Protecting Phoebe

Chances Are, Book 3

Shelli Stevens

Chapter 1

A thick fog clung to the San Francisco morning. It really did make a perfect backdrop to the fear residing thick in her gut. People became indistinguishable in the reduced line of sight. All kinds of evil could hide in the thick shadows.

And she was worried about one in particular.

Phoebe tightened her grip on the stack of books in her arm and increased her pace to her car.

How many times had she promised herself she’d never be afraid again? How many daily affirmations had she done to prevent the body-trembling fear from taking over?

She reached her car, her throat dry and her hands shaking. Jamming the key into the lock, she managed to wrench it open and stumble inside. Her fist slammed down on the lock and she drew in a long, shuddering breath.

Still think you’re seeing things, Phoebe? a bitter voice taunted in her head.

Her hands continued to shake as she stuck the key into the ignition. The engine roared to life, screaming loudly as her foot pressed the gas pedal to the floor.

Shit.

Fumbling for the brake, she dropped it and put the Civic in reverse.

Her tires squealed as she pulled out of the parking spot. She scanned the empty lot, her pulse pounding and her tongue thick against the roof of her mouth.

A couple of rows down in the parking lot she spotted the figure of the man she’d seen earlier. Even in the dense fog, she got a good impression of his physique—tall and on the skinny side. Unfortunately, his features weren’t as clear.

She hit the gas and rounded the corner in the opposite direction, tearing her gaze from the man.

It could be anybody.

An unsteady laugh spilled from her throat and her fingers clenched around the steering wheel. Okay. Maybe she’d convinced herself it could be anybody a few weeks ago, when she’d had the first sighting at the sushi restaurant, but this was too much of a coincidence.

A short while later, she turned the car onto the highway, casting one more glance into her rearview mirror. There’s nobody there. Calm your ass down, silly.

She flipped on her stereo and willed her nerves to settle. The fear in her gut began to subside slowly. In its place began the slow simmer of anger.

* * * *

“You’re late.” Gabby greeted her the minute she walked in the door of Second Chances, the women’s shelter where they worked. Gabby’s smile faded as they walked back to their office. “What’s wrong? You look awful.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Phoebe muttered and strode briskly to her desk. Jeez, her friend really could read her that well.

“Bull and shit. Something is totally wrong.” Gabby followed her, folding her arms across her chest. “Seriously, Phoebe, you’re like beyond pale and you’re already the whitest chick I know.”

The urge to confess what had happened this morning flirted with the tip of her tongue. But Gabby didn’t need that kind of emotional dump. Not with everything in her own life going so right at the moment.

Gabby had been all aglow for weeks now. Ever since she’d fallen in love with her old roommate and moved back in with him. Phoebe made sure to check every day to see if a ring had popped up on her friend’s finger.

“Tell me.” Gabby sat down on the edge of her desk. “I’m not budging—or sharing the box of chocolates Justin gave me this morning—until you tell me what the heck is going on.”

Phoebe shoved a hand through her black curls and bit back a groan. Gabby knew her weakness for chocolate, but even for the promise of Ghirardelli’s, she couldn’t talk about this morning.

“Okay, since you’re obviously clamming up like a virgin on prom night, I’m going to take a wild guess.”

Phoebe looked up, waiting for her to continue. Apparently, Gabby had been holding off until they made eye contact. Her expression gentled and she sighed.

“Did you see him?”

Phoebe drew in a sharp breath, surprised again at Gabby’s perceptiveness.

“Shit.” Gabby shook her head, her expression switching from sympathy to fury. “That settles it. There’s an officer in the other room right now. He’s taking Jenny’s—the new girl who checked into the shelter last night—statement. Once he’s done, you need to talk to him.”

Phoebe glanced out the window of her office, trying to see between the cracks in the blinds in the other room. There was an officer here? Was it him?

Her stomach flipped and she scowled, cursing herself for having such a ridiculous juvenile reaction to the thought of the officer who sent her pulse pounding every time he showed up.

“Why bother? It’s not like he can do anything,” she said quietly after a moment. “I don’t have a restraining order against Rick. I never filed any charges against him in the past, so there’s no record of abuse.”

Gabby drummed her nails on the desk, nibbling her lip. “Okay, well, has Rick approached you? What’s going on?”

“Nothing yet. I don’t even know if it’s him,” Phoebe confessed. “I could just be paranoid—” yeah right “—it could be absolutely nothing.”

“One too many coincidences. I think we both know that.” Gabby shook her head. “I’m worried about you, Phoebe. And Delanie is worried about you too. Before she moved up to Washington, she made me promise I’d keep an eye on you. And I have to say, this has stalker written all over it.”

A light tap on the door had them both glancing up.

Phoebe’s throat went dry and warmth spread through parts of her body that had been cold with fear for the last hour.

It was him. Officer Craig Redmond.

His presence filled the doorframe. He was probably just under six feet, but broad-shouldered and built. His hair was short, with closely cropped black curls. His skin a soft mocha, with expressive, coffee-brown eyes that were now focused intently on her. He had great eyes.

