Something like this sent a clear message: the perpetrator was the only one in control. It also said that the person had moved beyond harmless threats. Someone wanted to scare Alana badly enough to send her running, something he doubted she did often, and he’d succeeded.
The woman looked like her legs would give out on her at any moment. The urge to take her into his arms hit him hard. He wanted to hold her. More than that, he wanted to protect her. That sudden need went beyond his job, but he resisted. Something told him that she would most likely react like a wild animal cornered if he did pull her into an embrace.
“Come on,” he said quietly. Taking her arm in a gentle grasp, he led her into the living room so she could sit.
His brother’s brows nearly reached his hair as he watched Chandler guide a quiet Alana to the edge of the couch. She tucked her hands between her knees, but he could still see them trembling.
A feeling of helplessness assaulted him, a sensation he wasn’t used to at all. Chandler knew how to protect people. He made a living doing it, but so far, he’d done a piss-poor job of doing so.
Turning to his brother, he curled his hands into fists. “Can you go get us a glass of whiskey?”
Chase opened his mouth but closed it and then left to do his bidding. Very wise decision, because if any bullshit comment came out of his mouth about Alana, he would lay him out on his f**king back. Brother or not.
Alana’s eyes followed Chase’s retreating form. “He doesn’t understand why I’m here.”
Her gaze bounced back to his. “Really?”
“Yep.” He sat in front of her on the coffee table. “This is my house, so f**k him.”
A dry laugh came from her. “I really am sorry. I just didn’t know what to do. Seeing all my stuff destroyed like that?” She bit down on her lip and closed her eyes briefly. When they reopened, her stare fixed over his shoulder.
Chase returned with a glass of amber liquid. Chandler didn’t give him the chance to hand it to her. Intercepting the glass, he waited until Alana lifted her hands. “Drink this,” he ordered, somewhat surprised when she obeyed.
Alana took a huge gulp and immediately sputtered.
“Slowly.” Chandler chuckled. “It’s a bit strong.”
“Yeah,” she muttered, taking another tiny sip.
Chase lingered by them, his brows pinched. “Is everything okay?”
He opened his mouth, but Alana lifted her gaze. “Yes. Everything is fine. I’m just…” She took another sip, her stare once more fixing over Chandler’s shoulder. “Chad’s playing?”
Both men looked behind them, forgetting what they were watching. Chase folded his arms. “Yes. He’s in Atlanta.”
Her knuckles were bleached white from how tight she was holding the glass. “How is he? And Bridget?”
Chandler knew what she was doing. Redirecting the questions. He’d humor her. “They’re doing great. Thanks to you.”
His brother opened his mouth again, but Chandler cut him off with a warning glare. “How’re the wedding plans going?” she asked, oblivious to the brothers’ silent exchange.
Chase cleared his throat. “It’s going.”
“They plan to marry in June,” Chandler said, giving a little more detail. He ignored the way his brother stiffened. Damn it, he was starting to get pissed. Yes, Alana hadn’t gone easy on Chad and had blackmailed Bridget, but she wasn’t a f**king terrorist hell-bent on destroying their lives. “I think they’re planning to hold off on the honeymoon until after the season’s over.”
“That makes sense.” She finished off the whiskey, staring at the screen. “That’s all…very nice. They make such a great couple.”
Ten levels of awkward silence descended on the room, and anyone with an ounce of common sense would’ve bounced by now, but Chase looked like he was glued to his spot. Turning to his brother, Chandler pinned him with a look until Chase rolled his eyes.
“Okay. Well, I’m going to go get some ginger ale and crackers.” Chase headed toward the dining room, stopping long enough to look back at Chandler. “I’ll be calling.”
Chandler ignored him, taking the glass from her hands. “How are you feeling? You were looking a little wobbly out there.”
“I’m fine.” She smiled, but it was painfully forced. “Ginger ale and crackers?”
“Maddie is sick.” He caught himself, probably realizing she didn’t know who he was talking about. “Madison Daniels. She’s—”
“I know who she is. All of you were really close with her family, correct?”
He nodded slowly, leaning forward until his knees pressed into hers. “The Danielses are the only family my brothers and I really claimed. We spent most of our youth with them. In reality, they basically raised the three of us, plus Maddie and her brother.”
“I was raised by my grandmother. My mom wasn’t fit to raise me. She was… Well, she had issues.” Her features pinched, as she appeared to realize the little piece of knowledge she’d shared. She lifted a hand to her hair, smoothing the tiny strands. He caught it on the way down, capturing her much smaller hand between his. She jerked back but couldn’t pull free. “What are you doing?”
“Your hand is ice cold, Alana.”
She wet her lips, and his eyes zeroed right in on that. Despite how obviously stressed she was, his c**k swelled in response. He wanted to taste those lips with his tongue.
He wanted to taste a lot of her.
But that, unfortunately, was going to have to wait.
Lifting his gaze to hers, he held her stare as he picked up her other hand. Capturing them both, he slowly rubbed them between his, warming them up. “What kind of issues?”
Her dark eyes were unfocused behind the glasses. “What?”
One side of his lips tipped up. “Your mother. What kind of issues did she have?”
Color invaded her cheeks and a bit of sharpness returned to her gaze. “That’s a personal question.”
“You brought it up.” He slid his hands up, his fingers reaching under the cuffs of her suit jacket. “Don’t blame me.”
She held his stare and several seconds passed. “She had a drinking problem. And a drug problem. And a boyfriend problem.”
“That’s a lot of problems,” he murmured, admittedly surprised. For some reason, he’d pictured Alana coming from a two-parent household. Stiff. Logical. A bit boring, but a fully functional family nonetheless. “Our mother had a drinking and prescription pill problem. Father also had a girlfriend problem.”
“That had to be tough. The girlfriend problem, considering he was married.”
