Fire, Book 2
Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia
Jackson Brooks lifted his glass in the air and held it out in a toast. “Happy birthday, sis.”
Jenna clinked her glass with his, careful to keep the orange juice from sloshing over the side. “Happy birthday to you too.” She grinned at her twin. “You having a good one so far?”
Jackson looked at her, a half smile on his lips. “Never thought turning thirty would change my life. But it has.”
Jenna laughed. “A little melodramatic, don’t you think?” There was no one else she could tease as openly as her brother. No one else in the world she felt this comfortable with. Except maybe for her best friend, Rachel.
“Perhaps.” He shrugged. “It’s just made me think, is all. Made me assess what’s important.”
“Philosophy? This early in the morning?” The two were sharing a quiet, celebratory breakfast in the hotel dining room. “So tell me, Socrates, what conclusions have you come to? What is important in your life?”
Jackson met her gaze, his expression intense. “The usual I guess. Love. Life. Healing.”
Her breath caught. “Healing?”
“Healing enough to live life to the fullest,” Jackson elaborated. His gaze did not waver.
No, Jackson, please. Don’t bring this up. “And are you? Living life to the fullest, I mean?”
“Are you healing?” he asked.
She bit her lip. “Nice birthday conversation.” Not. “Mind if we change the subject?”
Jackson’s intensity did not falter. “Jenn, it’s important.”
She eyed him uneasily before averting her gaze to the open fire crackling in the hearth behind her brother. Flames flickered invitingly as the wood popped and hissed. Darn, she didn’t want to discuss this. Hated thinking about it. Jackson knew that. “I healed a long time ago.” Jackson wouldn’t buy into the lie for a second. “Took a while, but I got there eventually. You?”
Disbelief settled in his eyes. “I thought I had,” he told her softly. “I was wrong.”
“Jackson… Hello? Birthday celebration here.” Do you have to ruin the mood?
Jackson grabbed her hand, squeezed it, and carried right on talking. “It stopped me living, Jenn. Stopped me loving. Set me on a course I never meant to head out on.”
She sighed. Yep, apparently he does. “And you’re only realizing this now?” Every decision Jenna had taken, every choice she’d made over the last twelve years—from the women she befriended, to the career she’d picked, the men she dated and even her behavior in bed—were all influenced by the trauma she and Jackson had experienced when they were seventeen. The trauma brought about by a girl hell-bent on revenge.
He shook his head. “No. I’ve known it a long time. We both have. But it’s only now I’m prepared to do something about it.”
“Are you talking about something specific?” Instinct told her he was, and it wasn’t like Jackson to skirt the issue.
She bit into a piece of melon and wished she could appreciate the juices spilling onto her tongue, but she couldn’t taste a thing. The topic choice had anesthetized her taste buds. “It sounds serious.”
Jackson gnawed on his lower lip. He hadn’t touched his eggs, which was not like her twin at all. Usually he shoveled food into his mouth while she looked on in amusement. What could bother him this much on a luxurious weekend away with friends?
“It’s about Rachel,” Jackson said.
“What about her?”
He tapped a finger on his knife, his agitation obvious, yet his face softened as he answered, his expression turning gentle, almost gooey. “I love her.”
Her jaw nearly hit the table. “Huh?”
“I’m in love with her. I have been for a very long time.” The truth of Jackson’s words shone in his face. He looked…dreamy eyed. “Last night I was finally forced to see the truth. I can’t live without her. I don’t want to live without her.”
Responding was almost impossible. Her mouth refused to function. “R-Rachel Ashberg?” she finally managed to stutter.
Jackson nodded. “She’s the one. The only one for me.”
“And you’re telling me this…”
“Because I can’t carry on lying to myself. I have to be with her. We want to be together. And I need your blessing, sis. We both do—Rach and I.”
Both of them? They’d discussed it? When?
She shook her head, shock and disbelief assailing her in equal measures.
Jackson grabbed her hand, held it tight. “I know we made a deal, Jenn. I know we said we’d never date each other’s friends again, and loving Rach goes against everything we vowed.” He stared at her, resolved yet desperate. For what? Her approval? “But I can’t live like this anymore. I’m leading a life I don’t want to lead. I’m single. I’m lonely. And since Rachel left Brisbane, I’ve missed her.” The melancholy note in his voice echoed across the table. “I…ache for her.” He looked at her, beseechingly. “She’s a part of me, but because of our pact I haven’t let her in—until now.”
Jenna blinked at him, wordlessly digesting his bombshell. Shrapnel tore through her belly. Rachel and Jackson! Her brother and her best friend.
She hadn’t seen that one coming. Wasn’t sure how to respond or what to say.
She didn’t want to withhold her approval—how could she possibly withhold anything that would make her brother happy?—but surprise had her speaking without thinking. “We made that pact for a reason. For this reason exactly. To stop us dating each other’s friends.”
“It did stop me. For twelve years.” Jackson shrugged helplessly. “I can’t anymore, sis. I wanna live, and for me that means being with Rachel.”
