"Why? Why do you care?”
Rafe crept closer to where she perched on the edge of her barstool and slipped between her jean-clad legs. “I have dozens of reasons.”
“Like this, for starters.”
He bent his head, and she closed her eyes, inhaling his scent, the warmth of his body so close to hers. She melted into his embrace, fluid. Her palm flattened against his chest.
His fingers brushed the skin of her nose. “Beep-beep.”
“Aaaargh!” Jackie Whelan shoved away from her desk, the wheels on her chair rolling her halfway across the floor until the words in her document were too far away to decipher.
It had been like this for weeks. None of her usual tricks to break writer’s block had worked: not the change of font, text color, or scenery. Not a hot shower or her playlist of mood-inducing soundtracks. Not scented candles or word games or character interviews or going back to reread what she’d already written to figure out where she lost the thread.
God, she was so screwed. This book was already way past deadline and for some reason, she could not get her hero to fall for the heroine. Every time she got them close to a clinch, Rafe pulled back and did something stupid. Like bopping Meredith on the nose.
The sudden ring of her cell commanded attention, and she welcomed the distraction. Under normal circumstances, she’d ignore it. Most people knew not to call her during writing hours. As she grabbed for the phone, she noticed the name on the screen and sighed.
“Hey, Jax,” her sister greeted her when she answered. “We’re still on for tonight, right? I mean, I haven’t heard from you, so I assume you’re not cancelling this time.”
Crap. She’d forgotten all about the psychic fair Jessie had strong-armed her into agreeing to attend. That’s how crazy this book had made her.
Her first inclination was to tell her sister to go without her, but since staring at her laptop screen wasn’t doing her any good anyway, she reconsidered. “Not cancelling. I just need to take a quick shower and get dressed.”
“Yay! I’ll be there in an hour.”
Yay. Her echoed response held none of Jessie’s verbal enthusiasm. Oh, she loved her younger sister. They just had… emotional baggage they’d yet to overcome.
“See you then.” After hanging up, Jackie closed the laptop. “As for you two, we’ll give it another go tomorrow.” She wagged a finger. “Rafe, you have to stop fooling around and start falling in love.”
An hour later, as she wandered around various booths where salespeople tried to get her to pay for readings, crystals, books, and herbs, she listened to her sister chatter on about the Tarot reading she’d just received.
“She said my perfect job is coming soon. Definitely by the end of the year.”
“And that it’s going to come with a huge raise. And a year after that, I’m going to meet the right guy.”
“Jax, you’re not listening at all.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve got a headache. Too many people, too much incense.” She rubbed a hand across her forehead. “Can we get out of here?”
Jessie’s posture sagged, but she nodded. “I guess.”
Thank God. She turned to look for the exit when a woman in a voluminous purple blouse and black pants appeared in front of her, blocking her path.
“Excuse me,” Jackie said, sidestepping.
The woman grabbed her by the forearms, and her black-lined eyes rounded as she stared with laser intensity. “You’re stuck. You cannot move forward. You’ve been stagnating for months.”
Behind them, Jessie gasped. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, please,” Jackie retorted, shaking out of the strange woman’s grasp. “My picture is on my book jackets. And anyone who’s a fan would know my next novel’s release date has been pushed back. It’s not magic, Jess. It’s deductive reasoning.”
The woman pulled a small glass dome from the pocket of her skirt and thrust it into Jackie’s palm. “Take this. Place it next to you while you work. The answers you seek will soon become clear to you.”
Inside the dome sat a perfect daisy, white petals spread in a circular fan, the yellow center bright as the summer sun.
Jackie, palm still open, demurred. “No, thank you. I’m not interest—”
“It’s a gift.” The woman curled Jackie’s fingers around the smooth glass curves. “You will see. It will help you. Take it. Please.”
Flustered, Jackie nodded. “Thanks.”
“Wow.” Jessie leaned over her shoulder to touch the globe. “That’s so cool. And it’s pretty, too. Nice gift.”
