“You beat up old ladies?”
“No. Jesus, Ali.”
“Do you call your mom every once in a while?” she asked.
Something came and went in his eyes. The very slightest glimmer of amusement. “Yes.”
“Then I know enough,” she said.
“You don’t know that there are death threats being lobbed at me.”
This had her taking a beat. “Seriously?”
“I think it’s probably just the average, run-of-the-mill nutjob news junkie, but I can’t be sure.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “There’s something you don’t know about me.” She smiled proudly. “I’m a three-time, sharpshooter Lucky Harbor Arcade champion.”
“You’re an…arcade champion.”
“Three time,” she repeated. “Missed that in your research, didn’t you? I can shoot all my ducks in a row, ask anyone. Ask Lance, he runs the ice cream shop next to the arcade. I beat him just last week on a break.”
Luke laughed softly. “Well in that case…”
She smiled, but his faded and he shook his head. “This isn’t a joke, Ali.”
“As I’m all too well aware,” she said quietly. “Look, thanks for the accommodations. I’ll pull my weight, I promise.”
He looked a little taken aback at the statement. Did he do all the giving in every aspect of his life? If so, it made her ache for him, because she understood. That she’d found this common ground between them felt both unsettling and comforting.
She was going to have to get over that. And him.
Luke drove up the narrow road toward his grandma’s house, the rocky landscape made up of skyscraper-tall granite boulders that had been pushed here twenty thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age.
His passenger stared out her window at the rocks, as still and quiet as the surface of the water in the harbor far below.
This was unusual enough, but there was an element to Ali’s silence that worried him. She was giving off a sadness, a sense of loneliness that made him ache for her.
He’d seen her with her family, who maybe rivaled his own family for the crazy quotient. But it was clear that she loved them with everything she had.
He understood that too.
“Thanks,” she finally said softly, “for coming for me.”
She hadn’t called, and that got to him too. She hadn’t wanted to be a burden. She’d asked him if he was worried she’d steal from him. The thought had never crossed his mind. She had the face of an angel, but that wasn’t why he trusted her.
It was her eyes.
Christ, those eyes.
And bastard he might be, he wasn’t usually wrong about people.
“You’ve done a lot for a perfect stranger you found squatting in your house,” Ali murmured. “Or maybe not so perfect when it comes right down to it…”
“Perfect is overrated,” he said. “And you’re welcome, but I didn’t do it just for you.”
She turned to him. “No?”
There were two spots of color on her cheeks, and he wasn’t sure if it was pride, temper, or intense curiosity. But any of it was hugely preferable to the brief sheen of tears he’d caught before, which had struck terror in his heart in a way that taking down hardened criminals never had. It was now his sole goal to keep her from crying. To that end, he answered her question more lightly than he would have otherwise. “Because the geriatric gang was going to drive me crazy until I did.”
“My seniors?” she asked, shocked. “Why?”
Her seniors. He paused, really not wanting to go there. He thought about omitting, evading, or even out-and-out lying. He had no problem with any of that when it suited him, but for some reason, he had a problem with it now, with her. So he drew a deep breath and concentrated on the road. “Edward Gregory is my grandfather.”
She stared at him. “Mr. Gregory, the Dial-A-Ride driver? He’s your grandpa?”
“Yeah. He was married to my grandma Fay a million years ago for about ten minutes. When she left him, she changed her name—and my dad’s—back to Hanover. My dad’s their only kid.”
“And he lives next door to you.”
“Next door to my grandma’s house,” he corrected.
“Which is now your house. So he made you come check on me?”
“He was worried about you.”
“And you?” she asked.
Again, he answered lightly. This time for him. “I was worried I’d never get any peace if I didn’t do as they asked.”
There was a long silence from the passenger seat, with Ali studying each passing tree as if it held the secrets to world peace.
He sighed. “Yeah, okay. I was worried too.”
She said nothing to this, and he glanced at her. “You okay over there?”
“Just trying to picture you as someone’s little grandson.”