The last time Jackson had dated one of her friends, both Jenna’s and Jackson’s lives had been destroyed. Jenna had ended up in hospital for three months. With a diagnosis of severe clinical depression and starvation. She’d simply lost the will to eat. Or to live.
“All those accusations of you and me sleeping together,” Jenna whispered, lost in the horrible thoughts of their past.
“They were terrible,” Jackson agreed, right there with her. Regret and anger flashing through his eyes. “But Rachel never made them. Simone did. And she was a petty little bitch. A teenage girl, hell-bent on revenge because I wasn’t interested in her.”
Simone. The very name made Jenna shudder. She’d been a friend of Jenna’s. A close friend. Jackson had dated her a couple of times, but not been interested in anything more. Simone had been so shocked by Jackson’s rejection, she’d set out to gain revenge. She’d told the entire school Jackson and Jenna were not just brother and sister, they were lovers too. The once happy Brooks twins had instantly been shunned, laughed at, isolated. They’d lost their friends, lost respect, lost their happiness. Jenna’s boyfriend had dropped her like a hot coal.
Jackson would have bounced back easily enough, if Jenna hadn’t been so hard hit by the fabrication and the ensuing gossip. As a kid she’d been ill-equipped to deal with the scorn of her entire school. “She ruined our lives.”
“She did. But you healed, Jenn.”
Not completely. She’d healed just enough to lead a functional, averagely happy life.
If she’d recovered fully, then she wouldn’t be having this conversation now. She wouldn’t be living this life. She wouldn’t be a dietician, obsessively aware of every piece of food she put into her mouth, obsessively needing to control everyone else’s eating patterns as well. She wouldn’t be dating the men she dated, or pretending she had almost no sexual needs. She’d never have needed the pact.
If she’d healed completely, she’d have done what Jackson was doing now: followed her heart and been with the man she really loved. Instead, she dated sweet guys with whom she had absolutely nothing in common. They demanded little—which was exactly how much Jenna was willing to give.
Her mind spun. Shock held her motionless. What was more astounding? The fact Jackson was in love with her BFF, or the fact that he was breaking their agreement? Did she even care about the pact anymore?
The questions overwhelmed her. Made her reel. Made the world whirl in crazy circles. Yet none of them took precedence in her mind.
Only one thought resonated through it.
The man who was leaving Australia in two weeks—and never returning.
The man she’d given up, no matter how much she loved him. The man she’d rejected because of the agreement she and Jackson had made as emotionally overwrought teenagers.
She couldn’t be with Garreth because he was her brother’s housemate, good friend and work colleague. The men worked together as journalists on the same newspaper. Jenna had turned her back on the love Garreth had so generously offered because she wouldn’t betray her brother.
Yet wasn’t her brother betraying her? Her brother and her best friend? Shouldn’t the pain of their coming together fill her with horror—and tears?
Well, yeah. It should. But it didn’t. None of Jackson’s earth-shattering confessions seemed, well, earth-shattering.
Was she numb? Could she be in shock? Were her defenses shooting up, a wall being erected around her heart, for protection? Probably…but that’s not what it felt like. If her wall was going up, she’d have cut off all her emotions. Refused to respond genuinely, refused to think. She’d simply have pasted a vacant smile on her face and said what was expected of her—just like she’d conditioned herself to do when any situation became overwhelming.
She did none of that now.
Her brother’s voice faded into the background, even as he told her about his plans to move from Brisbane to Sydney. She knew his words were important, knew she should focus on them, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t think about anything other than the man she’d let get away.
Jackson was in love with her best friend. The pact was broken.
Which meant there was no longer anything standing between Garreth and herself. Well, nothing but Garreth’s imminent return to Toronto.
Jenna jerked at the realization. Dear God. She had to find him. Had to talk to him. Now. “Jackson?” she cut her brother off mid-sentence. “Where’s Garreth?”
Jackson blinked. “Um… Gazza?”
“Where is he?” Urgency resonated through her question.
“I’m not sure. In his chalet, I guess.”
“Where is it? What number?” Her heart began to pound. Her palms grew sweaty.
“Eight? No, nine. I think.” Jackson held up his hands, obviously perplexed. “Why are you asking?”
She sprung to her feet. “Eight or nine, which one?”
“Nine. Jenn, why is this such a big—?”
Without waiting to hear the rest of his sentence, Jenna spun and sprinted from the dining room. Two seconds later she sprinted back. She hugged her stunned brother and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Of course you have my blessing, bro. Both you and Rach do. Be happy with her.”
And then she charged off once again, praying to God she hadn’t rejected Garreth one time too many.
* * * *
Garreth stood in the open doorway of his chalet, pulling his sweater on. The weather shouldn’t affect him like this. Yeah, the grass was frosted over, but still, it was only seven degrees Celsius outside. Clouds hovered above, grey and dark, the storm from the night before not quite spent. Fresh. Invigorating. The kind of climate he thrived in. So why did the air freeze his breath and his body?
