Lisa tossed and turned in the bed, half-asleep, drifting in and out of dreams. Throughout the rough sleep she'd become vaguely aware of where she was, the scent of the room or the feel of the silky sheets reminding her, and her heart would lurch slightly, then she would fall back asleep. The anxiety wasn't completely gone, but had dissipated enough to allow her at least some sleep.
At one point after yet another quickly forgotten dream Lisa awoke abruptly. She blinked a few times and realized it was still quite dark, the room was quiet, but something just felt off. Rubbing her eyes, she sat up slightly to check on Jackson. She blinked in confusion at the empty blankets on the floor near the bed, then startled when she saw his form facing the window, very much awake. He was looking intently out into the night, his body language alert. The muscles of his back and sides were tensed. But what stood out most was what he held in both hands, pointed toward the floor: a pistol.
She gasped at the sight of it, quickly filled with terror that there was danger. Hearing her, Jackson turned his head, clearly perturbed that she was awake.
"What's wrong?" she whispered harshly, subconsciously curling herself into a ball beneath the blankets and pulling them up to her chin. "Is someone out there?"
"I don't know," Jackson replied, looking back toward the window and not relaxing his hold on the gun. "Something woke me."
She stared at him, eyes wide, her heart immediately pounding heavily in her chest.
"What should we do?" she squeaked, wishing he would just say he's sure it's nothing and go back to bed.
He turned back toward her, clearly frustrated.
"You're not going to do anything. You're going to go back to sleep," he told her, taking another glance out the window. "I would've woken you if anything was really going on."
She nodded slowly, seeing the logic in that, but there was little comfort in his words.
Seeing that she wasn't relaxing or making any attempt to lie back down, Jackson approached her, holding the gun away from her.
"Are you shaking?" he asked, baffled.
She looked down and realizing she was in fact trembling slightly.
"No," she insisted, forcing herself to be still.
"Leese, I can handle this. You don't need to be so scared."
"I know, I can't help it," she countered. "I mean, wouldn't you be afraid if someone wanted to kill you?" Her eyes widened when she immediately realized how foolish the question was. God, look who she was talking to.
"Listen," he whispered, reaching for her chin. He lifted her head so she would look at him, again defying her demand that he keep his hands off her. "Stay here. I'm going to step out and make sure we don't have any visitors." He released her chin, but she immediately grabbed his hand and wouldn't let go. He was really going to leave her here by herself?
"Wait," she insisted, her mind racing, trying to figure out a way to keep him here. "I'll go with you."
"No," he ordered. "If someone is out there, you're safer in here for now. Just stay in bed. I'll be back in a minute, I swear."
Realizing his mind was made up, she nodded and released his hand. He'd only be gone for a minute. He'd be back soon. Everything was fine. There was probably no immediate danger to begin with. Right?
"Here," he said after a brief moment of hesitation, holding the pistol out to her.
She stared at it.
"I can't," she whispered, bemused. What the hell did he think she was going to do with a gun? Impatient, he grabbed her hand and thrust the gun into it, and she gasped at the sudden weight of it.
"You won't need it," he assured her. "But it'll make me feel better if you keep it."
She gingerly ran shaking fingers over the metal grooves and tested the feel of the trigger, wondering if she could really pull it if she had to.
"Okay," she whispered. Holding something so deadly sure didn't make her feel any better.
Leaning down to her, he placed a light, affectionate kiss on her forehead. "I'll be right back."
She felt an overwhelming emptiness, vulnerability, when he finally moved away from her and disappeared in the dark hallway. Several quiet moments passed. Her eyes scanned the room and the hall, her ears straining for the sounds of Jackson moving throughout the house. There was only silence.
Her fingers embraced the cold metal in her hands, realizing it did give her the slightest feeling of power, that maybe she could defend herself if need be. She hated feeling so vulnerable without him, and found herself searching for her own courage. Yes, she'd gone through some shock, but when were her strength and her sense of self-preservation going to kick in? Where was self-reliant, don't-fuck-with-me Lisa?
