.”
She didn’t take offense. She tapped condescendingly on his chest. “Not the right word, buddy. But I’ll forgive you. Everyone knows T-800s have limited vocabulary. Besides, this must be overwhelming for you. Wifeys and babies all over the place.”
He shrugged. “I don’t have a problem with that.” Which, under normal circumstances, was true.
“Really? I thought you’d be another of those commitment-phobic guys.”
She studied him. “You want to marry?”
“Sure. I just would never marry someone like you,” he said, his tone hard.
Now it was when she would cross his face and leave him there in a huff. Lord knew it wouldn’t be the first one.
Elle burst into laughter. “You’re so full of yourself. What makes you think I would marry you? You are not husband material. You are…fucking material,” she whispered the last two words, covering Jonah’s barely month-old ears, as if the baby could understand. “At best. And that remains to be seen. You might not be good at that either. Not that I have the slightest interest in finding out.”
“You are lying, pet.” he found himself blurting.
Her expression was deceivingly sweet. “Do not call me pet.”
“Do not lie, pet.”
“Nope. Given up on bad boys, sweetie. And you are as bad as they come.”
Then she stood up and still chuckling, walked away from him, leaving him stunned and with the mother of all hard-ons tenting his pants.
In spite of everything, he felt a smile breaking over his face.
Yep, he needed to get the fuck out of Alden and away from her. Pronto. Before the little mind he had left melted.