Maybe it wasn’t the air. Maybe the emptiness in his gut chilled him from the inside out. He’d accomplished his mission. Given his housemate the one thing he’d always wanted: Rachel. Made a woman’s dreams come true by uniting her with her soul mate: Jackson. He should celebrate his triumph.
He’d enticed Jackson into bed with him and Rachel, tempted him into a threesome Jackson would never otherwise have considered. Jack and Garreth had shared women before, but they were always fun dalliances with willing partners, nothing more. Rachel was different. Garreth had slept with her knowing Jack loved her and would be furious. And jealous. Jealous enough to go after Rachel himself. His reasons for doing it hadn’t been completely selfish. He’d done it for Jack and Rach, to force them to come together and acknowledge their feelings for each other. He should feel proud.
Instead Garreth felt like a crusty piece of shit. Old, dried out, spent and very much alone. Jack might be happy. Rachel too. But Garreth’s actions had effectively killed any chance he might ever have had with Jackson’s twin. Not that those chances had been high to begin with. Jenna had told him in no uncertain terms that the two of them could never be a couple. Never have a life together. She’d promised Jackson she’d never date any of his friends, and nothing, not even Garreth’s love for her, could change her mind.
Before this weekend, his odds with Jenna had stood at about one in a million. Now? His chances had more than likely moved into the negative figures. Soon as Jenna found out he’d slept with Rachel, she’d cut him from her thoughts in a heartbeat. And if she ever found out he’d shared Rachel with Jack…
Garreth shuddered. He didn’t even want to think about it.
All’s well that ends well. He’d done a good deed as far as Rachel and Jack were concerned. And just as soon as he got over himself, he’d rejoice in it. Right now though, he wasn’t ready to celebrate. He’d just take it one day at a time. Go back to Brisbane, pack up his gear and head home to Toronto. Far away from Australia and the life he’d made for himself here. Far away from the woman he loved but could never have.
Before he could step out of the doorway, something barreled into him, crashing into his chest, slamming the breath from his body, winding him.
That something threw her arms around his shoulders, grabbed his neck and held tight. So tight she crushed his chest. Stopped his heart. Prevented his blood from flowing through his brain. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
But then that’s how he reacted every time Jenna Brooks came near.
Her scent assailed him, permeated his cells. Apple and mint, fresh and…edible. Instinctively, his arms came around her back, holding her closer, clutching her to him.
Christ, so tiny. So fragile. So exquisite.
Silken hair tickled his chin, the wind whipping silvery-blond strands across his face. He clasped his hand around her neck, holding her tresses in place. Her breath came in deep gulps, as though she’d sprinted a mile to get here.
His heart lurched. Was she okay? Usually she sprinted in the other direction, racing as far away from him as she could get. “Jenn?”
“Garreth!” She climbed up his body, hitching first one knee up to his hip and winding her slim leg around his waist, and then the other, locking her feet together behind his back.
Instinctively, he placed an arm beneath her ass, supporting her tiny frame, holding her closer, pressing her pelvis against his groin. She belonged there. She should always be there.
Ah, fuck. Even winded from her attack and worried sick by her sudden appearance, blood emptied into his cock, making him instantly hard. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”
A soft, seductive whimper escaped her mouth, whispered over his neck and sent tingles down his spine. She shifted, flattening her hips against his, pushing hard against his erection, molding herself to its shape. The groan she emitted was a carnal hum.
It took a second, no more, but Garreth saw stars.
Jesus, this was what he’d always wanted. Jenna, in his arms, snuggled up against him, her pussy cradling his cock.
“Tell me what’s wrong.” He knew though. Knew what had her so distressed. He just hadn’t expected this reaction. Hadn’t expected her to run to him after hearing the news.
Garreth stumbled back into the chalet, kicking the door shut behind him. Her anguish needed no audience.
“He loves her, Garreth. He broke the pact.” The words exploded from her mouth. She looked at him, but her eyes were unfocused, dazed even. “Wants to be with her. He’s moving to Sydney for her. I let you go. Turned you away. Forced you to back off, and now he wants my best friend.” The words were a jumbled mess, the explanation coming out in torrents.
Garreth considered interrupting, slowing her down, but couldn’t. She spoke too fast, faster than he’d heard her speak before. Was she in shock?
“All this time I held back. Wouldn’t give myself to you. Wouldn’t betray Jackson like that. I let you go. But he’s with Rachel now. The pact’s over.” Astonishment echoed through her words. “Gone. It’s in the past.” She gasped, stared blindly at him with her beautiful blue eyes. Was she seeing his face or something else? He couldn’t tell. “I can be with you. We can be together, Garreth. You and me. Together.”
And then her lips were on his, kissing him, her tongue probing entry into his mouth.
He’d seen stars before? Hell, comets were crashing into earth now. Jenna, in his arms, kissing him. Disbelief froze him in place—for all of about three seconds—before he kissed her back, wrestling for control, taking her mouth as he plunged his tongue between her lips.