“Hard to believe, I know. But I wasn’t always thirty and jaded as hell. I actually had a childhood, a lot of it spent right here in Lucky Harbor, in fact.”
This got her. She turned her head and stared at him. “Are your parents here in town?”
“No, they raised me in San Francisco, mostly. They’re doctors, both in Haiti now. When I was younger and they traveled, which was just about all the time, my sister and I came here to my grandma Fay’s.”
She shook her head. “Still trying to see you as a little boy, having fun, playing in the sandbox.”
He smiled. “I was more of a blow-shit-up kind of kid. And believe it or not, I do know how to have fun.”
Again she met his gaze, and the air seemed to crackle around them.
“Hmm,” she said.
That damn “hmm” left him tempted to pull over and show her exactly how much fun he could be. But that would be a mistake.
Showing her anything over and above what they’d already done would be a mistake. Still, he was shockingly tempted, and he let her see that when he looked over at her.
Color bloomed in her cheeks again. “You’re a distraction,” she said softly. “I don’t need a distraction. I need to do some problem solving.”
“Are you going to ask me for help?”
“No,” she said. “You’re not getting involved.”
Maybe if they both kept saying it, it would be true. “Right,” he said, wanting to drive this point home. “I am definitely on a break from getting involved.”
“Because of your last case.”
“Among other reasons.”
She fell silent, and he was a big enough jerk to be grateful.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she finally said, quietly. “What happened to that woman…Isabel Reyes.”
“She might feel differently, if she could say so,” he said with a lightness he didn’t feel.
The typical late afternoon wind was kicking up as they made the last hairpin turn to the top of the cliffs. The water wasn’t quiet now. The sun shimmered on it, lighting up the whitecaps as if they were a million bursts of fire.
Once upon a time, Luke would have been out there on that water with Jack or Ben, stirring up shit in one form or another. Now he was asking for trouble of a different kind altogether by bringing Ali back to the house.
“The news accounts I’ve read say that the prosecution’s evidence got tossed out,” she said. “And we both know that once they set the senator free, it was out of your hands.”
The knife in his chest twisted a little bit. She was looking at him. He could feel the weight of her gaze.
“Must be a terribly helpless feeling,” she said softly. “When something like that happens, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
“Why do you do it?”
“The job?” He shrugged. “Someone’s got to. And I’m good at it. Usually.”
“You didn’t fail her, Luke. The senator did. You didn’t fail anyone.”
“You’re wrong there,” he said. “I’ve failed plenty.” He’d failed his sister. His grandma. And no matter what Ali said, he’d also failed Isabel Reyes. He pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine, and got out of the truck.
He came around for Ali but she was already sliding out, and they headed up the walkway in silence.
Before he could open the door, Ali stopped him with a hand on his arm. He felt the zing of her touch all the way to his soul.
“You manage huge amounts of responsibility,” she said quietly. “You face so much, every day. I think you’re amazing, Luke. I also think a part of why you want to be alone is because you’re feeling vulnerable right now. You’re afraid you’re going to fail someone else.”
And if it was her, if he failed her in any way, it would kill him.
“No,” he said.
She was standing there in her muddy apron and wild hair, looking at him with those big, soft eyes that said she thought he was a hero.
But a hero wouldn’t want to push her up against the door and kiss her.
“You haven’t failed me,” she whispered.
Fuck it, he thought, and giving in to the need swamping him, he backed her up to the door and kissed her. It didn’t take more than a single heartbeat for her to wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.
“That’s why I need to be alone,” he said when they broke apart, breathless. “We have a chemistry problem.”
“Yes. I think you’re right.” She wobbled, and Luke slid an arm around her as he unlocked the front door, noticing he wasn’t all that steady either. “Food or shower?”
“Both.” She was still looking a little shell-shocked at their combustibility. “Shower first.”
He led her inside, blocking the view of the still-trashed living room, standing there until she’d gone straight into the bathroom. Then he turned and faced the destroyed house. Shaking his head, he moved back to shut the front door just as Jack pulled up.