God in heaven, the man was sexy. She swallowed hard and averted her gaze. And young. The officer was probably just barely out of college.

“Good morning, ladies.” His voice, deep and smooth, sent a shiver down her spine. “I just finished taking Ms. Leman’s statement.” He paused. “Thought I’d check in and make sure there’ve been no problems lately?”

Phoebe could feel his gaze heavy on her—as she could every other time he’d come to the office when the police were called—and her breath hitched.

She cleared her throat. “Things are pretty quiet lately—”

“Actually, Phoebe could probably use some advice from you,” Gabby interrupted. “That is, if you have a moment.”

Phoebe’s eyes rounded and her mouth gaped. She lowered her gaze to the desk and inwardly cursed. Gabby had not just said that.

“Is that so?” The officer’s tone warmed. “Something I can help you with, Ms. Jeffries?”

“Actually, she’s a Miss,” Gabby went on perkily. “She’s not married. She’s single and very much available—”

“Gabby.” Phoebe sputtered and lifted her head to glare at her friend.

“Right. You know? I’m going to put on a pot of coffee and give you two a moment to chat.” Gabby grinned and slid off Phoebe’s desk. She paused in the doorway, her whisper anything but, “Ask her about the ex-boyfriend.”

Craig Redmond stepped into the office and a moment later the door swung shut.

Phoebe’s pulse quickened and she ran her tongue over her lips. The sudden silence in the room emphasized by the heavy ticking of the clock on the wall.

“So I’m supposed to ask about your ex-boyfriend?” he finally said softly.

She winced. “Yeah, I heard.”

He gave a quiet laugh and crossed the room, pulling out Gabby’s chair and bringing it over to Phoebe’s desk.

She watched him sit down next to her, his uniform tightening across his broad shoulders, and another wave of awareness swept through her.

Too young, Phoebe. Not to mention the fact you’ve given up dating.

Despite her declaration, her body still reacted when she met his dark, sensitive gaze. What was wrong with her? For years she’d avoided developing even the smidgen of interest in a man. Why was this guy so different?

“What’s going on, Ms. Jeffries?”

“Call me Phoebe. Please.”

Ms. Jeffries made her feel about a decade older than him. Which, actually, probably wasn’t too far off base.

“Okay. Phoebe.” His full lips twitched into a slight smile. “What is the situation with your ex?”

She leaned back in her chair and crossed one leg over another, drawing in a deep breath. His gaze seemed to follow the movement.

“It’s nothing really,” she muttered. “I’m probably wasting your time, Officer.”

“It’s not a problem. Really. Especially if there’s anyway I can help.” He cleared his throat. “Or the San Francisco P.D. in general.”

“Of course. Well, let’s see. Back in my last couple years of college, I dated a man…”

“How long ago was this?”

The question was perfectly normal coming from a cop, but Phoebe pursed her lips. Well, might as well put her age on the table. Get it out there.

“Seven years ago. I was twenty-two the last time I saw him and just finishing up college.” She watched his face, looking for surprise or disappointment. There was neither. Maybe she’d read him wrong, maybe there was no interest on his side.

“Okay. Go on.”

She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the reaction on Craig’s face when she told him the next bit. And, with her eyes shut, it also helped her go back to that moment in time. To those last few days with Rick.

“The two years I was with him, he was physically abusive. I was convinced that I loved him, so I wouldn’t leave him. He said we were soul mates and there was no other woman he would ever love more than me.” She grimaced, wondering how she could ever have bought such bullshit. “I was young and naïve. Told myself that what was happening was normal or that I’d just pushed him too hard the days he knocked me around…”

Images flickered behind her closed lids. Of Rick holding her in his arms, kissing her cheek in the same spot his fist had connected with moments before. He’d beg for her forgiveness, crying and confessing he didn’t know what had come over him.

“So you were together for two years?”

Officer Redmond’s gentle question prodded her from the disturbing memory.

“Yes,” she admitted huskily. “We were. And then I left him.” Or had tried to. “I finally managed to cut him out of my life completely, which he wasn’t thrilled about. It got to the point where I changed my number and last name. Moved.” She shrugged and opened her eyes. “After a while he seemed to get the point, and moved on. Last I heard, he’d relocated to New Jersey.”

There was a pause, before he asked, “Have you seen him at any point in the seven years?”

“No, I haven’t. I did everything in my power to make sure he couldn’t find me. And then…the last few weeks, I keep thinking I see him. Various places.”

Craig sat up straighter in the chair, his eyes narrowing. “Has he approached you? Threatened you?”

“No, he hasn’t come near me. Which makes me wonder if it’s him.”

“It sounds like you managed to start a new life,” Craig said. “Disappeared from his line of sight. How do you think he could have found you again?”

Phoebe hesitated and felt some of the blood drain from her head. “A few months ago, I received an award for the work I do here at the shelter. At the ceremony, a reporter took my picture and there was a write up in one of the smaller papers.” She paused and nibbled her lip. “I honestly didn’t even think he’d see it or even be looking for me anymore.”