“Uh-huh. Let’s go. Please.” Stuffing the knickknack in her pocket, she grabbed her sister by the arm and pulled her from the expo center.
Another sleepless night awaited her where she dreamt her editor told her the publishing house had tired of waiting and planned to cancel her contract and recoup the advance they’d laid out—money she’d already spent.
Bleary-eyed, Jackie stumbled to the kitchen the next morning and pressed the button to start her coffeemaker. While her caffeine fix brewed and dripped into the carafe, she trudged to her desk with the posture and mood of a woman condemned to death. Or debtor’s prison.
“Okay, guys,” she addressed her laptop. “Can you please play nice today?”
“You know the problem is that Meredith is a bore, right?” a silky masculine voice said from behind her.
Jackie whirled to find him seated on her countertop beside the coffeemaker, dressed as she’d last written him: in dark jeans and a black tee. Rafe. Rafe from her work-in-progress. He smiled at her with a devilish gleam in his smoky eyes.
On a screech, she reached for the nearest item to use as a weapon. She connected with two: her wireless mouse and her television’s remote. Not exactly lethal, but she threw them both anyway, one at a time, at his head. He didn’t even move. The missiles sailed right through him as if he were made of vapor.
“Get out,” she shouted. “I don’t know who you are or how you got in here but get out. Now. Before I call the police.”
He chuckled, the sound rich as aged whiskey. “You could call the cops, but I don’t recommend it. No can see me but you. And I can’t leave ‘til you finish my story.”
Ridiculous. Impossible. Who was he? And how did he get into her apartment?
“I have a gun,” she threatened.
“No, you don’t. Besides, even if you did, you saw what just happened with the last two things you tried to hit me with. I’m not real. Not to anyone else. I’m here to help you help me.” He pointed to the daisy paperweight Jackie had set on the corner of the desk. “I guess Sabrina didn’t share that tidbit about the talisman she gave you yesterday.”
Was she dreaming? He looked exactly the way she’d pictured him, sounded the way she’d heard his voice in her head. She took a deep inhale. God, even his cologne matched the scents she’d written in the first chapter.
Jackie’s hand went from her pounding heart to touch the globe, to feel its solid cool tangibleness. “This is impossible. I’m dreaming. I have to be.”
He launched himself to the floor without a sound. “You’re not. To you, I’m as real as your imagination has created me in the pages of that book you’re writing. You want to get rid of me? You have to finish my story. When you type The End and I finally fall in love for good, then and only then, can I leave here. And since you clearly have no idea what I want in a woman, Sabrina cast the daisy spell to bring me to life to help you.”
She gestured to his less-than-solid form. “You’re hardly brought to life.”
“I’m only as fleshed out as you’ve made me. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them with vigor. “So, grab your coffee, and let’s get started. The sooner we start the sooner you’ll type The End.”
Jackie blinked, ran her fingers through her hair, and muttered, “This can’t be happening.”
“Oh, it’s happening, my little radish.” He dipped, so one haunch rested on the corner of her desk. “You’ll have to find me another love interest, though, because that Meredith…” He gave an exaggerated yawn. “What a bowl of cold oatmeal.”
Forgetting who (or what) she spoke to, she exclaimed, “Meredith is a great character! She’s an attorney with a huge heart and a passion for—”
“She’s soft, gray mush. I need a woman with a spark, someone who ignites my brain and my…” He let his gaze travel toward his midsection.
“Don’t!” She held up a hand. “It’s way too early to talk about sex.”
That throaty chuckle erupted again. “No wonder you can’t write. It’s never too early, little radish.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“Then, find me a decent protagonist!” Her jaw dropped at his outburst, and he shrugged. “What? Did you forget you made me smart as well as sexy?”
“Right now, I don’t find you either.”
