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Authors: Sydney Landon

Always loving you


“Is there something I need to know about you and Dom?”

Ava held her breath, wondering if Mac was aware that he had stopped treating her injuries and was now stroking a fingertip along the sensitive skin of her arm, causing an involuntary shiver. If he noticed, he gave no indication. He continued to touch her while waiting for her answer.

“Would it bother you?” she asked quietly. She knew it was juvenile to insinuate that there was something romantic between her and Dominic, but she wanted—no, she needed—Mac to care.

Mac expelled a breath before his hand moved from her arm and glided up to her neck, lingering on the pulse beating wildly there. “You have no idea, Avie. He’s my brother, and I’d give him everything I have . . . but not you, baby. Never you. You. Belong. To. Me.”

Also by Sydney Landon

The Danvers Series

Weekends Required

Not Planning on You

Fall for Me

Fighting for You

No Denying You

Betting on You(Penguin digital special)


Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library,

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Copyright © Sydney Landon, 2015

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ISBN 978-0-698-18267-7


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



To Win Him Back

Also by Sydney Landon

Title page

Copyright page



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two




About the Author

Excerpt fromWatch Over Me

As always, to my love—my husband: He is the inspiration behind every word that I write. He is my forever person.To my amazing aunt Nancy Ida Cash.To my friend Larry Browning and his best friend, Max: Thank you so much for being a blessed part of mylife.

Chapter One

Ava Stone stood concealed in the parking garage of the Danvers International Office Building staring as her longtime friend Mac—McKinley Powers—greeted his new girlfriend. Mac was nothing if not polite, so if he had noticed her, he would have insisted on introducing her to Gwen. But Ava already knew all about the other woman. When she found out that Mac was dating someone who also worked for Danvers, she’d made it her business to find out everything she could about Gwen for two reasons. First, Mac was a friend and in her mind, no one was good enough for him, including—and perhaps most especially—herself. Second, Ava had been in love with Mac for years and if she couldn’t have him, then she didn’t want to see him end up with just anyone.

The relationship between Ava and Mac had been complicated for many years. Mac had grown up next door to their grandfather. Ava and her brothers, Brant and Declan, had come to live with their grandfather when their parents were killed in a plane crash. At the time Ava was thirteen and her brothers a few yearsolder. Their grandfather had been an indifferent bastard who accepted responsibility for them but mainly just wanted them out of his hair.

Ava and her siblings had known Mac and his family for most of their lives, since their parents had insisted that they visit their grandfather on a regular basis, even though they weren’t particularly close to him. Their grandmother and grandfather had divorced when Ava’s father was still young. She had packed her bags and walked away. As far as Ava knew, her father had never seen or spoken to her again. Actually, no one mentioned her—ever.

Ava thought the visits with their grandfather were more about her parents having a couple of weeks away without having to drag their kids along than any real family bonding time. One of those solo trips to Florida had taken a tragic turn when they didn’t come back. Their plane had crashed, and they were simply gone in the blink of an eye.

Ava had been crushed at the death of her parents, seemingly more so than Declan or Brant. Later she came to realize that they all just handled the grief in different ways. Brant, as the oldest, had grown up almost overnight and tried to watch over her and Declan. He had also attempted to keep the peace with their grandfather, feigning an interest in his company that she wasn’t sure he’d had back then. Hell, she wasn’t sure if he had ever really developed a genuine interest for the business, but he felt it was expected of him as the eldest. And Declan, well, he turned into a hell-raiser. The old man chewed his ass out almost as anafterthought every time he got into trouble, but Declan didn’t care. She was pretty sure that their grandfather had secretly loved it. She suspected he felt as though he was reliving his youth through his younger grandson.

She, on the other hand, had struggled to find her place in the world with the loss of the two people she had depended on to watch over her. They might not have been Ward and June Cleaver, but they were her parents and a life without them seemed unimaginable. So, on the days that she just couldn’t cope, she turned to Declan’s friend Mac. Even when she was a teenager, he had been a caring presence in her life and he always made time for her. She felt special when she was with him. He always acted as if he wanted to hear her thoughts and dreams. She also had a huge crush on him, which she was sure was no secret.

As the years passed and she got older, she started to resent Mac for not returning her feelings. Her resentment had come to a head around the time she was seventeen and had been dating at that point. No matter how alluring she dressed, he still ruffled her hair and slung his arm around her shoulders in an affectionate gesture whenever they were together. He asked about her dates and told her about his. Unlike with most boys from school, she never caught him looking at her in any way other than as just another brother.

Her emotions had been all over the place as she dressed for the senior prom. She was looking forward to wearing the pretty dress that her grandfather had given her the money to buy, but she was less than thrilled with her date. She had gone out with himseveral times, mainly to take her mind off Mac, but she wasn’t really interested in him. He was handsy and determined, and those hands were always trying to get under her clothes. Sometimes it seemed as if he had way more than two hands. As soon as this evening was over, she planned to tell him they were through. He was simply a means to a social end tonight.

Later, she would come to know him as the animal who stripped away her innocence and left her lying in a bed of dried leaves in the woods, a mile from her house. It would take her what would seem like hours to walk, stumble, and finally crawl toward the lights of a house in the distance. Mac’s house. She had lain bruised, cut, and bleeding on his doorstep, unable to summon the strength to reach the doorbell. The beautiful iridescent gown that she had twirled in earlier on the dance floor was tattered. The delicate material had been ravaged by first her date, then by the weeds and briars as she crawled through the dark forest.

She had no idea how long she had lain there, staring into the starry night as if in a trance, when the door suddenly opened. The bright light in the room beyond made her blink in surprise. She was no longer even certain where she was.

A foot connected with her bruised leg, causing her to cry out in pain. “What the hell?” she heard as she tried to struggle into a sitting position. Suddenly, strong hands were on her shoulders. She was breathing hard, terrified that he’d come back. She twisted away frantically, terrified of what would happen next. “Ava? Honey, is that you?”

She stopped suddenly, causing the hands holding her to slide. She knew that voice. He’d never hurt her. Even as her body screamed in protest, she climbed onto the man’s lap squatting next to her and held on with everything she had. She was shaking so hard she could barely keep her arms looped around his neck. “Mac . . . please help me,” she remembered whispering frantically.

He stood in one swift movement and swung her up higher in his arms. Without saying a word, he walked back into the house with her, kicking the door shut behind them. When they reached what she thought was the living room, he sat down with her still in his lap. Soft light flooded the room as he used one arm to flip on the lamp on the table beside them. “Honey, what happened?” He tried to move her, but she continued to hold him tight, afraid of what would happen if he let go. He stroked her hair, murmuring words of reassurance against her head, until the shudders subsided. When he moved her back again, she let him put just enough distance between them to see his face. She heard his quick intake of breath, then a barrage of profanity. She started crying then, not able to handle him being angry on top of everything else that had happened.

“I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me, Mac.”

A harsh laugh tore from his throat. “Honey, I’m not mad at you. But I need you to tell me what happened. Were you in an accident?”

She wanted to say yes and just forget the rest, but she had never lied to Mac. He was the one person inher life whom she trusted without reservation, even more so than her brothers. She didn’t know what to do or where to turn . . . and she hurt so bad . . . everywhere. “No . . . he . . . hurt me.”

His eyes never wavered from hers as he asked, “He hurt you how?”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she revealed the truth to him. “He forced himself on me, Mac. He held me down, and he . . . raped me.” She saw the exact moment that her words sank in. His face blanched an alarming shade of white before turning a dark red.

That was the night that they both had shattered. Mac would spend years trying to put her back together again, and she would spend years trying to convince everyone, including herself, that she was okay. And the bastard who raped her . . . his only punishment ended up being to leave South Carolina and agree never to contact her again. That sentence would be decided by her grandfather, who had never liked having the family’s dirty laundry aired in public. Always better to handle things privately.

Ava was brought back to the present by the sound of a slamming door. Apparently, Mac had finished his conversation with his new girlfriend and had helped her into her car. No doubt, they had made plans to meet later. Just a few months ago, that would have been her walking out with Mac. They would jump in one of their cars after work and go for dinner somewhere. Now, though, she had been shoved firmly into the casual-friend zone. Granted, they had been only friends for years—but she had always had the hope ofsomething more between them. Now Gwen was the woman in Mac’s life, and Ava was just the screwed-up friend of the family.

As if sensing someone’s eyes on him, Mac turned suddenly in her direction and there was nowhere to hide. He’d seen her standing in the shadows. Hell, she’d spent most of her life in them. For just a moment, he looked at her as he used to. His mouth pulled into a smile and his eyes softened in the way she had always loved. God, he was so handsome. He kept his dark hair in the short buzz cut favored by the military. His tall body was lean, without an ounce of visible fat. The cargo pants and T-shirt that he was wearing did little to disguise the muscles rippling in his shoulders and thighs. Mac was, without a doubt, drool-worthy. He was the kind of man that women turned to stare after as he walked by. And . . . now he belonged to Gwen.

As he started to walk toward Ava, she had the urge to tuck tail and run. She was still too raw from seeing him with Gwen. But . . . she couldn’t deny herself this moment with him. There had been too few of them lately. She needed to see him, to talk to him one-on-one, just for a moment. “Hey, Avie.” He grinned as he drew close to her. She had long ago given up on trying to get him to stop calling her that silly nickname. She’d never admit it to him, but it made her feel special.

“Hey, McKinley.” She used his full name when she wanted to tease him. He winced slightly but let it go without comment.

“It’s good to see you, even if it’s in the parking lot. I’ve missed your face.”

She was in danger of breaking out into ugly schoolgirl sobs right on the spot. Maybe talking to him right now wasn’t the best idea. Instead she admitted, “Yeah, me too. I . . . um, do you want to go get a drink or something?” He looked surprised, even though this would have been a normal question between them not long ago . . . before Gwen had entered the picture.

He ran his hand through his hair, something he did when he was uncomfortable. “I wish I could, but I’ve kind of got plans. But we’ll do it soon, okay? Maybe Declan and Brant can meet up with us too.”

And here we go. Now all of our meetings have to take place with other people present. The new girlfriend probably doesn’t like him hanging out with me by himself. Just smile and act as if it doesn’t bother you. You’ve had plenty of practice at that.

“Oh, sure,” she said, starting to back away. Ava made a point of looking at her watch. “Wow, it’s getting late. I’ve got . . . er . . . to get going. Good to see you.” He stood there, looking sad while she continued backing toward her car and smiling like a freaking loon. What right did he have to look like that? He had turned her down, yet again. Fuck it; she didn’t need him, or anyone else. Even as Ava tried to convince herself, she knew it was a lie. She was dying without him. She couldn’t sleep, and she was barely eating. If her existence was pathetic before, it now transcended what she’d even thought was possible. She didn’t know how to live in a world without McKinley Powers as her constant and she had no idea what to do now.

Page 2

Chapter Two

Mac walked to his Tahoe in the parking garage of Danvers International. He slammed the door behind him as he settled on the leather seat. Seeing Ava was still like a punch to the gut. Yeah, this whole thing of dating and moving on with his life had been his idea, but fuck, it was hard. At least before, he was spending a lot of time with the woman he loved, even if she couldn’t admit to feeling the same way about him. Hell, maybe she didn’t love him. Maybe he’d spent years of his life loving her and needing to believe that she felt the same way. For years he told himself she just needed time to come to terms with what had happened to her. Only, nothing ever changed. His twenties were behind him now. He’d served two tours in the military, and he was ready to settle down and get on with his life.

He’d loved Ava for most of her adult life. In fact, when he looked back on it now, it seemed he had spent his teenage years waiting for her to grow up. She had started out more like a little sister to him. She had always been the girl next door. At some point, his feelings for her had started to change. He had been determinedto wait until she was older, but damn, she hadn’t made it easy. When she started to date, he had nearly lost it. No one was good enough for his Avie, but still he’d waited. Then that night had happened, and nothing was ever the same again. For either of them.

When he found her on his doorstep, he had almost lost his mind. She was so broken. Clearly in shock, with her ripped dress and blood on her face. He had taken her to the hospital and was ready to go after the guy and kill him with his bare hands. But he knew he had to inform her family before he did anything else, and Ava’s grandfather had insisted he would take care of it. He forbade him to go to her date’s house. Then the whole thing had just gone away. No police involvement, no reports filed . . . nothing. It was as if it had never happened. Money could make things disappear, and that had never been more apparent to him. It made him furious. Ava had deserved justice, but instead she only received indifference. At the hospital when Declan had told him that Ava refused to report the rape to the police, he had longed to persuade her otherwise, but her grandfather said that she was refusing to see visitors.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack, the Ava he knew and loved disappeared. He tried to talk to her, to be there for her while she recovered, but she distanced herself from him. He had attempted to talk to her brothers about what she was going through, but they both insisted she just needed time. His frustration and the pain he felt at what she was clearly going through, alone, just grew. When Declan had asked himto join the military with him, at first he’d said no. However, in the end, he just needed to get away. Ava still wouldn’t see him and it was eating him alive. He figured maybe they both needed some time apart. He came back home to see her on every leave, but his Avie never returned. The little hellcat he had once known was now a reserved shell of her former self. When his tour ended, he was in complete limbo, so he re-upped with Declan, needing time to figure out what happened next for him.

After he left the military, he’d decided to take advantage of the training he had received in the marines and opened his own security company. A couple of guys he’d served with wanted to come in as partners, and East Coast Security was born. Now, several years later, they had been successful beyond any of their expectations. He, Dominic Brady, and Gage Hyatt mainly ran the day-to-day operations while their employees handled the work on-site. Jason Danvers, the CEO of Danvers International and a client, had offered them space for their corporate offices, which was convenient since they were located in a high-rise in downtown Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. East Coast also handled personal security for Jason’s family. His wife and child were rarely without a security tail.

Mac had also made sure that Ava was covered. Since the bastard who raped her all those years ago was never arrested, Mac made it his business to make sure nothing ever happened to her again. After he’d been home from the marines for a while, they managed to resume some part of the friendship that they’d oncehad. A lot of their free time was spent together, but for Mac it hadn’t been nearly enough. Sometimes he thought he saw something that looked like romantic feelings when she was looking at him on the rare, unguarded occasion, but they were gone so fast he wasn’t sure if they were ever there. He had loved Ava for years . . . and he had no idea how she felt about him.

Watching over Ava so closely also had a downside. He knew entirely too much about her personal life. Every couple of months, someone new would spend the evening at her house and walk out the door looking rumpled but satisfied. It was never the same man twice, though. It tore him up to read those reports from her security tail. To know that someone else was touching the woman he loved while he was standing around on the sidelines. In those moments he would worry about invading her privacy and consider whether to continue monitoring her safety from afar, but he couldn’t take the chance that any harm would befall her ever again.

Of course, he couldn’t say that he’d been a saint either. He was a man and he had needs. He had slept with the occasional woman when the need was there. He wasn’t vain, but he knew that women found him attractive, and it was never a hardship to find a willing woman to spend a night with. He and Declan had found many of them during their tours of duty. It had just never meant any more to him than filling a physical need. Had Ava said the word, he would have stopped seeing other women and been faithful to only her without a single qualm about stepping into a serious relationship.

When Declan had surprised them all by falling in love with Ella Webber, the receptionist at Danvers, Mac suddenly took notice of the hollowness that he had felt for years. Suddenly, it had become almost unbearable. Then when Declan married and started a family almost overnight, it had forced Mac to make a difficult decision. He had to move on with his life. He wanted a wife and a family in the near future, and he had to accept that Ava might never be at the same point in her life.

There was no choice left but for him to start pulling away, inch by painful inch. He had asked Gwen Day, who worked at Danvers as well, out on a date. She was an attractive woman with long red hair and an outgoing personality. Although she didn’t make him weak in the knees, he was attracted to her, and she seemed to feel the same.

They had been dating for a couple of months now and his frequent dinners with Ava had all but stopped. He knew he couldn’t have both. There was no way he could move past her with someone else and still spend so much time alone with her. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He missed her so much he physically ached. But he couldn’t keep going on as he had been. He wasn’t doing either of them any favors. Maybe without him as a crutch, Ava would be able to move forward. Sometimes you had to take the training wheels off and see if you fell on your face or made it on your own. This was as much for her as for him. He just had to remember that.

Chapter Three

“Oh my God, what’s he done now?”

Ava scowled at her assistant and future sister-in-law, Emma Davis, as she settled into a seat in front of her desk. Ava had been a vice president at Danvers International since she and Brant sold their family business to Jason Danvers. Truthfully, she enjoyed the work as well as the challenge of something new.

Ava gave an unladylike snort at Emma’s question and resigned herself to playing twenty questions. There was no way her nosy assistant was going to let her off without explaining her shittier-than-usual mood. She gave her best innocent look and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t you have some work to do in your own office?”

Emma smirked back at her disgruntled expression, knowing by now that her bark was worse than her bite. Ava didn’t have many close friends, and with Mac now mostly avoiding her, Emma was pretty much it. Oh, Ava would never let the other woman know it, but she had grown to love her dearly since her engagement to her brother Brant. Between Emma and her other brotherDeclan’s wife, Ella, family occasions were no longer akin to a gathering at the morgue. Emma and Ella had breathed some much-needed life into the Stone family. “Nah, I’m on a break, so I have time.”

Rolling her eyes, Ava said, “A break, huh? You seem to have a lot of those.” Secretly, Ava knew why Brant had enjoyed arguing with Emma when she worked as his assistant before their engagement. It was just freaking fun. Emma was actually fabulous at her job and took a lot of the load from Ava’s shoulders.

“All right, enough of this stalling crap. What’s happening with Mac? I take it you’ve spoken to him again, since you’re acting like someone with a monthlong case of PMS.”

Putting all pretenses aside, Ava said, “Yeah, I ran into him and—her—in the parking garage yesterday.”

“Oh, shit! Did you, like . . . speak to the tramp?”

Ava smiled even though she felt the need to defend the woman who’d stolen her sorta man. “I don’t think she’s a tramp, Em. Mac wouldn’t be interested in anyone like that.”

Emma shook her head in disgust. “You’re totally missing the point here. This woman is messing with your guy. We don’t take that lightly. Until we get rid of her, she is the ‘tramp’ to us. So . . . how did it go?”

Ava tried to hide her pain as she relayed her run-in with Mac. “Well, he was walkingherto the car when I saw them. He helped her inside and kissed her, and then she drove off. He saw me and we talked for a minute, that’s it.”

“Why do you put yourself through all this? If youleveled with Mac about how you really feel, he’d probably kick thetrampto the curb faster than you could say bye-bye. He loves you. According to your family, he’s never made a secret of that fact. And . . . you love him. Are you really going to letherhave him?”

It all sounded so simple when Emma put it like that, but the reality seemed anything but simple. After years of being terrified of intimacy and feeling as if she wasn’t good enough for Mac, Ava had finally decided to do everything she could to overcome her fears. She had purchased every self-help book that she could find and was seriously considering going to a therapist. She was so very tired of being afraid all the time. Just when she was on the brink of confessing to Mac how screwed up she really was, and how she felt about him, he had pulled the rug out from under her. Apparently, they had both arrived at the same conclusion—that they needed to move forward. Only she had wanted to move toward him, but unfortunately, his moves had taken him away from her.

Since then, she had been reeling in shock. What now? He had been her reason for finally getting her shit together. He had waited for her all these years, and just when she thought they might be on the same page, he was gone. He’d freaking left her behind. And damn it, she couldn’t even blame him. “Em, it’s not that simple. What am I supposed to say? ‘Oh, Mac, please toss your new girlfriend aside. I’ve decided that although I’m too fucked-up to have a relationship with you myself, I can’t let anyone else have you. I’m going to need you to masturbate for life and remain true only to me’?”

Emma cocked an eyebrow, saying, “Well, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind, other than the tossing of the new girlfriend. Seriously, though, grow a pair or whatever the female equivalent of that is and take Mac back.”

Ava reluctantly smiled. “So you’re going the tough love route today, huh? Given up coddling the poor, messed-up girl?” She saw the look of sympathy that Emma tried to hide as she stood, turning toward the door.

“You’re one of the strongest people I know, Ava. I have no idea what it’s been like for you all these years. But I know if you lose Mac, you’ll never move forward. He’s your white knight, but this time you’re going to have to charge to his rescue. You need to save both of you from living a life without ‘the one.’”

When the door closed behind Emma, Ava turned to stare out the window of her office. The beach town was bustling with the last of the summer crowd before cooler weather took over. She hardly noticed, though, as her friend’s words echoed through her head. Was she strong enough to finally show Mac how she felt? God, where did she even start? He wouldn’t agree to have a drink with her last night, so it was unlikely he was up for an impromptu date. Emma would probably laugh her ass off if she knew that at this moment, Ava was sitting at her desk searching “how to show a man that you love him.” Great, the most popular search result was just telling him. Fucking Google. Always making everything sound so simple.

*   *   *

When Ava walked into her apartment, she was hit with a wave of loneliness as she realized she was no closer to a solution than she had been earlier. Embarrassingly enough, she’d even resorted to stopping at the store on the way home and buying almost a hundred dollars’ worth of women’s magazines. If there was anything on the cover pertaining to men or love, she bought it. Walking into her kitchen, she pulled out the bottle of wine she had also purchased. You had to love today’s conveniences. You could now buy everything short of a car at Walgreens. While she was shopping, she’d even paused by the condom aisle as if trying to think positively that she might need them soon. Yeah . . . that really looked likely.

Uncorking the bottle, she filled a glass nearly to the brim and walked back to the couch with her overflowing bag. The first cover promised twenty sexual moves that would drive her man crazy. She laughed under her breath. She’d have to actually have a man for that to work. She had bought it, though, just in case she ever moved on to the next level. As she set it aside, the headline on the next one immediately caught her eyes. WANT TO CATCH HISATTENTION?UNLEASH YOUR INNER DAREDEVIL! Okay, maybe she could work with that. Flipping it open, she found the page number in the table of contents and went to the article. The picture showed a woman about her age holding a motorcycle helmet in one hand and a pair of skates in the other hand. She grabbed a notepad and a pen off the coffee table. Her brother Brant was an organizational freak and she was more like him than she cared to admit.How many women would buy a magazine for help with landing their man and take notes along the way? She was even tempted to highlight relevant paragraphs but suppressed the urge.

Hours and almost one bottle of wine later, she had filled her notepad with suggestions from the ten magazines she had spent the evening scouring. The overall advice was the same in all of them except for the one encouraging her to be a daredevil. Shit, it was either that or start dressing like a slut and making sexual advances toward Mac. One even suggested in a roundabout way that she invite her man to her house for dinner, wear a dress, and sit in front of him. Then after a few moments of small talk, she was to open her legs and start touching herself. According to the author of the article, it would have him eating out of the palm of her hand . . . or eatingsomethingfor sure. She could feel herself blush furiously just thinking about doing that. Mac would probably have her committed. “Poor Ava’s finally snapped.”

She wanted Mac in every way, but damn it, she was essentially a twenty-eight-year-old virgin. She had never had a real sexual relationship with a man. Like most single women her age, she had needs and desires. Her vibrator took the place of a real man in her bed and she had learned to live with that. It was the safe way out. When she needed to take the edge off, she used it. Sometimes . . . most of the time it was Mac’s name that she called as she reached orgasm.

