“I have to admit that I’m impressed by how well you handled all the questions from the police about Brock Templeton,” Lana said grudgingly. Joe ‘Mac’ MacKenzie was already much too cocky, and his ego hardly needed any stroking. Watching him with the officers, though, had been like watching a master. She could easily see how he’d earned so many promotions and honors as a Navy pilot.
He shrugged, not taking his hands off the wheel, but the small smile he gave—and why couldn’t he be a little less handsome?—was self-satisfied. “It’s the accent,” he answered, really laying it on thick. “Like my daddy said, a Southern man tells the best jokes and is always welcome at any dinner table or gatherin’.”
She snorted, and not the usual elegant sniff that sometimes escaped but a full-on nasal rattling noise. “You sound like Tom Hanks’ cousin from the deeper South—like, the Mariana Trench of Alabama.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, not Alabama—perish the thought! My family’s pure Georgia. How did you guess I was from Mariana Trench, though?” he teased. “My granddaddy was mayor of Mariana Trench, as a matter of fact.”
She raised one skeptical eyebrow. “Matter of fact, eh?”
Her heart felt like it beat double-time at Mac’s charming grin, flashing like the Cheshire Cat’s as it was lit periodically by the streetlights they passed. Lana Fitzhugh, you of all people know better than to get your head turned by a handsome, charming man, she scolded herself. He’d shown himself to be overbearing, jealous and possessive when he’d fired one of the caterers on the spot earlier in the evening without even consulting her. But you didn’t disagree with his decision, the annoyingly honest voice in the back of her head forced her to acknowledge. The caterer had actually been making her uncomfortable, but it had been her problem to deal with, not Mac’s.
“Would I lie to such a stunning creature? You wound me, ma’am, straight to the core.” He pretended to be hit by a bolt to the heart, and she couldn’t help the burble of laughter that she tried to stifle. He was just so ridiculous. He was smart, funny and seemed truly dedicated to helping other men and women who’d recently left the service. Several times over the past few weeks as she’d worked closely with him to plan that night’s fundraiser, she’d found herself liking him in spite of her better judgment.
The party had been an unqualified success for the worthy veteran’s charity that Mac and Fitz, her second-oldest brother, had become very involved with. Well, she mentally amended, it was practically perfect until Brock Templeton, Fitz’s fiancée’s ex-boyfriend, made a scene, insulted Clara and drunkenly confessed to trying to cause her to ‘accidentally’ lose their baby. Brock had clammed up when they’d gotten to the police station, but, thank goodness, Mac had already recorded everything on his phone.
“I know that Fitz and Clara will really appreciate your getting the police to agree to take their statements tomorrow. They don’t like to leave baby Hope for too long,” she answered, sobered by the recollection of the night’s events.
“I’m certain they’ve checked in on Miss Hope, but I do believe they may be doing some, uh, private celebrating of their engagement, too—or, at least, on behalf of lonely single dudes everywhere, I hope they are. It’s not every day that a man gets the woman he loves to agree to marry him.” Mac’s voice was light, but there was something sad behind his tone, just below the surface.
“No…no, it’s not,” she agreed, snapping her mouth shut when she realized she sounded wistful. She had plenty to be grateful for, especially now that Fitz had returned to their lives, bringing the lovely Clara and Hope, shaking up the household and breaking their oldest brother, Drew, and Lana herself out of the cold, boring routines they’d fallen into. “Clara is just lovely—and Hope, too. I couldn’t be happier for them,” she enthused, perhaps a bit too heartily.
Mac quirked one side of his mouth up in a wry smile. “You’ve convinced me…but are you sure you’ve convinced yourself?”
His insight surprised her.
“I suppose you’re right…but please don’t think it’s about Clara, because she really is wonderful. I truly am happy for them.” She paused, forcing herself to be truthful. “Maybe a little envious, too. A long time ago—God, when I was so young and arrogant, self-assured to the point of naiveté and convinced of my own completely irresistible self—I made some really awful decisions.”
If he’d said anything, she probably wouldn’t have continued, but he remained silent, waiting.
“I ended up with a badly trampled heart—let’s call it pulverized instead of broken—and it cost me my best friend and years of my relationship with Fitz, too.” Suddenly uncomfortable with just how much she’d revealed, she gave a weak laugh. “I’m sorry I said that…burdened you with that. You didn’t ask for my life story.”
Mac touched his hand to her thigh for an instant before returning it to make a hard turn with the steering wheel. “Whatever happened, it sounds like you learned a lot from it, although I’m sorry it sounds like it caused you so much pain,” he replied in a low, earnest voice, so different from the light, teasing tones he usually used with her. “And, Lana, nothing you could ever tell me would be a burden,” he finished, clearing his throat. She wondered if he was equally uncomfortable with what she’d revealed.
Taking pity on him, she deliberately lightened the tone. “I bet you say that to all the young debutantes,” she answered. “Does it ever work?”
Mac’s laughter was a surprised bark. “Touché, Miss Fitzhugh. It might shock you to learn that I have, indeed, known my fair share of debutantes, including my two sisters.”