She tasted like cream and sugar all wrapped up in one succulent treat. Her need—her desire—intoxicated him. He sipped from her mouth, drank from it like a parched man.
She’d come to him. After all this time. He couldn’t kiss her hard enough, couldn’t get enough of her taste, her mouth, her essence. Jenna was in his arms. She’d come willingly. Run to him. Thrown herself at him.
He paused for a maybe a second to breathe, to look to the skies and thank God. The sun broke through the clouds, spilling its rays through the massive windows, catching her hair in its glow.
He would have thrown his head back and laughed, or maybe howled—the dominant alpha claiming his female. Would have, but didn’t. Not if it meant foregoing a second kiss. Never. He was never releasing her mouth again. Never letting her go. He ducked in for another kiss.
The shackles of her past had finally been unlocked, releasing her. There was no longer anything keeping them apart.
Uh, yeah, there is.
Fucking reality! Garreth didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Real good, Halt. Deny it. Deny the existence of her boyfriend so neither of you need deal with the fact there’s another man in her life. Deny the truth about your actions this weekend because you know if she knows you slept with her best friend—at the same time as her brother did—she’ll walk away.
He couldn’t hide the truth. He had to say something. But how could he explain? How could she ever understand why he’d done what he’d done?
Her kiss grew more urgent, her hands moved, found the hem of his sweater, pushed underneath. Her icy fingers sent shock waves careening over his back. Her bare hands swept over his exposed skin.
Chills raced up his spine, down again. Her touch drove him wild. Made him crazy. He thrust his hips against hers, pushed his erection against her pussy, cursing the clothes that separated her heat from his aching stiffness.
Jenna pulled away, stared into his eyes. Her lids were heavy, her pupils enormous, the blue of her irises a thin rim around deep black holes. Desire seeped from her gaze. She licked swollen, cherry-red lips and climbed down his legs.
“Make love to me, Garreth. Make me yours. I’ve been such an idiot. Made us wait too long for this. Don’t wanna wait any longer. Please. Love me.” She unbuttoned her cardigan, dropped it on the floor. Pulled her matching shirt over her head and unhooked her white satin and lace bra, leaving her upper body beautifully naked.
Garreth stared in awe. Her breasts were small, not even a handful. But pert, with beautiful nipples. His mouth watered.
His response was guttural. “I do love you, Jenn. Always have.” Didn’t she know that? Hadn’t he told her, over and over?
“Prove it. Show me I’m not too late.” She fiddled with her zip and button, opened her jeans, slid them down her legs and kicked them off.
Fuck, she’s gonna give me a heart attack.
When she tugged at her tiny white G-string, Garreth had to close his eyes and grit his teeth, forcing down the urge to explode. His nuts tightened into hard balls.
“Touch me, Garreth. I need to know I haven’t lost you, haven’t pushed you away.”
She had pushed him away. Every day for months. Every fucking day. Didn’t mean he’d stopped loving her. Christ, could he ever stop loving her? This fragile doll whom he’d only ever wanted to protect. This lethal woman who could bring him to his knees with just a look. This friend whom he’d laughed with, cried with, lusted over, reluctantly walked away from.
She stepped back into his arms, pressed her naked body against him.
Planets exploded. Stars collided.
“Make love to me,” she whispered and nipped his ear. “Please.”
The muscles in his back went rigid. He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t give her what she demanded without explaining what he’d done this weekend—and why.
“Garreth,” her voice was urgent. “I need you.” She rocked against him, driving logic from his head. Driving everything out of his head but the need to take her.
This was a side to Jenna he’d never seen before. The woman who controlled her every move and considered her every word, had vanished. This Jenna acted purely on instinct, and her open hunger for him fed his greed.
If she carried on like this, he wouldn’t get a chance to make love to her. He’d come in his freaking pants.
She dug her nails into his back, pressed her breasts into his chest. “Fuck me, Garreth.”
He let out a snarling breath. Another planet exploded. Jenna swearing? Christ, she was killing him. He’d always suspected that the façade she presented to the world was just that. A façade. Beneath it all lurked a fiery, passionate woman who’d repressed her true nature for too long.
A musky scent filled the air, so very different from the pungent smell of eucalyptus that permeated the hotel. Her musky scent—of sex and desire. All hers. Made for him.
She scrabbled at his waist, forcing his belt open, tearing at his zip. Her mouth claimed his again, kissing him, screwing with his logic.
Remind her about Sam. Tell her what happened last night. And the night before. Don’t let her do this without knowing the whole truth. She’ll never forgive herself. Or you.
He would. He definitely would. When this kiss ended.
He tunneled his fingers in her hair, massaged her head, and she groaned, the sound sending fresh ripples of yearning undulating over his skin.
Soon. Christ, he had to take her soon.
Garreth lifted his face. “Jenn?”
She raised her beautiful blue eyes to his, looked at him with so much heat and longing he shuddered.