Craig’s gaze softened. “You never know with some of these nuts. Your co-worker seemed to think there was a possibility he was stalking you. Is that a concern of yours?”

Her lips parted as she tried to figure out how to respond to that. “Maybe if I could be sure it was him I was seeing. But I’m not. If I’m just being paranoid…”

“Have you been paranoid like this in the last seven years? Thought you’d seen him before?”

“No, I haven’t.”

He stared at her, and the concern in his gaze surprised her. It seemed a little more personal than just an officer’s businesslike concern.

“And I realize there’s really nothing you can do.” Her laugh came out awkwardly.

“Not until he makes a move, unfortunately. Stay vigilant.” He shook his head and set something on the desk. “I’m going to give you a card with a number to call. If he approaches you or threatens you, contact us again.”

Phoebe palmed the card, curling her fingers over it and feeling like a complete idiot.

“Thank you for your time, Officer.”

“No problem.” He hesitated and stood. “I wish there were more I could do. But until—”

She lifted her hand to stop him and grimaced. “I know. Trust me, I know how this works. Gabby was just worried about me.”

“She a good friend outside work?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. She’ll keep an eye out for you. Stick close to you.”

“No doubt.” Her mouth twitched. “She’s actually convinced me to go out with her and her guy tonight. There’s a funk band playing down at The Retro, you ever been there?”

He gave a soft laugh. “Once or twice.”

“Was it worth the cover charge?”

“Might be. The only times I was there I was working undercover.”

Her mouth rounded. “Oh. I see.”

His gaze turned considering before he stood and gave curt nod. “You ladies take care and give us a call if there’s any trouble.”

“Will do.” She watched him turn and leave the office, her gaze shifting downward to his ass in the tight pants.

Wow.

The door closed behind him and she pressed a hand to her warm cheek.

Gabby was right. She really did need to start dating again. Or at least get her sex life back on track.

Though she still had no clue where she’d gotten the gonads to tell the officer about her plans tonight. It had been kind of a passive aggressive hint that he should show up. But it wasn’t like he would. Why would he?

She was likely just part of the business he took care of during the workday. He probably went home, cracked a beer, and forgot about anything that had to do with his day job. Maybe had some hot little girlfriend waiting for him back home too. Actually, very likely.

Gabby rushed in, her gaze bright. “How’d it go?”

Phoebe scowled and swerved her chair back to her computer. “I just made a complete idiot of myself. You are so on my shit list, missy.”

Chapter 2

After five minutes of shimmying his Hyundai into the tiny parking spot, Craig climbed out and clicked on the alarm.

He smoothed his hands down the crisp designer shirt and wondered for the tenth time since he’d left his house what the hell he was doing.

Jogging across the street when there was a break in traffic, he drew in a deep breath and shook his head. The line outside The Retro had dwindled to only a few people.

The man who stood outside, checking IDs and taking money, glanced up and spotted Craig. His bored expression morphed into a scowl of dismay.

“What the hell, you think they’d send someone else undercover this time. I promise, man, I’m not letting any minors in.”

Craig grinned and lifted his hands. “I’m off duty tonight. I swear.”

The bouncer lifted an eyebrow and held out his hand. “ID and ten dollars.”

Craig fished his wallet out of his jeans and drew out his license and the money.

The bouncer glanced down at the license and took the money. “Twenty-five? Hell, you’re older than you look.” He handed back the ID. “Don’t know why you’re shitting in the same place you eat, bro, but go on in.”

“Thanks.” Craig slipped the license back into his wallet and stepped through the doors of the bar.

The snap of the bass greeted him, driving the beat of the laidback seventies funk song the band played.

He wove through the crowd, scanning the group of people for her. Though it was possible she hadn’t even come. She sure hadn’t seemed all that excited when she’d told him of her plans for tonight.

But she had told him. The blood rushed through his body, tightening his dick and making him draw in a unsteady breath. Damn.

He’d been called out to the office of Second Chances many times in the past few months. And each time he’d noticed her.

Phoebe Jeffries. She was confident, friendly, and sexy as hell. And up until today, he hadn’t let himself think for one moment that she held even a spark of attraction toward him.

But today, when they’d been closed in her office together, discussing her past…

His fists clenched at his side and his jaw tightened. He’d never have imagined her having been an abuse victim. She was too strong. Didn’t put up with shit.

But maybe that’s what happened to someone when they overcame that type of horror.

As if his internal sensor knew she was near, his gaze swung to a table in the corner of the bar.

Phoebe sat on the outside edge, nursing a beer between her palms and looking uncomfortable.

His blood pounded a little harder as his gaze ran over her. Damn.

Her dark hair had been straightened into a sleek curtain, instead of curly like she usually wore it. And he hadn’t thought it possible, but she was even sexier outside of work than she was in the skirts she wore to the office.

He thought about the thigh she’d inadvertently flashed him earlier today, when she’d crossed her legs during their conversation. They’d been so smooth and pale, and the sight of her soft-looking skin had almost given him an erection on the spot.

