If you leave: the beautifully broken series: book 2

If You LeaveThe Beautifully Broken Series: Book 2Courtney Cole

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To anyone who knows what it’s like to be broken andto everyone who is stronger because of it.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

—Ernest Hemingway

Chapter One

Kabul, Afghanistan

It’s the smell of blood that tells me I’m dreaming.

Or awake.

At this point in my life, it could be either one.

Either way, the smell fills up my nostrils and sticks inside my nose; rusty, metallic and sweet. I know from experience that if I’m sleeping, it’ll still be there when I wake up. A pungent reminder of a night I’ll never get away from.

It’s a hell that I’ll never escape.

Even as I squirm, as I try to wake, a noise penetrates my consciousness, a noise that doesn’t belong in this dream. I know that because I’ve relived the same nightmare a hundred times. This new sound and sensation don’t belong.

It’s the unmistakable crunch of bone in my hand.

My eyes snap open and I look around, registering several things at once.

I am in a whorehouse in Kabul, the same one I always use. The girl’s black hair is grasped tightly in my fingers, wrapped around my left hand. With my right, I clutch her limp hand, her broken fingers splayed at unnatural angles.

I immediately release her fingers and she stares at me, pressing her other hand to her mouth to contain a scream. Tears flood her eyes and spill down her crushed cheek. The blood turns her tears red and I realize something. The smell of blood wasn’t coming from my dream. It was coming from her.

Jesus.

There is blood everywhere, spewing from her nose and her eye, from the entire side of her shattered face, dripping onto her naked olive skin and staining the yellowed sheets of the bed. I gasp and instinctively back away from her in horror, my gut tightening in shock.

“What the fuck?” I manage to choke.

When I move, she cradles her broken hand.

The hand that I broke.

Sweat forms immediately on my brow and my heart pounds wildly.I did this to her. I did this to her. What the fuck have I done? I’m panicked and shaken, but at the same time, my training kicks in and I pull myself together.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her quickly, gathering my wits and stepping toward her, reaching out to assess her injuries. She flinches away, fear apparent in her wild eyes as she turns her shoulders away from me, as if to absorb another blow. My gut sinks at her response, at the knowledge that she is terrified of me.

At the sick realization that she has a reason to be.

I swallow hard, the thick taste of self-revulsion pooling in my mouth.

“Please,” I tell her raggedly, holding my hand out. “Let me see. I won’t hurt you again.”

The prostitute, a slender girl named Niki, trembles but forces herself to remain still as I feel her arms and legs. She sucks in a breath when I get too close to her broken hand, but rigidly allows me to examine everything else. It’s almost odd. I’ve fucked this girl twenty different ways to Sunday, but right now she’s as distant as a stranger. Because she’s terrified.

Of me.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell her, glancing away from her stiff blood-spattered shoulders. “I won’t come here anymore. I was asleep. I didn’t know what I was doing. I won’t ever hurt you again, Niki. I’m sorry.”

One of her eyes is swollen shut, but the other one widens at my words and she grabs me with her good hand. Her fingers are cold and they shake.

“No,” she whispers. “If you stay away, they will beat me for being unpleasing to you. Please. Do not stay away, soldier.”

I stare at her, aghast. “Ijust beat you,” I tell her slowly. “I didn’t mean to, but that’s not an excuse.I just beat you.”

Niki shakes her head, flinching as the movement causes her pain. Guilt floods through me. I hurt an innocent woman. Jesus Christ. I’m a monster.

“You were sleeping,” Niki says adamantly. “You have nightmares when you sleep. It wasn’t you. It was the bad thing.”

“The bad thing?” I ask uncertainly, my eyes frozen on her bloody face. She nods.

“It chases you,” she answers solemnly in her thick Afghan accent. “It is different for everyone, but it chases us all. The bad thing caught you.”

The bad thing caught me.

I swallow hard, trying to dislodge the fucking lump that has formed in my throat.

“I’m sorry, Niki,” I tell her again. “Maybe the bad thing did catch me. I swear I’ll make it right.”

She looks at me curiously, her body tense with pain, but stays motionless as I wrap a sheet around her shoulders and quickly get dressed.

I’m out the door and down the hall within a minute. I ignore the moans and shrieks and thumping noises coming from the other dark, tiny rooms as I make my way down the battered hallway to the office. I know the man in charge sits in there, because I pay him every time I visit Niki.

He looks up at me in surprise when I walk in, but I don’t hesitate. I toss all the money that I have in my wallet onto his desk; all the strange-looking foreign money that is equivalent to hundreds and hundreds of US dollars.

“The girl has pleased me,” I tell him quietly. “I will be returning to the United States, but I’ll miss her. She should be rewarded. Also, she needs a doctor. She’s hurt.”

The man stares up at me, his dark gaze gleaming at the sight of the large pile of money. He nods curtly without speaking, clearly unworried about the bloody girl down the hall as he snakes out dark fingers to scrape the bills toward him.

“She needs a doctor,” I tell him firmly, gritting the words from between my teeth. “Now.”

I slam my fist down on his table, hard, right in the middle of the money.

He looks up at me and wordlessly picks up the phone. He mutters words into it that I can’t understand, then hangs up.

“It is done,” he says shortly, returning his attention to the papers on his desk.

Without another word I slip out into the darkened streets of Kabul, making my way back to my camp outside of town. After I’m back in my tent, I mechanically begin folding things neatly into my knapsack. When my fingers brush against my satellite phone, I pick it up, then punch numbers into it.

“Colonel?” I say when he answers. “You’re gonna need to send another XO out here. I’m coming in.”

The colonel doesn’t ask why. He knows me well enough to trust my judgment calls. If I say I’m coming in from the field, he trusts that there’s a good reason. And of course there is. This is the only life I’ve ever wanted. Only something monumental would force me to walk away from it.

The bad thing caught you.

I’ve never retreated in my life. I’ve never backed away from a fight and I’ve never cowered in fear. Ever. That’s not who I am. But I’ve been in combat long enough to know that when something unbeatable chases you, you do the only thing you can do.

You run.

Chapter Two

Eight Months Later

Chicago

Madison

The music in this club is so loud that it literally thumps in my chest, rattling into my rib cage. What the hell do people see in places like this? I cough from the fog-maker’s smoke, then strain my neck as I try to find my friend Jacey among the hundreds of sweaty people crammed in this room.

The last I saw, she’d disappeared into a dark corner with her loser boyfriend.

“Have you seen my friend? The blonde in the tight red shirt?” I yell to the random guy who has been intently watching me like a creeper for ten minutes. He smiles a piranha grin and inches toward me.

“No,” he yells back. “But we don’t need her for what I have in mind.”

Gross.

“Not now, not ever,” I answer coldly, turning my back on him to search the crush of people on the dance floor. I seriously just want to go home.

How I let Jacey talk me into coming into the city to celebrate her birthday is far, far beyond me right now. I’m supposed to finally meet her brother tonight, but Jacey disappeared with her boyfriend over an hour ago and I haven’t seen them since. My feet hurt, I’m exhausted from working sixty hours this week and I need something to eat before I stab someone’s eye out.

Knowing my limitations, I make my way through the bar and onto the sidewalk out front. I’ve got to get out of here. I’m the one who drove us, but I’m sure Jacey can get a ride home with Peter if she needs to. Her boyfriend can’t hold down a job, but at least he can drive.

I pull my phone out.I’m leaving. Can you catch a ride home with Peter?

As soon as I send the text, I realize that she’s not going to be able to hear it. So who knows when she’ll see it? With a sigh, I decide I have to hunt for her. At least for a few minutes. It wouldn’t be right to just leave her here.

“If I wanted to have public sex with my boyfriend, where would I be?” I muse aloud, trying to think like Jacey as I walk around to the side of the club. Jacey is pathetically bad about PDA. She doesn’t give a flying eff what people think about her. It’s one thing that I both admire about her and get annoyed at.

As I get farther and farther away from the sidewalk and into the shadows, it seems more and more like someplace Jacey and Peter might be getting it on against the building. But at the same time, it also seems like the perfect place to get mugged. It makes me instantly nervous and I glance around quickly.

I’m in an alley now, a narrow wet street that is littered with trash and graffiti. My heels click on the glistening asphalt and I take a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air as the inky darkness swallows me.

Thank God I’m out of that club. That’s my main thought as I walk farther into the darkness, but even still, I reach into my purse and grip my little can of pepper-spray. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

There’s nobody here. That much is apparent as I take in the dirty building, the heaping trash bins and the empty shadows. Well, I’m hoping the shadows are empty, anyway. They seem to be. And I seem to be all alone. While that’s comforting on the one hand, it’s frustrating on the other.

“Jacey, where the fuck are you?” I mutter.

Just as I’m getting ready to give up and head back into the club, I catch sight of something that snags my attention and I stop.

A guy is leaning against the building a little ways from me, half in the darkness, half in the light. Normally that wouldn’t give me pause, especially since I’m in an alley alone. But something about his posture intrigues me, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.


Page 2

I peer at him more closely.

His long legs are crossed gracefully in front of him as he leans against the building. And holy cow, he’s big. He’s got to be a few inches over six feet tall with a broad chest and wide shoulders that narrow into a slender waist.

It’s chilly outside, but he’s not wearing a jacket, only a snug black T-shirt and a pair of perfectly fitting jeans. There isn’t a trace of fat on him. He’s lean and muscled, with short darkish hair. From the side his features are chiseled and from what I can tell, he’s got just the barest hint of stubble along his strong jaw. That’s an instant turn-on for me. It seems so rugged.

And this guy… he definitely seems rugged. Everything about him screams strength and power. That’s an instant turn-on for me too. I decide that this is what intrigues me. He’s like power personified. He holds himself with purpose.

As I watch, he lights up a cigarette and takes a drag, releasing the smoke slowly into the night. His lips are full and masculine and he’s got a cleft in his chin. He’s undeniably sexy. Normally I would stay far away from someone like him, someone sinfully sexy but so… forceful. A guy like that is trouble. That’s for sure.

But I didn’t come to the club tonight to run away.

I came here to hook up. To blow off my responsibilities and be reckless for a night. To act my age. To be someone I’m not.

I eye the guy again.

Normally I would run away from him.

But maybe… just tonight… I won’t.

I don’t have to be me tonight. I can be anyone I want to be because he’ll never see me again.

Just for tonight.

I hesitate, trying to decide what to do.

Then, almost as though my feet have a mind of their own, I take a step toward him. And then another.

*     *     *

Gabriel

My cigarette burns red in the dark as I take a nice long drag. I suck in the city air and the nicotine, then exhale the toxic waste. I know that smokes are bad for me, that they’re shit for my lungs, but I don’t particularly care right now.

From inside the club, I can feel the bass thumping against the wall, vibrating my spine. Inside, women are mindlessly mashing together on the dance floor in time to those drums, waiting for guys like me to take them home and fuck them.

I don’t care about that either. I had to get some fresh air, to get away from the claustrophobic club smoke and sweat before I fucking exploded.

If I were a normal person, I’d be nervous in a dark Chicago alley by myself. I’m not a normal person, though, and the shit I saw in Afghanistan rendered my ability to feel fear impotent.

But not the rest of me.

I shift my weight and adjust the boys and my semi-hard dick. I’d have to be inhuman to not be horny after watching the half-dressed drunk girls rub themselves on anyone who might buy them a drink. I should feel bad about that, but I don’t.

Before my tour overseas, I wouldn’t have been caught dead with any of them. But after being overseas for three years, my penis isn’t listening to reason anymore. It knows what I need.

I sigh and adjust the constraining crotch of my jeans again, before taking another deep breath, then another. My dick starts to calm down and my claustrophobic feelings begin to fade. Thank God. One of the many things I brought home was claustrophobia, and it’s not even the predictable kind where I’m afraid of small spaces. It’s the random kind that can strike at the strangest times, like in the middle of a crowd.

Fuck it.

I toss down the cigarette and grind it out with my heel, then pull out another, lighting it up. It’s a bad habit I brought back with me, along with a couple tattoos and the tendency to wake up in a cold sweat from crazy-ass nightmares.

“You know those will kill you, right?”

I startle to attention, my head snapping around to find the soft voice in the dark.

A woman steps closer and I can’t believe that I didn’t see her approach.

Fucking hell.

We’re the only two people in an isolated alley. How could I have missed her? My senses have seriously dulled since I’ve been back stateside. She’s a tall, willowy bombshell, the kind of woman who stands out in a crowd, let alone an abandoned street.

Blonde hair falls halfway down her back and wide eyes stare at me. Her full lips are pursed, as though she’s trying to decide if it’s safe to be out here. And it’s not, especially for a woman who looks like she does.

“Don’t you know walking alone in a dark Chicago alley is more dangerous than a cigarette?”

I gaze at her levelly as I take another drag on my smoke.

She doesn’t look afraid at all as she shrugs.

“Either of those things has to be better than being crushed to death in there.”

She gestures toward the closed club door in disdain. I examine her again. She’s wearing the right clothes to be here… tight pink leather pants, a cream-colored halter top, equally tight, and a pair of extremely high glittery heels. As I examine her, I notice that she’s not wearing a bra under her light-colored shirt. Somehow that looks out of place on her, as though she doesn’t fit the slutty clothes.

The problem is, the slutty clothes definitely fither, in all the right places. My dick lurches back to life as my gaze skims over her curved hips and tight ass.

“In that case, want one?” I offer her the pack.

She looks surprised, then chuckles, shaking her head.

“No, thanks. I’m already in the alley alone. I think that’s enough of a risk tonight.”

I grin back as I tuck the smokes into my pocket. “But you’re not alone now. I’m here.”

She eyes me and I can see now that her eyes are blue.

“Somehow,” she says thoughtfully, “I doubt I’m any safer.”

I smile. “Somehow, I think you’re right.”

The funny thing is, she doesn’t look worried. In fact, she steps closer and leans against the filthy brick wall beside me. Even under the yellowed dingy streetlight, she looks flawless.

“You’re going to get dirty,” I point out. She looks up at me innocently, her blue eyes wide.

“I like getting dirty sometimes.”

And then she grins a wicked grin.

I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched as all the air whooshes out of my body. A suggestive grin like that on this runway model is too much for my logical thought processes to overcome. My good sense has apparently been hijacked by my hormones.

Tossing the smoke down on the sidewalk, I grind the heel of my boot into it. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but I don’t much care at this point. I’m horny and she’s gorgeous. That’s a perfect arrangement if I ever saw one. The air between us practically crackles with sexual attraction.

I look down at her and as I do, I let myself lean into her. She’s soft and she smells even softer.

“I’m Gabriel.”

“I’m Madison,” she answers. She hasn’t looked away from me even once. She’s definitely into me, although God knows why. I’m as different from her as I can be.

“Why are you here, Madison?” I ask. “You seem a little out of place.”

She suddenly looks self-conscious. “A friend talked me into coming. She thought I needed a night in the big city. But I really wish I was home instead. I’m tired and these heels hurt.”

I smile. Her shoes do look painful as hell. I’ve never understood why women wear shit like that.

“So you don’t live here?”

She shakes her head and as she does, her scent seems to envelop us, blocking out the pungent city smells. Her nearness is intoxicating and I brace myself against it so I don’t get sucked in any further.

“No. I’m from a little lake town, just an hour or so from here. But it seems like a world away. I’m not much of a big-city girl. Not anymore, anyway.”

I actually wouldn’t have guessed that. She’s got that perfectly put-together look that big-city girls have, that perfectly confident attitude.

She nudges me, her slender shoulder bumping mine. “Why are you here? You don’t look like you fit here either. Not here at this club, anyway.”

I cock an eyebrow. “Oh?”

The Underground is a trendy Chicago hot spot. And she’s right. I don’t fit in here. I fit in a Humvee in the hills of Afghanistan. Except I don’t. Not anymore.

Madison notices my expression and flushes.

“No offense. But you’re not wearing skinny jeans and hipster glasses. You seem more like… the football-playing type. Or the outdoors type, maybe.”

I smile down at her. “No offense taken. And Iammore of the outdoors type.”

The gun-toting soldier type, to be exact, but I don’t say that.

Madison looks relieved. “I thought so. So what are you doing in the middle of the city?”

“What makes you think I don’t live here? Can’t I enjoy the outdoors but still live in the city? Or am I too uncool for that?” I raise my eyebrow again.

She flushes yet again. “I’m sorry. I guess I just assumed. Where do you live?”

I grin. “Here. Just call me a fish out of water.”

She shakes her head and swats at me, but I easily catch her wrist and pull her to me instead. It’s a ballsy move, but I’m feeling cocky. She doesn’t resist, which both pleases and surprises me.

She presses against me, looking into my eyes. She looks expectant and nervous, confident yet hesitant. Her tits are smashed against me, making it hard to form coherent thoughts, hard to examine our differences or even her motives. Her softness is the perfect contrast to my hardness. That’s all I can think about.

“To answer your question, I’m here at the club because my little sister thought I should come out and meet someone. To quote her, I’m ‘getting mean as hell and need a piece of ass.’ ”

Madison laughs, a low and husky sound.

“Do you? Need a piece of ass?”

She sounds anxious. And interested.

I hold her gaze.

“More than you can imagine.”

I slide my hands from her back down to her ass, cupping it, squeezing it.

“And I like yours,” I add. I’m being cocky again, but she seems to like it.

She practically purrs as she leans into me even closer, her nose almost touching mine. Her lips hover so close that I can feel them.

She slides her hands down to my ass, gripping it in her fingers.

“Yours will do.”

The air hangs heavy between us, charged and electric. Our eyes are locked and we each pause, waiting for the other to make a move.

The anticipation is killing me.

I take a breath.

Then she takes one.

Her lips graze mine and her mouth smells like mint. And then before I can think another agonizing thought, she covers my mouth with her own.

Finally.

Her tongue slips into my mouth and she tastes like Heaven, like an icy drink of water at the end of a hot day in the desert. Our tongues tangle together and her lips consume mine. I find myself instantly rock-hard and she notices.

She smiles against my lips.

“I think you liked that.”

“What gave me away?” I ask with a grin, wedging myself even tighter against her.

Madison grins back and kisses me again. The second kiss is just as consuming as the first. She seems a little bit desperate, a little bit vulnerable. And a whole lot sexy.

She slides her hands back up my spine, wrapping her arms around my neck. As she does, I run my palms along her sides, feeling the skin of her back beneath my fingers.

“Remember when I told you that my feet hurt? I’d like to take my shoes off.”

I stare down at her. “So take them off.”

“At your place,” she adds.

I inhale sharply as I grip her hips even tighter.

“You don’t have to say that twice.”

And she doesn’t. I grab her hand and practically drag her toward the street, hailing a taxi.

In less than a minute we have tumbled into the back seat of a cab and we’re speeding toward my apartment.

Madison kisses my neck, tugging at my ear with her teeth as her hands skim my chest. “How far away do you live?”

“Not very,” I manage to say. I’m actually proud of myself for being able to speak at this point, since her hand has made its way down to my throbbing crotch. I arch my hips so that I am planted more firmly in her hand.

She licks my neck.

“You taste good,” she whispers.

I can’t take it. I wish she were wearing a skirt, but she’s not. So instead I cup my hand between her legs, moving my thumb in circles against the outside of her pants. She moves against me, moaning.

I thrust my hand into the front of her pants, finding her panties completely soaked.

I slip one finger in.

And then two.

Then I withdraw them both and slowly rake them into my mouth.

Her eyes widen, exhaling a tiny sigh as her fingers clutch me.

“Are you drunk?” I ask her. I don’t know why, but it feels like the right thing to do, to make sure that she’s not.Please say no, I silently urge her as her fingers spin circles around my nipple.

“No.”

Thank Christ. I don’t ask again. Instead I lift her onto my lap and rock her against my body. The friction is both satisfying and frustrating.

Her eyes widen as I thrust against her through her clothes and she reaches her hand down to skim it over my throbbing dick.

“You’re enormous,” she breathes, her eyes widening in both apprehension and appreciation.

I grin.

“When we get to my house, I’m going to fuck you with that,” I tell her in her ear. “And you’re going to like it.”

Her teeth graze my lip, her hips firmly planted against mine. “You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

I smile against her throat before I bite at it.

“Very sure. In fact, let’s make a deal. If you don’t end up screaming my name within the hour, I’ll buy you breakfast in the morning.”

She pauses, looking into my eyes. “Sounds like I win either way.”

“You do,” I manage to say before I plunge my tongue into her mouth again.

In between panting kisses, Madison manages to ask a question.

“I’ve never done this before. How do I know you’re not a crazy person?” she asks in a near whisper.

“You don’t,” I answer, as I pull up her shirt and suck at her bare nipple, my fingers splayed around her slender rib cage. She arches against me and gasps. “But I won’t hurt you.” I pause and look up at her. “And somehow, I get the feeling that you need this as much as I do. Am I right?”


Page 3

Madison catches her breath and nods.

“I do.”

I don’t answer and I don’t ask why. I just wrap my arms around her shoulders and kiss her again.

I’m inhaling her feminine scent, sucking it down, when I’m startled by the squeal of tires. Before I can even see where it’s coming from, instinct raises the hair on the back of my neck. I shove Madison onto the floor of the taxi and duck down on top of her.

The impact is shockingly violent.

There is a crunch of shrieking metal as the door next to me is bashed in and our taxi is flung in a spin across the narrow city street, slamming to a stop against the wall of a nearby building. The car rocks to and fro for a moment, then it is still.

We‘re stunned as we sit for a scant second, trying to wrap our minds around what just happened. Steam and smoke begin to pour out from under the hood of the taxi and the driver stumbles from his seat, opening the door next to Madison.

“Quick, get out,” he says in a heavy Indian accent. “Hurry.”

I all but shove Madison out ahead of me and then pull her away from the crumpled car. There’s a hissing sound coming from the engine, then a strange crackle. I know what it means. I know from the acrid scent of gasoline that’s stinging my nose.

“Move,” I snap to Madison, and her heels click loudly on the pavement as we rush to the curb on the other side of the street. We turn when we reach the sidewalk, just in time to see the cabbie duck for cover as the front end of the cab bursts into flames.

“Oh my God,” Madison breathes, leaning into my arm, shielding her face from the waves of heat that roll over us even from this distance.

As I watch the orange flames licking the black night, as the heated breeze brushes across my face, it triggers a response in me.

I feel the now-familiar anxiety coming on and my gut clenches tighter than a vise grip. I can feel my throat begin to close up as it prevents me from getting a full breath.

Fuck.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I mutter as my chest tightens. Sweat pours down my temples and I wipe at it, squinting as the salt stings my eyes. Madison stares up at me, her eyes filled with concern.

“Are you OK?” she asks, her fingers trembling as they curl around my arm. “We can’t leave. I’m pretty sure the police will want to talk to us.”

She gestures toward the crowd forming, to where cop cars have already begun to congregate. I can see uniformed officers milling about, a couple of them headed our way. Heat from the fire and from my own anxiety begins to overwhelm me.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I mutter again. Her fingers are too tight now, along with everything else… my shirt, my waistband, my shoes. Everything bears down on me in blurs and smells and sounds. I can’t take it. I’m going to fucking explode. Or implode. I yank my arm from her grasp and stalk away.

The last thing I see before everything turns black is the astonished look on Madison’s face, backlit by the red-and-orange glow of the taxi fire.

The bad thing caught you.

Chapter ThreeMadison

For a brief moment I wonder if the shock of the taxi accident has gotten to me or if I’ve somehow fallen down the rabbit hole.

The guy standing in front of me has completely melted down, going from ultra-cocky and excruciatingly sexy to a complete panicky mess in literally thirty seconds.

I don’t even know what to do with him.

I put my hand on his arm, only to have him shake it off. There’s a wild look in his eye as he spins in a circle, hunting for a way out, his gaze darting around the perimeter of skyscrapers that surround us.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he mumbles for the third time. His eyes have a glazed-over look to them that I’ve never seen before. He starts to walk away and I grab his arm again. There’s no way I can let him walk off in this state. I don’t know him, but I feel a responsibility not to do that.

“Wait,” I tell him quietly. “We’re got to give our names to the police and then we can go. Do you have an ID with you?”

He fumbles in his back pocket and hands me his wallet before he sits on the curb, staring off into space, into the flames of the burning cab. After a minute he closes his eyes tightly and drops his head into his hands, as if to shut everything out.

What the hell?

I watch him hesitantly for just a second before I trot off to give the nearest policeman our IDs. The cop asks me for my contact information, then glances over at Gabriel.

“Is he all right? Does he need an ambulance?”

I turn and look. Gabriel is now leaning forward, his head resting on his knees, his eyes still closed.

“I don’t think he’s hurt,” I answer, even though I honestly have no clue. “I think he just drank too much. We were taking the taxi home from the Underground.”

“Smart,” the cop tells me. “There’s too much drunk driving out there. Good to call a cab.”

“Except for when the cab explodes,” I mumble as I put my driver’s license back in my purse. The cop smiles wryly.

“Yeah. Good point. At least no one was hurt.”

I eye Gabriel uncertainly as I head back toward him. I’m not too sure about that. He’s still got his eyes closed, but his foot is tapping wildly against the pavement.

When I reach him, I kneel down in front of him.

“Gabriel, did you hit your head in the crash?”

Because that would make sense. Maybe. Would a concussion cause someone to freak out like this?

Gabriel looks up at me. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I need to go home.” He doesn’t even sound like himself now. He’s speaking in a strange monotone, completely unlike the husky sexy voice he had before.

It’s freaking me out.

I sigh. Because I can’t leave him here.

“Where do you live?”

He just stares at me.

I realize that I’m still holding his wallet, so I open it up and look at his driver’s license. His address isn’t that far away. We’re actually within walking distance. Thank God. I don’t want to get into another cab anytime soon.

Reaching down, I tug on Gabriel’s muscled arm.

“Come on,” I tell him. “I’m walking you home.”

He comes with me without protest, pulling at his collar.

“I can’t breathe,” he mutters to me. I look up at him. His collar isn’t too tight.

“You’re going to be OK,” I assure him.

Although I’m not sure of that myself.

I hold on to his arm, although I don’t know why. After we’ve walked a couple of blocks, Gabriel starts muttering incoherent words under his breath. I can’t understand him, but when I ask him to repeat them, he just looks at me.

This isseriouslyfreaking me out. I highly doubt I should be walking anywhere alone with this guy. Why in the world didn’t I just tell the cop to deal with him? I’m clearly not equipped to handle this situation.

“Is there anyone I can call for you?” I ask him, hoping that there is. He just looks at me again, almost like he doesn’t understand.

When I look into his eyes, they are vacant and glassy.

Like he’s not there.

I gulp hard.

Within a minute we’ve reached his building and I’ve never been so happy. A doorman recognizes Gabriel and greets him by name.

“He’s not himself,” I say by way of explanation, because I’m honestly not sure what to say. “I’m walking him to his condo. Can you tell me his condo number?”

The doorman is actually kind enough to walk us up to the condo and then unlock the door for me with his master keys. I smile at him.

“Thank you,” I tell him simply as I walk Gabriel through the door. Gabriel isn’t speaking at all by this point.

The doorman looks at us.

“If you need anything else, let me know,” he tells me, staring at Gabriel curiously before he takes his leave.

That’s interesting. He’s obviously not used to seeing Gabriel like this, so maybe it really was an injury in the accident. Maybe hedidhit his head. For a second I wonder if I should call an ambulance.

But Gabriel is already walking back toward his bedroom, mumbling. I can see his neatly made bed through the open door. I follow along at his heels and almost run into him when he abruptly stops and slams his fist into the wall. His movement is strong and unexpected and packs enormous power. So much power that he shakes the entire hallway and leaves a hole in the wall.

I gasp and freeze when he turns to me. Fear floods every part of me, every last nook and cranny of me. Because as Gabriel turns his face, a small illogical part of me almost expects to see someone else. Someone terrifying.

My father.

My heart pounds in my ears and memories from long ago flit through my head. Fists and blood and arguments and fear.

But of course Gabriel isn’t my father. And so I force my breathing to slow and my heart to calm down, even as I balance lightly on the balls of my feet, poised to run if I have to. I swallow as Gabriel looks at me.

“I hate this,” he tells me. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes are slightly glazed and his hand is still curled into a fist at his side, his knuckles scraped. I eye it and take a step back, because I know what can happen with a fist.

“You hate what?”

Emotion fills his eyes, something dark, something pained. “I hate the way it controls me.”

I definitely feel panicked now. “What controls you?”

But he doesn’t answer. He just walks into his room and drops onto his bed. He’s calm now, quiet. As though he didn’t just punch a hole in the wall.

As though he didn’t just tell me that something controls him.

What the fuck is wrong with him?

Ignoring my still-racing heart, I bend in front of him.I can do this.

“Does your head hurt?” I ask him. When he shakes his head, I look into his eyes. His pupils seem the same size. I heard somewhere that if you have a concussion, it makes the sizes of your pupils uneven.

Physically he seems fine. No bumps, no scrapes, no bruises. I stare down at him uncertainly. He stares back, but it’s like he’s not even seeing me.

I sigh, long and loud.

“Let’s get your shirt and jeans off, at least,” I finally tell him. “Then I’m going to go.”

He stands up obediently and unbuttons his pants, letting them drop to the floor. When he sits back down, I strip his shirt off over his head, then fold down the covers on his bed.

He immediately drops back into it, curling onto his side and closing his eyes.

As I cover him up, I can’t help but glance at his body. It’s sculpted and cut, and it’s apparent that he works out. A lot. He has the body of a triathlete. Or Olympian. Or Greek god, maybe. He’s got a tattoo on his bicep, a skull wearing a beret over a pair of crossed swords. Words are scrolled above and below it. “Death Before Dishonor.”