He smirked. “It was.”
Alana’s gaze finally flickered away, and her lashes lowered. For a moment, she sat there, letting him rub her hands. They were warm by now, but he couldn’t make himself stop. Her skin was soft, her hands delicately formed. Didn’t take any stretch of imagination to picture the rest of her body as beautifully formed.
“And that doesn’t bother you?” she asked quietly.
Shrugging a shoulder, he spread his thighs a little, giving himself room. How he could still be hard talking about this shit was beyond him. “Did it suck for our mom and us as kids? Fuck yes, it did, but that’s the way life is sometimes. It messed with Chase and Chad a little.”
“But not you?”
“People get married when they shouldn’t. They settle because they think they need to or it’s what’s expected from them. It happens every day, several times a day. Two people come together who shouldn’t stay together. I’m smart enough to realize that there are cases where people meet and they should be together and just because my parents f**ked up their lives, it doesn’t mean I will or should.” He paused but kept his hands moving over hers. “It is what it is.”
A wry grin appeared, barely reaching her eyes. “That’s what they say.”
He slid closer, using his knee to slide between hers. The position was intimate, noted by her when her eyes flew back to his. She pulled her hands again and this time he let her go, but he didn’t move away. He knew he was crowding her.
“I’m sorry.” She started to rise. “I shouldn’t be bothering you with this—any of this. You only agreed to look into the names I’d given you. I can go to a hotel until, well, this blows over. I should—”
“No,” he said, his muscles tensing, prepared to tackle her if necessary.
She froze and her eyes widened behind her glasses. The haunted look was still there. “No?”
“Right now, it’s not safe for you to go back to that hotel.” He almost smiled when her eyes widened. “And this stalker also knows where you’re staying and took it out on your apartment.”
Folding her arms over her chest, she lifted her chin a fraction of an inch. “Then what am I supposed to do if I don’t go to a hotel? I don’t have anyone to go to. Okay? The only family I even claim is dead and I don’t have any close friends here who I’d feel comfortable unloading this crap on. So what the hell exactly should I do? Sleep in my office or my rental car?”
“I’ll take the job,” he said.
“I know you understood what I said. I’ll take the job as your bodyguard. No one else at my company. Me. And you’re not staying in a hotel any longer.” As soon as the idea popped in his head, it felt right. It was what he wanted for various reasons. Some of them having nothing to do with the psycho out there, making her life a living hell, and while it may make him a grade-A bastard, he simply wanted her here.
Alana stared at him, her lips slightly parted.
“As entertaining as arguing with you is, this I’m not going to argue with you over. No to the hotel,” he said again, tone firm. “You’ll stay here.”
What am I doing here?
Alana hadn’t really remembered the drive to Chandler’s house and she honestly didn’t know why she’d searched him out. Well, that was a lie. For obvious reasons, she felt safe with him, and right now she needed to feel that.
Seeing her apartment and her belongings destroyed like that did more than rattle her. Fear, confusion, and anger over the lack of control swirled inside her, making her feel out of it, as if all of this was a horrible dream. But she shouldn’t have come here, forcing her issues upon Chandler. He’d assumed the role of her bodyguard, but shouldn’t there be a contract or something? This just seemed so inappropriate. In the recesses of her mind, she had to have known that when she got in the car and drove to his house.
What am I doing here?
That question kept playing over and over in her head, but it didn’t change the fact that she was here, in a room that was as big as her master at home. Walls were painted in a deep olive, and the wood floors and dark headboard gave the room an earthy feel that was relaxing.
But she couldn’t relax. God knew she was high-strung on any given day, but this was like a million times worse.
She’d been hiding upstairs for damn near close to an hour while Chandler was downstairs, most likely waiting for her, and she knew she needed to get her ass down there.
But she needed a few more minutes.
Sitting on the edge of the queen-size bed, she smoothed her fingers down her cheeks. Her hair slid forward, slipping over her shoulders and shielding her face. Her glasses sat forgotten on the nightstand.
Chandler had loaned her a pair of his old flannel pajama bottoms and a shirt that couldn’t have fit his broad build since high school. It nearly swallowed her whole and it smelled of him—a mix of clean laundry and the faint trace of cologne she couldn’t place.
With trembling hands, she lifted the hem of the borrowed shirt and inhaled the scent.
She was sniffing his shirt.
Good God, what was wrong with her? That was just so…so creepy and totally inexcusable.
Dropping the shirt, she wrapped her arms around her waist. Her skin was chilled to the bone and her insides felt ripped open, like what had been done to all her personal items. To do something so violent and pointless was beyond her. Who could seriously hate her this much? Tears welled up in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Even though she was alone, she didn’t want to break like this. It was weak, a sign of no control.
Oh, but it stung like an angry wasp, to know someone hated her so. That someone would attempt to terrorize her, vandalize her car, stalk her, and then break into her apartment. A single tear snuck out, coursing down her cheek, reaching her fingertips.
What would’ve happened if she had been home? A shudder rocked her. She had no idea at what time the crime had been committed, the police didn’t either, and she was late getting home from work tonight. There was a very real possibility that someone could’ve been waiting for her and when she hadn’t shown, he’d taken his aggression out on her apartment. Another quake worked its way through her.
Where were her brass balls? She surely could use them now.
A throat clearing intruded on her thoughts, startling her. She jumped from the bed and spun around. Hastily, she wiped at any trace of tears.
Chandler stood in the doorway, his mouth open as if he were about to say something, but then either forgot or decided against it. His gaze, a startling, intense azure, traveled across her face as if it was the first time he’d laid eyes on her. His stare dropped to her lips, and she felt a flush crawl down her throat, following his gaze all the way to the tips of her toes. When his eyes made it back to hers, she sucked in a sharp breath.