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Capture Me Slowly Joya Ryan

Books by Joya Ryan The Shattered Series Break Me Slowly (Shattered #1) Possess Me Slowly (Shattered #2) Capture Me Slowly (Shattered #3)

Dedication To My Sister. Thank you for your support and making me laugh. I love you and am so proud of you. HYB!

Acknowledgments Thank you so much to my family for your patience and allowing me ve. Thank you to the best critique partner in the world you're everything to read this means so much to me. Thank you Jill for helping me calm the frick down when I get too psycho. Thank you rockin' (literally) copy-editor Martha for you fabulous work and uni-brows.

to do what I lo willingness to drop your advice and so much to the catching all the

Table of Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Break Me Slowly Possess Me Slowly

Chapter One We have a thirty-day billing cycle, Miss Wade, Randall Hamm, my boss, said from acro ss the desk. If his creepy gaze drifted to my chest one more time, I was going t

o sock him in the throat. It was one thing to own your sexuality and choose what, or who, you wanted to sc rew. There was empowerment in that, after all. But after a month of accidental gro pes and the extra-long staring contests my boss had going with my boobs, I was d one. Done with him. Done with this city. Just done. Taking a few freelance programming gigs was how I had been supporting myself sin ce moving to New York and crashing in on my friend, Megan Riley. Only now, New Y ork was no longer safe, Megan Riley was off honeymooning as Mrs. Preston Strauss and my savings account was down to almost zero. Yeah, I get that. But I got your company's server cleaned up, the website running a nd all malware erased. I fixed all the issues over two months ago. I'm leaving tow n tomorrow and need that money. I'm sorry, my hands are tied, he said, opening his folded hands atop his desk, obvio usly demonstrating the opposite of his words. But perhaps I can send an e-mail to HR. HR? That was laughable. If by HR he meant the crabby old woman pushing files in th e basement, then sending an e-mail to her would be of little help. This guy and his startup company were just trying to screw me out of my money. I could look into this for you, he said, as his beady eyes roved downward again. Instead of shrinking back or tugging on my shirt, I pushed the girls out and let him look his fill. One thing I learned growing up on the streets of Chicago was that pervs will be pervs, and if you want to survive, use what you have to your advantage. Oh, yeah? Well, I'd sure appreciate that, Mr. Hamm, I said in the sultry voice I'd per fected over the years. And just how appreciative would you be, Miss Wade? He licked the small amount of spit at the corner of his mouth and shifted his hi ps in his chair. Never once taking his eyes from my body. Definitely not that appreciative. Yes, I needed the money and, yes, logic told me to do what I had to do to get wh at I needed to survive. It had been ten years since I'd had to beg for food or a p lace to stay. Still, old habits die hard. But not this time and not for this guy. He could take his receding hairline, pot belly and poor excuse for hygiene and fuck off. My patience was gone, my stress level was through the roof and the ability to run from a past that was literally hunting me down was weakening. I had officially met my asshole quota for a life time. I would be so appreciative, Mr. Hamm, that I would be willing to not tell everyon e what a sick bastard you are, or that you have a tiny penis. His face fell briefly, then rage overtook him. How dare you How dare I? You're the one jerking it in your office twenty-four seven. Last month I had walked in on him and while that was an image that would haunt my nightmares , he hadn't noticed my momentary interruption. For God's sake, at least lock the door . You can see yourself out, Miss Wade, he snapped. I stood and slung my satchel over my shoulder. I want my check. We thank you for your freelance work, he said in a snippy tone. If you want to leav e a mailing address, I'll send your check out as soon as the thirty days has come up. The way he enunciated thirty days made me want to punch him all over again. Just send the check to my current address and thanks for your help. Hope he heard my enunciation that time. I turned to leave. Throwing the door open wide, I paused to say loudly, By the wa y, if you want your database to stay up and your applications to stop crashing . . . With my brightest smile, I glanced at him over my shoulder and added, Try not downloading so much porn. Last thing I saw was his smug turning scarlet in embarrassment. I walked from th e building and out into the street.

Yanking my phone from my bag, I walked between two large buildings. The cool eve ning air held a hint of fall and the only thing I hated was that the change from summer to autumn brought shorter days and darker nights. Pressing the final num ber of my last resort, the person I had been determined never to call, I held th e phone to my ear and kept walking. Miller and Associates, this is Benjamin. Hey, Ben. It's Emma. Hello, Miss Wade. Though I had met Ben several times over the years, we never real ly spoke. Since he was my brother Adam's financial advisor, there was never a need to, but he'd always been pleasant to me. Forgive me if I missed a call from your b rother Actually, Ben, I was wondering if we could keep Adam out of this. Adam already owned half of Chicago and I didn't need to worry him with this. He wa s dealing with a lot of crap, trying to legally adopt his wife's seven-year-old co usin. Jerry Springer territory, maybe. But they were happy. And aside from Megan and her new husband, Preston, they were the only family I cared about, which wa s why I had to stay away. Because being near them brought all my drama to their front door. And it was dangerous drama. There was no way I would risk them. Ben, I'm in a bind here. I know I've never taken money from the trust Adam set up for me, but I I stopped and checked over my shoulder. The sound of boots barely scraping the s idewalk behind me also stopped. I felt like I was being followed. Like I had been for the past several months. L ike I would continue to be until Mase either caught me, or I testified at the he aring. Mase James was one of the James brothers, two people who I never wanted to run i nto again. Convincing myself it was only paranoia, I returned my attention to Ben and picke d up the pace. Only a couple more blocks to Times Square and I could lose the ph antom asshole. Shit. I hated this. Hated that after all this time of taking care of myself, thi s is what it came to. Cowering at the sound of footsteps in an alley and keeping the only family I had at a distance. Is there any way to make a quick transfer of funds into my bank account without A dam knowing? Adam is the executive signer, so I'd have to go through him. But my name is on it too, right? He gave me that money to use if I ever needed it . Well, yes. And it is at your disposal, Miss Wade. There has never been an issue b efore; if you let me call Adam, I'm sure he'd sign off. I need money now. I quickened my strides because, paranoia or not, the steps were getting closer. And Adam can't know. Is there anything you can do? If my brother found out I was tapping into my trust, he'd ask questions. Like why. Not that he'd ever deny me, he was an amazing brother that way. Adopted or otherw ise. Taking advantage of him was something I'd never do. He was the reason I was able t o get off of the streets in the first place and go to college. The reason I buil t a life. A damn good one until now. Almost good enough to block out my first se venteen years. When I'd left Chicago, I'd given up my full-time job and living in New York off a sa lary based around craigslist was tough. Not that my sacrifices had mattered. Mas e had found me anyway. I spotted him a few weeks ago when I was coming off the s ubway and the chase began once more. Which was why I had to move. Again. Just fo r a few weeks, until the hearing. Castor James was up for parole at the end of the month. The only thing between h im and an open door was my testimony testimony that Castor and his brother would stop at nothing to ensure never be given. Even if it meant using my family against me. Are you all right, Miss Wade? Yeah, I'm fine. I just need to get some money for a trip. Sort of the truth. I didn't

know where I was going, but as long as it was away from my family and friends, t hat was good enough. Okay, Ben said in a chipper tone. Maybe you'd like to talk to your brother, then? I clenched my teeth and tried to breathe. I couldn't tell Adam about this. Because I knew exactly what he'd do if he found out, he'd try to help. And that would put e verything he'd built his new life, his new family at risk. All because of my past mistakes. No. Is there any way to get the money? Just between you and me? Simple transfer? I heard him sigh. If you give me a couple days I can I don't have a couple days. I cupped the phone harder and, once again, heard the boo ts scraping against wet concrete. They were definitely real and definitely drawi ng closer. I could see the lights of Times Square. Only one more block in the distance. The n I could get out of this dark alley and be near people. Let me see what I can do, Ben said finally. Thank you so much. A momentary rush of relief gave my legs the extra dose of speed they needed. Let's meet at the Shriners Club near your office tomorrow night. Ten o'clock. I can't promise anything, Miss Wade, but I'll see you there. Thanks. I hung up the phone and jammed it in my pocket. I didn't look behind me. I kicked it into high gear and ran. Keeping my eyes focused on the lights, on the people passing by but just out of reach. I charged forward. Launching myself into the crowd, I came into the cente r of Times Square. Once I was engulfed by people, I turned to look back at the alley I'd just fled an d saw . . . A breath jogged from my lungs and my knees went weak with relief. It wasn't Mase. It was some skinny hipster guy. I needed to get a grip. Every time I heard a wei rd noise or footsteps in the distance, I thought it was him. I knew he was here, getting closer to finding me, but he hadn't made contact yet Ow! I smacked right into a wall of person smelling like cigarettes and Jack Daniel s. Watch where you're going, I grumbled and gripped my satchel. I'm sorry, I must not have seen you there, Emma. My eyes snapped up and I froze, terror-stricken. Mase. My throat instantly closed. He went to grab my arm and I jerked back and too k off running. Weaving through the crowd of tourists and people selling Broadway tickets, I wen t as fast as I could, desperately searching for a safe place. Somewhere I could duck into, lay low for the night. The footsteps clapped behind me, closing in. I ran faster, knowing he was coming right for me. No place familiar was safe. Not now. Home wasn't an option, not until I knew Mase couldn't follow me back to the apartment. I had lost him once in the subway crowd a few weeks ago. I didn't know how much headway he'd made regarding my whereabouts s ince then, but I couldn't risk him finding out the last little details of where I lived. If there was one thing I'd learned living on the streets, it was knowing when to s leep alone and knowing when to partner up. Time to partner up. Breathing hard, running a crosswalk against the light and almost getting taken o ut by a honking cab, I continued to scan the street and found my answer. The Strauss Hotel. Megan's new husband, Preston Strauss, owned the posh hotel. They were still on the ir honeymoon, but I knew a man who was staying there: Rhys Striker. At least, I hoped he was still there. It had been a couple weeks since I had see n him at Megan and Preston's wedding. And even a few more weeks since I had first met him at a gala thrown by his company. The event itself wouldn't have been that memorable except for Rhys. Tall, muscled and draped in a tux, he walked in with these searing gray eyes that did weird things to my breathing whenever he zeroed

them in on me. Then there was the kiss. This one, amazing, panty-melting-kiss. Which shouldn't be going through my mind at the moment, but it was. Maybe if I had taken Rhys up on his offer, things would be different today. Maybe not. But he had been a gentleman, asked to see me again, and I'd done the only thing a girl in my situation could do. I stood him up. Which I had immediately regretted. Coming to the front doors of the hotel, I looked around quickly. No sign of Mase . Thank God for New York crowds. Between a busy street full of pedestrians and m y short height, I was pretty sure I'd lost him. Smoothing my hair and shirt, I got myself together and walked into the elegant l obby. I made my way to the elevator and went straight up to Rhys's floor. Rhys had told me at the wedding that he was staying in the executive suite. Truth be tol d, this wasn't the first time I had shown up at this very door, but it was the fir st time I knocked. No answer. Shit. Mentally going through the rest of my options, and coming up with zero, I looked around quickly. No maid service, no people nearby . . . I ran my fingers along the underside of the lock until I felt the tiny port hole that gave me hope. I had broken locks like this a dozen times as a teen. Kneeling down and fishing through my bag, I grabbed a hairpin and pushed it into the port. Breaking and entering was something I hadn't had to do in years, so my hands felt clumsy and awkward. Good and bad came with magnetic locks, and succes s always came down to the right tools. What the hell are you doing? A gruff voice rang out and I shot to my feet, the pin falling from the lock. My blood pressure instantly sped up. Which was stupid. We had had a moment. Not even sex. It was a damn kiss and even though I offered more, he turned me down, insisting on taking me out to dinner first. To which I didn't show up. And that wa s weeks ago. But there, standing in jeans, a black tee and leather jacket, the m an looked like the badass I was searching for. Hi, Rhys. What are you doing here? Trying to keep casual, though my body was humming with leftover adrenaline from outrunning Mase and now with a new surge from seeing Rhys and all his yummy form , I shrugged. Was hungry, thinking about grabbing dinner. Dinner? He pulled the cuff of his jacket back enough to glance at his watch. You're w ell over a month late for our date. I like to be fashionably late. I glanced around him, making sure no one else was c oming, like Mase for instance. But we were still alone. Completely alone. A real ization that made my heart rate pick back up. He stood there, obviously not amused. Or maybe you decided that breaking into my hotel room was more fun than going out? Oh, ah, I was just checking things out. I kicked the hairpin on the floor away, wh ich he saw me do, but whatever. I lied, I never said I was good at it. I was just popping by to check if Megan and Preston were back yet. You know, to see if the y wanted to catch up. Again, not good at lying, but there was little else I could do. I hadn't thought a bout the next step after getting into his hotel room. I had been too focused on getting to Rhys and getting away from Mase that I didn't think through the details of actually talking to him or explaining myself. And you think Megan and Preston are hiding in my room? He bent and picked up the h airpin. Can you honestly even open a magnetic lock with this? I shrugged and mumbled, With the right electrical current maybe . . . I had been desperate to get in. To get near him. Part of me was running from Mas e, but a bigger part was running toward Rhys. Now that Rhys was there, I felt li ke a moron. And if I were being honest, a lot safer. He raised an eyebrow, those smoky gray eyes eating me up and calling my bluff be fore his words did.

Megan and Preston are gone for another couple weeks. You know that as well as I d o. I forgot. Again with the quick lie. He crossed his arms over his chest. His massive chest. His hard-as-freaking-ston e-former-Marine-I-could-kill-you-with-my-pinkies chest. Everything about his pre sence was calm and commanding. Used to giving orders and having them followed. A nd he looked sexy as hell with all that alpha ego dripping off of him. I ran a hand over my mouth. Damn it. Every time I got near Rhys I developed a th roat problem and couldn't swallow right. Which resulted in drooling. Which wasn't he lping my case at the moment. Really? he said with a half smile, half frown. No clue how he pulled that off, but he looked equal parts intrigued and angry. That's what you're sticking with? Not goi ng to fess up that I caught you trying to break into my hotel room? He held up the hairpin and I pressed my lips together. What was I supposed to sa y? Damn me for not being prepared. Running scared like a fool with no plan and a cting on impulse got you hurt, or killed. I knew better. But when I was running, the only thing I could think of was finding the one place I wanted to be. And t hat was with Rhys. What's going on, Emma? His tone was a little softer and he took a step toward me. Something in my eyes kind of hurt and felt a bit more moister than usual. Shit, all these feelings and lack of sleep probably made me look like a sad sack. Something Rhys was obviously picking up on, because he softened even more and as ked, Are you in some kind of trouble? My automatic self-defense mode kicked in and I found my voice. What? Why would yo u think that? Because I caught you. Trying to break in. To my hotel room. The way he stated the obvious something I had yet to acknowledge myself for the second time in two minutes made me realize that I must really be sounding crazy. But I couldn't tell him the truth. That I was desperate for a night to hide away, to explore that charm and intensity I had gotten a glimpse of all those weeks a go. That wasn't really an option at the moment. Yes, I came here to see him, but I cou ldn't really admit that now. And I definitely couldn't tell him the whole truth, not without putting him in danger too. Did you come here to see me You wish, I said, cutting him off, feeling like my pride was suddenly in jeopardy. I was going to say, did you come here to see me so I could help you with somethin g? But now that you mention it, he stepped closer, yes, I do wish. Every damn day since you stood me up. The way his rough voice rolled over every vowel with the slightest east coast dr awl made me want to catch every word with my teeth and swallow them down . . . p referably while his lips were against mine. Casual, Wade. Keep it casual. I had stuff to do, I offered before I lost the ability to speak. Rhys was the only man who'd ever made me feel so . . . uneasy. Scratch that. He was the only man wh o made me feel uneasy without inspiring fear. He was hard, strong; just the size of him could be off-putting, but instead of being nervous, I was anxious. Anxio us to know what it felt like to have that kind of strength, that ability to be e ffortlessly intimidating. Only problem was, I wasn't intimidated. I was turned on. Like I always was the mom ent he stepped into my space. Mentally slapping myself, I chalked up my overly revved hormones to the fact tha t I had been on the run and permanently stressed out for the past several months. Stuff to do, huh? He laughed. Attempted theft can be taxing. Why do you assume I was going to break in to rob you? He smiled. Yeah, I'd just admitted it, but I was caught long before so it didn't rea lly matter. So you weren't breaking in to rob me. Then maybe to surprise me? Because you enjoye d my company so much the last time we met? The obvious mockery in his voice said he was playing along for my sake.