Hmm. Where would he get that? Is he a marine, maybe? He doesn’t have a marine haircut, though.

I sigh again. This whole turn of events is so unfortunate. If I was gonna have a one-night stand, this was clearly the guy to do it with. He’s freaking hot.

At this exact moment he moans and thrashes, throwing off the covers as he mutters into his pillow.

He’s also apparently crazy becausesomething controls him. God. Just my luck. I meet a hot guy who hears voices or some shit.Orhe hit his head and he’s just delirious.

I shake my head as I pick up the covers and pull them back up over him.

I take in his clenched jaw and furrowed brow. One part of me wants to call an ambulance to be on the safe side. But another part of me thinks it’s not my place to do that, especially since I don’t know if he needs it. I don’t even know if he has insurance.

I honestly just don’t know what to do.

Finally I decide that I’ll hang around for a just a little while, to see if he gets any worse.

It’s the least I can do. I wouldn’t feel right otherwise. If he wakes up and acts dangerous, I can be out of here in half a minute.

I find the bathroom so that I can pee and it is surprisingly clean for a guy’s bathroom. It’s decorated in various shades of gray, even a gray-tiled floor. There’s no evidence whatsoever of a woman’s touch, so he must be unattached. Or at the very least unmarried. At least he’s not a scumbag like the married guys who troll the clubs for a piece of ass.

Out of curiosity I open the medicine cabinet. Q-tips, razor, razor blades, shaving cream, and a bottle of sleeping pills with his name on them. There’s nothing that would suggest that he’s crazy. There’s no psychotropic prescription pills or anything.

That’s good, right?

I walk back out into the dining area, looking around with interest. Everything is neat, modern, masculine. On one wall is a mahogany case, as tall as I am. It’s so shallow that it can’t hold much, so it piques my interest. I open it and suck in my breath at the neatly lined-up guns facing me.

Holy shit. Is he expecting WWIII? Who in the world would have this many guns? He’s crazy after all. As I’m backing away from it, unreasonably afraid of the guns, a certificate catches my eye. It’s lying on a short stack of paper at the end of the black-and-white granite kitchen counter.

I stop and look at it and find that it is actually a diploma, issued a few years ago by the United States Army Ranger School, and it’s got his name on it.

Gabriel is a Ranger. Or hewasone. One or the other. Either way, that explains the amazingly cut body. And the tattoo. And the guns.Thank God. I feel an incredible amount of relief right now… apparently I’m not in the home of a psychopath.

Unless he was kicked out for being crazy, which seems like a real possibility at the moment.

Yikes. I’m suddenly incredibly uncomfortable being here.

I walk quickly back down to his bedroom, which is decorated just like the rest of his house—gray tones, dark wood, masculine.

He’s still sleeping and he’s no longer muttering. I stare down at him for a second, watching him breathe.

He seems fine now.

Fine enough for me to leave him alone without feeling guilty, anyway.

Before I can rethink it I’m out the door, down the stairs and on the street again, breathing in the cool night air. When the doorman waves at me, I walk over to him.


Page 4

“Gabriel isn’t feeling well,” I tell him. “I think he’ll be OK, but maybe someone should check on him later. If you know anyone to call, that would be great.”

The doorman nods and assures me that he’ll take care of it.

His assurance makes me feel slightly better, but I still feel like I’ve been bitch-slapped by tonight. It’s all been so bizarre.

But that’s OK. It’s over now. I just have to make my way back to the club, get my car, and then leave all this weirdness behind me. In a few minutes the crazy hot guy will be a distant memory.

*     *     *

Gabriel

I wake up in a cold sweat.

I’m not sure where I am.

This isn’t unusual, so I force my breathing to slow, to regulate. I need to gain my bearings.

I glance around, at the gray walls of my stark bedroom, at the white ceiling, at the familiar ceiling fan with the blades that look like large wicker leaves.

I’m in my apartment. In my bed. One glance at the clock tells me that four hours have passed since the last time I was conscious.

The problem is, I have no idea how I fucking got here.

My hands are shaky as I reach for the glass of water on my bedside table, swirling the water inside the glass as I force myself to calm, as I trynotto remember the nightmare that woke me. I take a gulp and force the blurs of reds and blacks out of my head, even though I know from experience they are unwilling to go.

Darkness and blood.

These are two things that will apparently always haunt me. I doubt I’ll ever get a full night’s rest, or that I’ll ever feel comfortable in the dark again.

I slump against the pillows, then startle as I remember Madison.

The beautiful girl from the club.

We were on our way here when we were in a car accident. I hold up my hands and look at them, barely able to see them in the dim light streaming through the window. I seem to be fine, nothing on my body hurts, so apparently we weren’t injured. OrIwasn’t, at least.

I honestly don’t know about Madison. There’s no possible way I can because I don’t even know how I made it home. I hope she’s all right. But I don’t fucking know. Everything is a black void. All I know for sure is that I’m alone now.

I left Madison there, standing next to the twisted, burning wreck of our taxi. Even though I can’t recall much else, I remember the stricken look on her face as she realized that I was leaving.

I’m not sure if I’m ashamed of myself or relieved. She was pretty fucking amazing. And pretty fucking hot. But there’s no way she should get mixed up with someone like me, even for only one night.Especiallyfor only one night. I might look normal, but I’m far from it.

I think back to Madison’s question in the cab.

How do I know you’re not a crazy person?

I almost smile grimly in the dark.

I’m not crazy… exactly. The army doctors say I just need time. They call it PTSD. Posttraumatic stress disorder. I call it something else entirely: fucked up.

Chapter FourMadison

I open my bleary eyes, not exactly sure what woke me from my dead sleep.

The lake crashes against the shore outside, but that’s not it. I’m used to that sound since I hear it every night. The rain is slanting against my bedroom windows, but that’s not it either. As I gaze at the ceiling, my phone buzzes, vibrating from my nightstand with a text message.

Ah, that’s it. Mystery solved.

I rub my eyes, glare at the clock (which surely must be wrong because there’s no way it’s that late), then grab the stupid phone.

Where are u? Where did you go last night?

Staring at the words, I cringe with guilt.

Craaaaaap.

Jacey. The friend I left at the Underground last night, the friend who just happens to work for me. She’s the best waitress I’ve got, mainly because she’s just the right mix of charm and flirtation. She’s also the best friend I’ve got, mainly because I don’t get close to that many people.

I never found her last night and then I completely forgot about her… because I was distracted. My distraction flashes through my head, a vision of Gabriel’s face and muscled body, and my cheeks flush. I quickly put him out of my mind and turn back to my phone.

I’m a bad friend, I text her back simply.I’m sorry.

Where did you go????

Apparently I’m not going to get off that easily. I sigh.

Remember when u said I needed to get laid? Well, I almost did. But didn’t. So I came home alone instead. Did you just go home with Peter? I would’ve called, but I knew you wouldn’t hear your phone.

Gabriel’s face pops unbidden into my head again. The look on his face while we watched that taxi burn was indescribable. Tortured, almost. But that sounds stupid to say.

Obviously I was in shock too. It’s not every day that you get nailed in an intersection and then your taxi explodes into flames. So of course I was disturbed.

But not to the degree that Gabriel was. For some reason my heart twinges just thinking about it, but I ignore it. I don’t know him and there’s no use wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He’s irrelevant now. I force him out of my thoughts and wait for Jacey to reply.

It only takes her a second.

You should definitely be sorry. I was almost worried. And why didn’t u get some??? Any man would give his left nut to take you home. I’m pretty sure I hate you for that.

I have to smile. Jacey wasn’t worried. I’m sure of it. She probably didn’t even realize I was gone until it was time to go home.

Long story, I answer.

One beat passes and then she replies.

K. My brother never showed up last night, but he’s coming to the Hill tonight to bring me my bday gift. You can meet him then.

I smile, which hurts my pounding head. I’m glad she mentioned it. I’d forgotten it was her birthday. Maybe I really am a bad friend.

Fine, I tell her.You’re not going to let up until I meet him, I know. And I’m bringing you a birthday cupcake.

One pause, then an answer.

My diet doesn’t thank you. But I do!

I toss my phone onto the foot of the bed and settle back into my pillow for a second. My head doesn’t hurt because of drinking. I only had one drink last night. It’s pounding because of lack of sleep. I didn’t get in until four thirty a.m. And that’s very unlike me. I glance at the clock again.

Nine a.m.

Normally I would already be at my restaurant, the Hill, by now. But I’m dying from sleep deprivation. If I don’t consume a massive amount of caffeine, I might murder someone later.

I throw the covers back on my little double bed, the same one that I had all through high school. I barely spare a glance at the walls covered in old posters and high school news articles. I inherited my childhood home a couple of years ago. One of these days I need to get off my ass and clean this room out.

I’m not going to worry about it today, though.

Today I just need coffee.

I pad down the long hall to the kitchen, where I start the coffee and make a frozen burrito. I sit eating it in my underwear, something I can do since I live alone. My eating habits are shit, which is ironic since I own a restaurant, something else I inherited.

After two cups of coffee loaded with sugar and cream, I finally feel human again. I take a quick shower, twist my hair into a sloppy bun and throw on a pair of capris, a polo and a sweater before I grab one more cup of coffee on my way out the door.

I button my sweater up as I jab at the button that lowers the top on my convertible, my one luxury. Driving with the wind in my hair is the only freedom I really get to experience and since the spring rain has stopped for a minute, I can ride with the top down today.

I shift into gear and back out of my driveway, starting down the narrow road that winds along Lake Michigan. It’s a fun little road and I used to love driving it, back before it killed my parents.

Today the morning sun is bright and the ground is wet from rain. As the light rebounds from the misty surface of the lake and directly onto the glass of my windshield, I squint while I reach for the volume on my car stereo. The ridged knob slides in my fingers as I crank it up.

I almost sigh aloud. That’s better. There’s nothing like coffee and loud music to jar me from sleepiness. I punch at the button to change the satellite radio station as I glance up into the sun.

The light is in my eyes, bright and sharp.

I blink, but before I can really refocus, I realize exactly where I am. I’m coming up way too fast on a hairpin curve.

Fuck.

I gasp and yank on the wheel, spilling hot coffee between my legs as my car veers sharply from the road. Everything seems to happen in slow motion as my car careens into the ditch, skidding sideways at an unnatural angle toward the beach below.

I’m almost frozen, blinded by the sun and completely at the mercy of Newton’s laws of motion as my car slides through the mud, the wet grass hitting it in a thumping hiss as the bottom of the hill rushes to meet me.

I’m at such an unnatural angle and skidding so fast that I’m afraid for a second that the car is going to roll, but it doesn’t. Instead it slams to an unceremonious stop at the bottom, the wheels halfway buried in the wet sand of the beach. I’m flustered as I try to take deep breaths, yet somehow remain breathless as I sit frozen in shock.

Holy shit. What the hell just happened? Was I seriously in my second car accident in as many days?

My hands shake as I look around. I didn’t hit anyone or anything.

I’m not hurt.

I’m not hurt.

I chant this silently to myself as I look around. I’m at the bottom of the incline leading up to the road, in the middle of rocks and grass and sand. I’m so stupid. I’ve driven this road a thousand times. I knew better.

Even though my hands are shaking and I can’t breathe, everything’s fine. I’m fine. My car is fine. I’m not my parents. Unlike them, I didn’t die. There is no broken glass or blood.I’m fine.

I think.

I open the door and step directly down into calf-deep mud.

Hell. I cringe as I pull my foot back up, glancing at my mud-covered paisley Jimmy Choo wedge. Shoes are my weakness and this one, which had been practically brand-new, is now ruined.

Efffffff.

As if that’s not bad enough, I’m surrounded by mud, a result of last night’s thunderstorm. I can’t get out to check my car, but from where I can see, the left front wheel is bent under. I have no idea if it’s even drivable.

With a scowl I press the accelerator and attempt to drive back up the incline, but my car won’t budge. The bent wheel won’t even turn.

I’m stuck. Not just stuck, but firmly and completely stuck.

“Fuck.”

My head drops to my steering wheel as my fingers reach for my cell phone.

*     *     *

When my sister comes to my rescue twenty minutes later, she rushes to get to me, picking her way down the wet hill. Her descent isn’t graceful.

“I’m fine, Mila. Go back up!” I lean out my window and call out to her. “You’re going to fall and break something, preggo!”

She scowls at me as she walks toward the car, stopping where the mud pools start.

“Oh, God. Not you too. Pax will barely let me lift a finger to do anything. You’re a woman. You should know better. I’m pregnant, not an invalid.”

I shake my head as I take off my shoes and grab my purse. As carefully as I can, I step from the car, instantly sinking ankle-deep in the mud. I slam my car door closed hard.

“Your husband just wants to take care of you,” I remind her grumpily as I slog through the mud toward her.

At seven months pregnant, Mila has that mythical glow about her that few pregnant women actually get. In fact, pregnancy truly agrees with her. She’s always been gorgeous, but now she literally glows. Her long dark hair is lush and shiny, her cheeks pink and flushed, and her skin flawless.

“I can’t believe you look so good,” I grumble as I eye her tiny baby bump. “It’s sickening. You’ve barely gained any weight at all.”

She holds out her hand to help me over a rock and laughs.

“What? You want me to look hideous?”

“Maybe,” I answer with a mock scowl as we carefully make our way to the top of the hill to where Mila’s car awaits. “It’s not fair that you’re prettier than me even while you’re pregnant. Big sisters are always supposed to be hotter. It’s a law of nature. I didn’t make the rules, Mila, but we should definitely follow them. Try to gain a few pounds.”

She laughs again and rolls her eyes as we buckle ourselves in.

“You’re crazy, Mad. You’re the model in our family. The only things I have that you don’t are bigger boobs. And you can’t have those.”

“Whatever,” I mutter as I flip the visor down and look at myself. “I’m not a model anymore.”

I have mud splatters on my forehead. And mud caked almost up to my knees. It drips onto the floor and I sigh.

“I’m sorry. You’re going to have to get this thing detailed now,” I tell her apologetically. “I’ll pay for it.”

“It’s fine,” she assures me, serious now. “I’m just glad you’re all right. How the hell did this even happen, Maddy? You know how dangerous this road is.”

Of course I know.

I feel guilty at the worried strain in her voice. I feel guilty that she had to come here, to this particular curve of all places.

“I’m OK,” I answer. “I’m sorry, Mi. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

She glances at me. “I know. Just be more careful. I almost had a heart attack.”

Her and me both.

I lean my head back against my seat, still shaky from sliding down the hill. The aftereffects of the adrenaline rush aren’t being kind to me. My heart is still pounding, my hands and legs still shaking. I stare at the ground from my window and the vehicle is so tall, it’s a long way down.

“I still can’t believe Pax made you get this thing,” I chuckle, trying to lighten the mood. “It’s so… not you.” Mila rolls her eyes.


Page 5

“I know. The minute he found out I was pregnant, he went out and bought the safest vehicle he could find. This thing is practically bulletproof. It might actually be a tank in disguise.”

“You handle everything so much better than I do,” I tell her. “I would hate being controlled like that.”

Mila laughs again, shaking her head.

“I’m not being controlled. When you’re married, sometimes you have to compromise. And this wasn’t that big of a deal. Yes, my little car got better gas mileage, but it makes Pax happy to think that I’m safer. And besides, I can fit more of my art supplies in here anyway. So there’s an upside.”

“You know you don’t have to lug art supplies around anymore,” I tell her, one eyebrow raised. “You don’t have to keep your art shop. Since Pax is taking over his grandpa’s company soon, you’d never have to work again if you didn’t want to.”

Mila rolls her eyes as she turns onto a city street. The big SUV barely even shudders as she runs over a piece of leftover winter ice.

“Andyouknow I’ve got to create art. If I don’t have an outlet for it, I’ll go insane.”

“You’re insane already,” I answer. “For agreeing to move to Connecticut.”

She glances at me. “I know. I don’t want to go either. But that’s where Alexander Holdings’ headquarters is at. Pax can’t take over for his grandpa from here. And his grandpa really wants to retire. So it’s something Pax has to do. I’ve got to support that.”

I sigh. “Another one of those marriage compromises?”

She nods.

I sigh again. “I’ve decided that your marriage isn’t really working for me. You’re going to have to get divorced.”

Mila bursts out laughing. “Can’t. We have a prenup. I can’t get rich that way.”

This makes me laugh. Mila is the furthest thing from a gold digger I’ve ever seen. And I personally know there wasn’t a prenup.

I feel the onset of a tension headache, stemming from my stupid car accident and my stupid lack of sleep. I rub at my forehead before the stupid tension wrinkles become permanent. I scowl because everything is starting to feel stupid this morning.

Mila notices.

“Why are you in such a bad mood?” she asks curiously. “You weren’t hurt. I’m sure you’ve called a tow truck. You’ll have your car back in a bit. No harm, no foul.”

I adjust the radio and then settle back into my seat, watching the scenery as Mila turns onto the lakefront drive that houses our restaurant.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “I guess I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I didn’t sleep well last night.” I don’t bother telling her why, because she’d just be immediately and insanely interested. She’s been wanting me to go out for months and I don’t want to tell her what a bust it was.

“Well, cheer up,” Mila tells me as she pulls into the parking lot of the Hill. “It’s a beautiful day. Life is good.”

“Yeah,” I answer grumpily. “Life is good.”

“And you’re lucky,” she prompts me. “You could’ve been hurt and you weren’t. You know as well as I do that that road is dangerous.” She’s serious now and I know why. I can practically see the memories in her eyes… of our parents’ twisted car, their funeral, the overwhelming horrible grief.

I gulp, then nod.

“Yeah, I was lucky. Are you coming in?”

She shakes her head. “Can’t. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment and then I have to get back to my shop. I’ll catch up with you later. I think we’re coming here for dinner.”

“ ’K. I’ll save a table for you.”

“Perfect. Thanks! Talk to you tonight.”

Mila waves as she backs the giant black SUV out. I wave back limply. God, I’m going to miss her when she moves. It’s only she and I now. We don’t have any other relatives. Well, we have Pax. So it’s just the three of us.

I sigh, but put it out of my mind. They aren’t moving until summer. I’ll worry about it when the time comes.

For now, I head into the little stucco Italian bistro on the shoreline where I’ve spent every waking hour for the past couple of years. The Hill was my parents’ dream, not mine. They worked day and night for years to make it a success and when they died, Mila and I couldn’t bear the thought of closing it.

But I swear to God. Some days, I get so pissed off that I gave up my life for this… that I’m confined to a little lakeside town, living someone else’s dream. There are days when it sucks the lifeblood out of me and I feel so much older than I am.

And some days I feel so much younger… because I don’t always have the answers to every problem that I face.

I have no fricking idea how to run a business. My business degree is a piece of paper. It didn’t prepare me for a business loan, running a staff, or ordering massive amounts of food. But I can never say that out loud, because as a business owner and a big sister, I’m always expected to have answers.

The right ones.

No one needs to know that I really don’t know shit—that I drift along in life without any real answers. No one needs to know that there are times when I seriously hate how things turned out, and that I’m powerless to change it.

I sigh and head inside.

The Hill might seem like a prison sometimes, but it’s a prison that pays the bills.

*     *     *

One of the worst things about running a business is all the freaking paperwork and red tape. Sometimes I actually have nightmares that I’m drowning in a sea of paper.

Today I barricade myself behind a wall of it, barely lifting my head until Tony, the bartender who has been with our family since my parents opened the place, pokes his unruly head into my office.

“Madison, did you get your car all taken care of?”

I barely glance up from yesterday’s tickets, which I’m tallying. “Yeah. They’re towing it in and bringing me a loaner to use for the next couple of days.”

Tony nods. “Good. They’ll get you squared away. For now, though, you’ve got to come eat. I mean it. The dinner rush is going to start soon. You’re going to waste away to nothing and your father will haunt me until the end of time if I don’t take care of you.”

I shake my head as I look away from the schedule for next week and into Tony’s concerned face. At forty, he really doesn’t look a day over thirty. But I’ll never tell him that. As a fiery Italian, he has an ego that’s already big enough.

“My father wouldn’t be the one haunting you about my eating habits,” I tell him. “It would be my mother. And I don’t think you want to mess with her.”

He laughs and agrees.

“For sure. Your mother was a force to be reckoned with. The only one who could really control her was your dad.”

I pause for a moment, my fingers frozen on my desk. Tony’s eyes are gleaming with amusement and I know it’s because he has no idea exactly how my father controlled my mother. No one knew.

No one except me and Mila. I swallow hard and smile at Tony, forcing the ugly thoughts out of my head. My parents are dead. There is no reason to think about the past.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I tell him. “I promise.”

He lifts a bushy black eyebrow. “You’d better be. Jacey just clocked in and I made her favorite cherry tarts for her birthday. As far as she’s concerned, it was your idea. You’ve at least got to come have one with her.”

“Crap,” I mutter. I look up to meet Tony’s accusing stare. “In my defense, I was going to get her cupcakes on the way to work, but then I almost drove my car into the lake. So I think I get a pass. Don’t judge.”

I turn my nose up and he almost grins, but doesn’t because he has a cranky image to uphold.

He turns and saunters away, muttering something about women drivers and whipping me to within an inch of my life if I don’t do what I’m told. I can do nothing but follow him, laughing. He’d never harm a hair on my head and woe to anyone who ever did, because he’d break their kneecaps (mainly because he thinks that’s what an Italian should do).

He leads me to the outdoor patio, which is situated on the beach directly behind the Hill. Stringed lights and lanterns crisscross over our heads, and soon the honeysuckle on the trellises will start to bloom. At night it’s magically romantic out here, particularly with the majestic view of Lake Michigan and the sweet scent of the honeysuckle. Tourists love it and so do I.

Right now a tray of Tony’s famous tarts and a birthday card with Jacey’s name on it sit on a table, along with three salads.

I turn to him in appreciation. “Thank you, Tony. You know I love you.”

He grins now and wraps a meaty paw around my shoulder, squeezing it.

“I know you’re busy,” he tells me gruffly. “It’s not a big deal.”

But it is. He was hired on years ago as the bartender, but since my parents died, he’s helped me in so many different ways. He still tends bar, but he helps me keep everything else in line. He even oversees the cooks and makes special desserts from time to time. I would be lost without him and both of us know it.

The evening breeze is blowing the hair off my face when Jacey bursts through the doors, her brown eyes sparkling in anticipation.

“It’s a perfect day to have a birthday,” she announces, and like always, I have to admire her.

Jacey looks at life with childlike wonderment, something I’ve always loved about her. She can make even the most boring thing fun.

We’ve been friends since we were teenagers. She used to spend the summers here with her grandparents and one day she breezed into the Hill with them for lunch and breezed out with a summer job. She’s been with us every summer since then. She’s fun, she’s carefree, and even though it’s gotten her into trouble from time to time, she’s a refreshing change from the mundane.

I cherish that even more now that I am the queen of mundane.

“Happy birthday,” I tell her as Tony hands her the card. She grins and opens it, finding a hundred-dollar gift certificate from Tony and me for a massage in town. I mouthThank youto Tony as Jacey throws her arms around my neck.

“Thank you,” she squeals. “You have no idea how stressed out I’ve been. I need this.”

She releases me and hugs Tony, then digs into her tarts, inhaling three of them before she glances at her watch.

“We’ve gotta hurry,” she tells us. “We’re booked solid tonight. You’re probably going to have to help out on the floor, Maddy, which is fine because you definitely look comfortable enough. You’re taking business casual to a whole new level.” Jacey looks at my clothes curiously and I sigh.

“When don’t I help out on the floor?” I demand. “I’m out there every day. I have the blisters to prove it. And I’m dressed like this because I got all muddy on my way to work and had to change into my gym clothes. ”

Jacey grins, her eyes sparkling. “Well, with bike shorts and a little bitty T like that, I’m sure the guys will be leaving you big tips. So there’s a plus.”

I groan and swat at her before I turn to follow her inside, but Tony snags my elbow and points at my salad.

“Eat.”

I glance at him and from the look on his face I know it’s useless to argue. I bend and shovel five bites into my mouth.

“Good?” I ask with my mouth full as I wipe at it with a napkin.

He gives me a dubious look and I take two more bites before I scoop up my plate.

“I’ll eat the rest later,” I promise him. He shakes his head.

“No, you won’t,” he sighs. “You’ll go home and eat a frozen burrito.”

He can’t see me grinning as he follows me inside, which is probably a good thing. I absolutely hate being told what to do, which is probably a result of watching my father boss my mother around with his fist for years, but I don’t mind Tony’s fussing.

For all Tony’s gruffness, he’s got a heart of gold, and he tries his hardest to watch out for both Mila and me. He’s the closest thing to family that we have now.

As we walk back into the dining room, we are just in time to meet Mila and Pax coming in the front doors. Pax holds Mila’s elbow as she trips over the doormat.

I have to laugh at the stricken expression on his face. I think Pax would pick Mila up and carry her for the next four months if he thought he could get away with it. He’s been more than a little overprotective lately. And as I stare at his tough exterior, it’s so hard to believe that it’s true, but it is.

My brother-in-law is like a rock-hard, tattooed sex god or something. Seriously, the guy exudes sex appeal. My first thought when I first met him wasHoly shit, he’s trouble. And he really was.

Pax grins at me now, his hazel eyes twinkling.

“See something you like, Mad?” he teases. And I realize that I’ve been staring. I grin back, not at all chagrined.

“Yes, surprisingly enough. I do like you, little brother. Who would’ve thunk it?” Being the protective older sister, I told Mila to stay away from Pax, and of course that made her even more attracted to him. He had that bad-boy thing going on, that cocky attitude and dangerous demeanor that Mila couldn’t resist. Pax’s issues had issues, and he and Mila went through hell and high water together, but they stuck it out.

Pax shakes his head. “Yeah, it’s hard to believe you ever misjudged this awesomeness.”

I roll my eyes and lead them to a table, chatting with them while they get settled. Pax pulls out Mila’s chair and drops her napkin onto her lap for her.

“Are you going to chew her food for her too, or…?” I raise my eyebrow but Pax just grins.

“Happy wife, happy life,” he rattles off as he sits down. “It’s something I live by.”

“And you’re very good at it,” Mila commends him, but her eyes are frozen with interest on something behind me. “Maddy, isn’t that Ethan Eldridge?”

I turn to see my hostess, Julie, seating our old childhood friend at a small table by the window.

“Holy crap,” I answer. “I think it is. I haven’t seen him since he went off to med school. He never came home for the summers. His mom used to come in here and complain about it.”

“He looksgood,” Mila says, pointing out the obvious. I stare at him, taking in his blond hair and blue eyes, and his lanky, lean frame. “You should go talk to him. That’s your job, anyway. You need to make him feel welcome.”

I scowl at her. “I’m not going over there and flirting with him. It’s not happening.”


Page 6

“I didn’t sayflirt,” Mila answers innocently. “I saidtalk. He always had a thing for you, though. And you do need a social life.”

I’m just debating whether to stab her in the eye with a fork when Ethan glances up and notices me. He gives me an excited wave.

“Hell,” I mutter, as Mila crows triumphantly. “I’ll be back to deal with you in a minute.”

I can hear her laughing as I make my way over to Ethan.

“Madison.” He smiles, reminding me exactly how gorgeous his smile is. “I was hoping you’d be here.”

“I’m always here,” I tell him wryly. “I think I practically live here. Are you back for good? I thought I’d heard that you were coming back to the ob-gyn department at the clinic.”

He smiles again and I briefly wonder why I don’t feel a reaction. Is it because I’ve known him so long?

“Yeah, that’s where I’m at. If you ever want to switch from Dr. Hall to me, I’m sure I can make your yearly exams much more pleasant for you.” He waggles his eyebrows in the ridiculous way I remember, and for a minute he seems just like the kid I knew in high school.

I roll my eyes.

“Oh, yeah, that’s just what I want. The guy who vomited up his chocolate milk on me in kindergarten doing my pap smear. Besides, you’re not even a real doctor yet, are you? And I’ve had Dr. Hall for years. So… it’s not gonna happen. Your hands aren’t getting anywhere near this.” I gesture toward my downstairs area and he shakes his head. “It’s good to see you, though. It’s been forever.”

“Iama real doctor. I’m a resident doctor. That counts, you little brat. I can even prescribe medicine and shit. But whatever. It’s good to see you too. You look fantastic, exactly the same as you did the day we graduated high school.”

I grin at his compliment. “Thanks, Ethan. I’ve been feeling old lately, so that’s good to hear. You look pretty good too.”

He throws his most charming smile at me. “We need to sit down and catch up sometime soon, Mad. I’ve missed you.”

I stare down at him, trying to see him in the way any other female would.

He’s tall, at least six-two, blond and blue-eyed. He looks like a descendent of Vikings or something. Well, without the muscles of a Viking. We’d make gorgeous babies together, if I’m honest. But I’ve known him since preschool, which means that I know all the dumbass stuff he did between then and now. I still vividly remember him eating a grasshopper on a dare in fourth grade. His tongue isn’t getting anywhere near mine, doctor or not.

He winks and I shake my head. I’m just getting ready to tell him how terrifying it is that people are putting their health in his hands when the restaurant door opens, letting a slice of sunlight in to shine across the floor. I follow the light to the man who just walked in from the rain. He’s sliding his cell phone into the pocket of his jacket.

He looks up and his eyes meet mine and there’s no way in hell.

No effing way in hell.

My heart is slamming a million miles an hour in my chest.

Because it’s Gabriel.

Chapter FiveGabriel

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. The universe obviously has a strange sense of humor. After lusting after this girl last night and wondering what happened to her all day today, I’m now standing face-to-face with her? What are the odds of that?