Suddenly it occurred to her that Jackson wasn't only defending them from Dominic; of course he also had to be wary of the Australian authorities. God, she was so egocentric, thinking this was all about her. He was being hunted as well, undoubtedly at this very moment. What if police were outside? What if Jackson was arrested and sent to jail? What even happened to people who attempted assassinations in Australia? Her mind raged with thoughts of Jackson being captured. Despite everything, she absolutely couldn't bear it.
Swiftly furious at the thought of someone stealing him from her, she threw the blankets off herself. Sitting in bed wasn't going to help anything, and she was tired of feeling so powerless. She hit the floor softly, her body teaming with adrenaline. She gripped the pistol in her hands, choosing to keep her shaking fingers off the trigger…for now. Warily creeping toward the open window, she peered into the darkness. What the hell had he been looking at? She couldn't see a damned thing out there.
She gasped and jumped when she heard a creek from somewhere down the hall. Startled, she immediately lifted the gun and shakily pointed it in the direction of the noise, carefully approaching the door. She wanted to call Jackson's name, see if he was close, but of course that would alert whoever might be out there. Her heart thrashed. She searched for something…anything…her eyes searing into the dark hallway.
Several quiet moments passed, so she lowered the gun, her ears straining for any other sounds. This was taking way too long. Where the hell was he? What if they'd taken him? What if he was already gone?
Startled by another noise from the hall, she gasped and reflexively pointed the gun again. She tried desperately to calm herself and stop the trembling, and she slowly entered the hall, her weapon raised and ready.
Let it be Jackson let it be Jackson let it be Jackson…
"Lisa!" he shouted, spotting the weapon. She instantly lowered it, relief exploding through her at the sight of him. "What the fuck? What the hell are you doing?" he demanded, approaching and taking the gun away from her.
Forgetting herself, she threw her arms around his bare waist.
"I'm sorry," she panted into his chest, squeezing him. "I just thought you were…oh my god…"
He pushed her away, not returning the embrace. "I didn't give you that gun so you would turn into a fucking vigilante," he barked. "I told you to stay in bed."
"I'm sorry," she repeated, still so relieved to see him she didn't care enough to argue. She wanted to smother him with kisses, the sudden fear of losing him reigniting her need to be close to him. "I wasn't thinking. I was just afraid that…" She hesitated. What the hell was she planning on doing with that gun even if the police had found Jackson? Shoot at them until they went away? She shook her head. "Forget it. Did you find anything?"
"No," he answered after a deep breath, his frustration dissipating. He walked back into the room to place the gun on the nightstand. "False alarm. No one's out there."
She sighed her relief, following him. So no police. And no Dominic. At least for now.
"Thank you…for looking," she said softly, raking her hands through her hair, trying to relax.
"No problem." He regarded her for a moment, hesitated, then reached for her and pulled her into another embrace. Her heart warmed and she squeezed him tightly. "I hate…hate…to see you so afraid," he murmured into her hair. Lisa's fingers hesitantly brushed the taut muscles of his back and soon found herself enjoying the feel of him a little too much, her mind flashing to what his skin had tasted like when she'd pressed kisses to his body earlier tonight. She quickly reminded herself that this hug was absolutely not allowed to evolve into sex, and she subconsciously stiffened in his arms. He didn't notice or chose to ignore it. "Why can't you just trust me?" he continued.
"I'll work on that," she whispered into his chest, causing him to chuckle. A part of her desperately wanted him to flat out defy her orders and just kiss her, but he released her from the hug and moved away.
"I'll be right back," he mumbled, heading to the bathroom adjoining the bedroom and flicking on the light. He shut the door behind him.
Lisa stood dumbly near the bed, trying to collect herself. She had to stop questioning the boundaries she'd set for herself concerning Jackson. The boundaries were there for a reason, even if it was difficult to remember that reason when he was giving her that look or wielding a weapon like it was an extension of his arm. And when he was so protective of her…
God. This is so hard.