Did I have it bad for Rhys? Did I wish I had spent the last several weeks with h im instead of alone in a small apartment, coming out of hiding just to go to wor k at a job that didn't end up paying me? Yes and yes. But knowledge was power and admitting to Rhys that I wanted him was not smart. I had bigger things to worry about. Time to take the power back and check his ego. Did you enjoy my company the last time we met? His gaze was hot as it skated down the length of my body. Very different than ho w any other man had ever looked at me. Like I was exotic. Sexy. Worthwhile. I did. Of course, you were either devouring my mouth or smarting off with yours, so it was hard not to enjoy it. You kissed me, I said, correcting him. And you liked it. All that male confidence and swagger was hypnotic. He merely sta ted facts. And yes, I did like it. And that was a fact. Let's not argue semantics. You shot me down, I shot you down. We're even now. His blond brows sliced down. I shot you down? How did you come up with that notio n? Because I was there. I offered to take you and that kiss home for the night and I offered you dinner first. That's not shooting you down. It was to me. Dinner meant a date and dating was something I didn't do. Mostly bec ause a couple meals and weeks into seeing a guy, he turns out to be a total tool o r still lives in his mother's basement. And the kind of men that held any ounce of self-respect or ambition were from a different world than me. They were the kin d that came with a promise of picket fences and two point four kids. Which was a n even scarier concept. Not that Rhys put that out there, but based on the limited details I had learned about him over our few run-ins, he and I weren't long-term compatible. Judging by his football scholarship, small-town upbringing and insistence on buying a woma n a meal before seeing her naked, I already knew he was in a different league. A nd if I were honest, it was a better league. Sex is simple, I said honestly. I wasn't interested in more than that. And you think dinner is More. Than. That, I said. Now was not the time to explain why I felt lacking. I st uck with, So like I said, we're even. Then why do I feel like I'm the one who lost? The way his eyes bore down on me, like he was seeing my very soul, made a violent shiver race up my spine and every ne rve ending turned on as if he had verbally flicked a switch in me. And you said w asn't. What? I eyed him and he merely grinned. You said you weren't interested in more than sex, then. Does that mean you've changed your mind now? Maybe . . . My eyes shot wide because I had just admitted that out loud and hadn't m eant to. Rhys stood there, looking like he'd just won some kind of victory. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to get a grip. This man was disarming me i n a single conversation and I couldn't allow that. I was at my most vulnerable whe n my guard was down. And after the last few weeks my guard was obliterated. Not a good place to be, when Rhys Striker affected me. Deeply. From the buzzing beneath my skin to the ache in my gut. All I wanted to do was p ull him close. Breathe him in. Which, I knew from experience, was the first step in a downward slide toward dependence. A stupid notion when everyone always ended up leaving or screwing me over in the end. I raised my chin, gathered my brass and glared. Do you really think that feeding me before we fuck somehow makes a one-night stand better? Makes you a better man than the rest? He was close enough now that I could hear a growl break low in his chest. I don't p retend to be something I'm not, Emma. I don't lie. Or hide. That made my lower lip tremble and my attempts to get the ice back impossible. I t was the same ice that had formed around my ribcage sometime between losing my virginity to a creep at twelve and getting beat to hell by a skeezy homeless man

who stole everything I had. I had learned quickly that calling out for help was useless because it never came. And being a victim wasn't an option. Neither was crying. You don't know anything about me, I argued, because Mr. Army of One with his muscles , prying eyes and suffocating sex appeal was too much to deal with. Now was not the time to start sharing. I know you're smart. I know you're strong. His arm barely bent, as if he were debating on whether or not to touch me. I knew that the moment I met you. But you are run ning, Emma. Right now. Just like you were at the gala, just like you were after Megan and Preston's wedding. His tone relaxed a bit and he cupped my neck, the same way he did all those week s ago before he kissed me. I looked up and words wouldn't come. I was tired. The fight in me was dwindling an d all I wanted was to get lost. Fade away. Preferably in his arms. If that made me weak, so be it. But only for one night. Tomorrow would be better. I would be better. What are you afraid of, Emma? What are you running from? Because we both know you weren't breaking in to surprise me, he said, and gently tugged on my neck so that our lips were only a whisper apart. Tell me. I'm afraid of . . . so many things. There was something about Rhys. Something that made me feel scared in a very dif ferent way. It was a fear of hope. Because if he kept looking at me like he was, I just might start to believe that he was being sincere. Normally, that would be my cue to leave. To figure this mess out and get on the next bus, train, hell, anything to get me out of New York. But the only thing my mind and my body were screaming was to stay. Right here. Next to him. Just for a night. For no other reason than that I wanted to. We're in the middle of the hallway, I stated. My fuzzy brain snapped out of the obviously sleep-deprived fantasy I was drownin g in. I might be in distress but I was no damsel and Rhys wasn't Prince Charming. Adam was the one person who ever came through for me, and other than that, the m ale population was better with no strings attached to them. Would you prefer to come into my room with me? He was so close that I could feel t he heat of his skin. Could smell him leather and spice. His longish blond hair h ung around his face, lining his sculpted jaw and strong chin. During our few enc ounters, I told him he looked like Thor, which made him grouchy, but damn it, st rip him down and hand him a hammer and . . . to talk? he said. Huh? He smiled. I said, would you like to come in so we can talk? I have a key, so cla wing the lock to death won't be necessary. I chanced a look at his eyes, which I shouldn't have because those things sucked m e in. Talk about what? About what you're running from. I'm not Don't lie to me. I know something is going on with you. I recognize fear, and it's wr itten all over your face. That kind of stung. Mostly because I couldn't allow myself to be afraid, much less show it. If that was the vibe I was giving off, that was a problem. I was handl ing things myself, I was just in a bit of a bind at the moment, nothing I couldn't squeak my way out of. However Rhys wasn't letting this go. Did I want to talk? No. But I wasn't ready to give up Rhys's presence yet. We can go inside, I said. Because the only times I had felt wanted, felt safe, in the past couple months were when Rhys was near.

Chapter Two

After you. He held out his hand and pulled the keycard from his back pocket. And y es, I noticed the grin plastered to his face when he used it while he mumbled so mething along the lines of, Works better than a hairpin. As soon as we got into his room, he shrugged off his jacket, giving a primo view of those bulging biceps and how the tight black cotton molded perfectly around them. So how have you been? He stood in the doorway, taking up most of the space, and st ared me down. How have I been? I had been fantasizing about Rhys for a month and he was the on ly thing that felt . . . Safe. The thought stuck to the inside of my skull and I didn't like it. The feeling of w eakness never sat well. Weakness, or reliance. I'm fine, I said, not knowing how to attack this obvious awkward small talk, so I ju st walked straight toward the nearest open door. He followed right behind me. Bedroom, great. I sat down on the bed and took a deep breath, needing a moment to gather my thou ghts, but I was instantly enveloped by his scent. Feeling the soft comforter ben eath my palms, I wasn't gathering anything, instead, my mind turned to the one thi ng I'd been dreaming about since I met Rhys. What would a night with him be like? There was no doubt it would be incredible, but knowing him, it'd also come with a date and chatting. Still, if I had the chance to experience what I should have s hown up for all those weeks ago, would I take it? I looked up at him, those smoky eyes burning me up, and knew the answer right aw ay: Yes. But what I wanted and what was smart were two very different things. The best op tion was to keep things between us as surface as possible. Though I had a good s uspicion I was kidding myself. Everything about Rhys screamed intense. His gaze was still fastened to my face and he had yet to say anything in respons e to my latest lie. What are you doing? I finally asked. I'm looking at you, he replied easily. No, you're staring. Observing, he said. Same thing in my book. Why? Because you're beautiful, he said with that same ease as before, as if merely statin g a fact. Something in my chest skipped a little. And I'm trying to figure you out. Damn. I thought maybe he was going to try to finish where he'd left off with that kiss a few weeks back. If you're in some kind of trouble, you can tell me and I can help. I wanted to roll my eyes. Great, we were still on this topic. What makes you so sure I need help? He took a step toward me. Aside from the fact that I found you on your knees and frantically tugging at my door handle? He looked me over, his eyes pausing on certain parts of me, like my lips and bre asts. But not in the way most men did. He wasn't ogling, he was observing. I can tell you're afraid by the way you breathe. Your mouth parts a little and your chest struggles, like you're choking back on something. That time when I swallowed I did feel my throat close and damn the man for notic ing. This was supposed to be simple. But it wasn't. Not since the day I met him ha d anything been simple. Simple would be to forget about him. To not crave his st upid strength or the way he kissed me. To not have a month long stomachache of r egret from standing him up. No, not simple. Because staying away from him, like everybody else, was the best thing I could do. I was tainted by my past. Put those I loved in danger by asso ciation. Yet every night I thought of Rhys. It was without thinking that I ran here tonight. Looking for him. Needing him. Taking a page from his book, I tried to observe. His eyes were fiery. His whole

body seemed relaxed, but there was a tension rolling off of him, his hands barel y clenching into fists, as if trying to hold back from . . . You want me, don't you? He frowned. What? Where did that come from? I was just noticing you, the way you seem to notice me. You think I'm breathing wit h fear? I think you're breathing with lust. Emma . . . The way he said my name was a half warning, half dare. I heard it as cl early as the thumping pulse in my neck, speeding up with desire for this man. I don't want to talk anymore, Rhys. I just needed him. Needed to feel his skin again st mine. Feel his lips again. Like you said, I didn't show up last time, but I'm here now. Rhys walked straight at me. Finally! No dating, no questions, just the closeness I was craving. A craving only he could satisfy. I scooted to the middle of the bed and leaned back on my forearms behind me. He bent at the waist, hovering ove r me, his mouth brushed my earlobe. Emma, he whispered, get some rest. With that, he pulled away, taking a pillow from the bed with him, grabbed his pa ck from beside the nightstand and marched out of the bedroom. Wait, what? I shot up and scooted off the bed, following after him. Are you kidding me? Rounding the corner, I entered the living area as Rhys dropped his pack, pulled a throw off the back of the couch and tossed the pillow down. You can have the be d. Good night. Good night? Yes, he snapped and faced me. I'm not going to play this game. You distracted me the first time, but I know better now. Know that this is just a routine you pull. I don't pull any routine. You can't assume I can't assume? That's all I've been able to do when it comes to you. You think you can manipulate me with sex? I may be hard up since I met you, but I'm not stupid. You don't want to tell me what's going on, fine. You can stay here as long as you need, but I'm done trying to help you. I don't need your help. The second the words came out I wanted to call them back. Be cause there was a slight tremble on the last word and it made me want to grab my throat. Apparently Rhys heard it too, because he turned his attention to me fully and hi s expression softened. Okay, Emma. I believe you. You don't need help. And just like that, he let me keep m y secrets and have my dignity. It was a shallow victory because we both knew better. Only I didn't do help, didn't know how anymore. Relying on someone usually ended up badly. And for whatever reason, I liked Rhys . From the second I met him at that damn party and danced with him. The way he l ooked at me, held me, like nothing in the world could touch me when I was in his arms. It was that same intensity that got me hooked on him. The same reason I d idn't follow up that kiss with dinner. I wasn't a classy, take home to Mom kind of girl. Rhys was out of my station and c omfort zone. I didn't know how to handle him, or how he made me feel. I cared. Enough to know that we would never work. He was former military with th ree tours under his belt. A self-made man who owned a security company that prot ected the rich and famous. Facts I'd gotten out of him a few weeks ago. He never g ave details, but he wore honor like a very real badge in every move he made. Is this your area of expertise? I asked. Gaining information and supplying aid? There was something very haunted behind his eyes. As though he went somewhere el se, to a different time or memory, right in front of me. Something like that, he admitted. People break into places looking for things to st eal or a place to hide. Whatever is going on with you, I would never want you in danger. Especially if I could prevent it. I'm not your duty, Rhys. He didn't say anything. The look on his face was one I'd seen many times. And it was enough to chill the achy heat that had been building up for the past several we

eks. He was a goddamn hero and I was the pathetic little victim in need. A position I refused to be placed in. Especially by him. I didn't want to be someone's obligatio n, even if I had a criminal after me. The less Rhys knew, the better. Tomorrow I'd try Ben again, hopefully get my money , and be on my way, hiding out somewhere else until the parole hearing. For now, I'd stick to my words and whatever kind of front I could put up. Good night, I mumbled and turned on my heel, heading back to the bedroom. I had a feeling sleep wasn't coming anytime soon. ~ The dull blade sank in like a hot knife into cold butter . . . No! I shot up in bed, breathing hard, a cool sweat covering my face. I gripped my stomach. Just a nightmare. The same one I've had for years. The same one that had kept me from sleeping lately. I glanced at the clock. At least I'd gotten a good three hours of rest before this newest dream awoke me. It was another two hours of staring at the ceiling later, I tossed around in the massive bed, hating how cold I felt. In nothing but panties and one of Rhys's T-s hirts, I could smell him, but not feel him. The nightmare weighed heavily on me, but not as much as Rhys's earlier comments. He looked, acted like he cared. Genuinely wanted to help. Which was impossible b ecause we had no real history. Right? I had to be seeing things. Yet here I was thinking of him more than any other man I had ever known before. I closed my eyes and tried for the millionth time to sleep. But every time my li ds closed, I saw him: Castor James. He was behind bars. Couldn't hurt me anymore. I knew that. But his brother Mase could. Mase James was big and mean and would do anything to get his baby brother out on parole. Including taking me out. When I got the summons for my appearance, it w as the first time a ping of fear went through me. But when Mase found me in Chic ago, hanging out by Adam's workplace, I knew I had to get out of there. I was the only witness from that night, and the James brothers knew as well as a nyone that without a witness, the case was less solid. It had happened over ten years ago, but I could still hear the screams feel the pain slice across my stom ach Forcing my thoughts to stop and running a palm over the raised scar just below m y bellybutton, I pushed my hair out of my face and took a deep breath. There was only one thing that felt right. The only thing that could calm my nerves. And h e was on the couch. I walked quietly to the living room. A sad smile hit my face, taking in the sight. Rhys was well over six feet of chi seled muscle and all of it was smushed onto a narrow five-foot-long couch. Shirt less, one arm thrown over his eyes while the other rested on his stomach. Easy b reathing, up and down. I watched the hard ridges of his torso move gracefully wi th every exhale. The blanket was covering his lap. A massive man in dog tags, bo xers, and a knitted throw was a hot sight. I reached out to touch the tags around his neck His hand snapped around my wrist like a cuff. Sleep quickly cleared from his eye s as he looked up at me. Hi, I whispered. Are you all right? He sat up, causing amazing things to happen to his abs and maki ng that drooling problem I had come back full force. I'm fine, I just . . . I reached out again for his chest. He kept his grip on my wri st, but let me touch him. I don't want to be alone right now, Rhys. He looked at me for a long moment, then sighed a little. I won't let anything happe n to you, Emma. Go back to bed. No. I sank to my knees. Rhys was a good man. Too good. I knew this just by the way he looked at me. The way he treated me. I want to be with you. No more pretending otherwise or opting for a physical agenda. Rhys was different

. Tonight would be different. Everything else didn't matter. Mase after me, the tr ial, all of it wasn't a concern in that moment. I had one more chance with Rhys, a nd it was right then. I didn't want to regret for the rest of my life not knowing what it felt like to h ave him inside of me. I could always go to denial tomorrow, but for now, Rhys St riker was the only thing in the world I wanted. I laid my hand over his heart. The hard muscles jumped, the steady rhythm was st rong, pulsing against my palms. This isn't a game, I said. When I met his eyes, they were wild and alive. Even if I'd wanted to do my flirty, look at him from beneath my lashes number, I couldn't. Not tonight. Not with him. Because for the first time since our spat in the hallway, I was telling the tru th. I want you, I said again. For no other reason than that I crave you. Please, don't se nd me away. Something in his expression grew fierce, while his whole body relaxed. He reache d out, a masculine hand cupping my side, and pulled me on top. Both of my palms landed on his chest, caressing his bare skin as I steadied myself and straddled his hips. Framing my face, he brought my mouth to his, but before kissing me he said, Tell me, Emma. Stop running from me and tell me how to help you. Gently digging my nails into his pecs, I breathed against his lips. You want to h elp? He nodded. Then just hold me. As though a dam burst and a silent understanding was reached, Rhys consumed my m outh in one long, penetrating kiss. Rising up on my knees, I wound my fingers into his hair and pulled him closer. S hoving past his teeth and drinking in everything he was. I was desperate. For hi s power, his attention. Everything about him lit me up and made me feel surround ed by his body by his presence. He returned every lick, every nip. Ratcheting up the passion. The only things I could hear were his short rasps and groans. The stubble on his chin scratched my face and sent a zing of heat to my core. Fr om the way he felt to the way his mouth devoured mine to how he commanded my bod y to respond to his without asking . . . everything about him was all man. His hands landed heavily on my ass, gently rocking me against his erection, nest led between my thighs. I've missed you, he said against my mouth. Since that damn gala and that one kiss, I've thought of nothing else. He sat up even straighter, his hard torso flexing against my inner thighs and I couldn't hold back anymore. He was a huge strong man and I felt small, in such a p erfect way. Normally, I associated being small with being meek. Not with Rhys. It was like t aking on a femininity I didn't know existed. So long as I was right there, wrapped up by him, there was no way anyone could touch me. Not my past, not Mase, no on e. I've thought of you too. I wanted to show up that night, I said before I could think better of it. Why didn't you? Because there is something about you that makes me feel like I'm not the trashy gi rl outrunning her past. Because I believe you when you say things. Because I wan t to be near you. I don't have a good reason. Thank God both our mouths were too busy for him to ask further. Because then I'd h ave had to try to explain why I felt the way I did for him, which I didn't even un derstand. It went against logic for me to actually care for a man. A man who was so far out of my realm of possibilities. Everything about Rhys Striker screamed warm, safe and all-American. I didn't fit i n his world, but tonight, I desperately wanted to. To be someone else. Someone w