She didn’t know how to function outside of that, though. She could probably talk to her sister-in-law, Ella.She had confided that she had been a virgin when she met Declan. That was where their similarities stopped, though. Ella might have lived a sheltered life before she met Ava’s brother, but she hadn’t spent her life running from past trauma. She wasn’t scared of intimacy or afraid she’d freak out during sex and humiliate herself.

Part of her knew that Mac would take care of her and help her overcome her fears, but the other part didn’t want him to know how messed up she was. His opinion of her mattered. She wanted him to see her as strong and confident, not scared and insecure. God, what would he think if he found out that she had picked men up in bars for years, paying them to come home with her for a few hours, just to keep up the pretense that she was normal? She knew it sounded bad when she thought about it, but it seemed to make people look at her with less pity when they believed that she was dating. Normal, unattached women her age had sex, right? She wasn’t normal, and she wasn’t having sex, but it was all about perception. Throw people a few tidbits here and there and they drew their own conclusions. In this case, the assumptions were wrong.

Ava had spent years believing that one day she would cross some invisible line and she would be worthy of Mac. It was kind of like holding on to an outfit in a smaller size thinking you’ll lose weight and fit into it in the future. Well, fast-forward ten years and the damn outfit still didn’t fit and she was no closer to making it happen. That was where she was: still dreaming of the day that it all came together and she woke up normal, in love, and with Mac.

Looking down at the magazines spread over her couch and coffee table, she felt a wave of despair. This was it? All that was standing between her and losing Mac to another woman was a bunch of magazine articles? Self-help and advice for the romantically hopeless. Shit, short of the boob job, she planned to try some of the other suggestions. What did she have to lose? Mac was probably with Gwen tonight, maybe having sex. While she was sitting home alone, just like always. When had she given up? At what point had she stopped trying to get better and instead accepted that she was broken beyond repair? Had her friendship with Mac unwittingly become a replacement for a real relationship with him? While he was in the military, there hadn’t been any real pressure. Actually, it had made it easier for her to communicate with him knowing he was too far away to drop by unexpectedly. She saw him when he was home on leave, they wrote and talked on the phone, but she didn’t see him every day. When he finally came home for good, they just fell into the routine of spending most of their spare time together. They went for drinks, had dinner, hung out at each other’s apartments, and attended family events together. They were more of a couple then than many married people she knew. Things had been going so well that they were almost back to where they were before her attack, only now they were both very much adults.

Mac had never been one to verbalize his feelings, but he showed her in a million different ways that he cared for her. In the last year, though, it was as if his patience was wearing thin. His touches had gone fromfleeting to lingering. A few months ago, before he had started dating Gwen, he’d kissed her. Not the usual brief peck either. There had been lips and tongue involved and . . . she’d freaked out on him. They’d been watching a movie at her place and she’d been curled up next to him, half-asleep. When she felt hands sliding through her hair, stroking her neck, she had nestled closer, instinctively seeking the comfort of his touch. When he had lowered his mouth to hers, she had allowed it, more curious than anything. But things had quickly escalated. She had found herself returning his kiss, tangling her tongue with his. Desire raced through her until he pulled her closer, embracing her solidly against his hard chest. Then she’d panicked. She couldn’t breathe; she had to get away. So she had jumped from his arms and crossed to the other side of the room to put some distance between them.

Things had gotten awkward after that. He had apologized that night and she had thought things were okay until he started pulling away. Day by day, she lost him gradually. Until finally he was formally dating someone else right in front of her for the first time since they were teenagers. Oh, she knew that Mac had sex; she wasn’t that naive. But he didn’t have relationships, and she never saw him out on a regular date. Ava always came first with him, but no longer. Now Gwen was the priority and she felt a very distant second, if even that. He gave up on her that night just as plainly as if he had said it aloud. He was no longer content to wait around; he wanted more out of life. He wanted the fairy tale. He wasn’t going to be satisfied with half measures; it wasgoing to take more to get him back. And scariest of all, he wasn’t coming back to a friends-with-no-benefits relationship. In order to get Mac, she would have to become part of his fairy tale. She would have to put the ugliness of her past behind her and become his freaking Cinderella.

She put the notes that she had made from the magazines in her purse. “Okay,Cosmo, let’s give it our best shot.”

Page 3

Chapter Four

Ava looked at herself in the full-length mirror and cringed. She wasn’t used to going to work and showing this much skin. The one thing all the magazines had agreed on was dressing more provocative and sexy. She usually just wore pantsuits, and as she hadn’t been shopping since putting her plan in place, she was wearing the same today, with one change. She had unbuttoned her blouse far enough to take her from all-business to a mix of business and pleasure. She had also dug through her vanity drawers until she’d found the tube of red lipstick that she had received free with her last makeup purchase. Instead of wearing her hair up, she left it hanging in loose waves around her shoulders—another suggestion fromCosmo. She planned to have Emma go to the mall with her at lunch to buy some less conservative clothing. She needed a new look for the next item on her agenda, “unleashing her inner daredevil.” She couldn’t very well do that in plain black slacks. Her last addition to today’s outfit was a pair of high-heeled black sandals. She preferred her lower-heeled flats, but apparently that wasn’t sexy enough.

Shit, she looked like a stranger . . . but an attractive one, she admitted grudgingly. Before she could talk herself into changing back into her usual conservative ensembles, she hurried out of her apartment to her reliable white BMW sedan. It didn’t match her sexier new persona, but she had to draw the line at buying a sports car, right? Wouldn’t that be taking things too far? Besides, she had purchased this car because of the safety rating. Everything in her life it seemed was based on how safe it was. She consoled herself with the fact that she had opted for the sunroof, which was strictly for fun.

The drive into downtown Myrtle Beach was one she always enjoyed. It was still early morning, so the crowds were relatively quiet, as it was nearing the end of the official summer season. In the afternoon, these same streets would be filled with people walking, biking, or skating along Ocean Boulevard. On the weekends she spent a lot of her spare time on the beach, since she had very little social life outside work. She didn’t partake in any of the other tourist hobbies, though. Maybe it was time to make a change there as well. If you lived somewhere like Myrtle Beach, shouldn’t you enjoy more of what it had to offer? They had just installed a new zip line near her home. Did she dare do something that far out of her comfort zone?

She was pondering her first choice of activities on her daredevil agenda when an idea literally roared into the parking lot at Danvers. What she had always thought of as a death trap on two wheels was pulling into a space beside her. In reality, it was a sleek blackHarley-Davidson motorcycle driven by one of Mac’s partners, Dominic Brady. Ava sat in her car, trying not to gawk out her window at the man dismounting next to her. She might be emotionally stunted, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the sexy picture that Dominic, or Dom, as his friends called him, presented. He was wearing the typical uniform of East Coast Security—cargo pants and a shirt with their logo on it. The poor shirt looked as if it were doing everything it could to cover the broad shoulders it was stretched across. And the pants . . . Oh, sweet God, her breath hitched in her throat as he bent over to do something with his bike, putting his ass directly in her line of sight. When he stood and looked toward her car as if sensing her there, she jerked her gaze away, fumbling with her keys. She knew if she looked into the mirror, her face would probably be bright red.

Finishing with his bike, he walked over to her car and opened the driver’s-side door for her. She blinked up at him in a daze before finally pulling it together enough to step out and let him shut the door behind her. “Ava.” His deep voice rumbled her name in greeting.

“Er . . . hi, Dominic. Riding your bike today?”Oh my God, of course he’s riding his bike. Way to state the obvious, dummy. Next, I’ll just point out that he’s wearing pants too. Maybe mention his damn shoes. What happened to all the information from the magazines I studied last night?

He gave her an amused look before saying simply, “Yep.” She saw his eyes rest briefly on the expanse of flesh left on display by her blouse before moving up toher face. Okay, that was a good sign. She’d never noticed Dominic checking her out before, so maybe her wardrobe changes were getting her somewhere. Of course, it wasn’t as if his tongue was hanging out or his breaths were coming in jerky grasps, but he’d totally looked at her boobs, so that was something.

“So, how fast does your bike go? Do you know the safety rating right off the top of your head?” By this time, he had started edging slowly through the parking lot, no doubt trying to get away from her. He stopped, surprised by her questions.

“It’ll go over a hundred.” Then, grinning, he added, “I don’t think anyone buys a Harley for the safety rating, honey.” Pointing to her car, he said, “If you’re into stuff like that, then you stick with a car like the one you’re driving.” He turned back, continuing toward the door to Danvers International where East Coast Security had an office. Ava trailed behind him to the elevator. When he got off on his floor, she stepped off as well. He gave her a curious look over his shoulder, since they both knew this wasn’t her floor. “Mac’s not in yet. He had to make some stops on his way. Want me to have him call you?”

When Dominic opened the door to their office, she followed him inside. “Um, no. Actually, I wanted to ask you something.”

He flipped on the lights in the reception area before leaning back against the desk behind him. His look of curiosity was gone, and he was now studying her as you would a science experiment. This man probably knew as much about her life as she did. After all, hehad no doubt spent a lot of time watching out for her at Mac’s request. She felt the urge to tell him that she hadn’t really been having sex with any of the guys she had brought home over the years, but it might actually drop her down a couple of levels in his opinion. It was better to seem like a woman with normal sexual urges to a man like him. “What can I do for you, darling?”

Her thoughts scattered to the wind for a moment when his sexy voice uttered the endearment. Dominic was ex-military along with Mac and Declan, and even though she tried not to think of her brother that way, they all just oozed masculinity.

She wanted to run, to tuck her tail between her legs and forget all these crazy ideas, but then she thought of Mac and where he might actually be this morning. Probably either giving the new girlfriend a ride to work or, worse, getting a late start because he’d spent the night with her. Gwen was no doubt fun and carefree. Ava would try something new. Hell, she was trying something new, Mac! Taking a deep breath, she took the plunge. “I want to learn to ride a motorcycle. Could you teach me, you know . . . with yours?”

If she hadn’t been so embarrassed by the whole thing, she would have found his expression comical. His mouth opened and closed several times and his eyes blinked rapidly. She had a feeling that very few people surprised the man in front of her, but she sure had. “You want to, like, ride on the back of my bike? Yeah, I guess I could take you for a ride.”

He looked relieved just for a moment until she shook her head. “No, that’s not it.” Then his relief turned toshock when she said, “I want to drive the bike. You could ride with me, I guess, on the back, but I want to steer the thing. You know, do it all myself.”

She wanted to die on the spot when he looked around the room suspiciously. “Is this a joke or something?” Oh crap, was the idea so absurd to him that he thought someone was having fun at his expense? She was pretty sure he was looking around for the culprit now.

Unbidden, tears started to well as embarrassment raced over her. What was she thinking asking a man like Dominic to teach her to ride a bike? He probably thought this was a pathetic attempt to hit on him. Unable to take any more humiliation, she turned toward the door, whispering an apology. She was surprised when hands landed on her shoulders, halting her progress. When she turned back to face him, he looked plainly terrified at the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes. It was true, you could take the strongest man alive, and he would crumble under the weight of a woman’s tears. “Never mind. Just forget it,” she said as she tried to pull away.

“Ava, stop. Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were serious. You’re just not . . . I mean, shit, you really want to drive a bike?”

She nodded, thinking it didn’t really matter anyway. There was no way he was going to teach her.

He expelled a loud sigh, before dropping his hands. “You know Mac’s going to fucking kill me, right?”

Surprised, she looked up at him, trying not to react to the mention of Mac. Was he saying . . . ? Henarrowed his eyes as he studied her until she started shifting uncomfortably. Finally, a smile curved the corners of his mouth as he shook his head. “Well, well . . . sure. It looks like I’m your guy. How about we take a ride after work this evening so you can get a feel for things?”

She gave him a hesitant smile in return. She had the feeling that he knew exactly what she was up to. Either that or he was trying to pick her up. Whatever the reason, he was suddenly friendlier than she had ever imagined. She half expected him to pat her on the ass on the way out the door. Sadly, it would have been one of the bigger thrills in her life recently.

*   *   *

Mac walked in the door of East Coast Security after dropping off a coffee to Gwen. As always, he noticed Ava’s white BMW in its usual space in the parking garage. She usually arrived early and left late. In truth, he would rather have taken a coffee to her and chatted for a few moments, but that wasn’t his routine anymore. Now he had a girl he dated. He couldn’t bring himself to label Gwen as his girlfriend yet. He was too old for that anyway. He smiled at their receptionist, Melissa, and stopped to chat before heading back to the security monitors where Dominic was sitting. Their other partner, Gage, was out on a new job this morning and wouldn’t be in the office until that afternoon. They were all three ex-military and coexisted within their company in a way that only brothers could do. They might not be related by blood, but their bonds were just as strong if not stronger. “Hey, man,” Dominic muttered as he settled in a chair next to him.

“Everything tight?” Mac asked, knowing that Dominic would have called already had there been any problems.

“Yeah, it’s all good. Just zipping through the feeds from last night before filing them away.” It was their daily routine to do a quick check of the security feeds for the previous twenty-four hours each morning even if no problems were reported just to ensure that nothing was missed and that their employees were doing their jobs. In this business, your reputation was all you had, and they depended on it to acquire new clients.

Mac was half watching the monitor while flipping through his e-mail when the sight of a familiar blond head caught his attention. He looked at the monitor before Dominic could run it forward. The time stamp showed just an hour ago. “Did Ava come by here this morning?” It was a stupid question because the camera clearly showed her standing in the reception area with Dominic. Was it his imagination or was Dominic smirking at him?

When the other man simply said, “She did,” without saying anything further, he gritted his teeth.

“Was she looking for me?”

“Nope.” Dominic continued running through the security feeds without saying a word. Most of the time Mac loved that he, Dominic, and Gage were able to communicate with only a few words or a look. He was a firm believer in the motto “less is more,” but today he was finding it as annoying as hell.

“Why. Did. She. Come. By?” Surely to God, he could get an answer now. How much clearer could he be?

Dominic rocked back in his chair, before throwing his feet up on the desk in front of him. Was the fucker actually laughing at him? “Well, Mac, she followed me in from the parking garage to talk. She didn’t really mention you.”

Mac felt a wave of jealousy that he had no right feeling. He was dating Gwen, so he didn’t have a say in who Ava chose to talk to. It was probably just a perfectly innocent, friendly conversation between them anyway. Still, it was unlike Ava to seek out someone she barely knew, especially a man. But he’d be damned if he would ask Dominic any more questions, because the smug look the other man was giving him let him know that he was enjoying watching Mac squirm. Bastard. Instead he tried to act as if he didn’t care as he made an excuse to walk toward his office. It galled him more than he cared to admit that Ava had been to his office space earlier with no intention of seeing him.

Chapter Five

Ava handed Emma some folders and said, “I need to go to the mall during lunch for some jeans and leather stuff. Can you go with me?” When there was no reply, she looked up from the e-mail she was composing to see Emma staring at her with a bewildered expression on her face. “What?”

“You can’t just drop stuff like that on me and not expect that I’m going to have questions. The jeans, yeah, I get why you need those, but what kind of leather stuff are we talking here?”

Ava knew it was hopeless to think that she could get Emma on board without telling her everything. The girl was like a bulldog with a bone when she wanted to be. Rather than going into a long explanation¸ she picked her purse up and pulled out the notes she had made last night from various magazines. She handed them over to Emma, who gave her a questioning look before she started reading. After a few minutes, the other woman looked up at her with a huge grin. “I have no idea where you got all this, but does this mean what I think it does?”

“And what do you think?” Ava hedged.

“You’re going after Mac, aren’t you? You’re taking your man back. Finally! I can totally help you with this. Well, everything except the second page where it says ‘have a threesome with your best friend.’ I don’t think Brant would be into me getting it on with you and Mac.”

Ava handed her a pen. “Mark that one out. I shouldn’t have included it. The thought of a twosome sends me into a panic, so an orgy is definitely out.”

Seeming genuinely happy, Emma said, “This is great, Ava. I know how you feel about Mac, but I was afraid that you were just going to let him go, and I know you’d never get over that. Okay, enough of the serious stuff! I need to ask, though, why the leather? Are we talking some bondage stuff here? Don’t you think that’s a bit ambitious for a beginner?”

“No! That’s not what I want.” She couldn’t contain her giggle at the other woman’s serious expression. Good grief, did she think she had suddenly turned into a closet dominatrix? “I need some clothing to wear on a motorcycle. Don’t you usually wear some kind of leather for that? Maybe a jacket?”

Emma looked confused as she asked, “Motorcycle?”

Settling back into her chair, Ava gave a proud smile. “Yep, I’m working on the daredevil part of my plan. Well, actually, it kind of fell into my lap. You know Dominic, who works with Mac?”

Emma gave an appreciative smile, and Ava was sure she licked her lips. “Oh yeah, I sure do. I love your brother, but I’m not going to lie, Dominic starred in afew of my preengagement vibrator sessions. That man just breathes sex.”

“He does look good.” Ava found herself agreeing. She wasn’t used to having this kind of girl talk, because before Emma came along, she really didn’t have any close friends, especially women. She had spent most of her time with Mac. Maybe what they were talking about was silly, but it was nice to do something so normal for a change. “Anyway, he’s going to teach me how to ride his motorcycle. He was a little hesitant at first, but he said yes. I’m meeting him after work tonight.”

Emma jumped up out of her chair, pumping her fist in the air. “Yes, yes! You are my new hero!” Brant picked that exact moment to stick his head in the office, looking at his fiancée in amusement.

“I believe you said the same thing to me this morning, baby.”

Emma whirled to see him behind her, and Ava was surprised to see her assistant blush as she gave Brant a soft smile.

“Cool it, Mr. Stone. Your sister and I are trying to get some work done here.”

He smiled at them both, looking curious. “I can see that. Just wanted to know if you ladies had lunch plans.”

Before Ava could make an excuse, Emma jumped to it first. She took Brant’s arm, steering him toward the door. “I’m sorry, babe. The girls invited us to lunch earlier. Ella’s having some of those Braxton Hicks contractions and she wanted to discuss them with the girls. You know, get a second opinion.”

Ava had to choke back her laughter as her brother started to shift uncomfortably. Obviously, the man thought this was some kind of code for “female problems.” “Oh yes, you need to do that, then. We can have lunch another day. I mean, no big deal at all.” The whole time he was talking, he was edging backward. Emma blew him a kiss, saying that she loved him as he turned to flee.

“You’re really bad, you know? Brant was sweating bullets when he left. The poor man is too uptight for his own good.”

Emma grinned in return. “He is cute, though, right? And I was serious. Not about the Braxton Hicks thing, but about meeting the girls. They asked me this morning to have lunch. We’ll eat at the mall and get them on board as well. Mac will never know what hit him with all of us working together.”

Ava started shaking her head, beginning to feel apprehensive. “Em, I can’t go to lunch with your friends. I hardly know them. I just . . . I’m not good with crowds. I don’t know what to do with other women.”

Emma sat back down in the chair in front of her, giving her a look of sympathy. “Ava, you’ll be fine. You already know Ella—and Suzy, Claire, and Beth are awesome. You’ll have a great time, I promise. If you get uncomfortable, just give me a sign or something, and I’ll make an excuse for us to leave. You can consider this part of your daredevil challenge. Having girlfriends is a wonderful part of life, one I think you need.”

Ava felt as if she were agreeing to a voluntary root canal as she said, “All right, I’ll try it. Don’t blame me,though, if your friends don’t want anything to do with you after this. I’m not only sexually stunted; I’m socially stunted as well.”

“You’ll be just fine,” Emma assured her. “Now, I’ll let the girls know that we’ll just meet them in the front of the mall. I’ll cut you some slack and won’t make you ride with them . . . this time.”

“Gee, thanks.” Ava smiled. She was secretly relieved, though. She hadn’t thought of how uncomfortable being in the confines of a car with a bunch of women she barely knew would be. It sounded like hell. Yeah, she was completely and totally socially inept.

*   *   *

“So, Ava, I’m really digging this look you’ve got going on today. Your boobs look much bigger than I first had them pegged for.”

Ava almost spat her drink across the table as the cool redhead openly assessed her breasts. “Er . . . thank you, Suzy. That’s . . . good to hear.” They were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant inside the mall. Emma had arranged it so Ava was sitting between her and Ella, and that had helped lessen the discomfort a bit. Unfortunately, that left Suzy, Claire, and Beth across the table. So here she sat, fiddling with her glass and trying to follow the flow of conversation around her. She felt as if she had entered some Lifetime movie where each woman talked about her husband. She knew who these women were married to and she suspected they must be thrilled to go home at the end of each day.

When she and Brant had originally met Jason Danvers, she had been so tongue-tied she couldn’t speak.She hadn’t been expecting someone so young and gorgeous. But the real crush had developed once he started talking. The man was brilliant. She had fallen in love with his mind that day. Ava had always had a thirst for knowledge, and Jason was a master teacher. To watch him in action closing a big deal was a thing of beauty. One of his most attractive qualities, though, was how much he loved his wife and the fact that he didn’t bother to hide it. Ava had had dinner with them a few times through the course of various business functions, and Jason seemed to think that the world revolved around the woman he had chosen to be by his side. Ava knew that Claire had once been his assistant at Danvers but was now his wife and the mother of his child.

Suzy was married to Grayson “Gray” Merimon, who had also come on board at Danvers when Jason acquired his company. Gray’s brother, Nick, worked for Danvers as well and was married to Suzy’s sister, Beth. Just trying to keep up with all the connections seemed mind-boggling. And of course, there was Ella, who was married to Ava’s brother Declan. Ella was adorable and currently only a month away from giving birth to their first child. Lately Ava felt a pang of emptiness when she saw how happy other people were as part of a couple. She could have had that if only she hadn’t been such a coward. Mac had wanted a real relationship with her, but now it might be too late.

“Yoo-hoo, hellooo!”

Ava jumped as Emma’s shout jostled her back to the present. She felt herself flush as all eyes at the table were on her.

“Good grief, woman, you were completely zoned out there. So, anyway, I want to talk to the girls about your mission and see if we can get some insight. Is that okay with you?”

Ava smiled politely, thinking,I am so going to kill this big mouth when we get back to the office.“Um . . . I guess so.”

Emma gave her a wink in return as if trying to reassure her before diving in. “Ladies, you know that Mac and Ava are close, right? Or they were before he started dating someone else. Now, to be fair to Mac, he did want Ava first, but she wasn’t ready. Anyway, now he’s moved on and we just can’t let that happen. We need to help Ava get his attention back and help him to see that she’s ready to take the next step.”

Suzy rubbed her temple, saying, “I think you’ve left out a lot of details there, but we can still work with what we’ve got. So, who is the woman that Mac’s dating?”

“It’s Gwen, you know, the redhead who works in accounting?” Ella offered.

“G-lo?” Claire blurted out before slapping a hand over her mouth.

“No shit, really?” Suzy smirked. “Wow, I guess Mac likes big butts and he cannot lie.”

“Oh my God,” Beth groaned, looking at her sister. “I can’t believe you went there. Her butt isn’t that big.”

“It’s not that it’s big,” Suzy corrected, “it’s just quite round and juicy, like Jennifer Lopez, aka J-lo. Hey, I’m not insulting her; I’d like to have an ass like that myself.”

“Me too,” Claire admitted. “If I lose a pound, my butt takes a leave of absence. I’ve always wanted a big one.”