He leaned close, his voice a low caress slipping into her ear. “Yes, you do. You like me. Look at your vision board. Look at those models you’ve cut out and printed there. I have hisgray eyes, that one’s curly dark hair. Oooh! That one’s got a much better upper body structure. Why didn’t you give me those shoulders and arms?”
She studied the photo on the corkboard he pointed to, a drop-dead handsome man lifting himself out of a perfect azure pool of water, droplets glistening on golden skin, muscles that bulged with the effort. She shook her head. “Too much. A man built like that spends all his hours in the gym and not enough time with a woman he purports to love.”
Rafe’s expression turned thoughtful. “Hmm… good point. Still, if the woman I’m supposed to love is Meredith, I’d rather be in the gym. I’d rather be in a swamp in July.”
“What’s so bad about Meredith?” Now, she pointed to the vision board, but at the photos on the right, all of the same beautiful woman in various poses and forms of dress. “Look at her. She’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah, sure, she’s pretty. But she doesn’t have your personality.”
“My personality?” A bitter laugh erupted. “Of course not. I’m boring. Look at me. I’m a nice quiet lady who writes books, lives alone—not even a cat or a parakeet. I haven’t had a date in over a year. My social life consists of snippets of time where I tip delivery drivers for bringing me everything from groceries to my laundry. Oh, and the occasional outing with my sister that brings on delusions like you. My car is six years old and doesn’t have more than twenty thousand miles on the odometer. Meredith is light years away from me. She’s smart and kind and witty—”
“She is not. She has never once said anything remotely humorous.”
“What do you mean? She had that great joke about the lawyer and the salamander.”
“That was my joke.”
She considered for a moment, realized he was right. “Oh. What about…? Nope. That was yours, too.”
“You gave me all the best lines. On paper, Meredith is one-dimensional, less than one-dimensional if that’s possible.”
Jackie grabbed her book journal and a pen. “Okay, so what would you like to see in Meredith?”
“More of you.”
She snorted. “Be serious. I already told you. I’m more boring than Meredith in real life.”
“No, you’re not. You have all the qualities you’ve given me: the empathy, the sense of humor, the tough edge and gooey center. You don’t give up. You’re the one with the huge heart. You’re not blocked because of me. You’re blocked because you didn’t bother to provide Meredith with anything more than a well-cut suit and a law degree. I’m not about to fall in love with such a shallow woman. Your brain knows that, even though your fingers keep pushing us together.”
This couldn’t be real. Rafe wasn’t real. Her subconscious had conjured him. Her crazy dream about her editor last night had caused some kind of break with reality, and this… this figment of her imagination was the result. So, okay. What could she do? If Rafe was willing to help her fix the problem and let her keep her job, she’d indulge him.
“Where do we start?”
“Chapter one. Where I meet Meredith.”
“I love that scene!”
“It’s cliché; she’s stuck on the side of the road, and I give her a jump. Yawn city, population two. Let’s brainstorm something different, something unique.”
He made it all sound so reasonable, so normal that the character from the book she was writing had walked off the page and into her life. Burying her last glimmer of sanity, she opened the laptop.
“What do you suggest?”
When she closed the laptop at six pm, they’d ripped apart and rewritten the first three chapters. She had to admit Rafe’s input had been invaluable. The dialogue between him and Meredith sang now. There was an underlying level of heat in his words, and Meredith… well, Meredith had begun to show deeper levels of conflict and passion simmering beneath her well-cut suit. He’d even agreed to let her have the lawyer and the salamander joke, which was a whole lot funnier when she said it.
Jackie looked up into Rafe’s face and offered a tired smile. “This is much better. Thank you.” She rolled her head to break the stiffness in her neck and shoulders.
“Too bad you haven’t fleshed me out more by now. I give terrific massages.”
“Mmm… thanks, but I’m good.” She got to her feet and tucked the chair beneath her desk. “I just need to walk a bit, stretch the kinks out, and figure out dinner plans. God, I’m starved. You?”