“I love you,” he said. “I have from the instant Jack introduced us, and I will until the day I die. Never, ever doubt my word on that.”
She blinked. Confusion slid into her gaze. “W-why would I doubt it?”
“Because I need to tell you something, and you’re not going to like it.” Something? He needed to tell her so many things. Remind her about Sam. Expose the truth about Rachel and Jackson. And himself.
How the fuck could he remind her about her boyfriend at a time like this? Or tell her he’d slept with her closest friend?
Her reaction was instantaneous. She withdrew from him, pulling back, breaking any contact. He loosened his hold around her, knowing she’d need the space.
Fuck. To think he had her naked in his arms and was letting her go. Insane. Desire raged in his blood, a hunger so fierce he suspected a year in bed with her wouldn’t quell it.
A ripple of tension flexed the muscles in her shoulders. “What do you need to tell me?”
He didn’t want to do this. Didn’t want to bring this up. “I want to make love to you, so damn much it hurts. But I can’t, Jenn. Not while you’re seeing someone else. Not without you knowing…”
Her expression silenced him.
She peered at him blankly before her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. The color drained from her face. She slapped a hand over her mouth and gasped in horror.
“Dear God,” she groaned. “Sam.” She looked appalled. And disgusted. “I forgot all about him. Have to find him. Have to apologize.”
“No, don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me. I shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t have done this. Not while Sam’s sleeping in my bed.”
Garreth’s fingers curled into a fist. He wanted to hit someone. Hard. Yeah, he needed to fess up, tell her the truth, but he could deal with just one crisis at a time. And right now, Jenna’s relationship with Sam took precedence over him telling her about Rachel. “You should be here. You should have been here all along. In my room. In my bed. In my life. Not his.”
“M-maybe. But being here now is wrong. So terribly, terribly wrong.” Her body shook, guilt assailing her from the inside no doubt.
She scrambled for her clothes, dressed hurriedly. Wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“You’re going back to him?” Say no. Please say no.
Garreth couldn’t breathe. “Forever?”
“To apologize. To make things right.”
“Forever?” he asked again, not wanting to know the answer.
She hesitated, still wouldn’t meet his eyes. “To end things,” she said at last. “I want to come back. To you.”
“Thank God.” Garreth closed his eyes, let the breath he’d been holding out in slow gasps.
When he opened his eyes, Jenna was at the door, about to open it.
“Wait!” Shit. He hadn’t told her everything.
“There’s something else?” Her desperate look spoke a thousand words. What could he say that was more shocking than reminding her she had a boyfriend?
He nodded. “It’s about last night.”
Her breath caught. “Wh-what about last night.”
How did he say this without breaking any trust Jenna might have in him? There was just no easy way. Perhaps give her the plain truth first, and then follow it up with the whole convoluted explanation of why he’d done it?
“I slept with Rachel.”
Jenna blinked. “Pardon?”
“I slept with Rachel. Last night.”
Her eyes went blank. “Huh?”
Uh oh. He didn’t like her expression. He had to explain. Fast. Before he lost her. “I met her. Two nights ago. Before you arrived at the hotel.”
She stared at him, blinked again. Didn’t speak.
“We got talking. One thing led to another…”
“And you slept with her?” Her voice sounded even enough. It gave him not a clue as to the way she was feeling. Not a hint. Her face was void of expression.
Garreth nodded as his blood ran cold. Inside, his gut churned and his ribs constricted, making breathing close to impossible. Jenna had just cut him off. In less than a heartbeat, she’d erected a wall between them. A sky-high, impenetrable wall. The fiery, passionate woman of moments ago was gone. In her place stood an icy, stoic stranger.
He recognized her though. This was Jenna at her most defended, her most emotionally aloof. She’d distanced herself from him and his words and adopted an I-don’t-care façade. And it was this emotional detachment that told Garreth he’d caused Jenna profound pain, hurt her more deeply than he’d ever imagined possible.
“I see. Did you know who she was?” she asked in a voice as barren as a wasteland.
Shattered by her lack of reaction, he nodded again. “I did.” How could he not have known? Rachel was Jenna’s best friend, and the love of his roommate’s life.
“Does Jackson know?”
Another nod. Of course Jackson knew. He was there, with them, the second time Garreth and Rachel slept together.
“Ah. It all makes sense now. That’s what forced Jackson to realize he couldn’t live without Rachel.” She nodded. That was all. Just nodded. As if to say, I now have the facts, I don’t need anything else. “Right then. I’ll be off.”
Garreth’s heart dropped. He knew, with uncanny instinct, that when Jenna left the room to return to her own, she would not be coming back. He reached for her, tried to stop her from leaving. She hadn’t heard the full story. Didn’t yet know why he’d done what he’d done. She needed the details. He needed her to believe he wasn’t a heartless bastard. “Jenna—”
She took a step backwards, out of his room. “Please, don’t touch me.” Her impassive voice tore a hole in his chest.