“Yeah, hell, me too,” Emma added. “Sorry, Ava, but men do love the big butts.”

“She’s not shy about showing that sucker off either,” Ella chimed in. “She was walking in front of me last week and her dress was glued to it like a second skin. I almost ran into a ficus tree watching her walk.”

Ava dropped her head onto the table, ready to admit defeat. “If you’re all in love with her or at least her ass, what hope does that leave for me? The magazines didn’t mention butt implants.”

Suzy leaned forward in her chair, patting her on the top of the hand. “Honey, you’ve got more going for you than a good set of buns. Mac was into you first and men don’t get over stuff like that as easily as they want to believe. Also, you’ve got us. I’m sure G-lo is a nice person and all, but she’s gotta go. There are plenty of other ass-gawking men out there for her, so she’ll be fine. Now, Emma said something about you needing clothes for a date with Dominic?”

It seemed that all jaws dropped when that name was mentioned. He appeared to have quite a few admirers at the table. When Ava told them about her plan to start trying new hobbies to catch Mac’s attention with her adventurous streak, everyone applauded. “I think you’re onto something.” Claire laughed. “Mac has been to our house on several occasions going over security things, and Jason just loves how OCD he is over safety. Truthfully, it drives me crazy sometimes, but I go alongwith it because otherwise Jason would be a nervous wreck when my daughter, Chrissy, and I are alone. I bet you suddenly doing things so out of character will drive Mac out of his mind! Riding a Harley with Dominic, though, is really hitting the big leagues. I’m impressed.”

The other girls nodded in agreement as Ava admitted, “I want him to see that I can be fun and exciting. For years, he’s known only the quiet and repressed Ava. I need to show not only him, but more important, myself, that I can be like other women my age. I don’t have to be so serious about everything anymore. I’m scared to death, but go big or go home, right?” Of course, most of the women at the table didn’t know about her past and the baggage that she was trying to overcome. They just assumed that she had dragged her feet and let Mac slip away. It was as much as she was willing to share at this point. Heck, she couldn’t be sure whether her past was a secret, because most things at Danvers seemed to be public knowledge. Maybe they all knew more than they were letting on, but she wasn’t about to discuss it openly with them . . . not yet and maybe not ever.

Looking her over, Suzy said, “So we need some clothes to make Mac sit up and take notice, right?”

Claire, the sweet one as Ava had come to think of her, added, “Not that there is anything wrong with the way you dress. I think you always look so nice.”

“You do,” Beth agreed, giving her a friendly smile. “Maybe just some casual clothes for the new hobbies you plan to take on.”

“What she needs,” Emma interjected, “are some tit-displaying shirts to put those babies out there. Mac has to be behind G-lo to appreciate her big ass, but hello, your girls are right there on eye level for him. There is no way he can miss those suckers if you open those buttons up.”

It felt so strange to have female friends rooting for her that Ava wasn’t sure if she wanted to jump up and high-five everyone, yelling something about girl power, or run for the nearest door. Instead she followed the others out of the restaurant as they made their way into the mall, clearly women on a mission.

The next hour was something akin to a horror movie as the women she barely knew threw an alarmingly large stack of clothing before her and demanded that she model it, save for the underwear, thank God. When the whirlwind shopping spree was over, it took all of them to carry the bags. She had spent enough money that she could have put an impressive down payment on a new car. What did it matter, though? All these years of having no social life meant that she rarely spent money on anything other than living expenses.

She promised Suzy that she would continue wearing her hair loose and was grateful that no one had suggested a new haircut. Her hair was her one vanity, and even though she mostly wore it up, she still loved her long blond tresses. She groaned in exhaustion as she climbed into the passenger side of Emma’s car. How could anyone love shopping? It was total hell.

Page 4

“So.” Emma wiggled her eyebrows. “This is it, then. No backing out now.”

“Nope, I’m all in. There is no way I’m taking back these clothes, and I’d never be able to sleep again if I wasted this much money for nothing.”

“Yay, that’s the spirit. Now let’s get ready to unleash hell on poor, unsuspecting Mac. He’s going to find out that hell hath no fury like a woman kicked to the curb for one with a bigger butt.”

Ava snickered, unable to control herself. Emma was a total nut, but boy, did she have a way with words!

Chapter Six

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap. What am I doing?Ava looked down at herself, cringing at the unfamiliar clothes she was wearing. She had arranged to meet Dominic at his bike around six, and she had made it with five minutes to spare. She had on some of her new clothes, picked by Suzy for her first motorcycle ride. The outfit consisted of formfitting jeans, a black belt, a white tank top, and a lightweight black leather jacket. A pair of black boots completed the look. Ava felt as if every curve of her body was screaming,Hey, look at me!She did have to admit that even though she wasn’t comfortable with the way the clothes molded to her curves, she did feel just a little sexy in them. Maybe too sexy. Dominic would probably think she was coming on to him. Before she could have a panic attack at that thought, the man himself sauntered up to her with a sexy grin on his face. Yeah, he definitely sauntered; there was nothing normal about his walk. He moved like a man who knew who he was and didn’t care to pretend otherwise. Of course, Mac and Declan both had a similar gait. Maybe it was more like a military swagger. She gavehim her brightest smile, trying not to look terrified. “Hey, Dominic.”

“Hey, Blondie. Wasn’t sure if I’d see you here or not.”

Suddenly, she felt awkward and embarrassed. Had he been hoping she wouldn’t show up? She had kind of put him on the spot this morning. He was no doubt just trying to be nice by agreeing to the ride, since she was friends with Mac.

Looking down at the toes of her new boots, she said, “If you don’t want to bother, that’s fine. Really, it was probably a silly idea anyway.” At that moment, Ava saw movement out of the corner of her eye and looked over to see Mac and Gwen exiting the elevator into the garage. “Oh, damn, perfect,” she muttered under her breath. That was all she needed, Mac and his new girlfriend with the big butt witnessing her humiliation as Dominic sent her on her way.

“Blondie, if you want to do this, let’s make it good. Here’s your big chance to get Mac’s attention. Just play along and I guarantee he’ll be fucking flipping out.”

She snapped her head around to look at Dominic, gaping at him in surprise. “What?”

He grinned in response, before settling on his bike and telling her to climb on behind him. “Baby, I wasn’t born yesterday. Sometimes it takes a hard right to the heart to realize how bad you’ve fucked up. I’m thinking you’ve taken the hit and now you’re ready for some return fire. And lucky for you, that’s my specialty.”

Ava quickly but awkwardly climbed on the big bike behind Dominic, not realizing until she was settled thather crotch was going to be sitting right in the curve of his ass. It was official; this was her most intimate moment with something that didn’t require batteries. She tried to ignore the throbbing between her thighs at the foreign feeling of a masculine body nestled there. She might love Mac, but she couldn’t ignore the little flicker of desire that she felt at being this close to a man. She saw Mac and Gwen gawking at them before Mac started forward, almost dragging poor Gwen across the pavement. “Oh, shit, here they come. Why are you helping me? Mac’s your friend.”

Dominic rocked the bike backward, releasing the stand before he turned sideways to say, “Because he has something I want . . . and I have something he wants.”

“What are you talking about?” Before he could answer, Mac and an out-of-breath Gwen reached them and sparks were flying.

“Dom, what in the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Mac’s hot gaze flew over her, and she saw him visibly swallow. In a gentler tone he added, “Avie, get off the bike.”

Dominic ignored his friend, simply smirking in response. “Ava and I are going to dinner and then I’m giving her a riding lesson.”

Ava watched Mac, fascinated, as a nerve ticked away in his jaw. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him so angry. He usually showed her only his gentle side, even though she was aware that he, like most people, had a harder side. “What kind of lesson?” Oh, yikes, he thought that was a code for sex, didn’t he?

“He’s teaching me to drive his bike. I’ve beenwanting to try it for a while.” Uh-oh, he had his hands in his hair now, looking for all the world as if he was going to yank some of it out in frustration. Wow, if Ava had wanted to get a reaction out of him, this was it. He looked as if he was going to detonate. Beside him, Gwen’s eyes jumped from Mac to Dominic to Ava and then back again. She looked as if she was on the verge of solving a big puzzle and just needed a few more pieces. Ava didn’t miss the quick, appraising look that Dominic shot Gwen before looking away. Apparently, he also liked big butts and was ready to help Ava get Mac so that he would be free to have G-lo. Wow—weren’t there reality shows about stuff like this? Ava had never thought she’d actually be a part of some type of love triangle.

Mac’s eyes drilled into hers as he continued to speak to her in the same soft voice. “Ava, bikes are dangerous. There is no way you can drive a Harley. You’re going to get seriously hurt. Now please get off and I’ll walk you back to your car.” Something about his tone was really starting to piss her off. She was tired of being treated like an invalid. Maybe she had done nothing to prove to him that she was capable of living a normal life, but that was about to change. This was no longer just about getting Mac back from Gwen; this was about showing him that she had a backbone. She wasn’t the same scared teenager anymore. Well, maybe she was still scared, but damn it, she needed to prove that she could do something other than cower in a corner. She could be fearless and fun.

She gave him a bright smile before tightening her arms around Dominic’s waist. “I’m ready if you are,”she said against his ear. Beneath her, the big bike roared to life and Dominic threw a wave at Mac and Gwen before taking off. Ava heard Mac yelling at their retreating backs, but she had no time to try to decipher his words; she was too busy holding on for dear life.

Oh God, Mac was right, this bike was way out of her league. Ava buried her face in Dominic’s back and started reciting every prayer she had ever heard. She even threw in Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep for good measure. A prayer was a prayer, right? She finally turned her head sideways when she was close to asphyxiating in Dominic’s shirt. The Atlantic Ocean glimmered on her right, and she realized that they were on Ocean Boulevard. Even through her death grip she noticed how vivid the view from the back of the bike was compared to the countless times she had traveled this same route by car. There was something about the warmth of the sun on her face and the feel of the wind in her hair that made her feel alive. She hesitantly loosened her grip enough to ease back slightly and gasped in surprise. It was still scary as hell when she looked down at the road flying by, but there was also an unfamiliar rush racing through her veins. She was actually doing it. She was trying something new, something kind of dangerous, and she wasn’t having a panic attack or a nervous breakdown.

She heard Dominic yell at her over his shoulder, “Not bad, is it, Blondie?” She laughed in reply, feeling her body relax further. She felt like Kate Winslet inTitanicwhen she stood on the bow of the ship with her arms in the air. She laughed again and figured thatDominic must think she was losing her mind. She didn’t care, though; she wanted to revel in the moment. All too soon, the bike slowed and pulled into a parking space next to the boardwalk. Dominic set the bike back on the stand and cut the engine. She held on to his shoulder as he helped her climb from the bike before getting off himself. “I thought we’d grab a sandwich and eat outside since it’s such a nice evening.” Normally, she would have listed all the reasons that she would rather eat indoors in the cool air-conditioning, but what the hell? She was turning over a new leaf, and after riding a motorcycle, surely eating a hot dog outside would be tame in comparison.

“Sounds good,” she agreed, and followed him to the small café on the corner. They walked in the door and she fought the urge to suggest an indoor table. Dominic was more comfortable outside and she was just along for the ride, literally. As her eyes scrolled over the menu on the wall behind the counter, she suddenly clapped her hands in excitement before grabbing Dominic’s arm. “Funnel cake! Oh, please, can I have that instead of real food?” Dominic started chuckling and Ava’s cheeks colored when she realized that the few people in the café were smiling at her childlike enthusiasm for the sugary treat.

“Blondie, you get whatever you want. You’re a bike-riding badass now. Break a few more rules and have dessert first.” Dominic ordered two foot-long hot dogs for himself and the funnel cake for her. He also ordered them both Coke, which made her cringe slightly. She usually stuck to diet drinks, but that seemed silly whenshe was eating a fried treat with no doubt thousands of calories in it. She wondered idly how many calories riding a motorcycle burned off.Surely anxiety raises your heart rate.

Dominic balanced their food on a tray while she ran ahead and opened the door for them. Soon, they were settled at a table on the boardwalk. She had to admit that the sound of the waves breaking against the shore beside them was better than listening to the chatter indoors. Maybe Dominic was onto something. After taking her first bite of the fluffy, fried cake loaded with powdered sugar, she wiped her lips and looked at the man across the table from her. It seemed strange to be sharing a meal with him, since they had never really done it before. She had eaten with him, Mac, and Gage, but that was hardly the one-on-one they were having now. “So, you like Gwen, huh?” she blurted out before thinking better of it.

He lifted an eyebrow, looking surprised at the personal question for a moment before shrugging. She thought he was going to let the subject drop, but after a long sip of his drink, he finally answered, “Gwen and I are neighbors. I saw her first, I guess you could say. I didn’t even know she worked for Danvers until Mac started dating her.”

She gave him a sympathetic look, recognizing a kindred soul. “So you waited around too long and someone else moved in on your girl? Yeah, I can relate to that. I mean . . . not the moving-in-on-the-girl part, since obviously no one moved in on my girl . . . um, not that I have a girl, but . . .”

Dominic laughed, holding his hand up to stop her fumbling explanation. “I get it, Blondie. Yeah, we do have some things in common, although you kind of dropped the ball in a much bigger way than I did. Hell, I had just seen Gwen around our apartment complex and thought about asking her out. Honey, Mac has worshipped the ground you walk on for years. He was so messed up over you when we were in Afghanistan, I’m surprised he didn’t get his ass blown off.” In a gentler voice, he continued. “I get that you had some bad shit that happened to you and you’ve been hurting over it, but time waits for no man or woman, Blondie, and it looks like you’re starting to see that. Hell, I am as well.”

He saw her look of surprise when he mentioned her past, and he covered her hand briefly with his. “Declan, Mac, Gage, and I are brothers in every way that counts. There are few secrets between us. We lived in too-close quarters for many years for that. Secrets get you killed over there. I don’t know all the details, but I know someone hurt you, and I’m sorry as hell about that. I really am. I know that the kind of emotional baggage that normal people never experience even in their worst dreams does something to you. It changes everything you are. Believe me, I know that. We all do. It makes me hesitate to do something seemingly easy and normal like ask a woman out who I’m really attracted to. It makes you afraid to show the man who loves you that you feel the same way and it makes Mac afraid of ending up alone. We all have the pieces we need to make something good happen in our lives. We’re just fucking up with putting the puzzle together correctly.”

Ava sat staring at Dominic, shocked by the almost poetic way that he spoke. He seemed to give new meaning to the saying ”still waters run deep.” She found herself responding to his speech by wanting to do one of two things: cry her eyes out until she was a blubbering mess or blurt out some deep, dark secret just to see what his take on it was. “All your reports were wrong; I haven’t dated anyone or been with a man since that night.”

She studied Dominic’s almost comical reaction as the hot dog he was holding froze on the way to his mouth. “Come again.” He blinked as if he had misunderstood her statement.Shit, maybe this confession isn’t such a good idea.

“I picked men up in bars periodically and paid them to come home with me for a while. I knew that Mac kept a tail on me to . . . watch over me, and I didn’t want him to know that I’m not normal.”

Dominic set his hot dog back down without taking a bite and leaned forward on the table, looking stunned. “What did these men do who came home with you, then? Some of them were there all night.”

Ava looked down, rubbing her finger in circles on the tabletop. God, this had gotten embarrassing. Admitting how messed up she was to a macho man like Dominic was almost impossible, but there was no way he would let it go now. He looked determined to get some answers. “Well . . . I told them all I was trying to make my boyfriend jealous and offered them a couple hundred bucks to come home with me for a while. We, um . . . played video games, Monopoly, or sometimes they fellasleep and I just let them stay on the couch until morning. I also locked my bedroom door, though,” she rushed to assure him.

Rubbing his head, Dominic slumped back in his seat. “Blondie, do you have any idea how fucked-up that is? Aside from the fact that you almost killed Mac every time I had to report in that you had some guy at your house for the evening, do you have any idea how dangerous that was? Shit, you of all people should know that you can’t trust a complete stranger. How could you possibly let someone you didn’t know into your house with you? Damn, you even let some stay while you slept. Ava! Shit, that’s completely whacked.” When a tear slid down her cheek, his expression softened in apology. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, Blondie, but it looks like you’ve been living on the edge for years without evening acknowledging it. Riding a motorcycle is nothing compared to what you’ve been doing. I just . . . I’m blown away here. I’m the last one to judge, but Mac needs to seriously spank your ass for pulling a dangerous stunt like that repeatedly. I mean, what were you thinking?”

Page 5

More tears fell now as she realized the truth of what he was saying. She had risked her life repeatedly and for what? To prove to Mac that she had a normal life with normal desires? When she really thought it through, it sounded absurd. She had been raped by her prom date, someone she actually knew after several dates together. Yet she had trusted complete strangers to spend hours alone with her in her home. God, she had seriously lost her mind. Even though she nowrealized how bad it sounded, she felt the need to defend herself. “After the first few, I had a referral system of sorts. Most of the men in graduate school here are really broke. So they started telling their friends about me.” She didn’t add that one of them had accidentally let it slip that the other guys had said that the crazy cat lady from the bar would pay you two hundred bucks for a few hours to pretend to be her fake boyfriend. “They were actually nice guys. One of them fixed the drip under my kitchen sink and a few of the others repainted my kitchen. They even took the trash out when they left.”

Suddenly, Dominic’s body started convulsing in laughter. Ava watched him warily, wondering if she had pushed him completely off the deep end. It seemed unusual for a man whom she had rarely seen smile before today to actually fall against the table as full belly laughs erupted from him. “You’re . . . too . . . much!” he gasped out as his big frame continued to shake. She sat waiting patiently for him to catch his breath, wondering what the joke was. Finally, when she was getting ready to upend her Coke over his head, he managed to reel it back in. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he settled for grinning at her while shaking his head. “Mac should pack his shit and move to another state, because he’s never going to survive you. You know he’s going to blow his top when he finds out about this, don’t you?”

“So maybe I don’t tell him that part?” She had meant it as more of a statement, but it came out as more of a question.

He still looked vastly amused as he shook his head again. “Blondie, if you want to have a real relationship with Mac, then you have to tell him the truth. Trust me, as a man, I can tell you that he will be constantly dwelling on the fact that your bedroom seemed like the local Do-Drop-In for years. He’s got to be wondering why, if you’re screwed up by your past, you’re more than willing to sleep with a lot of other men, but not him. That’s actually pretty cold. Couldn’t you have found a less painful way to convince the man that you were functioning normally? Hell, even a pretend lesbian relationship or two would have been fine.”

Groaning, Ava rolled her head, trying to release the tension there. “Okay, it wasn’t my best idea. I just . . . wasn’t ready to be involved with anyone, and I didn’t know if I ever would be. It seemed like the only way to keep him at a distance, romantically, but still have him in my life. He didn’t push me for anything else as long as he thought I was . . . seeing someone else. Plus, it made it appear that I was capable of . . . you know, of sex.” Suddenly, it hit her that she was telling a virtual stranger all her secrets. Was this it, then? Was she so desperate for a friend that she had moved Dominic into the role of her own personal Dear Abby? Of course, she had talked to Emma and her friends at lunch, but that was different. Dominic probably thought a lot like Mac, which gave her some much-needed male insight.

Dominic started clearing off the remains of his food from the table, signaling the end of their meal. When he had cleared Ava’s place as well, she stood to follow him back out to the bike. “All right, Blondie, for tonight, Ithink it’s enough that you just rode on the back of a bike. You need to get used to the sensation before you try to actually drive one.” Ava wanted to drop to her knees and thank him. She hadn’t been looking forward to her first lesson and was grateful to have a reprieve. When a couple of girls rolled past them on skates, Dominic pointed after their retreating backs. “Want another way to drive Mac crazy? Take up that hobby. Do your skating on the sidewalk in Garden City, though. Mac goes right through there on the way home every night.”

Her eyes brightened as she looked around at the other people skating down the boardwalk. Wow, it looked a lot safer than riding a bike, and if she could manage to make sure Mac saw her at least part of the time, it would be perfect. She gave Dominic an impulsive hug, saying, “Great idea! That’s exactly what I need to try next. Do you think you could text me when he leaves the office every evening? If I try to wait on him at work, I’ll never make it to the sidewalk in time.”

“Ava . . . babe, I was kidding. That looks kinda dangerous actually.”

“No, no, it’s brilliant. I could just stand around with the skates on. Like not really moving, but acting like I have been.” She jumped on the bike, pointing to the seat in front of her. “Hurry up. I’ll have time to stop at Walmart on the way home. They have everything there.”

Dominic gave her a hesitant look for a moment before shrugging. “There is no way this is gonna go well, but what the hell?” With those words, he climbed onthe bike, and soon they were heading back toward Danvers and her car. She was able to enjoy the ride back without fearing too heavily for her life. When Dominic dropped her off, she thanked him before hurrying to her car. She was determined to buy everything she needed for her next mission: Ava Stone, skating queen.

*   *   *

Mac threw his keys on the entryway table upon entering his home. He heard them slip off the table and onto the floor, but he continued without stopping. He was too pissed right now to pick up after himself. He had barely been able to contain his anger as he walked Gwen to her car. They were supposed to go somewhere for dinner, but she had made a last-minute excuse about needing to pack for her planned weekend away with her sister. No doubt, the thought of spending another hour with him in his present mood was more than she could take. He’d been so damn grateful for the cancellation that he had just barely caught himself before he thanked her. As it was, he was pathetically relieved that she was going to be gone for a few days. What did that say about the state of their relationship?

He wanted to strangle Dominic, who was supposed to be his best friend. What in the hell was he thinking having Ava on his bike? And he planned to teach her how to ride it? Un-fucking-believable. Mac wanted to call and chew his ass out, but he didn’t want to risk distracting him. Damn it, his friends knew how much Ava meant to him. He’d never thought he had to worry about any of them putting the woman he loved indanger. Was that the worst of it, though? Was Dom interested in Ava? Things had sure looked friendly enough with their bodies plastered together on that damn Harley. Seeing her slender arms gripping Dom tightly was enough to make Mac lose his shit. He would probably have done something completely stupid and careless like taking off after them if not for Gwen standing there looking as though she was putting two and two together and coming up with a solid four.

He stalked into his bedroom, jerking a pair of basketball shorts out of the laundry basket sitting on the floor. He might not be the best housekeeper, but he figured he got points for the clothes at least being clean. He made quick work of jerking off his usual work attire and pulling the shorts on. After a quick stop at the door to put on his running shoes, he made his way across the sand and to the nearly empty beach beyond. As his feet hit the wet sand, he quickly found his rhythm. He desperately needed an outlet for the anger coursing through his body, and it was either run until he dropped or go kill his best friend. Not much of a choice there at all.

Chapter Seven

Ava hadn’t thought about it being the weekend when she concocted her master skating plan. Mac wouldn’t be on his regular schedule today, which would make it a little trickier to get him to notice her on the streets of Garden City. She had also had a moment of panic when she thought that maybe he might not be alone. What if Gwen was with him? She’d already had the other woman staring at her on the back of Dominic’s bike last night. After she calmed down, she realized that she had one ace in the hole; she knew that Mac took his mother to breakfast almost every Saturday morning without fail. She had gone along with them a few times, and Mac always met his mother at nine. Therefore, at eight thirty she was on the practically deserted streets of Garden City in a bright pink tank top and black running shorts. She had her new speed skates, which the gum-popping teenager in the sporting goods section of Walmart had recommended. She had looked at the safety gear, but realized that Mac wouldn’t recognize her in a helmet. It didn’t really matter; she just intended to stand around, not actually do much skating.

