The One Rule

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“Ben says I should talk you into joining the military.”

“You guys talk about me?” That couldn’t be good.

He sighed, shaking his head “No. He talks. I just work. But he talks about you a lot.” He studied her again, and she saw the question in his eyes.

“Ben is a talker. It’s who he is.”

“He cares a lot about you.” She shot him a warning glance, and he held up his hands. “Sorry if I overstepped.”

“You’re just trying to get me join up to get me out of your way.” Unfortunately, her little hospital stay when she was fifteen precluded her from service. And she had tried, before giving up and working for her grandfather. The recruitment team had sniffed out her death wish almost instantly.

“Not at all. I’m happy to be done. I’m happy to be home, too. It just seems like something related to what you already do. You’re trained and experienced in survival, casualty management, trauma care, and defense. You caught an arrow in midair with your bare hands.”

She groaned and rolled her eyes.

“You like to travel. You care about people, and you know how to fight. You could be a military medic or nurse, like me.”

“There’s just one problem, though. I don’t take orders. I give them.” Her fists clenched. “What’s your angle, Jake? Why do you want me to join the military? No man is going to scream in my face and tell me what to do.”

“You’re in luck, then,” he deadpanned. “The Forces are all about gentle suggestions and consensus-building.”

He was funny, when he wanted to be. “Is nursing all you did while you were there?”

When he was quiet, she glanced over at him. He had a slightly haunted expression. “I went where I was needed,” he answered with a shrug.

“Such as…?”

He didn’t have to tell her anything, but she was curious about how he would react to her questions. He held her gaze for a moment longer, then rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “Mechanics, the kitchen…special interrogations…janitorial, logistics. Whatever was needed at the time.”

She didn’t answer, and he didn’t say anything more, just looked at her in quiet regret before returning to his own thoughts. She was far from shocked by his revelation. It fell neatly into place with the other sparse puzzle pieces she was collecting about him. She could definitely picture him switching between good cop and bad cop, simultaneously acting as though he was on the prisoner’s side while regretfully popping fingers off, one at a time. It was just the sort of energy Jake projected. He probably secured confessions just by walking into a room. With one of his rare but powerful death glares, she was sure he had terrorists begging for their mommies.

When they passed the courthouse, she realized where they were going. She didn’t think that either of them had really been in the lead, but apparently, she had been angling toward her house.

“Oh hey, we’re actually really close to my place. How long have we been walking?” She checked her phone. “Oh, crap, I’ll never get back there before visiting hours are over.”

A small wave of guilt passed over her. Ben was probably expecting her. But she had a great opportunity to glean more about Jake. No one had been able to find any information about him other than what he’d already told her. Ben hadn’t texted or anything, and hadn’t asked where she was, so he was probably fine. She would call him later.

“This is a really nice neighbourhood,” Jake said. “Cute church. Do you go here?”

“What, Ben didn’t tell you? I’m a hell-bound atheist.”

He quirked a brow. “You’re an atheist who believes in hell?”

“No, but that’s just where I’ve been told I’m headed.”

“I find that hard to believe. You give your life to help orphans and the poor. Why would anyone tell you that?”

“Well, do you believe in God?” She knew that he’d attended the church services at Qalcad, but that didn’t mean anything.

“Yes, I do,” he said with conviction. “I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a God. You really don’t believe?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. But hey, since my house is just around the corner, do you want to come and have a bite? I don’t cook or anything, but I’ve got veggies and trail-mix.”

His lips twitched ever so slightly. Could he sense the direction of her thoughts, and how aware of him she had been this whole time? “I’d love a bite.”

Ever the gentleman, Jake followed her lead, closely watching her and adjusting his manner accordingly. They ate their fill of snacks, watching each other across the table. It had been so long since she’d had company.

“Ben will be fine,” Jake reassured her. “He’s been pretty preoccupied with his guitar.”

“Do you play any instruments?” she asked.

His expression was almost mischievous, and he spread his long fingers on the table. “Piano.”

She wasn’t sure how he managed to make it sound so provocative. She trailed an index finger over a vein in his hand, then down his long fingers. The tendons in his wrist rippled slightly. “Yea, I could have guessed.”

He flipped his hand, and she heard the smallest catch in his breathing as she brushed his palm. “I also played a bit of violin, back in the day.”