Pretty fucking small.

Yet there she is.

Madison stares at me in shock as she stands next to a guy dressed in fancy jeans and a button-up shirt. The guy is clearly a candy-ass, but he’s not my concern.

I’m totally fixated on Madison: her wide eyes, her mouth slightly open.

That’s exactly how I feel. But unlike her, I manage to keep the surprise off my face.

I’m trying to process the crazy coincidence of us meeting like this, the second meeting in two days, when I see my sister emerge from a back hall, carrying a large tray of drinks. As Jacey glances up at me, everything suddenly clicks together and makes perfect sense.

Jacey mentioned that she was going to bring a friend with her to the club last night.

And Jacey has told me about her boss before, a supposedly cool girl who had to grow up way too soon for reasons that I don’t remember right now. What I do remember is that she called her Maddy.

Maddy is Madison.

Jacey is the common thread, the root of this unholy coincidence.

Of course.

I shake my head and watch while Jacey sets her tray down and bounds across the room to grab me in a bear hug.

“Gabriel!” she squeals. “It’s about time you got here. I’ve missed your ugly face.”

I can’t help but hug her back, even though I’m annoyed about the whole Madison thing. I almost feel like Jacey finagled all of this on purpose, but I know that can’t be right. There’s no way she could’ve arranged our meeting behind the club.

I can feel Madison’s cool stare, but I refuse to look up and meet it because I can’t tell if she’s annoyed or intrigued that I’ve intruded upon her life.

For the life of me, I can’t remember much after that fucking taxi accident last night. It was a total blackout, the first one I’ve had in months.

I don’t remember what I said to her, I don’t remember how I acted around her, I can’t remember shit. I do have strange little flashes of Madison tucking me into bed, but I don’t know if those are real memories or if my mind was just playing tricks on me. You never know with me, not when I’m in that fucked-up state.

But if it was real, I hate that she saw me like that. It’s humiliating, which is as good a reason as any to ignore her.

“Hey, Sis,” I murmur into Jacey’s blonde hair. “Happy birthday! You smell like spaghetti.”

She rolls her eyes and lets go of me, turning to Madison.

“Maddy, you’ve got to come and finally meet my brother.”

Madison looks stricken, but she manages to put one foot in front of the other, leaving the candy-ass’s side to stand reluctantly in front of me.

Even though I’m uncomfortable about this myself, I fight the urge to laugh at the distinct expression of discomfort on her gorgeous face. No matter what else she might be feeling, it’s clear she’s not sure how to handle this situation, just as it’s clear that she’s not used to not being in control. She has no idea what to say to me. At all.

It’s pretty fucking funny.

“This is my brother Gabriel.” Jacey looks up at me proudly. “He just got back from Afghanistan a few months ago and he’s hardly made the time to come see his poor little sister. Gabriel, this is my friend—and boss—Madison. You’ve heard all about her.”

Madison’s blue eyes are frozen on me, a question gleaming in them.

What the fuck?

I can hear it just as clearly as if she’d said the words. And it makes me wonder again just how much she saw last night. It puts me on the defensive and I smirk, just to prove that none of it matters.

When Madison sees it, her eyes harden even more.

Jacey stares from Madison to me.

“Um. Aren’t you going to say anything? ‘Nice to meet you,’ maybe? What’s wrong with you two? Did I miss something?”

Madison finally blinks and breaks our gaze, glancing at Jacey.

“It’s, uh, nice to meet you.” She looks uncertain of what to say next so I clear my throat.

I don’t see the point in mentioning what happened last night. Or what almost happened. Mentioning any part of it would open a can of worms that I don’t want to discuss.

Madison looks grateful for a moment before her face closes up and she turns cool once again. For some reason, I’m guessing that’s her normal persona… cool and collected.

It seems very her.

Or maybe she’s being cold because she’s mad that I left her at the accident? I internally flinch. I hate that I did that. It was a dick thing to do. But I wasn’t myself. If she’s judging me for that, fuck her. She doesn’t know shit.

I grin widely to show her that she’s not always in control.

Because that’s very me.

“It’s nice to formally meet you, Madison. I’ve heard a lot about you. Some of it was even good.”

Jacey gasps and punches me, but I ignore her quick protests about how everything was good and how she’d never say anything bad about Madison. I even ignore her whining about how my arm hurt her hand.

Instead I glance down and notice the way Madison’s chest fills out her snug T-shirt, and I briefly flash back to the way her nipples tasted in my mouth, pink and sweet. My groin tightens and I quickly return my attention to the present as Madison slides her slender hand into mine.

“It’s a pleasure,” she answers coolly. “And Jacey, don’t worry. I know you only say good things about me. Your brother was just joking, I’m sure.”

I swallow a snort, but Jacey looks appeased.

“Sorry, Maddy,” she mutters. “My brother didn’t used to be so rude. He’s still adjusting from being overseas.”

Anger flashes through me, quick and hot, but I tamp it down. I meant to be a little rude. I can’t get mad for being called out on it.

“I’m sure I’ll be back to normal soon,” I agree with her smoothly before I change the subject. “Do you have a table for me? We’re gonna need a table for three. Brand’s coming too.”

Jacey’s face lights up at the mention of our childhood friend.

“Thank God! I haven’t seen him in at least a month. You both suck at coming to see me. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” She turns to Madison. “Can I give them the window table in the corner?”

Madison nods.

“Of course. It was nice to meet you, Gabriel. I hope you enjoy your meal.”

She abruptly turns and joins a couple at a different table. Not that I’m going to show it, but I’m a little flabbergasted at the change in her. This cool, unflappable woman is nothing like the hot-blooded chick I met last night. I find myself staring at her tight ass for a minute, wondering how such a small ass fits such a big stick in it. I’m chuckling at the thought as Jacey leads me to my table.

“I’ll bring you a beer,” Jacey tells me as she hands me a menu and eyes the wrapped gift that I set on the table next to me. “What will Brand want?”

“A beer is fine,” I tell her as I look over the food selection. “Thanks, Sis.”

She nods as she leaves and I glance around.

The restaurant is nice, although Madison doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would own a restaurant. At least she didn’t seem that way last night. Today, though, who knows? I think about it for a second, and vaguely remember Jacey telling me that Maddy inherited it from her parents. That would make more sense.

Turning slightly, I find her in my periphery. Her light blonde hair is easy to find. Whereas last night she was dressed like a runway model, today she’s wearing workout clothes—tiny tight shorts, a tiny shirt that leaves nothing to the imagination and tennis shoes. It’s strange as fuck. It’s like she’s done a complete about-face.

So who is the real Madison? The sexy siren who wanted to go home with me last night or this tightly wound business owner?

Maybe she’s tightly wound during the day and a siren in the sack?

It seems like something that I should make it my mission to find out.

She’s sitting with her little group now: a gorgeous dark-haired woman and a muscular tattooed guy. She’s also purposely not looking at me, I can tell. Her shoulders are angled away from me and she’s laughing at everything her companions say, as if to show me what a good time she’s having.

And no, I’m not egotistical for thinking that her behavior revolves around me. At this moment, her behavior is revolving around me. She’s as acutely aware of where I am in this room as I am of her. Every so often I can see her sneaking sideways glances at me. She’s probably wondering about the real me, just like I’m wondering about the real her. If she saw much of my episode last night, if it was bad, then she’s probably trying to figure me out right this minute.

Since I can’t remember what happened last night, there’s only one thing I can do.

Fuck with her.

Prove to her that I’m not a pussy. Stare at her until she squirms in her seat, as she remembers exactly what we almost did last night, what she begged me to do. Show her that she doesn’t have the upper hand with me just because I can’t remember what I did.

Grinning to myself, I switch seats so that I’m squarely facing her. And then I pointedly stare at her.

This should prove entertaining.

*     *     *

Madison

What the hell?

My cheeks flush hotly as I feel Gabriel’s stare burning into me from across the room. How in the name of all that is holy did I not notice that his last name was the same as Jacey’s when I looked at his driver’s license last night? That accident must’ve shaken me up even more than I realized. And why the hell is he staring at me? He’s acting like nothing happened last night at all, like he didn’t totally lose his shit. What am I supposed to do with that?

Even though he’s very obviously trying to draw my attention, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to acknowledge it. I’d rather die before I give him the satisfaction of looking at him. Instead I concentrate even more on appearing like I’m having one hell of a good time.

I pick up my wineglass and take another sip, before I smile broadly at my brother-in-law.

“So, how do you like working for your grandpa? How often are you going to have to go to Hartford this summer?”

Pax pauses mid-bite and thinks about my question. As he does, he absently rubs my sister’s back with his free hand.

“At first I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. There was no way I wanted to be surrounded by suits and ties every day. But then I settled in and found my place. I don’t have to wear a suit and tie because I own the fucking company. I’m still proving myself to my grandpa, but I think I’m gonna like it.”

“Good,” I answer. “But I’m not going to like it when you guys move away.”

Mila rolls her eyes. “Mad, we’ve been through this a hundred times. It’s a two-hour plane ride. You can come see me and I’ll come see you. It’s not like we’re never going to see each other again. And hopefully you’ll be dating someone soon, so that will distract you. We’ve gotta figure out something to do with your personal life.”


Page 7

I raise an eyebrow. “Oh,wedo, huh? You’re going to have input on that?”

Mila laughs and pats Pax’s leg. “I’m good at relationships, apparently. I can help you with yours.”

“I don’t have a relationship,” I remind her. “That was your whole point.”

She rolls her eyes again.

“Fine. We’re going to start with an easy one. Ethan Eldridge. I know for a fact that he’s single. I bumped into his mom at the library the other day. She said he’s been lonely because a lot of his old friends have moved away. So there you go. You can start by dating Ethan. He’ll be good practice.”

I hold up a spoon. “And it doesn’t matter to you that this spoon has more of a personality than he does?”

Pax bursts out laughing, looking over at Ethan before he glances at his wife.

“She has a point. Madison needs someone who can give her a run for her money. That guy… er, he doesn’t seem quite up to it.”

Mila gives her husband a skeptical look. “Maybe. But Maddy has always picked guys that are too overbearing, too controlling. And then it ends in a disaster and Maddy’s pissed off at the world and at the male species in general. Maybe she needs to try out a guy like Ethan.”

We all glance discreetly in Ethan’s direction, to find him scrolling quietly through his cell phone. He’s wearing a preppy watch, a preppy shirt, perfectly fitted khakis. He’s so neat and tidy that even his nails are buffed and cut to a neat square. Very neutral, very bland and vanilla.

Bland and vanilla just aren’t me.

Pax turns back around, shaking his head. “I don’t think he’s got it in him to handle Maddy.”

I raise my eyebrows. “He can’thandleme?”

Pax quickly backtracks. “That’s not exactly what I meant. You’re… shall we say… a little fierce. You need a guy with balls. You don’t need a guy whose balls are in your purse. Just sayin’.”

“Ha, so says the guy whose balls are in Mila’s handbag as we speak.”

Mila laughs as I give Pax an icy stare. He ignores itandmy comment, while he chews on a piece of bread, totally unaffected by my glare or my accusation that my sister owns his testicles. I guess he’s secure enough in his manhood to not care.

Turning my head slightly, I can see Gabriel’s dark shape from the corner of my eye and I almost flush again.

Throughout this entire conversation, his smoldering stare has burned holes into me. It’s so potent that it almost feels like it’s actually touching me. Finally I’m unable to resist and I glance at him.

He stares back at me, his eyes stormy and dark.

What the hell is he thinking? Is he remembering the accident? Or is he remembering how scorchingly hot last night wasbeforethe accident? I stare at his mouth and I can’t help but remember how it tasted last night before his meltdown.

Smoky, minty… like a man. I gulp.

And then I die. Because with his gaze still connected to mine, he very purposefully slips his finger into his mouth, then pulls it out slowly, sucking it.

Just like he sucked the taste of me off his fingers last night.

Oh. My. God.

My cheeks explode into flame and his dark, dark eyes glimmer with amusement. I stare at him as I realize that he’s fucking with me. He’s purposely trying to remind me of last night.

The corner of his lip twitches and I know.

I know that he thinks he won whatever little game he’s been playing.

Eff him. Willing the color to drain away from my face, I give Gabriel my iciest stare, lift my nose into the air and turn back around to find Mila watching the interaction.

“Who’s that?” she asks with extreme interest. I shrug.

“Jacey’s brother. I just met him.”

Mila raises her eyebrow. “You just met him?” She stares at me. “That seems doubtful. You keep staring at each other. You know him. Spill.”

I scowl at my sister. “Why do you have to know me so well? I met him last night at a club in Chicago.”

Mila chokes on her drink of water. “Seriously? You met him at aclub?”

And without any shame at all, she spins around in her seat to stare at him.

Gabriel stares back at her with interest, then cocks an eyebrow at me. He’s sprawled out in his seat, his long legs casually relaxed. None of this is affecting him in the same way it is affecting me. It’s like he doesn’t care that what happened last night was disconcerting as hell. That pisses me off.

“Turn around,” I hiss at Mila, yanking on her arm. “God. Do you have to be so obvious?”

“I can’t help it,” she says, without turning around. “How can I not look at the guy who has you all worked up?”

“I am not worked up,” I answer between my teeth, tugging on her arm harder. “Don’t make me manhandle a pregnant woman because then Pax will kill me. Just turn around.God.”

She finally does as I ask, but she looks at me strangely. “What the hell, Maddy? Why are you so upset? It’s just Jacey’s brother, right?”

There is a knowingness to her tone that makes me want to smack my sister, even if sheispregnant.

“Yes,” I answer firmly, ignoring her tone and resisting my urge to inflict bodily harm. “He’s just Jacey’s brother.”

“Well, in that case, I should go introduce myself. I mean, Jaceyisour employee. It’s only polite.”

And with that, Mila is out of her seat and across the room before I can stop her. She moves surprisingly fast for a pregnant girl. I’m left staring with my mouth open. Pax reaches over and snaps it closed.

“She got you, Mad.”

I look at him. “Pax, I swear to God. One of these days I’m going to kill her. It’s gonna happen.”

Pax just laughs, entirely unconcerned.

“Whatever. If you were going to kill her, you would have done it a long time ago. But you didn’t. Instead you protected her like a mama bear. So I have a hard time believing that you would ever harm a hair on her head. And now I’ve gotta go take a piss. Can you behave yourself out here alone? And by that, I mean can you stay out here without killing anyone?”

I shake my head and follow him.

“I’m not staying out here,” I mutter when he looks back at me in surprise.

“Well, you’re not coming with me,” he grins. “It’s big, but I can hold it myself.”

It takes me half a second to realize what he meant, and whatitis. I feel myself blush in spite of myself.

“God, I’m surrounded by imbeciles.”

I roll my eyes one more time for good measure, then stalk back to my office. I can hear my brother-in-law laughing as I go, just as I can feel Gabriel’s dark gaze tracking every move I make. It’s freaking unnerving and I’m pissed at myself that I let him get to me like this.

I’m barely in my office for ten minutes before Jacey finds me. She barges in without knocking, as she always does, adjusting her blonde ponytail before she drops into a chair in front of my desk.

“Maddy, what the hell? You and my brother are staring at each other like you’re food on an all-you-can-eat buffet. What the hell is going on?”

Her large brown eyes are curious as she waits for me to answer.

I start to speak, close my mouth, then try again.

“Last night… Gabriel…”

But it doesn’t want to come out. I don’t want to tell her that I almost hooked up with her brother. It doesn’t feel right. This feels like dangerous territory. Isn’t it against a code somewhere to not date your friend’s brother? Especially when something strange seems to be going on with him? If she doesn’t already know about it, I certainly don’t want to be the one to give her the bad news.

Jacey knows me well, however, and her eyes glitter and then narrow as she looks at me.

“Go on. What about last night?” Brief pause, then her eyes light up. “Oh. My. God. Did you meet Gabe last night in Chicago? He was supposed to meet us but didn’t because there was some problem with his taxi. But you disappeared too. Did you meet my brother last night, Madison? There’s no way… right?”

I swallow hard and look away.

“Oh my God!” Jacey crows, jumping from her chair and dancing around in a weird circle, like an awkward little bird. “You hooked up with my brother!”

I stare at her warily. “Almost. Is that weird?”

She looks at me like I have two heads.

“Are you crazy? I’ve wanted you guys to date for years. But when we were teenagers, he never wanted to come into town in the summers. He was going through a shy stage or some shit. And then he went overseas. You’re perfect for each other. You just don’t know it yet. The real question is whydidn’tyou hook up last night? You never explained.”

I roll my eyes and glance at the clock. It’s just shy of seven, prime dinner rush.

“Don’t get too excited. It was a late night, it was a club… and we just got a little carried away. And then we were in an accident in the taxi and it killed the mood. Since you were the one who talked me into trying to hook up with someone, the whole thing is your fault, if you think about it.”

Jacey ignores that last part as her brow furrows.

“An accident? Gabe told me this morning that there was a problem with his taxi. He didn’t say anything about an accident. Was anyone hurt?”

I shake my head. “No. Some guy just ran a red light and T-boned us in the intersection. The taxi was totaled, but nobody was hurt. It totally killed the mood, though.”

And so did walking a strangely incoherent man home to his apartment and leaving before he could murder me and hang my skin in his kitchen cabinet or something.

I so want to ask Jacey about Gabriel’s weird behavior, but I hesitate. Her face is completely frozen now, as she looks utterly concerned about her brother. I don’t want to give her even more to worry about.

“Holy shit,” she breathes. “I owe Gabe an apology. I thought he was just making up an excuse for ditching me. You guys could’ve been hurt.”

I don’t tell her that he actually was ditching her when we got in the accident.

“Yeah, I guess so. But we weren’t. Just shaken up.”

Him more than me. But again, I don’t mention that part.

Jacey shakes her head and sighs. “I swear to God, that man attracts dangerous situations. A normal person runs away from danger and Gabe runs straight for it. Always has. No one was surprised when he joined the Army Rangers, but I’m definitely surprised that he’s lived this long.”

This is the perfect opportunity to get more information about Gabe. I stare at my friend, trying to decide how best to go about it.

“I don’t remember you telling me that he was a Ranger before,” I tell her carefully. Jacey stares at me.

“Do you listen to me at all?” she demands. I flush. Truthfully, I tune her out sometimes. She tends to chatter aimlessly. A lot.

“Gabe’s been overseas with the Rangers for the last three years,” she continues. “It’s all he ever wanted to do. It’s why I’ve been so worried about him. He was in combat and Rangers do some scary shit. But then something happened and he resigned his commission. And he came home. So did his best friend, Brand. Now they’re starting a business together, but I don’t understand any of it. It’s so not them. They’re Rangers to the bone.”

She’s quiet now, subdued. I hesitate to ask, but I can’t help it.

“What happened?”

She shrugs and looks me in the eye. “Your guess is as good as mine. He won’t talk to me about it. But it fucked him up. I know he has problems sleeping and he’s just not himself. Like, he gets mad easier and shit.”

I must look horrified or something because Jacey rushes to continue.

“Not like super mad or anything. He just gets annoyed easily now. That’s not like him. But I know that he’ll go back to normal eventually. Probably soon. I’ve done some reading on guys who come home from combat. Apparently this stuff is normal. It will go away.”

This stuff is definitely notnormal. Not what I saw last night, anyway. But I don’t say that. From what Jacey is saying, it’s clear she has no idea what’s going on with him.

It fucked him up. She did get that part right.

Something twinges in my chest, something soft, something I usually keep hidden away. It must be my heart, but it’s hard to say. It’s been so long since I acknowledged that part of me. But the idea of a wounded soldier who came home damaged like that gets to me.

For a second I picture Gabriel in fatigues, sweaty and dangerous in the desert. It suits him, actually. But then I picture him injured and maybe even alone and for whatever reason, I hate the thought. I swallow hard, then change the subject to lighten the mood.

“I’m sorry, Jace. That’s terrible. But if that’s true and he’s some badass alpha guy, then there’s no way he’s right for me. I don’t like guys who are adrenaline junkies or whatever. And I definitely don’t like guys who lose their tempers easily.”

She scowls. “That’s not what I said. He doesn’t lose his temper easily. He’s just… more easily annoyed. I think he’s just adjusting to civilian life. It’s not a big deal, Mad. You should give him a chance.”

I already did.

I push away the thought of Gabriel’s hand between my legs last night in the taxi, while the taxi driver was right in the front seat. I sort of liked that adrenaline junkie side of him last night. I can’t lie. Not to myself.

When I fail to answer, Jacey rolls her eyes. “What the hell has happened to my old friend? The one who liked to take chances and steal gin from her parents’ liquor cabinet and sneak out of her bedroom window to go to beach parties? You know, the Madison who didn’t do things like leave her BFF at the club? I hope she comes back soon because I need a partner in crime again. I want the old Madison back. And when she comes back, she can date my brother.”

Her words practically stab me in the heart because I feel old. I feel boring. I feel like someone I’m not. And she’s totally calling me on it. So I do what I always do when I’m cornered. I hide behind a wall.

I roll my eyes. “Whatever. That Madison isn’t coming back. It’s called growing up. You should try it. And shouldn’t you be checking on your tables? Julie is probably going nuts without you.”

Jacey stares down her nose at me. “Fine. You can get rid of me right now, but trust me, I’m gonna come back to this conversation. You’re going to tell me every detail about your ‘almost’ one-night stand with my brother and we’re going to discuss how you should date him.”


Page 8

With that, Jacey flounces out of my office. I try to turn my focus back to my never-ending paperwork, but I can’t help going back to her words.

A retired Army Ranger. That makes such perfect sense.

Disciplined. Rigid. Dangerous. That all fits the description of a Ranger, at least in my limited experience. And even though I haven’t seen evidence of it in his actions, I can see all of that in his eyes.

He doesn’t seem very old, though. He can’t be much older than me, so it must’ve been something really bad that made him retire so young.

I decide that Gabriel Vincent is an enigma.

A blatantly arrogant enigma.

A scorchingly sexy, dangerous-as-hell enigma.

An enigma with a rippling six-pack and smoldering eyes.

Against my better judgment, I creep back down the hall and peek around the corner at him. Jacey’s got her arms wrapped around his shoulders, laughing down at something he said. While he chuckles with her, he’s relaxed and warm, much as he was with me last night before the taxi incident.

Across the table from him, his friend laughs at the two of them. Brand, I think Jacey called him. He’s built like a brick wall and drop-dead sexy as hell. Blond, blue-eyed, crooked grin. He looks like a real-life Thor. Holy shit—is this what Rangers look like? If so, they’re definitely our country’s finest.

But when I look at Brand, even as gorgeous as he is, the blood in my veins doesn’t catch fire like it does when I look at Gabriel.

Gabriel fascinates the hell out of me. When he’s in a room, he owns it, completely and totally. The memory of him sticking his finger in his mouth from across the room causes my eyes to flutter closed.

The stuff Jacey told me about him coming out of the Rangers early only made my curiosity worse. I want to know more about him, yet at the same time I know I should run far away from him.

Because there’s one thing I know about myself. Try as I might to stay away from powerful, strong guys, guys who command a room, guys who might hurt me… I am totally and completely attracted to those guys. I’m attracted to the very things that might hurt me the most.

It is glaringly obvious that Gabriel is all of those things.

And more.

Chapter SixGabriel

Madison disappeared into a hallway an hour ago and she hasn’t been back out since. She hasn’t even been back out to sit with her sister, Mila, the chick who introduced herself to me. That makes me think Maddy might be hiding from me, which is a thought that makes me smile. I don’t know why… sadistic, I guess. But if she’s so coolly put together, the way she’s acting tonight, then the thought that I rattled her is funny as hell.

I glance back over Mila’s way. She’s laughing and trying to force-feed her husband a strawberry. Pax, I think she told me. What the hell kind of name is that?

He’s a big dude and rough-looking, but then I guess he’d have to be with a name like that. It looks like he’s been domesticated, but it’s just as apparent that it wasn’t always that way. He’s got that look in his eyes. That lean and mean look that doesn’t just go away.

Mila laughs again and as she glances up, her eyes meet mine for a second and I think about what she said to me.

Maddy might seem like a bitch, but I promise you that she’s not.

Why the hell would she say that? Maddy doesn’t seem like a bitch to me, but then again, I think I know why she’s acting so cold. I know, sort of, what happened last night. No one else here does. They must all think she’s snubbing me for no reason.

The sound of Jacey’s cajoling brings my attention back to the present, where my sister is practically sitting in Brand’s lap as she tries to coerce him into telling her stories from combat.

Brand shoots me another desperate look over her head, so I take pity and rescue him. Brand might be an incredible hulk of muscle, but Jacey’s always turned him into knots. He just thinks that no one knows that.

“Jace, you know he can’t talk about that. That shit’s all classified. And you don’t have the security clearance level to hear it.”

Jacey glares at me. “I don’t have a security clearance at all.”

I smile at her. “That’s my point. Give the guy a break. Besides, I’m sure we should probably leave. We’re taking up a table.”

“Don’t go yet,” Jace whines, picking up another bite of her cake. “I’ve missed you guys. A lot. And I hardly ever get to see you, even now that you’ve been home for months. Don’t you find that weird?” She pauses, takes another bite, then turns to me. “Just have one more cup of coffee,” she tells me bossily. “I’ll even make it decaf.”

She scoots off Brand’s lap and darts off for the kitchen before I can even answer.

Brand grins at me. “Some things never change. Jacey’s still got you wrapped around her little finger.”

I shake my head. “Whatever. She was sitting onyourlap. Seriously, though. You know I feel bad for her. She always thinks our dad is going to change—that he’ll miraculously take an interest in her and then when he doesn’t, she’s devastated. She’s never gonna learn.”

“So you’re always gonna be there to take his place,” Brand adds. “And do the shit he doesn’t. I know you, dude. And I respect the hell out of that. I do. I’m sure Jacey does too, even if she doesn’t show it.”

“My sister’s tougher than she looks,” I answer thoughtfully, watching as she stops to talk to some guy who just walked in the restaurant. “She tries not to get all gushy and shit, but I know she appreciates you too.”

Brand follows my gaze to Jacey, freezing on the guy who is standing with her. Something about the guy seems off. He’s wearing dirty work clothes and he’s muscled and stout. Clearly he does some sort of manual labor. He’s also clearly pissed.

“Who’s that?” Brand asks with sharp interest. I shake my head.

“No clue.”

I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they seem to be in a heated discussion and the guy’s face turns red. Jacey shakes her head, rolls her eyes and turns to walk away.

And then the guy grabs her arm.

The second he touches her, anger flashes through me, red and hot. Like lightning, Brand and I both shove back from the table, lunging to our feet. I reach my sister in a few strides, with Brand right beside me.

“If you want to keep your hand, I suggest you let go of my sister,” I say calmly. There’s no need to raise my voice. I know how intimidating I am. And standing together, Brand and I are like a wall. We tower over this little punk.

He looks up at us and I can see fear in his eyes, even if he doesn’t want to show it. He takes his time, but he makes a show of slowly and exaggeratedly releasing Jacey’s arm, then holding his empty hand in the air.

“That’s better,” Brand tells him. “I would suggest you not do that again.”

“Fuck off,” the guy spits angrily. “This isn’t your business.”

“Jared, just leave,” Jacey interjects. “Seriously. You need to go.”

Jared smiles. “This is a public place. I need some dinner. And I want you to serve me.”

“No fucking way,” Jacey tells him. “Get out. Now. I’m sick of your shit.”

“What the hell is going on?” I demand. “Who is this guy and why is he bothering you?”

But before she can answer, Madison emerges from the back hall. When she spots Jared, her eyes widen and she looks startled, then she masks it. She calmly approaches us.

“What’s going on?” she asks Jacey quietly.

“Jared won’t leave,” Jacey answers.

“I’m just getting ready to help him out,” I tell Madison. The guy smiles.

“Try it,” he dares me. “Just try it.”

He turns to me, his slitted eyes challenging me, even though I can see the fear in them. He’s cockier than he is smart and, if I’m not mistaken, a little drunk too. I scoff at him.

“You’re not worth my time. Just leave before you embarrass yourself. Or before I embarrass you.”

Jared stares up at me.

“I know who you are,” he scowls. “Jacey told me all about her big war-hero brother. Well, dumbass, you aren’t overseas now. And you’re not a hero here. So back the fuck off.”

I ignore the anger that flashes through me quick and hot. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Pax stand up from his table. Mila puts her hand on his arm, as if to urge him to stay put. I smile. She must realize what I already know. I’ve got this. I don’t need assistance.

“I don’t need to be a hero to handle a little pussy like you,” I answer him, maintaining my calm. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Jared doesn’t move. So I move him.

Grabbing his elbow, I drag him toward the door. He struggles against me, but even though he’s strong, he’s much smaller than I am.

“I’m going to call the police,” Madison tells him as she tags along at my heels. “Just go, Jared.”

“You’re both whores,” he spits at her, struggling in my grip to turn and look at her. “I haven’t done anything to you. You need to mind your own fucking business.”

“Jaceyismy business,” Madison answers coolly, stepping around us to open the door for me. “Stop harassing her. We’re calling the police this time.”

This time? I glare over my shoulder at Jacey, who has the good grace to look sheepish. This is the first I’ve heard of someone harassing her.

Spinning, I slam the punk against the doorjamb. Behind me I hear Madison suck in her breath, but I ignore it. This asshole’s back makes a satisfying thunk against the wood and I dig my fingers into his collarbone.

“Call my sister a whore again, and you won’t have any teeth left,” I warn him. “Got it?” He squirms and I release him, shoving him hard toward the parking lot. “Get the fuck out of here.”

