The Guardian
Linda Winstead Jones

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“What kind of plans?”

“A run. A shower. A quick supper. Simple.” Maybe not so simple if he worked in an evening stroll with the mayor. He’d probably ride by her place. He’d probably stop if he saw her leave the house. He’d probably drive around the block until he knew for sure that she was in for the night—or not. Maybe he’d just go to her door and forget the sneaky tactics. Dammit, he’d seen too much bad stuff in the past few years. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t write off Sara’s recent troubles as nothing of concern, not without knowing more.

Sara dressed for her walk, then sat in the foyer and placed her hands in her lap. She was not a coward. She would not become a coward. And still, she couldn’t help but remember how anxious she’d felt last night when she hadn’t known Dante was following her. What if the man who’d stolen her underwear and replaced it with teeny slips of colorful silk was out there right now, watching? What if he had been watching for weeks or months? She shuddered.

She’d never minded living alone. She missed Robert, of course—she’d cried for his loss for a long time. But she’d never been afraid to be alone, to make her own way, to live in this big house on her own. Not until now.

Some days she thought it wasn’t fair that she had lost so much. Her mother when she was just four; her father not long after she’d turned twelve. She’d had her grandfather, her beloved Papa, of course, and had never felt unloved or abandoned, but now even he was gone. Grandparents, parents, Robert…

When the doorbell rang, she nearly jumped out of her skin. She sprang toward the door and peeked through the glass panel beside it, pulling back the fabric that offered some gauzy privacy. She almost melted in relief when she saw Dante standing there. No suit tonight. He was dressed in a T-shirt and longish shorts and running shoes. There was also no gun, not that she could see.

She opened the door.

“You’re late,” he said simply.

“For what?”

“You said you walk at the same time every evening, so you’re late.”

“I was thinking of skipping my walk tonight,” she confessed.

He took in her attire—tennis shoes and shorts and T-shirt—and lifted his eyebrows.

“All right,” she confessed, “I was sitting here about to chicken out. I wondered if the sicko who left that underwear on my porch might be watching. If that makes me a coward, then so be it.”

“It makes you smart. Cautious,” he added. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” And then he grinned. “Besides, I’m here to keep you company on your walk. I need a bit of exercise myself.”

She doubted her idea of exercise would raise so much as a bead of sweat on his body, but she didn’t argue. “I’ll grab my house keys.”

Yesterday she had been a bit stunned by Dante’s presence on her doorstep and in her usually staid life. Tonight as they walked she was more comfortable. She didn’t wonder if anyone was watching. She didn’t care. They talked about Tillman and how it had changed in recent years, and they talked about Jesse and his family—mostly the kids. Sara felt a bitter pang as they talked about the newest addition to the family, little Olivia. She’d wanted children, at least one child, but Robert had convinced her that they had plenty of time. As an assistant D.A. he worked such long hours, he hadn’t thought it would be fair to her to bring a child into the world when he wasn’t home more to be a proper father. When he went into private practice, the time would be better. They had years to plan their family. He’d been wrong, and now here she was, thirty-five years old, alone, burying herself in politics and charities to make the days fly past.

Suddenly it seemed she didn’t want the days to fly past. What was she missing by hiding so much of herself away? Was it really too late?

“Do you have children?” she asked, trying to make the question sound casual and meaningless.

Dante reacted quickly and with decisiveness. “No. Not my thing.”

He said it wasn’t his “thing,” but Dante would be a protective father, she imagined. Maybe he wouldn’t be involved in Little League and school activities the way his cousin was, but he wouldn’t be neglectful or uncaring. He had taken to protecting her quite easily. She could only imagine how he would be with a child.

She’d be a wonderful mother, if only she had the chance….

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. She wasn’t getting any younger. Sara squirmed in her own skin. Was she hiding here in Tillman where she felt safe? Was she so afraid of losing again that she’d shut down her hopes and desires? She hadn’t been so acutely aware of her ticking biological clock until Dante had appeared on her doorstep. Coincidence? Unlikely. Very unlikely.

“Let me make you dinner,” she said as her house came into view.

“Thanks, but that’s not necessary.”

“I know it’s not necessary.” She stopped where the sidewalk met the walkway to her front door. For a moment she looked into his eyes, not flinching at the power she saw there, not ignoring the potent pull that had not diminished in eighteen years. No wonder she had fallen into his arms so easily, all those years ago. No wonder she had gotten lost in his kiss. Even now, their chemistry was explosive. She’d never known anything like it.

“I want you to stay. I want to talk. I’d like to know what your life has been like since I saw you last.” Would it be too telling to admit that she was tired of eating alone almost every night? Would it be too forward to admit that she simply didn’t want him to go? “Providing a meal is the least I can do to thank you for keeping me company so I can walk in peace.”

Dante did hesitate, but not for long. “Sure. Why not?”

He shouldn’t be here. Sitting in Sara’s kitchen watching her cook and listening to her talk seemed to pull at him, as if she were drawing him into her life one tiny bit at a time. She was a woman now, not a girl, but her movements and the tone of her voice were familiar enough to make that pull seem easy and natural.

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