He walked towards her. “I love you. I need you to understand—”
“Not another step.” She held her hand up, stopping him. The hand didn’t even quiver. Jenna was in full control again. “Please don’t come closer. Please don’t speak. Please don’t look at me.” Another step back. “Ever again.”
And with that, she turned around and walked away, leaving Garreth even emptier than he had been before she’d barreled into him.
Brisbane, One week later
Well, this was unexpected. A somewhat surprising change of tempo to say the least. What had begun as a weekend steeped in misery and heartbreak had swiftly turned into a…
Jenna shook her head in stunned disbelief. How on earth did she describe what her weekend had turned into? An abduction? A kidnapping? A joke?
All of the above?
What label did she give to her best friend breaking into her apartment, holding a so-called gun to her head, binding her hands, bundling her into a car and driving to this unknown destination?
Jenna would have blinked in incredulity, but the blindfold Rachel had fitted snugly around her eyes before leading her inside and tying her to a chair—with her arms behind her back—made that impossible.
Really? Tying her up was necessary?
And what on earth had Jenna been thinking, allowing her friend to abduct her? It had been amusing at first—right up to the point she realized Rachel had done altogether too good a job with the ropes.
She was trapped.
Ooh, when she got free, Rachel was in so much trouble.
Jenna spent a moment planning her revenge, plotting all the ways she could torture her friend when this was over. It was almost a refreshing break from obsessing about Garreth.
What was Rach doing in Brisbane anyway? Wasn’t she supposed to be back in Sydney? How on earth had she managed to get Jenna from her place to wherever they were now—all while holding that gun?
At least the ties weren’t cutting off Jenna’s circulation. She could rotate her wrists and her ankles, she just couldn’t free them. Which was fortunate for Rachel, Jenna mused. If the rope gave her any leeway, she’d kick her friend in the shins. Or maybe even trip her.
It’d serve her right for tying Jenna up in the first place.
As if Jenna hadn’t been feeling rotten enough before Rachel had picked the lock to her front door. Now she had to deal with her friend’s sudden descent into insanity too.
Jenna had spent the last six days in hell, reeling from Garreth’s confession.
So close. She’d come so close to being with him. Finally. And then he’d gone and slept with…with…the very woman who’d just abducted her.
Hurt assailed her once again, as fresh and deep as it had been last Sunday. Pain cut through her defenses and tears threatened the back of her eyes. For the briefest second she appreciated the blindfold. It made crying virtually impossible—and the last thing she wanted was for Rachel to see her break down. Yes, Rachel might be one of only two people with whom she shared her emotions and thoughts, but this was too personal, too painful to share, even with her best friend.
She didn’t want a soul to know about what happened with Garreth. If it killed her, she’d present a brave veneer to the world—even if she was bound helplessly to a chair.
Something scraped against the floor, maybe two meters away from her. Shuffling sounds, a bump. A thud. A man swore. A muffled curse, but a curse for sure.
Inexplicable shivers ran up her spine.
Where was she?
Why had Rachel snatched her?
Jenna considered yelling, blasting her friend all the way back to New South Wales for forcing her off her couch, where she’d been unhappily wallowing in the pits of misery.
In the end she didn’t. Maybe she was too emotionally overloaded to consider it an option. Still so overwrought about Garreth and the fact he’d slept with Rachel that her ability to think straight was all messed up? Or maybe just the opposite—maybe Garreth’s betrayal had left her emotionally void?
Nope, it wasn’t Garreth who’d left her void. It was her determination not to show anyone her broken heart. Not to show anyone anything about herself. She needed to be strong. Stoic. Because if she wasn’t, she’d fall apart, and no one—no matter how close—would be able to help her pick up the pieces.
She’d fallen apart once before, and recovering had not been pretty. She doubted she’d ever be strong enough to recover a second time.
Jenna withheld a sigh. Maybe, just maybe, she decided against screaming because Rachel had stuck her lips together with masking tape.
Jenna jerked her head up at the sound of a second voice. A voice she knew altogether too well. Hah. Exactly like she’d suspected. Rachel wasn’t in this alone.
“Ready,” Rachel answered, and seconds later Jenna’s blindfold was removed.
She blinked against the wintry, late afternoon sun—and found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. The same gun Rachel had pointed at her not forty minutes ago when she’d let herself into Jenna’s flat.
“I’m going to remove the gag, Jenn,” Rachel said. “Just please, don’t scream, or I’ll be forced to shoot.”
Disbelief and perhaps a bit of stunned amazement almost blinded her again. Scream? Oh, no, Jenna wasn’t going to scream. She was going to kill someone. Two someones actually.
Rachel ripped the tape from her mouth, making Jenna yelp at the ensuing sting.
“Sorry,” Rachel said with a wince. “I tried to do that as gently as I could.”
To be fair, Rachel did look contrite. Unfortunately, Jenna wasn’t much in the mood for being fair anymore. “An apology?” she snapped, flexing her lips. “You have got to be kidding me.”
The gun was waved in front of her face. “Calm down.”