He spits on the ground, then starts to walk away. “Good thing you had your buddies to help you,” he calls back to me. “Next time you won’t be so lucky.”

He gets into his car and I glance over my shoulder. Both Brand and Madison’s brother-in-law are standing behind me, as if I need backup for this pathetic piece of shit. I shake my head.

“Oh, trust me. I won’t need help. And there better not be a next time.”

The guy flips me off and spins out, squealing his tires as he tears out of the parking lot. I turn around to find Madison facing me, her hands on her hips.

“Was that really necessary?” she asks. “I was going to call the cops. Violence really wasn’t appropriate. I have customers here.”

I stare at her in shock. “I thought you’d be happy that I removed him from your dining room.”

“You thought wrong. I had the situation under control.”

I’m astounded now. “Oh, really? And how exactly were you controlling it? By threatening to call the police? Assholes like that don’t listen to reason, Madison. You have to speak in the language that they understand.”

“Well, I’m sure you’re fluent in asshole-speak.” Madison stares at me icily for a moment longer, then spins around and stalks off.

I don’t give myself enough time to ponder the fact that the kitten has claws before I whirl around, pinning Jacey with my glare.

“What the fuck was this?”

Jacey shrugs. Over her shoulder I see Madison walking her brother-in-law back to his table, then turning her head to talk with her sister. But instead of thinking about what they might be saying, I return my focus to my current problem.

Jacey.

“He’s an ex-boyfriend who can’t take no for an answer,” she answers. “He’s just an asshole who takes rejection very personally. Not that big of a deal.”

“He sort of is,” Madison says from behind me. I glance at her, surprised that she came back after her little show of theatrics. She looks at me, her pretty face drawn. “His behavior could be a big deal, I mean. He practically attacked my little sister last year. And he’s been bothering Jacey for a while. At least a month. I keep telling her to call the police but she won’t. I figured I should tell you that. Maybe you can get her to see reason.”

She ruined her dramatic exit to come back and tell me something to help Jacey? Interesting.

“Madison, God.” Jacey snaps. “I don’t need the police involved in this. It’s embarrassing. Jared is an asshole and he’s annoying, but he’s not really going to do anything. Most of the time he just texts me… sends me pictures of his naked junk and shit.”

Madison stares at her. “Jacey, he’s already doing something. Not only is he still harassing you, but he’s here in my place of business creating a scene.” She lowers her voice now and dips her head closer to Jacey, as if what she’s getting ready to say is for Jacey’s ears only. But I can still hear it.

“Jace, my dad had that kind of temper. It doesn’t get better. Those kind of guys are bullies who will intimidate you until you push back, until you make him see that he can’t treat you like that.That you won’t let him treat you like that. You have to step up and do something.”

I’m still now as I watch her. She doesn’t know it, but she just showed me something about herself, something that makes her vulnerable. Someone.

But I can’t think about that right now. Right now I have to deal with my sister.

“We’re going to talk,” I tell Jacey, taking her by the elbow and guiding her back to the table. “What exactly happened when you broke up with that guy?”

Jacey shakes her head. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I told him that it wasn’t working and he didn’t like it. He texts me nonstop, drives by the cottage, calls and hangs up… it’s frustrating, but he’ll get over it.”

Brand stares at her. “Little hotheads like him sometimes don’t just ‘get over’ something. He’s clearly got a problem. I’m going to need his name and address.”

I glance at my friend. After serving in the Rangers with him, I know exactly what he’s capable of.

“Stand down, soldier,” I mutter to him. “This is civilian life. We aren’t going to pay the asshole a visit. Not yet, anyway.” I turn to my sister. “I’m not leaving you here alone. When is Gran coming back from Florida?”

Our grandparents have owned a cottage here in Angel Bay since before I was born. We stayed here with them every summer when we were kids, but then our grandfather died and our gran hasn’t been the same. Jacey still spends summers here to keep Gran company, but for at least the past year, Gran has been in Florida most of the time anyway.


Page 9

Jacey cringes. “You won’t believe this but I don’t know when she’ll be back. I think she met someone in her retirement village.” She watches my face and nods. “I know. I don’t like to think about it either. But you know, Grandpa’s been gone for years now. I suppose she’s lonely.”

“Oh, God,” Brand mutters, swigging his beer. “Geriatric sex. I’m out. Where’s the bathroom?”

Jacey points him in the right direction and then she drops into his vacant seat. I stare at her, waiting for her to give me an explanation. After a couple of minutes of silence, I just flat out ask.

“Why didn’t you tell me about that guy?” I ask her, serious now. “You should have.”

She drops her eyes and stares at the empty beer bottle that Brand left behind.

“Because I can handle it on my own,” she tells me with a sigh. “I don’t need to have my big brother swoop in and save me.”

I sigh too. “I know you don’t,” I reply. “But maybe your big brotherwantsto swoop in and save you. It’s sort of what I do.”

She laughs at that. “Oh, great. So you retire from the army and I’m going to have to let you save me all the time so that you get your hero fix?”

“Something like that,” I answer absently. In my head I’m thinking about my schedule. “I think I can stay here for a while,” I tell her. “Brand and I have to pitch our new body armor to the Pentagon in a couple of months, but until then I’m free.”

“Unless I find another investor in the meantime,” Brand interjects as he grabs another chair and comes back to the table. “But even then, you can get to the meeting just as easily from here as you could from your condo.”

I nod and Jacey stares at us.

“I don’t understand your new business,” she admits. “You’re selling body armor to the government, right? Why don’t they make their own body armor?”

“They do,” Brand explains. “But it’s not good enough because the good stuff has always been too expensive. Gabe and I want to design better armor that the government can buy for every soldier. If we can do it, and if we can get the army to buy it, then no one will ever have to go through what we went through.”

Jacey grumbles, “And I have no idea what you went through because you won’t tell me.”

Brand and I both are silent and Jacey sighs. “I know, I know. You’ll talk to me about it when you’re ready.”

“It’s not you, Jacey. It’s just not something we like to talk about toanyone,” Brand offers. “Think about the most horrible thing you could possibly think of. The bloodiest, scariest thing… your worst nightmare. Then picture it happening to you… picture it becoming your reality, a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to talk about it either.”

Jacey looks stricken and she puts a hand on my arm as she stares at us both.

“Fine. I get it. But seriously, if either one of you ever want to talk about it, I’m here. And I have two ears to listen with.”

I pat her hand. “Thanks, Jace. But back to the matter at hand. I’m going to stay with you for a while. No arguments.”

Jacey groans, but finally nods. “Fine. I guess it would be nice to have you around anyway. I miss you. And you know, Gran’s been after you to come and bug-bomb her basement for spiders ever since you got home. This will give you an opportunity.”

She grins and it’s my turn to groan. “Crap. I forgot. I don’t know much about bug-bombing, but between Brand and me, we’ll figure it out.”

Brand yelps. “How the hell did I figure into this? The only thing I know about spiders is that I stay away from them.”

“I’ll pay you in beer,” I offer.

“Done,” he quickly agrees.

I turn back to Jacey. “Now, about this Jared guy. What’s he like? I want to get a handle on him.”

Jacey thinks on that. “Well, he isn’t the most stable person. I should’ve listened to Maddy. She tried to tell me what he did with Mila. But when I asked him about it, he said he’d been drunk and wasn’t himself and I believed him. The problem is, he’s drunkallthe time and so he gets ugly. But if you’re at the house, I bet he’ll leave me alone. No one in their right mind, drunk or not, would mess with you. Your bicep is as big as my thigh.”

I picture Mila, the sister who introduced herself to me earlier. The sweet, charming sister who clearly wouldn’t hurt a fly. If that asshole would fuck with a chick like that, he wouldn’t hesitate to fuck with my feisty sister.

“You have to take unbalanced little fucks like him seriously, Jace. And somehow, I doubt your little boy toy is intimidating enough to help much. But I’ll be here now and hopefully Jared will just stay away and the problem will be taken care of.”

“OK,” Jacey sighs. “But don’t rag on Peter. He’s in a band. He doesn’t need to be intimidating. He’s a creative.”

I roll my eyes and she grins.

“I’d better get my side work done so that Maddy doesn’t freak out. She pretty much stays until the last person is ready to go. When will you be at the cottage?”

“I’ll drive home and pack a bag and then be back tonight. It might be late, but I’ll be here.”

“ ’K.” She drops a kiss on my forehead as she walks past. “You’re the best big brother I have. Thank you for my birthday watch. It’s gorgeous.” She stares at her wrist, at the glittering gold watch I brought her.

“I’m the only big brother you have,” I answer. “And you’re welcome.”

She starts to walk away, then stops, glancing back at me. “Hey, Ethan Eldridge is asking Maddy out. You’d better get over there and take care of that.”

My head snaps up, only for me to find Madison talking to the candy-ass she was with earlier. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but Jacey can.

“You missed out.” She shakes her head. “She just said yes.”

Why does that annoy me so much? Maddy looks up and catches my gaze, her cheeks flushing. Why do I botherherso much? What the hell did I do last night?

“I don’t own her, Jace,” I finally answer. “She can date whoever she wants.”

“But I want her to dateyou,” Jacey says. “You don’t even know how perfect you are for each other.” I just roll my eyes and turn back to Brand.

We watch Jacey walk off and then Brand looks at me.

“You’re going to fuck him up, right?”

I know he’s not talking about the candy-ass who just asked Madison out. He’s talking about the little asshole giving my sister a hard time. I stare at Brand levelly over the rim of my beer bottle.

“Yep. If he comes anywhere near her.”

Brand nods in satisfaction. “Fucking prick. Jacey’s gotta stop dating those losers.”

“I know,” I agree. “She’s got to stop dating so many guys, period. She needs to be more discriminating. Jesus.”

Brand looks at me, his expression suddenly serious.

“You know, it might help you to be here. It’s a good place for you to try and get back on your feet, to get healthy again, you know?”

A knot forms in my throat and I ignore it. I nod wordlessly as I stare out the window. I don’t like talking about this shit, not even with Brand.

“I know what it’s like,” he reminds me. “Everyone’s got demons. You and I just happen to share ours. And dude, it’s not your fault. And it’s not my fault. We got served a shit sandwich that night. You’ve got to stop blaming yourself for it. Mad Dog wouldn’t want that.”

“Mad Dog can’t want anything,” I tell him grimly. “He’s dead. And if I hadn’t been distracted…”

“No,” Brand interrupts. “No. Just stop right there. There’s no way we could’ve known what was going on. Not you, and not me either. You’ve got to deal with this and move on, Gabe. Trust me, I know.”

I stare at him for a minute before I finally nod. He’s got a point. It really might help me to be here. And he does know what he’s talking about. When we first came back from overseas, Brand signed up for extensive PTSD therapy, while I opted out. For one thing, I think therapy’s a bunch of bullshit. For another, they can’t fix me like they fixed Brand. What happened wasn’t his fault. It was mine.

“Fine,” I agree. “I’ll try to deal with this. How’s your foot?”

That night… the night that we both would like to forget, has left lasting scars on the both of us in different ways. The explosion that blew apart our Humvee broke every bone in Brand’s left leg and foot, basically crushing it. The doctors had to reconstruct the entire thing and now it’s more steel and screws than it is bone. Brand still walks with a barely discernible limp.

“It’s getting better,” he answers. “Still hurts like a bitch, but you know what they say. Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

“You’re a crazy summabitch,” I tell him. “You know that, right?”

“Uh-uh,” he answers, shaking his head. “I passed the psych test with flying colors when we discharged. I’m certifiably sane. True story.”

I roll my eyes. “Nope. You just know how to act that way. True story.”

Brand laughs and throws a twenty on the table as a tip for Jacey.

“Isn’t that a bit much?” I raise an eyebrow. He shrugs.

“It’s her birthday. And she’s always broke. That girl seriously can’t manage her money. She needs to get her ass back in school so that she can get a job where she makes more of it.”

I shake my head at the mere thought of my sister’s fickle career plans.

“If she made more money, she’d probably just spend that too. She’s changed her mind a thousand times. But she’d better figure it out soon. She can’t wait tables forever.”

Regardless of my harsh words, I toss a tip down too. She does need the money.

Brand hesitates before he walks away. “I mean it. Take some time off.”

Jacey’s nowhere to be seen, so I shoot her a text, telling her that I’ll see her later tonight. I take a step for the door, and then get an idea.

Taking the extra receipt lying on the table, I scribble a note and then my cell number before I fold it over and walk it to the burly guy tending bar.

“Could you give this to Madison?” I ask him. He stares at me curiously, but holds his hand out for the note.

“Sure,” he answers, questioning me with his eyes.

“Thanks,” I reply, handing it to him, not offering him an answer.

I leave without looking back, climbing into my Camaro.

It’s not a practical car, but I always wanted one, so when I discharged from the Rangers I bought one brand-new… sort of as a consolation prize for giving up my dream job. It’s a badass car, but it’s not nearly good enough to make up for the life I lost.

One single night changed my life forever.

One fucking night.

And the worst part is that even though it was my fault, if we’d been better protected, Mad Dog would still be alive and Brand’s leg wouldn’t have been destroyed.

None of that can be changed for us now. But if we can change it for future soldiers, we’ll try like hell to make it happen. All we have to do now is finish designing the product, get another investor so that we can have prototypes made and then successfully pitch it to the Pentagon.

Easy.

I light up a cigarette as I blow down the quiet highway. Everything here in Angel Bay is quiet and uneventful; barely anything happens. This really might be what I need to get my shit straight.

And it doesn’t hurt anything that this is where Madison is.

I grin at the sheer fucking coincidence of it all.

And then I grin again at the note that I left for her.

We need to finish what we started.

Chapter SevenMadison

I grit my teeth as I think about those words, color flooding my cheeks as I let Gabriel get to me once again.

We need to finish what we started.

Who the hell does he think he is? Oh my God. He’s so fucking arrogant. He thinks he can completely ignore the fact that he turned into a crazy person the other night, offer me no explanation whatsoever, stroll into my restaurant and just find me waiting to fuck him?

He’s crazier than I thought he was.

I look into the mirror as I put in my earrings, the diamond studs that I wear when I want to dress up. They were the last gift that my parents gave me before they died, a college graduation present.

I study myself now. My hair is pulled into a loose chignon at the nape of my neck, I’m wearing lipstick, a little black dress, and kick-ass black strappy heels. I’m the perfect picture of a date.

And hell no. I’m not going out with Gabriel. He thinks he can come in and shove someone around in my restaurant and I’ll just fall at his feet in gratitude? He’s crazy. The Hill already had one bully, and he’s been dead for four years. We don’t need another one.

The memory of Gabriel’s face as he slammed Jared against the door causes my stomach to clench. He almost seemed to like it. He liked having Jared at his mercy. I squeeze my eyes closed, then open them again, refocusing.

No more thinking about Gabriel.

Ethan is making me dinner tonight and damn it, I’m going to like it. Or at least I’m going to pretend like hell that I do. I sigh and pick up my black clutch, turning the lights off and heading out to my car.

Screw it.

Other people’s perceptions don’t usually bother me at all, but for some reason I really hate the idea that everyone thinks I don’t have a social life. I don’t have a social life because I haven’t met anyone who makes me want one.

It only takes ten minutes to drive across our little town and Ethan meets me as I walk up to his door. He’s wearing a light-blue V-neck sweater that complements his eyes and slim black pants that complement his ass. I should be attracted to him.

So why aren’t I?

“I’d thought you’d be right on the lake,” I tell him as he greets me. “I’m surprised you’d live in one of these new condos.”

He smiles and takes my sweater.

“I know. But my schedule’s too crazy to take care of a cottage. I’m pretty much a slave to the hospital.“

I stare at him, marveling once again that people put their health (and their very fragile babies) into his large and clumsy hands. I can’t help but tell him that very thing.

He laughs good-naturedly. “Oh, Maddy. You’ve got to get to know me again. I think you’re gonna be pleasantly surprised.”

As we walk into his condo, I have to admit that Iampleasantly surprised by it. Everything is so sleek and modern; and everything is neat and clean. It’s not what I was expecting, based on the guy Ethan used to be. As hard as it is for me to imagine it, maybe he really has grown up.


Page 10

“This is gorgeous,” I tell him as I turn around, taking it all in. “A very grown-up condo.”

He chuckles. “It suits the grown-up man who lives in it.”

I stare at him. “Touché. All right. I admit it. I’m going to have to try and see you in a different light, not like the boy who ate a grasshopper.”

He rolls his eyes. “Seriously. Am I never going to live that down? I was ten years old! A lot changes in fifteen years, Madison.”

We laugh and he sits me down on a sleek sofa while he pours me a glass of wine. “I hope you like red,” he says as he hands it to me. “We’re having veal so I paired it with a nice merlot.”

“That’s perfect,” I tell him as our fingers touch. “And very grown-up. I love merlot.”

He grins, then excuses himself to go check on the food. The delicious smells coming from the kitchen make my mouth water.

“It’s such a surprise to find out that you can cook too,” I call across the room. The condo is an open design, so I can see everything he’s doing. He chuckles as he closes up the oven and then comes around the kitchen bar top with the bottle of wine.

“I’m good with my hands,” he tells me suggestively as he sits next to me. “Trust me.” I have to smile.

“OK. You really have changed. You weren’t this flirty in high school.”

Ethan stares at me, surprised. “I was too! Just not with you. You scared the shit out of me. I wanted to ask you out for four years straight, but I was afraid you’d crush me if I ever did. You were out of my league.”

I’m the surprised one now. “Out of your league? You know that everyone called you Ken, right? As inKen doll… because you were so perfect?”

He’s interested now, staring at me intently. “Tell me more about this,” he grins.

I laugh and we chat and suddenly everything feels like old times again, just like when he used to come to my house with groups of our friends and hang out for bonfires on the beach.

The problem is, it feels just like old times. I don’t feel any chemistry with him now, just like I didn’t back then.

“So, what do you do for fun, Ethan?” I ask politely, sipping at my wine. He mimics the motion, sipping his.

“I don’t really have time for much,” he admits. “My time is pretty much all taken up by the hospital. If I’m home, then I’m sleeping or watching TV for a minute. I have very little free time.”

“Yet you’re spending an evening with me,” I point out. Ethan grins.

“See? You should feel flattered.”

I practically sigh aloud as I ignore the way he keeps edging closer to me. It’s apparent that he’s not having the lack-of-chemistry problem that I’m having.

To make matters worse, he’s probably used to women at the clinic throwing themselves at him for the simple reason that he’s a good-looking doctor. He’s not used to rejection because those nurses and nurse’s aides and patients… they don’t care that he’s boring as hell and just lives to work. All they see is the “MD” on his name tag.

They don’t care that he lacks a spark. They don’t care that he’d never slide his hand between their legs in a taxi. They don’t care that he would never fuck their mouths with his tongue while the cab driver sneaks glances in the rearview mirror. My cheeks explode into flame.

Fuck. Why am I thinking about Gabriel again?

And worse, why do thoughts of him turn me on so freaking much?

I’m almost relieved when dinner is finally ready, when I can step away from Ethan, when I can stop pretending to be interested in what he’s saying. When I can stop pretending that I’m not thinking about someone else.

Instead I can distract myself by eating. I’ve never been so happy to see a plate of steaming veal Marsala in my life.

“This is really good,” I tell him as I take another bite. “I’m impressed.”

He grins. “Good. That was my goal. I really can’t make anything else.”

I burst out laughing. “Really?”

He shakes his head. “No. I can. I just wanted you to laugh. You’re too serious, Mad. You might look like her, but you’re not the girl I remember from school.”

I feel my cheeks flush with color as I reach for my wineglass. How many times have I heard that very thing since my parents died? What the hell do people expect? Mila and I were orphaned, for God’s sake. We had to grow up in a hurry and that meant getting serious. I had to watch out for my sister, take over the restaurant, assume the business loan… none of those things were easy.

I don’t say any of that, though, because none of it is Ethan’s fault… or his business.

“Well, things changed after my parents died,” I simply say.

He nods thoughtfully. “I figured that was it. My mom said that you pretty much shouldered everything yourself. You let Mila do her own thing while you came home and took over the restaurant. That was nice of you.”

I shake my head. “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” I protest. “I majored in business so that when I got too old to model, I’d have a fallback plan. So it made sense that I should take over the Hill. Neither of us wanted to sell it and Mila would have taken it over if I’d asked her to.”

“But you didn’t ask her,” Ethan pointed out. “You came home to run it.”

“Yes,” I answer. “I did. Mila never wanted anything to do with business. She’s always been artsy. That was always her dream. And her dreams shouldn’t die just because our parents did.”

Ethan stares at me and then pours me another glass of wine. “I was at school when I heard about your parents, Maddy. I didn’t really know what to do. But I am really sorry about what happened to them. And about what’s happened to you because of it. I understand that you don’t want Mila to give up her dreams… and I respect that. But what about your own? Running the Hill wasn’t your dream. It was theirs.”

“No, it wasn’t,” I admit grudgingly. “What’s the deal, Ethan? Are you trying to make me think I should be unsatisfied?” I smile, to try to lighten the tone, but I still ask the question. Because seriously—what the hell?

Ethan immediately shakes his head.

“Of course not. You just don’t seem as happy as you used to be. And I’m just trying to figure out why. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Well, things change and I’m not the girl you remember,” I point out. “And you didn’t offend me.”

But he kind of did.

I sip at the rest of my wine and we chat for a bit more over dessert, about old times. About high school and college, and old friends that we have in common. And then out of the blue, Ethan looks at me seriously.

“I know this is probably a stupid question since you’re here tonight, but are you dating anyone? I mean, seriously seeing someone?”

I’m taken aback by his question and stare at him stupidly for a second.

“Of course not,” I finally manage to say. “If I was, I’m sure he wouldn’t be too happy about the fact that I’m here on a date with you.”

Ethan grins and seems relieved. “OK. Good. I just wasn’t sure if you were considering this a date or not, or if you just thought we were catching up. I just wanted to check.”

I have to laugh. “I actually thought we were just catching up, but Mila insisted it was a date. So I’m glad that’s cleared up.”

“Well, you look beautiful and I’m not ready to say good night,” Ethan announces. “Want to go for a walk on the beach? It’s not raining for the first time in days. We should take advantage of it. I can drive us there and you can leave your heels in the car.”

“Good plan,” I tell him. “Because there’s no way in hell these heels are getting anywhere near the sand. I had to eat frozen burritos for a month for these.”

He chuckles, not knowing that I eat frozen burritos anyway. As he helps me shrug into my sweater, he dips his head and inhales. “You smell fantastic.”

“Thank you,” I murmur. The compliment was nice, but I’m rethinking my decision to extend our date.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with me because I’m still not attracted to him, even though he’s Mr. Perfect now.

I climb into his BMW and he closes my door, a perfect gentleman. We’re at the beach in just a couple of minutes.

As Ethan pulls into a space, I gaze out across the water.

“It seems so majestic, doesn’t it?” I ask Ethan softly. “So big. It makes me feel so small.”

“I don’t know about that,” he replies as he opens my door. “But it’s definitely windy.”

I roll my eyes at his lack of appreciation for the beauty around us and follow him down the narrow path to the shore. Wild grass blows on either side of the hard-packed trail. To our left the water crashes into the shore. To our right the sand dunes roll, rugged and beautiful.

“I love it here,” I sigh and I grasp Ethan’s arm.

I mean, it’s supposed to be a date. I can touch the guy, right? The wind is chilly and his arm is warm. It’s not a crime to absorb some of his heat.

I don’t even let my mind wander to the guy I’d really like to be touching. And I wouldn’t just be touching him to stay warm, either. The mere thought of how I’d like to touch him makes my cheeks flush yet again as in my head, Gabriel winks at me.

Why the hell is he stuck in my head?

“I like it here too,” Ethan answers, bringing me back to my present company. “I thought about staying in the city to do my residency but I really just wanted to come home. It was a nice surprise to find you still here. You always seemed destined for something bigger than here, you know?”

He smiles down at me with white teeth a supermodel would be envious of. I really, really, really wish that my heart would flutter or my hormones would react. But they don’t. Nothing. Nada.

Hell. I’m such a dating failure.

“Well, it was definitely hard getting used to being back here. It’s so small.”

Ethan laughs at that, but thankfully lets the conversation thread go. I’m grateful because his small talk is annoyingly bland.

We continue walking and chatting and I continue holding on to his arm.

He appears to be genuinely interested in all the things I tell him about the Hill, although I can’t say the same for myself about his tales from the clinic. How can someone so gorgeous be so freaking boring?

“So, yeah, I was freaked out when I first gave someone a catheter. I mean, seriously. Who really wants to pick up another man’s penis and insert a hose into it? Thank God that’s usually the nurses’ job.” Ethan continues to tell me his medical tales and I continue to tune them out. Becauseseriously. I don’t want to hear about him playing with another man’s junk.

As I concentrate onnotlistening, a figure takes shape in the near distance, jogging toward us. Out of idle curiosity, I keep an eye on the jogger as he draws closer and closer, and then almost gasp when I finally realize who it is.

Gabriel.

No freaking way. It’s like the universe is determined to keep bringing me into his path.

My mouth instantly goes dry as his stormy eyes lock on my face.

We need to finish what we started.

I feel my cheeks flush and as they do, he smirks… like he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

He’s shirtless and the muscles in his chest and abdomen flex with every movement. His dark hair is mussed and damp, so it’s obvious he’s been running for a while.

Sweet Mary. Why is it that an entire evening with Ethan leaves me cold but one freaking glance from this guy sets my blood on fire?

The man is built. His arms are cut, his abs are a rock-hard washboard and he’s got that perfect V running down into the waistband of his shorts. I try to pretend that I don’t notice, but I can tell from his smirk that he knows that I did.

I ignore it. Instead I ponder the way he seems so lean and efficient. Every movement is smooth and deliberate. And powerful. I’ve always heard that Special Forces turn their soldiers into trained killers. I don’t know about that, but holy crap, he looks lethal.

I can’t seem to look away and as he jogs past, he glances at me sideways.

He also splashes through a tiny pool of water, which splatters Ethan’s pants in muddy droplets.

“Hey, dude,” Ethan protests, turning to glare after Gabriel. “Watch what you’re doing.”

I’m surprised that Ethan would say anything at all because it was clearly an accident, but I’m equally surprised when Gabriel stops, turns and walks back to us, sweat glistening on his brow.Hell.

“What did you say?” he asks incredulously. Apparently he’s surprised too.

Ethan seems hesitant now that he’s face-to-face with Gabe.

“I said watch it,” he says, quieter now. “You got mud on my pants.”

“Did I now?” Gabe rolls his eyes. “I apologize. I apologize that you’re a candy-ass who doesn’t like to get dirty.”

Ethan practically sputters as he steps toward Gabriel and I have no clue what to do.

“Whatcha gonna do, candy-ass?” Gabriel taunts him, leaning forward mockingly. “Anything?”

Gabriel raises an eyebrow, waiting, and I shake my head, disappointed that he would react like this. Disappointed, but not surprised. He did punch a hole in his wall, for God’s sake, then turned around and slammed Jared into a wall. It’s clear what kind of guy he is… someone who has a temper problem. Before I can stop myself, I speak up for Ethan.

“What the hell, Gabriel? You splashed mud on him. This is your fault, not his. Why are you being such a dick about it?”

The way he looks at me, with almost an offended expression, makes me wonder… is this overreaction about me? Is he annoyed that Ethan is here with me? His face closes up, though, and I decide that that can’t be right

“Come find me if you get tired of having a girl fight your battles,” Gabriel tells Ethan. “And I’ll be happy to buy you another pair of candy-ass pants.”

He starts to walk away, then turns back around, his eyes locking on mine. His dark gaze is intense as he stares into my eyes, then at my mouth.

What’s he thinking? Why the hell is he acting like what happened the other night was normal? Like any of this is normal?

It’s not normal.

Doesn’t he care that I helped him? I took a chance, a risk, by walking a strange man home because I just couldn’t leave him there alone. And now he just wants to pretend that none of it happened.


Page 11

He just keeps staring at my lips with a gaze that says,It doesn’t matter. None of that matters, Maddy.

And for a minute it really doesn’t because he’s staring at my mouth like he wants to devour it and that’s all I can think about.

Self-consciously, I drag my teeth across my bottom lip. In reaction, the corner of his tilts up and I get a glimpse of his white teeth, his pink tongue.

The same tongue that has licked and sucked my nipples.

My heart slams in my chest and he smiles, just slightly.

He knows what I’m thinking.

I take a breath. He takes a step.

He takes another one, dipping his head toward my ear, close enough that Ethan can’t hear, close enough that his lips graze my cheek.

“Think about me, Maddy.”

My heart stops. Before I can respond, he grins cockily and spins around, jogging past us without looking back.

“What a dick,” Ethan mutters. “Who is that guy? What did he say to you?”

“Jacey’s brother,” I answer, fighting an incredible urge to look over my shoulder, to watch him jog away. “I don’t know why he’s still here. I think he lives in Chicago.”

Iknowhe lives in Chicago. But obviously I don’t mention that or how I know that. And I definitely don’t tell him what Gabriel said.

“Well, we can hope that he goes home soon,” Ethan grumbles. “We don’t need assholes like that here. This town is too small for that. It’s bad enough that we have Pax Tate.”

His head snaps up as he remembers that Pax is my brother-in-law, as he realizes that he just stuck his foot in his mouth.

“God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that ever since he moved here a few years ago, we all knew to steer clear of him. We knew that if we bumped into him on a bad day, he would be a total asshole.”

“What do you care?” I demand. “You were hardly ever home to bump into him. And he’s not an asshole anymore.”