“No. I’m not real, remember? But I can’t go anywhere, so I’ll sit with you and pretend if you want.”
She quirked a brow. “As opposed to… what? You just hovering around and watching me?”
“I’m saving that portion of my day for when you shower.”
“Save the sexual innuendo for the book, okay?”
“It bothers you, doesn’t it? Why?”
“Why? Why does it bother me that a total stranger wants to see me naked?”
“No. I mean, sure, I can see why that might make anyone uncomfortable, but there’s more to it for you, isn’t there? When you said this morning you were just a nice, quiet lady who writes books and lives alone, that’s exactly how you see yourself.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Extraordinary.”
“What? That’s what I am.”
“Jacqueline, you’re so much more than you realize.”
“How do you know? You’ve known me for all of a day.”
That rich amber laugh filled the room. “I’ve known you for months. Since you first typed my name on page one—no, longer than that. I’ve been a part of you, waking and sleeping, since the first time you thought of me for this book. That’s… what? A year? A year and a half? All of us: Me, Meredith, the barista in my coffee shop, the woman with the dog who comes into Meredith’s office in that first scene, we all stay with you from the moment we first pop into your head until you type The End. We know more about you than you do about us. It’s why it takes time for us to open up to you, to tell you what we want, how we see our story going, and where we hope to be when the story’s over. Have you ever had a secondary character start demanding a sequel halfway through the book they first appear in?”
“That’s not an accident. It’s because the character trusts you, loves you, wants to place their happily-ever-after in your capable, worthy hands. We’ve all watched you struggle for months, until I finally begged Sabrina to send me to you because I could clearly see where you were going wrong. And even though, I haven’t seen you at your best, there is no one else I’d rather have determine my fate than you.” The heat of his gaze sent fireworks erupting in her belly. “You’re deep-down good, Jacqueline. And that’s rare in this world.”
Her mouth dried, and blood flooded her cheeks. To break the sensual spell he cast over her, she turned her back, focused on dinner options. “I think I’ll order a pizza tonight. Maybe splurge and get mushrooms.”
“Go for it. You’ve earned a celebration. I already like the new Meredith—oh, not enough to kiss her yet, but she’s at least piquing my interest now. I have questions, want to know what makes her tick, who hurt her, and if it’s too late to get a little revenge on her behalf.”
“Well, good,” Jackie replied. “So, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You still don’t get it, do you? I can’t leave you. Wherever you go, until you finish my story, I will be with you. You decide to escape this gilded cage you’ve created for yourself and write at the beach, in a cabin in the woods, or at the local coffee shop, I go, too. Why you want to stay in these cramped three rooms when you could be anywhere else is beyond me.”
“I told you I’m boring.”
“But you’re not. What happened to the woman who went skydiving on her thirtieth birthday?”
“That was almost five years ago. I was going through a messy divorce and needed a distraction. Besides, my sister put me up to it.”
“Ah, yes, the lovely Jessica. I owe her for yesterday. I have no idea how I could’ve arranged for Sabrina to give you the globe if you hadn’t attended the Fortune Fair.”
Jackie blew a disgusted breath through her pursed lips. “Fortune Fair. Right.”
“Don’t mock what you don’t understand. You know, you’re not going to find your fate hiding out here ordering takeout. You spend so much time worrying about us, you’re letting your life pass you by. You should go somewhere. See people.” She opened her mouth to argue, but he cut her off with a quick wave of his hand. “More than delivery people. And yesterday doesn’t count. Go pick up your own food. Make conversation with a stranger. You never know who you might meet.”
“Now you sound like my mother.”
He shrugged. “I am all the people who’ve made up your life, in some shape or form. Everything I do and say has been designed by you.”
“Uh-huh. So, how long will it be before you’re ready to kiss Meredith?”
“I don’t know. Maybe… chapter six or so? It depends on how likeable you can make her in the next fifty pages. Now, come on. Grab your coat. Let’s go out for pizza.”
