“That’s her plan, and probably why she opened up to you the way she did. I can tell she admires you, what you do.” Benning straightened, echoes of their earlier conversation replaying in his head on a nonstop loop. He tossed the paper towel he’d used to clean his foot in the trash beside the island. “So do I, to be honest. The work you and your team do saves lives. I know I already said thank you, but I meant it.”
“Like I said, you don’t have to thank me.” She dropped that mesmerizing gaze to the counter, sweeping the spread of flour into the sink set into the island with one hand, and swiped beneath her nose with the other. Touching her face had always been a nervous habit. “All part of the job.”
“Is that what this is for you, Ana? Just another job? Because this case is definitely a lot more personal to me.” Benning maneuvered around the counter, his bare chest nearly pressed against the exposed skin of her arm. He set his hand over hers on the granite, her quick gasp searing through him. Her warmth penetrated past skin and muscle, deep into his bones. “After what you told me about the Samantha Perry case, I realize now how hard it must’ve been for you to come back here, and you’re standing there as if none of it affects you. But is that how you really feel?”
He wanted—no, needed—to know. Was this going to play out exactly as it had between them the last time? Had he made a mistake requesting her to work this case?
Her mouth parted. “I…”
Skimming his fingers along the back of her hand, he trailed a path up her arm to her jaw, and all of his thoughts burned away. There was only the two of them. The softness of her flawless skin and hardness in her invisible guard. After everything that’d happened, after everything they’d already been through in the short span of time she’d walked back into his life, he’d struggled to keep the uncertainty, the rage, the fear, at bay so he could stay strong for Olivia. To prove that he could protect her from any threat, be the father she and her brother deserved. But Ana…stripped him of all of that. With her, Benning felt raw, exposed, bare. She was real. She was here. Not a memory—a fantasy—anymore, and it took every-thing inside him to pull himself away from her. “You had some cookie dough on your chin.”
She’d left because she believed her emotions clouded her judgment on the Samantha Perry case, and he wasn’t about to complicate anything else be- tween them. Not when it was his son’s life at risk this time. Ana turned her gaze up to his, a small tremor crossing her shoulders, and an invisible anchor set-tled inside his chest in the dark, watery landscape of this case. No matter what happened, Ana would bring his son home alive. He had to believe that. He had to believe in her. Otherwise, he’d have nothing left. “Thanks.”
A soft trill broke the silence spreading between them, but she didn’t move.
“I think your phone is ringing.” He cleared his throat, trying to drown the surge of awareness burning through him, and stepped away. It was for the best. Because anything that happened between them would only take away from their focus on finding his son, and that wasn’t a risk he was willing to take.