“That’s what they say,” Ethan says, seemingly unconvinced. His tone, his words… everything about him right now is annoying me. He has no right to judge Pax. Not by a long shot.

And yes, Gabriel overreacted. He could’ve kept on jogging and pretended that he didn’t hear Ethan. But Ethan didn’t need to say anything in the first place. So what if he got some water splashed on his pants?

He reallyisa candy-ass.

And Gabe so clearly isnot.

My mood toward Ethan has definitely been dampened even more than it already was and I remain quiet as he and I walk back to his car.

After he drives me back to his place, I tell him that I’m tired and that I should really head home rather than come inside for a drink. I can tell he’s disappointed, but he handles it smoothly.

“That’s all right, Maddy. I’ve been up since four a.m., so I’m wiped too. But this was fun. We should do it again soon.”

There is an awkward pause as I stand next to my car.

I can tell he’s contemplating kissing me and I dread the thought.

Don’t, I silently instruct him. But instead of expecting him to read my mind, I solve the problem by raising myself up on my tiptoes and kissing his cheek.

“Sure,” I murmur.

Ethan stares down at me as the top of my car lowers.

“I’ll call you this week, OK?”

I nod and get into my car, and as I drive away, I mentally examine myself.

I hate candy-ass guys but I also hate bullies. My father was a bully. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

Even bullies who are sexy as hell.Especiallybullies who are sexy as hell, because they just draw me in toward something that I need to stay far away from. Because Mila was right the other night—I do tend to pick the wrong guys. I tend to beattractedto the wrong guys.

Honestly, I’m starting to think that there is no one out there for me. I don’t like the guys I should, and the guys I like are bad for me. Maybe I’m destined to be alone.

When I walk into my empty house, it only emphasizes that fact.

I’m alone.

I kick off my shoes, drop my purse on a table in the foyer and collapse into a chair in the living room with a bottle of wine.

Just the bottle, no glass.

I dangle my legs over the side of the chair as I think about the evening.

Thoughts of Ethan make me cringe. Besides annoying me with his judgment of Pax, Ethan just lacks something. A spark, a passion. I can’t put my finger on it, but whatever it is, I doubt he’s ever going to make me feel the way I want someone to make me feel.

But Gabriel does.

One smoldering look from him sends my pulse racing, bully or not.

We need to finish what we started.

Fuck. What is wrong with me? Why am I so stuck on someone I shouldn’t want… but do?

All I know is Gabriel has that certain kind of confidence. The kind that turns my stomach inside out. And there’s something else about him, too… something intriguing. I don’t even know him, but there’s something in his eyes, something dark and haunted that draws me to him.

I ponder that for a minute; ponder what he might have seen in Afghanistan that was so terrible that it scarred him inside. What turned him into a panicky mess the night of the taxi accident?

Because he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who panics.

In my head I see him jogging on the beach again, all huge and strong and disciplined. Judging by how sweaty he was, I bet he’d been jogging for miles and yet he was still going, just like a machine. He’s clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Yet something has the power to bring him to his knees. It’s a puzzle.

My eyes flutter closed as I picture Gabriel’s rippling muscles, glistening with a light sheen of sweat. I picture him crawling up and over me, rubbing against me, his fingers stroking me.

Oh my God. My eyes snap open and my cheeks flush as I realize I just drifted into a fantasy about Gabriel. He’s a guy that is made of everything that scares me.

He will hurt you.

I know that.

Yet at the same time, I know he’s a guy who can turn me on in one second flat.

What the eff is wrong with me?

*     *     *

“Madison, there is something wrong with you,” Jacey sighs, shaking her head as she sifts through a rack of spring blouses. “Seriously. I know some girls who would give their left ovary to date Ethan Eldridge and you’re standing here complaining that he doesn’t do it for you? Let’s recap, shall we? He’s gorgeous, he’s a doctor, and did I mention that he’s a gorgeous freaking doctor?”

I roll my eyes as I pull out a pink tunic and examine it. It would look perfect with my gray skinny jeans so I drape it over my arm.

“He’s a resident doctor and heisgood-looking. But I’ve just known him too long. I want the butterflies… that fluttery feeling that you get when you meet someone amazing. And besides, why are you on Team Ethan so hard right now? I thought you wanted me to date your brother.”

I stare pointedly at her and she doesn’t even have the grace to look sheepish.

She simply stares back at me. “Because he was sort of rude yesterday, not exactly a great first impression. I just figured you wouldn’t want to give him a chance.”

Actually, Gabe made one hell of a first impression.

I smile as I think of him outside the club that night. He was so cocky and sexy in the alley behind the club, grabbing my wrist and pulling me to him. My heart speeds up just thinking about it. I shouldn’t like that shit… that alpha, ultra-confident bad-boy shit. But I do. I can’t help it.

“He didn’t make a bad first impression,” I tell Jacey. “It was the second impression that sucked.”

Jacey crows when she sees the expression on my face.

“I knew it! I knew you liked him. Maddy, I promise you, he’s perfect for you. Just give him another chance. Puh-leeeease! It will be easy for you too. He’s going to stay here with me for a while because of Jared. Big Brother Gabriel is going to fight my battles for me.”

Jacey hands me a blue peasant blouse to try on. “He’ll be with me for at least a couple of weeks. I’m sure he’ll be into the Hill a lot to eat. He doesn’t really cook.”

I look up at her. “You know we have a delivery service. He won’t even have to come in. We can deliver meals right to his door.”

Jacey laughs. “Whatever. You know you want to see him. I can tell.”

Heaven help me, I do. But I’d never admit it to her. To admit my infatuation to her would make it real. And I can’t make it real or act on it because it’s not good for me. At all.

So instead I just shake my head.

“I don’t need to see him. And he’s not into me anyway, so it’s all a moot point.”

That’s a lie, but I figure it might shut Jacey down.

But no.

Jacey glances up at me, even more interested now.

“You don’t think he’s into you?” Her eyes gleam. “Because I can find out for you.”

“Oh my God,” I groan. “We’re not in fourth grade. Leave it alone, Jace.”

“Whatever,” Jacey mutters. “But if you change your mind, I’ll give you his number and you can call him yourself.”

I can tell that she’s not sure whether I’m telling the truth or not about not wanting to see her brother. And to be honest, I’m not sure either.

Because even though I know I shouldn’t, I find myself thinking about him all the time. I think about his husky voice in my ear and his hand between my legs in that taxi. I think about his dark, dark gaze and how it sets my skin on fire from across the room.

But even more telling than my runaway thoughts is one interesting thing.

I haven’t thrown his number away. It’s neatly folded and tucked inside my purse, along with the accompanying message.

We need to finish what we started.

Chapter EightGabriel

The night is so fucking black that I can’t even see my hand in front of my face. I groan, try to move, then give up. I try to hear, try to see, try to move the rest of my body… but fail on all counts. The shadows move around me and I’m too weak to care. I don’t feel anything and I think that’s odd. I should be in fucking pain and for a second I’m panicked that I’m paralyzed.

I calm down when I realize I’m probably just in shock. I groan again, trying to get up, but I realize it’s not happening.

And then I smell it.

Blood.

Brand and Mad Dog are out there and I’ve got to see if they’re alive. The smell of blood is strong in the breeze, as well as burning metal, hissing gas and dust. Fuck. It takes me a minute, but I finally manage to flip onto my belly and drag myself by my elbows.

I’m definitely not paralyzed and fuck, the pain has arrived. My head is screaming, but I’ve got to find my friends.

Inch by painful inch, I pull myself through the carnage-riddled dust. A twisted piece of our Humvee is lodged in the ground to my left, and I can smell melting rubber as a tire burns to my right.

And then, through the smoke, I see a face on the side of the road, bloody and mud-spattered. My heart hammers as I try like hell to get to it, to see if it’s Brand or Mad Dog… until I arrive and find that it’s neither.

The girl’s eyes are wide and open. And lifeless.

She stares at me, blaming me.

I remember everything and the memories slam into me like a freight train.

It’s all my fault.

The pain in my head intensifies, like a million shards of glass, and everything fades to black.

I wake up in a cold sweat, my sheets drenched with my terror, my throat bone dry.

I lie still for a minute, sucking in coarse breaths of air as I try to force myself to calm down. The dream is so fucking real, though, as if every memory from that night is permanently imprinted in my mind. Which, of course, it is. I’m never going to be free of it.

I reach for a glass of water to soothe my parched throat, only to find that I don’t have a nightstand here. I’d forgotten.

I pull myself into a sitting position, running a hand through my hair, before I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen in the dark. I’m still unnerved by my fucking dream, and even the shadows cast in this dark and familiar kitchen make me uneasy. The luminescent microwave clock tells me that it’s five thirty a.m. The sun should be coming up soon.

I grab a bottle of water and slump into a chair at the kitchen table, gazing absently outside. Jacey’s car isn’t in the driveway, which means she didn’t come home last night. That’s a fact that pisses me off.

Yes, she’s an adult. Yes, normally she could stay over at her boyfriend’s without a problem. But shit. I’m here so that she feels safe. If she doesn’t even bother to come home, there’s no sense in me being here.

I drink the water, then drink one more bottle. My mouth is still dry when I’m finished. The night terrors always affect me in a very physical way… headaches, sweat, shortness of breath. It’s like I’m actually back in Afghanistan, actually reliving that night over and over. It’s a pain in the ass.

I toss the bottles into the recycling bin and head to the bathroom. I know there’s no way I’m going back to sleep now. I turn the water on and I’m waiting for it to heat up when I hear the back door quietly open.

Jacey.

I fling open the bathroom door and storm down the hallway to find her creeping quietly through the kitchen.

“Welcome home,” I say grimly as I flip on the light. She blinks in the brightness, then grins at me.

“Hey, big brother,” she says, as she trips on a rug. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

She’s obviously drunk.

“You do realize that you’re supposed to be at work in a few hours,” I point out. She doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ll be fine,” she slurs. “Don’t worry about it, I’m a big girl. What’s your problem?”

“My problem would be lost on you at this particular moment,” I tell her. “But trust me, we’ll be talking about it later. If you ever drive home drunk again, you won’t need Jared to manhandle you. I’ll kick your little ass myself. Go sleep it off. We’ll talk when you’re coherent.”


Page 12

“Whatever,” she mutters as she wobbles down the hall. “Shows how much you know. Jared’s still messing with me. He’s been texting me all night. Said he’s going to teach you a lesson.” She kicks off one of her heels, then throws the other down the hallway in frustration.

“Don’t trip on my shoe,” she calls helpfully over her shoulder.

I shake my head as I follow her, stooping to pick up the offending shoe. I toss it into her bedroom as I head to the shower, stewing the entire time over my sister’s dumbass ex-boyfriend and her irresponsibility. If he’s been texting her all night, why the fuck didn’t she call and tell me?

But there’s no use trying to talk about it with her right now. It won’t do any good because she wouldn’t remember the conversation in the morning. I grit my teeth and try to find things to distract myself with. I clean my boots, rig the bug bombs for the spiders in the basement, and clean out my car.

Unfortunately, though, four hours later I find myself insanely restless. Jacey is still snoring in her room, although I know she’ll have to get up soon if she’s going to make it to work by eleven.

I’ve answered some work e-mails, touched base with Brand on the phone and gone for a thirty-minute run on the beach.

Luckily, this time I didn’t run into the candy-ass that Madison was with last night. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what she sees in someone like that. She actually took his side when he bitched at me for getting his fucking pants wet.

There’s no logical reason that I can think of that she would prefer that guy over me.

I pointedly ignore the one thing that it might be… the thing that I’m hoping like hell it’s not. She might be totally turned off by me because of what she saw that night in Chicago. She might have seen too much and now she thinks I’m crazy. Or a pussy.

Neither of those things is good but the problem is I have no idea what she’s thinking. She wants me. I can tell. But she’s icy as hell too.

I shake my head.

I’m gonna have to stop trying to figure women out, because they make no fucking sense. I’m definitely not going to sit here stewing over it, but I have nothing left to do. So I do the only thing that makes sense to me.

I head out to find a gym. Lifting weights always burns restless energy. Besides, I can’t stop working out just because I’m no longer in the army.

It doesn’t take me long to find the gym since Angel Bay only has one. That actually doesn’t surprise me in a town this small. In fact, I’m surprised that it has one at all.

I’m signed up as a member and headed back to the weight room within a few minutes. This gym is old-school, nothing fancy. The walls are white and covered with inspirational posters.

NO PAIN, NO GAIN.

YOU MISS100%OF THE SHOTS YOU DON’T TAKE.

CLEAR YOUR MIND OF“CAN’T.”

THE ONLY WAY TO FINISH IS TO START.

All true, all cliché.

But whatever. Cliché or not, this is the kind of place I like. There’s no coffee bar, lounge area or girls dressed to the nines. This is a gym meant for people to work out in. Those fancy places in the city make me want to punch a hole in the wall. I don’t go to the gym to pick women up. I go to work out.

I do fifty curls with the twenty-pound weight before switching to the other arm. As I breathe out through my mouth, slowly and evenly, I notice Madison’s brother-in-law across the room on the hip sled. Seeing someone familiar shouldn’t surprise me since this town is so fucking small. I can’t go anywhere without bumping into someone.

He catches my gaze and after a few minutes makes his way over to me, holding out a sweaty hand.

“I’m Pax Tate. My wife Mila introduced herself to you the other night. I’m not as social as she is, so I didn’t interrupt your dinner.” The way he’s grinning, it’s clear Madison’s sister has this guy wrapped around her finger.

I chuckle at the memory. “It was no problem. I get the feeling that Angel Bay doesn’t get many new people. She was curious. And thanks for stepping up with Jared. I didn’t get a chance to say anything to you that night.”

Pax rolls his eyes. “Mila thought you might need some backup. I was pretty sure you had it under control. And yeah, she’s curious. More about you and her sister, but whatever. Women.” He rolls his eyes again. “I could use a spotter for the bench. You got a second?”

“Sure.” I get up and follow him to the bench, waiting until he is situated on his back before lifting the three-hundred-pound-laden bar off the rungs and handing it to him.

“Why is Mila fascinated with Madison and me?” I ask as I count his reps. He’s strong and in shape. He does fifteen with no problem before setting the bar back into the holder.

“Because Maddy doesn’t date. You’re the first person she’s shown any interest in for a long time. And trust me, Mila is fascinated with that.”

“By ‘showing interest,’ do you mean that she absolutely refused to even look at me the other day in the restaurant? Until she bitched at me for being too rough with Jared, that is.”

Pax looks at me as we switch places and he hands me the bar. As I bench the weight, I explain how we met and how she definitely didn’t want anyone to hear about it at the Hill, especially her sister. He bursts out laughing.

“That does sound like Madison. She wouldn’t want to give Mila any ammunition. Was she mad that you dared to show up at her restaurant or what?”

I nod, hooking the bar into the rungs again, then pausing to catch my breath. “Apparently.”

“Typical Madison,” Pax chuckles. “But deep down she’s sweet, once you get past her outer bitchiness. I heard her bitch at you for the Jared thing. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she’s got hang-ups with that shit so don’t take it personally. Mila and Madison’s dad used to knock their mom around so she’s got a thing about any kind of violence at all.”

I stare at him for a minute, thinking back to the other night at the Hill when she told Jacey that her dad had a temper like Jared’s.

“Shit,” I mutter aloud. “Seriously?”

Pax nods. “Seriously.”

I think of Madison, of how she’s so confident and strong, and I can’t picture her involved in an abusive relationship of any sort.

“Did their dad hit them, or just their mom?”

Pax shakes his head as we switch places so he can do his second set. “He never laid a hand on Mila. But I can’t say for sure about Maddy. It’s not exactly something we sit down and talk about.”

Pax stops talking as he runs out of breath while he’s benching. I let this conversation go. It’s not my business and I can see that he’s not that comfortable talking about it anyway.

When we switch places for my second set, Pax changes the subject.

“So are you sticking around for a while? What do you do?”

I explain my situation, why I’m here and the fledgling company I co-own. Pax seems particularly interested in DefenseTech.

“Advanced body armor? That’s badass… makes me think of Batman. You know, my family’s company is looking to diversify and invest in something new. This honestly sounds like something I might be interested in. I’ve got a tight schedule this week, but let’s hook up and talk next week.”

I’m beyond surprised that an opportunity like this would fall into my lap, but I try not to act like it. When I tell Brand, he’s going to shit. I keep my face calm.

“Sure, that sounds great. I’ll give you a call later in the week to set it up.”

Pax nods. “Remind me to give you my card before you go.”

We switch places and I do my second set.

“What exactly was going on the other night with Jared? I forgot to ask. He’s an asshat, by the way.”

“I agree,” I tell him. “Apparently he’s been giving my little sister a hard time because she broke up with him. After the other night, I figured I’d scared him into leaving her alone. But Jacey told me this morning that he was harassing her all night last night.”

Pax thinks about that for a minute, almost hesitantly.

“He’s probably too stupid to be scared, to be honest. He’s got more attitude than brains. I know that for a fact. I stomped him into the ground when he went after Mila, but he wouldn’t stay down. I think it’s his pride, to be honest. If someone attacks his pride, he gets crazy. And in his eyes, your sister attacked his pride by breaking up with him. And then you embarrassed him at the Hill.”

I nod. I’m sure he’s right.

Pax continues. “So in all honesty, you might want to watch your back. He’s an unbalanced dumbass. But he’s apredictableunbalanced dumbass. He goes to the Bear’s Den downtown every day for lunch—and then he hangs out there pretty much every night. I don’t suppose you’re in the mood for a hamburger, are you?”

I stare at him in surprise at the abrupt change of topic. “Uh, I guess. I could always eat a burger.”

Pax grins. “Good. Because the Bear’s Den makes the best burgers in town.”

I grin back, handing the bar to him.

“Oh. In that case, I’m starving.”

We hit the showers and as we’re getting dressed, I say, “So I heard you broke Jared’s hand that night.”

Pax grins. “I should’ve broken both of them,” he says, yanking a gray T-shirt down over his heavily muscled torso. “That prick seriously needs to learn a lesson.”

“Agreed,” I tell him as I grab my bag. I follow him out to his car, a mint-condition 1968 black Dodge Charger.

“Sweet car,” I tell him in appreciation. “I have a new Camaro, but I tell ya, I’ve always loved these classics.”

Pax looks up and grins proudly. “Thanks. I’ve had it for years. It takes a lot of maintenance and breaks down more often than it runs, but I fucking love these pipes. Get in. I’ll drive.”

The Bear’s Den is almost close enough to walk to, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun in the Charger. Pax revs the engine as we drive downtown, turning the heads of people on the sidewalk. He doesn’t even look at them as he pulls into a parking spot and we head into the darkened bar. I glance around, but don’t spot anyone vaguely familiar.

“He’s not here yet,” Pax confirms. “But let’s order our food and wait. Trust me, he’ll be here. That fucking loser practically lives here.”

We each order a burger and a beer, sitting down in a back booth. I watch the door as we talk. Pax asks me questions about being a Ranger and I answer them as best I can.

“It was something I always knew I wanted to do,” I tell him. “From the time I was a kid.”

“Then why did you retire so young?” Pax asks curiously.

It’s a question that I ought to be used to because everyone asks it. I ought to have a canned answer ready, but I don’t. So each time someone asks, it hits me in the gut and I flounder for a second, trying to decide what to say.

“People don’t realize what it’s really like over there,” I tell him. “It’s fucking brutal. I can handle brutal, but one night, shit got really fucking real and a good friend died in the process. Brand and I came out of it alive, but it totally messed us up.”

“Dude.” Pax looks at me seriously and somewhat uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I respect the hell out of what you did as a Ranger. I know you probably don’t want to talk about it and God knows I hate to talk about shit, but I’m always up for a beer if you want one.”

I smile and gulp my beer. “Thanks. I hate to talk about shit too. I mean, what the hell’s the point? People can’t understand when they haven’t lived through something like that.”

Pax stares at me again, then looks down at his hand. He’s got a jagged scar on his thumb in the shape of an X and I stare at it too, wondering about its significance.

“You’d be surprised at what people understand.”

He takes another swig of his beer, then looks at the door in satisfaction.

“Look who just walked in.”

I glance up to find Jared swaggering into the bar. His clothes are sweaty and dirty and it’s obvious that he’s on his lunch break.

He orders, then makes his way to the bathroom, presumably to wash up. Pax jerks his head in that direction as he gets up.

“I’ll watch the door,” he says quietly. “Unless you need me?”

I chuckle. “No, I’ve got it.”

I follow Pax to the bathroom. When we get there, he stands to the side and lets me pass. The bartender meets my gaze for just a moment, but then looks away. He’s not going to interfere.

An almost euphoric feeling comes over me as I enter the bathroom and look around. The rush of adrenaline pulsing through me right now is an old welcome friend. I haven’t felt like this since I left the Rangers.

I wait patiently behind him while the dumbass uses the urinal and then washes his hands. When he turns around at the sink, I bury my fingers in his neck and slam him hard against the bathroom stall.

“What the fuck?” he manages to say, his face registering surprise. And fear. Good, because heshouldfear me.

At his words I clench my hand tighter into his trachea, hard enough that he can no longer speak, hard enough that I can feel the cartilage rings in his windpipe. He struggles to swallow against the pads of my fingers and I smile.

“Quit talking,” I tell him. “And listen. I thought I told you to leave my sister alone. If you keep harassing her, Iwillfuck you up. If I see you lurking around her house, parked on our street or anywhere within a mile radius of her, I will rip your spine out and feed it to you, bone by bone. You must be too stupid to understand English, because I already told you once. This is twice. I won’t tell you a third time. I don’t like dumbasses. I especially don’t like dumbasses who fuck with my sister.”

I jerk my knee up into his gut and he grunts, his eyes shooting daggers at me.

“I’m not fucking around. Leave her alone. Got it?”

He nods and I release him. He immediately rubs at his neck and glares at me again.

“Your sister is a lying whore,” he snarls. “I haven’t seen her since the other night.”

Without missing a beat, I slam his face into the lip of the sink. As I yank him back up by the hair, his mouth gushes stringy red saliva.

“You’re a fucking prick,” he rasps, spitting out a bloody tooth.


Page 13

I nod. “I know. But I warned you what would happen if you called my sister a whore again. Leave her the fuck alone. This is the last time I tell you.”

I turn to leave, and Jared lunges at me from behind. I easily grab his arm and throw him over my head and into the wall. He slides to the ground, heaving as he glares up at me.

“Don’t fuck with me again,” I tell him. “And don’t fuck with Jacey.”

“Fuck you,” he mutters, but I ignore it.

I walk out and leave him on the bathroom floor.

Pax looks at me. “Taken care of?”

I nod. “For now. If he tries anything else, I’ll fuck him up for real. He might be a slow learner, but he’s gotta learn sometime.”

Pax shakes his head. “What a dumbass. Did he come at you? I heard the crash.”

“Yep. From behind.”

Pax shakes his head again.

“Fucking pussy,” he mutters. “He’s a waste of oxygen.”

He focuses on his phone, then looks at me. “Mila just texted me. Her art shop is just down the street. She locked her keys in her car. Do you mind if we stop there on the way back to your car?”

“Of course not,” I tell him. We toss some bills down to cover our lunches and walk back out into the sunshine. Mila’s shop is literally fifty paces from the Bear’s Den and her face lights up when we walk in and she sees her husband.

She’s standing on a stepladder wearing a paint smock, hanging a painting on a thin steel cord. Pax immediately grumbles and heads for her, holding her legs to steady her.

“Mila, for fuck’s sake. Get the hell off the ladder. You’re going to break your neck.”

She just smiles and shakes her head as she climbs down, ignoring his extended hand.

“Pax. Seriously. I’m pregnant, not sick or crippled. It’s OK.” She turns to me, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. “Well, well. Gabriel. It’s so nice to see you again.” She looks from Pax to me curiously. “This is strange. Why are you two together?”

Pax grins. “What? Am I so unlikable that I can’t make friends?”

Mila laughs. “You’re not unlikable. You’re overprotective. And of course you can make friends. You’re charming. You just don’t realize it.”

He waggles his eyebrows. “Oh, I realize it, baby.”

Mila giggles and turns to me. “Thank you, guys, for coming to unlock my car. I have pregnancy brain. I’m so forgetful. No one told me that it would affect my memory too.”

It’s Pax’s turn to roll his eyes.

“Babe, let’s just face it. Your memory was never good. You can blame heartburn on the baby, gas on the baby, weight gain on the baby… but you really can’t blame your bad memory on the poor thing.”

Mila blushes and slaps at his arm. “Pax, seriously. I don’t have gas. I’m a delicate flower.”

He rolls his eyes again. “Whatever you say, sweet. You fart with the best of ’em in your sleep. Just sayin’.”

“Oh my God.” Mila blushes darker. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that in front of someone.” She turns to me again. “Just keep in mind that I’m pregnant, Gabe. It does horrible things to the body.” She grins charmingly. “What brings you back to Angel Bay? I thought you lived in Chicago. ”

I decide that small-town people have no compunction whatsoever about asking nosy questions and that I shouldn’t be annoyed. It would be impossible to be annoyed with Mila Tate anyway. She’s as genuine a person as I’ve ever met.

“No, I’m here to stay for a while. Jacey’s having a problem with an ex-boyfriend and I’m here as her security detail.”

“Yeah, babe. Jared Markson is still fucking with them, even after that scene at the Hill the other night. I told Gabriel how you aren’t a fan of the guy either,” Pax says as he wraps an arm around his wife. “And I told him why.”

Mila raises an eyebrow. “So you told him that you broke Jared’s hand?”

Pax grins smugly. “Yep. And how I wish I’d broken them both.”

“That might have made things easier,” I answer wryly. “But whatever. I’ll take care of it. He’ll wish he hadn’t messed with Jacey, I can promise you that.”

“Well, just be careful,” Mila cautions me, her face concerned. “He used to be a pretty decent guy, back in high school. But he’s got a problem with alcohol and it makes him mean. He’s not worth you getting hurt or into trouble. Trust me on that.”

I smile at her. “Don’t worry. I won’t get hurt. And I won’t get caught.”

Pax grins at me. “That’s what I’m talking about. If you need help, let me know. I’m still holding a grudge.”

While Mila asks us to not personally get involved with Jared, to call the police instead, the bells over the shop door jingle and we all turn to find Madison walking in.

She looks drop-dead gorgeous in a slim skirt that hugs her swaying hips, and knee-high tan boots.

She’s smoking hot. And surprised as hell to find me here. She’s got that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look and I have to chuckle at it.

“Hey, Madison,” I can’t help but say. “It’s so nice to see you.”

I’m taunting her and she knows it. I can see her face freeze up, then relax as she consciously makes the effort to hide her surprise. It’s an effort that amuses me.

“It’s so nice to see you too,” she tells me as she strolls through the shop toward us. “Are you an art collector? Or an artist? My sister sells artandart supplies, so either way, you’re in the right place.”

“Oh, I’m just out for lunch with Pax,” I tell her. “And Mila locked her keys in her car, so Pax came to save the day.”

Madison glances at Mila. “Pregnancy brain?”

Pax rolls his eyes at me. “It’s a conspiracy. There’s no such thing.”

I chuckle as Mila protests, but she abruptly stops and sniffs at the air.

“Something smells good.” She continues to sniff toward Madison.

Madison shakes her head and hands Mila a bag. “You’ve seriously got the nose of a bloodhound now. It’s soup. Tony said to eat it all or he will come over here and spoon-feed it to you. He said it doesn’t matter if your morning sickness is back or not, you’ve still got to eat. And he’s right.”

Mila takes it and glances at me. “Tony is the bartender at the Hill. He’s been with us forever and he’s a little protective of my sister and me.”

“You could say that,” Pax says under his breath. To me he says, “He threatened to break my kneecaps if I ever mistreated Mila.”

I smile because Tony seems like my kind of guy.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Mila. “I’ve gotta respect that, though.”

Mila rolls her eyes. “Men.” But she obediently pulls out the Styrofoam container of soup and sniffs at it. “Eating this will be such a hardship.” She grins and spoons some into her mouth. “Very hard.”

Mila continues eating while Pax goes outside to unlock her SUV. While he does, I can’t help but stare at Madison discreetly.

I’ve never seen such a beautiful woman in person before. She seems like she stepped right out of the pages of a magazine. I can’t tell if she knows how gorgeous she is. Most women know and use it to their every advantage. But Madison doesn’t seem to play that card. She seems to rely on her prickly personality instead.

Unfortunately she notices my covert gaze and the corner of her mouth turns up.

“See something you like?” she asks quietly. I grin back.

“I was just noticing the difference between you and your sister. You don’t look a lot alike. Mila’s small and dark, and you’re tall and pale.”

When Madison’s cheeks flush, I realize that I could’ve used more tact. She might be self-conscious about the fact that she’s bigger than her sister. Women are weird about that shit. But honestly, she’s taller. She’s willowy, like a model.

“No offense,” I tell her. “It was just an observation.”

“None taken,” she lies. I know it’s a lie by the way her cheeks are still stained pink. In fact, the flush has spread down to her chest.

I’m saved by the bells on the door, though, as Pax returns, tossing Mila’s keys to her.

“All fixed,” he tells her. “Good thing I have an extra key. You’re good to go, pregnant brain.”

She shakes her head, but thanks him. “There is one more thing before you go,” she mentions. “Could you move some boxes for me in the back? Supplies came this morning.”

Pax stares at her in surprise. “Good lord. Have all of my lectures finally paid off? Thank you for not trying to move them yourself, for once.”

