Protecting Us
Sneak Peek

Chapter One

Jillian

For the first time, I’m chasing something for myself. Flying to another state on Christmas Day is by far the zaniest thing I’ve ever done to share my feelings with…. I don’t even know what to call him. Nothing has ever happened between us, aside from a few near kisses when we were thinking with our hearts instead of our heads.

We first met four years ago at Walter Reed. My brother Jake and his unit mate Connor were injured during a firefight in Afghanistan on their third tour of duty. They’ve been friends since childhood, and sheer luck had them assigned to the same unit in the military. As such, I think of Connor as my brother too. Recalling my parents sharing about his injury still makes my entire body tense even almost four years later.

Once the guys were situated at the hospital and visitors were allowed, I visited each day after school. I teach severely developmentally delayed students. A few weeks passed before I met my mystery guy. One afternoon about fifteen minutes after I arrived, one of the nurses escorted a gorgeous, though travel worn, man wearing an army uniform into Jake’s room.

“I’m sorry to intrude. I’ll come back.” His voice surrounded me like a cozy blanket on a chilly winter afternoon. The rolling Rs in his words grabbed my attention.

“You aren’t intruding. Please take the chair,” I said, offering him my seat close to the bed and moving toward the window. My offer made him bristle. Clearly, I shouldn’t give up my seat for him.

“Are you his sister?”

“Yes. Jillian. Nice to meet you.” I extended my hand to him.

His hand enveloped mine with warmth and softness. The awareness coursing through me was unfamiliar but not unwelcome.

“Cruz. Javier Cruz. I served with Jake and Connor. Your brothers talked about you all the time. I’m sorry it took me a bit to get here.”

“Nothing to be sorry for. You’re here now.” I took him in. The uniform masked nothing. His broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist. He was taller than me, but height wasn’t my superpower. His hair was dark, almost black, and his alluring eyes were a deep shade of sable.

The more he spoke, the deeper his voice lured me in as he explained more about the difficulties getting here.

“Cruz?” Jake pushed up to sitting on his bed. His voice groggy from the medication and waking from his nap. Jake strained his shoulder assisting his unit mates before being shot in the arm.

“Hey, Jake.”

“You didn’t have to come all this way.”

Cruz nodded. “Yes, I did.”

The palpable tension between them forced me to leave the room. “I’ll give you two time to chat. I’m going to visit Connor. It was a pleasure meeting you, Javier.”

“You too, Jillian.”

I didn’t expect to see Javier every single day until the guys were discharged. While Jake and Connor were at physical therapy or group meetings, we would stroll outside or grab a meal, depending on the time of day. A few times before they left the hospital, I thought he would ask me on a date. Unfortunately, Javier took a job with the NYPD, ending our potential relationship before it even started.

We’ve seen one another at family gatherings, holidays, and military reunions over the years. It wasn’t until I realized Connor, Jake, and even Christoph are moving forward in relationships for me to see I need to take control of my love life instead of waiting for the man of my dreams to fall at my feet. No, I need to share my feelings with the man who could be my one and only.

Jake finally admitted his feelings for Norah after two years as friends with benefits. They’re due to have a baby in the next few months. Connor and Calliope met and adopted a little girl. They also have twins on the way. Christoph… he’s a different story. At one point, I thought he and I could be good together. He’s always there when I need assistance around the house, flat tires, and the like. Recently, he fell for Madeleine. He forced me to realize we were never more than friends, quite bluntly, about a week ago. Christoph’s advice catapulted me to share my feelings with Javier, terrified as I may be.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please put your tray tables in their upright position and prepare for landing,” the flight attendant insists over the loudspeaker, pulling me out of my thoughts.

Once inside the airport, I grab my luggage from the carousel and hail a taxi. The entire cab ride to his apartment, I’m second-guessing my decision.

As I stand at the threshold of his apartment, I give myself a pep talk. You’ve come this far already. I take a deep, calming breath and knock on his door.

A stunning brunette opens the door. She’s my antithesis in every way. I’m short; she’s tall. Blonde to brunette. Curves to no curves. “Is Javier….”

He steps through my line of sight shirtless with his hair still damp from the shower. “Maris, who is it?”

Holy mother of… he’s deliciously cut. I’ve never seen Javier shirtless until this moment. My imagination has failed me in spectacular fashion. His chest and abs should be on a billboard in Times Square to sell cologne or underwear.

“Would you like to come in?” the brunette offers.

“No, thank you. Traveling here was a mistake. I’m sorry for bothering you this early in the morning.”

One foot in front of the other. I repeat the phrase in my head while walking away. I rapidly push the down button for the elevator. When it finally opens, I step inside, drag my rolling luggage, and watch the door close excruciatingly slow, like a snail inching along pavement.

His familiar arm stops the doors from closing. Normally, I don’t find an abundance of tattoos attractive, yet his are meaningful. The one on his left arm, which is holding the door open, is the unit crest, and interwoven are the initials of the guys they lost, including Adams, Jones, and Carter.

“Jillian, what’re you doing here? Is everyone okay?” He’s still shirtless, jeans unbuttoned, and his feet bare. Suddenly my mouth is as arid as the Sahara.

All I can do is drop my head. Own your crazy decision, Jill! “I came for you, but….”

