Her mind was reeling as she tried to break his grasp on her hair. Her foot slipped out of her shoe, throwing her balance off. She honestly didn’t give two shits what his reasoning was at this moment. All she wanted was to be free and out of this office. Spying the heavy hole puncher on her desk, she reached for it, but Steven jerked her head back.
With a wide swipe of his arm, he knocked the puncher off the corner of her desk, along with the container that held her pens. They fell to the floor, rolling across the carpet.
“You didn’t even think about me, did you? My entire life fell apart, and you just went on with your own. That’s not fair.” Steven reached behind him with his free hand. “I didn’t even cross your thoughts. Not once?”
“No,” she gasped, her fingers digging into his hand. “I didn’t think about you once.”
“Well, guess what?” he demanded, brandishing a knife. “No one is going to think about you ever again.”
Alana eyed the wide knife, her heart sinking as a scream built in her throat. In an instant, she realized she was going to die.
Halfway across Alana’s office floor, he heard the heavy thud. Instinct roared to life and he took off, racing toward her closed door.
The sound pierced him straight through the chest. He reached the door, finding it locked, and he cursed. “Alana!”
There was another scream but it was cut short by the sound of something crashing to the floor. A male’s voice from inside the room exploded. How did someone get in here? The back entrance was the only way. But none of that mattered right now.
Panic punched through his gut as he backed up and lurched forward, slamming his shoulder into the door. The hinges groaned but did not give. He reared back and planted his booted foot near the center of the door, between the hinges. The door gave, snapping the lock and swinging open.
A vase of flowers and a computer screen were shattered on the floor. Among the destroyed glass and plastic, Alana struggled with a man. He had ahold of the back of her neck. An angry red bruise blossomed across her cheek, but Chandler’s gaze trained in on the knife the man held in his hand, high above his head, the deadly edge fixed on Alana.
Rage shot through him like a wrecking ball and his response was cold and quick. He shot forward, clamping a hand down on the man’s shoulder, jerking him.
Alana’s assailant whirled, brandishing the knife and swinging in a high arc. Instinct kicked in and Chandler dipped under the man’s wide, sweeping stab and sprang up behind him. The guy spun, and Chandler caught his arm. Drawing up his knee, he planted his foot in the man’s stomach, sending him flying back. The assailant went down, cracking his head off the corner of the desk, and that was it. Lights out.
“Oh my God,” Alana said, pressing her hand to her cheek as she lifted her wide gaze. “Oh my God, Chandler, it was him. I didn’t think it was someone like him.”
She took another step to the side and stumbled. Rushing to her, he caught her around the waist and turned so she didn’t have to see the man. It was a good thing for the guy that Chandler didn’t have his gun with him, because he would’ve shot and he would’ve shot to kill.
“I didn’t know,” she said in a shaky voice, and kept repeating. “I didn’t want it to be him. He said…he said he was engaged. It was a lie. I don’t…”
“Shh. It’s going to be okay.” Chandler tucked her head under his chin, against his chest. The way her shoulders moved even though she wasn’t making a sound killed him. He smoothed his hand up her spine, thrusting his hand deep in her hair. “Everything is going to be okay now.”
Everything should be okay.
Her apartment had been virtually restored. The rental insurance had kicked in and the new furniture had arrived. The fridge was stocked with fresh food, and several shopping bags were in her bedroom, ready to be emptied of her recently purchased items.
The days that followed Steven’s attack blurred together. Between the police and the hospital visit Chandler had insisted on, the first twenty-four hours afterward had been full of questions and little answers.
She’d learned that Steven had lost his job shortly after she’d broken up with him due to performance issues and a looming malpractice suit. Alana hadn’t had a clue, not even when she saw him the other week at the coffee shop. The police believed that Steven had somehow twisted up the end of their relationship with the loss of his job and had become obsessed with her.
Part of her was still shocked that she had so badly misjudged him, her clients, and practically everyone in the world. Never once had it occurred to her that it could be someone like him, and the idea that Steven had been so angered by her rejection all that time ago still befuddled her.
The man had been sick.
Alana roamed from one room to the next, vaguely aware of what she was doing. It was going to take a long time for her to forget the crazed look in Steven’s eyes, how close the knife had come to her flesh. Staring death in the eyes like that wasn’t something she ever wanted to repeat again.
If it hadn’t been for Chandler, she would be dead now.
At the thought of his name, knots formed in her belly. She hadn’t seen him since she left the hospital, but he would be here any second. He’d called, wanting to speak to her, and she’d agreed. She wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t ready to talk to him, to have the conversation they needed to.
After what happened with Steven, she was convinced that getting into any relationship was a bad idea. Her mother was crazy and Alana must bring out the crazy in other people, which probably explained Chandler’s attraction to her.
She laughed at that, but the sound was harsh. Smoothing her hands down her jeans, she went into the living room and sat on the edge of the couch, her spine rigid, and she waited.
Thirty minutes later, there was a knock on her door, and her heart jumped out of her chest, landing on the carpet and doing a little jig.
“You can do this,” she whispered, standing. It occurred to her as she went to the door that if she were about to do the right thing, why did she need to convince herself of that?
Chandler caused her breath to hitch in her throat as he stepped inside her apartment. His hair was pulled back, showing off the planes of his cheekbones and the strong curve of his chin.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
She forced a weak smile. “I’m feeling okay. You?”
“Better now.” He reached out, his fingers going for the bruise on her jaw, but she stepped aside, avoiding his touch. He frowned. “Your jaw bothering you?”
“I barely feel it.” That was kind of true. Every so often, if she wasn’t careful, it would ache. She headed into the living room, needing to move from the close space of her entryway. “Um, would you like something to drink?”
