Jack drained the last of the warm water from the bottle. Shit.
“I’m so sorry,” Brittany said, her voice strained.
“It’s okay.” He wiped a drip of perspiration from his face. “Maybe I should stop ...”
“It’s such a lot of work, Jack.” She surveyed the material cluttering her small yard. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Hell, yeah.” He forced a grin. “I’m figuring it out. It’s a little different than the house I built with my dad when I was a kid, but hey...it’s way nicer.”
“I’m sure she’ll love it when it’s built.”
A gaping hole in his gut ached. Christ, he hoped so. He was doing this for her. He firmed his lips. “Back to work,” he said, trying to sound confident.
* * *
Ally had waited until two o’clock on Wednesday to call Carter, knowing he was driving back from San Diego that morning.
“Hey, Ally,” he said, surprise roughening his voice. “What’s up?”
“Jack is in town.” No sense making small talk.
A short silence, then, “Jack? Holy shit!”
“I know.” She paused. The question was on the tip of her tongue, ready to burst out. Why the hell didn’t you tell me about his e-mails? But she bit her tongue. “Why don’t you come over tonight and see him?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he said hastily. “It’d be great to see him again.”
She thought she detected a faint hint of anxiety in his voice but couldn’t be sure. “Great,” she said. “Come over around seven.”
Then she called Jack’s cell phone.
“Hi,” she said. “Where are you?”
“At Brittany’s. Working on this damn tree house.” Of course he was. He’d spent most of yesterday either buying or building the house, had come home late last night. She’d already been in bed, listening for him, wondering what he and Brittany and Sarah were doing so late.
“How’s it going?”
“Crappy.” He sighed. “I didn’t realize what a big job this was. And she doesn’t even like it.”
“It’s not in a tree.”
“Oh. But she’ll like it when it’s done.”
“Yeah. That’s what Brittany says, too.”
“I’m sure she’s right. Anyway, I called to tell you I got hold of Carter and he’s coming over tonight to see you.”
When she hung up and turned back to her computer, her stomach was in knots. She had a very uncomfortable feeling about how the meeting was going to go. She was going to have to confront Carter, something she never liked doing. It wasn’t that she cared about him any more. He was just so...overbearing. Annoyingly confident. He was always right.
It pissed her off, made her feel like she was in the wrong, made her feel small and impotent when it came to trying to deal with him. She pressed her lips together.
That was in the past. If Carter had lied to her about Jack, she wanted to know. And Carter was going to know how angry she was.
She tried to focus on her work, but her mind kept going off in different directions and she ended up sitting there, hands idle on the keyboard.
A while later, she looked down at the denim shorts she’d worn all day and grimaced. Okay, maybe this meeting between the three of them after so many years called for something a little better than this. Something confidence building.
In her bedroom, she stepped out of the shorts and pulled the faded grey T-shirt she wore over her head.
She heard the door as Jack arrived home and stood there in her underwear indecisively for a moment, then grabbed a fluffy pink robe and shoved her arms into it. She never wore pink, it was a horrible color on her, but the robe had been a gift. She hurried across the room and out the door to greet him.
He was just coming up the stairs.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him. Baggy beige cargo pants hung low on his hips and a snug black T-shirt showed off all the muscle definition he’d acquired over the years. His tanned face shone with perspiration. She warmed inside at the sight of him.
“Hi,” she said breathlessly. He eyed her apparel. “Sorry, I was just changing.” She pushed her hair back and tugged the robe tighter around her, standing at the top of the stairs.
“That’s okay,” Jack said, still looking at her body. Now she really felt warm. “I was just going to shower and change, too. What time is Carter coming?”
“In about an hour.”
“I brought home dinner. Pizza.”
“Oh. Thank you. I’ll go finish getting dressed.”
She turned, acutely conscious of her lack of clothing, and he went into his own room. She returned to her bedroom and dug in her drawer for her powder-blue lace panties and bra. She pulled out her best jeans, really low-rise ones that fit perfectly, and a swingy camisole top in the same shade of blue as her bra. Then she smoothed her hair with a brush and put some shiny gloss on her lips.
Downstairs she found Jack already in the kitchen opening the pizza box, damp-haired from what must have been a speedy shower. “Want a beer?” she asked.
“Hell yeah.” He moved toward her fridge. She liked that he felt comfortable enough there to go in and help himself. She followed him.
He grabbed a beer, popped the top and held it out to her. “Here.”
Ah. That was nice. “Thanks.”
They stayed in the kitchen, eating pizza and drinking beer. When they’d finished, Jack loaded their dishes in the dishwasher while Ally put the leftover pizza in the fridge. Ally glanced at her watch. Carter would be there soon.
Jack’s posture as he leaned against the counter holding his beer looked relaxed, long legs crossed at the ankle, but she could see how taut his body was, the muscles in his arms hard with tension, his lips firm, jaw rigid. Her own shoulders were tight with apprehension at seeing Carter again, and about confronting him. She hated fighting, would almost rather just forget about the whole thing, except ...it was important. Jack said he’d kept in touch, and Jack wouldn’t lie about that. But why would Carter? She had to know what had really happened. It made a difference. Her tummy quivered with nerves.
“You okay?” Jack asked her. Their eyes met, connected, held.
“Yeah, sure.” But her voice came out higher pitched than she’d intended. She licked her lips.
“You don’t want to do this, do you?”
“No. But I have to. I want to know what Carter was doing.”
“Is it hard? To see him again?”
She lifted a shoulder. “I’d rather not see him again. Ever.”
“I’m sorry. It’s because of me that you’re having to go through this.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s not because of you. If Carter did something - if he lied to me - it’s because of him we’re doing this.”
“You wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t shown up unexpectedly on your doorstep.”
“Maybe not right now.” She sipped her beer, and the fingers holding the bottle trembled. “I can do it, Jack.”
His eyes warmed as they looked at her. “I know you can.” His eyes fell to Ally’s mouth and she felt his gaze like a touch. Her lips parted and she forgot to breathe.
Then the doorbell rang.
“Showtime,” Jack murmured, and they stepped apart.
Ally paused, took a breath, then headed to the door
Extreme Close Up Chapter 16