There were a lot of things that Jack Carter liked about Eureka. The people were friendly, Vincent made the best cheeseburger he’d ever eaten, and the schools were great. Zoe was doing better here than she ever had in Los Angeles, and Jack had work he usually found both challenging and enjoyable.
What he didn’t like about Eureka mostly had to do with weird science experiments gone wrong, especially when he got caught in the crossfire. He hated feeling like he was the village idiot in a town full of geniuses. But more than anything else, Jack hated review days. Experiments tended to blow up a lot more frequently when the DOD was in town; Jack had checked. By Henry’s calculations, the chances for disaster increased 12% under those conditions.
Allison had been sympathetic when Jack had brought her Henry’s data; she had at least agreed to go over the safety protocols for both on- and off-site experiments with him before General Mansfield arrived the following day.
“Hey, Fargo,” Jack called, waving at him as Fargo scurried through the lobby. “Have you seen Allison?”
“The last time I saw her, she was on her way to Dr. Stark’s lab,” Fargo replied with a guilty expression on his face.
With anyone else, Jack would have been suspicious, but Fargo always looked either guilty or nervous around him. “Thanks, Fargo.”
“Sure.” Fargo’s voice was little more than a squeak as he scurried off, and Jack shook his head in amusement. Given Fargo’s behavior—jumpier than usual—Stark’s mood was likely even worse than it normally was.
Allison was approaching Stark’s lab from the opposite direction, an expression of relief crossing her face. “Carter, there you are.”
“Sorry I’m late. Something came up in town.” Jack glanced over her shoulder at the closed door of Stark’s lab. “What are we looking at?”
Allison winced. “Two of his projects are behind and over budget.”
Jack sighed. “I don’t want to go in there, do I?”
“No, not really, but I’m not sure we have a choice.” Allison offered a sympathetic smile. “As the director of research, he does need to be involved in these decisions.”
“Are you sure?” Jack knew he was dangerously close to whining, but he couldn’t resist. “We could just make the decisions, and then you could tell Stark how it’s going to be.”
Allison laughed. “Coward.”
“Like you aren’t.”
“Guilty as charged.”
They shared a commiserating look, and Jack made a motion. “Ladies first.”
Allison gave him a look that was half amused, half annoyed, but she preceded him inside. “Nathan, do you have a minute?”
“No, I don’t.” The scowl on Stark’s face appeared to be permanent as he moved swiftly between his computer and lab equipment, pausing only to take a sip out of a mug of steaming coffee. Jack thought he was probably taking measurements of some sort, but he had no idea what Stark was working on, and no desire to find out.
Maybe that was short-sighted of him, since Stark’s experiment might be the next to explode, but Jack hated to look like more of an idiot than he already did by asking questions.
“We need to talk about safety protocols for tomorrow,” Allison reminded him. “The last time we had an inspection—”
“We got Thorne. I’m well aware, Allie.”
Jack exchanged a look with Allison and glanced back at Stark, who looked more rumpled than usual. If Jack didn’t miss his guess, he’d say it had been at least 48 hours since Stark had gotten any sleep, and possibly longer since he’d been home.
Not that he would ever admit that he watched Stark that closely, but Jack was fairly certain that Stark was wearing the same clothes from Saturday, when the sheriff had been called to Global on an emergency.
“So, let’s not have a repeat,” Allison said evenly.
Stark paused, scrubbing his hands over his face. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
Jack spread the reports and permits for the experiments in question out on the table, waiting for Allison and Stark to join him. In retrospect, he probably should have known that something was wrong when Stark chose the chair closest to Jack, so close that their thighs and shoulders brushed any time one of them shifted positions.
“We need to make sure that all of the off-site labs are up-to-date on their safety protocols, and that any potentially hazardous materials are in labs with bio-containment procedures,” Allison began. “I think this is a good list to start with, Carter.”
Jack waited for the snarky comment from Stark, and was not disappointed. “Congratulations, Carter. You aren’t nearly as stupid as I thought you were.”
Jack refused to react. “Coming from you, Stark, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Stark snorted, but didn’t reply, and Allison ignored the exchange. “We also need to make sure that Seth’s plants are contained. We’ve had far too many incidents with him already this year.”
“Tell me about it,” Jack muttered.
“Nathan, what about Dr. Eckert’s twin particle experiment? Isn’t he running tests this week?”
Stark stared at her. “What now?”
“The twin particle experiment,” Allison repeated slowly. “The one you’re supposed to be supervising?”
Nathan shook his head. “I don’t—” He stopped and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. I lost my train of thought.”
Jack exchanged a worried look with Allison; Stark didn’t lose his train of thought. Stark was inhumanly smart, and he didn’t have trouble answering a simple question.
When Stark remained silent, Allison prodded him. “Nathan? Dr. Eckert?”
Stark shook himself and finally responded, “No, he’s running the tests next week. I pulled him in to help with the defense grid.”
Allison’s lips were pursed, and she looked very displeased. Jack suspected that her concern mirrored his. “How long has it been since you’ve slept? Or eaten?”
“I ate a few hours ago,” Nathan replied, dismissing her concern. “And I’ve slept.”
“He could use a shower, too,” Jack put in, unable to resist the opportunity to poke fun, especially when it was the truth. Besides, joking hid his concern.
Stark shot him a dirty look. “Carter—”
“You need to eat, and you need to sleep,” Allison insisted. “Otherwise, you’re going to get hurt, or cause an accident if you’re working when you’re this groggy.”
Stark’s jaw set in that stubborn look that Jack knew well. Nothing was going to get Stark out of his lab, not unless Jack and Allison ganged up on him.
“I don’t know about you two, but I could eat,” Jack inserted. “Why don’t we talk about this over dinner at Café Diem?”
“I can’t leave now,” Stark said irritably. “The project—”
Allison tapped the papers on the desk. “This has to get done. You can go home, get cleaned up, and get something to eat. Then, if you want to come back here and work yourself into the ground, feel free.”
Stark opened his mouth to protest, but Allison cut him off. “As your medical doctor, I’m going to insist, Nathan. Carter, would you mind making sure he gets home, and then gets to Café Diem? Feel free to use force if necessary.”
Jack grinned. “My pleasure. Can I shoot him if he gets out of hand?”
“You can try,” Stark growled. “Allison, this is ridiculous.”
“No, what’s ridiculous is that we’ve got a DOD inspection tomorrow, and you can’t even respond to a simple question.” Her glare probably could have melted stone, and Nathan seemed to realize that arguing was pointless.
“Fine. But I don’t need a police escort.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Jack said smugly. “Not if it means I get to order you around.”
“Feel free.” Allison smirked. “And I meant what I said, Carter. Handcuffs are acceptable, but no shooting Nathan. Go on, boys. I’ll meet you in an hour.”
Jack stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Ready, Stark?”
“You’re enjoying this way too much,” Stark snarled.
Jack couldn’t keep the chuckle from escaping. “Probably. Are you going to come quietly?”
Stark stalked out of the lab, leaving Jack to stroll along in his wake. In spite of his concern, he was enjoying himself. It wasn’t every day that he got carte blanche to make Nathan Stark do anything.