“You can’t eat it.”
“Yeah, but I can smell it. And that’ll do.”
Walking around in public with a man no one else could see had its drawbacks. There must have been a dozen instances where he asked a question and she’d answer before realizing someone nearby thought she was talking to herself and gave her a wide berth. Still, he’d been right. Aside from the silly Fortune Fair, she hadn’t ventured outside at night in ages, and she’d missed the bustle of crowds hurrying home after a long day at work, the crisp evening air, the twinkle of streetlamps and beyond them, the stars.
Back at home, Jackie watched a little television, Rafe quiet by her side. When she nodded off, he brushed a finger across her nose. “Hey. You’re tired. Go to bed.”
She flinched. “How’d you do that?”
“Touch me. I thought you were vapor.”
“I am… mostly. The more you write the more fleshed out I become. Until you finish.”
“And then what happens?”
“And then, poof!” He touched the fingers of both hands together, then splayed them apart in a burst. “I return to the pages.”
“Does it hurt?”
He laughed. “No. I’m not real, remember? I don’t feel pain.”
She yawned, and he touched her again—this time on the back of her hand. The contact, warm and gentle, sent a shiver down her spine. Weird.
“Go to bed, Jacqueline. Tomorrow, we’ll try to get to that magical chapter and that infernal kiss you’ve fought for over the last half-dozen months.”
The strangest sensation prickled her senses at the thought of Rafe kissing Meredith. Where only minutes ago, she’d pushed to know when he’d finally make his move, now, she was in no rush to reach that pivotal moment between them. Why? Envy? Ridiculous. Rafe wasn’t even real. She’d dreamed him up, just as she’d made up Meredith. They were two figments of her imagination, and she’d created them to fall in love.
“Your forehead’s all crinkly,” Rafe pointed out. “Stop plotting and go to bed.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
She quirked a brow. “How do I know you won’t go through my drawers while I’m asleep?”
“Because you wrote me as honest, trustworthy, and loyal to those I care about. That includes you. I promise you’re safe with me. Tonight and always.”
Over the next three weeks, they fell into a comfortable routine. Writing from nine in the morning ‘til six at night, followed by a walk somewhere nearby for dinner, a little television on the couch, and a deep, satisfying sleep for Jackie.
True to his word, Rafe had allowed her to write the first kiss between him and Meredith when they reached chapter six. By the time they were over two hundred pages into the story, the retired Navy SEAL who’d been hired as a bodyguard for a hotshot prosecuting attorney, had fallen under his client’s spell. In the tenth chapter, the two made love. Jackie had to admit it was the hottest, most sensual scene she’d ever written, thanks to Rafe’s input. The man knew his way around a woman’s erogenous zones.
Scene by scene, the words flowed from Jackie’s fingertips in a flood. With each completed page, Rafe became more solid in form, yet still invisible to everyone but her. Which, she appreciated, since she already had to share him with Meredith, and every once in a while, she second-guessed whether he’d been right that Meredith didn’t deserve him.
Stop it, she chided herself. If Rafe made her heart pound a little too fast, it was intentional. Every hero she wrote had qualities she admired, looks that appealed to her, and a backstory that roused compassion in the harshest readers. Rafe was no exception.
“Hey.” He snapped his fingers. “Quit staring at me and keep typing.”
“Sorry. We’re up to the scene where Meredith gets kidnapped.”
“How does that happen?”
“You get distracted, and—”
“Unh-unh. No way. I don’t get distracted when on duty. Remember when I fell for that ploy with the kid and the bloody puppy? I lost five men that day.”
“That’s the point. It’s part of your internal conflict.”
“I would never let down my guard again that way.” He shook his head at the speed of a hummingbird’s wings. “Not a chance.”
On a sigh, she planted her hand atop her upraised fist. “Rafe, this is a crucial step in your hero’s journey—the moment you question your abilities and stumble to your knees, so you can climb up again and overcome that past fear.”