Mila smiles gently, but as they walk away she turns and mouthsOverprotectiveas she points to Pax’s back. Madison grins.

“Heisoverprotective,” she tells me as the other two disappear into a back room. “But it’s sweet. I never thought Pax had it in him when I first met him. He’s like a different person. He had sort of a shitty childhood, but he’s going to be a great dad. Speaking of him, though, I didn’t realize that you were friends.”

“We ran into each other at the gym this morning. And then we had a little run-in with Jared over lunch. Pax had my back again, which I appreciate. He’s a stand-up guy,” I answer. “I should’ve asked him if he served. He seems like that kind of guy.”

Madison practically chokes. “Served? As in themilitary? Um, no. Pax used to be kind of messed up. The military wasn’t something that would have appealed to him.”

I eye her. “Messed up?”

Madison stares at me, her blue eyes very dark and instantly troubled.

“Yeah. When he was seven, his mom was killed in front of him. It messed him up pretty bad. For years he couldn’t even remember exactly what happened. That’s how bad it was. I thought he was beyond saving, but Mila didn’t give up. She sees the good in people better than I do. And she was right. Pax came through it just fine. Eventually.”

I stare at her in horror. His own mother was killed in front of him? I thoughtI’dseen some shit.

“Damn,” I answer. “That’s terrible. That scar on his hand… was that part of it?”

Madison nods. “Yeah.” She suddenly looks uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. This is his story to tell. I don’t feel like I should talk about it.”

I nod slowly. “That’s fine. He might share it himself sometime over a beer.”

Madison actually looks guilty as she curls into a red chair. “He might, and if he does, good for him. He got counseling last year when all of his memories came to light. But I’m a big believer that you can’t talk things out too much. The more the better.”

I cringe at that as I take the chair next to her, because I strongly disagree. I don’t see the point in talking about shit. People can’t fix what happened to you.

“Let’s change the subject,” I suggest. “How’s your boyfriend? Did he get his candy-ass pants cleaned?”

She stares at me solemnly, but the corner of her lip is twitching again, making me wonder why. Is she glad I asked about that guy? Is this a game of cat and mouse?

“What makes you think Ethan is my boyfriend?” she counters, a question with a question. Classic deflection.

Now it’s my lip that’s twitching, but not from amusement. I hate games.

“Well, the two of you seemed pretty cozy the other night. I felt bad about jogging right through the middle of your date,” I finally answer.

She stares into my eyes and I see the blatant question there.

Do you want to play?

I stare back with an answer.

Yes.

Madison leans back in her chair, her eyes pointedly on my face, the air charged around us. The attraction between us is potent, yet we’re sitting here talking about her date with another guy.

We’re definitely playing now. Only right now I’m not sure who is the cat and who is the mouse.

“Oh, don’t feel bad,” she says smoothly. “Ethan and I are very old friends. It wasn’t a bother at all. Until you stopped and pushed him around, that is.”

I snort. “Your candy-ass boyfriend started it. And I didn’t lay one finger on him. If I wanted to push him around, you’d both know it.”

Madison doesn’t react to that, her face is a perfect expressionless mask.

“Were you dating Ethan when we met at the club?” I ask curiously. Madison doesn’t seem like the type to cheat, but then what the hell do I know? My training is in military tactics. I honestly don’t know shit about the inner workings of the female mind.

She flushes again, probably thinking back to that night and how she was so very willing to go home with me.

Thinking about it actually stirs my dick to life and I shift in my seat, picturing the way her nipple tasted in my mouth and how her soft lips felt against mine. The simple thought makes me hard and I shift my hand so that it’s covering my telltale crotch.

“Of course not,” Madison answers quickly, her slender hand fluttering up to push her hair behind her ear. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I didn’t think so,” I tell her. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“Why? Looking out for Ethan’s best interests?” she asks me sharply. I stare down at her, my eyes frozen on hers… unwavering.

“No… my own. You aren’t really into Ethan. You’re into me.”

I drop my hand now, until it rests softly on the edge of her knee, my knuckles barely grazing her thigh.

I am sure that she wants me, although I’m not sure exactly why.

It was there the other night even when she was with Ethan. It’s in her eyes, in the way she finds me wherever I’m at in the room. It’s crackling in the air between us.

She wants me. And I want her.

Fucking her would be like harnessing a raging summer storm. And some weird part of me wants to make up for melting down on her that first night, to prove that I’m not a weak-ass pussy.

There is a pregnant pause before Madison bursts out laughing, not exactly the response I had been expecting.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” she answers.

“Always.” I dismiss her words. “But you know it’s true. You’re into me and you have been since you met me. We’d be able to get someplace if you’d just admit it.”

“And what place, exactly, are we trying to get to?” She laughs again, but there is something in her eyes that tells me I’m right. Something about the way she turns her body toward me, in the way her hands can’t be still when she’s talking to me. She’s on edge around me.

Yet she still leaves my hand on her thigh. The heat from her radiates into my palm and I itch to move it upward.


Page 14

But I don’t. I leave it still as I stare into her eyes.

I want her to ask me for it. Eventually she will say my name and ask me to fuck her.

It’s all part of the game.

She grows serious now, turning to face me head on in her seat.

“What I will admit is that ever since that first night, I’ve been curious about something.”

“Oh?” I raise an eyebrow, ignoring my trepidation, ignoring the way my heart starts to pound. This is it. I’m going to see what she knows. What shesaw. And from the unsettled look on her face, it wasn’t good.

Madison actually looks nervous, but she lifts her chin and looks me in the eye anyway.

“It’s been driving me crazy trying to figure it out because everything I’ve seen of you since then doesn’t match. You totally lost your shit, Gabriel. What happened?”

Fuck.You totally lost your shit, Gabriel.

I yank my hand away and try to pretend that I’m normal. That it was no big deal. It sucks the air out of me because I hate that she saw it. It makes me feel weak. That’s something I’m not. And itisa big deal.

She’s waiting for an answer, her stare unwavering.

Do you want to play? Yes or no?

I shake my head.I only like to play when I have the upper hand.

So I try to deflect by being vague.

“It’s a long story. Let’s just say that everyone has demons and I haven’t shown mine who’s boss yet.”

Madison stares at me for a moment more and then she speaks. Her tone is soft now, sympathetic almost. It makes me cringe. I don’t want her fucking sympathy.

Jesus.

“Well, that’s not really the explanation I was hoping for, but whatever. Maybe someday you’ll tell me. And if there’s one thing I learned from Pax, it’s that everyone has demons. I have no doubt that you can whip your demon’s ass.”

She smiles another sympathetic smile and I can’t take it anymore. I hate that she thinks I need her pity. So I do what I do best. I deflect by being an ass.

“I’m glad that you’re so understanding,” I tell her. “Maybe you’ll give me a second chance.”

She raises a slender eyebrow. “A second chance? For what?”

I grin. “To show you my bedroom.”

My cocky words don’t have the effect I thought they would. Sexual tension flares between us like a live wire and Madison laughs again, a genuine and sexy laugh.

Leaning up toward me, she lays a hand onmythigh, moving her fingers ever so slightly upward as she murmurs into my ear.

“I’ve already seen your bedroom. How do you think you got home that night?”

Fuck. I can’t breathe as I stare into her blue eyes.

“Did I hurt you?” I ask quickly, before I can think about what I’m saying. All I can think about is the hole I found in my hallway the next morning.

Maddy’s head snaps up, her blue eyes widening.

“No, of course not,” she answers in surprise. “You were just out of it. You seemed to have a little issue with your wall. It offended you somehow and you punched the crap out of it. But you didn’t lay a finger on me. Why?”

I relax, my shoulders settling back to where they should be.Thank God.

“I didn’t mean that like it sounded.” I attempt to cover. “I meant in the taxi, when I dropped down on top of you…”

My fumbling attempts are interrupted by Mila and Pax’s return.

Thank you, God.

Madison smiles up at her sister and almost imperceptibly moves away from me.

The moment between us is over but I have more questions than I know what to do with. Did she put me to bed? What did I say to her? This whole time I’ve tried to pretend it doesn’t matter. I’ve tried to tellmyselfthat it doesn’t matter.

But it does.

What did I do?

I don’t fucking know.

She looks at me, amusement in her eyes. She likes that I’m puzzled. She likes thinking she has the upper hand.She likes playing this game.

Whatever she witnessed that night, she thinks it gives her an edge. She thinks she’s the cat in this conversation.

Fuck that.

I turn to Pax. “Hey, dude. You about ready? I’ve got a date tonight. I should get going.”

I turn to smirk at Madison, but the look on her face deflates me. For just a second, before she closes up again, she looks crushed and I fucking hate that I did that. I only meant to take the upper hand again. I didn’t mean to actually hurt her.

Before I can add that my date is with my friend Brand, Madison gets up and turns her back on me in dismissal as she makes a pointed effort of asking Mila about a piece of art on the wall.

I sigh as I follow Pax to the door.

Sometimes being the cat isn’t as fun as it should be.

Chapter NineMadison

Oh my God. What. A. Fucking. Prick.

My thoughts form in time with my feet as they pound against the packed sand of the beach. I tossed and turned all night because of that egotistical asshole and here I am out running at seven a.m. This is so unlike me. I don’t go running. I don’t feel the need to burn off nervous or frustrated energy.

I don’t.

Yet here I am. Because I can’t get that cocky grin out of my head or the way he so casually told me that I was into him, then turned around and mentioned that he had a date. As if I care who he dates or who he fucks.

And he was so surprised that I walked him home. How the hell did he think he got home? Does he truly not remember it at all? Is that why he hasn’t mentioned it?

If that’s the case, what in the hell is wrong with him?

Did I hurt you?

What a strange thing to ask. His rushed explanation didn’t hold water because we hadn’t been talking about the taxi crash at all. We were talking about me being in his bedroom.

Did I hurt you?

Did I hurt you?

I can’t get his question, sudden and anxious, out of my head.

My feet fall hard, one after the other, as I slam them into the ground. The crisp spring air stings my throat as I suck it into my lungs, trying to breathe, but at the same time enjoying the discomfort. It distracts me from the pissed-off feelings coursing through me. I hate feeling affected like this. I hate that he affected me like this.

Because I do care who he dates. And who he fucks. I don’t know why; all I know is that I do.

Effffff.

The sun is beautiful at this time of day and regardless of my pissed-off state, I can’t help but appreciate it. The lake is calm this morning, tranquil and silent. There isn’t even a breeze to stir the grass on the dunes above me. It’s like God is giving me a break, letting me get my thoughts together.

The problem is, I can’t make sense of my thoughts. I can’t make sense of why I’m attracted to a guy who has an ego bigger than the state of Michigan and who clearly has two tons of personal baggage.

Everyone has baggage, though, my inner voice tells me.Even you.

Screw that. My baggage doesn’t come close to his. My parents died. End of story. Well, maybe I have a few trust issues because of their relationship. But who wouldn’t in my shoes? Well, maybe not Mila. But that’s just because she didn’t see as much as I did. I shielded her from it.

Seriously. It’s no wonder that I suck at relationships.

But my issues are nowhere near the level of Gabriel’s. I don’t know exactly what he’s dealing with, but it’s far worse than anything I’ve known. I can see it in his eyes. And of course there was that question.Did I hurt you?

My phone buzzes, interrupting my thoughts, and I reach into the pocket of my hoodie, stooping over to breathe as I read it.

I have a free morning. Want to get breakfast?

Ethan.

I feel a stab of guilt. I’ve ignored a few of his texts this week or just barely responded. I can’t keep ignoring them; it’s rude and he doesn’t deserve that. At the very least I should tell him in person that we can’t date. Or maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing. Maybe I should try going out with him one more time.

Sure. I’m jogging, let me change my clothes and take a quick shower, I answer. It takes him two seconds to reply.

Perfect. I’ll pick you up in 30.

I jog home and quickly shower and dress. Ethan picks me up in thirty minutes on the dot. He looks like a model inGQmagazine this morning, wearing khaki shorts, a button-up and a hundred-watt grin.

“Morning, gorgeous,” he greets me when I open the door. “I was thinking we could go to that little café on the beach in Oval Cove. Sound good?”

“That actually does,” I admit as I grab my purse. “I haven’t been there in forever.”

“I’ll have to stop and get gas first,” Ethan says as we walk to his car. “But then we’re outta here.”

I have to smile. Yes, he’s vanilla. He’s bland. He’s even boring. But I know him. And he knows me. There’s definitely comfort in familiarity.

And he’d never play dumbass games that would hurt me on purpose. I know that.

Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss him so quickly.

We chat as Ethan drives down the road to a gas station. Bland, yet safe conversation.How many babies have you delivered this week? Four? That’s incredible. I still can’t get over the fact that you’re a doctor. He laughs and I laugh and there is absolutely no chemistry.

But I’m not giving up yet.

Maybe we could be one of those couples who grow into love. And who cares about the chemistry? There are people out there in arranged marriages. They’ve got it way worse than this.

As Ethan pulls into the gas station, I’m distracted by wondering if arranged marriages are still actually a thing.

And then I’m distracted by my bladder, which is apparently as small as a peanut. Using a gas station bathroom is disgusting, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I find it surprisingly clean, though. Thank God. I still wag my butt above the toilet, refusing to touch the seat, just in case.

As I make my way back outside, I pause at the doors, staring through the glass.

Jared Markson is at the pump next to Ethan’s, filling up his work truck.Ugh. After the other night, he’s the last person I want to see.

I stare at the bulldog set of his jaw, at the way he almost seems dirty even before his workday has begun, and I shake my head. I can’t imagine what Jacey ever saw in that guy. He was a jerk even back in high school. Some things never change.

With a sigh I glance over at Ethan. Oblivious to Jared, he’s filling up his BMW, talking on his phone and glancing at his watch.

Some things definitely don’t change.

Ethan is perfunctory and efficient. Perfect for a doctor, but probably not the best qualities in bed.

I remember Gabriel slipping his fingers into me and then licking them. Holy shit. My cheeks ignite.Where did that come from?

I shake the thoughts from my head and push open the door, walking toward Ethan’s car, but of course Jared catches sight of me and turns. His top lip is split and scabbed over, but that doesn’t stop it from spreading into a leer and exposing chew-stained teeth, one of which is missing.

Gross.

“Madison,” he calls. “You can tell your slut of a friend to stop lying about me.”

What the hell? I can’t imagine what he’s talking about but I would rather die than ask. I continue walking, trying to ignore him.

“Mad-dddyyy,” he calls mockingly.

He steps around the concrete island and approaches me. Ethan looks up now, distracted from his phone call by Jared’s loud voice. Surprisingly, though, he stays put, leaning against his car and watching curiously rather than hanging up his phone.

Geez. Thanks for the backup, Ethan.

With a sigh I turn to Jared.

“What?” I demand. “I’m not in the mood for you, Jared.”

“I said, tell your slut of a friend to stop lying about me.” Jared enunciates every word slowly and loudly, as if I’m dumb. I glare at him as I start walking again.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care.”

Jared’s hiss halts my steps. “Jacey was right about you, you know. You’re a spoiled bitch. You have no idea what the real world is like. You’ve had everything handed to you your whole life.”

I freeze, anger flooding through me until my vision almost blurs at the corners of my eyes.

“Jacey would never say that,” I snap. “Because she knows better.”

Jared skirts around me and gets in my face, invading my personal space like an annoying ankle-biting dog. “But she did. And she was right.”

“You know better than that,” I tell him icily, knowing full well that he’s lying just to get under my skin. “Do you consider having my parents killed in a head-on crash with an eighteen-wheeler ‘having everything handed to me’? Or did I have something handed to me when I had to come home from New York and live my life next to worthless fucks like you?”

“No one is making you stay here,” Jared snarls. “And in fact, I’d like it better if you left. But before you go, tell your slut friend to lay off the bullshit. If I wanted to fuck with her, I would. Until then, I would appreciate it if she didn’t lie.”

“I’m not your messenger,” I snap. “And neither of us are interested in anything you have to say.”

He grabs my arm and I whirl around.

“Get your fucking hand off of me.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ethan take one step and then stop. He’s not on his phone anymore, but he still doesn’t come to help. Jared grins at me, close enough that I can smell his rancid morning breath.

“Are you going to make me, princess?”

I open my mouth to answer, but someone else answers first, a husky and familiar voice.

“No, but I’d be happy to.”

Without even turning around, I recognize that deep voice, the rich timbre, the steady tone.

Gabriel.

Unconsciously my body relaxes ever so slightly in relief, as though I’ve been waiting for him to arrive and didn’t even know it.

I exhale slowly, turning to find Gabriel standing on the pavement with two breakfast burritos in his hand. His other hand is flexing as it dangles by his thigh. He’s staring at Jared with unflinching precision.


Page 15

His gaze is undeniably lethal.

It’s frightening in its intensity.

“For fuck’s sake,” Jared mutters under his breath. Looking up at Gabriel, he says, “There’s no problem here, man. I was just explaining that to Madison.”

“No, you weren’t,” I answer firmly, stepping out of his grasp. “You wanted me to take Jacey a message.”

“And that is?” Gabriel raises an eyebrow.

Jared doesn’t answer, so I do.

“He wanted me to tell her to stop lying. And he called her a slut.”

I couldn’t help but add that last part on. Jared so deserves it and he’s so obviously scared of Gabriel.

Gabriel calmly sets his breakfast down on the roof of his car and approaches us. His gaze hasn’t moved from Jared. It’s like watching a lion and its prey. It’s fascinating to witness.

I step back.

Gabriel steps forward.

Jared turns around.

“Fuck this,” he mutters. “That bitch isn’t worth it.”

He bolts for his truck and peels out from the parking lot.

Gabriel stands still, watching him go. Then he turns to me.

“Are you all right?” he asks quietly, his dark eyes flitting over me, checking for damage. I nod, noticing the way Gabriel is dressed in workout clothes, the way his T-shirt clings to his broad chest, the fabric skimming over his chiseled abs. I swallow.

Suddenly this doesn’t seem like a game anymore. Gabriel is serious and concerned, strong and lethal.

And I want him.

I want him.

I want him.

I swallow, dropping my gaze before he can see the truth.

“I’m fine. Jared is just an ass. He’s always had a temper problem.”

“Maddy!” Ethan calls, coming forward now that it’s safe. “Are you all right?”

No thanks to you, I think, utterly disappointed in everything about him. His candy-ass clothes, his bland personality, his ability to stand aside and watch Jared harass me.

I hate violence and I hate bullies, but standing up for someone smaller or weaker is something different entirely.

And Ethan didn’t do it.

Resentment wells up in me. Seriously. He was ten yards away. He could’ve stepped up to help, but he didn’t. What kind of man does that?

“I’m fine,” I sigh, fighting the urge to be a bitch, fighting the urge to tell him what a pussy he is. “Gabriel stepped in.”

I turn abruptly, blocking Ethan from my sight. It might be rude, but I’m pissed.

All I want to look at now is Gabriel. I want to revel in the fact that he stood up for me. He stepped in when he didn’t have to.

No one’s ever done that for me before.

“Thank you,” I tell Gabe simply. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I didn’t?” he asks doubtfully. “I’m not going to watch something like that without stepping in. You were holding your own like a champ, but once he put his hands on you, it was game over.”

I nod, suddenly feeling a little choked up.

Gabriel is night and Ethan is day. And all of a sudden I see the beauty in that.

Yeah, Ethan is a doctor who is trained to save lives. But he doesn’t have it in him to stand up to someone if he needs to. And even though I should probably respect that about him since I hate violence, I just can’t. I need someone who can walk a thin line—someone who isn’t a bully, someone who isn’t violent, but someone who has the ability to summon up all the fury of hell if he needs to protect someone.

Someone like Gabriel.

Gabriel has been trained to protect people at all costs, even if the cost is his own life. He’s not a violent bully.He’s a protector.

For some reason, even though I should’ve seen it before, this knowledge slams into my chest and leaves me dumbfounded. The idea that I need a protector makes me feel weak. But the idea that I just had a protector makes me feel strong.

Invincible.

I only savor the feeling for a minute before I shake it away. Needing someone like that makes you weak. You can’t count on other people to be there. You can only count on yourself.

Myself.

Ethan walks into my periphery again and I shove my annoyance with him away. Now isn’t the time. I don’t know why I ever thought, even for a minute, that he and I could work.

“Maddy, I’m sorry,” he says hesitantly, staring from Gabriel to me. I can see that he’s very uncomfortable standing next to Gabriel, but he doesn’t address it. “I’ve got to go. A patient is fully dilated and ready to deliver. Can we get a rain check on breakfast?”

I nod quickly, almost relieved. I almost feel guilty for being pissed that he didn’t step up, but I don’t. He stood over there looking on even after he hung up his phone. He could definitely have done something then.

But he didn’t.

Because he’s a candy-ass.

“Of course,” I tell him. “Not a problem.”

I stand still, waiting for him to leave, and he looks at me uncertainly again.

“Maddy, I’m your ride.”

Oh.

In the heat of the moment I’d forgotten. And Gabe’s intoxicating nearness isn’t helping either. I inhale his power and his strength with every breath I take. It’s distracting.

I flush and take a step away from him. My foot doesn’t seem to want to comply, but I force it.

“Right,” I say sheepishly. “I came with you.”

Gabe smiles, like he knows exactly why I’m distracted. Like he can see the comparison I’ve been drawing between him and Ethan. Like he can see how much he wins that comparison.

“I can take you,” he offers. “I mean, if the doctor has an emergency.”

Ethan looks uncertain for a split second, then nods. “That would be great. I really should go. Maddy?”

Ethan looks at me, expecting me to agree. And there’s really nothing else I can do, not without seeming like an utter bitch.

But the idea of Gabe and me… sitting within the small confines of a car again. The mere thought almost makes me twitch, because all I can do is think of the last time.

When Gabe licked his fingers clean.

Warmth spreads into my panties.

I can’t help it.

Gabriel’s dark gaze is on me, potent and powerful, and I swear to God he’s remembering too. His lip actually twitches, trying to fight off a smile.

The man can affect me without saying a word, especially now that I’ve decided I was wrong about him. I was so, so wrong.

He’s a protector.

That makes it even harder to fight off this attraction.

You don’t need protecting anymore, I remind myself.You’re all grown up—strong and independent. No one can hurt you now. But that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. All that matters is how Gabriel is making me feel right now.

Safe.

My fingers tremble so I clench them into fists. He makes me self-conscious, like he can see right into my thoughts.

I swallow hard and try to act nonchalant, as though he doesn’t affect me at all.

“That would be fine,” I finally manage to say. “Thank you, Gabriel.”

“I’d give you a ride anytime,” he answers and I look at him sharply. His double entendre hasn’t been missed. At least not by me. Ethan is oblivious.

“Thank you,” Ethan tells Gabriel grudgingly. He starts to walk away, then calls over his shoulder, “I’ll call you soon, Maddy.”

I don’t even answer.

Gabe looks at me, amusement in his dark eyes. “What the hell do you see in that guy?”

“I… er…” and then I can’t help but dissolve into a giggle.

The memory of Ethan standing helplessly to the side, watching while Jared puffed out his chest like a rooster, suddenly makes me laugh. I’m no longer even mad about it. It’s just so ridiculous.

“I don’t know,” I finally manage. “He’s been a friend for a long time. He was probably just afraid. Fighting isn’t really his thing.”

“He’s a candy-ass,” Gabriel answers simply. “Fear is a choice.”

What an interesting thing to say. I’m sure that, for him, fearisa choice. It’s how he’s been trained. He’s hard and strong and he’s not afraid of anything.

Except for one thing. The thing that brought him to his knees that night in Chicago.

His secret.

We walk to his car and I slide into the passenger seat, clicking my seat belt. I don’t know what it is about guys and hot rods, and I’ll probably never understand it.

As Gabe pulls out of the parking lot, he glances at me.

“I’m sorry about your parents.”

Crap.

“You overheard that?” I ask, not looking him in the eye. I hate talking about this with people. I hate the sympathy in their eyes and trying to figure out what to do with it.

He nods.

“Yeah. I was standing right behind you.” But then he drops it.

I don’t know whether he’s just not interested enough to ask questions or whether he’s uncomfortable talking about stuff like that, but either way I’m grateful. If I never talk about my parents dying again, that would be just fine with me.

“What was Jared saying about my sister?” Gabe asks as he turns onto the main road. I shake my head.

“He said she was lying about him and wanted me to tell her to stop. I have no clue what he was talking about.”

Gabriel looks thoughtful. “I don’t know either. But he ran like the pussy he is. You know, he grabbed you. I’m sure the gas station probably has a surveillance camera. You could press charges if you want to. Teach the little shit a lesson.”

“I might,” I answer. “I keep thinking that he’ll get tired of messing with Jacey, that he’ll just go away, but he hasn’t so far. Maybe we really should call the police. On the other hand, if I do, that might really piss him off and he’ll never stop. I grew up with him. He’s always gonna be an asshole.”

“You don’t need to be intimidated by him,” Gabriel says firmly. “That’s why I’m here, so that he can’t shove you guys around. He’s a schoolyard bully that needs to grow up. But don’t underestimate him.”

I nod slowly. “Let’s change the subject. I’ve had enough of Jared for the day.”

Gabe finally smiles, a slow smile that spreads along his lips.

“OK. First you can tell me which way to turn, then you can tell me the real reason you’re fucking around with doctor boy.”

I roll my eyes. “Left. And I told you the real reason. He’s been a friend for a long time.”

Gabriel’s the one rolling his eyes now.

“He doesn’t think he’s just your friend,” Gabe points out as he turns down my road. “You should put him out of his misery.”

“And why would I do that?” I demand. “You don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“No,” Gabriel concedes. “But I know what you want. You want me.”

“Oh, geez. Are we back to that?” I shake my head, but his words cause a rush of warmth to spread through me. Idowant him, asshole cockiness and all.

“Jacey thinks you should date me,” Gabriel announces as he turns into my drive.

I put my hand on the car handle. “You don’t want to date me,” I tell him. “You want to fuck me. There’s a big difference.”

He shrugs. “Tomato, tomahto.”

A thrill shoots through me and I can’t help but smile as I open the door.

“To be honest, I rarely do what your sister suggests. She’s insane.”

“Yes, she is,” Gabriel agrees. “About most things. The verdict is still out on this particular thing, though.”

“Oh, really?” I ask, my eyebrow cocked.

“Yup. Maybe we should do a little research. You know, just to see. Let’s have dinner on Saturday night.”

And with that, just like that, the game is back on.

He stares at me, waiting for me to accept.

Do you want to play? Yes or no?

He apparently thinks there’s no way I would decline. I have to avoid looking at his totally cut body so that I can. I have to put the image of him standing up for me out of my mind.

Because there’s something about him that I don’t know.

Something secret.

Something that made him freak the fuck out, turning this strong protector into a violent incoherent guy who has panic attacks and punches walls. And I have no idea what thatsomethingis.

I shake my head.

“You’re so cocky,” I tell him. “So fricking cocky. I would’ve thought that you would be too busy with your other dates. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t on Saturday. Sorry.”

I have no plans whatsoever, but he doesn’t need to know that. If he can throw his dates in my face, I can throw mine in his. Even if mine are imaginary.

Gabriel looks stunned and then realization clouds his face as he remembers that he told me he had a date last night. He starts to say something, but I cut him off as I spin around and head for my house. With every step I feel his dark gaze hitting me between the shoulder blades.

I ignore it.

But one thing I can’t ignore is that everything about that man makes my knees weak. I can’t ignore the look in his eyes: that dark, dark look that says,Don’t worry. No one will hurt you on my watch. I can’t ignore the way one look from him sets my blood on fire.

And I can’t ignore the biggest thing of all, the heavy question that sits on my chest all the time, even though I’ve only just acknowledged it.

I know he has a secret that has the ability to turn him into everything that I’m afraid of.

The question is, are all the good things I know about him enough to make me see past it?

Chapter Ten

Work seems particularly monotonous today. I’ve placed next month’s food order, drunk four cups of coffee, and I have a caffeine buzz when I follow up with Jacey and make sure that she’s up in time to come to work.

She’s made a habit lately of coming home from the clubs in the early-morning hours, then oversleeping for work. That was one thing when we were teenagers, but we’re not kids anymore. It’s time to grow up.

“Yes,” Jacey sighs into the phone. “I’m up. I’m showered. I’ll be there shortly. You didn’t need to check on me. And what did you do to my brother this morning? He said he gave you a ride, but he was mean as hell when he came home.”

“Nothing. I just told him I couldn’t go out with him on Saturday.”

“God,” Jacey grumbles. “Why can’t you just hook up already? You know you both want to and you’ll both be happier when you do.”


Page 16

I’m starting to think she’s right, but I don’t say that.

“Whatever. I’ll have your paycheck ready when you get here.”

“ ’K. I’ll be there soon.”

We hang up and I stare forlornly at the papers balanced precariously in stacks on my desk. I decide to take a quick break and run out to the dining room to stretch my legs. As I enter, Tony calls for me from the bar.

“Hey, Maddy. Your sister just called and wanted to know if you’d bring her out some soup on your way home. Pax is in Hartford for a week and she’s not feeling that well today. She really didn’t sound good. Maybe you should take it to her right now.”

I’m instantly concerned. Mila isn’t one to complain, not ever. She could be on her deathbed and she wouldn’t whine.

“Seriously?” I ask Tony as I lean against the bar. “What’s wrong with her, did she say? Is it morning sickness still or something else?”

He shakes his giant head. “She didn’t say. She just said she feels sicker than usual and that she’s going to stay in bed today.”

“Well, hell,” I mutter. “That’s not like her. I hope she doesn’t have the flu. If you box something up I’ll run it out to her right now.”