ithout a past. I'm not going anywhere now. Don't make me . . . I bit his lower lip and he growled. Never. Gripping the hem of my shirt, he lifted it over my head. Leaning back a lit tle, he looked at me. I was bare, all but for my panties. You're so beautiful, Emma. Again, when his eyes met mine, I wanted so badly to belie ve him. He trailed a finger along my collarbone, leaving goose bumps in its wake . So delicate. No one had ever called me that. If they had, I probably would have socked them i n the gut. But everything Rhys saw in me, spoke about, was the woman I wished I really was. Calluses from his palms scratched down my spine as he ran his hands up and down my back, simply looking at me. That gray gaze went from my eyes, to my lips then my breasts, down to What's this? he asked softly, brushing his thumb over the three-inch scar on my abdo men. Appendix, I lied. Same lie I always told and hadn't been caught yet. His stare was back on my face and something pained streaked across his face. Your appendix is on the right side, he whispered, still running his thumb over the slightly raised and ruined strip of skin to the left of my bellybutton. Why couldn't this man be ignorant like everyone else? This, he rubbed again, looks like a battle scar. One hand remained on my hip while t he other snaked up to cradle my face. His palm took up my whole cheek and jaw. Wh o hurt you, Emma? His tone was so sincere, so lethal, that it made something rise in me that hadn't risen in a long time: Tears. Please, can we just . . . be? Just for tonight? I can't think anymore about any of this. I wiggled closer, wrapping my arms tighter around him. I didn't want to go into all of it. Didn't want him feeling sorry for me. I just wan ted a night with him. A night I was too scared to show up for last time. And I w as tired of feeling scared. Leaning in, I kissed his jaw, down his neck, my hands sliding across his shoulde rs as I moved lower, eating up his warm skin. Please, I said again. In response, he lifted my chin with a single finger, pulled me close, and kissed me. His biceps bulged against my ribs and every tense limb I had, relaxed. Just being within his grasp I felt better. He was so much bigger than me. I'd felt ove rwhelmed by a man before, on more than one occasion. And I should feel the same now, considering that Rhys was the biggest man I'd ever been near. But instead of being frightening, his sheer size was welcoming. There was so much of him I wanted to explore, but I couldn't peel myself away to d o so. I just wanted him. Now. Details could wait. Because the more I explored hi m, the more he'd explore me and I wasn't ready to talk. Not yet. Not ever. Dipping his head, he licked and nipped my breast and I let my head fall back. Wh en he pulled my nipple between his lips and sucked, I moaned and arched my back, giving him more access, begging for more. Your skin tastes like honey, he rasped against me, his breath fanning over my damp and pouting nipple. He moved to the other one and paid the same attention. Agon izingly slow and guaranteed to melt a woman from the inside out. Taking his time, he ran his tongue around the most sensitive part, leaving me pa nting before sucking hard on the tip. Condom? I asked begged my eyes squeezed shut as I basked in the sensation of his m outh on me. My bag. He absently pointed to the small pack by the couch, refusing to relinquish my br east, which I was more than fine with. As I reached down to rifle through it, he kept his mouth fused to me, tasting along my neck over to the front of my shoul der. I finally found a small strip and yanked it up, ripping one off quickly. Lifting up on my knees, I reached between us and tugged down his boxer-briefs. W ith my grip on the waistband, I skimmed past his hips and down his thighs. Raise d welts, like gravel beneath his skin, brushed against the backs of my fingers a

nd got my attention. Looking down, I saw a smattering of scars ranging from dime to quarter size alon g his right side, hip and leg. Shrapnel, he said quickly. It looked like Rhys and I both had our share of battle scars, but for very different reasons. I paused. Do you want to I thought for tonight we were just going to be. He used my earlier words to his ad vantage. Knowing what it felt like not wanting to talk about things, I nodded. Okay. I finished pulling his underwear down and I gasped. Rhys was a big man, a fact I should have applied to every area of him, but the sight of his hard cock was daunting. Something wrong? My eyes shot back to his and I bit my lip. No. It's just you're . . . big. I once agai n ran my gaze along the length of his body. Which is no surprise but, and I gave h im a saucy grin, wow. His lips quirked up enough to show those perfectly straight white teeth. Careful or you'll give my ego a complex. He kissed my chin. We don't have to do this, Emma. If you feel uncomfortable we can stop. Shut up and kiss me. I snagged his lower lip between my teeth and that got him goi ng. He returned my attentions, his tongue dueling mine to get the upper hand. I blin dly tore the condom package open, reached between us and rolled it on him. Lifting and adjusting a bit, I place the tip at my entrance. Emma, let me get you ready first. With our noses barely touching, he held my stare and didn't let it go as I lowered myself onto him. I'm ready. I just want to feel you. I sank down an inch. My lips parted on a swift inhale. His brows furrowed. It was a snug fit and the whole crown wasn't even in. Slowly, I tried to work him inside. Yes, I was turned on, but he was challenging to take. So I rose back up and tried again. Just an inch more this time. I gasp ed because it stung a little and I couldn't take anymore. Without warning, he lifted me off him and sat me on the couch while he knelt bef ore me. Gripping behind my knees, he spread my thighs and settled between them. Throwing my legs over his shoulders, he ran his tongue along my pussy. Mmm, you're wet. He licked again. Just not enough. My head fell against the back of the couch. I wove my fingers through his hair. You're a stubborn woman and I know better. He gently nipped my inner thigh and I squ irmed. I shouldn't have let you even try without this He licked from my entrance to my clit, stopping only to flick the sensitive bundle of nerves rapidly. First. W ill you forgive me, Emma? That amazing tongue flicked again and I arched further and moaned. Yes, I breathed. Anything, just don't stop. Never. Again with that word. As though he really wouldn't let me go. Delving his tongue into my core, he ate at me. My body shot bright, like sparks coming off a freshly hit piece of iron. Flushing hot but pricking with anticipat ion at the same time. I rocked my hips to meet him and he let me. I'd never felt m ore awake, more turned on. Sitting there while he devoured me, moving against hi s mouth. He laved at my clit hard, snaking that practiced tongue over and over, sending m y heart soaring from my chest, pleasure rising like it was physically boiling in my veins. I pulled his hair and held on, my entire body melting for him. Next time, you'll listen to me, won't you? he said against my flesh. Y-yes. Good. He sank one finger inside me. Jesus you're tight. Slowly, he pumped in and out until my body shuddered and delivered another dose of arousal.

There you go, baby. But I still need you wetter. You ready for more? I nodded. Yes, more. Withdrawing completely, he returned with two fingers. I threw my hips toward him , taking him deep. He pumped again, only this time, sucked on my clit while he d id. God, yes! I was on the brink of coming. But he stopped and once again, withdrew co mpletely. I'm ready, I said quickly. No, not quite, he rasped. I am, I swear. I thought you were going to listen to me. I huffed. My body relaxed but tensed at the same time. Desperate for the climax he denied me. Still so stubborn, he chided, a hint of a grin splitting his face. If you can handl e what's next, then you're ready. Okay. I can. I will. I sounded like a kid whining for a lollypop just out of reach . I was so gone, wanting more and willing to do damn near anything to get it. Rhys's stormy eyes looked up at me and kept my gaze locked as he returned three fi ngers to my entrance. Tell me if this gets uncomfortable. Breath refused to leave my lungs, but I nodded. All I wanted was him. Like crazy . Wanted to finish what he'd started. I had never been with a man of his size in a ny respect. I had also never been with one so considerate. Which was making it m ore difficult to leave my emotions out of this. He slowly pushed inside and though it was a tight fit, it didn't hurt. I wiggled a little and, oh yeah, it felt good. I'm ready, I whispered. And he nodded. He rose to his feet just as I got on the floor and lay on my back. He frowned do wn at me. What are you doing? The couch is too small. I reach my arms out. Come here. Let me take you to the bed. He bent to scoop me up. No. I hugged around his neck and pulled him down on top of me, moving and adjustin g until he was between my thighs, his cock prodding my entrance. Stay here. I couldn't do the bed. The cold floor at least kept my senses clear about what thi s really was. Just sex. Just one night. I had to remind myself yet again. But ju dging by the look on Rhys's face, he didn't like my proposal. His hands were splayed on either side of my head and his cock was right where I needed it, and I hoped to God he wouldn't walk away. I don't want to do this on the f loor, Emma. I'm not some delicate thing, Rhys. I hated that my voice choked a little. Please, jus t come inside me. I don't want to wait anymore. I raised my hips, taking just the tip. He groaned and when I felt the muscles in his back relax, I knew he had caved. Giving me a little more of his weight, he lowered to his forearms and slowly pus hed another inch deeper. You okay? he said on his own strangled breath, as if trying to hold back. As if tr ying to go slowly for my sake. Who was this man? This intense, thoughtful man with the spellbinding eyes and an engrossing presence? Yes. I held his face and kissed him. More. He gave it to me. Pushing again, his body fitting with mine, not stopping until he was seated to the hilt. I inhaled sharply. Not from pain, but from how amazin g the fullness felt. Fuck, Emma, he groaned. His shoulders gently shook, as if he was fighting himself to hold back. I knew h e was. And I was tired of him thinking I couldn't handle him. Couldn't handle anythi ng. I can take it, Rhys, I whispered, sinking my nails into his back. He hissed and wi thdrew, then returned with another slow thrust. More, I said again. And he did, still slow. Still holding back. So I scratched dow

n his back. Harder. Nothing about this was fucking. This was different. Some kind of connection betw een two people. And I had no idea how to handle it or what to call it. Threading his forearms beneath my shoulders, he thrust harder. Gripping the carp et for leverage to hit deeper. His biceps bulged around me and his taut stomach muscles rubbed against my middle. My mind was racing, my pulse beating against m y temples and thick pleasure was coating every cell and sprinting through my blo odstream. Feeling all his strength, being consumed by it, was overwhelming. I locked my legs behind his back and held on. Clutched to him to this moment wit h everything I was. Because reality was right outside, and for now, I wanted to escape it. Escape it with Rhys. Over and over he surged into me, hitting that sensitive spot inside again and ag ain. Drawing out more moans, more pleas, more lust. Buzzing my skin and heating my bones down to the marrow. I started smoldering from the inside out. Rhys . . . I know, baby. I'm there too. He kissed me hard and on a final pump of his hips, I spiraled over the edge. He instantly stilled, as if basking in the feel of me coming apart around him. Rema ining deep, he stirred. My inner walls milked him and sucked him deeper. With a low growl, he came right there with me. I'd never felt more whole. Like somehow, Rhys had found pieces of me I didn't even k now were missing and gave them back. Something snuck up on me that I wasn't ready for. The water behind my eyes I had been fighting all night, maybe all year, cre pt up and a single tear ran down my cheek. I batted it away quickly before Rhys could see. He lifted back up to straightened arms, about to pull away Wait. I grabbed his shoulders, stilling him. Will you just stay here, just for a mo ment? He wanted to say something, I could tell. But he just looked at me and nodded. R esting back down, he remained within me, and I stayed wrapped around him. Just for a moment, I whispered again. Because right there, I felt safe. Felt the c onnection between us. Exhaustion hit. So fast and intense it was like a slug to the face. I felt the l ast several weeks weigh down on me. And the fact that I hadn't slept well in days came crashing into my body. My eyes instantly went heavy. The last thing I heard was Rhys whispering my name. Please . . . stay . . . was all I could manage to say.

Chapter Three Consciousness slowly drifted into my sleepy brain and there was one thing I was certain of: I was enveloped by a cloud and I never wanted to leave. Peeling my eyes open, I adjusted to find a soft light coming from the slightly c racked door. I was in a bed. Rhys's bed. Surrounded by white sheets and fluffy pillows. Glancin g at the clock I Holy shit! Scrambling up, I grabbed my folded jeans from the nearby chair and yank ed them on. Seriously? The guy folded my clothes. Speaking of the guy, Rhys came into the bedroom just as I buttoned my jeans and pu lled on my shirt. You all right? It's three o'clock, I said, pointing at the clock. In the afternoon. Yes. I slept for a long time. You looked like you needed it, he said softly. Yeah, well, I have things I have to do today. Thanks for letting me crash here la st night. I grabbed my satchel and swung it over my shoulder. Emma. He crossed his arms over his chest, standing directly in the doorway, physic

ally showing exactly what I'd have to go through to leave. I think we should talk. I can't right now. Fine. Tonight. Have dinner with me. I'm leaving town, I explained. He didn't seem pleased. Where? I shrugged and pulled my shoes on. Don't know yet. Why? I just need to get away. He raised his chin slightly. Just a trip, then? I stood and smiled. Yep, just a trip. He nodded. So your brother must know your plans. My face fell, but Rhys kept calm as ever. Calling my bluff, waiting for me to co nfirm or deny. Either way, I was screwed because we both knew what he was insinu ating. I like my privacy and I'm an adult. Not everything I do is run past Adam. So he doesn't know about these mysterious plans of you leaving town certainly not r unning from anything, of course. Yep. Certainly not. And there's no reason Adam needs to be brought into this. I stepped toward Rhys until I was eye level with his chest. The same chest I'd see n, scratched, last night. I shook my head, hoping to dislodge the memories of my momentary lapse into neediness. My amazing night had somehow turned into tomorr ow, and now Rhys Striker was nothing more than an obstacle. I'm leaving town too, Emma. His voice didn't hold a threat, one thing I was learning q uickly about Rhys. He merely spoke the truth and let it land where it would. I'm ch ecking out tomorrow and going back home upstate. I won't be here if you come runni ng again. My instinct was to lie and tell him I hadn't come running in the first place. But I couldn't. Because that's exactly what I'd done. It didn't matter how much I liked last night . . . I had been weak. But I wasn't going to delude myself into considering the possibility of there being more. Well, I guess this is good-bye, then, I said, but he didn't move from the doorway. Talk to me, Emma. He uncrossed his arms and skimmed his palms down my arms. My stu pid body instantly responded and goose bumps broke out. Please, I whispered. Let me by. I watched his chest rise on a deep breath as he stepped aside. Thank you, I whispered and my hand reached out to skim across his stomach as I pas sed. As I walked away, I felt his gray eyes watch me and something very sharp, very h ollow jabbed my chest from the inside. And it stung more than that damn blade Ca stor had stabbed me with ten years ago. ~ Want a refill, sweetie? the bartender screamed over the loud booming music of the club. It was packed. The flickering lights and headache-inducing bass were almos t more than I could stomach after the day I had had. Yeah, one more. He set about to make me a fresh drink as I looked around for the millionth time, searching for Ben. He should be here by now. After leaving Rhys, I spent the next several hours packing and cleaning up the a partment. I left a message for Megan, letting her know I'd be out of town. She was somewhere between Greece and Rome, so I didn't expect to hear back anytime soon. I also called Adam to check in. He seemed preoccupied and I was grateful I didn't have to go into more details other than that I was traveling again. I had packed a bag back at the apartment, leaving it by the front door, ready to go. I just ne eded to get my money and, if my luck held out, I would be on the next flight to anywhere but here before Mase even caught on. Here you go. It's on the house. The bartender winked and I tilted my glass in thanks . Taking a sip, I looked around again. Seriously, where the hell was Ben? This pla

ce was equal distance between the apartment and his office. Not my ideal place t o meet, but crowds meant safety and huge crowds made it easy to weave in and out unseen. I took another sip and damn these drinks were strong. I was only on my second an d felt way more drunk then I should. My cell beeped with a new text message. I pulled it out of my pocket and read it . From Ben, telling me he couldn't make it after all tonight. Which meant no money. Just as I tried to form a plan B, black dots covered my vision and the feel of t otal inebriation flooded me full force. This isn't right, I mumbled to myself. I could hold my liquor better than most men. Something was off . . . My head snapped up and scanned the room. Wall-to-wall people, dancing, laughing. Their faces blurring together until all I saw were sets of eyes. My vision wave red a little and I looked down at my drink and brought it to my nose to smell it . Oh God . . . I blinked wildly and spun in my stool. I scanned the room and saw . . . Mase. On the other side of the club, sitting in a booth and merely watching me. Waitin g. Like a vulture. His dark angry glare zeroed in on me as a sick smile spread h is face. Slicked-back hair matched his black goatee and weathered skin. He rose from the booth and slowly made his way toward me. My brain refused to clear, instead, the haze that was engulfing my senses only t ook me under further. I was slipping. Losing my mind. My ability to function. Th e need to close my eyes, to fall asleep, for just a second, overwhelmed me. The asshole had roofied me. Panic was rising. I did the one thing I hadn't done since I was young. I called ou t for help. No one spared me a glance. I palmed my throat, wondering if the music was too lo ud or maybe I wasn't screaming enough? So I tried again. Help! Nothing. I attempted to move, to stand, but my legs wobbled and my head spun. All I saw w ere flashes of Mase. Coming closer. Soul-shattering fear spread from my chest to every part of my body. This was it. Soon, he'd be right next to me, grab me, take me. And I couldn't fight. Could barel y keep myself awake. The chase was over and he would win. What he would do with me, though, had yet t o be determined. The thought of what he was capable of sent another slap of fear racing, giving me enough of an adrenaline boost to try one more time to run. Bu t instead of fleeing, I stumbled and some woman cursed at me for being a drunk b itch and stepping on her shoe. Not drunk, I said. Need help. I tugged her arm and she pushed me off. I gripped the bar to support myself. Large hands closed around my shoulders and I screamed, at least I tried. Emma! With the last alertness I had, I looked up to find Rhys, holding me. Please! I gripped his shirt in my fists and faced him so he could see my lips move . I might not have been making much sound, but I used the last consciousness I h ad to speak. Please, Rhys. He's coming for me. Don't let him take me . . . he'll kill m e. I clutched Rhys the best I could and his fierce gray eyes were the last thing I saw before my whole world went dark.