The only thing she hadn’t taken into account was the fact that skates tended to roll even without you trying, and coupled with the incline on the sidewalk, things happened . . . fast. She was sitting on a bench when she saw Mac’s black Tahoe turn the corner. She jumped up quickly, hoping he saw her before he passed. As it turned out, she didn’t have to worry about catching Mac’s attention, because she caught the attention of everyone within a two-mile vicinity as she flew wildly down the sidewalk before wrapping briefly around a NOPARKINGsign, then ultimately running into the bumper of a Dodge Neon and finally falling backward spectacularly onto her ass.

Birds were tweeting above her head like something out of aTom and Jerrycartoon as she lay there stunned. “Honey, are you okay?” someone asked helpfully before yelling down the line of onlookers, “She’s conscious but has some road rash.”What does that even mean?she idly thought as she lay there wondering if anything was broken. Seemed she would have been better off on the damn Harley after all. She now hoped fervently that Mac hadn’t seen her. This was way too humiliating.

“Ava?” She blinked like an owl when she heard her name uttered in a familiar voice. She moaned as she turned her head to the right, blinking against the glare of the sun. Mac stood in the middle of the crowd looking as if he’d seen a ghost. His mouth was moving, but nothing appeared to be coming out of it. Maybe some silent swearwords. She was sure she’d seen him mouth something that started with anF. He seemed to shrugoff whatever trance he had fallen in and jumped into typical Mac damage control. Kneeling beside her, he took inventory of the scratches on her body. “Where does it hurt, baby?”

She choked back a hysterical laugh before trying to pull herself up. “Where doesn’t it hurt would be a better question,” she muttered before her feet flew out from under her and again she landed backward on her sore ass. “Shit, that hurt.”

He put a hand on her stomach, holding her down. “Avie, let me take these damn skates off before you kill yourself. What in the world were you thinking?”

She looked at the crowd still standing around them. “Can we please save the lecture for when we’re alone? Just get me out of here.”

At that, Mac looked around, seeming to finally realize that they were creating quite a spectacle. He quickly removed her skates before leaning down to scoop her up effortlessly into his arms. “Wha . . . what are you doing?”

She sputtered as he ignored her protests. He carried her to his Tahoe as if she weighed nothing. “Mac, my car is right over there. Just let me down.”

He continued to ignore her, shifting her weight on his hip to free his hand for opening the door. He settled her on the seat, slamming the door on her complaints. He stalked back through the crowd, picking up the skates and throwing them in the backseat before getting in the driver’s side. He turned the big SUV back toward his house before punching a button on his hands-free phone mounted on the dash. When Avaheard his mother’s voice come through the speaker, she slunk down farther in her seat, hoping Mac wouldn’t tell her what had happened. Luckily, he just said that something had come up and he’d call her later.

They parked in front of his two-story beach house. “Stay where you are,” Mac ordered as he left his seat before coming around to her side of the car. One look at his tight face was enough for her to keep her mouth shut and let him carry her again. Normally, she would have taken a moment to appreciate the beauty of the rustic house with cedar siding that Mac had so painstakingly restored, but today it passed by in a blur. He refused to put her down while he struggled to get the key in the front door and disable the security alarm.

Finally, they made it into the spacious living room, where he sat her down gently on the couch. He left the room, coming back a few moments later with a first aid kit and the same scowl sitting heavily on his handsome face. Wow, he looked seriously pissed. He lowered his large form to the coffee table in front of the couch and barked out, “Take your shirt off.”

Now, that got her attention. “Um . . . do what?” Surely, she had heard him wrong.

“Take your shirt off. I need to see if you have any damage to your back or your stomach. It looked like you damn near fell on every single inch of your body.”

Ava sat silently for a moment, feeling the old familiar panic set in. Damn it, if she couldn’t even take her shirt off in front of the man she was supposed to love, then how would she ever convince him that she was ready for a real relationship with him? She was so tiredof being scared all the time. Taking a deep breath, she silently cursed the fact that she had worn a plain white cotton bra this morning. She dearly hoped he didn’t notice the slight tremble of her hands as she gripped the edge of her top and slowly pulled it over her head. He removed the shirt from her nerveless fingers, dropping it to the floor. His gaze seemed to zero in on the creamy swells of her breasts exposed by her no-frills bra, and she was horrified to feel her nipples hardening under his attention.

After a moment, he put his hands on her shoulders, and she groaned inwardly as she did a full-body shiver. Something about the feel of his warm hands on her bare skin was causing her pulse to rocket. The moment was broken, though, when he started mumbling under his breath before touching an area of her upper back that felt as if it were on fire. “Ouch!” Was he . . . ? Alarmed, she asked, “What are you doing with my bra?”

With obvious strain in his voice, Mac said, “Relax, Avie; I need your bra strap out of the way. You’ve got a nasty laceration back here. The asphalt ripped a hole in your shirt. You must have hit the ground even harder than I thought. You’re damn lucky you didn’t break anything.” Suddenly, his face was back in front of hers, looking her face over anxiously. “I didn’t see you hit your head.” His hands started roaming over her scalp, looking for signs of injury. “Shit, tell me you didn’t. I can’t feel anything. If there is any possibility of a head injury, we need to go to a hospital and have it checked out. I should have checked for that before I moved you. I just . . . panicked.”

Ava grabbed his forearm, pulling his hand back down. “Mac, my head is fine. I think most of the damage was to my butt and my pride.” When he looked down at her shorts, she knew what was coming next, and her cheeks were already coloring in response.

“Er . . . take your shorts off, then. I need to see what we’re dealing with.”

“No! I’m not taking my shorts off. I’m perfectly capable of looking at my own . . . butt later.” She might have caved to pressure to remove her top because truthfully the feel of the fabric against the scrapes on her back was painful. But there was no way she was removing her bottoms. She had worn her granny panties, and it’d be over her dead body that he would get a look at them. When she finally worked up the nerve to disrobe completely for Mac, she would be wearing something sexier than one hundred percent cotton. He looked ready to argue with her, so she shifted his attention back to her upper body by wincing and moving her shoulder. “Could you put a Band-Aid or something there? It hurts like the devil.” Now that she’d mentioned the pain, it seemed to be all around her. As her adrenaline dropped, her body started throbbing. Running into a parked car was damn painful. “Ouch!”

“Hang on, baby; let me get you some Advil before we clean all your cuts.”

Ava wanted to swoon when Mac called her baby. He had used the endearment a few times over the years, but that was twice already today. He mostly called her Avie, which had always made her feel special, but baby . . . yeah, she liked that a lot. Unless . . . did he callGwen that?She looked down at the couch she was sitting on. Had Gwen been here with Mac? Had they held hands, touched each other, had sex together . . . right where she was sitting? The thought made her physically sick, and she wanted to do nothing but run. She didn’t want to be anywhere that another woman had staked a claim to the man Ava loved.

Ava winced as she tried to move off the couch. Agony raced through her body as she leaned down to pick up her discarded shirt. She needed to get out of here . . . now. She was balancing unsteadily on her feet when Mac walked back in carrying a bottle and a glass of water. He looked surprised to see her standing there, with her shirt gripped tightly in one hand. “Mac . . . I’m just going to . . . I mean, I need to get back to my car.”

He shook a couple of tablets from the bottle that he was carrying out before setting it down. He handed them to her along with the glass, waiting until she had taken them before commenting on her sudden need to leave. “Avie . . . sit down, please. I need to patch you up before I take you back.”

She stood there uncertainly before asking, “Could we use a kitchen chair? I, um . . . just don’t want to sit back down on the couch.” No doubt, he thought she was cracking up, but after a moment’s hesitation, he walked toward his kitchen and returned seconds later with a wooden chair. She was so glad that he hadn’t questioned her aversion to his leather couch. What could she possibly say? “Oh, sorry. I’m afraid that you had sex with your girlfriend on it and the thought ofsitting there makes me want to puke”? Nothing strange about that statement at all. Especially when she had handed him to Gwen on a shiny platter with a damn red bow attached to it.

Mac picked up his first aid kit and started cleaning her abrasions with an antiseptic wipe that stung bad enough to bring tears to her eyes. Having his hands gently touching almost every exposed inch of her skin was torture for a different reason. She only hoped that he thought the few times that she hadn’t been able to stop herself from flinching was from the pain and not the foreign feeling of his warm hands touching her body. She both feared and craved his touch. How many nights had she lain awake wishing he were there, lying next to her? Wishing she were a normal person who could wake up in the arms of the man she loved—without remembering another man’s hands on her body, holding her immobile and stripping away her innocence? The one thing she had wanted to give Mac from the moment she had started to see him as something more than her brother’s friend. It was always supposed to be him and only him, and that had been brutally stolen from them both. They could never get that back, but if she continued on the path of avoidance that she had taken for so many years, then the bastard who had raped her was still ruining her life, and she didn’t want that. She wanted to be free. She wanted to know what it felt like to be touched by someone who cared about her. It had to be Mac, as it was always meant to be.

“Avie . . . what’s going on with you? First, you goroaring off on the back of Dom’s bike, and next you’re flying down the streets of Garden City wrapping yourself around a car. This isn’t you; this isn’t the woman I know. I mean . . . is there something I need to know about you and Dom?”

Ava held her breath, wondering if Mac was aware that he had stopped treating her injuries and was now stroking a fingertip along the sensitive skin of her arm, causing an involuntary shiver. If he noticed, he gave no indication. He continued to touch her while waiting for her answer.

“Would it bother you?” she asked quietly. She knew it was juvenile to insinuate that there was something romantic between her and Dominic, but she wanted—no, she needed—Mac to care.

Mac expelled a breath before his hand moved from her arm and glided up to her neck, lingering on the pulse beating wildly there. “You have no idea, Avie. He’s my brother, and I’d give him everything I have . . . but not you, baby. Never you. You. Belong. To. Me.”

His hand rested against her neck, and their eyes locked. His expression was wild and fierce and for the first time she wasn’t scared. She wanted to taste his lips more than she wanted her next breath. Without allowing herself time to think, she raised her other hand, reaching up to pull his head lower. A hint of uncertainty flickered across his face just before their mouths connected and then her body sizzled with awareness of him. Unlike with their other kiss, Mac seemed to wait for her to take control, to deepen the contact. She tentatively touched her tongue along the seam of his lips,wanting to taste him. He groaned deep in his throat before opening his mouth and tangling his tongue with hers. In that moment, she understood for the first time where the inspiration for every romance novel and romantic movie came from. It was this . . . feeling as if you were on the verge of unlocking all the infinite secrets of the universe with just one kiss.

Time seemed to stand still as she experienced her first real kiss as a grown woman. Mac had kissed her one other time, but her fear had kept her from truly getting lost in the moment. This time, she was more than a willing participant. She took the lead in kissing him. She explored every corner of his mouth, tasting coffee and the minty flavor of his toothpaste. As his hands threaded through her hair, pulling her closer, she felt a small trickle of unease. She reminded herself that this was Mac. He’d never hurt her, never force her. She murmured a protest when his lips left her mouth only to kiss down her jaw, then her neck. “Mac . . . oh, Mac . . . please . . .” Something was buzzing on the table beside them, cutting through the haze of desire she was in. Mac cursed under his breath before pulling back. Almost in sync, they both looked over to see his phone lighting up and on the screen in bold letters it said CALL FROMGWEN.

Page 6

“Fuck,” Mac rasped out, reaching over to hit theIGNOREbutton on his phone. Ava guessed she should be grateful for that at least. After all, she was the other woman here, not Gwen. Even knowing that, she didn’t think she could handle hearing Mac talk to Gwen as if he hadn’t just had his lips all over Ava. By now, theywere both breathing hard, trying to come down from the high they had just experienced. Ava’s face colored in embarrassment when Mac looked at her. Had she really just been sucking on his tongue? Part of her felt the need to yell, “You go, girl,” and part of her wanted to crawl under the chair she was sitting in. She had kissed Mac, and it had felt better than she could ever have imagined. She squeezed her legs together as her core ached for her to finish what she had started. Being reminded that Mac had another woman in his life, though, had ended her moment of boldness. “Avie . . .”

Ava jumped to her feet, not wanting to answer all the questions that she saw on Mac’s face. She needed time to gather her thoughts and her courage before anything else happened between them, including a conversation. “Mac, I really need to get back to my car now. I, um . . . have plans soon, so I need to get home and change.”

Mac put his hands on his hips, looking suspicious. “What kind of plans? They had better not involve a damn motorcycle or skates.”

“Ur . . . no. I’m meeting Emma for lunch today.”

“I thought Brant and Emma were visiting her parents this weekend.”

God, was there nothing the man didn’t know? “I meant Ella. I’m meeting Ella. You know, last-minute baby things.”

Looking skeptical, Mac asked, “What kind of baby things?”

Suddenly, she remembered the conversation between Beth and Ella at lunch yesterday and blurtedout, “Breast pumps.” Mac’s cheeks flushed, and if she hadn’t embarrassed herself as well, she’d probably have laughed. Apparently, mentioning anything to do with breast-feeding was the equivalent of discussing your period with men. They simply folded right in front of your eyes.

“I . . . yeah . . . okay . . . sure, that’s good,” Mac stuttered as he dropped his gaze, shifting his feet on the floor restlessly. He gathered himself and walked over to help her when she struggled to pull the shirt back over her head. Ava limped back out to his Tahoe, and all too soon, he was pulling in next to her car.

Turning to him, she said, “Thanks for taking care of me today.”

He grabbed her wrist before she could open the door, halting her exit. “No more crazy stuff, right? You’re not the type of person to risk your neck like that.”

Ava put her hand over his, saying simply, “Maybe I’ve changed, Mac. I need to take more risks now—I have to.”

Clearly irritated and even more confused, Mac asked, “What could you possibly hope to gain from all this?”

Pulling her arm from his hold, she opened the door of his vehicle. Before slipping out, she turned back to him, finally answering his question with one simple word—“You.”

With that, she slammed the door behind her and hobbled back to her car. Mac was still sitting there staring at her when she drove away. She didn’t think he understood fully what she was trying to say, butbetween the kiss that she had initiated and her answer to his question, he was surely starting to realize that something had changed. She only hoped that she didn’t break a bone before she gained his full attention. She would be a good girl and not do anything crazy today as he had asked, but she wasn’t finished yet by a long shot. She had gotten under Mac’s skin more in the last twenty-four hours than she had in months . . . since Gwen came along, and she intended to keep going. Just maybe with a helmet and pads the next time.

*   *   *

Mac scowled as he watched Ava limp to her car and drive away. She had him reeling and he didn’t know whether to kiss her or spank some sense into her. Both options held strong appeal. He and Ava seemed to be on the same page with the kiss today . . . oh, fuck, the kiss. Ava finally laying her lips on his, taking the initiative. His cock had already been straining the zipper of his jeans ever since she had removed her shirt. The plain white bra she wore had somehow seemed sexier than every piece of lingerie that Victoria’s Secret had in their whole damn store. It was Ava to a tee. Innocent white cotton, but add in her full breasts straining against the cups, and it was enough to bring him to his knees. Truthfully, he had been grateful that she refused to remove her shorts. He wasn’t sure he could have held out with Ava in front of him in nothing but her panties. As it was, he’d taken a few deep breaths when he went to the kitchen for some Advil for her. He’d also adjusted his throbbing cock, trying to make his state of arousal a little less noticeable.

Now he felt something he didn’t often feel—complete and utter confusion. If asked, he would have said that he knew Ava better than anyone else, including her family. He knew her favorite color, how she liked her coffee, how she loved watching reruns of theGolden Girlsand, when she was feeling particularly daring,Sons of Anarchy. She always cried at every remotely emotional scene in a movie, even an action film. She was addicted to green apple Chap Stick, had a serious hang-up on buying shoes that she rarely ever wore, and sometimes she snored, even if she’d never admit it. He knew that from the many nights he had fallen asleep on her couch after watching a movie.

“Oh, fuck,” he muttered, thinking back to her interest inSons of Anarchy. Maybe she really was attracted to Dominic. Hell, he was probably the closest thing to a biker that she’d ever come across. However, if that was true, why had she kissed him as if she was starving for his taste? How far would things have gone if Gwen hadn’t called when she did?

Oh, great, Gwen . . . truthfully, he’d been so caught up in Ava and Dom being together the night before that he had given little thought to the woman he was supposed to be dating. Moving on had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he had to wonder if he hadn’t just complicated an already impossible situation. Ava had been showing no signs of ever letting him out of the friend zone, and it had become more and more painful to pretend that he was content with that place in her life.

If he was honest, maybe he thought it might shakeher up to see him moving on, but that hadn’t appeared to happen. Sure, she seemed sad when he stopped spending so much time with her, but she didn’t show up at his house naked and professing her undying love. Instead she had given him looks around the office that had made him want to slink off while apologizing for being such a fucking prick to her. The fact of the matter was that time waits for no man, and he was getting older. Sure, he was only in his early thirties, but he was tired of spending his life alone. He fucked when he felt the need, but that was it. There was no one waiting for him at the end of the day, and it had gotten old. He could admit that he wanted a wife and a family sometime in the near future. He didn’t still want to be sitting around ten years from now hoping that Ava would let him love her.

Yeah, it all sounded perfectly reasonable and rational. However, if that was true, why was he so conflicted about his master plan suddenly? Maybe the same reason he had yet to return Gwen’s call. As he pulled into the near-empty parking garage for Danvers and saw Dom pull up beside him, he gnashed his teeth. This wasn’t a good time to see his best friend. If Dom had any sense of self-preservation, he would crawl right back on his Harley and hit the road.

Instead the bastard walked over to his door as he opened it, giving a lazy grin at Mac’s closed-off expression. “Morning, bro. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Mac looked into the other man’s eyes and tried to talk himself out of the unfamiliar feelings of jealousy coursing through his veins. This was Dominic, hisbrother. He’d never hit on Ava. He knew how Mac felt about her. “Morning,” he answered, trying his best to keep his tone light.

“You’re here early,” Dominic said, looking down at his watch. “I thought you were having breakfast with your mom first.”

“Yeah, so did I. I ran into a little problem on the way and had to cancel.”

“What kind of problem?” Dominic asked, looking curious. No doubt, he thought it was something to do with their business.

Walking toward the doors of Danvers, Mac said, “Well, Ava decided to try some sidewalk skating and wrapped herself around the bumper of a parked car not far from my house. I saw the whole damn thing happen on my way.”

Dominic looked surprised before bursting into laughter. “Holy crap, that girl’s just not right, is she?” Before Mac could chew Dominic’s ass out for insulting Ava, even if what he said did appear to have some truth at the moment, Gage came swaggering across the lobby as they walked inside.

“Good morning, ladies. You two need some extra beauty sleep this morning or something?”

Mac grinned as Dominic flipped off their annoying coworker before he could work up the effort. Out of the three of them, Gage was probably the most laid-back. Their employees and every woman within a hundred-mile radius seemed to love his infectious personality. If there was ever any bad news to impart, Gage was nominated to do it. He could tell a woman her hair was flat,her shoes were ugly, and her butt was big and the woman would probably hug his neck and thank him. He was just that good.

Dominic was more of an “it is what it is and fuck you if you don’t like it” kind of guy. And Mac was more of a details man. He liked making things work, making them better. His life mostly revolved around making the rules and seeing that they were enforced. After being in the military, he enjoyed structure and didn’t like it when things didn’t adhere to the norm. That was one reason that Ava’s sudden need to endanger herself doing something crazy was freaking him out. It was out of the normal for her, and he sure as hell didn’t understand it.

Yeah, he, Gage, and Dominic were as different in personality as night and day, but the differences worked well. Between them all, they had every aspect of their business covered. Mac had grown up as an only child, but along with Declan, these were the brothers of his heart. He couldn’t imagine loving a blood relative any more than he loved the men he had served alongside in the marines. They all had a tattoo that said “brotherhood,” and it wasn’t just an inked word to him.

Dominic jabbed Gage in the side as they walked through the door of East Coast Security. “Why are you so damn cheerful this morning? Get laid last night?”

Without missing a beat, Gage dropped into a chair in front of their bank of monitors. “Of course.” Then smirking at them, he added, “Didn’t you?” When they both just frowned in answer, he laughed. “Oh, come on. What’s so difficult about it? You see woman, pickup woman, fuck woman, then repeat. If you two would stop sitting around talking about your feelings and buying tampons, you might actually get lucky. Tell you what, I’ll go out with you both tonight and be your wingman.”

Mac shook his head, then flicked his hand to Dominic. “Go ahead and do it before I kill him.” Gage looked around in confusion, but it was too late. Dominic jerked the chair he was sitting in backward and suddenly his feet were up in the air as he hit the floor.

Dominic smirked, saying, “Thank fuck, I couldn’t listen to another word from this cocky little bastard.”

Always the good sport, Gage started laughing as he rolled out on the floor and to his feet. “All right, have it your way. Don’t say I didn’t try to help a brother out, though.”

They all spent the next few hours running through the security feeds and finalizing assignments for the next week. When a text message buzzed through on his phone, Mac looked down at it distractedly.

DECLAN: Evan’s birthday party at McDonald’s @ 2:00. Be there, asshole.

Mac chuckled, wondering not for the first time if everyone called their friends such flattering names or if it was just them. Maybe something left over from their days in boot camp.

MAC: I hear ya, dickhead. What does the little guy want?

DECLAN: Who the hell knows? The list changes every day. Ask Ava. Ellie gave her the latest list last night. Appreciate you coming. His mom is out of town on her honeymoon and I’m trying to provide a distraction to her being gone, ya know?

MAC: Yeah, man, I hear ya. I’ll make sure Dominic knows. Gage is heading to a customer site this afternoon, so I don’t think he’ll be there. Later, brother.

Mac immediately sent a text to Ava concerning Evan’s toy list.

MAC: Avie, what does Evan want for his birthday . . . ? You feeling okay?

He was starting to worry when it took her almost twenty minutes to answer his text.

AVA: Skylanders. Are you coming to the party? I could pick up something from you and me if you like . . . I’m fine.

Shit, Mac thought, Gage was right. He was turning into a pussy. Why else would he get a big thrill out of giving a joint gift with Ava? His cock was twitching in his pants as if she had said something dirty. Truly pathetic. Before long, he’d start setting his DVR to recordEllen.

MAC: Yeah, thanks, Avie. I’d like that. Need me to pick you up on the way there?

And just like that, Gwen was out of town and he had fallen back into the habit of looking for ways to spend time with Ava. He tapped his fingers on his desk impatiently before her response finally came through.

AVA: That’s okay. Dominic is picking me up on his bike. You know, if you fall off, you should get right back on. Didn’t want my skating accident to scare me off. Thnx, though. See u there.

Mac stalked out to the lobby just in time to see the asshole in question walk out the door, giving him a shit-eating grin as he waved good-bye. “I’m going to kill that fucker,” he snapped to the empty room. It seemed that life was not only shitting on him, but taking a colossal dump. What. The. Fuck?

