Safe at Last eBook: Page2

Maya Banks (2015)


  Because Zack had firsthand experience with the extraordinary. Gracie had possessed one such gift. The ability to read minds. There was no explanation for it. It certainly wasn’t genetic, because her parents were complete wastes of human DNA and yet somehow they’d managed to produce an extraordinary daughter, so divergent from her upbringing and surroundings that it was astonishing. It brought to mind the possibility of being switched at birth or that the entire scientific argument of nature versus nurture was a bunch of bullshit thought of by brilliant minds with nothing better to do than hypothesize about why people become the people they do.

  Because Gracie defied both nature and nurture. If one looked at her gene pool, she was fucked and doomed to life as a complete loser. If one looked at the nurture aspect, she was equally fucked, because in no way had she been brought up in an environment conducive to forming a responsible, empathetic, intelligent and sweet individual. And yet Gracie was all of those things. Her reward? He had not a fucking clue, but his imagination had come up with all manner of gruesome possibilities over the years and every single one of them tortured him endlessly.

  “Hey,” Tonya said, once more diverting his thoughts from the blackness into which they’d descended.

  And once more he glanced her way, meeting her sweet smile, warm, sparkling eyes and inviting features.

  “Want to go blow off some steam together? Your place, my place. Doesn’t really matter. And no, before you ask, I’m not proposing marriage and no, I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m happy with my life the way it is at present, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind, nor would I turn down a night of mindless sex with a gorgeous hunk of alpha male.”

  Her question rattled him, even though he considered himself as steady as they come and a master at masking any sort of reaction he might be feeling. He stared blankly at her a moment, pondering why he was even hesitating.

  Tonya was a beautiful, intelligent woman. More than that, she had a sense of humor, didn’t have an ego and didn’t take herself too seriously. And she was a good woman. A woman any man would be damn lucky to have, and not just on the temporary basis she was proposing.

  So why the hell was he sitting here staring like he had no idea how to respond instead of already herding her toward the door?

  What the hell was wrong with him?

  Shame twisted in his gut, filled his chest until it was tight with it. She was offering what most guys would give their left nut for, but damn it, she deserved more than some mindless fuck from a guy not completely and utterly focused on her. And tonight he couldn’t give her that kind of guarantee. He couldn’t give her anything at all except an orgasm, and well, that was questionable too. Because neither of his “heads” were focused, and while he didn’t need his dick to get a woman off and rock her world, he just wasn’t feeling it tonight.

  Tonya slid her hand down his arm and then wrapped her fingers around his wrist, squeezing gently, her smile never faltering.

  “I don’t have a fragile ego, Zack. The look on your face says it all, so stop beating yourself up trying to figure out what to say to break it to me gently that you aren’t looking for a one-night stand. I get it, okay? Well, and if you ever want a rain check, it’s not like I’ll harbor a grudge over being rejected and punish you for eternity.”

  Zack slid his fingers up her jawline, his features intent and serious as he cupped her cheek.

  “That right there is a prime example of why you deserve better than me, even for one night.”

  Her hand fluttered upward to lie across his before she gently pulled it away, squeezing his fingers when she returned his hand to the bar top.

  “Whoever she was did a real number on you.”

  His eyes widened in surprise at her perceptiveness when it came to the fact that his reluctance involved a prior relationship, but he also recognized that the conclusions she’d drawn were wrong. But he didn’t correct her.

  “Shit happens to the best of us,” she said ruefully. “What separates the weak from the strong is what they do with the shit once it falls.”

  Zack leaned forward, framing her face in his hands before kissing her forehead.

  “Thank you. I needed to hear that tonight.”

  As he slid from the bar stool, she frowned. “You need a ride home? How much have you had to drink?”

  He smiled at the chiding tone of her voice. Yes, she was beautiful, fun, smart and witty, but she felt more like a sister than a lover. Why couldn’t he be attracted to her? Sexually. It sure as hell would uncomplicate a hell of a lot of things for him right now. But then none of his previous sexual encounters could hardly be considered a matter of attraction beyond simple lust and a brief moment of blowing off steam.

  If he was attracted to Tonya, or rather felt more than the affection one felt toward a sibling or good friend, then it would mean a more serious relationship, because she deserved that. For that matter all the women he’d been with deserved better than he’d given them, but at least he hadn’t lied or misled them in any manner and both parties had gone in knowing the score. He wasn’t that much of a bastard.

  But Tonya? Despite her spiel about not wanting marriage and commitment—and he believed her because she was inherently honest and refreshingly straightforward—she was the bring-home-to-meet-the-family type woman.

  “I’ve had exactly one and one-fourth beers. I’m good. Want to test my blood alcohol?” he teased.