The frown on Chandler’s face deepened as he sat on the couch. “No. Come sit with me.”
She hesitated, but the look that appeared on his face told her that if she didn’t, he would be likely to pick her up and drop her ass on it. So she sat…on the farthest cushion. “It was nice of you to stop by,” she said after a stretch of silence. “But as you can see, I’m doing okay.”
His brows rose. “Nice of me to stop by?”
Nodding, she ran her palms over her bent knees and focused on the window. “Can you let me know how much I owe you for your services? I imagine the cost to repair my Lexus was pricey, but like I said, I do have money—”
“Are you f**king serious?” Chandler exploded.
She jumped, her gaze swinging toward him sharply. “I’m not sure I follow that question.”
“You’re not?” Fury darkened his eyes to a deep, midnight blue. “I didn’t come here to give you a bill. It’s not like I’m going to charge you.”
Her lips parted. “I have to pay you. I owe you money for the Lexus, for your services—”
“Services?” He spat out the word, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “I helped you because I wanted to, Alana. I never once told you that I was going to charge you for any of this.”
She stared at him, her heart thumping heavily. “Why would you do this for free?”
Chandler shook his head as he stood. “You know, this is kind of insulting. Why would I? Is it that hard for you to imagine?”
He cursed under his breath. “I care about you. That’s the reason I helped you. It doesn’t have to do with anything else. And the reason I’m here now is because I care about you.”
Those words formed on the tip of her tongue—those three words—but she couldn’t speak them. All she could think of was her mother saying those words about every man she crossed paths with and those words leaving a trail of destruction in their path. Part of her knew that was stupid, but she couldn’t get past it.
Chandler stared down at her. “You care about me. Hell, I’d wager good money that you’re in love with me.”
She gasped. “That’s not—”
“You’re a shitty liar, Alana. You took a bullet for me.”
“I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t—”
“Bullshit. I’ve told you that before, and I still mean it. After everything that has happened, you can’t admit to what you’re feeling? You’re still willing to hide behind old fears?” he demanded, hitting old wounds with an accuracy that was startling. “You’re not your mother and I’m not some random guy who’s going to change you or break your heart. You’re a goddamn grown woman, Alana, who isn’t afraid to stand up to anyone, but you’re terrified of yourself.”
Anger flashed through her, warring for first place with the unease building. His words…
“You’re a lot of things, Alana. You’re beautiful and stubborn as hell. You’re smart and determined. You’re damn good at your job,” he said, holding her stare. “But you’re a coward. And you’d better wake up before the best damn thing walks out of your life and you do end up just like your mother.”
Stunned by what he said, all she could do was sit there, and when she didn’t say anything, Chandler cursed under his breath again. “I’ve told you that I don’t mind the chase, and I have no f**king problem chasing after you, but I refuse to run after a ghost. And that’s what you are if you can’t let go of your past with your mom. I won’t chase a ghost.”
Then he spun, his long legs quickly eating up the distance between her and the door. And then…then he was gone, the door slamming shut behind him.
The moment Chandler left, she knew, without a doubt, that she had made the biggest mistake of her life. It was right there, smacking her face.
Everything he had said was right.
She was a coward.
And the best damn thing to ever happen to her had just walked out the door.
Her heart was like a hummingbird in her chest by the time she climbed out of her newly returned Lexus and stared up at Chandler’s house.
A thousand things could go wrong with this. He might not be home. He could be and he could have company—his brothers or anyone, really. He could also slam the door in her face.
Alana’s stomach dipped like she was on a roller coaster of horror, but she would not run. She was done running and that was why she was here.
She would’ve come last night, but she figured he needed the time to calm down and she needed to get her head on straight. After two pints of ice cream and a good old ugly cry, she’d passed out and woke up this morning determined. She had been wrong and she wasn’t going to run from what she felt any longer.
Please God, do not let this be a huge mistake.
She headed up the paved walkway, passing the sweet scented early summer flowers. On the front porch, the furniture was pristine yet inviting. Gathering up her courage, she lifted her hand to knock, but the front door whipped open before she could knock.
It wasn’t Chandler who answered the door.
Chad stood there, eyebrows raised. Their eyes met, and she was struck by how similar they were to Chandler’s.
“Miss Gore…” Chad stepped back, head tilted. “You look like you…want to punch someone in the nuts.”
The tips of her ears burned. Did she always walk around looking like she wanted to castrate men?
“Since we really haven’t chatted in a while, I know— Well, shit, I’m hoping my balls are safe,” he continued on, like he always did. “But I still feel like I need to cup myself.”
Alana squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. After a second, she stepped inside the door and forced herself to meet the youngest Gamble brother’s eyes. “I owe you an apology.”
Chad opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say died on his lips. “Come again?”
“An apology,” she gritted out. “You have every right to not like me. Not because of the things I’ve said to you or how I managed your case. You were a walking and partying erection six days out of the week.”
His eyes narrowed.
“You needed my help. I hope…I hope one day you come to see that.” The back of her throat burned, and she felt the ugly hot rush of tears building. “But what I did to Bridget was wrong. I shouldn’t have blackmailed her, and I shouldn’t have made her feel like she was scum or anything. She’s a really nice woman, and how I treated her was wrong. So I’m sorry.”
Now, Chad just stared at her like she’d ripped off her jacket and shaken her br**sts in his face.
The rush of emotion was reaching her eyes and her lower lip trembled as she struggled to keep it together. “I know you’ve never really forgiven me for that. I don’t expect you to, and that’s probably a good reason why this is really pointless—doing anything with Chandler.” And now she was rambling. Great. But she couldn’t stop. “I mean, you don’t like me. Neither does Bridget, and I’m sure Chase doesn’t think very highly of me.”