Chapter Eight

Ava grimaced when she threw her leg over Dominic’s bike. The last thing she felt like doing today was riding a motorcycle after damn near breaking her neck on a busy street that morning, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Luckily, Dominic had been on board when she texted him while talking to Mac. She had enlisted Emma to stop by and pick up the presents she had bought for Evan from her and Mac, since she wasn’t sure if Dominic had anywhere to store them on his bike. Luckily, Emma had left Brant in the car and God willing, he was in the dark about her mode of transportation to the party.

“I hear you’ve been a busy girl this morning,” Dominic yelled over the roar of the bike.

She tried to shake off the embarrassment she felt knowing that someone else knew what a fool she had made out of herself that morning. It couldn’t be helped, though. Dominic was likely to witness even more humiliating moments in her quest to get Mac’s attention if he planned to help her. “Yeah, you could say that. I was going to see if you would help me out, but I didn’thave your number. I had to get it from Declan this morning. By the way, he’s a little suspicious as to why I suddenly wanted to contact you.”

“I’ll bet.” Dominic chuckled, obviously vastly amused by the thought of Declan’s discomfort. What was it with these guys and their need to get under each other’s skin? Of course, when she thought about it, that was exactly what one brother would do to another. “I was hoping that you’d just let the whole skating idea go. I didn’t think you’d be out on the damn sidewalk twelve hours later putting on some roller derby. I’ll give you credit, though, Mac’s nerves were totally frayed over the whole incident.”

Dominic’s words distracted her from the ache in her injured shoulder long enough to ask, “Really? What did he say?”

“It wasn’t so much what he said as how he stomped around the office with a stick up his ass. I mean, more than usual. You’ve got his attention, Blondie. Not that I think you ever really lost it. Maybe you should just leave it at that for a few days before you break a bone.”

Ava smacked his back, shaking her head emphatically. “No, I can’t stop now. I just need some ideas on what to try next.”

Dominic sat quietly for a moment, appearing to ponder her statement before snapping his fingers. “Hey, I got it. How about the new zip line place right in the middle of town? That would be pretty easy to bring Mac by. We’re riding over to North Myrtle Beach tomorrow to talk to a new customer, so we’ll be going right by there.”

Every ache and pain in her body seemed to pick that moment to remind her how stiff and sore she was after the debacle this morning. She didn’t know if she was ready to get back on the horse quite that soon. “Er . . . I don’t know. I was thinking of something later on in the week.”

Dominic rolled the kickstand up on the bike, preparing to set off. “I hate to say this, Blondie, but you might get more results with Gwen gone this weekend. If you wait, she’ll be back in town, and even though I’m already sort of plotting against her, I wouldn’t feel great about her having her face rubbed in it.”

Ava instantly felt guilty about what she was doing. It was obvious from the tone of Dominic’s voice that he genuinely cared for the other woman. It had been far too easy to forget that there was someone else involved in the whole scenario, someone who would be hurt if Ava got what she wanted. “Crap, I’m a horrible person, aren’t I?”

Dominic planted his feet squarely on the ground, turning his head slightly to look at her. “All’s fair in love and war, Blondie. Unfortunately, there has to be a loser. If I thought for a minute that Mac loved Gwen or vice versa, I wouldn’t be helping you regardless of how I feel about her. He may not be able to admit it to himself, but Gwen is just a temporary replacement for you. Mac wants someone in his life and he made it happen. If I know him like I think I do, though, he’s feeling right about now like he’s made a mistake.”

“And Gwen?” Ava asked, wondering why he was so sure she wasn’t in love with Mac.

“If Gwen had serious feelings for Mac, she wouldn’t be watching me around our apartment complex like she does.”

Ava snorted, unable to hold it in. God, was this man vain! “Have a high enough opinion of yourself?”

Rolling his eyes at her tone, he said, “Men just know these things. I’ve busted her for looking at my ass several times, and she got all flustered over it.”

“Okay, so obvious question here. Why don’t you just talk to Mac about the whole thing? I can’t imagine he would ever go out with someone if he knew that you were already interested in her. That’s just not how he is.”

“But I didn’t make the first move, Blondie. He did. I fucked up. He just needs to remember that it’s always been you for him and you need to show him that you finally understand and return those feelings. Hell, why don’t you just talk to him?” At the look of panic on her face at his suggestion, he grinned. “That’s right, isn’t it? Sometimes you’ve got to take the long way around to get to where you need to go. That’s why I’m helping you; you’re my long way to what I want.”

Smiling at him uncertainly, she said, “Um . . . thanks, I think.” Were they both going about this all wrong? Should she just talk to Mac about her feelings? The fear of rejection was enough to make her tremble. She was taking serious chances here—doing crazy, reckless things to get his attention. Why was the risk of breaking her neck so much less scary than saying I love you?

Being a future cat lady seemed a lot simpler than what she was attempting now, that was for sure.

*   *   *

Brant and Emma were standing in the parking lot when they pulled in a few moments later. Emma looked thrilled to see her sitting on the back of a Harley with Dominic between her thighs. Brant just looked confused.

Dominic steadied her as he helped her from his bike. She was grateful for the Tylenol she had taken before leaving home, which kept her aches down to a mild throb. Emma ran over and threw her arms around Ava’s neck in an unusual display of affection. “Holy hotness, I forgot what a stud Dominic is. You looked like a motorcycle queen when you rode in.” Ah, now it made sense. Emma was using the hug to speak to her without the men hearing. “By the way, Brant is about to freak out over the whole thing. I give him thirty minutes before he pulls you aside and starts quoting the crash statistics of motorcycles.”

As if on cue, Brant gave her a frown as Emma pulled away. Dominic said hello to the couple, looking amused at the tense expression on her brother’s face. Emma, thankfully, said something about being hungry and ushered them all inside. It was so funny to Ava to see her ultraserious brother trying to control his instinctive cringe as the noise level assaulted them. She knew that he had rarely spent time in fast food restaurants before Evan and then Emma came along. That was one thing about Brant: he was always family first even if it killed him.

She studied the woman who had stolen her brother’s heart for a few moments, looking for cracks in her veneer. It had been a tough few months for Emma. Hersister had drowned in a surfing accident in Florida and she knew that both she and her family were still trying to deal with the loss. That was one reason she didn’t cut Emma slack at the office. When they were bickering, Emma didn’t have time to be sad. She had those hours each day when she could be her normal sassy, funny self, and truthfully, it was a bright spot for Ava as well.

With Emma leading the way, they pushed through the crowded McDonald’s, making their way to the play area and the rest of their family and friends. As she looked around, Ava spotted Mac sitting in a corner talking to Evan. He smiled as he saw her before frowning when he noticed Dominic behind her. Oh, shit, maybe this hadn’t been the best idea. It would defeat the purpose of trying to get Mac’s attention if he ended up killing Dominic and hating her in the end.

Looking for the world as if it didn’t bother him at all, Dominic walked over to where Mac and Declan were now talking. With Evan back on the playground, she suspected the men were calling each other their usual unflattering nicknames. Dick-measuring contest: check.

The next people to enter the crowded room were Claire and Jason with their daughter, Chrissy, followed closely by Gray and Suzy. Suzy was sipping what looked like a frappé and wrinkling her nose in dismay. Ava walked up saying hello as Suzy said, “Come on, what’s wrong with Chuckie? At least they have pizza there.”

“You hated Chuck E. Cheese.” Gray smiled wryly. “If I remember correctly, you told baby Henry to ask for a Hooter’s party the next time.”

Ava hadn’t seen Nick and Beth come in, but suddenly Nick’s head popped up between Suzy’s and Gray’s. “Henry’s daddy is completely on board with that suggestion.”

Beth shook her head next to her husband. “Go take Henry to play with the other kids, perv.” Everyone laughed as Nick, Gray, Brant, and Jason joined the other men, leaving the women to themselves.

“Thanks for coming, everyone.” Ella sighed. “I know this is the last thing you wanted to do on Sunday, but this is what Evan picked. With Julie away on her honeymoon, we’ve just been trying to distract him.”

Ava looked across the room smiling as Evan let loose a bloodcurdling battle cry before throwing himself on Declan’s back. Evan was the result of a one-night stand between Evan’s mom, Julie, and Declan back when he was in the military. Declan hadn’t found out until last year when he ran into Julie at Danvers. Apparently, Claire and Julie were friends. Julie had tried to track Declan down when she found out she was pregnant, but the military had a strict policy on giving out information on their servicemen. When Julie recognized Declan, she had taken the opportunity and finally told him about Evan. Even though it was a shock, Ava had been proud of the way he had stepped into the role of dad. Like Mac, Declan carried many tough memories from his time in the marines. It had taken the love of Ella and Evan to make him accept that he could have something as normal as a wife and a child. Now they were expecting their second child, which was obvious from Ella’s enormous stomach. Ava had to swallow theurge to beg her to sit down as she bustled around the room and her pregnant belly jiggled alarmingly.

Claire looked to make sure that none of the men was nearby before leaning over to whisper, “So, how’re things going with Mac?”

Before she could answer, Emma chimed in. “You should have seen her pulling up on the back of Dominic’s bike a few minutes ago. I thought Brant would spaz out.”

“Oh my God,” Beth moaned, “I wish I had been here to see that.”

“Me too,” Suzy admitted. On cue, they all looked toward Dominic. “I know he’s not the goal here, but I can’t see anything bad about having that between your legs.” Almost in perfect sync, they all nodded.

“True, dat,” Ella said, causing everyone to laugh. “Sorry. I’ve been around Evan too long. That kid has his own lingo.”

“He is good-looking,” Ava admitted, “but he’s not Mac. I will say, though, he’s damn funny now that I’ve gotten to know him a little bit. G-lo would be crazy to let him get away.” Mouths dropped as Ava told the girls why Dominic was helping her.

“Jeez, that’s something right out ofDallas, isn’t it?” Beth added. “Maybe you should just all get together and swap.”

Claire raised her hand in that cute way that seemed habitual. “Question here. How far are you two willing to go to get Mac and Gwen’s attention? I mean, are you also pretending to be involved now? Mac’s gotta wonder if something is going on there.”

Ava slumped back against the wall behind her,frowning. “I really don’t want to go that far. Mac and Dominic are friends, and I wouldn’t want to change things between them. I know Mac wonders, though. He brought it up earlier . . . right before I kissed him.”

“What!” Every head in the playground turned in their direction when Emma’s shrill voice rang out. Emma winced, and then threw up her hand, waving everyone off. “Sorry. Just a little PMS issue. Nothing to see here.” The kids looked confused at her statement, but the men immediately turned their heads away at that apparently taboo subject. “Why am I just hearing about this?” she whisper-shouted as she glared at Ava.

Ava rolled her eyes before saying, “Maybe because it just happened a few hours ago. Can you not broadcast our conversation to the whole place, please?”

“All right, girls, stop your bickering and spill the details,” Suzy interjected, looking ready to smack some sense into both of them.

Looking around to make sure no one else was listening, Ava told them about initiating the kiss with Mac that morning and about his statement that she belonged to him.

“Oh my God,” Ella moaned, causing her stomach to shudder. “That is so sexy. Did his voice go all deep and growly?” Fanning herself, she said, “I love it when Declan gets all dominant with me. I try to act like I don’t, but I melt when he orders me around.”

They all stopped to stare at the visibly flushed Ella. Looking intrigued, Suzy asked, “Did you just have an orgasm or something? Because it looked that way to me. Just sayin’ . . .”

Ella flushed an even brighter shade of red before brushing her hand over her face. “Maybe a little one.” Looking mortified, she added, “When I went for my checkup this week, the doctor told me to abstain from sex right now because of the Braxton Hicks contractions I’ve been having.”

Ava looked at her brother’s wife in concern. “Are you okay? Are they worried about the baby?”

Ella shook her head, not appearing worried, which helped Ava to relax slightly. “No, they say it’s common. But . . .”

Beth put an arm around Ella, before finishing her friend’s sentence. “You’re so horny you’re about to explode, huh?” Next to them, Claire nodded in understanding. Apparently, along with pregnancy came a huge rush in horniness. Ava would have thought it would be just the opposite, but maybe it was better than eating a jar of pickles every night.

Always the blunt one, Suzy deadpanned, “Well, that sucks. I mean, like, you can’t do anything or just the main event?”

“I’m really not sure,” Ella admitted. “I was too embarrassed to ask for specifics. It doesn’t matter anyway. With the doctor saying that, Declan would cut off his hands before he would touch me down there now. He’s terrified that something will happen. He won’t even let me . . . help him out. I put my hand on his . . . you know last night and he jumped out of bed like I’d just violated him or something. Apparently, he thinks that if I help him come, the baby will explode out of my vagina at the same time.”

Page 7

Everyone started laughing at Ella’s description. Only Ava shifted around uncomfortably. Hearing Ella talking about sex with Declan was a little disturbing. She liked to pretend that both Brant and Declan lived with their wives without actually doing anything sexual. It was right up there with talking about sex and your parents. Of course, Emma was constantly referring to how freaky Brant was in bed. Ava was certain that one day her eardrums would start to bleed and might never stop.

Desperately needing a change of subject, she was relieved when Ella turned to Suzy and asked, “How did the home study go last night?” Ava knew from Emma that Suzy and her husband, Gray, had suffered multiple miscarriages and were now in the process of adopting a child. She remembered everyone wishing Suzy good luck when they’d had lunch together yesterday.

Suzy groaned before putting her hands around her neck as if she were choking herself. “I think it went okay in the end, but it was a long evening.” Looking across the room at Gray, she said, “I love that man, I really do, but I wanted to tape his mouth shut last night.”

“Oh no,” Claire whispered, “not the jokes again.”

“Oh yeah. Like we hadn’t discussed that very thing an hour before.”

“Like dirty jokes?” Ava asked, seeming to be the only one not privy to what Suzy was talking about.

Suzy shook her head, saying, “No, not really. The thing about Gray is that when he gets nervous, he tends to start cracking stupid jokes. Apparently, it runs in thefamily, because his mother says Gray’s father does the same thing. I mean, we’re sitting at the table answering all these serious questions about our views on child-rearing and I swear out of nowhere, he looks at the woman and says, ‘Knock, knock!’ We both just stared at him until the woman put her pen down and asked, ‘Who’s there?’ Then he says, ‘Little Old Lady.’ And then she of course stares him down some more before saying, ‘Little Old Lady who?’ And he says, ‘Wow! I didn’t know you could yodel!’” By this time, everyone was laughing, even Suzy. She gasped out, “I thought I would die, right there on the spot. The woman just looked at Gray like he had two heads, before picking her pen back up and acting like the whole thing never happened.”

“Suz,” Claire said, giggling, “that’s completely adorable. He was probably just trying to loosen everyone up. Although it’s hard to picture Gray doing that, because he’s always so suave.”

Ava, feeling an inexplicable need to defend the man she barely knew, spoke up. “Everyone handles stress in different ways. It sounds like he tries to inject some humor into uncomfortable situations. The jokes probably pop out before he even realizes what he’s doing.”

Smiling at her husband, who was now looking at Suzy with so much love in his warm gaze that Ava was envious, Suzy said softly, “I know. He’s a little unpredictable, but he’s mine.”

Beth bumped shoulders with her sister, saying, “Well, I bet if anything his jokes show that he would be a really good parent. He should get extra points forthat. God knows you need a sense of humor when you have a child.”

Ella pointed to the Skylanders cake sitting on the table behind them and said, “We probably need to get started with the main event. If I don’t get a huge slab of that cake within the next five minutes, I’m not responsible for my actions. At this point, it’s the only thing I can have that will make my eyes roll back in my head.”

Emma snickered as she helped arrange the plates on the table. “Honey, you just grab that thing again tonight and don’t let go. There’s no way that any man can have a woman’s hand on his dick for more than five seconds without losing his mind.”

“Yep,” Beth agreed. “And call your doctor tomorrow to find out if you can have some fun without going all the way.”

They had all been so involved in their conversation that they hadn’t noticed the men moving closer. “Going all the way with what?” Declan asked as he moved up behind Ella.

“With Dominic,” Ella sputtered, “Ava and Dominic.”

Ava’s mouth fell open in shock as Declan’s smile turned to a scowl. Her eyes jerked to Mac, who appeared to have heard the whole thing if his snarl was any indication. Even the usually unflappable Dominic looked surprised. Ella turned to her, looking contrite. Great, now it appeared that Ava was going to have to be the sacrificial lamb to keep Declan from finding out that his wife was horny.

Her brothers were both looking at her as if she were the new town tramp, while Jason, Nick, and Grayseemed to be unusually interested in the playground. Ava figured they were just desperately trying to pretend that they hadn’t heard anything. When Evan bounced up with Chrissy and Henry in tow begging for cake, Ava vowed to herself that he was getting the biggest gift next week that she could carry out of the damn store. He had just saved her from the awkward silence that had fallen over the entire group.

Mac stood across the table during the birthday song and the gift presentation glaring daggers at her. After a while, it started to piss her off. What right did he have to judge her? If she wanted to plan a fake sex date with her fake boyfriend, who was he to object? After all, he was probably having plenty of real sex with his real girlfriend. She hadn’t even set out to make Mac jealous. That was never her goal. But damn it, how dare he stand over there looking so angry over her love life? If not for the fact that Mac and Dominic were best friends, she would walk over there right now and kiss Dominic so hard he’d never recover. Okay, maybe she wouldn’t quite have the nerve to do that, but she’d do something for sure.

Emma walked up to her, forcing her from her heated eye-lock with Mac. “I think Ella rolled you under the bus there. If the big vein throbbing in Mac’s cheek is any indication, though, she might have done you a favor. He looks like he’s gonna combust.” They both glanced back over at Mac, who refused to look away. “Well, anyway, we’re gonna take off now. Brant is just itching to get over here and scold you, so I’m going to drag him out of here so he can have his tantrum in theprivacy of the car. We also promised my parents we’d be back for an early dinner.”

Ava turned to hug Emma, thanking her for intervening with Brant. “Please tell your parents I said hello. I’d love to see them before they go back to Florida.” Emma grabbed her purse and pulled a stiff Brant out the door.

That left one brother, who took the opportunity to move to Ava’s side.

“So, what’s going on with you, sis?”

Trying for her best innocent expression, she said, “Just enjoying the party like everyone else.”

Seeming exasperated, he said, “You know that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s all this with Mac and Dominic? Plus, I saw you on the back of Dom’s bike. Mac’s completely pissed too.”

Ava had finally had enough. Did everyone give Mac a hard time when he had started dating Gwen? Were they worried about her feelings then? A little voice in her head said that she hadn’t professed her love for him the whole time they were such close friends, so it was different, but she was tired of listening to that rational, reasonable voice. She felt that her own family cared more about Mac than her.

So she followed Emma’s lead by grabbing her purse before turning to Declan. “You know what—how about me? Aren’t you my brother? Maybe I could use a little of that support that you seem to be giving to your friend.” Declan flinched at the accusation, and she felt like a complete bitch as she stalked out of McDonald’s only to realize when she stood on the sidewalk that she didn’t have a car. There was no way, though, that shewas going to go back inside after what she knew was her childish exit. She stomped off toward the street, determined to walk home if necessary.

She had only traveled a few yards when she heard the roar of a bike and Dominic pulled up next to her. “Get on, Blondie.” Not in any mood to argue and certainly having no better offers, she awkwardly climbed on the bike, wedging in behind him. For someone who’d never ridden a motorcycle, she was getting rather used to it. Regardless, it’d never be her first choice of transportation, but she didn’t have many options right now. “A little heads-up about the fact that we’re gonna be fucking soon would have been helpful,” he threw over his shoulder before pulling away. She tried to yell a denial at him, but the bike was too noisy for a conversation, so she held it in until he pulled to a stop in her driveway.

After a particularly ugly dismount from the damn bike, she threw her hands on her hips, mad at the world. “Listen, you . . .” Ava inwardly groaned at the completely pathetic comeback. Thankfully, only a small grin pulled at his lips as he held his composure. “I did not say anything to anyone about wanting to do anything of the sort with you.”

Lifting a sarcastic eyebrow, Dominic said, “Come on, babe, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Most women probably feel that way around me.” Looking her up and down in a way that made her breath catch, he added, “Normally, I’d have no problem at all obliging you, but you belong to Mac. So, if you can possibly keep frommentally undressing me while we’re trying to help each other out, that would be great.”

Ava’s mouth dropped at the sheer size of his ego. His confident pose, leaning back on his bike, was the perfect complement to his over-the-top statement. Then she snapped. She had completely had it with the men in her life, and that included the smug asshole sitting in front of her. “You fucking man—” She stood taller thinking how much an insult was with some profanity in it. “I would love nothing better than to wrap my hands around your thick neck and choke you right now!”

Dominic, appearing far from offended, said, “I think you’re just looking for ways to get those hands of yours on me, aren’t you, Blondie?”

She grabbed handfuls of her hair in frustration, trying to control the anger coursing through her body. “You pig! I don’t want my hands anywhere on you, and for your information, I don’t belong to Mac regardless of what either one of you thinks.” Stabbing her chest, she added, “I belong to me, damn it, just to me!”

Dominic stepped away from his bike, walking over to her with a strange expression on his face. It looked almost like pride. Had he missed her whole rant toward him? She was so surprised when he gently took her shoulders in his hands that she stood glued in place. “It feels good, doesn’t it, Blondie?”

Still puzzled, she stood staring into his handsome face before whispering, “What?”

He gave her a lazy grin in return before saying,“Being alive, being mad, and just letting the fuck loose. I’m thinking you don’t do that often.” The look on his face said that he didn’t think she ever did it. “You’re always wound so tight that you’re on the verge of going over the edge. I just gave you a little push today to help you let off some steam. Feel better?”

Ava continued to gawk at him for another moment before she realized that she did feel better. Somehow the weight that usually rested on her shoulders had lessened. The persistent lump in her throat got maybe just a little smaller. She relaxed, releasing a breath. “I guess you’re a shrink now too, huh?”

“Nope, but I’ve certainly been given enough pointers by the military to know how to deal with stress overload. Life can’t always be scripted, Ava, no matter how hard we try. Only fight the big battles that matter and don’t let the little things rip you to pieces.”

“Wow,” she murmured, “that was actually pretty profound.” She looked at Dominic in new admiration. There were more layers to him than she could have imagined. He had intentionally set her off to show her the bigger picture. In that moment, she felt her eyes blur. He was so much like Mac that it was almost like sharing a moment with the man she loved so much.

He cuffed her gently on the shoulder, before throwing a leg back over his bike. “I’ll text you tomorrow when Mac and I are headed back from our meeting rather than on the way there. I think it will work better. Otherwise, he’s likely to lose it and blow off the whole thing, and this is a big one for us.” When she nodded, he added, “You know, you can just stand up there. Youdon’t actually have to go through with it. Mac will freak just from you being there. Another set of bruises really aren’t necessary.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. And, Dominic . . . ?” When he turned back to look at her she said, “Thanks for today. I think I needed that.” He waved a hand in her direction before taking off. With a lighter step, she walked toward her door, feeling for the first time that just maybe she could do this. She could be normal.

Chapter Nine

Mac drove through the streets of downtown Myrtle Beach listening to Dominic run through the highlights of the meeting they had just finished. Neither of them mentioned the whole scene with Ava at McDonald’s the previous day. He hadn’t let it go, though. He fully intended to find out just what in the hell was going on, and he doubted he could keep quiet much longer.