Although Nathan had never liked being ordered around, he had to admit that Allie was right; he needed both food and sleep—and he probably needed a shower and a change of clothing. He hated to give into his body’s weaknesses, but the possibility that an error on his part could end up hurting someone else was enough to make him acquiesce.
If he was honest, at least inside his own head, Nathan didn’t even mind the sheriff’s company. Given his current state, Nathan knew better than to drive.
Nathan glanced at Carter out of the corner of his eye, noting the strong profile, with the hint of a smile playing around his mouth. Really, the man was attractive. Too much so for Nathan’s peace of mind.
As Carter pulled up in front of his house, Nathan made sure his tone was grudging as he said, “I suppose you’d better come in.”
“Gee, thanks.” Carter’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “You’re so very gracious.”
“You’re the police escort,” Nathan shot back. “What did you expect?”
Carter shrugged as he got out of the Jeep. “You could offer me a beer.”
“I thought you were on duty.”
“Unofficially.” Carter grinned. “Unless you’re going to give me a reason to use the cuffs.”
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” Nathan shot back, unlocking his front door, surprised at the images that flashed through his head, and at how turned on he was by them.
Carter’s grin grew, if that was even possible, and Nathan was struck by how blue Carter’s eyes were. “Trust me, Stark. I’ve been waiting for the day.”
Sheer lust drove Nathan’s blood south, and he quickly headed for the stairs. “There might be something in the fridge,” he called over his shoulder. “Help yourself.”
Once in the safety of the bathroom, Nathan had to wonder what the hell was going on with him. Granted, this wasn’t the first time Nathan had noticed that the sheriff was an attractive man—if you liked the all-American, golden boy type, which he didn’t. But usually those feelings were buried deep, hidden behind insults and banter.
And as much as Nathan would like to bury them again, it seemed impossible at present.
Exerting iron control over himself, Nathan stepped into the shower and reminded himself that even if it was a good idea to entertain ideas of Carter—which it wasn’t—now was definitely not the right time.
Jack’s discomfort grew as dinner went on. Stark had seated himself close to Jack again, and their knees would bump on occasion, even though Jack was doing his best to minimize contact. Once, Stark’s hand brushed his thigh, apparently by accident, causing Jack to choke on his burger.
If Stark was after some kind of payback, he was getting it.
And if that had been it, Jack wouldn’t have been concerned, but Stark clearly wasn’t paying attention to the discussion of potential problems. Stark kept interrupting, asking for clarifications and details that he should already know, and halfway through dinner, Stark began slurring his words.
Jack would have assumed Stark was drunk, but he’d been drinking Vincent’s special herbal tea blend, and Jack couldn’t smell any alcohol on him.
He met Allison’s eyes, finding anxiety writ large on her face. “Nathan,” she began, keeping her voice gentle. “Have you had anything to drink today?”
“No! Of course not.” Stark sounded highly offended—and really drunk. His voice was too loud, and he was being too careful with his words. “I’m fine, Allie. Maybe a little tired,” he conceded. “But fine.”
“What’s the Schrödinger equation?” she asked bluntly.
Nathan frowned. “Why would you want to know that? Will it help with the safety protocols?”
“Yes, it will,” Allison replied crisply. “Well?”
A hint of alarm entered Nathan’s eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
Jack had no idea what the Schrödinger equation was, or what it might be used for, but he got the feeling that Stark should have been able to recite it in his sleep. “What were you working on earlier, Stark?” Jack asked. “Tell me about the experiment.”
“Why?” Stark asked peevishly. “You wouldn’t understand it anyway.”
“I probably would get it better than you would right now,” Jack muttered. “Come on, Nathan. You’ve never resisted the urge to parade your giant intellect around before.”
Stark rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking a bit like a child who refused to sleep when desperately tired. “I’m fine.”
“I think we need to get him back up to GD,” Allison said in an undertone.
Stark glared at her. “I told you, I’m fine.”
“You’re drunk,” Jack said bluntly. “And I can’t smell alcohol on you.”
Allison pulled out her cell phone. “I’ll let them know we’re coming. Would you mind getting him there?”
Jack shrugged. “He’s still in police custody, right?”
“I’m not in custody.” Stark didn’t put up a fight when Jack grasped his upper arm to help him up, however. “And I can walk.”
Jack raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, releasing him. “Fine.”
Stark managed to stumble out of Café Diem under his own power, with Jack trailing behind, just in case he suddenly toppled over. Stark climbed into the Jeep, bumping his head on the door and cursing.
“Thought you said you didn’t need any help,” Jack observed.
Stark put his head in his hands. “Shut up.”
Jack grinned, pulled out of his parking spot, and started the drive to Global Dynamics.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Stark muttered a few minutes later.
Jack glanced over at him, alarmed. “Take a deep breath.”
Stark’s use of his first name had Jack pulling over to the side of the road immediately, and Stark opened the door and half fell out.
In the silence that followed, Jack considered leaving Stark alone for a moment before opening his own door and heading around the car. “You okay?”
“Yeah, you don’t look fine.”
Stark glanced up, a familiar glare on his face. “Go away.” His words were still slurred, his eyes glazed. He was bent over nearly double, hands on his knees, and Jack put a steadying hand on Stark’s shoulder. He was surprised when Stark straightened, leaning hard against him.
“I can’t go away. Allison wanted me to get you back to GD, and that’s where we’re going.” Jack allowed Stark to continue to lean against him, feeling the hard warmth of Stark’s body, surprised by the strong desire he felt.
“Feeling better?” Jack asked.
“Think you can make it the rest of the way to Global?”
Stark sighed. “Maybe.”
Stark stepped away from Jack, his hand landing on Jack’s hip, and passing over Jack’s ass in such a way that he had no idea if it was intentional or not. Then, the moment passed, and Jack helped Stark into the Jeep without any other inappropriate touching.
At least the rest of the drive to GD was made without incident. Stark managed to get out of the car and walk into the building, waving off Jack’s offer of support. His usual grace was missing, and Jack hoped whatever was in his system wasn’t life-threatening.
Oddly enough, Jack didn’t much like the thought of a Eureka without Stark.
Allison was waiting for them in the hospital wing, her crossed arms and worried frown speaking volumes about her impatience. “What happened?”
“Stark thought he was going to be sick,” Jack explained, watching as Stark leaned against the examination table. “We had to stop for a few minutes.”
“I’ll take some blood and get a tox screen,” Allison said. “If you would stay with him?”
Jack shrugged. “Sure. Let me call Zoe and let her know I’m going to be home late.”
He retreated to the hallway to make the call, and Zoe assured him that she was fine, that she’d call him if she needed anything, and that she wouldn’t have Lucas over while he was out.
“Thanks, Zo,” Jack said. “I’m not sure how long this is going to take, but it could be pretty late.”
“Is Dr. Stark going to be okay?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But he’s in good hands.” Jack bid her goodnight and ended the call, grateful that he could trust his daughter to be on her own these days.
By the time Jack reentered the room, Allison had finished drawing blood, and Stark was stretched out on one of the examination tables. “Stay put,” she ordered. “You’re in no shape to be moving around.”
Jack knew Stark was feeling like crap when he didn’t argue, and just threw an arm over his eyes. “So, you figure out that equation yet?” Jack asked.
“Shut up, Carter.”
“You still drunk?”
“I was never drunk. To be drunk, I’d have had to drink something.”