“No.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Come up with something else. Have Meredith get distracted.”
“It’s not her conflict.”
“I don’t care. I’m not making that mistake again.”
She’d made him proud. Now she wondered if she’d made him tooproud.
“Look, you’re just going to have to trust me on this.”
“Trust you?” he retorted. “You thought Meredith was good enough for me in your first draft. You were wrong then, and you’re wrong now. Try thinking outside the box, instead of making me look like I’m too stupid to learn my lesson the first time. Or are you so anxious to get rid of me that you’ll throw any kind of dreck on the page, insulting me and your readers in the process?”
“I would never do that!”
Nothing could be farther from the truth about getting rid of him. Over the last few days, she’d begun to dread typing The End, since she didn’t want to say goodbye to him. Ever.
After her divorce, she’d reveled in living alone: no one else using all the hot water before her shower, never again having the what’s-for-dinner debate, no socks or underwear left on the floor. Along with those perks, though, came some drawbacks. Over time, she’d allowed herself to stagnate, rarely leaving home, living only for her characters. It was a lonely existence, a fact she hadn’t realized until Rafe showed up.
With Rafe around now, she had all the benefits of a significant other with none of the messiness of actually living with a significant other. Win/win.
“Look,” he said, deescalating the emotion in his tone. “I know you’re anxious to finish. Believe me, no one wants you to type The End more than I do.”
Her win/win mood disintegrated into self-doubt. “Really? Why? Am I that dull to be around?”
“Of course not.” He crouched beside her and took her hand. A testament to how much work they’d accomplished over the last few weeks, his flesh was solid and warm.
“I wish I could keep you,” she murmured, then snapped her mouth shut—seconds too late.
“I’m not yours to keep, Jacqueline. But I promise there is someone out there who is. Someone worthy, not that jackass you married after college. When we’re through here and I’m gone, do me a favor. Keep up some of the habits we started together. Step outside of your comfort zone. Be with other people. Stop hiding. You were blocked because you were lonely. You just didn’t realize it. Stop putting up walls between you and the world. Start by breaking down the barriers with your sister.”
“Jessie? We’re fine.” At his dubious expression, she added, “Really. I mean, I know we haven’t talked recently, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.”
“You mean, when your then-husband told you he was in love with her.”
Jackie pulled away from him as if burned. “She had nothing to do with that! She never led him on, had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever. He fixated on her. No provocation, no rhyme or reason—except, in Mark’s eyes, she had something I didn’t.”
“So, you’ve looked at her differently ever since.”
“Not because I don’t trust her,” she countered. “I love Jessie. And I know she’d never betray me.”
“No. The problem is, since Mark’s confession, you don’t value your self-worth. You compare yourself to your sister and try to figure out where you’re lacking with everyone you meet. You’re not incomplete or inferior because you’re not a carbon copy of her. You’re you. Unique, talented, beautiful inside and out in your own right. Why can’t you see that? I do.”
The words were said with no judgment, but as he often did when rattled, he picked up the daisy globe and tossed it between his hands.
“Yeah, well, you’re just a figment of my imagination. You have to take my side. And speaking of imagination…” She settled her fingers back on the keyboard. “We need to get back to your black moment. Now, put that down before you break it.”
Obeying her command, he wagged a finger at her. “You’re not going to win with a distraction—not in our discussion and not on the page.”
“Fine. No distraction in the story. I’ll have you knocked out instead.”
“No. That’s just as bad.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…”
They compromised. He allowed himself to be hit on the head, but she had to incorporate four men to do the deed and include a car chase when he came to. After that, the rest of the book poured out of her until, at last, Rafe kissed Meredith with all the passion stored in his soul and the sun set on the embracing couple.
“Woot! The end, baby! Book number twelve is finally finished!” Smugly satisfied, Jackie whirled in her chair to celebrate with Rafe only to encounter…
Rafe was gone.