“Already done,” Tony grins, handing me a large carryout sack. “There are saltines in there too. They might settle her stomach.”

It’s not a problem to make a food run to my sister. Her house is only a few minutes away, perched on the edge of the bluffs by the lake. It was Pax’s before they got married and it’s a gorgeous home.

I knock on the door and when Mila finally answers it I’m even more concerned. Her face has a grayish pallor to it, her normally bright eyes dull, and she’s still in her nightgown.

“What the hell?” I exclaim as I follow her into the house. “What’s wrong with you? Is your morning sickness worse? That’s not normal, right? Shouldn’t you be over that by now?”

“I don’t know,” she groans. “I had the worst stomachache last night, so I was up all night long. I barely slept.”

I gently push her onto a barstool and begin unloading her lunch. “When did Pax leave?”

Mila drops her head onto her crossed arms. “Yesterday. Don’t tell him that I’m sick or he’ll come straight home. He’s got meetings with his grandpa this week.”

I stare at her uncertainly. “I don’t know, Mi. You look pretty bad.”

“That’s exactly why I don’t want him to come home, Madison. Have a heart. It’s just a stomach bug. He doesn’t need to be here, listening to me every time I’m in the bathroom. Seriously. How embarrassing.”

I sigh. “Fine. I won’t call him yet. But you’ve got to promise to get some rest. Is there anything else I can bring you?”

She shakes her head. “Nope. I’m just going to finish eating this and then curl up and sleep.”

“I’ll sit with you for a bit.”

Mila manages a smile. “You’re as overprotective as Pax is.”

I don’t even bother to answer, because I know she’s right.

“So, how’s life?” she asks quietly in between bites. “How was your date with Ethan?”

I roll my eyes. “That’s probably the last time I listen to your advice about my love life. It was dry, boring, vanilla… all the things that Ethan is.”

“Awww. Poor Ethan,” Mila answers sympathetically. “He can’t help it.”

“I know,” I answer ruefully. And I do.

“This soup is good,” Mila says, blowing on another spoonful as she changes the subject. “Can you tell Tony thank you for me?”

Mila sticks another bite in her mouth and, as she does, I hear the muted buzz of my cell phone in my purse. I slide it out and am startled to see the text message it displays.

This is Gabriel. I have to tell you something.

The mere sight of his name on my phone causes my pulse to race and I stare at it. This catches Mila’s attention and she pauses, watching me, interested now.

I answer,How did you get my number? Let’s start with that.

I grin and Mila raises an eyebrow.

“Who is it?” she asks curiously.

“No one,” I tell her. She rolls her eyes but returns to her soup, her forehead in her hand.

My phone buzzes.

From Jacey, obviously.

I answer,Jacey talks a lot.

It takes him one second to reply,Hell yes, she does.

I feel a little breathless as I type,What did you need to tell me?

There is a moment, and then,My date the other night was with Brand.

The amount of relief that floods my body as I read those words is incredible. I feel lighter than I have for days. But I can’t tell him that. Instead I sayIs that supposed to matter to me?

Gabriel’s cockiness knows no bounds, because he answers without hesitation.

It matters to you.

I smile a little, because it does. But before I can answer, he sends a second text.

And it matters to me that I misled you about it. I’m sorry about that.

I pause, astonished by his apology. He doesn’t seem like someone who would readily apologize. He’s too self-assured, too commanding, like my father. And one thing I learned from my father is that people like him don’t apologize often.

Even still, Gabriel did.

If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost hear Gabe’s husky voice saying the words. It sends warmth gushing through me and I see flashes of him in my head… escorting Jared out of the Hill, stepping in when Jared grabbed me at the gas station.

In actuality, my father was more like Jared. And Gabriel is nothing like that. Is it possible that I misjudged him on every level?

Maybe he’s nothing like my father at all.

The thought sends a knot into my throat as I answer his text.

It’s okay.

I don’t know whyit’s okay, I just know that all of a sudden, it is.

And then he says something that sends my heart into my throat.

Just so you know, the next date I go on will be with you.

I stare at the words, unable to keep from smiling, even as my fingers shake. Mila stares at me once again, her curiosity apparent.

So you’re threatening me now?I answer, and I have to giggle just a little.

This game I’m playing with him is the most fun I’ve had in a while. Mila grows annoyed with my lack of explanation and rolls her eyes, muttering something about how stubborn I am. And then Gabriel’s answering text comes through.

No, it’s a promise.

I know we’re just bantering back and forth, but those four words make my legs tremble. Gabriel is so strong, so assured. So secure. He makes me feel like I can depend on him. It’s a thought that I know will freak me out later when I can really think about it.

Well, we DO have something we need to finish,I quickly type before I can talk myself out of it.

A thrill rushes through me as I slip my phone back into my purse and turn to Mila’s waiting gaze.

“And that was?” She lifts an eyebrow.

“Gabriel,” I sigh. “Jacey’s brother.”

“Oh, I know who Gabriel is,” Mila laughs. “What’s going on?”

So I tell her just a little, how an entire date with Ethan can leave me cold, but one single glance from Gabriel can set my blood on fire. One stupid text can leave me weak-kneed.

As sick as Mila looks, she laughs again.

“Oh my God. You have no idea how happy this makes me. Don’t look so miserable, Mad. This is awesome!”

“Then why does it feel so scary?” I grumble.

Mila nods sagely. “Because itisscary. When I was first with Pax, I was terrified. I mean, he was so messed up, but I still loved him. He’s who I’m meant to be with. And look how it all turned out, look how happy we are now. It was all worth it. I know that Gabriel has some baggage. I can see it on him. And I’m sure you can see it on him. But whatever Gabriel’s stuff is, I’m sure you can work through it. And it will be worth it.”

“You think?” I raise an eyebrow and my sister nods again.

“Iknow.”

“We’ll see,” I answer firmly. “I don’t want to wind up curled up on my bed crying about him when he loses his temper with me one too many times. I’m never going to be Mom, Mila.”

Mila looks away, at the wall, at the floor. I know that she doesn’t remember nearly as much stuff as I do about our parents’ problems. If Mom was crying, I took Mila outside to play. If Mom and Dad were screaming, I’d take Mila to the beach. She didn’t see as much as I did, even though she knows it happened.

“I know,” she finally answers in a small voice. “Dad had some anger issues. But Gabriel isn’t Dad. And you aren’t Mom. Trust me, you should give Gabriel a chance. My gut is telling me that he’d be good for you.”

I stare at my sister, at her tired face, at her skinny arms.

“I’m sorry, Sis. I’ve been sitting here boring you with my drama and you need to go rest. You really do look awful. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”

I reach to help her from her stool, but she pauses, a strange look on her face.

“Ow,” she mumbles, her hand falling to her abdomen, pressing tightly. I’m startled as I stare at her stricken face.

“What is it?” I ask anxiously.

“I don’t know,” she answers quietly. “I’m crampy.”

She’s crampy? I sit still, frozen, as she rubs her belly. Then, as she slides from her stool, she’s the one who stands frozen, her eyes wide.

“What?” I ask nervously.

And then I see it. Blood drips in a crimson stream down one of her bare legs and onto the floor. I gasp and grab her, pulling her into a chair, making her sit.

“Are you OK? Are you in pain?”

I flutter around like a crazy person, not sure what to do. Mila is calmer than I am as she sits hunched over in the chair.

“I’m going to get some clothes on, then can you drive me to the doctor?”

I nod, then run up the stairs to her room, taking them two at a time.

“I’ll grab your clothes,” I call over my shoulder. “You stay right there. Maybe you should call your doctor.”

I can hear her speaking on the phone as I rifle through her drawers and find a pair of yoga pants and a T-shirt. When I come running back down the stairs, she is hanging up the phone. Her face is grim and pale.

“What did they say?” I ask anxiously as I hand her the clothing.

“They said to come straight in.”

Mila inhales sharply and I grab her. “Are you OK?”

“I don’t know,” she murmurs as she pulls the clothes on. “The cramps just got worse. All of a sudden.”

Even I know that this shouldn’t be happening. Pregnant women shouldn’t be crampy. And there definitely shouldn’t be blood involved.

I’m beyond panicked now and I don’t know what to do. Now I know how Pax feels, because if I could carry Mila out to the car, I so would.

Pax.

“I should call Pax,” I tell her quickly, in relief. Pax will know what to do.

But Mila immediately shakes her head.

“It might be nothing,” she says quickly. “Let’s just wait until we know. I don’t want to worry him.”

But her face gives her away.

She’s terrified and she thinks something is really wrong. I gulp as I get her settled into the front seat of my car and then I practically break land-speed records getting her to the doctor. I gulp again when I help her out of the car and see the blood smeared on the seat.

Fuck.

To the doctor’s credit, she gets Mila right in without a wait at all. I help Mila change into the horrible paper gown, then hold her hand as the doctor does a sonogram.

“Mmmhmmm,” Dr. Hall muses as she runs the ball of the sonogram wand over my sister’s belly, to and fro. “Mmmhmm.”

“What is it?” Mila asks anxiously, her green eyes wide and scared. “Do you see anything? Is there a heartbeat?”

The doctor looks up at her. “Yes, there’s a heartbeat,” she assures her. “And it’s strong. What I am seeing, though, is cause for concern.”

“Oh, God,” Mila breathes. “What is it?” Her fingers clutch mine a little tighter.

The doctor stares at the computer screen and then points to a round, dark mass just to the side of the fetus. “See that area right there? That black area?” Mila and I both nod.

“That is what’s called a subchorionic hemorrhage. In plain English, it’s a blood pool that is forming between the placenta and your uterine wall. Sometimes it’s a result of a serious injury, but more often than not it just happens. We don’t know the cause.”

“What does it mean?” Mila whispers. “Is the baby going to be all right?”

The doctor’s face is serious. “It means that if the blood pool continues to grow, it could cause your placenta to break away from the uterus, in what is called placental abruption. That could be fatal for your baby and life-threatening for you.”

“Oh my God,” I can’t help but gasp. It comes out before I even think about it. Mila swallows hard.

“What can we do about it?”

“Well, if it were a small pool of blood, I wouldn’t be so worried, but it’s fairly substantial already. We need to keep it stabilized and prevent it from growing. The best way we can do that is to keep you off your feet. You’re going to require complete bed rest. You can only get up to go to the bathroom. No sex, no walking, limited movement.”

The doctor pauses, allowing that to sink in.

“What’s the prognosis?” I manage to ask.

“Good question. I’d say from the size of this bleed that Mila has a fifty to sixty percent chance of preterm labor. The real risk with this situation, though, is hemorrhage. It happens so suddenly that it’s hard to control, which makes it dangerous. So, Mila, I’m going to put you in the hospital overnight, so that I can give you some fluids. You’re dehydrated. And then after that, complete bed rest at home and we’ll hope for the best.”

Mila nods, the shock apparent on her pale face.

I feel her hand get even colder as I clutch it within mine.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s going to be all right, Mila. Everything is going to be fine.”

I glare at the doctor, all but daring her to say otherwise. It’s irrational, I know. It’s not Dr. Hall’s fault at all, but I’m annoyed at her matter-of-fact manner. This is my sister we’re talking about, and she needs reassurance.


Page 17

After the doctor leaves, with instructions for us to go straight to the hospital, I help Mila to her feet and then help her get her clothes on. I look into her face.

“I mean it, Mila. Everything will be fine. I’m going to call Pax as soon as we get you settled into the hospital and I know he’ll be here soon.”

She nods now, not arguing. Her limp acceptance of this situation rips my heart out. My little sister has been my responsibility for years now and knowing that I can’t protect her from this is too terrible to bear.

“It will be fine,” I insist once again as I bundle her into my car. She leans her face on the car window and doesn’t reply. I swallow a lump in my throat as I start the car and head for the hospital. This can’t be happening. Mila and Pax almost lost each other a couple of times this past year. They can’t lose their baby too.

When we arrive at the hospital, a nurse brings out a wheelchair and they wheel Mila on up while I fill out her paperwork and call Pax. He answers on the second ring, probably concerned when he sees my number. I never call him when he’s out of town.

“Madison?”

“Hi, Pax. There’s a problem. You need to come home.”

I quickly fill him in and he practically hangs up on me in his haste to make arrangements to fly home. He texts me ten minutes later.

I’m taking the company jet. I’ll be there in three hours. Tell Mila I’m coming.

The lump forms in my throat again, but I swallow it as I head upstairs to Mila’s room. When I arrive I find her attached to all kinds of wires and monitors, and she has an IV stuck in her arm. She seems so small amid all the tubes.

“Hey,” I tell her softly as I walk in. Her big green eyes stare at me.

“Hey. Thanks for calling Pax,” she tells me quietly. “He texted that he’s on his way.”

“Of course he is,” I tell her. “He wouldn’t be anywhere other than here, I can tell you that.”

“I know,” Mila answers, closing her eyes. “I’m so sleepy. I’m going to take a nap while I wait, OK?”

I nod. “OK. I’ll sit right here until Pax arrives.”

Mila nods without opening her eyes and I pick up her hand. It’s freezing cold, so I pull her blankets up a little tighter and then settle into the chair next to her.

I watch her sleep for a while, holding her hand tight. Her breathing is rhythmic, her chest moving slowly up and down as she takes little peaceful breaths. She seems calm in sleep and I’m glad. She deserves a break from reality right now.

After a while, when I feel pretty sure that she isn’t going to wake up anytime soon, I rush down to the gift shop and grab some magazines. On my way back, while I wait for the elevator, I glance to the side and notice a tiny family huddled together in the ER waiting room. A dad, a mom, a son.

They are sitting hunched together like they are facing the world together, each face streaked with tears. I stare at them for a minute, unable to look away, until the mom looks up at me and meets my gaze. There is such utter pain in her eyes that it makes my heart hurt. Something horrible has happened to them and I know that feeling.

Unbidden, memories from the day my parents died come back to me, flooding through me as I stand limply in front of the steel doors of the elevator.

Mila’s phone call, her sobbing voice.

Me, standing in New York City as my world crashed down.

Flying home.

Picking out caskets.

Choosing flowers.

Hymns.

Verses.

The overwhelming grief that made it so hard to function, so hard to even swallow or breathe.

The guilt.

The guilt.

The guilt.

Knowing that I hated my father for hurting my mother, but still loving him anyway.

Feeling like I was abandoning my mother for loving him, but then remembering that she loved him too. Passionately and completely.

Which is why she stayed.

That day, that one day, changed me forever. It taught me that everything you love, everyoneyou love, even if you love them and hate them at the same time, can be taken away in a moment and there isn’t anything you can do to change it.

It made me helpless. Powerless. And I hate that feeling with every ounce of my being.

“Miss?”

A hesitant voice breaks into my thoughts and I look up, startled, to find a woman holding the elevator for me.

“Do you need to go up?” she asks, her kind eyes flitting over my face. I nod, unable to speak because somehow that fucking lump is back in my throat. The same lump that was there when we buried my parents.

I step quickly into the elevator, leaning against the back wall as I try to breathe deep, to swallow.

Mila’s not going to die. I’m completely overreacting. Yet I can’t stop my feet from practically flying down the hall to get to her, to make sure she’s all right, to make sure something catastrophic didn’t happen to her while I was gone.

Because I left her. I left her back then when I moved to New York and I left her now.

But when I throw open the door, she’s still sleeping peacefully, curled on her side, her hand cupped to her face.

My stomach tightens. I can’t lose Mila. She’s been through too much not to have a happy ending. And if I lost her now, I don’t know what it would do to me.

I know that much is true.

I collapse into the chair next to her and drop the magazines onto the floor. I’m content to sit here and stew in my worry.

Minutes turn into hours and before I know it, Pax bursts into the room.

I glance at the clock. It’s barely eight p.m. He’s thirty minutes early. I have no idea how he managed to make it so fast, considering he had to drive from the airport in Chicago to Angel Bay. He must’ve broken some land-speed records of his own.

“How is she?” he asks worriedly as he pulls up the chair on the other side of the bed. “I got here as fast as I could.” His handsome face is ashen as he takes in the full picture of his wife, small and pale in the bed. “Oh my God. I can’t believe this. What did the doctor say? What caused this?”

I explain what the doctor said, and with every word Pax’s face gets paler and paler.

“This could actually threaten her life?” he finally whispers.

I nod. “If the placenta ruptures from the side of her uterus, yes. That’s why she’s got to stay in bed. The more she stands up, the more the force of gravity will pull on the weight of her uterus and could cause the abruption. She’s got to have complete rest.”

“Don’t worry,” Pax says firmly. “She won’t be moving. Not until the baby is born.”

“It’s going to be a long couple months,” I tell him. “But between us, we’ve got to keep her still.”

“If we have to tie her down, we will,” he says. At his words, Mila opens her eyes.

“That won’t be necessary,” she says softly, smiling at her husband. “I’ll stay in bed. And everything will be OK. Madison already promised.”

“Oh, because Madison’s in control of that?” Pax smiles back at his wife, bending to kiss her forehead.

My stomach tightens again at their obvious tenderness for each other. It’s practically palpable. I’ve never seen anyone love each other as much as they do, and while I’m happy for Mila, it makes me feel so very alone.

“You know she’d never let anything hurt me.” Mila nods, grinning. “Seriously, I have faith. Everything is going to be fine.”

“You’re right,” Pax agrees. “You’re going to be fine. And the baby is too.”

They curl up together with Pax half on the bed and half on his chair, his arms encircling Mila as if to protect her from the world.

Pax is a protector. Mila’s protector.

It’s a sight that causes that freaking lump to immediately form back in my throat, both because it’s heartwarming and because I’d like to have what they have… a pure and perfect love for each other.

And someone to protect me from everything that might hurt me.

Someone like Gabe.

Oh my God. I’ve got to get out of here before I embarrass myself.

I stand up and they both look up at me, their cheeks pink and warm from being cuddled together.

“I’m going to head home and shower since Pax is here now. I want to wash off the hospital smell. If you guys need anything, just give me a call. I’ll come out to the house tomorrow to check on you, Mi.” I bend down and kiss her cheek. “I love you. You’re going to be fine.”

“I know,” she tells me confidently. “I love you too.”

I walk through the hospital woodenly as all my emotions come down on me, the fear that Mila could lose her baby, the worry for Mila herself… and the overwhelming loneliness that encompasses me right now.

I don’t even realize until I’ve reached my car that tears are streaming down my cheeks.

Chapter Eleven

My house has never seemed so empty or quiet.

And I have never been quite so alone.

Jacey is covering for me at the Hill because there was no way that I could’ve left Mila to go to work. But now, as I sit all alone on my patio with a bottle of wine, I wish that Jacey were here with me instead. I’m stuck here by myself, with only my worries for company.

They’re bad freaking company.

I take a sip of wine and stare at the sky, watching the storm clouds roll in, heavy and dark.

I stare at my wineglass and remember when my mother bought it, and decide that I need to buy my own freaking glassware.

I stare at the sand behind the house, noticing the way it’s packed down, hard and damp.

I glance back at my watch and find that’s it’s only been one minute since the last time I looked at it.

I’m pathetic. I’m sitting here wallowing in my fear and worry and misery and it’s ridiculous. I can’t keep doing this tonight.

Just as I’m getting up to find something else to do to keep my mind occupied, my doorbell rings. For one split second, I’m panicked that it is bad news about Mila. And then I realize that’s stupid. If something happened, Pax would call. Not send someone.

I open the door and am startled to find Gabriel standing in front of me.

He’s strikingly sexy in his ever-present snug T-shirt and I somehow feel a marked sense of relief just at the mere sight of him.

He grins at me, holding up a silver tube of my lipstick.

“You left this in my car. I figured it must’ve rolled out of your purse. Since it’s not really my color, I figured I should return it.”

I reach for it and he deposits it in my hand, and when he does, the warmth of his hand transfers to my own. It’s the touch I’ve been thinking about for days: his strength, his power.

He smiles at me and I try to smile back, but I suddenly can’t.

My stomach clenches and a tear runs down my cheek.

Then another.

Gabe’s face sobers up and his eyes are veiled as he looks at me, assessing me.

“Are you all right?” Gabe asks, concerned as he stares at me, as his eyes search for what is wrong. He takes a step toward me, then stops. “Are you?” he repeats hesitantly.

I stand limply in front of him, an empty shell, but I nod.

“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Would you like a glass of wine? I really don’t want to be alone.” My eyes burn, but I manage to get the words out.

Gabe looks at me, his stormy eyes focused on my face.

“Of course,” he finally answers. He doesn’t even say that he prefers beer and I know that he does.

He takes my arm as I lead him through the house to the terrace. His hand is gentle, and strong, and warm on my elbow. I revel in the feel of it, in the warmth of his fingers, and I hate the coldness when he pulls it away. But we’re on the terrace now, so he steps back, watching me, hesitant.

He’s waiting.

He doesn’t know what I want.

It’s lightly raining now, but neither of us acknowledges it. I pour him a glass of wine and hand it to him with shaking fingers. I see the crimson liquid splash upward against the side of the glass, sliding back down into a pool. In my head I see the crimson blood running down Mila’s legs and I cringe, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to block it out.

“Maddy,” he says uncertainly, his voice deep and husky. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

I open my eyes and am distracted by the shape of his mouth, by the slant, by the full but firm lips. The lips I’ve thought about for days. The lips that licked me from his fingers.

I swallow, then I lift my fingers and trace his lips, sliding my fingertips over the softness. He stands still, completely still, as he waits to see what I’m going to do. As his dark eyes find mine, I decide that for this moment, I don’t care what his issues are.

This isn’t a game anymore, if it ever really was.

“Maddy,” he murmurs quietly, but firmer this time, his eyes frozen on mine even as he remains still. “Tell me what’s wrong with you.”

“I’ve just had a bad day. And I need you to make it good again.”

He stares at me in shock. I can’t blame him.

Confusion fills Gabriel’s eyes as he stands there facing me, not sure of what to do.

So I show him.

Reaching up, I press my lips softly to his, tentative at first, enjoying the taste of salt that lingers there, loving the way his chest is so rock-solid beneath my fingers.

The kiss is so soft, so gentle; barely there. But the intensity of having wanted it for days makes it fierce. His lips ignite a fire that flashes through my mouth and down into my chest and buries itself between my legs.

It roars to life there, burning bright, the flames licking up into the rest of me.

Gabriel’s strong arms automatically close around me as I deepen the kiss, plunging my tongue desperately into his mouth, tangling with his. I glance up and his dark eyes are open, staring into mine.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” he asks against my lips, almost desperately. I nod.

“I am now.”

My voice is a whisper and he groans, kissing me again, pulling me closer.

My hands are everywhere, running over his hard chest, his chiseled waist, his toned backside. Our mouths are hot and wet and open, our breath panting.

The friction from his warm skin against my fingertips is delicious and for a minute I remember that night in the taxi, how his dark eyes burned for me then, how he licked his fingers. That mere memory turns my knees weak yet again, just like it does every time I think of it.


Page 18

I grasp his hand and shove it between my legs, but my pants are in the way. I step out of them as I push my wet hair out of my face and he reaches down, ripping my panties away from my body… ridding us of the barrier between him and me.

He stands there, the shredding tatters of my underwear dangling from his fingers, then he flicks them away and they fall onto the wet ground at our feet.

I’m throbbing now as I stand facing him, waiting for him to touch me, the heat between my legs almost more than I can take.

Every nerve ending waits for him.

I hold my breath.

The rain pours down.

And then he touches me. His fingers, so long, slide into me and suddenly I find myself balanced on the palm of his hand, like everything in my being is tied to him. Waiting for him.

It’s been waiting for him forever.

He slips farther inside and everything in me moans. My eyes flicker up and catch his; his are hooded and dark as his eyelashes flutter down.

I run my fingers along his waistband.

“Is this OK?” I whisper, my lids lifting to meet his gaze, watching the rain run off his face.

“Hell, yes,” he mutters, guiding my hand to his hard crotch. It strains against my hand, pulsing and hot, and need for him flows in me everywhere, hot and rough and impatient.

I know that I need him to put the fire out.

I shove his shorts down and discard them to the side. It doesn’t matter to me that we’re outdoors. Nothing matters now but this.

This heat, this need; this blur of colors and feelings. This explosion of things that I can’t control, can’t even name.

Gripping him in my hand, I slide him easily in my fingers, wet from the rain. He’s as enormous as I remember, slick and hot and pulsing.

He’s hard for me.

He wants me.

He groans again, grabbing my face and pulling me to him, crushing my lips with his own, hard and yet soft.

I nip at his neck, dragging my teeth along the curve of his shoulder, aching to have him fill me up already, but knowing that we should wait. I want to drag it out, to prolong this exquisite agony of waiting for it.

Of waiting for him.

He stands naked in front of me now, tall and proud, and he’s so fucking beautiful.

Around us the rain pours down and the thunder rumbles, the electricity in the sky colliding with our energy. It’s a heady combination and I drop to my knees, taking him into my mouth. He’s huge and hard, and I move my lips up his length, letting him slide in past my teeth, down my throat.

“Fuck, Madison,” Gabriel groans, his fingers buried in my hair, guiding my speed. “God, that feels so good.”

I slide him in and out for a few minutes more, until he pushes me away, grabbing at my shirt and almost ripping it off. The raging heat from our bodies pressed together pools between my legs.

“I want you,” I murmur to him. “Right now.”

“I want to ask why you’ve changed your mind,” Gabriel says roughly, dipping his head to trail his lips along my neck. “But it doesn’t matter right now. I want to be inside you, Madison. I’m finally going to fuck you and you’re going to like it.”

He pulls on my hand, urging me back toward the house, but I plant my heels.

“Here,” I tell him simply. “Right here, in the rain. I want you right now.”

Gabriel looks sharply at me, but he doesn’t argue. He simply eases me onto the large stone table behind us. It’s cold and wet, but it doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters but this.

His body covers mine, rubbing against every inch of me, bringing every nerve ending singing to life. He hovers above me now, just as I’ve imagined him hovering above me, waiting to enter me.

Reality is even better than my imagination.

I grasp at his back as he slides his fingers into me again, my muscles flexing as he moves. Everything around us ceases to matter; the wind, the rain… it all fades away and all that I can see is him.

“God, you’re so wet,” he rasps into my ear. “And so fucking tight.”

He fingers me softly, then harder. And then he withdraws his fingers. Before I can protest at his absence, I hear a wrapper crinkle and then he slips into me, hard and full.

I gasp, then hold on as he thrusts into me.

I needed this so much.

I neededhimand I didn’t even realize it.

My legs wrap around him, pulling him to me, as close as he can possibly get.

Intimate feelings, strange and foreign feelings, threaten to overwhelm me as I clutch him to me, as I absorb his warmth, his vitality, his scent.

Everything about this moment is exactly what I need, even if I can’t define what I’m feeling, or why I’m feeling it. All my sadness, all my worry, all my fear culminate and explode in this moment. It makes everything blurry, makes everything happen so fast. I just want to take and take and take… everything he has to give.

Gabriel reaches between us and, using his thumb, brings me to climax a scant moment later.

“God, you’re beautiful,” he tells me raggedly, still thrusting into me, filling me up. His strength is apparent as he moves against me, every muscle flexing with every movement.

He pulls my leg up and over his shoulder, deepening his penetration. I call out, scratching into him, holding tight; and then he shudders with his own release a minute later.

He collapses onto me, holding me close as we recover.

“Holy shit,” he finally says, after a few minutes. “That was incredible.”

My chest almost hurts from the feeling of completion that is filling it. I reach out and slide my fingers along Gabe’s jawline, along the stubble that always lingers there and turns me on.

“It was,” I agree. “Except for the rain. I didn’t care about it a few minutes ago, but now…” My voice trails off as my teeth start to chatter.

Gabriel sits up and then stands, pulling me to my feet. He hands me my clothes, then gets dressed himself.

“Come on,” he tells me, grabbing my hand and pulling me into the house.

“What are we doing?” I ask curiously.

“Taking a hot shower. That rain is fucking cold.”

We tumble through the door and I lead him to the bathroom, stopping only to let the shower water get hot. Gabriel turns to me and helps me into the shower, and then lathers up his hands, running them over my back.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispers into my ear. “You have no idea how much I think about you.”

He does? That thought makes my heart race.

Gabriel drops to his knees and lathers his hands again, paying close attention to my thighs, then to the crevices behind my knees. When his soapy hands slip to the apex of my thighs, I inhale sharply and watch him smile.

“Do you like that?” he asks knowingly. He rinses his hand, then slips a finger into me. I nod and another finger slips in. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Open your eyes, Maddy,” he tells me. “I want to see you when I do this.”

The idea of being vulnerable right now while I’m so exposed makes me nervous, but Gabe doesn’t give me the time to think about it. He pushes me back onto the ledge of the shower, and then, while I watch, he detaches the shower nozzle. He rinses away the water, then holds the nozzle between my legs.

“What… the… hell…” I murmur in amazement as waves of pleasure ripple through me, buoying me up, teetering me on the edge of another orgasm.

I close my eyes again, allowing myself to give in to the pleasure, to the sinfully good sensations stemming from the water hitting me at just the right angle. I’m self-conscious and nervous that Gabe is watching me, but it feels so freaking good that I can’t help but to just let him do it. If I protested, he might stop. And there’s no way I want that.

“That’s it, sweetheart,” he murmurs into my neck. “Let yourself go. Relax.”

So I do. I just focus on the building waves of my orgasm. And just when I am grabbing at the shower wall, almost ready to come, Gabriel pulls the shower nozzle away and replaces it with his tongue.

“Holy fuck,” I practically scream, as I shudder against him. My legs go weak with the strength of my orgasm and I hold tight to Gabriel so my knees don’t give out.