Jack stayed quiet, folding his hands over his stomach and closing his eyes.
He had nearly dozed off when Stark rumbled, “You’re not going to sleep, are you?”
“Thought I’d catch a nap, yeah.”
Jack cracked an eyelid. “Are you kidding me?”
Stark rolled his head to look at him, a mocking grin tilting the corners of his lips up. “Nope.”
“Yep.” Stark smirked, but there was something vulnerable in his eyes. “You need to keep me awake, Sheriff. I don’t want to go to sleep and not wake up.”
Stark might look like hell, but Jack had to admit that the man was still ridiculously appealing in his dark slacks and white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to expose muscular forearms.
Jack sighed. “Fine. What do you want to do?”
“Tell me a story.” Stark rolled over onto his side and tucked his arm under his head. “You were a big, bad marshal. You have to have some decent stories.”
“Hardly bedtime tales,” Jack responded dryly. “We’re talking about chasing felons and protecting witnesses, most of whom were scum.”
“Ever been shot?” Stark asked, sounding far too enthusiastic for Jack’s taste.
Jack shrugged. “Couple of times, but only once seriously.”
“Stomach. Gut wounds are the worst.” Jack didn’t want to think about it—the fear, the pain, the blood.
“What happened?” Stark didn’t seem inclined to let it go.
“I was tracking a fugitive. He was the head of a large drug smuggling organization.” Jack rubbed his eyes. “Of course, the government couldn’t get him on that, so they got him on tax evasion. He skipped town right before he was supposed to turn up for sentencing, and I got sent after him.”
Jack grimaced, recalling the ramshackle house where the fugitive had finally gone to ground, the men who had been protecting their boss, his partner, who hadn’t been so lucky. “Surprise, surprise. He shot me.”
“Wait, that’s it?” Stark asked, eyes wide and incredulous. “That’s the end of the story?”
“I spent two weeks in the hospital,” Jack offered. “Does that count?”
“Carter?” Allison’s voice interrupted them, and Jack stood, meeting her in the doorway. “Nathan was dosed with an experimental drug. It’s supposed to act as a truth serum, but it basically—”
“Makes someone drunk?” Jack suggested.
“Something like that.” Allison shook her head. “It’s not dangerous, but he’s going to have a hell of a hangover tomorrow, and General Mansfield…” She stopped and rubbed tired eyes. “I’ll cover for Nathan, if you can get him home and take care of the investigation. I need to familiarize myself with Nathan’s projects before the general gets here.”
Jack put a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Just get him home and get him to bed, if you would,” Allison replied. “I’ll feel better knowing that he’s safe and as comfortable as he’s going to get.”
“You let me worry about Stark. Just get us through the review tomorrow.” Giving her shoulder a final squeeze, Jack released her and turned to look at Stark, whose eyes were closed. Jack knew that leaving Stark on his own wasn’t going to be a possibility until he knew the other man was out of the woods.
With a sigh, Jack realized that he was going to have a long night ahead of him.
Nathan groaned and pulled the pillow over his head to block out the faint light coming through the cracks in the curtains. His head throbbed in time to his heartbeat, and his stomach roiled.
For a moment, he couldn’t remember how he’d made it into his own bed, but the memories started filtering in fuzzily. Carter had brought him home, steered him into his bedroom, and helped him undress. Nathan remembered feeling progressively more talkative, inclined to say anything that came to mind, and he remembered babbling to Carter about—
“Oh, God,” Nathan muttered. He’d told Carter about his college boyfriend, the first lover to break his heart, and how much Carter resembled him. That was not something Nathan had wanted to tell anyone, let alone Carter.
And then Nathan had gone on to confess that he thought Carter had been good for the town, and that Carter’s powers of intuition were impressive.
And then, as Carter was getting him into bed, Nathan had kissed him.
“Shit.” Nathan pulled the pillow off of his head and sat up slowly, remaining perfectly still until the room stopped spinning around him. He spotted a glass of water and a few aspirin on the bedside table, and he reached for both, downing them quickly.
The note under the glass was written in an unfamiliar, neat hand, although there was a familiar signature scrawled at the bottom.
Thought you might need this, the note began. Allison’s telling General Mansfield you have the stomach flu, and she said to stay home today to keep up appearances. I’ll let you know what I find out about how the drug got in your system. Jack.
Nathan blinked, surprised that Carter had signed the note with his first name. It was friendly, although Carter had certainly acted like a friend the previous night.
Rolling out of bed, Nathan managed to stumble to the bathroom. The shower revived him enough to make it to his couch and collapse. Nathan closed his eyes, grateful that he didn’t have to try and make it into GD. He’d had hangovers before, but this was much, much worse. Really, he might as well have had the stomach flu.
He had dozed off again when his phone rang. Nathan reached for it distractedly, not opening his eyes. “Yeah?”
“Nathan?” Allison’s voice was immediately recognizable. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I have the worst hangover ever, times ten,” he groaned.
“Are you drinking plenty of water?”
Nathan glanced over at the empty glass that sat on the coffee table guiltily. “Yeah.”
“Well, drink a few more glasses,” she ordered.
“How did the meeting with General Mansfield go?” Nathan settled back onto the couch.
Allison chuckled. “Fine. The general sends his best wishes. He said that if you were sick enough to miss a meeting, then you had to be in pretty bad shape.”
Nathan snorted. “That’s one way to put it. Have you discovered anything else about how that drug got into my system?”
There was a long hesitation. “Yes.”
“Jack found out that your coffee had been doctored,” Allison said reluctantly. “Fargo planned to dose Larry.”
“I grabbed a cup of coffee from Fargo’s desk,” Nathan admitted. “It didn’t look like it had been touched.”
“It hadn’t.” Allison sighed. “Jack’s talking to Fargo now.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Nathan muttered.
“Just wait until the sheriff finishes his investigation. And drink plenty of fluids,” she ordered. “I’ll check on you later, after the general has left.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Allie.” Nathan put the phone back on the table and laid back on the couch, closing his eyes, trying to ignore the nausea that threatened to send him stumbling for the trash can.
Nathan decided he’d think about all of this after he no longer wanted to die.
Jack tried very hard not to think about Stark in the two days following the inadvertent poisoning. He’d thought about telling Allison that the drug did act as a truth serum—eventually; Jack was fairly certain that Stark hadn’t meant to spill as much information as he had.
And Jack was very certain that Stark wouldn’t have kissed him if he’d been in his right mind.
Tossing his pen down on his desk, Jack gave up concentrating on his backlog of paperwork. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite get the feel of Stark’s lips out of his head, or the sight of his hard, bare chest. He probably wouldn’t have had to help Stark undress, but he hated sleeping in his clothing, and Jack figured Stark probably felt the same.
At the moment, the entire night felt like some bizarre dream, surreal and yet persistent, stuck on replay inside his head.
The crazy part—the really crazy part, anyway—was that this wasn’t the first time Jack had looked after a drunk co-worker. He’d served as designated driver for any number of other marshals after a tough case, had made sure they made it home in one piece and even stayed through the night to make sure they didn’t get sick and choke on their own vomit.
Jack had never been attracted to any of his fellow marshals, however, and certainly had never considered taking advantage of any of them the way he had with Nathan.