Chapter Four My head was pounding and my body hurt like I had the world's worst hangover. The club Mase came rushing to my memory.

My eyes shot open despite the screaming in my skull, and I patted down my body. I was dressed in the same clothes and lying down on the cloud. The same one I reme mbered waking up on before. Second time this week I'd ended up in Rhys's bed. Rhys? I called out, but my throat was scratchy and dry and it came out more as a w hisper. I'm here, Emma. He sat on a chair near the edge of the bed. His big palm was warm as it enclosed mine. I sat up and he handed me a glass of water. I took it, my hand shaking as I drai ned the contents. Wiping my lips with the back of my free hand, I couldn't get a handle on my trembl ing body. That had been so close. Too close. Mase could have stashed me anywhere in God knew what kind of condition. Tears burned behind my eyes but thankfully, the ducts wouldn't produce enough for me to cry. That didn't stop a painful sob from trying to sneak up and break open m y throat. Shhh, it's okay, Rhys said, sitting on the bed. He wrapped me in his arms. You're safe. I called out for help, I whispered, so ashamed because I knew better. No one had l istened. No one but Rhys. I know. He cupped the back of my head. With my ear pressed against his heart, I let the steady beat sink into me. Tried to match it. But everything from the past came rushing back. Every shitty moment. The way that punk's palm felt over my mouth as he snuck into my bunk when I was tw elve. The way Castor use to backhand me. Often, and always across the cheekbone. The way the knife felt sinking into my gut when he left me to bleed out. It all came back. And I felt it. For the first time in a long time. I felt every momen t, and I was scared to my bones. But you came . . . I said against Rhys's chest. Of all the times in the past I had c alled out, no ever paid attention. Rhys came in out of nowhere like a knight to save the day. Save me. Squeezing my eyes shut, reality hit and I frowned. Pullin g back, I looked up at him. Why were you at the club? I followed you, he admitted. No hesitation, just the simple truth. Why? Because something is going on with you and I'm worried. But that's not your place, I said, anger welling up. I can You can what, Emma? Take care of yourself? Yeah, I saw how that worked out. You've been passed out for over eight hours. How could you have taken care of yourself then? I bit my tongue. My eyes were now threatening to start producing water. What is going on? he said more softly. You said `he' was after you and he would kill yo u. Who is he, Emma? I shook my head. Just . . . leave it alone, Rhys. I got up, feeling a little shaky , but I forced myself to stand. I need to get home. Then I'm coming with you. Swiping hair out of my eyes, I looked for my shoes. Rhys bent to pick them up an d handed them to me. The gesture making him all the more heroic and me all the m ore off-balance and upset. What is your deal? I asked him, tugging on my boots. You have a need to rush in a s ave the day or something? Is this your way of saying thank you for saving your ass last night? he said in an annoyed tone. Yes, I guess it was. But I was beyond emotionally drained and couldn't wrap my hea d around what to do next. Every plan I had was falling apart. I was still in Man hattan. Mase now likely knew I was at this hotel. Hell, he'd doubtless seen Rhys a nd now he could be a target. I was bringing people into this when I needed to be getting the hell away like yesterday. I needed to regroup and focus on the short term. Get to the apartment, get my ba g, and go from there. I'm not letting you go alone, Emma. Maybe you should call your brother at least and

tell him No, I snapped and stood to my full height, which was laughable compared to Rhys's, b ut I did everything I could to make myself as big as possible. Adam stays out of this, you hear me? What is this, Emma? Because you attempting to break in to my hotel room, followed by getting drugged at some club and saying things like `he'll kill me,' sounds pretty serious and someone should know. You know, I spat back. Yeah, and you're not telling me jack shit. What do you want me to do? He was obvious ly growing impatient. Sounded even a little worried. Just walk away, Rhys. His eyes were hard and didn't leave my face. Like that option never occurred to hi m. Shit, he really was a do-gooder hero, but I was done being saved. I had alrea dy dragged him further into this than necessary. You don't owe me anything, Rhys. Hell, you barely know me. So just walk away. He looked at me for a long moment, then said, I'm coming with you, Emma. I sighed, too tired to fight. Fine. ~ I didn't even have to fish for my key because the apartment door was already open. Busted at the hinges as though it had been kicked in. Something sick rose in my throat as I reached for the handle to push it the rest of the way open. No, Rhys said sternly and moved himself in front of me, his left arm darting back to keep me behind him. Stay out here. I'll check it out first. I was just about to argue with him, but his glare made me snap my mouth shut. He walked inside more quietly than I'd ever heard anyone move. There wasn't much to check or possible hiding places to uncover. The floor plan was open and I chance d a peek inside. Everything was trashed. Scattered and broken. My duffle bag by the door had been rummaged through. I reached over and dragged it toward me. The little cash I had had was gone. Rhys checked the bathroom and two bedrooms, then came toward me walking normally again. Whoever did this is gone. I rose and he eyed the bag I was just going through, stu ffing things back in it. Your travel suitcase? Yeah, I mumbled. He took all my cash. Granted, forty bucks wasn't much, but it could h ave been a bus ticket. Who did? I looked at Rhys, then around the bleak apartment, unable to speak. Jesus Christ, Emma. Don't you get it? This secret of yours is putting more than you rself at risk here. I know. I hung my head. What if Megan was here? What if I know, I said louder. That's why I'm trying to get out of here. And how's that going for you? It took me five minutes to find you last night. You're easy to follow, you have no plan, and now you're putting people I care about in da nger. I get it, I growled. And I did. Hence the reason I was trying to leave. Adam, Kate , Preston and Megan were my only friends. My only family, actually. I didn't want to bring this on them. Not to mention, they've all had enough scandal to last a li fetime, they didn't need more. If they knew what shit I had stored in my baggage? No way. Rhys took one step toward me. His blond hair framing his face, and his eyes were bright, like the sky after a fresh rainfall. The man probably never feared a si ngle thing in his life. I've tried being patient. But here's how this is going to go. Either you tell me what the hell is going on so I can help you, or I'm calling your brother and carting y our ass back to Chicago so he can deal with you. No! All my anger rose and before I could stop them, words rushed out. Fighting wor ds that would hopefully make him go away. Far away. From me. Are you still pissed

because I stood you up and used you for a one-nighter? Get over it. His expression turned deadly and he gritted his teeth. There are two people in th e world I love. Preston is one of them. And he's really fucking happy right now be cause of Megan. A woman you are putting in danger because of your cowardice. I'm not a coward. I'm trying to protect them too. Oh yeah? The first thing about being a smart fighter is knowing when to tap out. Too much pride will get you or someone else hurt. The way his eyes flashed with so much pain, like he'd experienced this firsthand, made something in my chest ache for him. The man was bitching me out and I stood there wanting to hug him. I looked around the messed-up apartment. God, what if Megan had been here? No, I couldn't think of that. Because I knew exactly what kind of man Mase was. A dange rous man. That empty pit in my stomach I'd carried around since childhood was throbbing. It was the same pit I had become a pro at covering up with false ideas of hope and human interaction being more than just an exchange of goods. Reminding me that t he emptiness was still very much alive and I was still the same girl I always wa s. Trash. Running from her past. But this time, I wouldn't take those I cared about down with me. I met Rhys's stare and knew a man like this would never be weak. Never surrender. Never be in this position. I cared about the few people I had in this world more than myself. And staying away from them was the best thing I could do. And Rhys was my best bet to achieve that. The only one left. Rhys . . . I need help. I let out breath I hadn't realized I was holding. Standing there, amidst the ruins of my life crumbling around me, I waited. Rhys's expression shifted. Okay, Emma. He walked toward me but stopped before actual contact, which, for what ever reason, I was really wanting some of. I'd never been a big hugger or emotiona l kind of girl. But right now, a little bit of that bliss I had had with Rhys th e other night sounded like perfection. I'll help you, he assured. But we do this my way. I looked up at him. Adam can't know. Neither can Megan or Preston. No one can. That's not what I'm talking about. Ah, you want something in return. Should have known. What? He frowned. No. I mean, you start by telling me everything. And you have to r emain honest and listen to me. Understand? I nodded. Half hating this weird surrender of some control, and half liking it b ecause with it came half the burden. I took a deep breath and spoke quickly before I changed my mind. Ten years ago I testified against this small-time drug lord, Castor James, and it put him in pri son. He's up for parole, the hearing is in three weeks and I'm due to speak on the s tate's behalf to keep him locked up. His brother Mase is the one after me. And Mase is the one who slipped you something last night and did this to your apa rtment? Rhys glanced around. Yeah. He found me in Chicago, which is why I came here in the first place, but he found me again. How? Rhys asked. I lifted a shoulder. I don't know. But if I can stay away from him until I get to t he trial and keep Castor locked up, everything will be fine. We still need to find this guy who's after you. Yeah, well, I've been on my own till now and I've just been trying to stay hidden and alive long enough to make the hearing. Without hurting those around me, I added for good measure. I know that Mase has a warrant for his arrest, so I'm hoping the police will eventually catch him. You're operating with a lot of hopes and ifs, Rhys said. That's because I don't have a hell of a lot more to operate with. He scanned my face, staying silent for a long moment. Finally, he moved on as as ked, Castor, how did you get mixed up with him? Never losing my nerve, I said, He was my master. When Rhys's face reflected what I a ssumed was moderate shock, I finished with, Ironic, since I've never done drugs.

What do you mean, your master? This was the part I always hated the most. He saw me, picked me up and I had to d o what he said or else get beaten. Rhys's eyes were the widest I'd ever seen them. I'd love for you to elaborate right now . Another deep breath. I'd never spoken of any of this out loud and had a feeling th at this conversation wasn't close to over. But telling it this way, like a story, felt like I was explaining someone else's life instead of my own. Allowed for some disconnect, which was helpful, and it was the only reason that talking about th is didn't make me want to cry or anything. I grew up on the streets, bounced in and out of group homes. That's how I ended up meeting Adam. But one of the times I was out and back on the homeless block, Cas tor decided I was to be his woman, slave or whatever. I shook my head because I never did come up with a good term to call that situat ion or to call myself. But all I did know was that I never really had a choice. How did he decide this? Rhys asked, a vicious undertone to his voice. I was hanging out by the lake, scrounging for money. Castor merely pointed at me and told his brother, I want that one. He got me a roof and food and I was basic ally his slave. How old were you? Fifteen. Rhys muttered something that sounded like the lord's name and looked around the ap artment. He was so calm, his face inscrutable, as if trying not to show emotion, but the twitch in his jaw showed that he was struggling. Which I kind of apprec iated. Pity wasn't something I wanted. How did this end? It was a deal gone bad. Castor was caught, Mase got away. And you? What do you mean? What happened to you, Emma? He asked like he was genuinely interested in how this story ended. Adam was the only one who kept track of me, I said, hoping that he wouldn't push for more details. Adam was there at the hospital when I woke up from the stabbing and stood by me throughout the indictment of Castor. These were memories I didn't really want to r elive, so I moved on quickly before Rhys could ask more questions. Adam made his money and took care of me. I went to college and the rest is as you see it. I said, opening my arms. After a roofied night, having no money and standing in a desecrated apartment, I felt like I was back at square one. Which meant that I needed to start thinking like Street Emma. Everybody wants something, Rhys. I looked at him, because as long as I was being t ruthful, it was his turn to dish. You want to help me? What are you charging? Nothing. I just want you to be safe. Bullshit, nothing is free. Adam helped you, he countered. Yeah, and Adam wanted something in return. I had to go to school, clean up, behave, and yes, he did care, but he was overbe aring and in my business all the time. It came from a good place, I knew that. K new he loved me. And I loved him, which was why I was trying to stay away from h im and the life he's built. He's finally happy, an honest kind of happy, and he's lett ing go of his past, which was more brutal than mine in some ways. I didn't want hi m to have to deal with me anymore. Like I said, I want your trust and compliance. You ask all this of me, what is your plan, big guy? You want to make it to the trial and keep yourself safe, I think that's smart. But I also think that Mase won't stop and needs to be caught. Drawing him out so the p olice can obtain him is a strategy we should consider. In the mean time, I'll keep your secrets, but you'll have to stay with me. I'm going upstate today, there're some family issues I need to deal with. It's a good place to lie low for a few weeks.

And I just come with you? He shrugged. It's either that or I can call Adam and you can talk with him about yo ur next step. I wanted to argue that I could take care of myself. But presently I didn't have th e means to do that. Rhys was my best option. I still wasn't convinced he didn't have an angle, though. What about sex? What about it? Will we be having any? That didn't even get a grin from him. This isn't a trade, Emma. I'm offering my help, t hat is it. Under these circumstances, it's probably best to remain platonic. Wow. I crossed my arms. You're sexy when you're all doom and gloom. And you're mouthy. That time there was just a hint of a grin. I wanted to push for more. To ask if he liked the time we were together. Seeing as how we hadn't talked about it mostly because I took off before we could. But I didn't ask. Because right then, it didn't matter. That one night was amazing, but it was over. I wasn't stupid enough to believe the re could ever be more between us than a couple nights with no strings. So long a s I kept my brain and remembered that no one, not even Captain America over ther e, did things out of the goodness of their heart without some kind of agenda, th ere was no reason sex couldn't be a part of this deal. He was talking about being together for three weeks. Three platonic weeks. Yeah, I didn't see that happening. There were two things men caved for: sex and money. Since I didn't have money and Rhys already had plenty o f it, looked like the second option was best. And it was the fastest way to find out his agenda. His real reason behind this save the street-girl endeavor. I'm still not buying your noble intentions, I informed him. If Rhys had been the kind of man to roll his eyes, he probably would have right then. Fine. You want me to gain something from this? I'll tell you what, in exchang e for me helping you, you can help me settle some real estate issues up north. What does that entail? He glanced down the front of me. Nothing you can't handle. For some reason, the fact that it felt like an exchange and not a handout made m e feel better and worse at the same time. I agree. Great, he said sarcastically. Rhys picked up the bag I had attempting to re-pack and put the last few strewn-a round things that had been thrown from it back in. I'll take care of reporting this break-in once we're on the road. I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off. And no, it will have nothing to do with you. I was che cking in on my friend's apartment and found it like this. You were already out of town. Right? I smiled and nodded. Right. He gave a curt nod. I don't know how much technology this Mase guy has, but to be o n the safe side, we need to dump your cell. You're electronically off the grid as of now. Okay. I pulled my cell out of my back pocket and handed it to him. Though I wasn't c razy about giving up my phone or access to Candy Crush, Rhys was right, it was a good idea. Anything else you want to bring? he asked, holding the bag. I bent down and picked up a pair of slinky black panties that had been tossed fr om the bag and stuffed them back in. I think that's it. Rhys's eyes lingered on the garment I'd just added, then he cleared his throat and z ipped up the bag. Let's get out of here, then. I followed him, a small smile creeping over my face. Platonic my ass.

Chapter Five I thought you said I was going to help with real estate? I asked as Rhys opened a screeching wooden door to a small cabin in the middle of butt-ass-nowhere. I had dozed off on the drive up and when he pulled in front of this gem, I reali zed there was nothing around but trees and lapping water from the nearby lake. Yes. You're going to help me fix this up and make it ready to sell. Manual labor? Awesome. It was cute. Rustic, even. An authentic-looking cabin made of logs. It had an op en floor plan a small table sat near the kitchenette while the far back wall had a floor-to-ceiling stone hearth complete with a fireplace. A plush leather couc h and area rug faced it. There were two doors off to the right, which I assumed led to a bedroom and bathroom. He walked to one of the doors, opened it, and set my bag down inside. Yep, bedro om. He turned around and put his pack next to the couch. Where are we, anyway? Saranac Lake. This is my father's old hunting lodge. Won't he be upset you're trying to sell it? He died a few years ago. Rhys walked to the kitchenette a wall of cabinets beside a sink, stove and small fridge and put some water in the kettle. Sorry, I offered. He shrugged. I've stayed here on and off, whenever I needed to get away, but it's tim e to sell it. In the meantime, it will be good for your situation and no one wil l be able to find you here. Are you leaving me alone? He looked over his shoulder and if I hadn't known better I would have thought I sa w him smile. Would you like me to? I wanted a quick comeback, but was rendered speechless. Clever man. He was seein g just how much I'd cop to. See if I admitted I wanted him. Fine. I could play thi s game too. I walked over to him just as he set the kettle on the burner. Yes, I would like you to stay. I plastered my breasts against his back and his sha rp intake of breath meant that he felt me. Reaching around, I gripped his cock t hrough his pants. I'd be happy to fuck you again. Just as long as you don't get attac hed. I released him and walk away. How do you do this? he asked and turned to face me. Do what? This. He gestured to my entire body. How can you stand there and pretend that this situation isn't messed up? Act like you're not affected by the fact that some asshol e is after you? Just roofied you last night. He paused and looked me in the eyes. And how can you pretend that it was just a fuck between us and you didn't feel mor e? That last question rendered me momentarily mute. Rhys read me better than I had anticipated. Keeping this surface was going to be harder than I thought, especia lly because he was right. There was something between us. But I'd never admit that to him. Way too much power would be handed over with such an admission. I did m iss his skin, his smell, the way he took me over, body and mind. Shaking my head slightly, I decided to address only one of his questions. Oh, I know this situation is messed up, I said, leaning against the small table by the window. But I'm not going to cry or freak out about it. Beautiful thing about my self-preservation system was that as long as I could di sconnect enough, pretend that any situation I was in could be easily dealt with, I was fine. Think too much about something and yeah, it'd probably end up scaring me into making a dangerous mistake. You asked me before what my angle is. What's yours, Emma? To stay alive, testify and move on with life. Simple. Easy. Minimal thinking, therefore minimal freaking out. So how does throwing yourself at me fit in to your plan?