“Now, that is unexpected,” she agreed, although now that she pictured it, she could definitely see Mac all dressed up in a gray afternoon suit, flirting shamelessly and fetching lemonade for some pretty young thing. “Does that mean you can dance? You never asked me once tonight.”
They stopped at a signal so that his face was half in the light and half out, but the expression on the half she could see was distant. The silence between them became thick and uncomfortable. Lana knew she must have mis-stepped, but she wasn’t certain how.
“I don’t think I can dance anymore—or at least not like I used to,” he answered at last, his voice gruff. “I lost my right leg below the knee about eighteen months ago now.”
Lana sucked in a sharp breath. She’d known Mac and Fitz had met in a military hospital, and she’d noticed that Mac walked with a limp, but she’d never wanted to pry, figuring that Mac would tell her about his injury if he wanted her to know. She’d never imagined he’d lost part of his leg entirely.
“Horrified? Tempted to feel sorry for me?” Mac sounded defensive. “I’ve had to deal with just about every type of reaction.”
She touched his shoulder gently. “Nope, just surprised, since I didn’t know,” she answered quietly. “I can’t even begin to understand how difficult recovering from an injury like that would be, and I admire your charity work even more now.”
The enclosed space of the small front seat of the car felt suddenly intimate, especially so late at night, as if the two of them might be the only people awake in the city—or maybe in the world.
They pulled onto the long driveway—well, really a small, private lane—that led to the main house of her family’s compound—Fitzhugh’s Folly, as it was widely known, given how outrageously expensive and ostentatious it had been when her grandfather, Pat, had built it.
Tonight, it looked cavernous and dark…forlorn. Or maybe that’s just me, Lana thought, but recognizing the source of her melancholy didn’t make her feel better. Her oldest brother, Drew, had opted to stay at his high-rise apartment downtown to save time before his morning meeting. Her grandfather and Roger, who was ostensibly their butler but really a member of the family, along with being her grandfather’s long-time companion and probably his closest friend, had gone to bed early, so the lights had likely been out in their wing since ten o’clock or so.
Fitz and Clara were staying in the large separate guest house—which was actually the original house on the property—so Lana would be alone in the north wing of the main house. She should have been comfortable with it—in fact, she was very used to it, since at least three or four nights a week she had the mansion practically to herself, with its multitude of bedrooms, sitting rooms and other various spaces for practically every conceivable purpose. She often relished the solitude, after needing to be ‘on’ for so much of her charity work, which was no easy feat for a natural introvert who would have been happy just reading and drinking tea. Tonight, though, she felt a pang of loneliness.
Before she knew it, they’d pulled up to her front doors. They were tall, made from a thick, dark wood, and the whole impressive entryway looked forbidding, shrouded in darkness.
“They don’t leave the front lights on for you?” Mac asked, breaking the silence and some of the tension.
Lana wished they did, but they weren’t that kind of family. “I often get home late, and my grandfather is surprisingly frugal, so…” She shrugged, looking away. “I’m accustomed to it.” She could feel Mac’s gaze, but she refused to turn toward him. “I go in the side door, anyway.”
Before she could tell him not to, Mac had gotten out of the car and come around to open her door, offering her his arm. He still looked impossibly handsome in the fading moonlight. It was so cold at the tail end of mid-November that his breath puffed out of his mouth in white clouds, but he looked unruffled in his pristine dress uniform.
“Let me walk you there?” he asked. When she hesitated, with one leg on the ground and one still in the car, he spoke again. “So I’m certain you’re safe.”
With a swift bolt of comprehension, Lana realized he must be doing this—ensuring her safety—for Fitz, as a favor to her brother, which made total sense. They hadn’t totally repaired their relationship as brother and sister, since that would take a long time, but they’d made some good headway, and Fitz had always been protective of her when they had been younger. So why do I feel so disappointed? she wondered.
“Since you insist,” she agreed, unable to keep the snap of annoyance from her voice entirely. Still, holding onto Mac’s solid, warm arm, inhaling his distinctive scent, so smooth and comforting, like masculine soap and cinnamon and detergent, she wasn’t sorry not to be alone. No…it was more than that. She wasn’t sorry that Mac was the specific man she walked with.
Across the lawn, she saw a light come on in the guest house, which she recognized was in baby Hope’s room. Silhouetted on the shades, she saw a curvy woman’s figure rocking a child, and a larger outline as a man came up behind her, enveloping them in his shadow with a hug and leading them away from the window. The peace and serenity of the domestic scene, along with recollections of the love that she’d seen on their faces every time Fitz and Clara looked at each other and at tiny, perfect Hope, made her heart hurt, because she knew she would never have anything like it—and didn’t deserve it, anyway. Tears filled her eyes. As their steps slowed when they neared the side entrance to her area of the house, she kept her face averted from Mac so he wouldn’t see.
“I’m here safely, so you can report back to Fitz that you did your duty,” she answered, more coldly than she’d intended.