He put his head down on his desk. Now he was thinking of the scientist as Nathan; that did not bode well for his sanity.
Jack jolted up when he heard the front door of the station crash open. Jo stalked over to his desk, glaring at Jack. “You have to stop him.”
He blinked. “Stop who from doing what?”
“Stark just fired Fargo,” Jo shot back. “Haven’t you heard?”
Since Jack had been doing everything in his power to avoid Stark—and therefore Global Dynamics—he had most definitely not heard. “No, but—Jo, you know what happened.”
“Yeah, but it’s not any worse than anything Fargo’s done in the past,” Jo protested.
“I didn’t think you liked Fargo,” Jack replied, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “What’s the deal?”
Jo flushed slightly. “Fargo is one of us, Carter. He doesn’t deserve to get fired just because he was trying to prevent Larry from sabotaging his presentation.”
Amusement caused a smile to spread over Jack’s face. “You like him.”
“Fargo?” Jo snorted. “No.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine,” Jo responded. “I don’t dislike him. And I don’t think Stark should fire him just because he was embarrassed. You and I both know that’s what this is really about.”
Jack didn’t argue, mostly because he suspected that Jo was right. “Fine. I’ll talk to him. But—” He held up a hand, forestalling any comment from his deputy. “That doesn’t mean I’ll get anywhere, or that I’ll be able to save Fargo’s job.”
“Just try,” Jo said. “Dr. Blake already did, and she didn’t get anywhere.”
“What makes you think I will?” Jack asked.
Jo smirked. “Because I figure you’ve probably got more blackmail material, given that you spent the night at Stark’s house.”
Jack groaned, letting his head fall to hit the stack of paperwork on his desk, wondering just how many people in Eureka knew, and how much flack he was going to take for it.
Nathan glanced up as Carter strode into his office, the sheriff’s expression a mixture of wariness and reluctance. “Sheriff. What a pleasant surprise.”
“Right.” Carter sat down across from him. “I’ll get to the point. You need to un-fire Fargo.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “‘Un-fire?’ Really?”
Carter shrugged, unconcerned as always with his abuse of the English language. “However you want to put it. Undo the firing, rehire him, rescind the order—I don’t care.”
Nathan frowned. “He poisoned me, Carter. I thought you’d want to arrest him.”
Carter grinned brightly. “My point exactly. He poisoned you.”
Nathan glared at him, unable to immediately find an argument. “Why on earth should I rehire Fargo? Half the time, you’re accusing him of being the reason for whatever happens to be going wrong.”
“And most of the time I’m right,” Carter responded easily. “Come on, Stark. You’ve had a lot of good reasons to fire Fargo over the years, and you didn’t. You’re firing him now because he embarrassed you.”
“And that’s not a good enough reason?” Nathan countered.
Carter shrugged. “Maybe, but you know that Larry’s next in line for his job—and if you manage to get rid of Larry, you’ll have to break in a new assistant.” Carter suddenly gave him a blindingly bright grin. “And if you get rid of Fargo, you lose your chance to torture him for the next few months.”
Nathan nodded slowly. Carter had a very good point. “And what do I get out of this?”
Carter shrugged. “An assistant?”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed, and he remembered once again how damn nice Carter had been to him, how he’d signed his note, and how Carter had taken care of him. The drug Fargo had accidentally dosed Nathan with had released his previously hidden desire for Carter, and Nathan had found it impossible to shove those feelings to the back of his mind the way he would have preferred.
“Tell you what, Carter,” Nathan finally drawled when Carter began shifting slightly under his scrutiny. “Go to dinner with me, and I’ll give Fargo his job back.”
Carter’s eyes widened in alarm, and satisfaction filled Nathan as he realized that he might not be the only one suffering the after-effects of that evening. “Excuse me?”
“Come to dinner with me,” Nathan repeated. “Tomorrow night, Café Diem. Eight o’clock.”
Carter gave him a measuring look, as though trying to read Nathan’s intentions. “You’re asking me out on a date?”
Nathan smiled thinly. “You object to a friendly dinner, Sheriff?”
“No. Of course not.” Carter appeared to weigh his options for a moment, then came to the same conclusion Nathan knew he would. “Yeah, okay. I’ll be there.”
Carter rose and headed for the door, as though he couldn’t wait to put as much distance between them as possible. “Sheriff?” Nathan called, making Carter pause in the doorway. “Why did you stay the other night?”
Carter half-turned, a puzzled frown on his face, an expression Nathan found more endearing than he ought to. “What?”
“It’s all over town, Carter,” Nathan said impatiently. “Everyone knows that you stayed the night at my house. Why? You could have left as soon as you got me into bed.”
Carter smiled, his expression impish. “I could have done a lot of things after I got you into bed, Stark.”
“Nathan,” he found himself saying without thinking.
“Call me Nathan.”
Jack appeared to consider the request. “Yeah, fine. If you’ll call me Jack.” He turned to leave, then appeared to think better of it, looking at Nathan again. “Call me crazy, Nathan, but I was worried about you.”
The sheriff gave him one last smile before leaving, a hint of wistfulness about him that had Nathan’s heart thudding far too hard.
Jack sighed as he looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He’d elected to change out of his uniform for his dinner with Nathan, but he had no idea what to wear—and he had no intention of asking Zoe or SARAH for advice.
Adjusting the collar of his blue button-down shirt, he shrugged. “I guess this will have to do.”
Zoe was seated at the table, working on homework, when he came downstairs. “Whoa, Dad. Do you have a date tonight?”
Jack glanced down at his clothing. “Date?”
“Come on.” Zoe sat back, her eyebrows raised. “That’s totally your date-night shirt.”
He winced, wondering if it would that obvious to everyone, or just his daughter. “It’s just dinner.”
“With who?” Zoe pressed. Her face lit up. “Are you finally going out with Allison?”
“No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Allison,” Jack responded, wishing he had time for a beer before he had to leave.
Zoe frowned at him. “Okay… Dad—”
“I told Stark I’d have dinner with him,” Jack said in a rush. “To get Fargo his job back.”
A long silence followed. “You’re going out on a date with Dr. Stark?” she finally squeaked.
“It’s not a date, it’s a friendly dinner.” Jack tugged on the hem of his shirt. “He probably just wants to repay me for getting him home in one piece the other night.”
Zoe still appeared skeptical. “Are you sure he’s not planning something evil?”
“I’m sure.” Jack gave her a quick hug. “It’s just payback for the other night.”
“Okay, but if he asks you out, I want veto rights,” Zoe insisted. “I want to know what his intentions are.”
He laughed. “We’re not going to start dating, but if it makes you feel any better, I’ll let you grill him.”
Jack grabbed a jacket and was just about to tell SARAH to get the door when Zoe called out, “Do you like him, Dad?”
He paused, wondering what to tell his daughter. “He’s not as bad as you think,” he finally said. “And yeah, sometimes I actually do like him.”
Jack left before Zoe could ask anymore searching questions, arriving at Café Diem right on time. His eyes swept the busy café, searching for Stark among the patrons.
“Sheriff!” Vincent waved at him. “I’ve got a table for you two right over here.”
Jack just managed to hold back a groan; the entire town was going to know that he’d met Stark for dinner by the next morning, and the news that he was out of uniform was going to get around. Jack wished he hadn’t changed; everyone would have assumed this was a business meeting.
