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Her body bowed, her back arched, and all of her muscles went taut. Mac felt her pulse around him. He held out as long as he could, drawing out her orgasm, experiencing every second of bliss.

When he finally let go, the release made him lightheaded. He collapsed on top of her, chest heaving, heart aching. He was sure he’d never experienced anything like making love to Stella. She fit him in every way, like a lock to a key, and being inside her was like being home.

Her fingers toyed with his hair.

“Why did we wait so long to do that?” she asked.

“I have no idea.” With great regret, he slid from her body and levered up on one of his elbows. He liked the way she felt underneath him, all soft, smooth skin. He ran a hand along her hip. Her body was fit and athletic, with enough flesh under his hand that he didn’t feel like he would break her if things got energetic. Which they had. He kissed her mouth. Slow and deep, as if he wanted to make love to her again. Which he did.

All dark eyes and disheveled hair, she cupped his jaw. “I wish this moment could last forever.”

“Me, too.” He nibbled his way to her neck. “The best I can do is make it last a while longer.”

They both knew in the morning they’d have to face reality. But for the next few hours, the real world could wait.

“I’ll take every minute I can get.” How did her hand get down there?

“I like it that you’re greedy.” He got up to deal with the condom and find another. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”

She fluffed her pillow and got comfortable. “I’ll be here.”

But for how long?

Mac had spent his entire adult life running from personal responsibility. Fleeing connections. Running from his emotions. Now, for the first time, he wanted something to be permanent.

The ache in his chest was an acute reminder that his growing attachment to Stella made him vulnerable. If he let himself fall for her, it would be like stepping off a cliff. There’d be no going back.

She appeared in the mirror behind him. “Do you think you should check your stitches? I’d feel awful if I hurt you.”

He turned and kissed her. “I was careful. The wound is fine.”

Tonight, it was his heart at risk.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Thunder boomed. Stella opened her eyes. She oriented herself as she recognized Mac’s bedroom in the dark. Erotic images played in her mind.

What a night.

Lightning flashed, illuminating Mac sprawled next to her. The room had been warm—and so had their bodies—when they’d finally fallen asleep. The sheet draped across his waist, leaving his torso bare. Her gaze roamed the lean muscle of his arms and chest. She thought about following her eyes with her hands, but it wasn’t even light yet. Why should they both be awake?

Rain burst from the sky and drummed on the roof. Leaves rustled as the wind whipped at the trees. Cool, moist air blew through the open windows, a welcome chill. Another clap of thunder boomed, closer this time. The loud crack brought back the memory of her nightmare. Gunshots and an endless stream of blood. In her dreams, it flowed until it formed a slick, red lake in the grass.

Nausea welled. Moving away from Mac so as not to disturb him, she curled into a ball.

But he stirred, rolling toward her. His hand settled on her hip. “What’s wrong?”

“Just a bad dream.” She balled up tighter.

He stroked a hand down her back, as soothing as the patter of rain.

“Shouldn’t you close the windows?”

He shook his head, scooting closer and pulling her to him until his body spooned hers. “The roof was designed to protect the windows. The rain won’t get in.”

The wind blew the cool scent of wet pine and earth into the room. Stella shivered, and Mac drew the sheet up over her shoulders.

He pressed his lips to her temple. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She sighed, wiggling her butt closer. She loved the feel of his body pressed against hers. He was solid and real and warm. “Just a nightmare.”

“Do you have them often?”

Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “They started back in November.”

“After the shooting?”

“Yes.” She rolled onto her back, flung an arm over her head, and stared up at the ceiling. “They’d been fading, slowly, over the months, but seeing two dead bodies this week seems to have brought them back.”

He stroked the underside of her arm. Last night, he’d found places on her body she hadn’t known were erogenous. Or was it his touch, pretty much anywhere, that stirred desire until it simmered in her veins, thick and hot and as sweet as syrup?

“Have you seen anyone?” he asked.

“You mean a shrink?” She rolled to face him.

He nodded. “Yeah. I’m considering it.” He slid his hand to her hip. “I never really dealt with Lee’s death.”

“And now your father . . .” She cupped his jaw. “Your family has been through so much.”

“Yeah. Putting the issue on my backburner hasn’t worked out for me. I don’t recommend it.” Grief welled into Mac’s eyes. “You should deal with the problem now, instead of letting it grow.”

Like he obviously had.

Stella nestled her head deeper into the pillow. “I don’t have anything against therapy. My required sessions with the department shrink were important after the shooting, but I thought I was getting over it. Looks like I was wrong. I’m not worried about the actual nightmares. I’m pretty sure they’ll fade when this is over. The doctor said they could come and go, depending on triggers.” But as long as she was a cop, her life would never be free of triggers.

“Then what’s bothering you?”

She tucked the sheet over her breasts. “I blew off my pistol qualification last week.”

Mac waited, patient as always, making her feel like one of the wild animals he studied.

“Every time I pull the trigger, I flinch.” Stella flung a hand over her head. “You know about the shooting back in November?”

“Not all the details.”

“The suspect fled, and I shot him. The bullet struck him in the arm, but it didn’t stop him. He went on to do terrible things. He killed two cops. Your sister and Brody almost died.” She smoothed the edge of the sheet against her skin. “If I had stopped him, none of that would have happened. Those two cops would still be alive.”

“You cannot possibly think any of that was your fault.” Mac shifted closer and took her hand. “There is only one person responsible for their deaths: the shooter.”

“My brain knows this, but my heart sees the police chaplain on the doorstep.” A tear slipped from her eye. “Just like when my dad died.”

Mac pulled her into his arms. Holding her against his chest, he stroked her hair. “You know you’re being completely unreasonable. The mayor gave you a medal for your performance in the shootout.”

“How do you know about that?” Stella lifted her head.

“I might have been keeping tabs on you.”

“From the jungle?”

“I didn’t say it was easy.” He brushed the tear from her cheek. “But you’re worth it. I ran all the way to South America, but I couldn’t get you out of my head.”

She rested her head on his chest. Just being in his arms helped. “I’ll see the shrink, but I still have to get through my qualification.”

“Have you been to the range?”

“Not lately. The cop crowd there makes me nervous. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though they’re not,” Stella said. “I know this is all in my head.”

Mac glanced at the clock. He stood, taking Stella’s hand and dragging her to her feet. “It’s five o’clock. Grab a shower. I’ll make coffee.”

“Where are we going?” Still groggy, Stella headed for the bathroom. She turned on the spray to let the water warm up.

Mac was sending a text. “Firing range.”

“Who are you texting?”

“Hannah. No one makes shooting more fun than she does.”

“It’s not even light out.”

“She gets up early.” His gaze darkened as he scanned her from head to toe. “It’s a real shame, but I guess you’ll need clothes.”

“I keep a bag in the trunk of my car.” Crime scenes were rough on her wardrobe.

Forty-five minutes later, they pulled into the dirt and gravel parking area. Hannah was waiting.

Stella eyed the building. Nerves swam through the coffee in her belly.

“Trust me.” Mac got out of the car to greet his sister.

Dressed in jeans, boots, and a Syracuse University T-shirt, Hannah didn’t look like a hotshot lawyer. She opened her trunk and unlocked a portable gun safe. She palmed a handgun, and handed Mac one.

Stella looked over Mac’s shoulder. The box contained additional handguns and rifles. “What is this?”

“The Barrett family arsenal.” Mac picked up a magazine and a box of bullets. “The Colonel took his weapons very seriously.”

“He must have.” Stella faced the concrete bunker-type structure. No signs gave away the building’s purpose.

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