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Someone Like Her(6)

By:Sandra Owens

 “And when you’re happy, sad, and all the emotions in between.”

 True. Next to Logan and their foster mother, Mrs. Jankowski, he knew her better than anyone else. Not even her one boyfriend had understood her the way Jake did. There had been a time when she’d thought he liked her as more than a friend. But if he had, he hadn’t acted on it. She’d had a suspicion—still did—that her brother had warned him away.

 “Time to talk, Maria.”

 She supposed it was, but couldn’t stop a sigh from escaping. “I found a book—”

 “More coffee, honey?”

 “Yes, please,” Jake said.

 Terri shoved a milk shake in front of Maria. While the waitress tried to make small talk with Jake, Maria busied herself removing the paper from the straw. Forgetting about her cut lip, she tried to suck the shake through the straw and winced.

 Once they were alone again, Jake shrugged. “Sorry. I’m not trying to encourage her.”

 No, he wasn’t. He just couldn’t help being a chick magnet. “Didn’t say you were.”

 He leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. His head lowered and he leveled an intense gaze on her. “I have a feeling we’re going to be interrupted all through breakfast. We’ll put a hold on the conversation we need to have for now.”

 A reprieve. “Okay.”

 All too soon, he’d paid the bill and ushered her out to his car. Ten minutes later, he pulled into a mall parking lot and parked at the far edge, under the shade of a tree. After turning off the engine, he shifted to face her. “Spill.”

 No putting it off any longer. She touched her swollen face. “A man by the name of Hernando Fortunada did this, but I’m not sure what I interrupted. If I had to guess, I’d say he was about to rape a teenage girl.”

 Jake didn’t trust himself to speak, and instead, focused his attention on the fingers clinching the steering wheel. His knuckles had turned white from the force of his grip. From the moment he’d seen the bruise on her face and the cut lip, he’d been on the edge of violence. He itched to get his hands on the bastard who’d dared to hurt her. And now, she was telling him she’d been a witness to an attempted rape and the man beat her up for stopping it?

 That certainly explained her not wanting to call the boss. One glimpse of his sister’s face and Kincaid would’ve gone on a rampage. And she thought she could hide this from her brother? Her only chance of that would be if she moved to another planet.

 As calmly and tenderly as he could manage, he said, “How the hell did you get involved in something like this?”

 She jerked back against the car door. Well hell, he might as well have slapped her. Around her, he just didn’t act right. He scrubbed at his face. “Sorry, that came out wrong. Start from the beginning . . . please.”

 Her eyes filled with tears. God help him, but he wanted to pull her onto his lap and hold her, somehow take away the hurt. The first time he’d met her, he had actually stuttered when her brother introduced them. A first for Romeo.

 She’d been nineteen, a college student—a girl, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t touch girls, liked his women grown up, something he reminded himself every time he saw her. No longer a girl, she was twenty-four and so stunning he had trouble breathing normally around her.

 Long hair so black it almost shimmered ink-blue; dark brown, cat-shaped eyes—bedroom eyes—and full lips that begged to be kissed to forever and back. Instead, he took her hand, the most he would allow himself to touch. It was ice cold even though the early Florida morning was already warm. She gripped him as if he were her lifeline. He shouldn’t like that so much.

 In an effort to put a wall between them, he’d purposely told her there had been a woman in his bed. Although true, he wasn’t sure there was a barrier he could erect to keep Maria out, simply because he didn’t want to.

 “Well? I’m waiting.” The only thing he really wanted to know was where to find Hernando Fortunada.

 She darted a glance at him before focusing on their joined hands. “You want to hear it from the beginning? That would be the day I was conceived by an unknown man, but I’ll skip ahead. After Lovey Dovey died, Mrs. Jankowski helped me pack up her stuff. A few things worth salvaging we gave to Goodwill, but most of it we threw away. But there was one box she said I should keep and go through some day. I finally did that a few months ago.” She paused and turned her face to the window.

 He stayed quiet, giving her time to compose herself. Every problem Maria and her brother faced seemed to be tangled up somehow with their mother. Jake had never met the woman, she’d died before he and Kincaid had left the SEALs.