Throwing myself? I laughed. Oh man. I just thought screwing would be a good way to pass the time. Not everything is some big explanation waiting to happen. It almos t felt like World's Worst Liar just got stamped on my forehead. See, that's where we differ. Because like it or not, Emma, I saw you. He took a step toward me. That night we first met, there was a grace about you. Something sligh tly timid like you couldn't figure out if I was dangerous or Douchey? Now he grinned. I was going to say desirable. I saw it on your face. Saw it again the other night when you showed up at the hotel. Another step. And again when I w as deep inside of you, right before you came. My mouth went dry, but he just pressed on. Play this game all you want. Act tough. Pretend it's just sex between us, but you l ike me, Emma. And that scares the shit out of you. As if my body had no choice but to react to his words, it trembled on cue and I bit the inside of my lip to keep from admitting out loud that he was right. Finding all the brass and sarcasm I could, I said, Are you a psychologist in your spare time? No, just telling you what I see. Well do me a favor and tell yourself to shut up. He raised a brow. I can prove it. Prove that you want me. That you like me. I already said I'd fuck you. And I told you that there's more between us and you know it. You need me in the kin d of way that has you dizzy from thinking of nothing else. His voice was so deep it could be considered a lethal weapon of seduction. Anyone can fuck, Emma, but I think you want me in a whole different way. My pulse notched up another three beats per second and I tried to swallow down a ll the denial creeping up my throat.And you think you can prove this theory? Easily. Time to find my brain, call his bluff and show that he was wrong. At least, act as if he was wrong. Then by all means, prove away. He took another step toward me, close enough so that I could smell him now. Rich and powerful. Everything about him screamed for me to obey. To listen. Maybe it was his build or his military background, but a don't mess with me flashing sign on his forehead would have been more subtle than the alpha swagger currently dripp ing from him. If you wanted just a fuck, you'd be cold, he said, moving closer still, but not touc hing me. You'd be thinking of other things or feigning concentration. He tilted his head slightly to catch my gaze and I gave it to him. My whole body booted up like a switched-on motherboard and damn if he couldn't hear my skin hum ming from wanting him to touch me. My mind flashed to the other night. When he w as on top of me. His weight had felt so good. His body meeting mine in such a pe rfect way, like we fit. When he pushed into me for the first time, hitting deep, it was a moment of peace, of pleasure I had never experienced. You're thinking about it right now, Emma, he rasped. I can see it on your face. You're standing there, thinking about my cock. How it felt inside of you. A shudder rolled up my spine and my breath caught just slightly. He was right, I was thinking of it, and I couldn't stop. The way he kissed me . . . everywhere. I couldn't make my voice work and in that moment didn't have to because he just kept going, reading me. Are you thinking about my tongue? How it moved over every . . . single . . . inch of your skin? His breath fanned my face and I closed my eyes for moment, remembe ring exactly how he felt. How he made me feel. I opened my mouth to lie, to tell him I wasn't thinking of all the amazing things he did to me, but he cut me off as if knowing that was what I was about to do. Shrug it off, baby, he whispered. But like I said, you're not cold. You're hot. Flushed and I'd even bet His hand slid beneath the front of my pants, into my panties, hi s index finger delving between my folds. In one quick motion he retreated and lo oked at his newly dampened finger. Wet. He gave the sexiest, slyest, smile I'd ever seen and no matter how hard I tried, m y body ached to admit the truth, just so that he would touch me again.

There's my proof, Emma. He tasted his fingertip, the one that had just barely stroke d me, and gave a low growl of approval. Don't play this game, because I'll win. Every time. The kettle whistled just then and Rhys turned, took it off the burner, and walke d out the front door leaving me breathless, confused and . . . That son of bitch. Horny as hell. And not in a general way. I was hot, wet and ready for one man. T he same one who had just called me out, taken the upper hand in every way and we both knew it.

Chapter Six Once this whole thing is over and I get money, I'll pay you back, you know, I said, tapping my fork against the plate of pancakes the waiter had just set in front o f me. You're welcome, Rhys said and cut into his steak. No, seriously. He looked at me from across the small diner table, and nodded. I know, Emma. You don't have to keep explaining this to me. Just say thank you and eat your damn pan cakes. Thank you, I said quietly. I unfolded my napkin, laid it in my lap and looked around. The little diner was quaint. A few customers sat at the counter next to the pie case and the whole fe el was small-town middle of nowhere. Not the normal idea of what you thought of when you thought New York. Everything tasting good? An older man with a short white beard called to us from b ehind the counter, smiling and waving at Rhys. Everything is great, Teddy. Best steak I've ever had, Rhys replied and the old man s miled like Rhys's approval was the single best thing he'd ever heard. It was the sam e kind of smile the waitress gave earlier when she dropped off our food. Was Rhy s president of the diner or something? Or maybe this entire town? Because people kept glancing our way and tipping their hats at him. This town obviously loved their local hero. And I sat, silent. Maybe it was a city upbringing, but Rhys ha ndled being paid attention to really well. Getting attention was a foreign conce pt to me. Much less getting positive attention. Do you always eat breakfast for dinner? Rhys asked, returning his attention to me. I shrugged and cut into my pancakes. Sometimes. It's my favorite food. Any time of day. I glanced around again. The few people nearby were taking turns to look my w ay. I leaned across the table a bit to whisper to Rhys. I thought I was supposed to be off the grid? I grew up in this town and know just about all of the four thousand people who li ve here. Mase didn't follow us and we'll have to be coming into town anyway for some things over the next few weeks. He leaned in a little, mirroring my movements an d bringing us nearly nose to nose. His eyes zoomed in on mine. I wouldn't put you i n danger. I wanted to say, I know, but I couldn't. Something deep inside made me trust this man. Maybe it was the way he seemed to read me. Or maybe it was because the othe r night, when we had sex, that pull I felt to him from the moment I met him had solidified into some kind of connection. Either way, it was stupid for me to tru st him completely, but I was having a hard time helping it. How do you know Mase didn't follow us? I asked. He scoffed and smiled as if my question was absurd and took another bite of his meal. I know. Ah. I raised my chin. All that military background and now your security company. Y ou must be good at what you do. He shrugged. I have a limited skill set that I use to my advantage. I'll say. Rhys was CEO of Striker Solutions, multimillion-dollar security company catering to the elite and entitled. He employed bodyguards, personal drivers and teams. The ultra-wealthy and powerful went to him for all their personal detail

and security needs. Don't you have to work? Don't you need to be in the city to oversee things or somethi ng? Oversee things? Yeah. I swallowed a bite of pancake. You're the CEO. I mean, you've got the build for a bodyguard and all, but you don't actually sell your personal services, do you? I just spent several weeks there taking care of various issues in the city, he sai d, bypassing my recent question and answering my earlier one. I have good people who can run things smoothly. Must be nice. So this is like your vacation time? His eyes skated over me and a hot shiver broke over my skin. Something like that. I took a big bite of pancake and hoped the sugar would somehow satisfy me. Too b ad I was wanting something else. Something on the other side of the table. And l ike he pointed out earlier, I had yet to stop thinking of him, or that night. Wh ich was a problem, since I had launched Operation Don't Fall for Rhys Striker. Or at least don't like him for more than a sex-buddy. Because damn it, my body was cr aving him bad. So. I pushed the pieces of pancake around the plate in their syrup pool. You know a ll this crap going on with me. Tell me something about you. The slightest grin nudged at his lips. You're not trying to get to know me, are you ? Maybe because you like me? No, I shot out quickly. I just figured it was polite to ask. He smiled. Well, with charm like that, how can I deny you? His flirty little tease made me want to giggle. Then slap myself for wanting to do something as lame as giggle. Before I could ask him more, a chipper voice ran g out behind me. Rhys? I turned to see a slim, redhead with perfectly coifed hair, wide smile and brigh t blue eyes that matched her sweater set, walk our way. Suddenly, my brown hair felt tangled and the need to smooth my hands over my plain T-shirt was overwhelm ing. Sara, Rhys said and stood up to hug her. She lingered in that hug a little longer than I thought necessary, but whatever. How are you? I'm great. Just ended my shift at the hospital and starting my shift here in a few minutes. Wow, busy. Yeah. Sara smiled and her gaze roamed the entire expanse of Rhys's body and there wa s definitely interest behind it. Things have been pretty slow and all the nurses' s hifts are cut back, so I picked up a few here. I didn't know you were back in town . Sara's eyes landed on me. Oh, hello there. Hey, I said with my best smile, but for some reason it felt forced. Lacking. Defin itely not warm and wide. Rhys looked between us. Sara, this is my friend Emma. Sara was obviously also happy about my title of friend because I saw even more of her perfectly straight teeth shine as her lips stretched, if possible, into a bi gger smile. So nice to meet you, she said. You too. I looked at Rhys. He was obviously done offering up any more information and the silence stretching between all of us was getting awkward. How do you two know each other? Rhys glared at me, but Sara beamed and answered with delight. Rhys and I were hig h-school sweethearts. Of course they were. And wasn't that just adorable. She looked like the perfectly sweet kind of woman who cooked and gardened and went to farmer's markets on the we ekends. The kind that dressed up for family photos and knew how to baste a turke y. Oh my gosh, speaking of that, Sara said and tapped Rhys's chest with the back of her fingers. Did you hear Mr. Ferguson is retiring? I hadn't, Rhys said. Sara just gave a cutesy little laugh. He must have caught us a dozen times behind

the bleachers. I looked between her and Rhys, having no idea who they were talking about but ga thering that Rhys and Sara got busy back in high school, which I was pretty sure was the main point she was trying to make. Rhys looked at me. Mr. Ferguson was the P.E. teacher at our high school, he offere d, and I nodded. Feeling more awkward than anything else, listening to Sara reco unt her teen years of happy moments in a gymnasium with a guy I was growing more and more increasingly aware that I wasn't good enough for. While she had been planning the theme for homecoming, I was sleeping under a bri dge. Not much we could relate on. The contrast just delivered another shot of th e reality that I was beyond out of place here and with Rhys. Yet something in my veins simmered just enough to make me take notice. A weird e motion was coming in, some kind of feeling that bordered between anger and annoy ance. Well, I'll let you two get back to your dinner. Sara glanced at my pancakes and frow ned. But we should catch up some more, Rhys. She brushed Rhys's shoulder and I wondered if she'd ever clawed at them the way I di d. Whoa, where had that come from? The thought that these two had a history was not sitting well with me and frankly, that was silly. There was no reason to compar e my relationship with Rhys to his with Sara, mostly because Rhys and I didn't hav e a relationship. Of course he had past girlfriends, not that I was currently one. Ugh, this was terrible! I had no reason to be . . . what was this feeling crashi ng into me? Jealousy? Whatever it was, it sucked and didn't seem to come with much logic. You still have my number, right? Sara asked and I recognized the hair flick anywhe re. She was totally flirting. And I was sitting there in wrinkly clothes, no mak eup and eating breakfast for dinner like an eight-year-old. I glanced at Sara. S he probably ate salads regularly with a shot of wheatgrass on the side. I rubbed a finger against my temple because my brain was about to implode. I'd nev er compared myself so much to another woman in my life. Emotions were taking me over and were starting to make me sick. I felt lacking on a whole new level. Yeah. Good to see you, Sara. You too. And nice to meet you, Emma. I smiled and Rhys sat back down as Sarah pranced her perfect, pink Capri-wearing ass away. How are your pancakes? Rhys asked, cutting into his steak again as if we weren't jus t interrupted by carrot-top-Mc-Stepford-wife. Good, I said. Oh, hey, you know what we should talk about? He glanced up. What? Her. I hiked a thumb in the direction Sara left in. His concentration was instantly back on his dinner. Not much to talk about. You guys were high-school sweethearts, then what? He shrugged. I proposed. My jaw hit the table. I was not expecting that. He was going to marry her? Of course he was, I mean look at her. She was wholesome, and her hands looked al l soft, like the most work she did was on crafting or scrapbooking. Plus, she wa s a nurse for God's sake. Wow, I breathed. So what happened? I enlisted, got shipped overseas and we broke up. I'd really love for you to elaborate right now, I said, balancing my chin on my fist , throwing his line from earlier back in his face. About a year in, she cheated on me. I had to bite my lip to keep from calling Sara a nasty name. How is that possible? I asked, truly upset because Rhys was freaking amazing, and not just to look at. Well. He set his fork down. When a man and woman are attracted to each other, and t hey want to share their feelings in a physical way Not what I meant. I rolled my eyes and he just grinned and went back to eating. I m

ean, how could she cheat on you? You're like . . . Amazing. Hot. Sexy as sin. Funny. His smiled widened, waiting to hear how I'd finish the statement. Careful, Emma, it sounds like you're about to give me a compliment. I don't rag on you. You make it sound like I'm some bitch that never has a nice thing to say. I know you say nice things, you just choose not to very often, he said, again with that teasing tone. Quit changing the subject. There's nothing more to say, really. It was hard on Sara when I left. I was gone fo r a long time. She needed someone, I wasn't there and he was. That's no excuse, I muttered. You act like this isn't a big deal. His eyes landed on me and I knew right away that he was waiting for the irony of what I had just said to hit me. And it did. Hard. He had just said the same thi ng to me. But what was more interesting was realizing that Rhys dealt with thing s the same way I did. He brushed things off. Pretended that it wasn't a big deal. Maybe that was part of the reason I connected to him the way I did? Because how we coped was similar, the crap we dealt with was the only thing different. Sara still wants you. You know that, right? I said. That's history. Did you meet someone else? His steady gaze landed on me, causing a buzz of raw lus t to poke every single vertebrae and I fumbled to clarify. I mean, after you two broke up. Did you meet someone? He went very quiet, any sign of the breezy, seemingly carefree conversation we w ere just having gone. I was overseas for a long time, Emma. I met a lot of people, was all he said. Not an answer, and if there was one thing I noticed, it was avoidance. Whatever happened with Rhys over there, whoever he met, was something he clearly didn't wan t to talk about. I studied my pancake, trying to figure out how every passing hour, things got mo re complicated. More involved. Operation Don't Fall for Rhys was failing. ~ I peeked out of the bedroom and into the dark living room. Rhys was sprawled on the couch, asleep. I had tried for hours to unwind enough to sleep, but couldn't g et my mind to turn off. I tiptoed from the bedroom and into the bathroom, careful not to wake him. Maybe a warm shower would relax me enough for me to get some rest. I stood in the stall and let the water run down my shoulders, the steam envelopi ng me. It did little to calm my brain. Ever since our earlier conversation at dinner, I couldn't stop thinking about Rhys and what he was hiding. There was so much I didn't know about him, and yet, I tru sted him. Why? Why was he different? My mind churned out the same answer it had for the past several hours: I don't kno w. Maybe I needed more information before I would figure out the reason behind my w eird responses to him. Never once had I felt true jealousy until tonight. I knew right away it wasn't a healthy thing to feel or admit to. This backwoods, small-t own, polite people world made me feel more and more inadequate every second. In the city, even back when I was dirty and on the street, I knew what I was. Ow ned it. Made it work the best I could. But here? It was like all my flaws were e asily seen. And every area I was lacking in was more noticeable because I had st ared down a woman today that looked the part. She looked like the kind of woman that belonged with a guy like Rhys. And that woman wasn't me. Would never be me. Stepping out of the shower and feeling more tense than when I entered, I dried o ff and wrapped the towel around myself, knotting it in the middle of my chest. T he smallest things were annoying me. Like my hair hitting the middle of my back. I usually I kept it a bit shorter but hadn't thought of haircuts lately. Either w ay, it wasn't sculpted into a pretty mid-length bob like Sara's.