Stark sat at one of Vincent’s more private tables, jacket and tie nowhere to be seen, his dress shirt open at the collar. “Hello, Jack.”
Jack sat down across from Nathan, giving him a nervous smile. “Hi.”
“Vincent?” Nathan prompted smoothly.
“Of course, Dr. Stark.”
Vincent hurried away, leaving Jack with a puzzled frown. “Isn’t he supposed to take our order?” Jack asked.
“I took the liberty of ordering for both of us.” Nathan smiled. “Just trust me, Jack.”
Jack got the feeling that he’d just walked into a very dangerous situation. “Sure. Why not?”
The beer that Nathan had ordered for him was one of Jack’s favorites; he had no idea how Stark had known which kind he liked. Jack had been afraid that dinner would be awkward, but conversation came easily. They talked about work mostly, and Nathan asked about Zoe and how she was doing at school.
“You have a bright kid, Jack,” Nathan said. “I’d like to make sure she has every advantage.”
Jack watched him through narrowed eyes. “You’re trying to get to me through my daughter.”
Nathan smirked. “Whatever works. But I do like her.”
“Everybody likes Zoe,” Jack replied. “You’re not an exception.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too disappointed by that,” Nathan replied, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “Isn’t she about ready to start applying for colleges soon?”
Jack winced. “Don’t remind me.”
“A little separation anxiety already?”
Jack glanced away. “I can’t help it.”
“No, I understand. It’s hard to be away from your family.” Nathan stared down at his half-finished meal. “When I had to send Callister away, it felt like I was ripping out a piece of myself.”
The raw honesty in Nathan’s voice made Jack uncomfortable. They didn’t do this; they weren’t this honest with each other. Oh, they had been with Callister, and then again when they had been trying to rescue Allison and Kevin at Global Dynamics, but this was different.
Jack opened his mouth to make a smartass remark and lighten the mood, but he stopped. “You don’t stop loving your kids,” he finally said. “Back when things were getting tense between Abby and me, it was easier to work all hours of the day than it was to go home and fight with her. Zoe thought I’d abandoned her, but…”
His eyes met Nathan’s across the table, and Jack could feel the connection that hummed between the two of them. “What about you and Allison?” Nathan asked, apparently ready to change the subject. “I figured you’d go after her once she turned me down.”
“She’s great,” Jack said immediately. “Really. But once she became the head of GD, things were different between us. We’re friends, but I don’t see it being more than that.”
“You backed off when I told you how I felt,” Nathan pointed out.
“And I was okay with that,” Jack replied. He smirked. “In fact, if you hadn’t thrown yourself at me first…”
“I wasn’t in my right mind at the time, Sheriff,” Nathan defended himself, although his grin indicated that he hadn’t taken offense.
“Which is why I didn’t take advantage of you,” Jack shot back.
They both laughed at the same time, and Nathan stood. “So, are you going to be a gentleman and walk me home, Jack?”
Jack hesitated, but he didn’t want the evening to end quite yet. “Sure. Why not?”
They walked side by side down Eureka’s main street. Jack shoved his hands in his pockets, unsure what else to do with them. If Nathan had been a woman, he might have tried to hold hands, but this was new territory. He still wasn’t sure what they were doing together.
Nathan turned down one of the residential streets, and Jack followed. They stopped in front of a neat, two-story house with an immaculate yard. Jack figured that Stark would live somewhere like this. “Nice.”
“It’s owned by Global,” Nathan explained. “I just live here.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around in this town,” Jack replied, following Nathan up the front steps onto the porch. “Look, I should get going. Zoe’s waiting for me.”
Nathan took a step closer, invading Jack’s personal space. “You don’t want to come in for a nightcap?”
Nathan cut off the rest of Jack’s explanation with a kiss, slow and gentle. Unable to resist, Jack brought his hand up to cup Nathan’s cheek, feeling the coarse hair under his palm. Nathan’s strong, warm hands gripped Jack’s waist, pulling him closer.
For a moment, Jack lost himself in the sensations—Nathan’s firm, insistent lips, hard chest, his warm breath.
Nathan groaned, pulling back just enough to lean his forehead against Jack’s. “Come inside.”
“I can’t,” Jack said regretfully, taking a step back. “What are we doing here, Nathan?”
“We were having dinner, and now we’re enjoying the company of another adult.” Nathan smiled. “There isn’t anything wrong with that.”
“I don’t do casual relationships.” Jack pulled back farther. “This isn’t going anywhere.”
“Why not?” Nathan demanded. “Tell me you didn’t have a good time tonight.”
“I had a really good time tonight,” Jack admitted. “But that doesn’t mean this is going anywhere.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows. “Why not?”
Jack opened his mouth to give a list of reasons, and stopped. Whatever his reasons might have been, they had been put to rest after dinner with Nathan. “Okay. So, you want something serious?”
“I don’t know what this is any better than you do,” Nathan replied. “But I know I want to give this a chance.”
Jack winced. “I can’t.”
It was Nathan’s turn to back off, his eyes shuttered. “You can’t.”
“I can’t, because I gave Zoe veto rights,” Jack sighed. “I didn’t think you were serious.”
“Zoe’s worried that you have ulterior motives, and she asked me to give her veto rights.” Jack scratched the back of his head.
Nathan leaned against the siding, next to his front door. “You gave your daughter the right to veto our relationship?”
“Hey, we’re a package deal,” Jack replied defensively. “Get her on your side, and we’re good to go.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows, and for a moment, Jack thought that he was going to give up on the idea entirely. Then he shrugged and said, “What time does Zoe work tomorrow?”
“After school.” Jack grinned. “Zoe might be a harder sell than you think, Nathan. She’s kind of protective.”
“Chip off the old block, huh?” Nathan asked.
“Something like that.” Jack grinned. “So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to convince your daughter that my intentions are completely honorable.” Nathan leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Jack’s lips.
Jack smirked. “Good luck with that.”
Nathan typed furiously, trying to finish one last email before he went to Café Diem for an afternoon cup of coffee. Granted, he could get Vinspresso at Global, but he needed to speak with Zoe. The sooner he got that straightened out, the sooner Nathan could convince Jack to sleep with him.
A brief knock on the door announced Allison’s presence. “Hey.”
“Allie.” He gave her a genuine smile. Things had been awkward between the two of them right after she’d rejected his proposal, but they had somehow found their way back to a casual working relationship. “How are you?”
“Good.” Allison sat down across from him, crossing her arms over her chest. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Nathan paused. “Not that I’m aware of. What did you hear, Allison?”
“You and Jack had dinner at Café Diem last night,” Allison replied. “According to Vincent, you two were looking very cozy.”
“We had a nice dinner,” Nathan replied neutrally.
Allison smirked. “That’s not what I heard.”
“I owed him,” Nathan replied. “For getting me home safely.”
Allison’s eyebrows went up, and she gave him that look, the one that said she didn’t believe him for a minute. “Oh, really? When were you going to tell me that you were dating Jack?”
“I’m not dating Jack!” Nathan protested. Then, when Allison glared at him, he sighed and made certain that his office was as private as possible. “Okay, I’m not dating Jack because I have to get Zoe’s permission first.”