  She rolled her eyes. “Okay. You get a pass. I just don’t want you in my ER when I’m off duty. So be careful.”

  “I will. And Tonya, thanks. I mean that.”

  “Anything for a friend.”

  “I’m going to take off and get some rest. Been a shitty day. Ready for it to be over and start over again tomorrow. And hope to hell it’s not a repeat of today.”

  She saluted him with her beer bottle as he gave her another hug and then headed for the door.

  The cooler air was welcome after the suffocating interior of the bar, and it also served as a wake-up call from the maudlin direction his thoughts had taken over the last hour.

  He slid behind the wheel of his truck and paused before cranking the engine. He hadn’t lied. Today had been epic on the shit scale. Rivaled by very few other events in his life. And maybe that’s why it had hit him so hard.

  Losing Gracie. Not knowing how or why. That was the most difficult thing to swallow. And he still hadn’t gotten over it.

  His old man had been furious with him because Zack had seriously considered not even entering the draft his senior year of college after a stellar four years as starting quarterback for the University of Tennessee. But his head and heart hadn’t been in it. How could it be? If the one person he wanted most to share his dream with was gone—disappeared without a goddamn trace, leaving him to think the absolute worst—then what was the point?

  His father had railed at him that he was throwing his life away over white trailer park trash who wasn’t worth his time. He’d never liked Gracie. Disliked was too mild a term. He despised her. The one and only time he’d brought Gracie to his home to meet his father, the bastard had humiliated her by calling her white trash and making it all too evident that she had no place in Zack’s life, his priorities and that she wasn’t good enough and would never amount to anything.

  He’d never taken her back there. And it had forever caused a rift between him and his father. One that hadn’t been repaired to this day.

  After her disappearance, he’d gone to his father. Asked for his help. It was his father’s goddamn job as chief of police to protect the citizens of his town. His father had laughed. The asshole had actually laughed and celebrated the fact that she was out of the picture. He hadn’t lifted a goddamn finger to investigate her disappearance.

  And then when Zack had hesitated to enter the draft because he feared above all else that she would return and he wouldn’t be there, that it would appear he’d simply given up on her, abandoned her, his father had lost his shit.


  Only his friends talking him down and assuring him that if Gracie did return they’d sit on her and let him know gave him the impetus to pursue his dream of playing in the pros, something he’d never imagined doing without Gracie at his side.

  They were going to be married. Have a big family. He’d play in the pros ten years, bank enough money so his family would be financially secure and then retire so he could devote all his time to his wife and children.

  The first two seasons, he’d led a previously struggling, bottom-rung team to the playoffs. He’d been heralded as saving the franchise and putting it back on the map. Making it relevant. And then a bad hit sustained while he was making the game-winning touchdown pass had resulted in a torn rotator cuff, which had taken him out of pro football after only two seasons.

  It didn’t signal the end of his career but he was at a crossroads. He had two options. Undergo extensive rehab in the off-season, work his ass off and come back. Or take the guaranteed signing money from his contract and simply walk away.

  He’d chosen the latter.

  He could have rehabbed. He could have gone back and likely played for many more years. But instead, he’d joined law enforcement, because Gracie was still uppermost in his mind, and he couldn’t give up the idea that one day he’d find her. Or at least find out what happened to her.

  His father was enraged. Apoplectic. Told him that if he’d had his goddamn head in the game in the first place, instead of being so hung up on worthless white trash, he’d have never taken that hit in the first place. And that he was ruining his entire future for a woman. His father was a misogynist pig who couldn’t imagine sacrificing anything for a female. Especially a career that would make him millions.

  As a child Zack resented his mother for bailing on him and his dad, but as he’d grown older, he understood. How could any woman live with a man like his father? His only source of blame or anger was that she’d left him with a man who was clearly a self-centered, egotistical asshole.

  So he chose a career that gave him access—opportunities—and channels that enabled him to be more proactive in his search for Gracie. And after that last confrontation with his father, he had never gone back home. There was simply nothing for him there, and every time a body would be found, he’d die a thousand deaths wondering if it could be Gracie. It was simply too painful to go back to a place that was so integral, such an important part of his life, his past. Where he and Gracie met, fell in love and shared their hopes and dreams for the future.

  He hadn’t lost his virginity until he reached the pros because it never felt right in college, though there was certainly no lack of opportunities. And the memory of that night was still a source of humiliation for him because it had made him sick to his soul. So sick that he’d stumbled out of bed and went into the bathroom and heaved the contents of his stomach into the toilet. Because that part of him was supposed to be for Gracie. They’d waited. It had been important for him to wait until they married. With her being four years younger, he never wanted to feel as though he’d taken advantage of her in any way. He wanted their wedding night to be special. Hell, he couldn’t even remember the name of the girl he’d lost his virginity to. What kind of ass did that make him?