“Hey, now,” Mac answered, turning toward her in front of the side steps and urging her chin up with one strong but gentle finger so he could look at her face. “I never do anything I don’t want to do—not anymore, in any case—and I wanted to see you to your door safely for myself, so I wouldn’t worry.” He studied her, and she had the uncomfortable sensation that he saw much more than she’d wanted. “Are those tears, sugar?”
“No,” she denied in a thick voice, but her body immediately betrayed her as two droplets fell from her lashes and traced icy paths down her cheeks.
“Oh, darlin’, I’m sorry. Not quite sure what I did or said, but I never meant to make you cry,” he murmured in a deep, sincere voice, and Lana thought that she could have forgiven him just about anything, if there’d been something to forgive.
“It’s not you,” she answered. “It’s just that I feel so…alone sometimes, you know?” she admitted.
“God, yes,” he replied, with feeling. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close into his body, so tightly that something he had pinned to his uniform pressed into her cheek. In spite of the tiny prick of pain, she felt safer and warmer than she had for a long, long while. “You’re not alone now, Lana.”
She tipped her head back, and she wasn’t sure whether she pushed up toward him first or he lowered his head, but somehow he closed his mouth over hers, and it was sublime. At first, his lips were gentle—surprisingly soft for such a brave, tough ex-military pilot—but when she moaned, he deepened the kiss, and she savored his spicy taste, a little like the coffee they’d drunk at the police station, but mostly just his own unique flavor.
She pushed herself against him, feeling his hardness rise, thick and long, against her stomach, and he tangled his hands into her updo, dislodging bobby pins, which made tiny metallic pings as they landed on the steps. He caressed her tongue with his, claiming her mouth in bold strokes until her nipples tightened against his chest as she imagined how he would claim her with other parts of his body.
When he finally raised his mouth from hers, his breathing harsh and uneven, she noticed they must have walked together right up to the wall of the house, and her back was cold against the bricks. The rapid puffs of her breath mingled with the clouds of his, and he leaned his forehead against hers.
“I’m sorry… I got a little carried away,” Mac said, and they still stood so close that she could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest against her breasts.
“No, no…I was just as into it, maybe more,” she said, then flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean…well, you know. I’m sure you could tell that I was enjoying it, but of course we shouldn’t have done that.”
Mac took a step back. “What do you mean?”
Lana bit her lip, feeling like she wished the ground would swallow her up. Where was some handy quicksand when you needed it?
“Well, like you said, I’m sorry, too.”
Mac shook his head. “No, darlin’, I’m not sorry it happened…only sorry we went so fast.”
When she looked up into his face—so handsome, perfectly formed with strong lines and eyes that she couldn’t make out clearly right now in the low light but that she knew were a startling deep green and probably blazing with emotion—she wished she dared to trust herself again with a good man, a kind man, a true friend like Mac. Being with someone like him wasn’t in the cards for her, though. That kind of man wanted more than she could give—more than she was capable of giving anymore.
She put her hand on his chest. “Mac, there can’t be anything more between us. I can’t be with someone like you.” She tried to be gentle, but she rushed her words as thick tears rose in her throat.
Mac took another step back, breaking all contact between them. “Someone like me, huh? Why did I think you were different?” His voice was hollow, resigned…but the tone was underlaid with hurt.
“That’s not—” she started to explain, but he cut her off.
“You know what, Lana? Don’t say anything you might regret. I’ll stay away from you, and you can stay away from me from now on, but no matter what, we’ll still have to see each other sometimes, and I don’t want it to be any worse than it has to be.”
Lana felt as if he’d slapped her, but she forgave him for lashing out. He didn’t understand, but explaining might make it more painful. As Fitz’s closest friend, he was bound to cross her path in the future at important events.
“If that’s what you want,” she agreed, her voice low and sad.
“Does it matter what I want?” Mac’s laugh was mirthless, and he started to turn away. “No, hold on. I’m gonna say one more thing first, because I vowed that if I ever started to feel for someone again, I would say the words out loud—not leave confusion or doubt.”
Lana braced herself for whatever he was going to say, but his words were more surprising for their tenderness than anything else.
“It sounds like we don’t feel the same way and maybe you won’t thank me for saying this, but no matter how you feel, I care about you. I was beginnin’ to think I might be able to care pretty deeply and that maybe you could, too.”
She winced at the raw tone of his voice.
“That doesn’t change overnight. Truth is, for a man like me, that doesn’t really change, period. So if you’re ever in trouble or hurting—no matter everything we said tonight—you can call me and I’ll be there. That’s it.”
His offer stunned her, and letting him turn around and walk away, back into the darkness that was beginning to streak gray with the first light of the coming dawn, was one of the worst things she’d ever forced herself to do. He’d be better off without her, though. She knew it, and he’d recognize it, too, in time.
She’d thought her sad, shredded heart was incapable of feeling anything anymore, but now she learned—too late—that she must have been mistaken. If it had truly been destroyed, it couldn’t hurt so darn bad now. She hurried inside the massive house, her steps echoing off the walls and floors of the empty rooms, and cried for everything that might have been.