I looked at myself in the mirror and saw the same thing I always did. Exhaustion . Dark circles were under my eyes and I felt exactly how I looked. Letting out a deep breath, I opened the bathroom door and Jesus! I gasped. There was a large, shirtless Rhys standing in front of me. You sca red the hell out of me. Black drawstring pajama bottoms hung low on his hips giving me prime view of all his chiseled, muscled glory. My nipples hardened instantly and the subtle scrat ch of the terrycloth they were pressed against only made it worse. Is something wrong? Rhys asked. I snapped my gaze up to his just before I was caught drooling. I couldn't sleep. Th ought maybe a hot shower would help. He nodded and looked me over, taking in my damp skin and towel. His gaze heated me way more than the water I was just under. I'll make you some tea. No, it's okay. I made a mental note to add, offers to make tea to the list of everythi ng good and seemingly perfect about him. Operation Don't Fall for Rhys Striker, was not going well. Because instead of finding unflattering things about him, all I got was more and more reasons why he was wonderful. You look like you haven't slept well in a while, he said softly, his thumb running a long my cheekbone just beneath my eye. Yeah, I know. I turned away because I was aware how haggard I looked. I didn't need Rhys with al l his muscles and way too sexy pj's pointing it out. I also didn't like how self-con scious I felt. Put me in a city or on a busy street and I was fine. But the coun try? When it came to townsfolk and small talk with neighbors, I had no idea how to ac t. I was out of my element and everything I wanted to say just sounded so harsh. And I didn't want to come across mean, not right now at least. I reserved snarky words for when I needed space. Needed to verbally cut someone enough to make the m leave me alone. Right then, I didn't want to be left alone, I wanted Rhys. But I didn't want to be n ear him either. Mostly because I didn't want him to have an up close and personal view of all the shortcomings that I was too tired to conceal at the moment. When was the last time you slept? he asked. You mean other than when I was roofied? I smiled. He didn't. Come on, that was a litt le funny. He sighed and shook his head. Most women would be shaking in fear after having a scare like that. Certainly not joking about it. Yeah, well, I'm not most women. He kept his eyes on my face. I know. He glanced at the knot in the middle of my br easts, or dare I assume Mr. Platonic was looking at my actual breasts, then back to my face. When, Emma? I let out a long huff. The last time I actually slept through the night was at yo ur hotel. And before that? I studied the floor. Not since I left Chicago. He exhaled and when he spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. Why do you suppose you can't sleep now? I don't know. Liar. I did know. But admitting it out loud wouldn't help anything. That night I was surrounded by Rhys, his scent, his strength. It was easy to slip in to a coma of bliss and know everything would be okay. Are you scared? he asked softly. No. He kept his eyes on the pulse in my neck. I could tell because I realized he did this often. Probably part of his reading people skills. Naturally, I tried to ste ady my heartbeat, which only made it jump a bit more. Would you like me to come sit with you until you fall asleep? No, I answered quickly and that time it was the total truth. I didn't want him to si t, I wanted him to lie down with me. Own my entire body like he had that night. I wanted to get lost in him. But reality was just too brutal to forget. Call it

exhaustion or hormones, I was feeling so low, in every way possible, and I didn't want Rhys to see it. I just want to go back to bed, I whispered. Okay. He stepped aside and let me pass. I put my head down, hustled to the bedroom , shut the door and set to putting my pajamas back on. Blue checkered shorts and a white tank. Just as I settled back into bed and pulled the covers to my chin, a small rap ca me at the door. You can come in, I called out. And he did. He stood in the doorway. The window on the opposite wall let in enough moonlight that it illuminated his face and hard torso. Shadows danced over the expanse of his smooth skin and made me think of some kind of Greek god. Not saying a word, he walked straight to me, around to the other side of the bed , and climbed in. I went to turn to face him, but he just wrapped me in his arms , my back to his chest, and spooned me. I thought you wanted to keep this platonic, I said. I do. Well, I should. His mouth brushed my ear as he spoke, sending tingles to eve ry part of my body. I'm not putting the moves on you, Emma. I just want you to be a ble to rest. Whatever it takes to make you believe you're safe, I'll do. His arms tightened a little and his leg threaded between my two. My heart stutte red a bit. Not from his grip, but from the sheer mass of his presence weighing d own on me. If I was the kind of girl that ran into the arms of a man, I'd hope to God that man's arms were Rhys's. Because he was the kind of man that caught a girl, and never let go. I might have only shared a few moments with him, but those mom ents were worth a thousand with any other man. My chest tightened as the truth hit me hard. The answer to my question of why I responded to Rhys the way I did was clear. It wasn't because he was different. It was because he was better. Better than most. Better than me. Just . . . better. I don't get you, Rhys. I whispered. He buried his face in my neck. I like you, Emma. I have no problem admitting that . The sentiment doubled the arrhythmia problem I was having. Just the thought of b eing on the receiving end of his attentions made my skin light up. Hell, I had f irsthand experience in what his attention felt like. And it was addicting. But i t was also not practical to think it could be more than a fleeting encounter her e and there. Long-term and me didn't mix. Especially when it involved a man. And t hat was when both of us were on an equal playing field, which Rhys and I weren't. You don't like me, you pity me, I corrected. I think I can classify my feelings correctly. His lips were just below my earlobe now. You say you can read me? I can read you back. I saw the look in your eyes when I told you about my past. That was pity. He laid there silent for a long moment, and it about ate me alive with anticipat ion. Would he leave? Tell me I was right? Either option made my stomach twist. M en didn't ever touch me in a nice way. It was either purely sexual or abusive. Wit h Rhys lying next to me, holding me, it felt different. Felt like he cared. I don't like what you've had to go through, but I don't pity you. I feel sad for you. I frowned and glanced over my shoulder the best I could. Same thing, I stated and went to shake him off, but his grip held tight. No, it's not. Everything you told me helps me understand you. Your will, ambition a nd sense of survival is awe-inspiring. I admire you, Emma. He brushed a piece of hair away from my ear. But there's not a single part of me that doesn't wish you didn't have to go through what you did. My throat ached and I tried to swallow but it was difficult because there was a lump rising in it. How was this man able to see right through me? See past the w alls I had so diligently constructed a long time ago? It was a shock to my syste m. He admired me? No one had ever said such a thing before. I don't want to be a charity case, I whispered. He shook his head slightly, the stubble on his chin scratching my shoulder. I've ne ver thought of you that way.

And just like that, my soul, my heart, my entire body flushed with a deep ache t hat was dying for his words to be true. Like I had every other time he spoke. An d if I wasn't careful, I just might be on the verge of believing him. Get some sleep. I couldn't argue. My body relaxed and the night crept up on me, making my eyelids heavy. It was like that one incredible night we'd spent together, I was once again surrounded by Rhys, his scent, his strength, and I fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Seven The morning's rays flicked at my face. Groaning, I reluctantly opened my eyes. The smell of bacon and coffee came from the other room and my stomach growled on cu e. Rhys was gone, but I had slept great. Had he stayed the whole night with me? It felt like he had, even though the sheets were cold where he had been. I didn't kno w what time it was, but judging by the bitchy sunshine coming through the window , it was breakfast time. I got up and walked out into the main room. Rhys's back was to me. He was at the f ront door talking to someone. His ass looked mighty fine in exercise shorts and a T-shirt that was a little sweaty. Of course he was out exercising already. I couldn't see who he was speaking with, but it was definitely a woman. I was going to come see you this afternoon, he said quietly and in a smooth voice. The kind that was typically reserved for, Hey, baby, I was going to call you, I swear. Ah crap. It must be Sara. I cleared my throat and Rhys turned just his head to l ook at me over his shoulder, not looking at all happy. He was obviously hiding t he fact that Sara was standing in front of him. Oh, hello there, a sweet voice rang out and a tiny woman with a blond bun on the t op of her head peeked around Rhys. Hi . . . I said, slowly taking in the dainty older woman. Now I see why you were being all mysterious. Shame on you, the woman said and smac ked Rhys's stomach. With a big smile, she bypassed Rhys and headed straight for me. I was barefoot, in pajama shorts and umph She damn near slammed into me, wrapped me in the tightest hug, then gripped my s houlders and leaned back to looked at my face. You are such a pretty thing. Her gray eyes scanned over me. I didn't mean to drop by so early. It's just that when my son, she hollered in Rhys's direction, comes to town and I have to hear it from Teddy at the Slap a Stack, a mother gets worried. My eyes went wide and my mouth hung open. You're Rhys's mother? I asked. And if memory served, Teddy was the cook at the diner last night who had waved a spatula in o ur direction when Rhys walked in with me. Yes, Rhys said, shutting the front door. Emma, this is Gwendolyn Striker. Nice to meet you, I said, having no idea what to do because the woman was still ho lding me. She was nice and smelled like fresh basil and clay and her smile reach ed all the way to her eyes. You too, dear. And please call me Gwen. Would you like some coffee, Mom? Rhys said and poured a cup. Oh, no thank you, honey, I'm going to get going. I was just dropping by. I don't want to interrupt. She shimmied her shoulders a little and gave me another wide smile . She had to be the most bubbly, happy person I had ever met. She opened her mouth to say something, but then looked at Rhys and closed it. Cl apping my shoulders once, she released me and walked to the front door. Rhys was right behind her, making sure to reach the knob before she did and opening the door for his mother. Ah, now it was coming together. He loved his mother and respected women. Great . . . just great. Another mental tally for the Why Rhys Is Awesome column. You will come by, Gwen stated. Of course, Mom. I just wanted to get a few things squared away with this place fi

rst, but I'll come by tonight. She reached up and patted his cheek. I'll make a brisket. And of course you're coming too, dear. She looked at me. Again, not with a question. I nodded, because saying no to thi s woman didn't seem like an option. Oh, I'm so excited! I'm going to run to the market. Emma, do you like mushrooms? Yes, thank you. She nodded and got her keys out of her pocket. Excellent! Thanks for coming by. See you soon. Rhys kissed her cheek and she scuttled off, bu bbling excitement the entire way. Rhys closed the door behind her and turned to face me. She's so nice, I said. Rhys nodded. Yeah, she is. I didn't know she was stopping by, I hope we didn't wake y ou. I was trying to keep it quiet. A small grin slipped past my lips. Considerate man. No, you didn't wake me. I'm actua lly surprised. She looked like she wanted to chat more, but just took off. Rhys snorted. Oh, she's dying to pry. But she'll do it tonight over dinner. Before I c ould respond to that, or let the nervousness about what was to come sink in, Rhy s switched the subject. Did you sleep okay? he asked, grabbing a cup of coffee and offering it to me. All these pleasantries and manners were almost like living i n a different realm. Yeah, thanks, I muttered and took a sip. I didn't know if I was thanking him for his manners or thanking him for cuddling l ast night. Either way, I was in a bit of shock, not knowing how to handle the Cl eaver family this early in the morning. You're welcome. If you sit, I'll get you some breakfast. Bacon and eggs all right? I did as he asked and nodded. Smells great. I took in his hard back and muscles as he moved to fill a plate from the skillet. Did you leave this morning? He turned, noticing me glance at his T-shirt. I usually go for a run in the morni ng. How early were you up? He set the plate down in front of me. Five. Good Lord. I'm never up that early unless I never fell asleep. I picked up my fork a nd took a bite of scrambled eggs, which were cooked in bacon grease and fricking amazing. Guy could cook. Another tally. Did you sleep okay? I asked as casually as I could, trying to find out if he had s tayed the whole night next to me or ended up leaving for the couch once I fell a sleep. There was a folded blanket and pillow at the end of the couch and with Rh ys being so neat, I didn't know when he would have done that. I slept very well. He grabbed his coffee and sat across the table from me. So you slept the whole night, then woke up at five to run? God I sounded like a mo ron. Is there something you are trying to ask me, Emma? I shrugged and became overly interested in the food before me and took another b ite. Just curious about your schedule is all. Since we're staying here for a few we eks, figured it would be good to know. Okay, let's see here. He placed his forearm on the table, keeping his coffee mug in his hand, and glanced at the sky. Well, I found you coming out of the shower arou nd midnight. Got into bed with you, slept, and awoke to these sexy little moans. His eyes landed on me. That was about four-thirty. I spent the next half hour try ing to figure out what you could be dreaming of that caused you to purr and hope d it was me. He paused to take a sip of coffee but never took his gaze from my face. Then I go t up and went for a run around the property. I swallowed hard and adjusted in my seat, trying to tamp down the instant surge of achy heat spreading throughout my entire body. He had stayed all night with m e. And that made the giggly girl in me take notice. But the fact remained that I wasn't that girl and needed to stop being so affected by Rhys. Maybe if we could just get naked and wild, I could show him, show myse

lf, that my issues were coming more from being sexually frustrated than being he ad over ass for the guy. Or maybe I was looking for any excuse to touch him. I have a question, I asked. You said you wanted this to stay platonic between us, y et you say things like that. Like what? Like . . . I waved my hand in his direction, about the dreaming moans I made. Ah, yes. He smiled at the ceiling, knowing full well what I was talking about but wanting me to just say it out loud. You're sending mixed messages. Am I? He took another sip. I think I've been pretty clear. I like you, I've admitted to that and to why. But you don't want to have sex with me, I shot back, my body feeling like a pressure cooker. I never said that. In fact, I'd very much like to. Then what the hell? You're being more cryptic than a damn girl. I didn't know what exa ctly I was arguing about; I mostly just wanted some clarity because it felt like I was having withdrawal from Rhys. He had been so close last night, and nothing. The thought of experiencing the in tensity we shared that night at his hotel was starting to consume my brain. And the fact that I didn't know how to make that happen or how to stay away from him, was maddening. I told you I didn't want to play a game. You're set on keeping me in this box of fuck -buddy, which would be fine if you were just honest about it. I have been! No, you keep telling me and trying to convince yourself that all I am is just a o ne-nighter to you. Jesus, are you always so emotional when it comes to sex? I just like to call it what it is, he said. And what is that? What is between us that you think requires a different word tha n just fucking? Those gray eyes ate me up in one penetrating gaze and he said, Intense. He shook h is head. I'd be stupid not to want that, not to want you. But until you can be hone st with yourself, I'm not taking advantage of you. Taking advantage? Is that what you think? My heart leapt at the same time it sank. He felt it too. The intensity between u s. That connection I was trying to get back without having to admit that was wha t I was going for. At least if Rhys wasn't on to the fact that I craved him, maybe I could salvage so me of my pride. But he was on to me, damn it. The last thing I wanted was to con fuse what this was with emotions. There was not only a clock on our time togethe r, but there were miles of differences. His world didn't have a place for me and m y world currently didn't have a foundation. People do things out of fear, he said. That night you came to my room, you were sca red, but you were honest. You wanted me in spite of the situation. Not because o f it. Shit. Every single thought and feeling was warring in my head. I knew I was a ba d liar, that Rhys seemed to know my reaction to him, and it once again gave him the upper hand. Street Emma would be so pissed at me right now. Rhys seemed to be one step ahead of me, calling things out and making me feel things I didn't know how to handle. I wanted that night back. Wanted to feel that kind of soul-shattering fire he un leashed over my body. But I wanted it without strings. I love how you think you're some kind of mind reader. I read people, Emma. And how did you learn to do that? His eyes did that haunted thing I'd seen once before. Training. I put my hands on the counter and leaned in. You know all this stuff about me. Al l the unflattering past crap. Tell me something about you, Rhys. You seem to hav e a grip on why I am the way I am and have no issue pointing it out. Why are you the way you are?

His face was like stone. Challenging. But I didn't look away. What did you do for the military? I asked. My unit was stationed in Afghanistan working with locals to gain intel on the Tal iban. Now I felt like the one with a face made a stone, but for a totally different re ason. I couldn't move. Couldn't begin to even think right. I wasn't expecting that kin d of answer. He was sharing something true about himself with me. By choice. It made me feel . . . special. So you were like GI Joe? I asked. Sort of. These people were looking for a way out. Many of them just trying to sur vive, keep their families alive while their town was being overrun by the Taliba n. It took a while to gain their trust, but eventually we started making progres s. They'd gather information, let us know where the newest attack was going and te ll us so we could go in before they planted any more IEDs. Jesus, I whispered. Rhys had said he'd been there a long time. Must have made friends with some of the se people. One thing I'd be wanting to ask about, that stood out, was the shrapnel scars. But before I could, he rose and put his cup in the sink. Now you know a bit about me and you're right, we're even. He walked past the table and toward the bathroom. I'm going to shower, he said, shutting the door and shutting o ff from the conversation as if it never happened. I looked down at my food, feeling more lost than ever before. Maybe it was time to try a different approach. What I was currently doing involved a hell of a lot of denial and fibbing, mostly to Rhys and myself, about certain feelings I was having. I was trying to keep things surface or at least pretend I didn't like Rhys the way I did. But he had just opened up and let me see a part of himself. Of h is past. A difficult past, it would seem. If he could be honest, maybe it was ti me I tried it too. Placing my hands on the table, I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to relax. Megan had tried to get me to meditate back when I first moved in. The woman was obsessed with breathing and attacking things logically. Guess it couldn't hurt to give it a try. Deep breath . . . I cleared all my thoughts away. Thoughts of the past, of all the issues that cur rently surrounded me. Tried to even erase the fact that Rhys and I were brought up so differently. My eyes shot open. Though the path to adulthood was light years apart, maybe the final product of u s being adults wasn't so different. I had caught a glimpse of how we dealt with th ings similarly at the diner. This whole time I'd been asking myself how Rhys was a ble to read me the way he did? Why did I respond to him in a way I never respond ed to another? Why was there a connection between us and why was I drawn to him? Though he didn't dish details about being overseas, the look on his face and tone of his voice spoke volumes. Rhys had seen some things, likely done some things, that changed a person. He obviously understood loss, fear, fighting against thin gs unseen. Fighting to stay alive. Just fighting to keep your sanity in the hope that one day things will be better. Maybe that's what we related to in each other . I closed my eyes once more and focused on my breathing. If Megan could see me no w . . . I could almost hear her saying, When you focus on breathing and empty you r mind, you can see things you missed before. Desperation must be setting in if I was finally giving in to this. Deep inhale. And out. I tried to watch it melt away. My past. Rhys's past. All the unanswered questions. Where we were and why. I pictured him and me in a white room. Just us. Looking up at him, seeing only his thundering eyes, I asked myself a simple question: Do I want this man? The answer came quickly and was as simple as the question. I stood up, and march ed toward the bathroom. Yes! I said loudly throwing open the door.