Allison stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Jack told Zoe that she had veto rights,” Nathan explained in a rush. “I’m on my way to Café Diem now to ask her to give me permission to date Jack.”
He waited for her laughter and wasn’t disappointed. Allison started chuckling, then gave in to full-blown guffaws. “Are you kidding me?”
“I wish I were,” Nathan replied. “Any advice?”
“Be yourself,” Allison said. “You’re good with kids, Nathan, and if Zoe sees that you’re not out to hurt Carter, she’ll respect that.”
Nathan rubbed his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt him, Allie. This is just new territory.”
“You’re going to have to get Zoe on your side,” Allison replied. “And you’re not going to be able to fake it.”
“I like Jack—a lot.” Nathan focused on the email he’d been trying to send before Allison showed up. “How do I convince Zoe that I’m serious?”
“Like I said, be yourself.” Allison came around the desk to press a kiss to Nathan’s forehead. “You’ll be fine.”
Nathan nodded. “Right. Because that always goes so well.”
“It worked with Kevin, didn’t it?” Allison asked. “Besides, I know you have real feelings for him. You’re not a casual guy, Nathan, and neither is Jack.”
Nathan offered her a wry smile. “A match made in heaven, huh?”
“You two are good for each other,” Allison insisted. “I’ll admit that I didn’t quite expect this turn of events, but I suppose I should have given all the flirting you two did.”
“We weren’t flirting,” Nathan replied automatically.
Allison snorted. “Keep telling yourself that, Nathan.”
Nathan laughed. “Right.”
“It’s going to be okay. I really believe that everything will turn out the way it’s meant to.” Allison stroked his cheek. “So, go convince Zoe that you have Jack’s best interests in mind.”
“You don’t want to go for me?” Nathan asked hopefully.
Allison laughed. “Go.”
Nathan couldn’t help but be a little nervous, facing Zoe for the first time. The only real interaction he’d had with her was when she had lost her voice, along with so many other teenage girls in Eureka. All he’d had to do then was to convince Zoe he was competent. This was a completely different situation.
Zoe was serving a customer when Nathan arrived at the café, and he nodded at her to let her know that he was there to see her.
Nathan didn’t have to wait for long before Zoe slid into the seat across from him. “Vincent told me I could take my break now,” she announced.
“I imagine you know why I’m here,” Nathan replied.
She regarded him with a cynical gleam in her eyes. “See, Dad expects the best of everyone. He pretty much trusts everybody, until he’s betrayed. I don’t.”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure that you’re giving your father’s sense of intuition enough credit.”
Zoe shrugged. “Maybe, but somebody has to look out for him.”
“And that’s you?”
She shrugged. “Who else?”
He leaned forward, meeting her hazel eyes without flinching. “What do I need to do?”
“Come over for dinner tonight,” Zoe replied readily. “At six. Dad doesn’t get off until eight, but you can cook, and you can answer some questions for me.”
There was a challenging gleam in Zoe’s eyes that Nathan couldn’t help but answer. “Very well.”
Apparently, his ready response surprised Zoe. “Really?”
“Of course. Your dad told me that you were a package deal. We should get to know each other a little better.”
Zoe nodded slowly. “Okay. See you at six?”
“See you then.” Nathan saw Zoe’s smirk as she walked away and felt the first stirrings of anxiety. Zoe had wore the same expression that Allison did when she wanted something and wasn’t going to allow anything to stand in her way.
Nathan was well aware of exactly how difficult Zoe could make this situation; he had some idea of how much Jack loved his daughter. Jack wouldn’t risk her goodwill for a relationship he didn’t see going anywhere.
That meant that Nathan would somehow have to convince both Zoe and Jack that his intentions were good. Nathan laughed quietly to himself. He was always looking for a challenge; it looked like he was going to get one.
Nathan thought about Zoe’s challenge all day, wondering what the hell he was getting himself into. Granted, he’d had to work to get Kevin to show even the smallest sign of affection, but his relationship with Allison hadn’t hinged on her son’s acceptance.
In spite of his misgivings, Nathan showed up at the bunker at precisely six o’clock. He wasn’t one to be intimidated, or to quit—and he wanted to explore this thing with Jack badly enough that he was willing to do just about anything.
Although he was a little concerned as to what “anything” would mean to a teenage girl.
“Come in,” Zoe said, meeting him at the door.
Nathan entered, tucking his hands in the pockets of his jeans; he’d elected to dress a little more casually for this. “Does your dad know I’m here?”
Zoe grinned, plopping down on the couch. “No, I thought I’d surprise him.”
Nathan frowned, perching on one end. “I thought he hated surprises.”
“He does,” Zoe replied cheerfully. “But sometimes, they’re good for him.”
They eyed each other for a moment, and finally Zoe said, “So, are you really serious about this, Dr. Stark?”
“Call me Nathan,” he replied. “And yes, I’m serious.”
“Why?” Zoe asked bluntly. “I thought you hated him.”
Nathan hesitated, knowing that he had to tread lightly, while being completely honest. “Jack and I are at odds a lot, but I don’t hate him.”
He shrugged. “Isn’t that what matters?”
“You don’t think he’s stupid?” Zoe pressed.
“I think that Jack’s intelligence is in a different area.” Nathan raised an eyebrow. “I told you that you give his intuition too little credit.”
Zoe nodded slowly, a thoughtful expression on her face. “So, is this your first relationship with another guy?”
“No.” Nathan had no intention of giving her more details.
“And you’re completely over Allison?” She sounded skeptical.
Nathan braced his hands on his knees. “You’re never completely over the people you love.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “Good answer,” she said begrudgingly.
He smiled. “So, did I pass?”
Zoe glanced up. “SARAH? Did you have any questions for Dr. Stark?”
“Nathan,” he corrected her.
SARAH sounded cheerful as she said, “Yes, I’ve put together a list of questions that will help me determine how compatible you are with Sheriff Carter.”
Nathan bit back a groan. He had a feeling that this was going to get entirely too personal.
Jack approached his front door wearily. “SARAH, door.”
The door swung open, and he stopped just inside, hearing Zoe’s voice and Nathan’s answering rumble. He stopped in the doorway, not expecting to find his daughter and his potential boyfriend together—let alone talking companionably in the kitchen.
“I get that part of it,” Zoe was saying. “It’s when we started talking about the entropic uncertainty principle that I kind of got lost.”
“We can sit down after dinner and go over it,” Nathan promised, turning to smile at Jack. “I think I may have passed Zoe’s test.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re on probation,” she replied. “Until I’ve made up my mind. Right, SARAH?”
“My calculations suggest that Dr. Stark and Sheriff Carter would be very compatible, with complementary strengths and weaknesses,” SARAH replied.
Jack coughed to hide a laugh. “And how did you determine that?”
“I created an algorithm based on the characteristics of successful relationships. There is an ideal ratio of similarities and differences, which you and Dr. Stark embody.”
Jack shared a look with Nathan, who appeared just as amused as Jack felt. “Thank you for the vote of confidence, SARAH,” Nathan said.
“SARAH!” Zoe protested. “I thought you said you were on my side.”
“I am, Zoe, but I prefer empirical evidence in order to make an informed decision.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “Fine, SARAH.” She eyed Nathan. “You’re still on probation as far as I’m concerned.”