And so was the globe with the daisy inside. As if neither had ever existed.
“Open up, Jax! I know you’re in there.” Her sister’s knocking grew louder and more incessant.
When she swung the door open, she pulled Jessie inside and wrapped her in a bear hug. “Quit shouting or you’ll disturb my neighbors.”
Jessie pulled away and surveyed Jackie’s white cowl neck sweater and black jeans. “You look good. Very ‘successful author’-ish.”
“Thanks. I like your dress.”
Jessie spread the accordion pleats of the long-sleeved, forest green maxi and swished from side-to-side. “Not too much?”
“No, it’s perfect.”
It’d been three months since she’d typed the last word of her last story, three months since Rafe had disappeared, and in that time, Jackie had kept her promises. She wriggled out of the hold Mark’s betrayal had erected around her, mended her somewhat stilted relationship with her sister into what they’d shared before her divorce, and more importantly, had learned to value herself again. She went out often, reconnecting with Jessie and with old friends, but every once in a while, she still pricked an ear for the sound of Rafe’s voice and hoped to wake to find his wispy form perched on her kitchen counter. No use, though. He was gone. As he’d said, he didn’t belong to her. He was Meredith’s, and in a few months, when the book released, he’d be someone her readers would fall in love with.
She hadn’t started another story yet, although an idea simmered in the back of her brain. Right now, she wanted more time, a chance to live in the moment, to absorb the world around her before she chained herself to her laptop again. Life, she’d discovered, would go on without her. It was vital that she broke free from her made-up world now and again in favor of reality. She needed to taste the food, drink the wine, laugh with others, and just be to replenish the well in her soul.
Tonight, she and Jessie were attending a friend’s birthday party in a local restaurant. By the time they arrived, the place was crowded, noisy, and the celebration was well underway.
Jessie hefted their brightly wrapped gift in her hands. “I’ll drop this on the table in the back while you buy the first round. I’ll take a Negroni with prosecco.”
Jackie grimaced at her sister’s drink order but headed to the bar and elbowed her way between two men seated in the far corner. “Excuse me.”
They slid over to give her room, and she waited to catch the attention of one of the busy bartenders. After several minutes, she leaned closer on the bar, but still no one looked in her direction.
“Let me help you out,” one of the men said. “Dana! Can we get some help over here?”
A curly-haired blond woman standing at the taps finished pouring a beer and held up a finger. “Give me one minute.” After sliding the brew toward the customer, she strode over to Jackie and the men and pointed to a near-empty glass. “Another bourbon Manhattan?”
The man closest to Jackie nodded and added, “And whatever the lady wants. On me.”
“Oh, thanks, but that’s not—” Jackie stopped in mid-sentence as she turned to face the stranger. No. He was no stranger. She knew him well. But… how could he be here?
Her knees turned to jelly, and she buckled, but his quick grip caught her. “Whoa. Easy there. You okay? Here.” His hand still on her elbow, he stood and slid his stool toward her. “Sit. Catch your breath.”
She sank onto the hard wood seat, her gaze never leaving those beautiful smoky eyes, that perfectly chiseled chin, and the single daisy popping out of the vase at the edge of the bar. It couldn’t be. This was impossible.
“Rafe?” The question danced on the air between them, a breath, a wisp, a random bit of fluff that lifted her heart and her hopes.
“Close.” He smiled, teeth straight and dazzling white in his tanned face, and patted his chest. “Rafael.” He stared at her, cocking his head, and frowned. “I’m sorry. I’m usually good with names and faces, but I can’t place you. Have we met before?”
She shook her head to clear her mind. “No. I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
“Well, if that’s the case, I think I’d like to get to know you now. What do you say?”
In her head, a familiar voice echoed. I’m not yours to keep, Jacqueline. But I promise there is someone out there who is.
With a nod toward the sunny daisy, she made herself comfortable on the stool. “I say yes.”