There was no skirt on her tonight—her denim-clad legs under the table gave that fact away, but the light blue blouse was cut low and he knew when he saw her up close it would be a near match to her eyes.

Her gaze lifted toward where he stood, almost as if she’d known he was there. He saw her eyes widen and her mouth part slightly.

She leaned over to whisper something to Gabby. A second later, Phoebe slid out of the booth and crossed the crowded floor toward him.

“Hi.” Pushing her hair off her shoulder, she gave him a hesitant smile. “I’m surprised to see you here, Officer. Are you working tonight?”

The light caught her face, her gaze sparkling up at him. He was right, her shirt was an almost-exact match for her eyes. They were the prettiest blue.

“You can call me Craig. And, no, I’m off duty.” He moved his gaze over her face before letting it drop for just a moment to her cleavage. “You mentioned this place earlier and I thought I’d drop by.”

He lifted his head again to watch her expression, wondering how she’d react to his blunt reply. Though the fact that he’d shown up at all should be a clear sign of his interest in her.

She didn’t look at all uncomfortable, if anything her smile grew.

“I’m glad. You should join us.”

“You sure your friends are cool with that?”

Phoebe lifted an eyebrow. “Did you forget that part where Gabby practically threw me at you earlier?”

He gave a soft laugh. “No, I didn’t forget.” Unable to stop himself, he reached out and caught a strand of hair that still lingered by her neck. “Why do you think I really showed up tonight?”

She swallowed visibly and ran her tongue over her lips. “Well. In that case, can I buy you a beer?”

“I was about to make the same offer.”

“You can get the next one.” She stepped back and smoothed her hands down her thighs. “What do you drink?”

“IPA.”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a second.”

As she moved past him, he swung his gaze to watch her advance on the bar. His lowered his gaze to her ass, snugly cupped in the dark blue denim.

Damn, she was hot. And that confidence he’d noticed earlier carried over outside the office. No giggling, or silly games. She’d known exactly what she was doing by mentioning her plans to him for tonight, and when he’d taken the bait, she’d clearly been pleased.

She leaned over the counter, talking to the bartender, and the jeans tightened even more over her backside. He tore his gaze from her, willing his blood not to rush to his dick.

He took the moment to check out the band on stage and some of the people dancing on the small dance floor.

Someone moved to step past him and his shoulder slammed into Craig’s.

Craig stepped back, his brows drawing together in irritation, as the taller man didn’t even bother to apologize.

The man just gave him a hard stare, before scooting by him and out the door of the club.

His gut prickled with a warning that something wasn’t right. A feeling he’d gotten all too used to with his job.

“Your beer.”

He turned at the soft statement and found Phoebe with a pint in her hand.

“Thanks.” He accepted the drink with a slight smile, still thinking about the hardness on the other guy’s face.

“Sure you’re up for hanging with Gabby and Justin? They’re fun. I promise.”

“I’m up for it.” His mind shifted back to the woman in front of him and his thoughts hit the gutter. “I’m up for a lot of things.”

“I’ll just bet you are.” Her laugh was throaty, her amusement genuine. “Come on, then.”

Craig followed her to the table, not at all surprised to see Gabby grinning from ear to ear as she noted his approach. She whispered something to the man beside her and he glanced over, his gaze narrowed.

Maybe a little overprotective? Now that he knew Phoebe’s past, he wouldn’t be surprised to face that from her friends.

“Hey, look who I found.” Phoebe slid into the booth and then scooted over, making room for him.

Craig sat down on the plastic cushion of the booth, his thigh brushing up against Phoebe’s. His cock strained against his jeans and he drew in a slow breath.

“Well, hey there, Officer Redmond,” Gabby drawled and nudged her man in the ribs. “This here is my guy, Justin.”

“Craig. I’m off duty.” Craig reached across the table to shake Justin’s hand. “Hey, what’s up, man?”

“Not a lot.” Justin shook his hand, but his expression clearly indicated he was still withholding judgment on Craig.

“Phoebe mentioned earlier that this band might be worth seeing, so I dropped by.”

Phoebe made a quiet harrumph.

Justin laughed. “Not so much. These guys are sucking up the place big time.”

“Yeah, you so owe me.” Gabby scowled and took another swig of beer. “I gave up watching the game on TV tonight for this.”

“You guys Giants fans?” Craig asked, lifting his IPA.

“Hell, yeah, we are,” Justin replied. “Season tickets.”

“That’s cool. Yeah, I try to make at least a game a month.”

Phoebe cleared her throat. “We should all go to one together sometime. I’ve never been.”

He glanced at Phoebe, surprised by her statement. He found her gaze on his lips. She jerked her head up, as if realizing she’d been staring. Her cheeks filled with color.

Desire built low inside him, rushing through his blood. He drew in an unsteady breath. Had she been thinking about what it would be like to kiss him? Because he sure as hell had been having similar thoughts. For a few months now, really.

Damn but if he didn’t want to just cup her face and run his thumbs over the cheeks, before taking her lips in a hard kiss.