Nathan raised his hands as though in surrender. “Understood.”
“So, dinner?” Zoe said brightly.
Nathan had made Jack’s favorite—pot roast with vegetables—although Jack had no idea how he’d known. He suspected that Nathan had checked with SARAH beforehand, and couldn’t blame him in the least. Jack was well aware that Nathan would need every advantage to deal with Zoe, who appeared determined not to like him, no matter what Nathan did.
Jack wasn’t terribly surprised when he felt Nathan’s foot brush against his leg, and he had to admit that playing footsie under the table, right under Zoe’s nose, was unbelievably erotic.
He had a sneaking suspicion that Nathan felt the same way, judging by his blown pupils and avid expression.
“Are you still going to help me with my homework?” Zoe asked as they finished up dinner.
Nathan coughed, clearly not paying any attention to Zoe. “Ah…”
“You said you would.”
Jack sat back in his seat, amused. Nathan had met his match with Zoe, and he knew that she would take any suggestion that Nathan wouldn’t keep his promises as proof that he couldn’t be trusted with Jack, either.
“Of course.” Nathan cleared his throat. “I just was thinking of something else.”
Jack looked down at his clean plate, trying to hide a smile.
“Great!” Zoe said. “I’ll grab my books. I’m sure you don’t mind cleaning up.”
Jack waited until he was sure she was upstairs before he started snickering. “This is funny?” Nathan demanded in a low voice, sounding rather amused himself.
“I’m just glad it’s not me in the hot seat.” Jack grinned. “Admit it, Stark. You’ve met your match.”
“You’re lucky I want you so much,” Nathan shot back, rising and coming around the table to press his lips to Jack’s. “She’s quite the character.”
“I could have told you that.” Jack rose and then met Nathan’s lips with his, deepening the kiss as soon as he felt Nathan respond.
Jack had no idea how far the kiss might have gone if Zoe hadn’t coughed—loudly. “Uh, Dad? Scarring me for life.”
Jack took a step back, offering Nathan a sheepish look, which he returned. “Let’s look at this advanced physics homework of yours, Zoe,” Nathan said, his hand lingering just a little longer on Jack’s waist.
“I guess I’ll find a game to watch,” Jack muttered, oddly disappointed—and really, really horny.
Nathan couldn’t stop thinking about Jack—about the evening spent making dinner, helping Zoe with her homework, glancing up to see Jack lounging on the couch. It felt like he had a family again, something he hadn’t had since before he and Allie had broken up. Things had been so tense at the end, he’d had a hard time feeling comfortable around her and Kevin.
Granted, his relationship with Jack could become similarly fraught, but Nathan thought he’d learned enough to prevent that from happening.
What he needed now was Jack.
Nathan smirked and picked up the phone, dialing the familiar number. “Lupo here,” Jo answered.
“Carter around?” Nathan barked.
“He’s out on a call, Dr. Stark.” Jo’s tone suggested that she had heard the gossip that Vincent had been floating around town. “Do you want me to contact him?”
“Yeah, tell him that I need him at GD,” Nathan replied. “As soon as possible.”
“Do you need me to come, Dr. Stark?” Jo sounded all too amused.
Nathan hesitated, knowing that if he said no, he would end up confirming whatever suspicions Jack’s deputy had. If he said yes, however, Nathan would have to blow something up, just to give Lupo a reason for coming. “No. Just tell Carter I need to see him.”
Nathan sighed, and hung up the phone, going back to the paperwork piled on his desk. He forced himself to focus on getting through the reports he’d let pile up the day before, as well as the emails and phone calls that had to be answered.
He’d made his way through most of the backlog when he heard a brief knock on the door, followed closely by Jack sticking his head through the door. “Jo said you wanted to see me.”
“Uh, yes. There was an emergency, but I took care of it.” Nathan waved him to a seat across from his desk. “Have a seat.”
Jack sat, a smug grin on his face. “You’re trying to avoid Zoe.”
“Your daughter is much scarier than you are,” Nathan shot back. “Do you want to have dinner tonight? My place?”
Jack winced. “I wish I could. I told Zoe I’d meet her at Café Diem after her shift. She said I could invite you, though.”
“How nice of her,” Nathan grumbled.
Jack just laughed. “So?”
“Seven.” Jack sighed. “I’m on call tonight, and there’s some paperwork I need to get caught up on.”
Nathan sighed. “How long do you think she’s going to draw this out?”
“Oh, as long as she thinks she can get away with it,” Jack replied cheerfully. “But you know, she spends Friday nights at Pilar’s. Get past SARAH, and we’re good.”
Nathan raised his eyebrows. “You can’t get past SARAH, Sheriff? I might think you’re not trying very hard.”
“You don’t have to live with them,” Jack shot back. “Trust me: SARAH likes you a lot better than she likes me. She’ll listen to you.”
When Jack rose from his seat, Nathan hit the button that would initiate the privacy shields he’d installed. “Don’t think you’re getting off that easily, Jack.”
Jack tucked his thumbs through his belt loops. “Oh?”
Nathan moved around the desk, planning to kiss the smug look right off of Jack’s face. And when Nathan finally released the other man, he was pleased to see Jack’s dazed expression and hungry eyes. “Talk to SARAH,” Jack ordered hoarsely.
“And if Zoe finds out?” Nathan murmured.
Jack’s determined expression was definitely a turn-on. “She’ll deal with it.”
“So, you still staying at Pilar’s tonight?” Jack asked, trying to sound casual.
Zoe’s eyes narrowed; clearly, she wasn’t fooled. “Yes. Why?”
“No real reason,” Jack replied, leaning back into the couch cushions and propping his feet up on the coffee table.
Zoe sat down next to him. “Maybe I should stay here tonight. We could order pizza, watch a game, hang out.”
Jack realized that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Normally, he’d jump at the chance to have Zoe stay, so he couldn’t very well tell her that she should go to Pilar’s without making it obvious that he was trying to hide something.
“Uh, wouldn’t Pilar be disappointed?” Jack hedged.
“No, since she got grounded for getting a C on her accelerated physics test,” Zoe replied, crossing her arms over her chest.
Jack raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that the test you aced?”
“Nathan helped a lot the other night,” Zoe admitted. “So, since he’s coming over tonight, maybe he could help me out again.”
Jack glared at her. “Who told you?”
“SARAH,” Zoe replied smugly. “I told you, Nathan is on probation.”
Jack didn’t believe her for a minute. “You’re just doing this to get even with me for all the times I’ve threatened your boyfriends.”
Zoe grinned. “Payback’s a—hard thing,” she said, changing what she had planned to say at the very last moment in response to Jack’s warning look.
Knowing that he was pretty much stuck, Jack sighed. “Fine. I’ll get two pizzas.”
When Nathan arrived at the same time as the pizzas, Jack went up to greet them. He paid for the pizzas and motioned to Nathan to wait for him. “Thanks,” Jack said, adding a large tip for the delivery guy.
He waited until the small Honda was driving away before saying, “Zoe is staying here tonight.”
Nathan frowned. “What?”
“She found out from SARAH that you were coming over, and she announced that she was staying.” Jack rubbed his forehead. “She’s doing it to torture me.”