Staring at the sad little makeshift bed on the floor, she found herself quickly smothered with guilt that she'd kicked him out of his own bed. This man was taking care of her. Hell, he didn't have to do any of this. In fact, it would make a lot more sense if he were long gone and out of the country by now. Yet he'd chosen to stay and protect her. And she was selfishly snuggling into a soft mattress while this man slept on the cold, hard floor? Despite everything, he absolutely did not deserve that.
Jackson emerged from the bathroom and looked at her like he couldn't comprehend why she was still standing erect.
"You should go back to sleep," he told her, heading for his palette on the floor.
"Take the bed. Really," she whispered, knowing he'd probably refuse her. "I'll sleep on the floor."
He eyed her inquisitively, then bent down to situate his blankets before lying down. "Go to bed, Lisa."
"No," she insisted, standing her ground. "It's yours."
"You're making way too big a deal out of this," he grumbled, clearly tiring of this back and forth game she was playing with him. "The only way I'm getting back into that bed is if you're in it."
She stared at him.
Well, perhaps that could be doable. It was a large bed, and maybe she could keep her distance…
Taking her hesitation to flat out refuse him as an apparent invitation, he quickly approached and grabbed hold of her. He lifted her up, gathering her into his arms, and she cried out and wriggled in his grasp.
"Let me go!" she shouted, pushing at his chest. "Put me down!"
He carried her and abruptly dumped her on the mattress, then pushed her over so he could lay down himself. Before she could wriggle off the bed, he hooked an arm around her waist, trapping her against him. His clean, masculine scent instantly surrounded her.
"This is not what I had in mind," she growled through gritted teeth, exasperated. She tried to keep her distance, not wanting to feel his heat against her back. Her body immediately responded to his touch, and she had to get away from it.
"Sure it is," Jackson said plainly, clearly not affected by her show of indignation.
"Let me go," she ordered again, desperate for distance. "I promise I won't leave."
His arm immediately released her, allowing her to move away from him. She scooted to the farthest inch she could spare on the opposite side of the bed, leaving a good foot or two of space between them.
There was a moment of silence.
"Do you normally have this much trouble sleeping in the same bed as a man you just slept with?"
Her mouth dropped.
"I'm just saying," he continued with a light chuckle. "This doesn't seem normal."
She sat up, absolutely incensed.
"First off," she fumed, "Don't say 'a man you just slept with' like I go around sleeping with a bunch of men…"
"That's not what I meant, Leese…" he insisted, pushing himself up a sitting position as well.
"Secondly, I don't have any trouble sleeping in a bed with someone. I just can't sleep in the same bed as...as…."
"Me?" he prompted.
"Yes," she admitted.
"Why?" he asked, his voice clear of anything but curiosity.
"I don't…trust myself," she said after a moment, subconsciously tossing a glance at his lean, sculpted chest and wishing she could reach out and touch him.
"So you're afraid you're going to sleep with me again," he said simply.
She felt her face heat as she looked away.
"You're afraid I might try something, aren't you?"
Before she could respond, he quickly reached for her face and leaned his head in. His lips pressed to hers. She gasped at the contact and immediately tried to pull away, but his hand held her face to his. His tongue gently coaxed her lips open, and she felt herself responding to him. God help her, she couldn't help it. Groaning softly, she tentatively kissed him back, her body instantly alive. Little sparks fired beneath her skin. One of his hands slid over his waist, then down her hip and against her bare leg, and his kiss deepened. She felt her control slipping away, and it terrified her, but she couldn't seem to stop. Now knowing what pleasures awaited her with him made it all the more difficult to push him away. Then she felt both of his hands grip her waist, and he abruptly pulled down, forcing her to lie down. Lisa cried out as he slid her beneath him, his body pressing against hers.
"Stop!" she cried, quickly brought back to reality. She pushed at him and he allowed her to sit up. The places on her body that his hands had been were instantly cold. "Don't do that to me again," she ordered, trying to catch her breath.
Attempting to recover himself, Jackson wiped at his mouth and studied her.
"You know, whatever reasons you have for keeping your distance, it's not going to fix anything. You're depriving yourself of something you want for no reason. This is ridiculous."
