“I told you to get back!”
The man shifted his feet and shook the gun toward Ben. “Who do you think you are, Superman?”
“No, not Superman, Detective Kirby, smucko!”
With the mighty power and deftness of a mountain lion, Ben grabbed the nose of the revolver at the same time he kicked the man’s feet out from under him. The man slammed to the floor with a loud groan, and the force of the fall sent the gun flying across the polished linoleum floor.
As startled screams filled the restaurant, Sterling jumped for the revolver, drew it up, and aimed the barrel down at the man sprawled on the floor. “Freeze, scumbag.”
Ben cuffed him and hauled him to his feet, while directing the cashier to call the police department. “You sure picked the wrong day to rob this place, fool,” Ben said, shoving the man into a chair. “Now sit still. I don’t like having my meal interrupted. I might not hit you if you don’t move a muscle.”
“Detective, please, allow me to give you dinner on the house for you and your lady friend,” offered the restaurant manager. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“That sounds like thanks enough, sir.” Ben winked cheerily at Sterling.
Her heart melted. As clichéd as it was, Ben’s strength and easy assuredness did something for her. It made her feel safe. Sure, she could take care of herself, but Ben made it so she didn’t always have to. It was a luxury she’d seldom been unable to relax into since her father’s death.
“What do you say, Sterling, feel like finishing our coffee?” With the would-be robber safely stuffed inside a patrol car and on his way to be booked at the station, Sterling again gazed at Ben across the table, her senses exhilarated to match his.
“Nice job, Sterling. I knew you and I were on the same wave length.”
He sent shivers running down her back with the sultry look steaming in his eyes. “All that really made your pulse rev, didn’t it?”
A little half-smirk lifted the corners of his lips. “Yeah. It always gives me a buzz to help out innocent people. Maybe that guy will be kept off the streets for a while, so who knows how many people we helped. And you liked it, too,” he said, reaching for her hand.
Ben’s touch sent her heart skipping, but Sterling steadied herself. “Yes, I liked putting him away without anyone getting hurt.”
“There’s more, admit it.” Ben turned her hand over and peered at it, tracing the lines in her palm. “You like the risk.”
“I admit I take to the challenge, but the risk, no. I do not need that adrenaline push like you do. I’m perfectly happy with my work. As dull as you think it must be, I help people, too.” Her breath dragging through the pounding of her heart, Sterling pulled her hand away and tucked it under the table.
“We’ve been all through this, Ben.”
His eyes met hers, heat spilling out of them. “I just want you to be happy, and I think you sold out on yourself. Living used to be a thrill for us. We challenged it. Now you’ve tried to wall up in some kind of a cocoon where you feel a degree of control over your life. You don’t have to deal with complicated things like feelings.” Ben lifted his coffee cup to his lips, never taking his eyes off her.
“Look, life is full of trade-offs.” Sterling squirmed in her seat. “You can’t tell me you haven’t made any. You’ve made some changes. You traded undercover work for investigations.”
Ben leaned back in his chair, contemplating. “Some trade-offs are prudent, but some are just nuts.”
“You make it sound so simple. Sometimes the choice is merely the lesser of two evils.” She knew exactly what he was talking about, and it bothered her. A lot.
His brow furrowed. “I didn’t realize you considered me evil.”
“You? Never.” Sterling picked at the remains of her dinner, avoiding his eyes. Now it was clear to her why they came at each other with fists—it made a safe boundary. Allowing emotional intimacy was acutely painful. “You are a self-indulgent, wild-hearted pest.”
Ben let loose an indiscernible scoff. “Please, don’t mince words. Tell me how you really feel.”
Without raising her gaze, she continued, her hands fisted on the table. “And you’re the most interesting, exciting, and gentle man I’ve ever known.” Finally, she met his look.
Ben lifted an eyebrow in surprise, but she went on.
“But I can’t be with you. It would be more than I could stand to get accustomed to spending all of my days and nights with you and then have to face that day.”
Leaning in, he put his hand on hers. “What day, Sterling?” His voice sounded so gentle and warm—how could she make him understand?
“The day I get the call informing me of your death,” she finished, nearly leaping from her chair. She couldn’t stand the feelings threatening to tear her apart. “I have to go.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll take you, wait,” he called.
“I’ll take the bus.”