“After I went to all that work to bribe your house?” Nathan demanded. “Jack—”
Jack huffed. “Trust me, I’m aware. Look, I’m on call tomorrow. I’ll take a long lunch, stop by your place—and Zoe can’t be at home all the time.”
Nathan suddenly chuckled.
“I’m glad you think this is funny,” Jack said.
Nathan shrugged. “We’re talking about sneaking around like a couple of teenagers, Jack,” he pointed out. “I don’t know about you, but I find it amusing.”
“You have a better idea?” Jack asked.
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “Actually, I might, if I have your permission to play hardball.”
Jack considered it for a moment. “Give it a week. If Zoe hasn’t gotten tired of torturing me by then, feel free.” He grinned suddenly. “Besides, it’s kind of fun to sneak around.”
Nathan smirked. “Kinky.”
“Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Jack replied.
Nathan decided that he could be patient, even though Zoe attempted to monopolize his attention and made sure she positioned herself between them at all times. In retaliation, Nathan brushed up against Jack in the most suggestive way possible as often as possible, and when Zoe sat between them on the couch, Nathan stretched his arm out along the back, gently stroking Jack’s neck.
He might have promised that he wasn’t going to play hardball, but Nathan wasn’t above getting in a few digs of his own.
Zoe appeared to be as stubborn as Nathan, however. She stayed put on the couch all the way through the football game, and when it became obvious that Zoe wasn’t budging, Nathan rose. “I should get home. I’m going to have to put in some hours at the office tomorrow.”
Jack rose with alacrity. “I’ll walk you out.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure that’s all you’re doing,” Zoe muttered, but that’s the only thing she said.
As soon as they were above the surface, Nathan grabbed Jack’s shoulders, spinning him around and pressing him against the closed steel door. He met Jack’s lips with a fierce kiss, thrusting his tongue between Jack’s lips.
Jack let out a groan against Nathan’s mouth, pulling him closer until they were plastered together.
“I’ve been wanting to do that all evening,” Nathan murmured when he finally pulled back to catch his breath.
Jack leaned his head against Nathan’s shoulder. “Thanks. For putting up with her.”
“I like her,” Nathan replied. “She’s a clever girl.”
“Too clever for her own good or mine sometimes,” Jack replied, his voice muffled in Nathan’s dress shirt. “See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll make sure there’s something for you to check out at GD,” Nathan promised.
Jack pulled him down for another kiss, and Nathan lost himself in the sensations until Zoe’s voice interrupted them.
“SARAH has video, you know!” she called from inside. “You’ve got one minute.”
“A week, huh?” Nathan asked.
Jack grimaced. “Yeah, a week.”
Nathan let that go, if only because he had plans for the week that mostly involved getting Jack alone as often as possible. Starting with the very next day.
The odd part, Nathan realized later, was that he enjoyed the time spent with Jack and Zoe as much as he did the time spent with only Jack. And although Nathan would never admit this to Jack, there was a certain pleasure that came from sneaking around. They stole fifteen minutes here to make out like horny teenagers in his office, ten minutes there in a back elevator, a few minutes in the morning when Nathan stopped by to see Jack on his way to work.
Nathan decided that it was invigorating.
Invigorating or no, however, Nathan had no intention of letting it go on forever. Jack had asked for a week, and that’s exactly how long Nathan gave Zoe, but when she showed no intention of backing off after a week had passed, he decided that it was time to bring out the big guns.
“Fair warning, but I plan on torturing your daughter today,” Nathan announced during a Saturday morning coffee meeting.
Jack grinned. “Yeah?”
“I think it’s time for her to spend a night at Pilar’s house,” Nathan responded, sipping his coffee and leaning against the counter. He’d dressed casually to go into GD, planning on catching up on paperwork and getting some research of his own done. “You’re off tonight, right?”
“Yeah, Jo’s on call,” Jack agreed, giving Nathan a curious look. “What were you planning?”
“Have you noticed how that boyfriend of hers reacts around me?” Nathan asked with a feral grin.
Jack began to laugh. “Oh, that’s a low blow.”
“Do I have your permission?” Nathan asked, keeping his voice low and deliberately provocative.
“Feel free.” Jack rose from his stool. “See you tonight?”
“Absolutely, Sheriff.” Nathan decided to take a calculated risk, reaching out to hook a finger in the front of Jack’s shirt. He gave Jack enough time to pull away, but when he raised his eyebrows, Nathan pulled him in for a kiss.
Jack kept it brief, but the exchange was undoubtedly intimate. Jack curled a hand around the back of Nathan’s neck. “I’ll meet you at your place tonight, say around nine?”
“See you then,” Nathan promised, pulling Jack back in for another kiss.
Jack gave Nathan a knowing look and swaggered out of Café Diem. Nathan took out his laptop and began working on the paperwork he had brought home from the office, accepting Vincent’s offer of a Danish.
His patience was rewarded around ten, when Zoe came into work. She gave him a suspicious look but offered only a brief hello before she started bussing tables. Where Zoe was, Lucas wasn’t far behind, and he entered Café Diem a short time later.
Zoe greeted him immediately, leaning over to give him a quick kiss, lingering to exchange a few words that Nathan was certain Jack would have interrupted. Nathan let it go, knowing that he had a point to make.
As soon as Zoe was called away to take another order, Nathan rose and sat down right across from Lucas. “Hello, Lucas. Beautiful weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
Lucas blinked, just managing to force out, “Uh, yes, sir.”
“I hear that you and Zoe are getting pretty serious.” Nathan leaned forward, using the expression he normally reserved for intimidating generals. It seemed that it worked even better on teenage boys, since Lucas swallowed audibly and leaned back as far as he could in his chair.
Zoe suddenly appeared next to the table. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, grabbing his arm and dragging Nathan away from the table.
Nathan smiled. “I’m being friendly.”
She glared at him. “Friendly? This is you being friendly? You’re scaring my boyfriend! He’s not even going to talk to me after this.”
“Well, perhaps if you would let me get friendly with your father, I might not have time to be so friendly with Lucas.” Nathan crossed his arms over his chest, knowing that he had issued a clear challenge.
Zoe’s lips turned up in a reluctant smile. “Fine. You’re off probation.”
“Maybe you should tell your dad you’re staying at Pilar’s tonight,” Nathan suggested. “Assuming she isn’t grounded anymore.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Do better than that,” Nathan said softly. “Lucas looks a little lonely over there.”
Zoe smacked him on the arm. “Get out of here.”
“Of course. I’ll see you later?”
“Yeah, probably.” She grinned at him. “Don’t have too much fun tonight.”
Nathan didn’t justify that comment with a response, heading out of Café Diem and down the street to the sheriff’s station. He glanced inside, pleased when Jo was nowhere to be seen.
“Well?” Jack asked as Nathan entered, locking the door behind him. “Accomplish your goal?”
“I always accomplish my goal, Sheriff,” Nathan replied. “In this case, however, yes. Lucas dropped in to see Zoe this morning.”
“Good for him.” Jack grinned. “And?”
“Zoe decided that I was off of probation.” Nathan leaned over Jack’s desk. “So, the real question is whether you’re going to be at my place at nine o’clock tonight.”
“Looking forward to it.” Jack pulled Nathan in for a kiss that was full of promise, and Nathan couldn’t help but be grateful that his plan had succeeded in the way he’d hoped.