His face is clouded, his eyes slightly unfocused as he pulls me up and flips me over. I see him reach for his wallet and there is another rustle of foil. Then without another word he slips inside me from behind, thrusting harder and harder.

Even though I already came once, the sensations start building again. He wraps his hand around and moves his fingers against me too. I moan, my hands slipping down the wet wall in front of me, my cheek resting against the wall.

“Your ass is amazing,” Gabriel murmurs, his lips resting against my shoulders. “Tell me what you want, Madison. Tell me.”

I breathe in, then breathe out, slowing down the moment.

“I want you to come,” I finally tell him, loving how he fills me up. “I want to know you like it.”

He groans as he thrusts again. “Oh, trust me. I fucking love it.”

“So come then,” I tell him. “Show me how much you love it. I want to feel it.”

He moves his hands to my hips now, clutching tightly there, his fingers digging into my skin as he moves. Rhythmically, he moves with me until he finally sucks in a breath and pulses into me. I can feel the heat spreading into the condom and I close my eyes, enjoying it.

We stay that way with the water beating down on us for several minutes, before Gabriel straightens up and rinses us off. We step out of the shower and as I’m drying off, Gabriel looks at me.

“I could use some coffee. Can I go make some?”

I nod. “Of course. The kitchen is… well, you know where it is. We came in through the kitchen door.”

Gabriel ducks out and I join him in the kitchen after I’ve gotten dressed. He’s still shirtless, maneuvering about the kitchen with ease. The smell of coffee percolating is already filling the air and I watch as Gabriel finds two cups, filling them both. He sips at one, then dumps sugar and cream in the other, simply assuming that I want it. And he’s right. That’s exactly how I take it.

He sets a cup in front of me and then sits down across from me at the table.

The air between us has cleared, the frenzied sexual tension is gone. The need, however, remains… only it’s quiet now, latent.

Waiting.

Gabe stares at me. “Are you going to tell me what that was all about?”

I think about my poor sister, huddled in her bed back at the hospital. I think about the possibility that I could lose her. I think about the fact that I’m always afraid and the only time I’venotbeen afraid in as long as I remember was a few minutes ago when I was wrapped in his arms. I think of all of that.

As I do, my eyes well up again, against my will. I hate to cry. And I’ve never been a crier. Until today, apparently.

“I’ve just had a bad day,” I manage to say without crying. But my throat is hot and tight, and I know that if I keep talking, I’m going to lose it.

“Apparently,” Gabriel replies drily, thoughtfully. “And did I manage to make it better?”

I give him a weak smile and then sip at my coffee. I don’t answer because I think he already knows.

“Is this decaf?” I ask instead.

He nods. “Yeah. I didn’t know if it’d be hard for you to sleep otherwise.”

It’s surprisingly thoughtful, something that just closes my throat up even more.

“Thank you,” I utter, before a tear escapes.

Gabriel looks at me in alarm. “Madison, I swear to God. Just tell me what is wrong. Seriously.”

I sigh and stare at my hands, then slowly look back up at him. Where should I begin? I decide to start with the only thing I can easily explain.

“My sister might lose her baby.” The mere words are terrifying and they catch in my throat. “And if she’s not careful, she could die, too.”

“Jesus,” Gabriel mutters.

I nod shakily. “She and Pax have been through so much and now they have this to deal with. It’s not fair.”

Gabriel looks at me seriously, his eyes softening.

“I’m so sorry,” he says quietly. “I’m not going to tell you all the bullshit about life not being fair. I’m sure you know that already. What I will say is that I’m sure your sister will be OK. She’s strong and I’m sure she’ll do whatever the doctors tell her to do.”

I nod limply. “She will. It’s just… you don’t understand. Our parents died when she was a senior in college. I had just graduated. All of a sudden, it was just the two of us and it was so hard. I grew up in a hurry. I had to be the rock in our little family. Everything was always all right because I made it that way… but I can’t fix this for her. It’s out of my hands and I hate it.”

My vision blurs as my eyes well up with hot tears, and one drips onto my thumb.

Gabriel reaches across the table and wipes my thumb off before enclosing my hand within his. His is large and rough and I imagine it got that way from his being a soldier.

“It’s OK to cry,” he tells me. “Even the strongest do it.”

I break down at his words, at the soft expression on his hardened face. My head drops to the table and I weep uncontrollably.

At some point Gabriel rounds the table and kneels in front of me, pulling me against his chest. His strong hands pat my back and stroke my arms and I cry until there’s nothing left.

I can hear him speaking to me, telling me that I can’t fix everything all the time, that I’m just a person like anyone else. But his words don’t even matter.

It’s his voice that gives me comfort; his calm, husky, soothing voice. I wish I could wrap myself up in it and stay that way forever.

But even his voice can’t stop my endless flow of tears.

I’m not sure if I’m only crying for Mila’s current situation, or if I’m crying for everything that’s happened in the past couple of years, for everything that I haven’t allowed myself to cry for. Even at our parents’ funeral I only cried once. I wanted to be the strong one, the one Mila could lean on. It feels so effing good to let it all go now.

I feel utterly drained when I finally look up at Gabe.

“Thanks for letting me cry on you,” I tell him weakly. I’m embarrassed, but he smiles.

“Jacey tells me that sometimes a woman just needs a good cry.” He shrugs. “Now, I should also admit that she cries at the drop of a hat, say if her coffee isn’t hot enough. But still, it makes sense. Crying is cleansing. You should try it more often.”


Page 19

I roll my eyes, but I do feel remarkably cleansed, not that I’d ever admit it. I’m a strong person. I’ve always prided myself on that strength. I’m not about to become weak now. I lean my face against Gabriel’s chest again.

I stare at the wall, at the shadows that move there, and I know that I just don’t want to be alone tonight. I don’t want Gabriel to leave. He’s so very strong and I just want to absorb all that strength, to replenish my own.

The thought of him leaving me after the emotional mess I’ve been tonight… it makes me feel panicky inside, deep inside a place where I’ve never looked.

“I know this seems sudden and clingy,” I mumble against his warm skin, “But can you stay? I want to sleep next to you tonight. I don’t want to be alone.”

Gabriel tenses up, his muscles coiled against me. Staying with me is obviously something that he doesn’t want to do. My breath catches in my throat and heat burns up my cheeks.

“Never mind,” I say quickly, pushing away from him. “That was stupid. You don’t need to stay.”

He gazes at me and brushes a piece of my hair away from my face. “It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just… there’s shit you don’t know about me. I can’t stay. But I’ll stay until you go to sleep. How about that?”

I find myself nodding when my pride really wants to tell him to just go if he doesn’t want to be here. But something in his face, something vulnerable in his eyes, makes me really hear what he’s saying. He’s not rejecting me. It’s something deeper than that.

There’s shit you don’t know about me.

After we turn off the lights in the kitchen and climb under the covers of my bed, I turn and snuggle into Gabriel’s chest, enjoying the way his arms hold me close. I can hear the beat of his heart against my ear and the sound soothes me.

“Tell me about the shit I don’t know,” I say quietly. “Because I’d like to know it.”

Gabriel is quiet for a moment and just when I think that he must be trying to decide how to tell me, he declines.

“Maddy, I just can’t.”

I can tell from his firm tone that he means it. He’s not going to talk about it. I can’t even be mad about that because I can also hear something else in his voice… something hurt, something tired, something resigned. Something that doesn’t have anything to do with me.

Something secret.

It makes me wrap my arm tighter around his side, pulling him closer.

“If you ever want to tell me, you can,” I tell him quietly. “I won’t judge. I promise that I’ll try not to even ask probing questions. I’ll just listen.”

I’ve known all along that he has a secret, something that has the power to drop him to his knees. Hethinksthat it’s a secret, anyway. But I’ve seen it. I know how it affects him.

It’s whatcausedthe secret that I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of anything that can decimate a person like Gabriel.

I feel his lips moving against my hair.

“Thanks, Maddy. Maybe someday.”

But don’t count on it.

He doesn’t say that, but I’m sure he’s thinking it. I would bet any amount of money that he’s never planning on talking about it, that he’s going to keep everything buried as far down as he can for as long as he can. I know that’s dangerous. You can’t do that with something so big. If you do, it will explode.

And then what will happen? If it affects him as violently as it does right now, what will happen when it explodes?

I close my eyes again. I can’t answer that question. It’s so important and so scary, but I don’t have it in me to think about it tonight.

So instead I inhale him, enjoying his masculine smell. I know I’ll never forget his scent now; it smells like the outdoors, like musk and cedar. Like everything strong and good in the world. It’s delicious.

But I can’t sleep. Even though I’m warm and safe with Gabriel, I’m restless and I know the reason why. Because I know that the second I fall asleep, he’s going to leave.

“If you leave, I won’t be able to sleep,” I tell him. “So I think we’re just going to have to lie here together, both of us awake until morning.”

He chuckles again, tightening his hold on me. “Somehow, Maddy, I feel like you won’t be a pleasant person to be around if you don’t get any sleep.”

I start to protest, but then can’t even deny it.

“Fine, you’re right,” I grumble. “I’m a bitch when I don’t sleep.”

“Thought so,” Gabriel answers smugly. “But that’s OK. I like your bitchiness.”

I jab him in the ribs and he laughs, while I snuggle back into the crook of his arm. I lie still for a minute, just savoring his nearness before I feel the need to share something.

“You’re not the person I thought you were.”

Gabriel startles, then his words are quiet. “And what kind of person am I?”

My answer is immediate. “You’re someone who won’t hurt me.”

I hope.

Gabriel is silent for a moment, then he exhales a ragged breath. “I would never hurt you on purpose, Maddy. Did you think that I would?”

I hesitate. “I, um. I thought you were a different kind of person. I thought you were a bully and I seriously hate bullies.”

Gabe lets that sink in. “Pax told me a little bit about your father. Is that why you hate bullies so much?”

I freeze, my hand unmoving on Gabriel’s chest. I can’t believe that Pax would tell someone. I’m not mad, just taken aback. It’s not something any of us talk about.

I have a brief flash of my father’s fist hovering above my mother’s face, droplets of blood on her dress, and I force the taste of fear out of my mouth.

Even the memory of fear tastes bad.

“I guess,” I finally answer. “I loved my dad. But he had an anger problem.”

Gabe’s question is hesitant, yet his words are strong. He sounds pissed, but like he’s reining it in. “Did he ever hit you?”

My heart squeezes in my chest and I don’t want to answer. I don’t want to admit it out loud, but at the same time I don’t want to lie. Not to Gabe.

“Only once. But once was enough.”

It’s enough that I close my eyes and stilt my words and it’s very obvious that I don’t want to talk about it. Gabe takes the hint and holds me closer, his strong arms incredibly gentle.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to tell me about it. I’m not like that, Maddy. I won’t ever hit you. That’s not me.”

I relax now, letting my body soften against his.

“I know,” I tell him honestly. “I’m not worried about that. I was more worried that you would be controlling like him, violent when you’re angry. I can’t take that kind of man. But that’s not you. I know that now.”

He doesn’t ask why I would think that and I’m grateful. Because then I don’t have to explain that I search for my father’s traits in every man.

I don’t have to explain how it makes me weak, how always being afraid of those traits gives me a vulnerability. A vulnerability that I don’t want.

I close my eyes again, reveling in the comfort that Gabe brings me, surprised by it, actually. I never expected to find someone who affects me the way Gabriel does. It’s like an unexpected gift.

Gabe seems tense though, his body stiff, and I figure it’s because I scared the shit out of him by talking about my feelings… by sharing some of my past with him. I gently shake him.

“It’s all right,” I tell him softly, teasingly. “I’m done talking about deep stuff. I just wanted you to know that I misjudged you and that I’m sorry for it.”

He relaxes, his hard body slumping against me. “You don’t need to apologize. Everyone judges people when they meet them. It’s normal.”

It only takes me a couple of seconds to respond to that.

“What did you think about me?”

Gabe thinks about it for a minute. “I thought you were drop-dead fucking gorgeous and I couldn’t figure out why you wanted to go home with me. You didn’t seem like the kind of girl for a one-night stand. But I thanked God for my good fortune anyway.”

I’m OK with that answer. It’s not deep, but it’s such a man answer. At least he’s honest.

“I’m not the kind of girl for a one-night stand,” I admit. “That was your sister’s idea. She thought I needed to hook up and blow off some stress. But I met you instead. And that might’ve been a really good thing. I’m not trying to get serious or anything so don’t get worked up, but what are we doing here, Gabe? What is this? You and I have been playing cat and mouse since we first saw each other. But I’m tired of playing games.”

He’s quiet for a second, then bends to press a kiss on the top of my head.

“This is you and me, Madison. This is just you and me. We might be fucked up in some ways, but like Jacey says, we’re good people. We’ll figure it out. Everything will be fine.”

I nod and count his breaths, then listen to his heartbeat for a while. I count the steady beats and while I do, I can’t help but ponder how everyone has issues. Some are more horrible than others, and so often, people just walk around with their painful secrets buried deep down inside because they are so ashamed of them.

Just when I’m almost asleep, I ask one last question.

“Is everyone in the world broken, Gabriel?” Even to my own ears, my whisper itself sounds broken in the velvety night. I can feel the weight of Gabriel’s gaze as he stares down at me in the dark.

“I think so,” he finally answers. “In their own way.”

He pulls me close, kissing me softly on the mouth, before I settle back into his side. Before long sleepiness does overtake me and I slip into the oblivion that only sleep can offer.

When I wake up, the sunlight is streaming through my windows, and Gabriel is gone.

Chapter Twelve

I sit up and stretch, basking like a sated cat in the sunlight pouring across my bed. I’m warm and perfectly comfortable. Except for the fact that Gabriel isn’t here. But that’s no surprise. He told me he couldn’t stay.

There’s shit you don’t know about me.

That may be true, but I’m not going to worry about it right now. I’ve put that away because it doesn’t matter today. Gabriel is gone and last night was amazing.

I stretch and throw the covers back, picking up Gabe’s pillow and holding it to my nose. It smells like man, musky and outdoorsy. Like him. I inhale it, then toss it back in place.

As I move, I realize that I’m a little soredown there. But that’s not a surprise. I haven’t had sex in quite a while—and last night was… er… vigorous. My cheeks flush as I remember Gabriel bending me onto the table outside. I’d better remember to wipe that thing down before I use it next.

I pad into the bathroom and brush my teeth as I wait for the shower to heat up. Staring at the water, I can’t help but remember Gabriel bending me over in the shower as well. I blush harder.

Pretty soon I won’t be able to go anywhere in my house without blushing. If I’m lucky. I have to smile at that, picturing Gabe and me christening every room in the house. It’s an interesting thought and as I daydream about it, I dance around my bathroom singing “I Love Rock and Roll” at the top of my lungs.

I can’t help it. I feel so happy today that dancing like a lunatic seems to be the logical thing to do, sore crotch or not. I feel lighter and happier than I’ve felt in a long time.

He did that.

Just as I’m spinning around by the shower door, I catch a glimpse of someone big and dark in the bathroom doorway. A shadow.

I startle, then freeze as I realize who the shadow belongs to.

Gabe leans casually against the doorjamb, his eyes glinting with amusement.

“Good morning,” he says glibly. “I see someone’s in a good mood.”

He’s here.

My heart practically sings, but just as quickly almost dies from embarrassment when I realize that he just witnessed my personal little karaoke/dance party.

My face explodes into a thousand shades of red and I turn so I can spit my toothpaste into the sink.

“What are you doing here?” I stammer. “I thought you weren’t staying.”

He grins again. “I wasn’t going to. Did you know you’re cute when you dance in the bathroom in your underwear? You can’t hold a tune, though.”

I shake my head and grin back. I might as well laugh at myself, right?

“Don’t worry. I won’t quit my day job, I’m just in a good mood.”

Gabe stares at me wryly. “Well, you might not be in a good mood for long,” he tells me. “The road’s flooded. That’s why I’m still here. We can’t get out.”

I stare at him blankly. “What? You’ve gotta be kidding. The last time that road flooded was years ago.”

Gabe shrugs. “I don’t know about that, but it’s flooded today. It’s been raining for two weeks straight. It’s not that big of a shock. But it boils down to the fact that we’re not going anywhere.”

We’re stuck here. Gabe and me.

Together.

As I think of the possibilities, I grin broadly.

“There are worse things,” I announce, thinking about my daydream of christening every room. I smile impishly at him. “I can think of some things to do.”

Gabe rolls his eyes. “Judging from that grin, I’m afraid to ask.”

I’m about to respond when a distracting thought suddenly occurs to me that makes me panic.

“Mila. I’ve got to call and see how she’s doing. I won’t be able to get to the hospital.”

I rush to my cell phone and drop onto my bed as I call the hospital, my foot bouncing nervously as I wait.

I had put her out of my mind last night when Gabe and I were… together. I had been so focused on my own pain, my own fear, that I lost myself in him.

How could I have done that? What kind of person am I?

After I’m transferred to Mila’s room, Pax answers the phone on the second ring.

“How’s Mila?” I ask by way of greeting.

“Good morning to you too,” Pax replies. “She’s fine. Calm down, Maddy. I can tell by your voice that you’re freaking out. Mila slept through the night, they gave her fluids and they’re releasing her today. She’s going straight home to bed. And if you see her up at any point, you have my permission to beat her.”

“I don’t need your permission,” I grumble. “I knew her first. But I don’t know if you’ll be able to get home. My road is flooded. I don’t know about yours. I can’t even get out.”


Page 20

“Ours is fine,” Pax answers. “But I’m sorry that you’re stuck. Don’t sit there and stew about it. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”

“I’ll try not to,” I promise, as I eye Gabe. He stands in front of me, his muscled torso at eye level. To be honest, it’s hard to think about anything but his exquisite body for the time being. It’s a little distracting. “Is Mila awake?”

“Yeah, but the nurse is giving her a sponge bath. I’ll have her call you when we get home.”

We hang up and I turn to Gabe. “I’ve just got to make a couple more calls and then we can figure out what we’re going to do. I wonder how long the road will be closed?”

Gabe shrugs. “It’s hard to say. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I have a year’s supply of frozen burritos,” I tell him. “And maybe some rice.”

“So we won’t starve,” Gabe points out. “We’ll be fine. I’m going to go call Jacey while you make your calls. I’ll need to get Brand to stay with her while I’m stuck here.”

He ducks out of the room and I call Tony. His part of town wasn’t flooded at all, so he’ll be able to get to the Hill.

“And I saw on the news that it’s only on your side,” Tony tells me. “So the Hill will be fine. I’ll call you if we need anything, not that you’ll be able to do anything about it.”

“Haha,” I grumble. He chuckles, then hangs up.

I throw some clothes on, a T-shirt and shorts, and find Gabriel in the kitchen, looking through the fridge.

“You weren’t kidding,” he says. “You practically do have a year’s supply of frozen burritos.”

“I told you.” I shrug. “I already know the irony of owning a restaurant and not being able to cook. You don’t have to tell me.”

“OK, I won’t,” he chuckles as he turns around. “I’m making some coffee. I figure you might need it. It took you forever to fall asleep last night.”

I sniff at the freshly brewed coffee smell and glance at Gabe in appreciation.

“If I didn’t love you before, I do now,” I tell him jokingly. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that his knuckles just turned white as he gripped his coffee cup harder. But that can’t be right. I was just joking. Surely he knows that. I snatch a coffee cup from the rack and pour myself a cup.

“What should we do?” I ask dubiously. “We’re going to get awfully bored if we’re stuck here long.”

Gabriel lifts an eyebrow. “Seriously? We’re in a nice house on the edge of Lake Michigan. We’ll find something to do.”

I look around doubtfully. “You think this house is nice?” In my head I picture Pax and Mila’s palatial beach-side mansion. This place is a shack compared to theirs.

“Of course,” Gabriel answers. “You don’t?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. It was my parents’. I guess I haven’t given it much thought. When they died, Mila and I inherited it. Mila didn’t want it because she had a little apartment over her shop, so she let me have the house. I keep thinking that I need to renovate or something, to make it mine, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”

“You’ll get there,” Gabriel tells me knowingly. “When you’re ready.”

If that ever happens. It’s been four years.

But I don’t want to think about that.

“I want to go outside and look at the flooding,” I tell him as I push away from the table. “How close is it to the house?”

“Not very, at least not right now. Have you ever seen it get close?” Gabe asks as we walk out the front door. I nod.

“Once. Years ago. I think we still have those sandbags stacked in the basement.”

I suck in my breath as I step out on the front porch and take in the scene in front of me. There’s water everywhere.

Fast-moving water has completely covered my road, the kind you can’t drive through or it will carry your car away. The murky water is also lapping at the front edge of my lawn, watery fingers that are even now trying to grab at more ground, moving quickly toward absorbing everything between the road and my house.

“Holy shit,” I breathe.

“Where did you say those sandbags were?” Gabe looks down at me. “We’re gonna need them. That water has moved at least three feet toward your yard since I looked at it fifteen minutes ago.”

“The basement,” I tell him as I spin on my heel and dart toward the basement door. I jog down the steps and find everything just as my parents left it in my dad’s dark underground workshop. The sandbags line the very back wall, at least twenty rows of them.

“There was a bad flood ten years ago or so,” I tell Gabe as I grab one and haul it back toward the stairs. It’s heavy—probably fifty pounds, but Gabe grabs four of them easily. “Dad kept the sandbags in case we ever needed them again. They were a pain in the butt to fill up the first time. He figured we didn’t need to do it twice.”

“Smart.” Gabe nods. He acts like lugging two hundred pounds up the stairs is no problem at all. As we burst out the front door again, Gabe heads farther out than I would have expected.

Glancing over his shoulder, he tells me, “We’ve got to stack them a ways out. If we don’t and the water seeps through, it can actually cause more damage to your house by trapping the water.”

“That makes sense. How did you know that?” I ask curiously as I follow him, dropping the sandbag into place on the ground, starting a line. He shakes his head.

“I know stuff,” he answers wryly, as he lines his bags up with mine. “I’m smart like that.”

I don’t comment on that. Instead I wonder about what kinds of things he must’ve done when he was a Ranger as we head back into the basement for more bags.

We end up making more trips than I can count. With each trip the stairs seem a little steeper and the yard seems just a little farther from the house.

By the time we carry the last bags out and stack them around the perimeter, the wall of bags is four feet high. The water has crept forward by another two feet, and my arms and legs are shaking like leaves.

Even through I’m covered in a layer of sand and dirt, I drop onto the couch, flopping onto my back.

“Holy crap. I couldn’t carry one more bag if I tried,” I moan. “I don’t know how you carried so many. You carried four times as many as I did, and you’re not bothered at all.”

“That’s because I’m a badass,” Gabriel says lightly, picking up one of my arms and rubbing at it. “You reallyareshaking.”

“I knoooowww,” I groan. “Carrying one bag is fine. Carrying a hundred starts to get to a person.”

Gabriel shakes his head a little, but doesn’t stop rubbing my arm. The warmth of his hand feels good against my skin. I flip onto my side, looking him in the eye.

“Do you think it’ll keep the water out?” Even as I ask, I’m not sure that I care. If this house is destroyed by water damage, I’ll get a brand-new one with the insurance money. One that doesn’t carry bad memories in it.

Gabriel nods. “It should. Temporarily, I mean. I can’t imagine the water will stay up very long.”

“OK,” I murmur. As long as we don’t have to worry about the house being flooded while we’re in it, I’m good. And with Gabe’s hands on me, I’mreallygood.

“Thank you for helping me,” I tell him quietly. “You didn’t have to do that.”

He lifts a dark eyebrow. “And how would you have carried all of those bags by yourself? You’ve got spaghetti arms.”

I sputter and he laughs.

“You’re welcome,” he continues, ignoring my indignation. “It wasn’t a problem.”

“My own personal hero,” I declare, smiling into his eyes. His expression turns a little cloudy, but he doesn’t say anything.

He simply says, “It’s what I do.”

Once again I find myself thinking about Gabe in combat gear, dusty and hot, running with a rifle to rescue someone. But that’s where my daydream ends, because I don’t knowexactlywhat he did as a Ranger.

So I ask.

Gabe tenses, then relaxes, almost like he’s forcing himself to.

“A little of everything,” he tells me. “We did some search and rescue, some recon, some surveillance. Our team was a specialized unit. But unfortunately, most of what we did was classified. I can’t talk about it. It drives Jacey crazy.”

“I bet,” I smile, thinking of Jacey’s inquisitive nature. “I’m sure it kills her. Speaking of her, is everything all right over there? Is the water near your grandparents’ house? We were so busy with my house that I forgot to ask you about yours.”

He shakes his head. “Nope. No water. They’re fine. Brand’s going to stay with Jacey until I get there just to make sure Jared doesn’t try anything. I think he’s probably done harassing her now, but you never know.”

I remember Jared’s terrified expression at the gas station a few days earlier. “I think he’s probably intimidated now,” I agree. “But like you said, you never know. He’s a dumbass. And if Brand doesn’t mind being there, it’s probably a good idea.”

“Brand doesn’t mind.”

“Well, good.” I get off the couch and stare down at Gabe. “I’m covered in sand. I’m going to take a quick shower. Help yourself to anything you need; just make yourself at home.”

“If you play your cards right, I’ll give you a massage when you get out,” Gabriel offers. “You got a big workout carrying those bags. We should probably rub the lactic acid out of your muscles so you don’t get sore.”

“Wow, that sounds so… clinical,” I laugh. “But hey, it’s a massage, so I’ll take it.”

I walk down the hall and I can feel his stormy gaze watching me as I go. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but it seems as dark as he is.

*     *     *

Gabriel

What the fuck am I doing?

Obviously I can’t help being here, but why the fuck am I acting like a domesticated pussy-whipped idiot? Jesus. I’m not pussy-whipped.

Madison is pussy. Pure and simple.

She doesn’t mean anything to me.

I don’t care how many times her eyes turn soft when she looks at me, when they’re normally jaded and worldly. I don’t care how many times she calls me her own personal hero. I don’t care that she’s damaged on the inside, in a way that reminds me of Jacey—and of the damage that my father did to her. But Madison’s damage is far, far worse than Jacey’s.

And it’s not my job to fix her.

I can’t even fix myself.

I go through two cups of coffee while I wait for her on the sofa, as her “quick” shower turns into half an hour. But when she comes out dressed only in a T-shirt and panties, I’m wide awake without the aid of caffeine. I can see the outline of her perky nipples through her shirt and all my previous arguments about how little she means to me go out the window.

Especially when she looks at me with those soft eyes. Eyes that aren’t soft for many people. It clenches my stomach into a fucking knot.

You can’t trust me. But obviously I can’t say that.

“Hey,” I say instead. “Feel better?”

She nods. “Yeah. I stood under the hot water for a while. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”

“It’s OK,” I tell her. “Seeing your nipples was worth the wait.”

She smiles, her cheeks flushing. “Where do you want me?”

“Under me on the bed.”

Madison startles, but then I laugh. “Under my hands. I just meant under my hands.”

She smiles back at me, but tugs me to my feet.

“OK. I’ll lie on my bed. Then we’ll both be comfortable. I have to tell you something, though.” She pauses and blushes, which immediately piques my interest. This ought to be good. “I’m pretty sore. Down there, I mean. So…”

I interrupt. “Don’t worry. I can rub that too.” At her look of utter chagrin, I burst out laughing. “It’ll be fine, Maddy. I won’t try anything. We’ll be fine on the bed. I mean, if you can control yourself.”

She turns around and walks down the hall. “I’m not the one who needs that talk. The little man there needs that talk.”

As soon as I realize that she’s talking about my dick, I bristle.

“Hey, never, in any situation, should you call him ‘little man.’ The word little should never be used in conjunction with my penis.”

She laughs as she walks into her room and sits on her bed.

“Whatever. I don’t think you really need reassured about your big size, army man. It’s the reason I’m in the shape I’m in, and you know it.” She’s smiling, and I can tell she’s sufficiently impressed.

“That’s better,” I grumble as I settle onto her bed. “You can use that word all you want.”

A wicked gleam shines in her eyes and she flips onto all fours, crawling up over me.

“Big army man. I love your big muscles.” She trails her fingers along my biceps, up and over the contours, following the line of my neck. She turns my face toward her and touches her lips to mine. She tastes like honey. “And I love your big… ego.”

I roll my eyes, but hold her tight to me, my tongue tangling with hers again.

“What else do you love of mine?” I ask softly, dipping my head to kiss her neck.

“I love your big sense of humor,” she whispers, her hands trailing over my shoulders. “And your big smile, when you choose to use it.”

“And?” I whisper back.

Her eyes meet mine and hers are so fucking blue. She kisses me again and then sits on me, wedging her hips tight against my crotch. My dick is rigid against her, rock-hard and straining against my underwear.

“I love…” she whispers, her lips touching mine. “Your big cock.”

I almost choke when she says the word. Not only does she say it, she places extreme emphasis on it. It seems so strange coming from her lips. But she’s feisty. I knew that. And Christ, I love that about her.

But she means nothing, right? My own thoughts taunt me and I gulp as her hand drops down to my lap and her fingers rub the length of me.

I groan.

“You’ve got to stop,” I manage to say. “Seriously. Before you kill me. If you don’t want to fuck me, you’ve got to stop.”

She laughs lightly and hops off.

“That was a fun game,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “What do you want to play next?”

I drop a pillow onto my head and take deep breaths.

“You’re a female devil,” I tell her. “Seriously evil.”

She only laughs harder. “You’re the one who made me sore,” she reminds me. “So just remember that.”

A thought occurs to me.

“Turnabout is fair play, you little demon. On your belly. Now.”

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