What? Rhys asked from beneath the spray of the shower. I said . . . I tugged the curtain open, which surprised him a little, stepped into the stall, not caring that I was fully clothed and faced him. Yes. With the water hitting his back, he looked down at me. My God, I thought the man was fine dry, but wet he was beyond. He ran his palms over his head, smoothing back his hair so that tiny drops dripped from the ends and hit his shoulders. I watched those drops travel down his chest to his abs and lower . . . I licked my bottom lip, wishing it was his skin I tasted instead of my own. Yes, what, Emma? My gaze snapped up to his. He didn't seem to mind me staring, or the fact that I h ad jumped into the shower with him. Steam surrounded me, making my skin dewy and my tank cling to my breasts. His eyes looked hot. Heavy. Burning. Yes, I said again. I want you. The only other time I had admitted this out loud was the night in his hotel room . He was right, fear made people do things, but that wasn't why I had shown up tha t night. It was instinct. I was just breathing at the table, I started, then realized how dumb that sounded, but Rhys just gave a slight smile and let me continue. And I asked myself, if ev erything else was stripped away, I paused to take in his impressive physique, if a ll this stuff didn't exist and if I was just a woman, you were just a man, would I want you? It took everything I had to keep my eyes on his, because for the first time in m y life, I felt a little shy and my cheeks burned. And the answer was yes. Rhys's mouth twitched at the corner and his body turned on. I was standing two fee t away from him and could feel him hum like a revved-up muscle car. He touched m y face, his palm damp against my cheek, and I loved the contrast between us. Bet ween our skins. Thank you for being honest, he said and I glanced down. He gave a gentle tug on my jaw, coaxing my stare back to his. Is it hard to admit that? I nodded. Why? Might as well tell him the reason since I was offering full-out disclosure at th e moment. Stupid breathing. I knew it could get me into trouble. Because the truth comes with strings, Rhys. And if someone else is able to pull t hose strings, you give up your control. You weaken. That look in his eyes was one I was coming to recognize. Sincerity. I can see how you came to that conclusion. He didn't tell me he was sorry for me. Didn't sugarcoat the issues or the fact that yeah, maybe my beliefs weren't all happy and optimistic. He didn't argue a different way to think, tell me why I was lacking or how I was wrong. He let me just be. Have my thoughts. Have my issues. And accepted me for who I was. Don't take this as a grand gesture that I'm going to be spouting off the truth from n ow on, I said seriously. Of course not. He smiled and pulled my face to his. His mouth was perfect. Wet and firm, his lips were thick and delectable. His ton gue teased my lips, little drops of water falling from his face to mine and I lo st all reason. Pressing against him, I swung my arms around his neck. He hoisted me up and I ho oked my legs around his middle. He was naked and wet and I still had my little s horts and white tank on, which were getting more soaked by the second in more th an one way. Turning so that the shower was spraying our sides, he braced me against the tile d wall and devoured my mouth. I clung to him, never feeling hotter, more erotic than in that moment. He was addicting, and I was finally, finally, getting my fi x. And I was coming apart for him already. I like this look, he said with a grin, pulling back enough to look down my front. My clothes were completely wet and my white tank now transparent, making my dusk y nipples clearly visible, pouting for attention through the drenched cotton. Rh ys being the body reader that he was, dipped his head and pulled one between his

lips. Oh, God, I moaned. Just his mouth on me was enough to spark so much need it was bu sting my skin at the seams. The back of my head met the wall and I arched out, grinding my hips against his, riding his hard cock and loving how it slid between my legs. Even with the thin fabric barrier of my shorts, that rigid cock gliding over my clit was enough to send me screaming toward an orgasm. You're going to come like this, aren't you? he said, moving to the other breast. He pu lled my nipple between his teeth and gently bit down. Yes! I cried out, my body so hot that the water that was hitting me felt like ice. Keep doing what you're doing and yes I will. The way Rhys moved his body against mine, the way his strength surrounded me, I knew two things for certain. He could make me come harder than I ever had and he wouldn't break his hold. He had me. I truly believed that. Which meant that I cou ld let go. With his hands splayed on my ass, he tugged me closer, moving my lower body flui dly with his, so that every inch of his cock hit me dead center, right where I n eeded it, delivering zing after zing of pulsing pleasure from my core to my whol e body. Damn you're sexy, he rasped against my mouth. Not even naked and the hottest thing I've seen in my shower. Let's see if I can get you to come with your clothes on. I gripped his shoulders and kissed him hard. Shoving my tongue into his mouth to take everything I could while he continued to take me higher and higher. I had never been so ready, so turned on, and we weren't even having sex. Just his body w orking against mine it almost scared me how in tune we were. I'm there! was all I gasped out as a sudden violent orgasm raced through my veins. My body convulsed and Rhys just held me tighter, riding out my pleasure, moving his body and keeping all those intense sparks simmering. I squeezed my legs unti l I felt his hip bones really grind against my inner thighs and knew there would be bruises. That was amazing, I said when I could, purring like a very content cat. Rhys kisse d my lips, my chin, my neck and I slowly unlocked my legs and slid down his body . He let me. But I didn't stop when I hit my feet. I just continued to sink to my knees. What are you doing? he rasped. I was eye level with his big, hungry cock. Poor thing was so hard it looked almo st painful. Couldn't have that. He was a magnificent piece of male in his prime and everything about him called to me. My mouth watered on its own just as drops came down from the shower and h it my head. Rhys looked down at me, his expression inscrutable. I'm taking care of this, I informed him and snaked my tongue over the crown. He groa ned and his head went back just enough so the shower spray could drench it. This isn't a game, Emma. You don't have to trade I licked again, which cut off his words. I'm doing this because I want to, I said an d looked up at him. This wasn't a trade, a deal or any kind of exchange other than one of ecstasy. As I ran my hands up his powerful thighs, the smattering of blond hair tickled m y palms, until I reached the shrapnel-scarred skin on his right side. The scars and welts only made him look tougher, while at the same time very raw. Very human. I wanted to know this man. Know what pained him. Know what he had g one through. Maybe in time he would tell me. For now, I wanted to bring him plea sure. Be something good for him. I gripped the base of his massive erection and he groaned again. He didn't put up a fight. Didn't try to reason with me or deny me. Keeping my gaze fused to his, I slowly licked around the tip. Jesus, Emma. He ran his fingers along my jaw softly. His thumb brushed my cheekbon e. Closing my mouth over the crown, I sucked until my cheeks hollowed. That hand on my face moved to the back of my head and he wove his fingers into my hair. Neve r guiding, never pushing, just gripping. I loved it. A powerful charge burst int

o my bones and I realized that in this moment, I was the one overwhelming him. I took him deeper, keeping my eyes on his face, I blinked a few times to bat a f ew drops of water that landed on my lashes. When he hit the back of my throat, I kept him right there while my tongue moved along the underside of the crown and I pumped my fist. Christ, baby, you're so fucking good, Rhys said on a strangled breath. I sucked harder, pumped faster. Taking him in and out until his hips slightly st arted pumping back, fucking my mouth as I took him again and again. I'm going to come, he rasped and pulled out. He thrust into my fist once, twice, and his release shot from him so forcefully that it hit my breasts. Even with the wet tank covering me, I watched as lash af ter lash coated my nipple. His big body shuddered. I had done that. I had caused him that much pleasure, and in that moment, I felt special. Every bit as sexy as he said I was just a moment ago. Catching his breath, he looked at me and clasped my shoulders, helping me to my feet. Grabbing the hem of my tank, he lifted it over my head and tossed it in th e corner of the stall. Are your knees okay? he asked and bent enough to inspect them. I'm good, I said with a little shaky breathing of my own. He tugged my shorts down and I stepped from them. He tossed them to land by my t op. Looking over my now naked body, he grinned. What are you smiling about? I asked, feeling the need to cover myself, but Rhys ge ntly pulled on my wrist just as I brought it to my chest and brought me a little closer toward him. His smiled only widened and holy cow, Rhys Striker was amazing when he smiled. L ike the sculpture of Adonis amazing. That was just . . . he shook his head, wow. He was using my words from the other day and I did giggle a little then snorted. I slapped a palm over my mouth and my eyes went wide with embarrassment. Rhys just laughed, that impressive chest rumbling with the greatest sound I'd ever heard. Just when I thought you couldn't get more sexy. Snorting isn't sexy, I said against my palm, the words muffled. I think it is. Don't be shy. He winked. You have me feeling like a teenager with the need to thank you. That made me laugh. Careful, Thor, or you'll give me and all my amazing skill a com plex. It was my turn to take some of his words and use them. Oh, baby, I hate to tell you, but you deserve a complex because you, he grabbed my other wrist, and pulled me fully under the spray with him, are incredible.

Chapter Eight You've got to be joking, I said, climbing out of Rhys's car, my eyes glued on the hous e he grew up in. And yes, there was a picket fence. The cute little white house had blue shutters and sat at the end of the cul-de-s ac. There were even flower boxes beneath the windows of the second story. It was quaint, picturesque and, like the two women I'd met already who were part of Rhys's life, adorable as hell. As if on cue, a little dog came to the neighbor's fence, wagging its tail. This explains a lot, I said and Rhys came to stand by me, holding the bottle of wi ne we'd bought, while I palmed the French bread. What does? he asked. I motioned to the house, then at him. Why you are the way you are. You make that sound like a bad thing. It's a neighborhood, not a ghetto. Exactly. I bit my tongue and glanced down. Emma, I didn't mean it like that. He ran his hand along the small of my back and I s tepped away, breaking the connection. I know. It's cool. I used my best don't care voice. Problem was, Rhys was right. He wasn' putting me down. He was just stating what I already knew. We grew up very diffe

rently. And with that came various ways to view things. A distinct mentality. I wasn't saying that this, I glanced at the house, was bad. Just different. Different than me. The reminders were piling up, but this doll house turned real house was the icing on the cake. You okay? Rhys looked at me like I was going to keel over and it wasn't until I saw the expression on his face that I realized I was shaking slightly and clutching the bread as if it was a lifeline. Ironic that spending time on the streets was less terrifying than staring down this house. I plumped up the bread, trying to straighten it and fix the damage my death grip caused. Rhys' strong hands framed my face and he bent and looked at me. Emma? My vision cleared and I saw his gray eyes beaming back at me. I've never done this, I whispered before thinking better of it. Never done what? I stared at the house over his shoulder for a long minute, then looked back at h im. This. I held up the bread. This whole `let's go to your mom's house for dinner, I'll bring the side dish and break out the backgammon board,' this. His expression went serious. Emma, don't be crazy. We play dominions, not backgammo n. He grinned and it was just contagious enough to allow a deep breath to come thro ugh my mouth. This wasn't a real thing, after all. In a couple weeks I'd be gone, Rh ys would be back to his life and I to mine. We probably wouldn't even have a reaso n to see each other again. The thought was a bit unnerving. So none of what Rhys and I pretended to be or not to be mattered in the end, rig ht? This wasn't meeting the parents in a traditional sense. Just because I'd admitted to w anting the man didn't mean I'd actually get him. Hell, it didn't mean anything long-te rm. Still, I had this weird need to attempt to make his mom like me. I made a mental note to get my brain and my emotions on the same page, because e verything from my thoughts to my body was in a constant state of contradictory m otion that I didn't know how to sort out. Hey. Rhys coaxed my gaze back to his because mine was once again on the house, sta ring it down with my stomach in knots as if I was about to go tapping on the gat es of hell. If you're uncomfortable, we can go. No. This would not be another weak moment for me. I was already having way too man y of those. No, she's your mom, you're in town, you should see her. Right? That was the traditional thing for kids to do when they had parents who actually wanted them. At least I was pretty certain it was. He nodded. Do you not get along with your parents? I laughed a little. I've never met either of them, so I couldn't tell you. He searched my face and I placed my hand over his and gently pulled away. I'm fine. I don't know what my problem is. You're out of your element, he said simply, as if that was totally understandable an d I wasn't being completely ridiculous for having a mini panic attack just from lo oking at a house. He took my hand and we walked toward the front door. Thank you for coming with me. As we walked through the door and he called out for his mom, a small smile sprea d across my face. He seemed to want me there. How bad could it be? ~ And this one here, Gwen said, sitting next to me on the couch and tapping the mass ive photo book that was spread over my lap. This was when Rhys won his first foot ball game in peewee. I smiled at the little boy version of Rhys. Even as a kid he was built tough and badass looking. I think the brisket is going to burn, Mom, Rhys said, beer in hand, leaning agains t the entry to the kitchen. Oh, hush, it's fine. You just don't want me showing you off. She leaned in and nudged

my shoulder with hers. He's always been a little shy. I looked up at him and raised my brows. Shy, huh? He exhaled deeply and shook his head, clearly not enjoying this, but being a goo d sport. Oh, here is the junior prom. My eyes landed on the photo. Rhys looked great in a black tux. He stood behind S ara and her frilly taffeta frock and fancy updo. Even at sixteen, they looked ki nd of perfect together. And here is his Marine photo, Gwen said slowly as she turned the page and an eight -by-ten of Rhys at eighteen with a buzz cut and a serious expression came into v iew. You with short hair? I looked up at him and he ran his hand through the longer tre sses he had now. I like it long. I smiled. But you look pretty hot here too. His mother chuckled a little and oh my God, I think, yep, the big bad Rhys just blushed! Seriously, can we eat? I already set the table. She patted my knee and rose. All right, I'm done embarrassing you. She walked past R hys and into the kitchen. Why don't you show Emma around while I get this all finis hed up. You sure you don't want help? I've got it honey, you go on. He looked at me and raised a brow. Want the grand tour? I glanced around the living room, which looked every bit the part of wholesome h ome. Piano in the corner with a fireplace on the far wall, and small television above it. It smelled like home-cooked meals and stability. An uneasy tremor rolled down my spine. It was shocking how something as simple a s a home made me nervous. Maybe because this was an actual home. The one that sh aped a man like Rhys. Sure. I'll take a tour, I said, a little nervously. Following him up the stairs, I tried really hard not to stare at his perfect ass , but it was useless, the thing was meant to be stared at. Down the short hallwa y to the right he opened the wooden door. This was my room, he said. I stepped in and looked around. Yikes. Taking in the light blue walls and perfectly made bed was one thing. But the two shelves near the windows littered with trophies and ribbons was another. This isn't a room, this is a shrine, I told him. Yeah . . . He swayed on his feet and glanced away, that pink color returning to hi s face and neck. I've tried a few times to get my mom to pack this up and turn this into a crafting room or something for her, but she won't. So this is what it looked like for a teenage Rhys? He nodded. I walked in further, checking things out. There were so many trophies , in sports ranging from swimming to track to football. I didn't have anything lik e this. It wasn't the plaques and medals that were overwhelming, it was the experiences th at came with them. Rhys must have been well-liked. Popular, probably. A good guy . I didn't stay in school long enough to really have friends. Rhys went to dances, functions and had a mother who loved and praised him. I had a GED, a self-procl aimed brother and, only recently, a couple friends. First team all-state? I asked, reading one of the certificates on the wall and try ing to turn my mind off and get things back to a flirty casual tone. If I open th e closet, I'm going to see a letterman jacket next to your dress uniform, aren't I? Don't forget the Boy Scouts uniform, he teased. Though a part of me thought he was s erious. I slid the door open and just as I suspected. Gotta admit, I've got a thing for a guy in uniform. That right? He stepped toward me. I nodded. So, are you done avoiding the conversation now? I glanced around the room, returning my attention to the trophies and reading th

e various inscriptions. What conversation? The one that usually comes after having a sexual encounter with someone. The kind of conversation you never want to have. Maybe because after sexual encounters, I drawled on the last two words, you don't alw ays have to sit around and talk about shit. Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not that kind of girl. With his beer still in hand, he adjusted his shoulders and crossed his arms over his chest. The move was so manly and the vibe he gave off so casually alpha it made my body burn with the desire to rip his clothes off and ride him hard. I've figured that out by now, he said. But you also regularly take me by surprise and leave me with questions. So much of this situation was foreign to me that I had no idea how to respond. I was good with simple conversation. Good with talking about one-night stands, bu t that typically entailed a glass of wine and laughing with either Kate or Megan . Not discussing what you just did with the man you did it with. Communication was something that I was pretty sure came with relationships. And while I knew Rhys and I had some kind of relationship, I had no idea what to cal l it. My option was to either shut him down, or let him drive this discussion so it would be easier to muddle my way through it. What are your questions, Rhys? He seemed pleased that I was willing to chat. Sort of. Maybe it was being out of my natural environment that made me so amiable. And skittish. I want to know how you feel. Make sure I haven't given off an impression that He pa used to sigh and look away, and I knew what he was getting at. That what? I faced him fully. Here was the dick move coming. What I'd been expecting . That you liked me? That while you appreciate me servicing you, I need to rememb er that we're not together, you don't owe me anything and not to get attached? I smiled sweetly, hoping he saw that I didn't care, that I was happy with it being a no-strings situation. Because I'd die of humiliation if he noticed the hint of moisture forming at the corners of my eyes. Save your breath, Rhys. I get it. I shrugged nonchalantly. You're just a way for me t o blow off some steam. No pun intended. I winked. There. That should show him that I definitely wasn't attached. He frowned. Actually, I was going to say that I wanted to make sure I haven't given off an impression that I was in this for a casual fling. That's not how I operate nor what I'm interested in. My face fell, then heated, then chilled. Oh . . . He stepped closer. But now that you mention it, is that how you see this? How you see me? I told you that I . . . That you want me, yeah, I was there when you barged into the shower. Again that stupid heat hit my cheeks. But now you just assume I'm some asshole who is discarding you? Yes! Because that's what every other guy did. But I couldn't say it. Apparently I di dn't need to because Rhys was doing that observing thing again. This is why I like to talk about things like this. I get it. You're chatty. And I don't know what I think. I huffed and went back to read ing a different trophy, this one was for first team all-league. Everything about you, about this situation, is difficult. I didn't know how else to say it, but ther e it was. I can't tell you what I want or what I think. I act and assume things bas ed on history. And I learned quickly that men lie, cheat, steal and use women. I'm not that way. I know. I should have said it out loud but I couldn't. While I trusted Rhys, I still had t he good sense to realize that it was not technically smart. Trying to find the b alance between honesty and ignorance was tough. I wanted to believe him in a lot of things. And truthfully, a big part of me already did. But too much about him scared me. So if you're not that way, not the kind of guy interested in a fling, then what kin d of guy are you?