This gorgeous specimen exhales sharply. His expressive eyes widen before he demands, “Off the elevator, Jillian.”

I’m frozen in place, his eyes locked on mine. There’s truly no room for me to ignore him. I certainly can’t move him to allow the elevator door to close—although the notion of putting my hands on his sculpted chest makes me want to try. Also, I’m confident the alarm will sound if the door doesn’t close soon.

“Jillian, move your fine ass back to my apartment. Marisa is my sister.” He’s the only person who calls me Jillian. His authoritative tone makes my entire body pay attention. He reaches out his hand to take my luggage while the other continues holding open the door.

Sister? I slide past him and walk back toward his apartment, but not before his crisp, fresh scent assails my senses. I step inside his apartment after he opens the door.

Marisa, the brunette and his sister, gathers her purse and bag to leave. “I gotta go to work, Javy. I’ll be back tonight or tomorrow to get the rest of my stuff. My place has been cleared.”

“Have a good day, Maris. Love you.” He kisses her cheeks, and she steps out the door I just walked through.

Javier moves into his kitchen and pulls down two mugs. His apartment is not large, but it’s him—well, I think it is from the details I could glean from our conversations at the hospital and the handful of times each year we’ve talked since. Leather couches with a matching ottoman and a massive television fill the living room. There’s a cozy blanket draped over the back of the couch and the matching chair set off to the side. The island has four stools at a granite countertop facing into the galley kitchen.

“You came here on your own?” He hands me a fresh cup of coffee he likely expertly prepared given his knowledge from the hospital. I take a small sip and set the cup on the island.

I wrinkle my brow. “Thank you. Yes. I’m perfectly capable of traveling on my own.”

He laughs softly. “I know. Does your family know you’re here?”

I shake my head. “No. Last time I checked, I’m an adult. I don’t need permission to travel from my parents or my brothers, both blood and found. What’s with the questions?”

A thought flashes across his face, but he doesn’t share it with me. “Never mind. Why are you here?”

“I want to stop dancing around our potential. Will you go on a date with me?”

In one smooth motion, I’m caged between his muscular form and the island. His hands are flat on the granite that’s about the same height as my upper arm. “You live and work a four-hour drive away.”

“I know.” My words are soft and strained. Maybe this was a mistake, considering how his proximity is messing with my head. The same sexual tension and desire from when we danced at the wedding floods my frame—my heart too, if I’m being honest with myself.

“You're a handful, aren't you?”

I smile and pin my gaze to his. His mouth is a hair’s breadth away from mine. I've wanted to taste his lips almost from the moment we met. His bare chest is a mere inch from grazing mine. His nearness has my nipples pebbled in anticipation.

“Will that be a problem?”

“No, ma'am. However, I'm a traditional guy. How long can you stay?”

My belly does a flip-flop. “I can stay until Monday. School reopens on Tuesday.”

“Jillian, will you accompany me on a date around my city today and spend time with me until the last possible moment before going home?”

“Yes.” A thousand times, yes. The longer he's in my space, the more difficult it is for me to ignore the yearning rushing through my veins. 

“I need to finish dressing. Make yourself comfortable. I'll be back.” He takes his now warm coffee and walks down the hall. 

I take a few calming breaths. He didn’t touch me, and yet I feel as if I lost something. Is this truly happening? I wasn't sure how receptive he would be when I showed up at his door.

I swallow the rest of my coffee, wash the mug, and set it to dry. When I turn around, Javier slides his arms around me and draws me into a tight hug. Unfortunately, he tugged a thin, gray sweater over his head. Given our height difference, my head is against the hard planes of his chest. He presses a kiss to my hair and slowly releases me.

“Have you ever been here before?”

I shake my head. 

The gears in his mind are turning, ideas and plans forming. “Ready to experience the holiday season in the Big Apple?”

“With you, yes.” Resisting the urge to rise on my toes and kiss him is increasing in difficulty. 

“Do you have a coat and gloves?” 

I nod and retrieve both from my luggage.

“Perfect, let's go.” He escorts me to the elevator, and we ride in silence to the lobby. He looks over at me but fails to utter a word for a few minutes. Finally, once we’re outside, he asks, “Why now, Jillian?”

I turn to face him on the busy street. The hustle and bustle of post-holiday cheer ceases to exist. “We have a connection and chemistry I've never felt before. I need to know if our potential could bloom into….” We spent hours talking about everything and nothing while we waited for our brothers, figuratively and literally, at the hospital, but we haven't spoken really in depth since Jake and Connor returned from their third tour. Well, that’s not exactly true. We spoke in depth at the shower for the twins.

“The type of relationship we talked about at the hospital how many ever years ago?” he supplies.

“Yes.”

We spent hour after hour talking in depth about so many topics. The qualities we both seek in a romantic partner were shockingly similar. A give and take from both sides, knowing without question that some days you need to give more than you take. Yet on the days you need more, your other half should be willing to pick up and handle whatever is necessary. Sharing those parameters in the abstract didn’t make him run away. In fact, we agreed on every aspect, from finances to children to holidays.

He’s silent for a few steps. “I always wondered about us myself.”

Softly, I murmur, “You never said anything.”

“Until very recently, I didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity or interest to leave this city. Now it’s an option I could choose.”

“What are you talking about? You love it here. Your family is here. I wouldn’t ask you to leave.”