  Thank God she thought he’d just had too much to drink, since they’d met at a team party after a successful playoff win.

  He pounded his hand against the steering wheel, anger rising, self-loathing overwhelming him. He’d dissed a perfectly good woman tonight because of his own personal hang-ups and his inability to move on and get the fuck over it.

  Twelve years. Twelve goddamn years. Enough already!

  This was bullshit.

  Either Gracie was dead, or she’d simply chosen to disappear. Neither was a possibility he could do a damn thing about and it was time to stop existing like a fucking zombie and get on with his sorry-ass life.

  This shit had to end right now. It was ending right now. Because he refused to spend another goddamn day thinking about what could have been when any sane person would have gotten it through their thick-ass head that what could have been wasn’t ever going to happen and no amount of regret or wishing would make a damn bit of difference.

  He cranked the engine and curled both hands tightly around the steering wheel, resolve surrounding him like a steel case.

  Let go.

  Move on.

  Quit being such a miserable fuck.

  Be happy.

  And starting tomorrow, that’s precisely what he was going to do. Tonight was about saying goodbye to old dreams and what would never be. Tomorrow?

  It was going to be about embracing a future without all the fucking baggage he’d been carrying around for more than a decade.

  THREE

  ANNA-GRACE lifted her arms toward the wall, frowning in concentration as she tilted and turned the painting to allow the light to strike it just so.

  “If only you’d ever look at me that way,” a male teased.

  Instantly losing the frown—and concentration—she turned, a ready smile on her lips as she registered Wade Sterling’s presence.

  “I had no idea you preferred women who scowled at you,” she said lightly.

  It was a familiar repartee, one that had taken considerable effort to establish between her and the wealthy, handsome gallery owner. Most, if not all women, would consider her a fool for not returning Wade’s overtures, which had grown subtler, not bolder, with time.

  He snorted. “You may scowl when the light is not quite right, but then, when it is, you gaze at your painting as one would a lover.”

  She hated the faint heat that stole over her cheeks. And the fact that she instantly averted her gaze, looking away, anywhere but at him. He was no threat to her. Logically, she knew that. But logic never won over fear because fear wasn’t rational. It defied all the rules of logic.

  He sighed but didn’t comment on her rejection. But then he’d grown quite used to them in their acquaintance. At first they’d been purposeful and adamant. Even forceful. Over time, however, she’d tried to relax, to soften the often unconscious rejection, but it was simply too ingrained in her to halt them all together. And her regret grew with each one rendered, unintentional or not.

  “Here, let me,” he said, seemingly unruffled by the awkwardness of the moment.

  He took the painting, affixed it to where she’d found the best lighting and then stood back, studying the effect.

  “It’s good,” he said simply. “But you know that. You wouldn’t agree to display it otherwise and neither would I, despite our friendship. This show is going to launch you, Anna-Grace. About the last piece . . .”

  He purposely trailed off, looking inquisitively at her, and she fidgeted self-consciously under his scrutiny.

  “It’s done,” she hedged.

  Or at least it would be once she let it go. Figuratively speaking. Thank God, Wade understood it—and her. That the painting in question wasn’t merely an object of commercial art meant to showcase her talent. For that matter, it wasn’t even for sale. It was too deeply personal to ever part with, and was the method of communicating her vow to herself. Not to others. She’d questioned even showing it at all, what purpose it truly served. But, it was, in many ways, symbolic of . . .

  Well, there were many words applicable to the painting and its symbolism. Moving on—she nearly laughed, though there was nothing remotely amusing about the situation. Moving on indicated getting past something . . . difficult. The end of a relationship, perhaps. The death of a loved one. Personal recovery. Reaching a point where one decided to take a stand and refuse to allow oneself to dwell—and exist—solely in the past. Well, at least that last one was applicable to her situation.

  For her, the title said it all.

  Dreams Lost.

  “Destroyed” was more apropos, but too dramatic for a painting that was almost whimsical when viewed through unknowing eyes. An image that would invoke nostalgia for the sheer innocence that seemingly radiated from the
light and shadows captured on the canvas.

  It had taken her many attempts before she’d settled on the look she wanted to achieve. And in fact, the title had been indicative, and settled upon, after her first rendition of the place that had played such an important role in her formative years.

  It had been dark, haunting to look at. One couldn’t help but feel sadness when viewing the barren landscape and the sense of loneliness that was prevalent in the painting. For that matter, she wouldn’t have been able to look upon something that brought back such heartbreak and despair.