What would she taste like? What kinds of sweet sounds would she make when he sank his tongue deep into her mouth?

Phoebe shifted next to him, as if sensing his sensual thoughts. Her thigh scratched against his.

A hint of desire flashed in her eyes, pushing his primitive side further to the surface.

Wanting to test her limits, he gave a slight smile, still holding her gaze, and let his right hand rest on her knee.

A small, visible tremble ran through her and he heard the shift in her breathing.

Never mind if the band sucked, the idea of getting her on the dance floor and pressing those sweet female curves against his body held entirely too much appeal.

“Dance with me?” His words were soft, and though he’d meant it to be a question, it sounded far more like a command.

He half expected her to turn him down, instead she tilted her head and gave a slight nod.

“Why not.”

Setting his beer on the table, he slid out of the booth and held out his hand to her.

She took it and he curled his fingers around hers, tugging her to her feet and onto the dance floor.

Finding a space in the crowd of dancers, Craig slipped his hand low on her hip and pulled her close.

*

God, she was so completely in over her head. Phoebe swallowed hard, but didn’t protest when he pulled her body snug against his.

Their bodies ground together, moving to the snapping bass of the funk song. He moved his hand behind her hip, almost cupping her ass cheek, his other hand on her upper back, pressing her close.

She bit back a groan as a heavy ache gathered between her legs, her nipples tightening under her shirt.

The way they danced wasn’t particularly dirty, almost every couple on the floor danced in a similar fashion. But the way he moved against her had to be a promise of what he’d be like in bed.

And she wanted him there. All too much. This was crazy. She closed her eyes when he nuzzled her ear. Absolute insanity.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her body closer to him, grinding her hips against his.

His breathing grew heavier and his erection harder to ignore. He caught her chin with firm fingers, lifting her head. He gave her no warning before his mouth slanted softly across hers.

Heat exploded in her belly at the first light caress. The second pass of his mouth came firmer, his tongue sliding easily between her lips to flick against hers.

Phoebe’s head swam, the room tilted and she had to tighten her grip on him to stay grounded.

He lifted his head with a groan and pressed her head back against his shoulder.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t you dare apologize.”

He laughed and the hot rush of air from his mouth against her ear almost made her legs weak.

“Okay. Then I won’t.”

His tongue slid along the curve of her ear and she stumbled with a gasp.

He gave a husky laugh and she flushed. He knew exactly what he’d done to her with that little tongue trick.

“Easy, baby,” he murmured and then lifted his head a bit.

Disappointment stabbed that he’d put another inch between them. Just when things were getting good.

She was at the point where she didn’t care. She’d gone far too long without a man, and here was Craig, ready to make her feel like a woman again. Make her feel alive.

Maybe it was because he was a cop, and it made her more inclined to trust him. Made her think that he wouldn’t hurt her and he’d never be the type to abuse a woman—even as her logical side knew that theory was crap. Statistics had long proven that police officers had a high rate of abusive behavior. But somehow, on a gut level, she knew she had nothing to worry about with Craig.

She trusted him. Even if she had no reason to, she did. And it scared the hell out of her. But at the same time, she wanted him. Wanted to do spontaneous, crazy things she’d never done in her life. Had been afraid to do after Rick.

Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that Craig was younger. He was sexy, confident, and endearing. Plain and simple, he made all the bells and whistles in her body come to life. So why the hell shouldn’t she take this step? It didn’t have to be serious. It didn’t even have to be a relationship. It could just be one night of sex if she wanted. And right now? She wanted.

She lifted her head from the curve of his neck and leaned back a bit, meeting his heated gaze.

“Come home with me tonight.”

Surprise flickered in his eyes before they burned even hotter and his nostrils flared.

“You sure you know what you’re asking, Phoebe?”

“I know damn well what I’m asking,” she fired back and gave him a slow smile. “Do you know what your answer will be?”

His gaze lowered to her mouth. “My answer would be…whose place is closer?”

Tension threatened to weave through their sensual discussion, but she pushed it aside and tried to make light of her reply.

“I’d rather you come to my place.” Going home with him meant she’d be in unfamiliar territory. Gave her the handicap.

Understanding flickered in his gaze and he moved his hand over her back in a gesture that could only be described at reassuring.

“Your place it is.” The song ended a moment later and he moved back from her. “Do you want to go back to the table and have another drink with your friends first?”

“No.” She licked her lips. “I’d rather go. Now.”

“My car or yours? Or separate?”

“Separate.” She gave a slight smile. He was catching on quick.

They moved back to the table to grab her purse. Gabby and Justin watched, looking intrigued.

“Hey, guys. We were just going to order some nachos. You want some? We can get a full order.”

“We’re actually going to head out.” Phoebe could feel her face burn red. “Thanks for inviting me, guys. I’ll catch up with you on Monday.”

“Nice meeting you,” Craig said and reached over to shake both of their hands again.

Phoebe cleared her throat and shot Gabby a quick look. “I’m going to run to the bathroom real quick. I’ll meet you near the entrance outside, all right, Craig?”

He gave her a slow smile and nodded. “Sounds good.”