“Calm down?” Jenna yelled. She yanked at the rope, desperately trying to free her hands. “You kidnap me, tie me up and then tell me to calm down. I don’t think so.”
Too late, she realized she’d done exactly what Rachel had told her not to do. Screamed.
It happened in slow motion. Rachel’s finger tightened on the trigger of the gun. Her arm trembled, the gun jerked and…
A stream of icy water hit Jenna square on the cheek. It dribbled down her neck, leaving a cold, wet trail as it slid beneath her blouse.
The shock of the attack left her breathless.
“You shot me,” she uttered seconds later, incredulous.
Rachel snorted. “You screamed.”
“I told you in my flat I’d come with you willingly—if you’d just quit squirting me.” Her hair was still damp from Rachel’s initial attack. The woman had stepped into her unit, guns blazing. Literally.
“Oops.” Rachel’s eyes twinkled. “I forgot.”
“Forgot, my foot.” Jenna stared daggers at Rachel. “Where are we anyway?”
She couldn’t see much, since Rachel blocked her view, but a quick glance to her left revealed part of a massive bed. The pillow still held the imprint of someone’s head.
Two books lay on the bedside table, alongside a lamp and a box of tissues. Beautifully polished hardwood floors surrounded the bed—and a couple of large cardboard boxes lined the wall. The limited view looked altogether too familiar for Jenna’s peace of mind.
“The where is not important. It’s the why that you should be focusing on.”
“Okay then.” Jenna took a deep breath. “Why am I here?” she asked logically.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough.”
Jenna didn’t know whether to laugh or shout in response to the non-answer. “You know that as soon as I get free of these stupid ropes I am going to kill you?”
Water hit her square between her eyes and dribbled down her nose into her mouth.
“Kidnappees do not get to make threats,” Rachel said.
“Kidnappees?” Jenna spat the water from her mouth, and squished her chin against her neck, trying in vain to dry herself. “There’s no such word.”
“Really? So what would you call yourself?”
“Helpless,” Jenna threw back. “Trapped. By a demented ex-best friend.”
“Not ex.” Rachel shook her head. “I’m still your best friend. Everything I’ve done has been for a reason. And I promise, you’ll thank me for this later.”
“You’ll thank me too,” Jackson said as he walked up behind Rachel and waved at Jenna.
Oh yeah. There he was. The guilty owner of the second voice.
Jenna shot her twin brother a killer glare. He was so dead. So dead. “I suppose this was your brilliant idea?”
Jackson shook his head. “Nah. Rach and I thought it up together.”
He wrapped his arm around Rachel’s neck and kissed her cheek.
Rachel grinned at him.
He grinned back.
Jenna made a gagging sound. “Dear God. Kidnapping isn’t bad enough? Now you have to subject me to this torture?” Okay, not really torture. Jackson had never looked happier. Neither had Rach for that matter. Jenna would never begrudge them their happiness, even if coming to terms with it was still a shock.
If Jenna wasn’t so busy being peeved with them for kidnapping her—kidnapping? seriously?—she’d smile. The two stared at each other like lovesick puppies.
She tucked all her conflicting emotions about Rachel sleeping with Garreth carefully back in that box in her mind she’d created just a few days ago. It was better hiding it all in a box. That way she didn’t have to think about it. Didn’t have to repeatedly imagine her friend wrapped in Garreth’s embrace, both of them naked, sweaty…
It had taken hours of obsessive consideration before Jenna had come to the conclusion none of it had been Rachel’s fault. Rachel hadn’t even known about Garreth’s existence. She hadn’t known how Jenna had felt about him. Rachel had moved to Sydney before Garreth had arrived in Brisbane and moved into Jackson’s house. And since a relationship with Garreth had never been an option for Jenna, she’d never mentioned her feelings about him to Rachel. Never wanted to acknowledge just how much the man meant to her.
“Relax, Jenn.” Jackson broke through her thoughts. “We’re not subjecting you to any form of torture. I promise.”
“What are you doing here anyway?” Jenna demanded of Rachel.
“I came to see Jackson,” Rachel said. “Came to help him start packing up for his move to Sydney.”
Jenna shook her head with impatience. “I don’t mean what are you doing in Brisbane. I mean what are you both doing here? With me?”
“Duh!” Rachel held out her hands on either side of her, in the don’t-be-daft gesture she and Jenna always used on each other. “What does it look like we’re doing here? Kidnapping you.”
Jenna stared at the couple, struggling to comprehend their logic. And their actions. “You two have nothing better to do with your time than kidnap me?”
“It was the only way we could get you here,” Jackson informed her. “You’d never have come on your own steam. Besides, it’s not just you.”
Jenna gaped at her brother. Her stomach lurched, the familiarity of their surroundings making her stomach roll. “You’ve kidnapped someone else?”
Jackson winked at his sister.
Was their other victim in the room with them? Was there more than one? She tried to look around Rachel, but Rachel wouldn’t budge.
“It’s time to go,” Rachel told Jackson.
Jackson checked his watch. “Yep.”