This morning, though, was about their company, and he had needed to keep his shit together. They were in talks with the Oceanix Resort Company to provide security for their luxury flagship hotel. A Sunday meeting had been the idea of the owner, Seth Jackson, as he was going out of town for a week beginning tomorrow morning. There had been some recent theft issues within the hotel, and Jackson suspected it was an inside job. He was extremely unhappy with the progress by his current security company and was interested in hiring East Coast Security thanks in part to a glowing recommendation from Jason Danvers. It would be a big account for them, especially with the possibility of providing security for other Oceanix properties as well.

He was completely absorbed with thoughts of expanding their business when Dominic said, “Hey, isn’t that Ava?” Mac didn’t have time to wonder how his friend could have recognized her from so far away. All he knew was that Dominic was pointing to the zip line ride, and as Mac squinted to look, he saw what appeared to be Ava’s BMW sitting in the parking area in front of the tourist attraction. Without thinking, he did a dangerous swerve across two lanes of traffic before coming to an abrupt stop next to Ava’s car.

Mac jumped out of his Tahoe, looking up the countless steep steps to the top of the zip line. Without a doubt, he recognized the blond hair gleaming in the early-afternoon sun. “Ava!” he yelled as he started climbing the wooden steps. Was it too much to ask for a damn elevator when you needed one? By the time he reached the top, he was glad that he was in good shape; otherwise, he would never have made the climb in such a short time. Ava was already in a harness with her helmet on when he stepped out on the platform. He waved off the kid trying to sell him a ticket as he stalked toward her. Another kid who didn’t look old enough to shave was running through instructions when her eyes landed on him. Trying to appear halfway calm, he asked in an even voice, “What are you doing?”

She didn’t seem particularly surprised to see him when she said, “Um . . . zip-lining?”

Starting forward, he said, “Yeah, not anymore. Let’s get this stuff off you.” When he was just a few steps from reaching her, she stunned him by sticking hertongue out . . . and letting go. He felt his heart plummet to his stomach as she went flying across the wide expanse of space toward a tower in the distance. “Fuck!” He stomped back down the steps and ran into Dominic at the bottom. When the other man opened his mouth, Mac snapped out, “Call a cab. I’m going to be busy for a while.” Without waiting for a reply, he jogged across the field, making it to another set of steep steps. When he saw Ava’s long, tanned legs start the descent from above, he leaned against the building, literally shaking in anger, waiting for her to reach the bottom.

“Hi.” She smiled broadly as she saw him. “Did you see me up there?” Was she fucking kidding him right now? Of course he’d seen her suspended on a cable, just one false move away from snapping her slender neck.

“Let’s go.” Grabbing her hand, he started pulling her toward their cars in the parking area. Even as mad as he was, he was mindful of her smaller stride and adjusted his accordingly. Before she could form a protest, he had opened his passenger door and ushered her inside before walking around to the driver’s side.

*   *   *

As they were pulling away, she finally snapped out of her daze enough to protest, “Mac, where are we going? I can’t leave my car here.” But he ignored her as if she hadn’t spoken as he drove the familiar streets toward her apartment. The first trickle of unease prickled her skin as she wondered if she had pushed him too far this time. Maybe she should have taken Dominic’s adviceand not actually jumped off the zip line platform right in front of Mac. When she saw him standing there, she hadn’t been planning on going through with it. She had taken herself by surprise when she jumped. It was probably the closest she had ever come to peeing her pants as she flew so high above the ground. Afterward, though, God, the rush had been so all-consuming. Her skin still tingled with adrenaline.

She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but when Mac pulled into her parking place and came around to open her door, she was ready to make a smart remark about him having her car picked up before walking off. Instead he once again grabbed her hand and pulled her up a flight of stairs, waiting not very patiently while she opened her front door. Again, she prepared to say good-bye, but he pushed past her and she shut the door behind him, completely puzzled. Oh crap, he was glaring at her. She’d never really understood the meaning of that word before, but she did now. Raking an unsteady hand through his short hair, he said softly, “Avie, I’m so mad at you right now that I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t understand what’s going on in your head.” His eyes looked tormented as he asked, “Baby, are you trying to hurt yourself?”

Unable to bear the pain in his eyes, she rushed over to him, grabbing his hands. “No, Mac, that’s not it.”

Clasping their joined hands against his chest, he asked, “Then why? Why are you suddenly doing all these crazy things that are going to do nothing but get you hurt?”

Ava fought against the desire to put some spacebetween them and steady her nerves. He was staring at her as if he was trying to see inside her head. He was in her space, and normally she wouldn’t allow that to happen. This time, though, she fought herself to deepen the intimacy of the moment, knowing that she needed to start baring her soul if she were ever to have a future with him. “I need to live, Mac. I want to stop being so afraid of everything all the time.”

“Is that what the kiss was about yesterday?” Mac asked softly.

Pulling one hand loose from his hold, she cupped the side of his face, stroking the stubble that was starting to break through his smooth skin. “No, that was because I wanted it.” She could feel his heart gallop beneath the hand that remained against his chest. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Mac, I want us to try . . . you know, to have a real relationship.” Ava was feeling light-headed at her admission, but also proud that she had actually gotten the words out.

Mac looked stunned, opening and closing his mouth a few times before finally saying something. “Avie . . . what exactly do you mean by that?”

“You’re not going to make this easy on me, are you?” She laughed nervously. Mac, on the other hand, didn’t even crack a smile. “Uh . . . what I’m trying to say, apparently not very successfully, is that I’d like for us to go out, you know, like on a date. We don’t have to jump right into a relationship if you don’t want to, but I’d like to start somewhere—with you.”

He dropped her hand and started tugging on his hair as he always did when he was agitated. She wasn’tan expert on men by a long shot, but it didn’t seem like a good sign to her. Maybe she had been expecting him to twirl her in his arms like some kind of romance movie plotline when instead he looked as though he was about to puke. Yeah, it was a real ego booster. With every yank of his hair, her hopes were plummeting. “Why now?” he finally asked. She quelled the urge to look at the floor to see if there was any hair lying there from his tug-of-war with his locks.

When she tried to turn away, thinking it would be easier to talk to the wall than to face him, he grabbed her arm, pulling her almost nose-to-nose, and just waited. “I don’t want to lose you,” she admitted.

Appearing frustrated with her answer, he asked, “Is this because of Gwen and the fact that you and I aren’t spending as much time together?” He looked as if he was in physical pain when he added, “I think you just miss your buddy. I’ll move things around so we can have a drink together like we used to, okay?”

She wanted to reach out and choke the man. He was talking to her as if she were a child who needed to be pacified. Either he wasn’t hearing anything she was saying or he didn’t want to understand. Why were all the men in her life so damn frustrating lately? “That’s not what I meant, Mac! I’m not talking about our friendship or lack of it lately. I want what you’ve wanted from me for years, but I’ve been unable to give you. I want to hold your hand, kiss you, and . . . love you. Not as your friend, though. I’m ready for more.”

Ava jumped when he turned away, pounding his fist in his hands. In contrast his voice was calm when hespoke. “Ava, I gave you every chance to show me that you returned my feelings. I opened my life and my heart to you, but you never gave me anything back in return other than friendship and a stiff arm if I got too close. You twisted me in knots for years. It was torture to be close to you and hell not to be. Finally, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to move on. Ihavemoved on.”

He still refused to turn back around and face her, which made it easier for her to whisper, “But you love me. You always have.”

Mac was quiet for so long that Ava started to wonder if he had heard her. Then he turned back to her, his eyes bleak and distant. “Sometimes it’s not enough. I’m happy now. You were just discussing going all the way with Dominic yesterday, so I’m not even sure why we’re having this conversation.” Opening the door, he stepped outside before adding, “I’ll have one of the guys drop your car off later if you’ll give me the key.”

Feeling a hot tear start to trickle down her cheek, she lowered her head, desperately trying to maintain a shred of her pride as she pulled the key from her pocket and handed it to him. Without another word, he closed the door behind him and Ava collapsed backward into her living room chair. One benefit of never putting herself out there was that she’d never had to feel this sting of rejection. She’d never had the man she loved tell her that he was happy with someone else . . . until now . . . and it hurt so fucking much that she just wanted to curl up into a ball and withdraw into her shell. She had never seriously considered what would happen to herif Mac wasn’t willing to listen to her or if he didn’t return her feelings.

Was she messing up his life—again? Should she walk away now and let him go? She would have thrown a full-blown pity party if not for one thing: he didn’t seem happy. They used to laugh together. He was always smiling when they ran into each other, no matter where it was. Now he just looked so sad or—the last few days—mad whenever they were together. Wouldn’t someone who was in love and happy seem, well . . . happy? Maybe it was a small hope, but it was something to cling to. If she stopped now after one rebuff, then she was right back to doing what she always had done, taking the easy way out, running away before things got tough. She had to be the one to pursue him now. If nothing else, her crazy stunts were getting to him. Maybe tomorrow she’d wear one of the new outfits she had bought at the mall and try the simple laws of attraction before deciding on her next stunt. Hopefully, she could find a new hobby to try that wasn’t horribly scary. It would all be worth it in the end . . . or at least she hoped so.

*   *   *

He was officially in hell and had no idea what to do next. Ava’s admission had him reeling, and he was pretty sure that he wasn’t even fit to drive himself home at this point. He kept hearing her tell him that she wanted a relationship with him . . . wanted to start dating him. He would have given everything he had a few months ago to hear those words coming from herplump pink lips. While his head had been spinning, his cock had been rearing its eager head, raring to make his dreams a reality. He had felt physically sick when he lied to her face, telling her that he was happy now. Maybe he had been getting by and most days succeeding before she had suddenly taken a one eighty the last few days and started throwing out all kinds of mixed signals.

First she was draped all over Dominic on his bike, looking like a fallen angel, and then she was sticking that sweet little tongue of hers in his mouth and sucking his tongue hard enough to make him come in his pants. Next she was back on Dom’s bike and apparently considering sleeping with him. Now suddenly today she wanted to date Mac and move forward. Shit, his mind couldn’t process her behavior fast enough to figure out where she would be next.

Ava had always been a constant in his life. Even if he didn’t like what she did at times, like the fucking one-night stands, she was fairly predictable. It hurt like hell, but he recovered from those because they never seemed to mean anything to her. People had needs and like her, he scratched that itch when it was necessary. Would he have rather they both scratched each other’s? Hell yeah, but she’d never allowed that to happen.

One problem now was that he hadn’t scratched his itch in far too long. He and Gwen had not slept together yet. They’d rounded several bases, but she had made it clear in the beginning that she wanted to start things slow and see where they went. Lately, she had seemed to be running toward third and getting close to homeplate and he found himself at a crossroads he had never encountered before. Gwen wasn’t the type of person to give herself physically without expecting something more in return. She was a good person, and she deserved a commitment. If he slept with her, then things would get complicated in a hurry. He had been comfortable with that fact—knowing that it was the next step to moving on—until what had happened this weekend.

Now things were more up in the air than ever before, and he felt he just needed some space to process things. Unfortunately, he was meeting Gwen for dinner tonight. She was supposed to be back in town in a few hours, and they were having an early meal before she went home. Except the last thing he wanted right now was to see either her or Ava for that matter. He was too twisted up inside.

He couldn’t believe his Avie was finally on the same page that he had been on for years and he’d walked away from her. What could he do, though? His heart had been shredded by her lack of reciprocation for his feelings for so long that he had trouble believing that she meant what she was saying now. Although he didn’t doubt that something had changed in her recently. There was a spark in her eyes that hadn’t been there since she was a teenager . . . since that night so long ago. He felt certain that he and Ava would have been a couple; he’d probably even married her by now if not for what that bastard did to her. It had changed the sweet, funny, outgoing girl he had been patiently waiting on to grow up into a woman who wanted to close out the world.

Page 8

He’d made it his job after leaving the military to spend as much time with her as possible. They’d grown as close as she would allow and sometimes he would catch her looking at him with something akin to longing in her eyes. Those times broke him apart because he felt exactly the same need for her. Then the walls would go back up and she’d bring some random man in for the night and effectively put him back in his place. Thus, the cycle continued for years with only the one kiss that he’d attempted to initiate before he’d officially decided to move on with his life.

Now he had a couple of hours to go home and relax before meeting Gwen. He felt sure the conflict that was raging inside him would be obvious to anyone who cared enough to look. He only hoped that Gwen would attribute it to something other than Ava. She had already questioned the relationship between them more than once. He knew that Gwen would be doubly suspicious after his actions in the parking garage when they’d run into Dominic and Ava as they were leaving on Dom’s bike. Yeah, for someone normally so calm and cool, he seemed to be misfiring at every corner lately.

Chapter Ten

Ava fought the urge to cover her chest with her hands as she walked toward the entrance of Danvers International on Monday morning. She was wearing one of the new outfits that she had recently purchased and it was more formfitting than she was comfortable with. The Indian blue silk wrap dress molded to her slim figure as if it had been made just for her. The neckline, while still being modest enough for work, showed a hint of cleavage. Actually, it took her modest-sized girls, as Emma called them, and made them appear almost voluptuous. The hemline ended just above her knees, showing more tanned leg than she normally displayed.

She had left her long blond hair loose, and it hung down her back in waves. She had been surprised to catch more than one man staring at her as she made her way through the parking garage. When she heard a whistle from behind, she sped up, trying to reach the safety of the building. She was almost to the door when she heard male laughter then a familiar voice. “Ava Stone, what a vision you are this morning.”

Whirling around, she gasped in relief when she sawthe admiring eyes of Mark DeSanto. Mark’s company, the DeSanto Group, had been a partner in some projects with Brant and Ava’s previous company. Through them, Mark was now working on some projects with Jason and Danvers International. One night, after one too many drinks, she had found herself back at Mark’s home. Things had been fine until he had playfully held her arms above her head as he’d kissed her. Ava had completely freaked out then. She had had some small panic attacks before, but that one had been epic. Poor Mark had been on the verge of dialing 911 before finally handing her a bag to breathe in. Afterward, she had explained some of her past trauma and he had understood. Mark didn’t do girlfriends, but in that moment, he had decided to make an allowance for having a woman as strictly a friend. He was a great man but seemed to have just as many issues with intimacy as she did. He didn’t talk about his past, but Ava had a feeling there was a story there.

Thanks to their odd friendship of sorts, she felt herself relax. When you freak out while trying to have sex with someone, there isn’t a lot left that you can do to embarrass yourself in front of him. In a weird way, it had made friendship between a man and woman almost pressure free. “Mark, I didn’t know you were back in town.”

Mark curled an arm around her waist before dropping a kiss on her cheek. Still holding on to her, he pulled back slightly, running his gaze along her from head to toe. “Wow, look at you, my beauty. I was sittingin my car when I saw you walk by. I was obsessed with watching your hips sway before I realized it was you.”

Ava felt her cheeks color slightly at his words. She knew him well enough to know that he actually meant he was staring at her ass and thinking about picking her up before he recognized her and knew it was futile. “Er . . . thanks . . . I think. So, where have you been?” she asked as they stepped into the lobby.

With a wolfish grin, he said, “Ah, you know . . . around. Enough about me, though. Whatever has happened to my little dove? You’ve turned into something far more exotic since I’ve been away, and I’m intrigued.” Before she could answer, the lobby doors opened near them, and she saw Mac striding in. She almost swallowed her tongue when his gaze immediately went to her before passing by and then coming abruptly back. If she had wanted his attention today, she had it. His mouth thinned as he took in the arm that Mark still had curved casually around her waist. She could almost see the internal debate raging within him before he walked over to them.

“Ava, DeSanto.”

Without dropping his arm, Mark extended his other hand, saying, “Mac, good to see you again, buddy.” Ava knew that Mark had joined her brothers and Mac for drinks on several occasions. Mark didn’t seem the type to ever forget a name or a face, and he made no reaction to the frown Mac was directing his way as he returned the handshake. With a devious curl of his lips, Mark pointed to her, then back to Mac. “I was justtelling Ava that she looked beautiful today. Just like a ripe, juicy peach, wouldn’t you agree?”

Almost as if on cue, Ava saw the tic in Mac’s jaw. She’d heard of a nervous tic, but apparently Mac had an angry one. She’d never noticed it before, but he’d also never seemed as angry around her in the past as he was now. She only hoped that was a good sign.

“She always looks beautiful,” Mac said gruffly. Mark looked strangely pleased with Mac’s answer for some reason that she couldn’t fathom. He knew a lot of the history there, so maybe he had decided to try his hand at matchmaker as well. That probably wasn’t a great idea, as she already had help from Dominic. She didn’t want to go from looking desirable to other men to just downright slutty. Her mind had drifted for a moment when Mac jerked her back to the present by asking, “Can I talk to you for a minute, Avie?”

Mark took the cue, giving her arm a brief squeeze before saying, “I have an early meeting with Jason. Ava, let’s have lunch one day this week, okay?” She nodded in agreement before he walked toward the elevators. The receptionist looked thrilled when he said hello as he passed. Mark was a handsome man and the expensive suit that he wore only added to his allure.

“If you’re finished staring, we can grab a coffee on the way up.” She turned to Mac in surprise, noting that he looked miffed. He pointed toward the cafeteria before asking, “Is he why you’re dressed up today?”

She stopped in her tracks and turned to face him. “Of course not. I didn’t even know he was back.”

He looked doubtful for a moment before saying, “For Dominic, then?”

Now he was just starting to annoy her. So maybe her sudden association with Dominic looked a little suspicious. Did he really think that she would profess to have feelings for him yesterday while chasing after every other man in sight? Somehow she had thought that after years of friendship, his opinion of her might be a little higher than that. She stepped right up in his face, with only a few inches separating them, and said through gritted teeth, “Did you maybe think, for even a minute, that I wore this dress today for you? So maybeyouwould think I look pretty?”

Suddenly, Gage appeared over Mac’s shoulder holding a steaming cup of coffee and a donut. He gave her a sexy grin before freezing in place. “Holy shit, Ava?”

Ava wanted to laugh at the look of shock on Gage’s face. Then she had a sobering thought. She must look rather bad every day in her usual attire for the men around her to be so amazed by her appearance today. “Good morning, Gage.”

The other man took a bite of his donut while continuing to look at her in fascination. “Honey, you look hot as the fires of—”

Before he could finish his sentence, Mac turned to glower at him. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

Gage wiggled his eyebrows, saying, “No, actually I don’t, but you might want to consider it.” At Mac’s look of inquiry, Gage added, “Your girlfriend is in the cafeteria. Things look a little intense between you andyour BFF here, so just a suggestion.” He took the last bite of his donut and wiped his hands down his thighs before stepping forward to extend his arm to Ava. “How would you like to make my day and let me escort you to your floor?”

Ava felt a stab to the heart as Mac’s mouth twisted when she reluctantly took Gage’s proffered arm, but he didn’t object. He stood there still as stone and let her walk away so that he could wait for Gwen. She tried to laugh at Gage’s jokes, but her heart just wasn’t in it. When they reached her floor, she turned to smile. “Thanks, Gage. I think I’ve got it from here.”

Instead of letting her walk off, his words stopped her. “What’re you doing, little one?”

“Er . . . going to my office?”

He gave her his usual lazy grin, but she could see a touch of seriousness that wasn’t usually present. “Big picture, sweetheart. You got my boy tied up in knots again.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested.

“Ah, come on, Ava. I like you, I always have. You’re smart, pretty as hell, and a real class act. If not for the fact that Mac would kill me, I’d have asked you out myself. But we all know how he feels about you, and none of us would ever disrespect that. Now, I don’t know what’s going on with Dom and you, but I damn sure know it’s not sexual. Our brotherhood always comes before women.”

Holding up a hand, Ava warned, “I swear if you say something like bros before hoes, I’ll hurt you!”

Gage sputtered, choking on his laughter. “I’m not that crazy, honey. That’s strictly a man-to-man quote there. Sounds damn funny coming from your lips, though. What I’m trying to say is whatever you’ve got going on, it had better be for real. Don’t be trying to go after Mac just because you’re jealous of Gwen.”

Finding Gage’s honesty oddly touching, she felt the need to be straight with him as well. “So I should just let him go with Gwen and give up. Is that what you’re saying?”

Shaking his head, he said, “Well, hell no, that’s not what I’m saying. If you really love Mac, then go after him. Just make sure it’s for all the right reasons. No retreat, little one. Balls to the wall all the way.” At her look of disgust, he added quickly, “Boobs to the wall? That work better for you?”

She put her hand over her mouth, smothering a grin, as he turned to walk off.

She was still grinning when Emma walked up, saying, “Did that hot hunk of male studliness just say ‘boobs to the wall’?” At her nod, Emma moaned. “God, if your brother hadn’t already completely taken care of me this morning, I’d be following that man like a dog in heat right about now.”

Ava looked around quickly, relieved that no one else had witnessed either Gage’s audacious comment or Emma’s sexually charged response. Thankfully, the hallway was clear as she turned and walked to her office door, trailed closely by Emma. “Can you please not talk about Brant and sex? Didn’t we set boundaries about that?”

“I know, I know.” Emma mimicked her words. “I can mention sexual thoughts about your brother on every third Friday of the month. If Ella comes into the office, under no circumstances are we to talk about Declan or Brant naked in any way. That doesn’t cover Gage, though. So, what was that man talking about?”

“You’re impossible,” Ava groaned as she walked through Emma’s office and into her own. She took a few moments to give Emma a run-through on what had happened with Mac yesterday and then this morning.

When she was finished, the other woman looked as though she was deep in thought for a moment before asking, “So, what’s next on your list? By the way, you look awesome in that dress. I bet Mac almost swallowed his tongue when he saw you.”

“Um . . . thanks. I’m not sure what’s next, though. I need to give it some thought.”

Looking excited, Emma ran to her desk and picked up a piece of paper, waving it in the air. “I’ve got ya covered. I saw this on the bulletin board at the grocery store last night and thought of you.”

Ava took the paper from Emma’s hands. Her eyes widened as she read the large print:LEARN TO HANG GLIDE. “Are you crazy! I can’t do that. People end up plastered on the sides of mountains or buildings doing that.”

Emma giggled, holding up a hand and waggling a finger at her. “No, no, that’s the beauty of the whole thing. You don’t actually have to go through with it. You can go for the free seminar they’re offering. Macusually makes his rounds in the evening before he leaves Danvers, so I’ll get Ella or one of the other girls to join me in a fake conversation about your newest hobby so that Mac can overhear. I’ll make it sound really good and dangerous. That should be enough to push him off the deep end without you having to actually break your neck. Whatcha think?”

Staring at her future sister-in-law, Ava felt a grudging admiration for her deception skills. She was both impressive and scary sometimes. Poor Brant, he would never be able to sleep with both eyes closed again. “That’s not bad,” she admitted. “It would be nice to have one new fearless sport that I didn’t really have to fear.”

“Cool!” Emma enthused. “Because I already signed you up online. Your class is on Wednesday at seven. That gives me a couple of days to give Mac the four-one-one on your new death wish.”

Ava grimaced but gave a resigned smile. Even if it seemed crazy, she was at her best when she had some kind of plan in place. Just as a backup, though, she vowed to hit the store at lunch and buy another armful of magazines. She had a feeling that she was going to need new ideas . . . fast.