  She readily admitted that it was the more accurate version, the one that most represented her pain and grief. It was just simply too personal to share with strangers, those who didn’t—who couldn’t—understand. How could they? But the original depiction represented the person she’d been for far too long now and it was time to portray herself differently to the world. Even if the world, for her, was still a narrow, shielded familiar path she never ventured from. No one else knew of her demons. She shared them with no one, and she preferred to keep it that way. Only in Wade had she confided, and it had taken a long, winding road to open up to even one person. She had no desire to broaden her circle of confidants.

  And so, instead of simply portraying a gnarled, sprawling tree, weathered by time, its limbs thin at the ends as if no longer offering protection beneath its awning and an empty landscape with the lake beyond looking gray and stormy as though it were angered by the betrayal the title represented, she’d painted herself—alone—a survivor. Standing beyond the once-protective shelter of the limbs and intricate roots of the huge oak, only her back presented as she stared over the lake.

  It was a sunny day, not even one wispy cloud to mar the canvas, and the blue of the water sparkled like tiny diamonds that had been scattered by a playful child. And the tree, while showing its age, looked more of a timeless guardian, spreading its arms outward, ever watchful and mindful of those in its protective embrace.

  Escape. Freedom. Once it had been those very things to her. And now things had come full circle because the finished painting represented her freedom from her destructive past.

  Now she only had to hang it. The final step in her metamorphosis from hopelessness and helplessness to strength and optimism.

  “Have you changed your mind about displaying it?” Wade asked.

  There was a note of hope in his voice, almost as if he knew that putting it out there was . . . acknowledgment. Baring all the things she’d hidden for the last twelve years. And he was afraid she wasn’t yet ready. He was worried she’d revert to the woman she’d been when they’d first met. God only knew why he’d persevered. Why he’d shaken off the countless aloof and cold rebuffs from her and dug persistently through the layers of numbness, fear and paralysis to the heart of her. Then settled for the only things she could give him. Friendship. And finally, inexplicably, her trust.

  No, he didn’t think she was ready at all.

  He was wrong.

  She was ready. It was something she should have done so much sooner. She’d spent so much time numb, refusing to allow herself to feel . . . anything. Because emptiness was preferable to the overwhelming pain and grief she’d long ago resigned herself to, as though she had no choice but to suffer such a barren existence.

  No, she didn’t feel desire for Wade. Not the kind of the lover he’d referenced. But she did need him. His friendship and unwavering support. She needed those things more than she was comfortable admitting, but she was also done lying to herself and living in constant denial that she was okay, that everything was fine, and she was all right. Normal.

  Because she wasn’t. And she’d likely never be. But she’d finally accepted that and opted to make the best of what she did have and stop dwelling on all she’d lost.

  She looked at him again, this time not masking any of the vulnerability she knew he could read in her eyes. There was a time when she would have died rather than allow anyone to see her so weak and . . . fragile.

  His face softened and his eyes warmed with the friendship she’d come to define their relationship by. The very thing she needed most but had never embraced. Until now. And in the lines of his face, a face that could in fact be quite hard, unyielding and even dangerous, she saw his acceptance of the only thing she could ever offer him.

  She knew he’d accepted it long ago, but perhaps had never truly seen until now. Or wanted to see. Because she feared his giving up and her losing the one steadfast thing she now had apart from her art.

  Her shoulders sagged imperceptibly, and she realized she’d been holding her breath, harboring the fear she’d vowed to no longer live with, because she’d been afraid of his rejection and of being alone. Again. As she’d been for so very long.

  He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, easing the painting down with his free hand until its edge rested gently against the wall. He gathered her close, offering her the warmth and strength of his hug, something she’d come to cherish rather than dread for the physical contact she’d always avoided at all cost.

  “You’re ready,” he said, as if having read her thoughts and answering his own question in the process. “I’m proud of you, Anna-Grace.”

  “Don’t you dare make me cry,” she warned, already feeling the betraying sting of tears.

  He gave her another affectionate squeeze and then relinquished his hold on her.

  “So where do we place the guest of honor?” he asked, his gaze sweeping the gallery and the other paintings of hers that were artfully displayed to their full advantage. “I think center stage, don’t you? This means something, Anna-Grace. You mean something. And it—like you—needs to be celebrated.”

  Okay, so he was going to make her cry. She wiped the corner of her eye with the back of her hand in disgust and glared accusingly at him. He merely smiled back, and she marveled at the feeling of closeness—a connection—to another person. So what if she wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship? Maybe she never would be. A woman didn’t need a man to be whole, and she was more than happy to prove it.

  But a friend? Everyone needed a friend. And she realized, not for the first time, that part of the reason her grief, her piercing and gut-wrenching sense of betrayal over what Zack had done, was so sharp, unrelenting and . . . life changing . . . was that he hadn’t just been the man she had loved, had adored beyond reason, had planned to spend the rest of her life with, and have his children. The man who had shared her hopes and dreams and every secret she’d never dared expose to another living person.