Excerpt: Rhys’s Redemption
Book 5: NY! NY! Series
Rhys Wolfe wanted a hot shower, a cold beer, and twenty-four hours of sleep — in that order.
It was six a.m. in New York City, buses were rumbling, horns were honking, the city was waking up. And he was ready to hit the sack.
It wasnt six a.m. in his head. He wasnt sure in fact what time it was. All he knew was that hed been playing â€œplanes, trains and automobiles” for hours, and he was ready to drop.
He fumbled with his key in the lock to the ornate steel gate under the stoop that led to his brownstone garden apartment, glancing warily up at the flat two floors above as he did so.
Was Mariah up?
Lying in wait?
Yeah. Sure. Like shed been standing at the window for the past nine weeks just waiting to catch a glimpse of him.
Like she cared.
Rhys twisted the key, opened the gate, then the door to his apartment. That was the trouble. She did care.
Mariah was his friend. And he was hers.
Or had been.
He didnt know what he was now.
He shut the door behind him, dropped his duffel bag on the floor, and shut his eyes, and sagged against the door, letting the weariness — and the worry — overtake him.
He hadnt been home in over two months. Not since . . .
Not since hed awakened to find himself in bed with his upstairs neighbor.
His delectable, delightful upstairs neighbor. His friend.
God, what a mess. Usually he was eager to get home, looking forward to a respite from the demands and stress of his job as part of a specialized fire fighting unit. Usually he could hardly wait to give Mariah a call and see what shed been up to for the past few weeks.
He sighed and rolled his shoulders, then began unbuttoning his shirt. Now he didnt want to call her at all. He didnt know what to say to her.
That was the trouble, he thought, with having sex with a woman you cared about. It complicated things. Messed everything up. Led to unreasonable expectations.
Like a relationship.
No. Rhys shook his head fiercely as he shed his shirt and headed toward the bathroom.
Mariah knew better than that.
She, of all people, knew how he felt about marriage. Shed heard him expound on the subject often enough.
Rhys Wolfe wasnt looking for marriage, for commitment, for responsibility. Hed been there, done that. He wasnt doing it again.
And he made it a point to say that to every woman he met who might be tempted to think otherwise. It was a precaution. Good common sense. That way none of them could say she hadnt been warned.
The only women who went to bed with Rhys Wolfe knew the score. Having sex with Rhys meant fun and games. No strings attached.
Rhys never slept with women to whom it might mean more than that.
It was his first rule of self-preservation — a rule hed made it eight years ago. And hed never broken it.
Until that night nine weeks back.
Right after Jack died.
Hed just finished the first assignment hed done without Jack. Tough, competent, laughing Jack. The one theyd always marveled at — the man death couldnt touch.
“Lucky Jack,” his friends, the guys on his high-intensity, high-risk, internationally known oil well and rig firefighting team, always called him.
“Ill go with Jack,” they always said when the danger in their job was greater than usual. “Jacks lucky.”
But ten weeks ago on a North Sea rig, Jacks luck had run out. It had happened during a fire no different than those theyd fought a hundred times before. No one had been careless. No one had screwed up. As hard as he tried, Rhys still couldnt nail down a reason for what happened.
Other than that Jacks time had been up.
Lucky Jacks luck had run out.
Five days later Rhys had come home from his best friends funeral, still reeling, shattered, angry and distraught. Mourning Jack had been bad enough, but worse than that even, had been the memories that had crowded his mind.
Memories of another fire, another funeral — Sarahs — eight years before.
Sarah. His wife.
Sarah, his childhood love.
Sarahs time hadnt been up! Rhys was sure of it. She hadnt had to die.
If hed been home that night instead of working ridiculously long hours, if hed been with her, like a proper husband instead trying, and failing, to be the perfect son, Sarah — and their unborn child — would be alive today.
But he hadnt been.
Hed been in the family business then — right out of college and determined to prove himself, to show his father and his oldest, brother, Dominic, that he could work as many hours as they could, be as successful as they were. He hadnt even gone home for dinner. Hed worked right through, stopping only to call Sarah and say, “Ill be late. Dont wait up.”
She hadnt. Still in the first trimester of her pregnancy and under doctors orders to get lots of rest, Sarah had gone to bed early that night. But first, apparently, shed lit a candle. At least thats what the fire marshal told him later.
“Ill leave a light on for you,” shed told Rhys.
Shed been asleep when the fire broke out in their apartment. Shed never awakened.
Hed lost her — and their child — that night.
And nothing Rhys could do would bring them back.
He understood that. Eventually hed managed to accept it.
He lived with the pain. And the guilt.
To his fathers consternation, Rhys had quit his job with the family firm, choosing instead to go into firefighting.
“What the hell for?” his dad had demanded. “It isnt going to bring Sarah back.”
“No.” Rhys knew that. But he needed to do it. Needed to battle again and again the demons that took his wife from him. To do what he could to win the fight hed lost before he knew how much it mattered.
He was a good firefighter. Determined. Focussed. Cool and controlled in the face of the flames.
And so he atoned. Or tried to.
Over the past eight years, hed got past it. He was sure of that. He had a life now. A new apartment on the West Side, away from the East Side neighborhood where he and Sarah had lived. He had friends. And, now and then, he had women.
But he wasnt marrying again. Ever.
He wasnt letting himself get close to anyone again. That part he hadnt got past. Loving someone the way hed loved Sarah hurt too much.
He couldnt do it again.
So he always kept things light. He had friends. He had the occasional lover. But never a friend who was also a lover.
Until he came home after Jack had died. That night the grief and the memories had swallowed him whole.
And Mariah — poor unsuspecting Mariah — surprised to see his light on, had stopped down to tap on his door and see what was going on.
He didnt remember much of what happened after that.
Hed tried not to. For over two months he had tried not to.
He hadnt wanted to remember how shed held him in her arms, had kissed him and soothed him, had let him — a man who needed no one — cling to her like a child.
He shut that out.
Just as he shut out how, in another way, hed felt very much unlike a child. The flames of need had licked at him, had driven him to kiss her, to touch her, to seek the softness of her. His body had needed the solace of her. Desperately.
And slowly, gently, and then with what his shattered mind remembered as a passion equal to his, Mariah had given it to him.
He gritted his teeth. He couldnt think about that.
Couldnt let himself remember.
Because when he did, even now his body betrayed him, and he wanted it to happen again.
It couldnt happen again!
He wouldnt let it.
He cared about Mariah. As a friend. He wouldnt let it become more.
He could still remember how shocked hed been to awaken and find her asleep beside him in his bed.
Rhys had never slept with any woman — not since Sarah.
It was too intimate. It implied too much.
But that night he had slept with Mariah. When hed finally opened his eyes in the pale dawn, it was to find her curled around him, her cheek nestled against his shoulder, a leg casually draped over his, one arm across his belly and tucked against his hip.
Hed been afraid to breathe. He hadnt dared move.
But he’d needed to. Desperately. He knew he had to get out of there — without awakening her.
What the hell would he have said to her if hed still been there when she opened her eyes?
He hadnt known then.
He didnt know now.
He’d spent the past nine weeks trying to figure it out.