Chapter Eleven

“I’d love to be your partner, gorgeous. It would be my pleasure to help you get into a harness.” Ava cringed as the man sitting next to her in her hang gliding class continued to spray her with verbal diarrhea. From the moment she had taken her seat an hour ago, he had attached himself firmly to her side, and no matter how much she tried to deter him, nothing seemed to work. He was starting to make her uncomfortable as some of his comments veered toward being sexual and inappropriate.

Aggressive men, especially strangers, tended to throw her back to a dark place in her life, and she felt her pulse quicken as the man trailed a fingertip down her arm. She jerked away, giving him a frown and turning her body sideways to escape the unwanted attention. Just when she thought she would be forced to flee before the class ended, the instructor called an end to the evening and Ava bolted out of her seat. When the man followed her out of the room and into the parking lot, she said over her shoulder, “I’ve got to run, my husband is waiting on me at home.” She hoped that if he thought she was married, he’d back off.

His eyes dropped to her hand. “I don’t see a ring on those pretty fingers. It looks like someone likes the chase.” Moving so that he was blocking her car door, he stared at her breasts, making her feel sick.

“Plea-please,” she stuttered. “I’ve got to go.” She felt herself going into full-blown panic mode. All she could remember was what had happened to her last time, so many years ago, when another man hadn’t taken no for an answer. In the moment, she was reduced to a teenage girl again at the mercy of someone bigger than her. As she was backing away, a cab pulled up to the curb and without thinking, Ava turned and ran toward it. She heard someone yelling behind her, but she didn’t turn.

“You call for a cab, miss?” the driver asked as she huddled in the middle of the backseat.

“Ye-yes.” She gave him her address and sat trembling on the seat. When they pulled up in front of her apartment, she looked around for her purse before realizing that she must have dropped it somewhere. Oh God, she didn’t have money to pay her cab fare. Digging through her pockets, she was relieved that she had stuck her keys in them instead of in her bag. “I . . . eh . . . Could you wait here while I go inside for money? I don’t have my bag.”

The cabdriver looked at her for a moment before giving her a kind smile. “Don’t worry about it. You look like you’ve had a hard night. Just pay it forward sometime.” Ava felt tears well in her eyes at the kindness she saw on his face. She thanked him profusely before turning across the expanse of concrete with herarms hugged tightly around her body. She was lost in her own thoughts when someone grabbed her arm and swung her around. Suddenly, the face that she had run from only moments ago was back and abject terror tore through her. Her head started spinning and it was only a moment later that darkness descended to claim and protect her.

*   *   *

Mac had just opened his door to find Gwen unexpectedly standing on his doorstep when his phone rang. He motioned Gwen inside uneasily, noticing that she seemed to be dressed a littler sexier than usual. “Just a second,” he said while he hit the call button on his phone. “What’s up, Jeff?”

“Mac, I’ve got a problem here, and I don’t know what to do about it.” Jeff worked part-time surveillance for East Coast and was filling in for one of his regular guys this week. He should be in the middle of making rounds to various locations throughout the city now.

“What’s the problem?” he asked, not expecting anything major.

“It’s Miss Stone. She had just arrived home when I got here to check around her place as usual, but then some guy stopped her in the parking lot, and before I could walk over to find out if she needed assistance, she just collapsed. I had the security guard at the complex detain the man until we find out what is going on.”

Fear gripped Mac as he started hunting for his keys on the entryway table. All he could think about was that Ava was hurt and he needed to get to her. “Where is she now?” he growled.

“I carried her into the clubhouse here. The manager called one of the residents who’s a doctor and he’s checking her over. She’s starting to come back around now, but she took a pretty hard lick when she hit the pavement.”

“I’m on my way,” Mac bit out. “Don’t take your eyes off her until I get there, got it?” Without waiting for the other man’s answer, Mac was racing out the door when Gwen grabbed his arm. He tried to shake her off, desperate to reach Ava, but she was stronger than she looked.

“Mac, what’s going on? Has something happened to your mother?”

“No,” he said, not taking any time to elaborate. He was irritated that she was slowing him down and his usual patience and good manners had deserted him. “Listen, Gwen, I’ve got to go. Shut the door behind you.” With those words, he was gone without sparing her another thought.

He made it across town in record time, pulling in front of Ava’s building in less than fifteen minutes, even with the heavy evening traffic. Scanning the area, he saw Jeff waving at him from the doorway of a small building near the swimming pool. As he drew closer, Jeff held the door for him. “She’s in here. She wants to go to her apartment, and I’ve barely been able to keep her here. The doctor thought she should go to the hospital to be checked out from the fall and from passing out, but she refuses. Says she just wants to go home. According to the security guard, the guy who was talking to her before she passed out was from her hang gliding group.Said she dropped her purse in the parking lot, and he was just bringing it back to her. We got his information but let him go. Seemed harmless enough.”

As if sensing he was near, Ava swung her head around from where she was sitting on the couch in the corner, and Mac’s heart slammed as tears welled in her big eyes. What the fuck had happened to her? She got up on shaky legs and propelled herself toward him. His arms opened automatically to embrace her as she clung to him with sobs shaking her small frame. “Oh, baby,” he whispered against the top of her head, “what happened?”

Trembling, she said, “Please take me to my apartment. I want to get out of here.” Without thinking, Mac swung her up in his arms and took the flight of stairs up to her place. He had to set her back on her feet so she could fish the keys from her pocket and open the door. As soon as she was across the threshold, she turned back to him. He picked her up again before settling them both on her couch.

Mac let her breathing quiet and her body relax before asking quietly, “Baby, what happened? Are you sick?” He felt her shake her head against his neck. He rubbed his hand soothingly up and down her back, letting her know that he had her.

“I got scared,” she mumbled against his throat. “I . . . panicked and started to hyperventilate. It just happened so fast. I couldn’t control it.”

Pulling her away from him, Mac searched her eyes. She still looked so damn shaken. Every protective instinct inside him was roaring. Right now, though, sheneeded something to take the edge off. “I’ll be right back, baby. Just sit tight for a minute.” Unwinding her arms from around him, he went into her kitchen and pulled out a bottle of vodka. It would probably burn her windpipe, but it should settle her nerves. He poured a generous measure and took it back to where she was sitting. He wrapped her hands around the glass, helping her raise it to her lips. “Don’t sip, Avie. Throw it back. I know it’s gonna taste like fire, but drink it.” She started gagging on the first sip, but he kept steady pressure on her wrist. After a few more swallows, she had downed the alcohol. He set the glass on the table and pulled her back into his arms. “Better?”

With one last full-body shudder, she nodded and seemed to finally relax against him. “I—I’m sorry. I’m so embarrassed.” She sniffed against his chest.

“Honey, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I need to know what happened, though. What scared you? Did it have something to do with the man who found your purse?” She answered him haltingly about how the man had made her uncomfortable during her meeting and then he’d followed her out into the parking area, keeping her from getting into her car. She’d been shaken enough to take a taxi home and hadn’t noticed that she’d dropped her purse until she had needed to pay the driver. When she’d found the same man had followed her home, she had been so frightened. “Ah, Avie, I’m sorry. I have the guy’s contact information; I can assure you that I’ll be talking to him.He’s never to bother you again. According to Jeff, he was pretty shaken up over the whole thing.”

“I . . . I probably overreacted. I just . . . I felt trapped.”

Mac heard the slight slur to her words and knew that the vodka had hit her system. Her words were softer, almost as if she were talking to herself.

“I’ve never been able to let anyone touch me since that night. I tried once, but I couldn’t go through with it.”

Mac was completely confused by the words coming out of her mouth. Ava had had men come and go from her life for years. Hell, he’d read documentation of it in written form from his surveillance guys. Of course, they didn’t go into details, but when a man came home with Ava and didn’t leave until sometime in the morning, it was easy to fill in the blanks. Why was she bothering to lie about it now? It was a little late in the day to try to protect his feelings. “Avie . . . it’s fine. I know you have a sex life. I understand that you don’t want any attachments with the men you—see.”

Her bottom lip wobbled pitifully as she turned to stare at him. “There haven’t been any men, Mac. I’ve been too messed up for that.”

Her denial was starting to upset him. It was bad enough that he’d been forced to live through it, but he damn well hated to be lied to. This whole conversation was cruel and pointless, and he was hanging on to his temper by a thread. He started shifting her aside, ready to distance himself before he snapped at her. “Whatever, let’s just drop this, okay? Are you feeling better now?”

She clung to his large frame, refusing to move away from him. “Why don’t you believe me? I’m trying to finally tell you how screwed up I really am and you don’t believe me,” she cried, obviously frustrated.

He surged up from the couch, causing her to flop backward. “Why are you doing this?” he shouted. “I know you’ve been involved with other men. You have one-night stands with random men. Does it make me happy? Fuck no! Does it piss me off that you’ll sleep with anyone you pick up in a bar? Hell yes! Have you hurt me repeatedly by doing it, yeah, big fucking yes to that! Can we please get off this sudden Miss Innocent act? Because I’m calling bullshit on it all.”

Red stained her cheeks as she gaped up at him. In their time together, he’d always treated her like spun glass. He didn’t ever lose his shit around her. Both of them needed a time-out to process what had happened. He was seconds from apologizing for being an ass to her after she’d had such an upsetting evening when she spoke, sounding suddenly very sober. “I . . . I didn’t mean to tell you like this. But now that I’ve made such a mess of it, I need to come clean with you. Would you—please sit back down for a minute?”

He opened his mouth to deny her request, wanting to go home and lick his wounds in solitude. The pleading look on her face was his undoing, though. He’d never been able to say no to her, and now was no different. Instead of taking the seat he’d recently vacated next to her, he chose the chair across the coffee table. He knew from the slight drop of her shoulders that he had somehow hurt her feelings. “All right, I’m listening.”

She shifted nervously in her seat, before sighing deeply. “Please let me say everything I need to before you comment. I know you’re going to be angry with me, but I need to get this out.” When he nodded his agreement, she locked her eyes on his. “What I said was the truth, Mac; I haven’t had sex since my attack.” She held her hand up to silence him when he would have spoken up. “You promised you’d listen. Anyway, I know that you think I sleep with men on a regular basis. You believe what I’ve wanted you to believe. I’ve felt safe and secure since you started having your guys check in on me daily. I can’t tell you how much that helped me and how much I appreciate you always watching over me, which makes it even harder for me to say what I’m going to say . . .” Looking guilty, she continued. “I wanted . . . to create the illusion that I’m normal. That I can have sexual relationships without having a panic attack. I didn’t want you to know that I’m always alone. I can’t let men close to me because then they’ll see who I am no matter how much I try to hide it.”

When he started to feel light-headed, Mac realized that he had been holding his breath. He was reeling from the verbal punches that she had just landed against his head and his heart. The only response he was capable of making as she sat looking terrified was “And who are you, Ava?”

She didn’t waver as she answered without hesitation, “I’m a mess, Mac. When I’m in the grocery store, I get scared if a man looks at me for too long. I’ve left my cart in the aisle countless times when my mindconvinces me that there’s a threat. I don’t date because the few times I tried, I had a panic attack and didn’t answer the door when they came to pick me up. I don’t have sex because the one time I tried, I hyperventilated until I passed out. And . . . I don’t let myself get close to you because—I love you so much, and I don’t want you to see how pathetic I really am.”

Mac sat staring at her bent head, feeling as if she had taken a sharp knife and gutted him. If he were to believe what she was telling him, then he had suffered through the fires of hell for years while she hid who she really was away from him. He still couldn’t quite believe that she had perpetrated such an elaborate cover to conceal what was going on in her life. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he closed his eyes in pain as he asked, “Who were the men who came home with you, then? Some of them were here all night. How do you explain that?”

“They were college kids that I paid to spend time with me. They did work around the house, watched movies, or played Monopoly.” She gave an embarrassed laugh before catching herself and falling silent once again. When Mac looked over at her, her head was still lowered and she refused to look at him. Somehow that angered him even further. She had ripped his world apart with her words, and she couldn’t do it to his face.

Page 9

He jumped to his feet, feeling the anger ripple from him in waves. Without thought, he grabbed a glass vase full of flowers from the side table and hurled it against the wall. Ava was finally looking at him, hereyes wide in shock. He wasn’t the type of man prone to displays of anger, but she had just taken years of his life and told him that he had needlessly suffered because of a lie, or in this case, years of lies. He felt shattered at her underlying reasons, but somehow knowing that she’d suffered through years of pain when he could have been there, helping her to heal, slew him further. Mac was a quivering, raging mass of emotion and could no longer trust himself to be near her. He’d never physically hurt her, but he couldn’t guarantee that his words wouldn’t wound her just as deeply. He had to get away; he needed to breathe again.

Mac heard her calling his name almost as if in a tunnel as he stalked out the door and to his car. In the back of his mind, he felt bad for leaving her to clean up the mess he had made with the vase. But he just couldn’t stay there for one minute longer.

*   *   *

Ava stared at the door in shock, expecting Mac to come back. She waited, but it never happened. He was gone and from the look on his face, she wasn’t sure if he was ever coming back to her apartment . . . or to her. She’d never seen him so out of control before. She could handle his anger, even though it was foreign to her, but the hurt. . . . God, the hurt when he looked at her was devastating. Without warning, she felt her stomach start to churn and she bolted from the couch, just making it to the bathroom before the contents of her stomach released. She slumped back to the cool tile of the bathroom floor and stared at the ceiling. Dominic had been right—Mac had lost it when he found out about herruse. Her gentle giant had cracked before her very eyes, and it had been all her doing.

She wasn’t naive; she knew Mac didn’t suffer fools gladly, but somehow she always thought she would be on the other side of that. Now it seemed that he was angry with her more often than not. Of course, the anger over her new reckless hobbies was much different from his anger today. He wasn’t just mad; he was a mass of seething fury. She had the shards of glass and water all over her living room to prove it.

Her anxiety levels spiked as she faced the very real possibility that she had finally driven Mac away for good. Could he ever forgive her for what she had put him through? In trying to hide her pain from him, she had caused him to suffer immeasurably. At the time, she was like a junkie trying to hide her shame from the world. She didn’t want people feeling sorry for her. For months after her rape, her brothers and Mac had treated her as if she were different. She had ceased to be the kooky sister and had turned into someone whom everyone wanted to tiptoe around. Conversations stopped when she walked into a room, and concerned eyes followed her every movement. Her very identity had died that day. In their eyes, she was broken. That impression didn’t change until the day that she’d decided to bury the old Ava under the persona of a new Ava. The new woman was cool, indifferent, something approaching normal. She wasn’t scared of anything, including men. Or so they had all thought. Maybe after worrying about her for so long, they all saw what they wanted to see. Did that make it right? No, even though at the time shethought she was doing what was best for everyone. Now she didn’t even know what choice she had other than to keep doing what she had been this past week. For, as crazy as it sounded, things had been more real with Mac than they had been in years. She only hoped he cared enough now to continue watching over her.

Chapter Twelve

Mac cursed loudly when he pulled into his driveway and saw Gwen’s car still there. He’d been gone for a couple of hours, but she had stayed? He was in a foul mood and his usual diplomacy was shot to hell. He needed to get her out of there—fast. The sound of his door slamming reverberated in the darkness as he stalked toward the driver’s side of her car, intending to send her on her way. He was surprised when the car appeared to be empty. Concern overrode his anger as he looked around the empty expanse of lawn, seeing no sign of movement. He walked up the steps to his deck, intending to grab a flashlight and go check the beach for her. Women liked doing crazy things like walking on the beach at midnight.

“So, you finally made it back. I was starting to think that I wasn’t going to be able to stay awake long enough to satisfy my curiosity tonight.” Mac’s head swung to the rocker in the corner of the porch where he could just barely make out an outline.

“Gwen? What’re you doing here?”

As his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, he could seethat she was rocking lightly back and forth. “Just answering some questions that I had.”

Mac was beyond frustrated with the women in his life by this point. The last thing he wanted or needed was some long, drawn-out cryptic question-and-answer session. He didn’t want to take his anger at Ava out on Gwen, but damn it, he desperately needed some space. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Gwen, I’m sorry. I’m not in the best of moods right now. Let me walk you to your car and we’ll talk tomorrow, yeah?”

Ignoring his attempts to get her to leave, she continued rocking. “It was Ava tonight, right? The reason you rushed out of here like the world was ending?”

“Yes,” he answered warily, not sure where this was going.

“You know, the one thing that really confuses me about you, Mac, is I have no clue why you ever asked me out.”

The same alarm bells that sounded in most men’s heads when women said shit like what Gwen was saying were going off like high-pitched sirens. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was in the mood for a talk about his feelings or not, Gwen was more than prepared to force the issue. He could hear the underlying determination in her voice.Holy fuck.“You’re a beautiful woman, Gwen. Why wouldn’t I be interested?” He cringed when he ended his comment with a question. That was a dumb move.

“Thanks, Mac,” she said softly, “but I don’t think that even applies here. I suspect you’re looking for some meaningless sex to scratch an itch. So what Idon’t understand is what’s made you hold back . . . from the sex part? I’m not the type of woman to sleep with every guy I go out with, but I think I’ve shown you after a few dates that I was interested in something physical between us. I mean, come on, Mac. You’re sexy enough that any woman would want you. I’m just curious to know why you always halted things before they got that far. Your body wanted me—you can’t fake that—but your head took you out of the game every time.”

This was it, Mac thought, the official hellish ending to a hellish evening. After having one woman tell him that she had pretended to be screwing random men for years, he had another asking him why he wasn’t screwing her. His head was throbbing and he just wanted to make some excuse and go inside. He couldn’t do that to Gwen, though. He owed her the truth. Walking closer to her chair, he squatted in front of her, halting the rocking motion of her chair. “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you, Gwen. Believe me, that was never my intention. You’re right; my attraction to you has never been the problem. You know that Ava and I go way back. I’ve had feelings for her for years that she hasn’t returned. I needed to move on with my life. It may not seem like it, but I was slowly doing just that with you until this last week.” When she flinched, he took her hand, nestling it in his larger palms. “No, I haven’t slept with Ava; I don’t want you to think that. There have just been things happening that have shaken me. I don’t know what I’m doing right now and that isn’t fair to you.”

She squeezed his hand back for a moment before leaning forward to trace the curve of his face. “No, it’s not. You’re a good man, Mac. I could see the conflict in your eyes the last few times we’ve been together and I know you have been desperately trying to figure out how to make everyone happy, including me. I don’t want to be your fallback plan, though and that’s clearly what I am.” With a soft laugh she added, “Even though I’ll probably kick myself later because, God, you are a catch, I think we need to move to the friends portion of our relationship and stop trying to make pieces fit together that don’t work.”

Mac looked at her sad smile and felt a pang of regret. He had enjoyed his time with her, but he knew that he had hurt her. Maybe that was why he had held back on having sex. In the back of his mind, he knew he’d never be able to commit and she deserved better than someone sleeping with her and walking away. Hell, she’d deserved better than everything he’d given her during their time together. He stood, pulling her to her feet and into his arms. They hugged for a few moments before he walked her to her car. He dropped a kiss on her cheek and stood watching her taillights as she left. He felt like a bastard as he turned toward his house, because along with sadness he felt relief that he no longer had to pretend to be moving on with his life—because even now, when he was close to hating her, it was always Ava who owned his heart.

Chapter Thirteen

Ava slumped dejectedly in front of her computer. She was searching the activities calendar on the Chamber of Commerce Web site for Myrtle Beach, but her heart wasn’t in it. Mac had been avoiding her for two weeks now and it was starting to really get to her. She knew from a happy Dominic that Mac and Gwen had called it quits and that Dominic was biding his time until he asked her out. She’d pointed out that he almost lost his opportunity by biding his time with her once before, but he let her know quickly that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. She insisted that she deserved some points for coming clean with Mac even if it hadn’t done anything other than drive them farther apart.

When her cell phone rang, she grabbed it eagerly and then felt a surge of disappointment when she saw Declan’s name on the caller ID. Ava tried to keep the depression from her voice when she said, “Hey, Dec.”

“Hey, Av. How are you?”

“Just great,” she answered, and winced at how absurdly high her voice sounded.

“Um—good. That’s good. Hey, listen, I need a favor. Are you busy today?”

Something about his question made her want to laugh hysterically. Ava wanted to ask him if staring at her walls and reading more self-help magazines qualified, but Brant usually handled her sarcasm better than Declan. Brant would just start reeling off suggestions to solve her problems. Declan would throw the phone to Ella and run the other way. “Not so much,” she said instead.

“Cool. Do you think you could pick Ella up today from Suzy’s and stay with her until I get home from Charleston this evening? I’m meeting the rest of the guys there and dropping Ella off to spend the day. Suzy offered to let her stay at her house, but Ellie gets so tired that I know she’ll be ready for bed early.”

“Um . . . sure.” Ava knew that Jason and Gray had recruited some of the others to take a trip to Charleston and look at some new office space there. Truthfully, she thought it was also a chance for the men to have a guys’ day out, under the guise of business. Suzy had invited all the women over for a day on the beach, but Ava had declined, preferring to mope around at home. “I’ll swing by there around four, and we can stop for dinner somewhere on the way home.”

Declan sounded relieved as he said, “Thanks, sis. It pisses Ella off, but I don’t want her being alone right now so close to her due date. She can barely reach the steering wheel in her car over her stomach, so she has no business driving.”

Ava smirked as she heard Ella yelling in thebackground. “You better go take care of that,” she teased her brother as he said a quick good-bye. She loved the man he had grown into. He still had hard edges, but his life revolved around his wife and now his family. She only hoped that someday she’d know how it felt to be a part of something like that.

She was mulling over that thought when she saw a large ad on the local Web site. cALLING ALL BEGINNERS! SET YOURSELF FREE, LEARN TO SURF TODAY! Bingo! There it was, her next hobby. Since the whole disaster with the hang gliding meeting, there was no way she could go back there again. The guy who bothered her might have just been a harmless creep, but she couldn’t take any chances. The idea of setting herself free as the ad promised sounded appealing as well. Also, the training class was located just a mile from Mac’s house, so there was a good likelihood she’d run into him during one of his daily runs along the beach. She quickly filled out the online registration form and clickedSENDbefore she chickened out. She could swim, so what was the worst thing that could happen? Her thoughts went to Emma and the death of her sister, Robyn, in a surfing accident and she froze. Oh God, there was no way she could tell Emma about this. For a moment she was prepared to abandon the idea. It said beginner, though, so surely it was perfectly safe.

*   *   *

It was a little after four when Ava pulled into the driveway of Gray and Suzy’s large, but surprisingly homey, beach house. Mac lived only a few miles down the road, so she was very familiar with this part of town.When she walked up the pathway and rang the doorbell, Suzy opened the door wearing tiny white shorts and a blue halter top. “She’s on the couch asleep,” Suzy said with a grin and gestured toward the living room.

Ava moved through the spacious entryway into a large room with vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. She had visited a few times for various barbecues, but she never failed to gawk at the beauty of the ocean showcased to perfection by the tall windows. “Yeah, Declan said she would want to go to bed early, but I kinda thought it would be after dinner.” Looking around the empty room, she asked, “Is everyone else already gone?”

Suzy nodded. “Beth and her son Henry were the last ones other than Ella, and they left a few minutes ago. I don’t know why Ella didn’t just agree to stay. As you can see, she’s perfectly at home here.”