Biting her lip, Phoebe spun and hurried across the club, knowing Gabby probably thought she’d lost her mind. Which is why she’d called the last-minute bathroom meeting with her.

Sure enough, she’d only been in the neon-lit restroom for about ten seconds when the door swung open again and Gabby strode inside.

“What the hell?”

Chapter 3

Hey.” Phoebe braced her hands on the sink and met her friend’s stunned look in the mirror.

“Hey? That’s all you can say? Hey?”

“Are you looking for something in particular?”

“Yeah, like maybe…Hi, Gabby, let me explain why I’ve decided to give up seven years of celibacy to go screw a cop I barely know.”

Phoebe bit her lip to avoid laughing. “Who says I’m going to screw him?”

Gabby folded her arms across her chest and lifted an eyebrow in response.

“Fine. Yes. I’m going to go have hot monkey sex with a cop who happens to melt my panties.” Phoebe turned around, the first sense of doubt sweeping through her. She sighed and admitted apprehensively, “And I just need you to tell me that I’m not stupid for doing it.”

Gabby stared at her for a moment and then strode forward, wrapping her arms around her.

“Ah, hon, of course you’re not stupid. You’re just horny. You’ve been out of this game for way too long.” Gabby let out a soft laugh and pulled away and gave her a stern look. “If you’re really, really sure about this, then use a condom and be careful.”

A condom. Hopefully Craig was thinking that far ahead, because she sure as heck didn’t have one. Worst-case scenario, he could hit a gas station.

“Thanks…I will.”

“I like Craig. I mean, I don’t know him that well, but he seems like a good guy.” Gabby hesitated. “You sure you want to do this?”

“Yes.” Phoebe nodded and shoved a few strands of hair behind her ear. “I think it would be better if I just dove right into the sex, without tiptoeing in over weeks and endless dates. If I do that, I’ll chicken out.”

“Okay then. So do it.”

“And, Gabby… I just,” Phoebe bit her lip again. Damn, was she really going to admit this? “He just really turns me on. I can’t think of anything else when he’s close to me. I want him like I’ve never wanted another guy before. I can see how good we’d be together in my head.”

“The way you two looked on that dance floor, I’m not surprised.” Gabby squeezed her hand. “Delanie would be so proud of you. You’ll have to call her tomorrow and let her know you broke the abstinence streak.”

Phoebe rolled her eyes. “Please, she’s too busy planning the wedding to care. And it’s not that big of a deal.”

Seven years. Who goes seven years without sex?”

Another woman who’d entered the bathroom strode past them to a stall, muttering, “I sure as hell wouldn’t.”

Gabby and Phoebe broke into laughter.

“Okay,” Gabby said between giggles and stepped forward. She arranged Phoebe’s hair, undid another button on her shirt, and then handed her a tube of lip-gloss. “Put this on and then go. Now. Before he thinks you’ve changed your mind and drives home.”

Phoebe’s stomach sank and her eyes widened, even as she swiped on a layer of the fruity gloss. “Oh God, do you think he would?”

“No. You’re way too hot. He’d wait at least another ten minutes.”

“Thanks, Gabby. You’re too good to me.” Phoebe made her way out of the bathroom, with her friend close on her heels.

“I’m not,” Gabby muttered. “If I was too good, I’d encourage you to go on a second date before sleeping with him. But I’ve always been an advocate for a healthy sex life.”

“Don’t I know it.” At the door to the bar, Phoebe spun around again and gave her friend another quick hug. “Say goodbye to Justin for me. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“I want details.”

“What, like he inserted tab A into slot B and I screamed until I lost my voice?”

“That works.”

“Later, sweetie.” Phoebe winked and turned, pushing the door to the club open and striding outside.

The air was significantly cooler than when they’d gone in, even though it was early summer.

She shivered, looking around the parking lot and wishing she’d grabbed her jacket.

“I was starting to think you’d changed your mind.”

Her heart slammed against her ribs at his soft statement, and she swung around to find him standing by the corner of the building.

“Not on your life.” She smiled, her pulse sliding into overdrive as she closed the distance between them. “Question for you. Do you have condoms?”

He opened his mouth and then shut it, cursing. “No. I didn’t want to come across as too…”

She laughed and fingered one of the buttons on his shirt. “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you just stop at a store and grab some, then come to my place?”

“I can do that.” His heated gaze moved from her mouth to the V of her neck.

Her breasts swelled under his perusal, and she thanked God that she’d worn a cute lingerie set tonight. Maybe she’d subconsciously known he’d show. Then again, she’d let the information slip about where she’d be tonight hoping he would.

“If I’m going to meet you at your place,” he murmured, drawing a finger over her collarbone and sending heat through her blood. “I’ll need your address. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Yeah,” she whispered as the ache between her legs grew and her panties dampened. “I’ll write it down for you.”

Before she lost it completely and slammed him against the wall of the brick building to kiss him again, she stepped around him to the bouncer.

“Excuse me. Do you have a pen I could borrow?”