"I have reasons. Good ones," she countered, hoping she was coherent enough after their little interlude to articulate them.
"Care to share?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Does that matter?"
She looked at him skeptically. He could probably reason away any explanation she gave him. He was good at that – justifying anything.
"This entire situation that I'm in…with that man after me…is all because of this."
He didn't respond, so she went on.
"I wouldn't even be in this situation if I'd had enough sense to say no to you."
"This fate was sealed the moment Dominic decided to follow me to your hotel room, Lisa. That wasn't your fault."
"It was, though. Don't you get that? Why was I even agreeing to meet a stranger at my hotel room in the first place? I was practically begging for trouble."
He smiled at her.
"Such a good girl," he chuckled, his voice affectionate rather than condescending. She realized how incredibly high-churchy moral that must sound to someone like him.
"I don't expect you to understand," she added softly.
"Understand what? Regretting a decision?'
"No, understand why I can't do this with you anymore. How every decision I've made since the moment I met you has only led to trouble. I have to nip this in the bud before things get worse." She felt tears prick her eyes, her heart not syncing with the words coming out of her mouth.
He regarded her, his pale eyes watching her in the moonlight. It was so difficult to run her eyes over his handsome features and stand her ground. While she was ignoring her hormonal impulses, they were still putting up quite the fight.
"So you're blaming what's happening on the fact that you were attracted to me and acted on it?"
It sounded silly when he put it that way, and she hated it.
"It's not that simple."
"And now the way to fix the problem is rejecting me, even though I'm the one who's trying to keep you safe?"
She hesitated, dropping her gaze. It was a little easier to keep him at arm's length when she thought of him as a dangerous criminal she needed to stay way from, not a man who cared for her enough to protect her. She couldn't even imagine the risks he was taking, turning on his own colleague.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, searching his eyes.
"Why did you come home with me tonight despite what you knew about who I was and what I do?"
She went still at the forward question. Why did she? Hormones? Lust? The heat of the moment? Perhaps, but she knew it was more than that. Something intangible…indescribable. Something she wanted to keep stuffed down inside and not acknowledge.
"Exactly," Jackson stated, apparently deciding her moment of silence was answer enough. "Don't think I'm not questioning my decisions concerning the last several days just as much as you are, Lisa. People in my line of work don't do stuff like this. It's too risky. Hell, none of this shit we're dealing with right now would be happening if I'd just had the sense to keep my fuckin' distance. But guess what? I don't blame you at all. In fact, I still want you."
A sharp tickle ran from her chest to her stomach at his words. She'd have to be completely heartless to not be affected by those words.
"We're in this together, Lisa," he continued, reaching out and twisting a tendril of her hair between his fingers. "You pushing me away like I disgust you isn't really helping either of us, is it?"
Her eyes began to water, suddenly feeling a twinge of guilt at her behavior earlier that night, and she dropped her gaze. What he said made sense, but she couldn't let him so close again. She just couldn't. But there had to be a middle ground between mindless sex and totally stiff-arming him.
"You don't disgust me," she replied, reaching for his hand and holding it in her own. "Far, far from it." She smiled softly at him.
He regarded her, then leaned forward to kiss her, clearly believing the barrier between them had been removed.
"Jackson," she whispered, stopping him. He paused, hovering close. She took a breath, thrown off by his nearness. She couldn't give him what he wanted, but she wanted to say something that would keep him from feeling like he'd been rejected again. "I still want you, too." Her mouth went dry as she said the words. "But I just can't…do this. Right now."
He studied her, apparently waiting for a further explanation, but she had none to give. It was what it was.
"So are you going to kick me out of the bed again?"
She laughed, wiping a stray tear from her eye. "No. Stay," she told him, brushing her fingers across his jaw line. Then turning away from him, she lay down and curled into the blankets. She felt him lie down as well, then hook his arm around her waist to pull her against him. She stiffened at first, then softened when she realized he wasn't pursuing anything further. The warm, solid plank of his body against hers was comforting, and truly just what she needed at the moment. After several minutes of turning the words of their conversation over and over in her head, she finally fell into a deep sleep.