Ava smothered a smile as Ella snored softly, blissfully unaware of being watched. As she was wondering whether to wake her or not, Ella suddenly jerked before jumping from the couch faster than anyone with a belly her size should have been capable of. Both Ava and Suzy stared at her in surprise. Ella rubbed her back and started chanting, “No, no, no, oh God, no!”

“Els, what the hell?” Suzy asked, looking confused.

“Maybe she’s talking in her sleep,” Ava suggested, staring at her sister-in-law.

“Oh, Suzy, I’m so sorry,” Ella moaned. “I must have peed on your couch.”

At Ella’s words, Suzy and Ava looked to where Ellawas pointing and a puddle of liquid was visible against the tan leather. Ava had to give Suzy points for composure as she only looked mildly green before saying, “Er—it’s okay. I mean shit happens . . . or pee, I guess in this case.”

Ella looked horrified and on the verge of tears before her expression froze. It was startling to see someone go blank in the blink of an eye; hell, it was rather alarming. “Ella?” Ava moved forward, putting her hand on the other woman’s arm. “Is everything all right?”

Then Ella said something that put the fear of God into Ava. “I . . . I think I might be having contractions.”

Suzy jumped forward as if shot from a cannon. “Oh, fuck balls! Your water broke, didn’t it?”

Ella started laughing, causing both Ava and Suzy to panic. “Stop!” Suzy shouted. “My God, don’t move.” Pointing to Ella’s belly, she added, “And try not to wiggle that thing—like at all.”

“But shouldn’t she sit down or lie down?” Ava asked, not knowing what to do next. Suddenly, it hit her, and she pulled her phone from her pocket. “We need to Google it. Google will tell us what to do!”

“Screw that,” Suzy said. “We need nine-one-one. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got no plans to pull a baby from Ella’s vajajay today. Call for helpnow!”

“Guys, guys . . .guys!” Finally, Ella’s yelling got through the argument that Ava and Suzy were having. “You just need to take me to the hospital. This is my first baby, so I’ll be in labor for hours. Now someone please call Declan and then let’s go by my house and get my suitcase.”

Suzy looked at Ava, clearly perplexed. “Why is she so calm?”

“Maybe she’s on something,” Ava whispered back.

When Ella’s stomach rippled alarmingly, they all held their breath. Ella took several deep breaths before suddenly glaring at them. “I’m not on anything, but if you two would get your fingers out of your asses, I might get to the hospital and get some drugs. Now move!”

They gaped at her, before jumping into action. With a hand on each of Ella’s elbows, they helped her down the steps and to Ava’s car. “Um—aren’t your clothes wet?” Ava asked.

“And your point is?” Ella snapped before throwing open the door.

“Never mind,” Ava squeaked out, running around the front of the car and to the driver’s side. Suzy stood next to the car uncertainly. Ava jerked a thumb at the backseat. “Oh, hell no, you’re not getting out of this. Get in!” Suzy bit off a curse before getting in behind Ella.

When they pulled out of the driveway, Ella started sobbing. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I said that. I don’t know what came over me. I was just so angry.”

“It’s fine,” Ava assured her, throwing a look at Suzy in the rearview mirror.

Patting Ella’s shoulder, Suzy said, “Uh-huh, no problem, Els. A little scary there for a moment, but it’s all good.”

When they reached Ella’s house, Ava ran inside first, opening the door while Suzy helped Ella. They quickly found her some dry clothes and located the suitcase forthe hospital. Ava tried to talk a very panicked Declan off the ledge. Finally, Jason took the phone and assured her that they were leaving Charleston now. Ava knew it would take them roughly two hours to make the trip home.

Ella appeared to have one more contraction in the car and they were all digging their fingernails into the leather upholstery before it was over. Ava was extremely grateful to be in the hospital surrounded by professionals who handled stuff like this every day. While she and Suzy struggled to fill out paperwork, Ella was settled into a room to impatiently await the arrival of her husband.

For some reason, Ella was determined to hold off an epidural until things were further advanced. That meant with every contraction that hit, she turned into someone with a full-blown multiple personality disorder. One moment she was her usual sweet, soft-spoken self and the next moment she was slinging insults like a pro. Suzy and Ava had been in the room with her for over an hour, and they were exhausted. When the bedside monitor showed another contraction building, they braced for the onslaught they knew was coming.

“Where in the hell is Declan?” Ella yelled through gritted teeth. “Did either of you even bother to call him?”

“Here we go again,” Suzy said under her breath as she looked at a profusely sweating Ella. “Yes, dear, he’s on his way, remember?”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid, you . . . whore bag!”

Ava couldn’t help it; the look on Suzy’s face was so comical that she burst into laughter. When Ella’s face turned red, Ava knew she was next in line of attack and braced herself.

“What’re you laughing at?” Ella snapped. “You think it’s funny that your dickhead brother did this to me and then didn’t have the balls to show up? I hate your whole family, you . . .”

“Wait for it . . .” Suzy muttered.

“Skinny, skanky skank!”

“Oh my God,” Ava wheezed, turning away before Ella could see her laughing even harder.

“Hey,” Suzy protested, “why didn’t you get called a whore this time? A skank is nowhere near as bad and she even called you skinny. I hate you.”

Ella, looking like a clone of Linda Blair, rose on her elbows and spat at them, “Well, you’re both dirty whores! There, are you happy now!”

Suzy, finally getting wise, turned her back as well, leaving both of them staring at the wall. “Holy crap,” she muttered, “exorcism stat!”

Ava bit off a laugh, saying, “Please stop before she kills us both.”

“No kidding,” Suzy replied. “I had no idea that she would turn into the spawn from hell during childbirth. I mean Beth had a few moments, but nothing like Sybil back there. We should be taping this. Can you imagine how many hits this would get on YouTube?”

“If you’re brave enough to break out your phone, more power to you, girl, but I’ll tell you right now, I’mscared of her.” Ava had just finished her sentence when a Kleenex box bounced off her shoulder and hit the floor.

Suzy eyed it before taking a deep breath. “Time to get back in the trenches. Surely to God this contraction is almost over and the good Ella will return for a few minutes.”

Almost as if on cue, Ella started sobbing. “I’m so sorry, you guys. I don’t know what keeps happening to me. It’s like these things just start pouring out of my mouth and I have no control over them. I can’t believe I . . . I called you—whores.”

“Ah, that’s okay, honey; you’re in a lot of pain,” Ava said diplomatically. In truth, she was torn between laughing and running.

“Yeah, what the forgiving one said,” Suzy answered, looking vastly amused. “Speaking of pain, though, I think we need to get some drugs in your system. That would mellow you right out. Just let Aunt Suzy hit that little call button on the side of your bed and you’ll be flying through la-la land in no time.”

As Suzy was trying to convince Ella to say yes to drugs, the door flew open and Declan ran into the room. Both Ava and Suzy sagged in relief. He gave them both a questioning look as he took in their disheveled appearance. Just then, the machine of doom, as Suzy had started calling it, began registering another contraction and they both looked at Declan in anticipation. Ella was clinging to his hand and he was looking at the machine, asking, “What does that mean?”

Ava walked up to him, patting his shoulder. “Oh, you’ll find out soon enough,” she said before walking toward the door.

Suzy followed closely on her heels, pausing beside Declan as well. “Welcome to the party, pal.” She smirked as she walked over to join Ava.

They both shuddered with laughter when they heard sweet little Ella shout, “Where in the fuck have you been?” When he stuttered out something about being with the guys, things got worse . . . a lot worse. “Oh, really? Well, how nice for you, scumbag. I’m lying here in bed being torn in two and you’re off with the guys whoring around!”

“Ba-baby. Wh-what . . . ?”

Ava and Suzy leaned against the door as it closed behind them, with tears rolling down their cheeks as they shook with laughter. “What is it with her and the whore word?” Ava mused as she tried to process all the insults that had been hurled at her in the last few hours. She might have been offended if the whole thing wasn’t so funny. Having someone usually so sweet and shy yo-yo between begging for forgiveness and calling her some form of slut was actually damn hysterical. Looking at the woman she had bonded with enough today to consider a friend, she added, “Will it sound completely pathetic if I say that this is the most fun I’ve had in years?”

Suzy grinned. “Yeah, maybe so, but I’m right there with you. I hate to admit it, but I kinda hated to leave. Wouldn’t it have been funny to listen to her rip Declan a new one? I mean, the man is probably in there on his knees sobbing. If we’re her whores, what doyou think she’s calling him? I’ve got fifty bucks on bastard, whaddaya think?”

Page 10

Ava considered her answer for a moment before saying, “I’m going with son of a bitch, but I’m not confident enough to bet on it. Man-whore is a possibility if she keeps with her theme of the day.”

They made their way to the waiting room, stopping in surprise when they noticed it was bursting at the seams. Everyone seemed to stand at once when they walked in. Jason, Claire, Beth, Nick, Brant, Emma, and Gray stood looking at them in question. Suzy walked straight into her husband’s arms. “Hey, baby,” he murmured as he kissed her on the lips lightly.

Suzy reached back to hook her arm through Ava’s, pulling her to stand next to them. Ava fought the urge to gawk at the handsome man rubbing his hand absently up and down his wife’s back. Suzy gave Ava what could only be termed an impish grin before looking back at her husband. “So, baby, it looks like you hit the jackpot when you married me.”

Gray gave her an indulgent smile while simply saying, “Indeed I did. Any particular reason why you’re pointing that out right now?”

“Well,” Suzy began dramatically, “it appears that you’re now married to royalty. I’ve been named Queen of the Whores.” Multiple gasps were heard, before a chain reaction of laughter rippled through the room.

Ava had to give Gray credit for looking completely unruffled by Suzy’s statement. Instead he simply lifted an eyebrow and said, “That’s awesome, baby. Who bestowed that title on you?”

Suzy began telling Gray about Ella’s volley of insults. Ava cut in at times, sharing things that Suzy had missed.

“Oh my God.” Claire gulped. “Why was she so hung up on that word? I’ve never even heard her use it.”

Before anyone could answer, an older couple stepped into the room, and Beth whispered, “That’s probably where she got it. I think that was her mother’s favorite name for me not long ago.” Beth turned back toward the couple, putting on a bright but strained look of welcome. “Mr. and Mrs. Webber, how great to see you again.”

As everyone sat awkwardly, waiting for someone else to continue the conversation, Suzy stepped forward and threw an arm around each of Ella’s parents’ shoulders. “Ella is right down the hall in room 301. You should go right in and see her while you can. You’d better hurry!” Her parents turned back through the door and walked off in the direction that Suzy had indicated.

Beth howled with laughter. “You, dear sister, are bad, but I love it. I only hope Ella’s got a few more choice whore words left in her. Can you imagine her mother’s face if she says something like that to them? Priceless!” Ava remembered Declan telling her how Ella’s parents had hated him in the beginning along with all of Ella’s other friends. They had wanted their daughter to stay at home with them until they found someone for her who they felt was suitable husband material. Declan was the last man they wanted for their sweet Ella. In the end, though, Ella had shown them that she was strong enough to make her own decisionsand they’d grudgingly backed off. No doubt, though, they would blame Declan if Ella said anything even close to what she had thrown at her and Suzy. Oh well, her brother was a big boy and more than capable of taking care of himself and his wife if need be.

Chapter Fourteen

Ava had no idea what she hoped to accomplish here, but she found herself rooted to Mac’s doorstep at three a.m. What if he wasn’t alone? For all she knew, he and Gwen had worked things out. She shuffled from one foot to the other, indecision almost choking her as she debated returning to her car and leaving. She had taken a few steps backward when the porch light suddenly lit the area and the door opened. She blinked, trying to adjust to the sudden glare. “Ava?” Mac sounded surprised, clearly not expecting to see her standing there.

“Oh . . . yeah—hi,” she said lamely. She sounded like someone trying to sell Tupperware. Squeezing her eyes shut, she scrambled for something to say. Why was she here again? Oh yeah, that was right, she was now a glutton for punishment and couldn’t help herself.

When she opened her eyes, Mac seemed to be looking behind her as if seeking an answer to what was going on. Her eyes dropped from his face to the naked width of his chest. Oh, holy mother, all those muscles and that smooth skin, just inches away from her . . .When she was able to continue her downward review, she saw that he was wearing only a pair of low-slung boxers that left very little to the imagination. He had the V and the happy trail of hair that every romance novel in the world paid homage to. Ava licked her suddenly dry lips when she noticed the impressive bulge beyond the waistband of his shorts. “Ava . . .Ava!”

Ava’s head jerked up and embarrassment flooded her at being caught ogling his assets. From the smirk on his face, he knew exactly what had been on her mind. “Mmm-hmm?”

“Why are you here? Is something wrong?” His surprise had now turned to concern as he studied her intently. He might be mad at her, but he still cared. She felt a little burst of hope. It wasn’t much, but she’d take any crumbs he threw out at this point.

“Ella had her baby,” she blurted out, finally remembering the reason behind her visit. Not having Mac at the hospital to share the moment had left a void inside her. Mac always came to family functions. He’d been an unofficial member of the family for so long. Brant had assured her that he’d let Mac know that Ella was in labor, but he had something come up and couldn’t make it.

Mac gave her a soft smile. “Yeah, I heard. A little girl.”

“Sofia Grace,” Ava added. Since Ella’s parents argued over which parent or grandparent the baby would be named after, Ella and Declan finally picked two completely neutral names. Her parents weren’t happy about it, but the decision was now officially inked and drying on the birth certificate.

Almost as if in reflex, Mac reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “That’s great. I’ll have to get by to see her tomorrow.”

Mac dropped his arm and they both stood staring at each other. “Mac, I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I miss you . . . so much.”

“Ava—don’t,” he said in a pained voice.

Hearing him sound so tormented was more than she could bear. Without thinking, she covered the short distance between them and wrapped her arms around his big, warm body. He stiffened against her hold, and she just knew he was going to pull away, so she clung tighter, trying to fuse her body with his. “Please, Mac, hold me. We need to get past this. I don’t know how to exist without you in my life.”

Just when she thought he would reject her, she felt a hand against her lower back, then another one curl around her neck. “Oh, Avie,” he whispered against the top of her head as he pulled her into him. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore,” he admitted in a shaky voice.

Her hands moved up and down his muscular back, awed at the sheer strength under her fingertips. She trailed kisses along his chest, loving the feel of him under her tongue. “Let me stay . . . Please, Mac . . . I need you.”

A growl rumbled against the back of his throat as his arms flexed around her. “Ava . . . God, don’t ask me that if you don’t mean it.”

She moved her arms up higher, locking them around his neck. She did a quick, internal check, noting that there were no signs of panic at being this close to aman. Was it always meant to be Mac who finally helped her bury the horrors of her past? She stood on her tiptoes until she could rest her lips against his. She swiped her tongue across his full lower lip, causing him to moan in reaction. Still, he remained immobile, as if waiting to see what she would do next. His lips were parted slightly, allowing her to suck his bottom lip between her lips, nipping it lightly. “Ah . . . fucking hell,” he rasped as his hands dropped to her bottom and he pulled her up against him. Going completely on instinct, she used her hands around his neck as leverage to pull her body upward, wrapping her legs around his lean waist. His hands on her ass added support as he gripped her tightly. “Avie—oh, baby . . .”

In a whirlwind of movement, she founded herself on the other side of the door and holding on tightly as Mac nearly ran through the darkened hallways of his house until he reached the door of what she knew to be his bedroom. “If you’ve changed your mind, you need to say it, baby. I’ll stop at any time, but I’d prefer it to happen now . . . before I have you under me.”

In answer, she ground her lower body against the hard length pressing against her bottom. Locking her eyes with his, she said, “I don’t want to stop.” Then knowing it was okay to be vulnerable with Mac, she admitted, “Just tell me if I do something wrong.”

Mac dropped his forehead against hers, seeming to struggle for words. “Baby . . . there is no right or wrong. Just having your hands on me—finally—is enough to send me to heaven. We’ll take it slow and if anything doesn’t feel right, then we stop, okay?”

Nodding her head against his, she allowed herself the freedom to sprinkle kisses over his handsome face. Being this close to Mac was like discovering a lost Christmas present. She was both giddy with excitement and trembling with the anticipation of the unknown. “I . . . I want to touch you. Can I?”

With a grin, Mac set her gently onto her feet. “Of course, sweetheart. You never need to ask me that.” He pulled her into his bedroom, stopping at the bottom of his king-size bed. Spending as much time as they had together the last few years, they’d both been in each other’s home countless times. She’d been in his bedroom when he gave her the tour of his home and a few other times—well, a lot of times that he wasn’t aware of. Each time she used the restroom across the hall, she crept in here and imagined what it would be like to be in a relationship with him. To sleep in Mac’s arms each night without fear or hesitation. To be normal.

Now she was here, and it was finally happening. He stood still in front of her, with a hand on each side of her waist. In typical Mac style, he was waiting for her . . . always waiting for her, she thought as she reached a tentative hand to his chest, tracing the line of muscles there lightly. Only his increased breathing let her know how her touch affected him. When her exploring fingers reached the nub of his nipple, she tugged on it without thought, knowing how much pleasure she derived from doing the same thing to her own breasts. Mac moaned and his big body shifted from one foot to the other, but still he let her continue. Her hand seemed to have a mind of its own as insteadof journeying upward, toward his handsome face, it skirted slowly downward, tickling through the thin trail of hair on his lower stomach. At this point, she felt that they were both holding their breaths to see what she would do next. This was uncharted territory for her, and she was fascinated. Where was her usual fear of men? She had only gotten this close with Mark, and even then, she had been a mass of nerves before he even removed his shirt. Here she was going down Mac’s happy trail and getting pretty damn close to the impressive package that was tenting the front of his boxers. Did she dare go there?

Her fingernail scrapped his belly button, causing Mac to issue a muffled curse before she had the answer to her question. She was at the waistband of his boxers and this felt like some kind of sexually defining moment. As if sensing her conflict, Mac applied pressure to her hips, trying to ease her back. No, damn it, she wasn’t stepping away this time. Boldly, she dropped her hand suddenly and cupped him through his boxers. He froze and she quickly loosened her grip slightly on his hard length. She had been on the verge of trying to hoist his cock in the air while yelling, “I did it, I did it!” Yeah, dismembering Mac on their first time together might ruin things a bit. She was horrified when her crazy thoughts got the best of her and she started giggling. Maybe a large part of it was just stress relief from the nerves of finally being in this moment, but the timing was certainly less than perfect. “Oh God, I’m sorry,” she gasped out as her body continued to shake in laughter.

When Mac put his hand over hers, trying to pry her fingers loose, she realized that she was still gripping his cock while laughing like a loon. “Avie—baby, I’m really hoping there’s no connection between my dick and your attack of the giggles.”

Releasing his vulnerable flesh, she sagged against him as her laughter died off. Now mortification was starting to set in. How could she have ruined the moment like that? No man wanted to be laughed at during sex, did he? “I’m sorry,” she mumbled against his naked chest. “I don’t know what happened. I was just . . . so relieved that I was . . . you know . . . finally doing this, and then I pictured what would happen if I accidentally pulled your pecker off because I . . . you know . . . tried high-fiving with it . . . like a fist pump and shit. I sound like a nut job, don’t I? I need to just stop talking!”

Mac’s big chest rumbled under her cheek as he too finally found the humor in the situation. “Ah, baby,” he said, chuckling, “while parts of that explanation have my cock wanting to hide for its own safety, I get it.” Pulling back slightly, he stroked the curve of her face before wrapping his big hand around the nape of her neck. “I think this is a . . . major moment in your life. I’ve got you, though, Ava, and this only goes as far as you want it to. You want to hold my cock and laugh because you conquered your fears, then you fucking do it. Appreciate it if you left it intact, though.”

And, just that fast, her emotions jumped to the other end of the spectrum as tears threatened to choke her. Mac . . . her Mac. The man who got her, no matter howcrazy she sounded or acted. Her body should have always belonged to him—and only him. “Make love to me, Mac,” she whispered.

Those words sent her gentle giant into immediate action. He undressed her, worshipping every inch of new skin he exposed with his hands and his lips. When he had her down to just her tiny black lace bra and matching bikini underwear, he stepped back. She looked in surprise at his retreating back until he clicked on one of the bedside lights. She started to protest, feeling too exposed. “I’ve waited my whole life to see you, Avie; I need you to come out of the shadows for me.”

The new light in the room also allowed her to fully see the desire glimmering in his gaze and the unmistakable proof of his arousal straining against his shorts. Mac clearly thought she was beautiful, and in that moment, she finally saw herself through his eyes. Years of shame and revulsion started falling away as she drew strength from him. With less than steady hands, she reached for the front clasp of her bra. She needed to do this, she needed to show him that she could do anything for him . . . she could be strong for him—only him.

Her heavy breasts bounced slightly as she released them from the lace material. Mac stayed locked into place, appearing completely riveted as she dropped the scrap of fabric before lowering her hands to the waistband of her panties. This part was a little harder, but she took a calming breath before lowering her last piece of clothing to the floor and stepping out of it.Oh God, what now?she thought while Mac stood staring at her.She fought the urge to cross her arms over her breasts as she continued to wait . . . and wait. Was she supposed to do something else? Had he changed his mind? Insecurity rose to choke her as her bravado began to falter. She looked at him pleadingly. The fire was still there, burning in his eyes, but his jaw had gone slack, and he was clasping and unclasping his hands in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture. Mac was one of the most confident men she had ever met, even as a teenager. If he was suddenly acting so skittish, there could only be one reason. He didn’t want her after all, but he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She started backing away, not sure where she was going without her clothes, but she had to get out of this room.

Her actions seemed to break Mac out of his temporary coma, and he lurched forward. “Oh, baby, fuck—wait!”

“Mac, it’s okay,” she said, turning her face away. “I shouldn’t have put you on the spot. I know I’m not sexy and I don’t have a big—butt like Gwen.” She was trying to disengage her wrist from his tight grip as she continued to inch away. “We can still be friends. I . . . I’ll pretend this didn’t happen . . . Just, this never happened, right?”

“The hell you will,” Mac roared as he stopped her hasty exit by anchoring her body to his. “What’re you doing? Baby, why would you possibly believe you aren’t the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen, and why in the world would you mention Gwen’s ass?” He seemed genuinely perplexed by his last question.

As she did so often when she was nervous, shestarted stuttering. “I . . . well, I took off my clothes . . . but you . . . I mean, you didn’t . . . do anything. Gwen, G-lo . . . Emma said . . . you like big butts.”

“Whoa,” Mac said, pulling back slightly to take her face between his hands. He kissed the tip of her nose, looking as though he was biting back a grin. “First off, I’ve dreamed of you naked for so damn long that the sight of you in the flesh was something I had to stop and appreciate. Not to mention, if I had touched you immediately, I’d probably have disgraced myself by blowing my load before even removing my boxers.” As he pushed his hips into hers, she felt him, hard as steel, and sucked in a breath. “That’s right, baby, and I’m still close to that line. As for Gwen, Emma, or whoever, the only ass I’m interested in is the one that I’m fixing to fill my hands with. “I should have told you that Gwen and I are no longer seeing each other, but you, um . . . distracted me. It’s just you and me, Avie. there is no one else in this bedroom but us, baby, hear me?”

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