Jenna decided she’d misheard. She must have. “Uh…you’re leaving?”
“We thought we’d go see a movie.” Jackson looked at Rachel. “Or maybe dinner?”
“Both.” Rachel smiled at Jackson. “It’ll be a good way to spend a Saturday night.”
Jackson smiled back, that lovesick puppy smile that made Jenna want to barf. “Both,” he agreed.
“Well, isn’t that lovely for you?” Jenna smiled sweetly. “And while you’re watching your little movie, what will I be doing exactly?” Rubbing her wrists raw against the ropes? Bleeding all over the place as a result? Plotting ways to murder her brother and his new girlfriend? Meeting their other hostage perhaps? Hostages?
Hmm, maybe together they could all plot the murders.
“That’s up to you,” Rachel said.
Ah. Finally some common sense. “Good. Then untie me, so I can go home.”
Jackson frowned. “I think she misunderstood you, Rach.”
“No worries.” Rachel gave him another blinding smile. “I’ll clarify.”
“Clarify what?” Jenna asked from between gritted teeth, not so in the mood to be sweet anymore.
“Well, Jenn, you have a choice. You can sit here quietly and not say anything. Or you can speak openly for the first time in years, and clear up the situation in which you now find yourself. It’s your call, really.”
Jenna’s spine stiffened. Apprehension filled her belly. “My call? Really?” She let the sweetness drip back into her voice. It was either that, or lose her cool and composure completely, and threaten to call the police and lay formal charges.
Since she had no access to a phone, no access to anything for that matter—not with her freaking hands tied behind her back anyway—and the police would think her a loon for laying charges against her twin brother and her best friend, the latter wasn’t even a possibility.
Besides, losing her cool wasn’t an option. If she lost her grip on her carefully contained emotions, she’d fall apart. There’d be no way she could hold it together and present herself as functional when her entire world had unraveled, and any joy she’d found had darkened to impenetrable blackness.
Perhaps that’s why she’d let Rachel kidnap her. The unexpected abduction had come at a time when her weekend was spiraling quickly into a black hole of depression.
Jenna took a deep breath. “And if I choose to speak…openly, whom will I speak to exactly? Er, you guys will be at a movie. Remember?”
Rachel shot her. Square in the chest. Twice. Leaving her shirt sopping wet.
“Wh-what was that for?” Jenna spluttered.
“Asking stupid questions. Who do you think you’ll talk to?”
Jenna floundered, unsure what to say next. She glanced at Jackson, silently begging her twin for help. Jackson always helped her. Always looked out for her. It was a role he’d adopted twelve years ago.
He read her plea easily. The way he nodded told her as much. Not that it made any difference. He simply smiled and looked over his shoulder at something behind him.
Another muffled curse filled the air.
Ah ha! So, they weren’t alone. The other victim—victims?—were there as well.
Then Jackson stepped aside, as did Rachel, giving Jenna an unobstructed view of the room around her for the first time.
And what she saw whipped the oxygen from her lungs.
The panic that had eluded her throughout the entire idiotic kidnapping now struck with full force, slamming the breath from Jenna’s body, making her dizzy.
No. No, no, no.
Not ready for this.
Can’t face this now. Can’t face it ever.
Her mind scrambled to comprehend the vision before her. At least now she knew for sure where she was. Or maybe she’d known all along and just forced herself not to accept it.
Jenna sat in her brother’s house, in the one room she’d always given a wide berth.
“Rach and I have had enough of the two of you moping around like the world is ending,” Jackson informed her. “We’re tired of it. You’re both acting like bloody idiots. It’s time to get over it. Consider this your opportunity to sort out your differences.”
Perspiration beaded between Jenna’s shoulder blades. Her heart jackhammered against her ribs. Her gaze was pinned on the chair that had been strategically placed opposite her, about two meters away.
“We’re giving you both a helping hand,” Rachel interjected. “Use it wisely.”
She turned to face the very chair Jenna gaped at. “I’ll be as gentle as I can,” Rachel promised, and a soft, fast tearing sound filled the air, followed by a gruff, muttered, “God damn it.”
The very sound of the words sent shivers up Jenna’s spine.
“Sorry,” Rachel said. “But I couldn’t leave the tape there. The two of you have too much to talk about.”
Jackson took Rachel’s hand. He looked from Jenna to the person seated on the other chair and back to Jenna again. “You guys have a second chance. Don’t fuck it up.”
And with that, Rachel and Jackson walked out of the room, closing the door behind them. Leaving Jenna staring wordlessly into the face of the most beautiful man in the world.
He sat there, dressed in nothing but a pair of snug-fitting, black cotton boxers, the rest of his golden-skinned body—from his silky brown hair and sculpted face, to his exquisite, broad shoulders and ripped chest, down to his endless, muscular legs—exposed to her view.
With a million other thoughts going through her mind, Jenna had to wonder how on earth Garreth had managed to get himself roped up and tied to a chair—in his very own bedroom.
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