The bouncer looked beyond her to Craig and scowled, but grabbed a pen from the metal table he sat behind.

She pulled an old receipt from her purse and leaned over the table, scrawling her address on the paper. The heat lamp above warmed her cold fingers.

“Okay.” She set the pen down and spun back to Craig. “Here you go.”

His fingers brushed hers when he took the slip of paper from her. “Thanks. I’ll walk you to your car.”

She gave a nod, a little relieved and a lot pleased by the gesture. At her car she turned and gave him a small smile.

“Meet you back at my place?”

“I may just beat you there,” he promised quietly. “You want me to pick up anything else?”

“Surprise me.” Feeling all too brazen, she leaned forward and brushed her mouth against his. “See you in a few.”

With a grin, she slid into her car. Craig waited until she’d locked the doors and started the engine, before jogging across the street to climb into his car.

Phoebe started to pull out of her spot, following Craig as he pulled into the street. Then she slowed and glanced in the mirror back at the bar, giving a soft curse.

Shoot. She hadn’t closed out her tab.

She glanced back out her windshield and watched Craig’s taillights disappear from view.

He had to stop at the store anyway, so she had a few minutes. Reversing, she eased her car back into the parking spot and ran back into the bar to settle her bill.

A few minutes later she was back outside, waving goodnight to the bouncer and heading to her car.

She unlocked the door, slid inside, and then started to shut the door. A long hand grabbed the frame, wrenching it back open.

Phoebe screamed and gripped her key in her hand like a weapon.

“Hang on, I just want to talk.”

The blood rushed from her head and her stomach dropped. Fear sent her pulse pounding even as she couldn’t tear her eyes from him.

Rick crouched by her car, a goofy smile on his face.

“I thought that was you, Phoebe. I haven’t seen you in years.”

Oh God. This had to be a nightmare. Rick wasn’t sitting right beside her car, talking calmly to her as if they were long-lost friends.

She hadn’t been paranoid. He had been following her. The beer she’d drank earlier surged in her stomach as panic assailed her.

“What have you been up to lately? I like the straight hair.” He reached a hand forward to touch her face. “I’ve missed you so much.”

Phoebe gave a sharp growl and slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me. Ever.”

His brows drew together and he leaned in again. “Phoebe, sweetheart—”

“I said get the hell away from me.” Her shrill words resonated in the parking lot.

His demeanor changed in the blink of an eye. In the light of the street lamp, she watched his ears turn red with anger, a sign she’d grown to recognize as a warning that he was about to lose it.

“I just want to talk,” he said through clenched teeth.

Move past the fear, Phoebe. You have to. She drew an unsteady breath and hardened her gaze.

“You’re going to be talking to that bouncer over there if you don’t back off.” She attempted to close the door, but his hands tightened on the frame. “I made it clear seven years ago what I thought of you—that hasn’t changed.”

His knuckles turned white, he gripped the door so hard. Her mouth went dry and her stomach did back flips.

“You had no right to leave me like that. We’re soul mates—”

“Excuse me, sir,” she screamed, trying to catch the bouncer’s attention.

The bouncer glanced up and then began to make his way toward them.

Rick let go of the door, his eyes glittering with rage.

“This isn’t over, Phoebe.”

“Is that a threat?” Anger slowly replaced fear now that she knew the bouncer was aware of her situation. “Because I hope you do threaten me, Rick. I’ll slap a restraining order on your ass so fast your head will spin.”

She jerked the door shut, elbowing the lock down. Her hands were amazingly steady as she stuck the keys into the ignition and started the car.

Looking in her rearview mirror, she watched the bouncer confront Rick. She slammed the car into reverse and hit the gas, hoping to God she didn’t get sick on the way home.

* * * *

Craig drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and glanced around the complex parking lot. Why hadn’t he gotten her phone number? What if he’d read the address wrong?

Anticipation had his blood pounding and his cock still rock hard from that kiss she’d pressed against his mouth outside the club.

God, he wanted her so bad it literally hurt. His balls ached and his jeans may as well have been iron, they were so damn tight.

Headlights bounced off the side of the building as a car turned into the parking lot. The speed of the car caught his attention and held it as it whipped into a spot without signaling.

Hell, was that her? He got out of the car, scowling as he adjusted the bag in his arms that held wine, condoms, and food. If that’s how she drove, maybe she was late because she’d gotten pulled over.

He bit his tongue as he approached her car, not wanting to blow the night by lecturing about her driving.

The driver’s side door swung open and she stumbled out. She didn’t even look his way, just began hurrying toward the building.

“Phoebe?”

She gave a sharp scream and spun around, her keys thrust out in front of her like a sword. A very small sword.

Her eyes were wide with panic, streaks of black mascara marking her face.

Shit. His gut clenched and he drew in a swift breath, closing the distance between them.

He slid an arm around her waist and her eyes widened, almost as if she were surprised to see him.

“Easy, baby,” he pulled her into the curve of his body. “Are you okay? Can you tell me what happened?”

“I saw him,” she said, her voice unsteady. “I saw Rick. It’s him. He has been following me.”