“I wondered what you like to do with those hands of yours.” She found one of the veins in his forearm, and lightly brushed her fingers up, watching goosebumps form. He may be a nearly undefeatable soldier, but he was still a man.

“I’ve got a few talents.”

She snatched her hand back just as he shot out and tried to grab her. Grinning, she stood and slunk toward him. Dark, glowing embers came to life in his eyes. It was a look she knew well from their time training together in Qalcad. It was the only thing that seemed to break through the macabre aura that always surrounded him.

“Want to go a round?” he offered, but somehow it was also a challenge, hinting at what lay below the surface of his calm demeanor. He was relaxed, but ready for her next move. She’d beaten him once. Twice, if she counted that time she’d incapacitated him for an entire five minutes at gunpoint before he’d gotten the upper hand. She wondered if she could do it again.

“Hit me with your best shot.”

He rose to his feet as well, and she took a step back, but he strolled to the other side of the table, away from her. Gazing around at her house, he circled back to her side of the table. She moved to put it between them again. He took another step, and she also stepped back, sizing him up. Her heart pounded with excitement. He struck for her left arm, and she dodged, but the counter was to her right. He had cornered her.

When he advanced again, she used his momentum to send him flying toward the kitchen door leading to the backyard. She managed to take her hands from him before he could grab her, but then he tried to sweep her feet, and when she jumped, he righted himself and caught her waist.

Her chest heaved, and her blood simmered. She didn’t let him see that she was impressed. Even though it hadn’t been a real fight, she was awestruck by his grace and precision.

“How’s your moral code right now?” she asked breathlessly.

“You’re not scared of me?” he surprised her by asking.

“Should I be?”

“Yes. Most people are, once they get to know me.”

She simpered. “Well, this is your lucky day. I don’t know a single thing about you. And I’m a lot scarier than you, believe me.”

Bending, he pressed his lips to her neck, where once upon a time he had tried to strangle her to death. “There’s so many reasons that I should stay away from you,” he murmured. “Even if you’re not my boss anymore.”

“Is it because you work for one of my rivals?” she asked point-blank.

He drew back, lips pursed. “I’m a free agent at the moment. You don’t have anything to worry about. I’m here for Ben. And since you’ve proven that you are too, I know that I don’t have to worry about you either.”

For now, she would believe him. “What, then?”

When he touched the neck of her shirt, his hand was trembling. “You’re off-limits to me, and yet, I’ve wanted you so badly that I don’t care. You make me do crazy things, and yet I don’t care.”

Her breath caught. Surely, Jake didn’t feel the same way about her as she did about Ben. Not that she really even knew what she felt for Ben.

“Jake…you’re not…like, in love with me or something, are you?” she asked cautiously.

He shook his head, deep sadness in his eyes. “My heart belongs to someone who will never have me. But you…the way you move…your determination and beauty…All of you speaks to my dark side in a way I’m not sure I can ignore anymore. Every time I’m around you, it gets stronger.”

Well, she would never have guessed that. She realized Jake was actually being quite vulnerable at the moment. Interesting. She leaned into him, reaching on tip-toes to whisper in his ear. “Have me, then. I’m yours.” She felt gratified at his slight shiver that she knew he was trying to control.

“I’d like to take you back to my place for a full course meal, I’d really like to taste you right now.” His mild voice vibrated her throat, and he pulled her even closer to him. “Would you like to show me to a soft surface, or are we doing this right here?”

She had him right where she wanted him.

Let them win, and they were hooked.

She brought her face close to his. Automatically, he tried to close the gap, bending down to her. She let him get closer, and closer, but not quite. When he squinted at her and brought his hands up to take control of her head, she used the contact-free moment of distraction to spin away, out of his reach, and fly to the other side of the kitchen before he could blink. Perplexed but admiring, and not quite able to hide his excitement, he crossed his arms and waited.

Beat them, and they became addicted.

“Soft surfaces are upstairs,” she informed him, strutting away. It was all she could do not to drag him behind her. Her sex-starved soul cried out desperately. Hopefully, this would help stave off her insane urge to kill Belsito Santos. At least until he’d done what she needed.   Languidly, eyes still smoldering and hot, he followed.

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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13


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