His chest swelled with anger and his arm tightened protectively around her.

“Where did you see him?”

“At the club.”

He flinched, rearing back in surprise. “How? I watched you drive away.”

“I turned back because I forgot to close out my tab.”

“Damn, Phoebe. You shouldn’t have gone back in alone. You should’ve waved me down. Or—”

“I was hardly alone.” She shook her head. Her lower lip trembled and tears stained her cheek. “I mean I parked right outside the club.”

It didn’t matter. The bastard had still gotten to her. His jaw hardened and he slid his other arm around her, pulling her into his arms.

“Did he touch you? Threaten you?”

“I…God it’s all a blur right now. I can only remember how I felt at the time. The panic. The fear. And then the anger. It just—” She broke off and blinked, leaning back to glance into the grocery bag he held. “Oh. I am really going to need this.”

She grabbed the bottle of wine from the sack and turned away, moving toward the front door of the condominium building.

“Come on up,” she hollered shakily over her shoulder, the bottle clutched in her grasp.

Craig bit back a curse, knowing wine was probably the last thing she needed. He glanced around the parking lot, not putting it past her ex to have followed her here.

No other cars had entered the complex after hers, however, and the night was quiet.

“Are you coming?”

At her hesitant question, he turned on his heels and jogged over to the door where she stood.

She typed in the code that opened the door, and after a second there was a click, signaling the lock had popped.

He followed her across the floor to the elevators. They stood together, waiting for the doors to open.

“How long have you lived here?” he asked gruffly.

“Six years. I like the security.”

The doors slid open and they stepped inside.

“God, what I wouldn’t give for a corkscrew right now. I don’t want to wait until my apartment,” she muttered.

Craig drew in a slow breath and debated how to handle this.

“Baby, I’m thinking we should hold off on the wine.”

“Oh, trust me. I’m going to need the wine.” Her laugh was harsh. “I’m not a big drinker, I promise. But right now. I need…something.”

He closed the small distance between them.

“Let me take care of you. I’ll get you a glass when we get inside your place. Make you something to eat,” he promised.

She lifted her gaze to his and the frustration and misery in her eyes sucker-punched him in the gut. He lifted a hand and trailed his fingers lightly across her cheek.

His stomach clenched and the breath locked in his throat. How the hell could anyone ever hurt this woman? Right now, everything inside him just wanted to protect her. Make sure she never had to be afraid again.

The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. She blinked and lowered her gaze, stepping around him and out into the hall.

“I’m down at the end,” she said.

He adjusted his grip on the grocery sack and followed her down to her place.

She unlocked the door and pushed it open, leaving it wide so he could follow her in.

He shut it behind him and reached for the lock. Or locks. Jesus. Scanning the door, he counted four. Though, it really didn’t surprise him.

After securing each lock, he turned and found her in the kitchen, searching the drawers. Likely for a corkscrew.

“Make yourself at home,” she called out. “I’m just looking for…where the hell is it, I know it’s here. I used it at New Year’s.”

Craig crossed the living room to look out the window. The building had a partial view of the bay, if you turned your head just so. They were high up in the building though, the twentieth floor according to the button she’d pressed.

“Nice view.”

“It’s not bad. If you look to the left you can see the bay…”

The sound of the cork being freed from the bottle signaled she’d located the corkscrew.

He turned from the window and joined her in the kitchen, reaching into the bag to pull out the food he’d bought.

“When did you last eat?”

She shrugged and tilted the bottle to her mouth, taking a hard swig.

“I’m on a liquid diet tonight.”

His mouth twitched and with a gentle hand, he reached out and plucked the bottle from her hand.

“You don’t want to waste a good bottle of wine that way.” He turned and opened the nearest cupboard and luckily found exactly what he was looking for. “Let’s at least use a glass.”

“Whatever floats your boat. Just fill it up to the top, please.” She glanced down at the counter and her lips parted and she made a little noise of surprise. “Oh, my gosh, you bought chocolate?”

“Yeah, and strawberries. Plus some meat and cheese.” He grinned and glanced at her after filling up her glass. “I’ll get hungry soon, and I need some protein.”

Of course, he’d planned on the bulk of the food for after they got down and dirty. And even though he knew that part of the night was off the agenda, it didn’t bother him.

His biggest concern was focusing on what had happened to her after leaving the club. Even now, he fought the urge to just pick her up and carry her to the couch, pull her onto his lap. Somehow, he knew she’d fight him on it. She was too independent. Too proud.

He watched her unwrap the chocolate bar and break off a square. Popping it into her mouth, she groaned and closed her eyes. A moment later, she took another long drink of the wine.

She opened her eyes again. Her face turned a slow red as she whispered, “I’m sorry. You must think I’m a complete lush.”

Craig leaned against the counter and reached out to rub a flake of chocolate from the corner of her mouth.

“I think you’ve had a pretty awful night. And I know a lot of people would probably do the same damn thing.”

“It wasn’t all awful,” she murmured, her gaze heating a bit. “There were a few parts I liked. Quite a bit, actually.”