He ran a hand through his hair and glanced up. I'm the kind that wants a woman to l ove. A home, a family, a place to relax and grow old. My tongue must have swollen, because I couldn't swallow. Here I'd been afraid that R hys was on a different path than I was, and now I was certain. He wanted the lif e that came with rooms like the one I was currently standing in. Teaching your s on how to ride a bike or your daughter how to tie her shoes. He'd be great at that kind of life. And I'd be terrible at it. We are so different. Fundamentally, down to the core, different. But there's something here, he said in that raspy voice that did weird things to my heart rate. And today you acknowledged that. I looked up at him and frowned. Who are you? He grinned. I'm some guy with trophies in my mom's house trying to figure out the mos t frustratingly sexy woman I've ever encountered. I bit my lip to keep from smiling. Sounds like you have your work cut out for you . Oh, yeah. He was so close that I felt his heat pulse from his chest and hit my body, insta ntly warming me the way only he had ever been able to. He bent and gently brushe d his lips over mine, a soft kiss that was packed with so much intensity it made my knees weak. And we're not as different as you think we are, he said against my lips. I pulled back. Are you kidding me? Look around. He glanced around the room. Your mo m probably kept everything you've ever touched. It's excessive, but I'm her only son. Good thing I don't let it go to my head. He smiled . Yeah, real good thing. Because if you were to bring your dirty laundry over here for her to wash, I'd have to beat your ass. I do my own laundry. Good. He palmed my hip and tugged so that our lower halves were pressed together. The act was carnal, like I was his woman and this was a normal show of affection. You said you never talk to your parents, he said in a low voice. Did something happ en to them? No. Well, I don't know, actually. What? How is that possible? I took a step back. My mother gave birth to me and left me in front of a clinic. Rhys looked at me for a long time, his face blank. I never went into that much d etail, not even with Adam. I had always said I was given up for adoption. That t ended to sound a little nicer. It left room for the imagination. Like maybe my m other was out there somewhere thinking about me. But no. This was the first time I had ever uttered the details out loud. Which was weird, because it just sort of slipped out. Jesus, Emma. He ran a hand through his hair for the second time today, which I was noticing he did when he was caught off guard or nervous. A rarity for a guy lik e him. Are you okay? Ah, yeah? Was he nuts? I must have looked at him like that question was written on my face because he finished with, I mean, do you want to talk about it or anything? What was up with him and all the talking? Apparently on the day I was developing in utero, the second X chromosome forgot to get the chatty piece of the DNA that most women had, enabling them to talk about shit all the time. I didn't mean to say it like that. I shook my head. And I'm fine. No I don't want to talk about it. There's nothing to be done. I'm fine. I shrugged. I made peace with who I was and how I came to be a long time ago. It wasn't until Rhys that I felt that peace be challenged. It made me start to question if peace wasn't what I had felt about my life, emptiness was a more appropriate word. You play things off so well, like they don't affect you, he said. Because they don't. I've had a lifetime to deal with this. I never had a mother who c ollected all my stuff, so who's to say I'm missing anything?

He looked me up and down for a moment. I was just ready to end the conversation. Thankfully, I didn't have to. Rhys? Emma? Dinner is ready, Gwen called from downstairs. I moved past Rhys and got just outside the door when he grabbed my hand. I turne d and looked at him, but he didn't say anything. Looked like he really wanted to, but didn't have a clue as to what. I'm fine, Rhys. I'm sorry I said anything. No, don't be sorry, he said quickly. I just . . . I wish I could have . . . Stop. I gave him the best smile I could, because all this was starting to hurt my stomach. You can't save me from my past. And if you're going to start looking at me w ith pity again, I'm out of here. Not pity, Emma. Well, whatever it is, just quit. I'm fine and have handled plenty before I ever met you. I know, he said. So can we eat now? He nodded. After you.

Chapter Nine Dinner is great, Rhys said from across the table. He sat to my right and his mothe r across from us. Yes, it's very good, Gwen. Thank you. Oh, you're so welcome. She beamed. So, tell me how you two met. My bottom lip started to twitch and I couldn't figure out how to answer that. Not because it was a particularly hard question, but her tone when she said it insin uated that Rhys and I were a legit couple. Should I make clear that we weren't? Th at this was probably the only time I'd ever see Gwen because in a couple weeks I'd b e gone? We met at the gala for Striker Solutions a few months back, Rhys offered because m y silence swallowed up everyone in the room. Oh, that's sweet. You must have seen him in a tux doesn't he clean up nice? I keep tr ying to get him to cut his hair, Gwen grumbled and Rhys just chewed on his dinner . This obviously was a regular conversation for the two of them and Gwen switche d subjects. So what do you do, Emma? Much easier question! I was so excited to tackle this one you'd think it was the f inal round in Jeopardy. I'm a freelance programmer. She nodded. That's computers, right? I smiled. Yeah. Ah! She snapped her fingers. I knew I was with it. That twerp at the nerd group the other day kept saying I wasn't. It's the Geek Squad, and I'm pretty sure he said that because you took in your Presar io from ninety-four to them. I got you a nice laptop that you never use, Rhys sai d in a soothing voice, obviously trying to help, but his mother wasn't having it. There's nothing wrong with my computer. Maybe, Emma, you could look at it? Oh, ah, I can . . . try? I glanced at Rhys, who just shook his head and grinned a little. Great! We'll set a girls' date! My smile turned more into an uncomfortable showing of my teeth. I would be seein g Gwen again after all. Not that I didn't like her. Quite the opposite actually. I just felt uneasy and had no clue what to say. Smart girl like you probably has to help your friends all the time with computer stuff. Um, sometimes. Adam once asked which type of tablet I would recommend because he w anted to get one for Kate as a gift. Did that count as helping? I focused on my plate. Partly because I wasn't super great at responding to the no tion that Gwen thought I was smart. She was nice and nurturing and so . . . momish. She cared about Rhys, obviously, but also seemed to genuinely want him to b e happy.

The baby pictures were one thing, but the conversation was turning toward me and I had no idea how to react or what to say. I didn't want to be rude, but this was way out of my expertise. As I'd told Rhys, I had never been taken home to mom befor e. Not that Rhys and I were dating, but she was asking questions that I didn't kno w how to answer. You're a modest one, aren't you? Gwen winked. So, you two met at the gala, she pushed. Y u from New York, then? No. Chicago, actually. Oh, lovely city. What brought you to New York? I cleared my throat, hoping to get a few spare seconds to figure out how to hand le that line of questioning. Before I could think too hard, Rhys answered for me . Emma was in the city for work. Gwen nodded. I see. Is your work in New York temporary or . . . She was obviously fishing for how serious Rhys and I were and geographical location was a huge clu e to that. Yes, she's in New York temporarily, Rhys said. She'll be going back to Chicago in a few weeks. Just visiting here. Oh. Gwen's face fell. New York is much better than Chicago in some ways, she offered i n a chipper tone. I appreciated that she liked the idea of me sticking around. Un less, is that where your family is, dear? My brother and his wife are in Chicago, I said. Parents? I looked up to see Gwen's sweet gray eyes, the same eyes Rhys had, waiting for my answer. This is why I didn't date. Why I didn't do the meet the parents thing. My parents, ah . . . Rhys jumped in, cutting me off. That's not a good subject to talk about, Mom. Oh! I'm so sorry. She reached across the table and patted my hand. Sometimes I get to o nosy. I wanted to glare at Rhys so bad. Was he so embarrassed by my upbringing that he didn't want his mother to know about it? I can talk about it, I stated. It's not a big deal. Yes, it is, Rhys snapped. You don't have to, dear, Gwen offered. Now I felt embarrassed because an issue had b een made where there didn't need to be one. How do I get out of this? Say somethin g? Put my head down in shame and shut up? I hated this position I was put in. An d worse, hated that Rhys was appalled enough to cut me off before saying the tru th about what I was and how I was raised. Fuck it. I was going with the truth. And if Rhys was that mortified by his mothe r knowing, then it was best I learn that now. I was given up at birth. I never knew my parents. Oh, Gwen said a little shocked. That must have been tough. So you have your adopted parents, then? Nope, I said and took a bite of food, coming off every bit as easy as I felt. Beca use it was the truth, one Rhys was obviously not thrilled about. I was never adop ted. Gwen's expression fell, then she frowned and balled her fists. Well, that's their los s, honey. You're obviously a very bright, very special girl. Her compliment seemed so sincere and had the same inflection Rhys's voice sometime s held. Just another reminder that he was raised right while I was raised by the state. Barely. The rest of dinner was fairly quiet and all I could think about was what type of conversation Rhys would want to have later, because I had plenty that I wanted to say to him. ~ You're upset, Rhys said as he opened the front door of the hunting cabin and walked in. You're so astute, I said, crossing my arms in the same way he did when he was squari ng off to chat.

My mother is nosy, but she means well, he said defensively. She was fine, my issue is with you. What did I do? You embarrassed me at dinner. I embarrassed you? he said and the tone of his voice made me pause. Is there something you're upset with me about? He shook his head. You just talk about certain things like it's casual conversation and it's not. Your mom asked me a question and you cut me off. Are you so afraid that my past a nd the fact that I have no parents would make you look bad? I didn't think it was something you would want to talk about, he said. Oh, really? And why is that? Because you're still on this kick that you know me so well? That you automatically assume what I can and can't handle? I'm a big fucking g irl, and I don't need you stepping in and defending me from myself. Anger was risin g, bubbling just beneath the surface of my skin. Forgive me for trying to make things easier on you. He took off his jacket and tos sed it on the table. I don't need you to make anything easy on me, I yelled. I'm not a lost puppy and I'm not some cute woman that will break at the slightest mention of something. You're right. You are the most stubborn, self-deluding woman I've ever met. You're here because you're lost, yet you deny it. My chest stilled for a moment. That was a shitty thing to say, I growled. You wante d me to be honest, and I have been. Yet you refuse to see what's right in front of you. Oh, I see you, Emma. Do you? Because if you did, you'd see that I'm not the kind of woman that needs savin g all the time. I'm in a tough spot right now, yes. And I'm not too proud to say tha t I enjoy being alive and would like to stay that way. But this trip you're on abo ut trying to erase what I am it isn't going to work. I don't like the idea of you . . . He waved his hand in the air. Of me, what? Of you suffering, he snapped. Something in my chest hurt. Instantly and acutely. I was angry at him for the cr ap he pulled, but then he goes and says things like that. Like he cares. But it didn't matter. My past was what made me who I am. If he couldn't handle that, he cou ldn't handle me. And that thought made that stupid pain in my chest skyrocket furt her. This is why we have problems. We're from opposite worlds, don't you get it? You like me? Well, good for you. I like you too. But what the hell does that mean? Nothin g. You know why? Because you don't like how I came to be and my guess is, you neve r will. And I'm never going to have a medal for anything nor am I going to sashay around in a pantsuit driving a minivan to yoga. And you're never going to understa nd me. He stepped closer. That's where you're wrong. No, I may not understand everything abo ut you, but I see you. And I fucking hate the fact that you had to go through wh at you did. No, I don't like your past, but that has nothing to do with today. But it does. Because it is what it is. He shook his head, like he couldn't accept it. And somewhere in my mind, it was li ke he couldn't accept me. You can't save everyone. I called out for help once and you came. Don't mistake that for meaning that my entire existence is in need of your kind of fixing. I stepped closer. And you may see me, but I've got your number too. You won't admit to your ow n shit, yet you criticize me. I'm not criticizing you and I've answered your questions. Oh yeah? You gave the overview of your past, but what the hell happened overseas that makes you clam up every time it's mentioned? He stilled and his chest heaved with obviously irritated inhales. You can't say it, can you? I tilted my head to examine him. Because it's bad, isn't it? His nostrils flared and his eyes went vacant for a moment like he was recalling the very thing I was challenging him to think about.

He wouldn't respond. I shook my head and walked past him toward the front door. My eyes were dry, my bones achy and my chest throbbing. Emotions were heavy and I was buckling under the pressure. I needed some time to think. Some space to gaug e what the hell was happening to me and what to do next. Instead of being so keen on saving everyone, maybe look at what puts them in dang er in the first place. I opened the front door. Where are you going? Rhys asked. I need to clear my head. He looked at me for a long moment. I'll leave and you can stay here. That's the opposite of what I want. I need to get out of here. Space. You said this town was safe. Fine. He walked toward me, dug his keys out of his pocket, and handed them to me. T hen take the car. He grabbed his wallet and pulled out a fifty. And here. Stay in town. I don't want your money. Then I'll come with you. I just need some time, alone. I get that. But you need money just in case you stop somewhere. Even on the brink of a storm out, he was being gentlemanly. Either take it or I come with you, Emma . I groaned, swiped the fifty and walked out. I climbed into the car, knowing deep in my heart that Rhys was hurting, that he was a good man and that we would never be on the same page, because we were alre ady in different books.

Chapter Ten It was nine o' clock and the only thing open was the damn diner. Seriously, nine a nd the town shut down? I was already missing the big city where there was always light and something to do. Of course, there were also stalkers. I contemplated taking the fifty bucks and half a tank of gas and leaving for goo d. Aside from that being a financially stupid idea, there was something else gna wing at me that just wouldn't allow my foot to stay wedged on the gas for too long . Rhys. I couldn't take off, couldn't leave him. He had helped me, continued to do so, and f or seemingly no other reason than that he was a good guy. My plan to find a flaw in him was failing miserably. I was aware of it, but not happy about it. I yanked open the diner door hoping Sara wasn't working and I could just have a gl ass of something and think in peace for a bit. Though the place was open, it was pretty much dead. I went and sat at the counte r and ah shit. Emma? Sara greeted me as she walked around the corner and behind the counter, her hair in a tight ponytail and not looking the least bit mangled or makeup smudged . Hi, Sara. She smiled and looked around. Rhys not with you tonight? Nope, just me. She seemed equal parts happy and disappointed about that and I knew exactly whic h parts went with which. Can I get you something to drink? Eat? I'll just have a coffee and pour half a shot of rum in it if you would. Just enough to taste the burn but still be able to drive later. Oh, okay, she said and poured the coffee, then went to the other side of the bar t o get the rum and put a shot in. She handed it to me with the same confused look she wore while examining my pancakes the other night. Thanks. I thought that would be it. Order a drink and typically the waitress gives you s pace. But no. Apparently Sara was feeling talkative and the world obviously want ed me to understand that a silent moment wouldn't be happening for me.

So, where are you from? she asked. Chicago. I took a sip of coffee. Not trying to be rude, but I just wanted a moment to clear my head. Besides, I was pretty certain I had nothing in common with Sa ra aside from Rhys. And even that was a stretch because she had been engaged to him while I was just . . . what? Hanging out? Hiding out? There was no title for whatever he and I were doing, which showed right there how lost I really was. Sara nodded. I hear Chicago is quite a place. Is that where you met Rhys? There it was. The real reason behind her new and obviously not nearly close to f inished line of questioning. She wanted details on Rhys and me. No. I wasn't going to give out more information than necessary, especially since tec hnically I was supposed to be lying low. Sara could pretend all she wanted, but it was obvious she didn't care for me. The way her upper lip pursed and she always found a way to look down at me was a dea d giveaway. Which was fine. I wasn't her biggest fan, either. Any woman who could cheat on Rhys was an automatic idiot in my book. So where did you meet? New York. I took another sip of my spiked coffee. You two been together long? I set the cup down and looked at her. Why? Pardon? She blinked a few times, like my single-word question had physically slapp ed her in the face. Why do you want to know how long Rhys and I have been together? I used the term together loosely. Just making conversation. She smiled and it looked more like something that got pl astered to her face than an actual expression of happiness. Curious about how a g ood friend of my mine is doing is all. Good friend? You guys are exes. Well, around here you can still be friends with your ex, she snipped. Look, I don't know you, and I don't know the relationship you have with Rhys. But we can cut the shit. You and I aren't friends. I know enough to know I don't like you p urely on principle. Her mouth dropped. He told you? Yeah, he did. And you cheating on him isn't my business, but I'm not going to sit her e and pretend I'm okay with you hurting him the way you did. I don't know why I said that, but I felt the need to point out her mistake and defend Rhys. Oh, that . . . Her shoulders relaxed like cheating wasn't a big deal. What the hell was her problem? What did you think I meant? She shrugged. Doesn't really matter now. But you should really have all your facts before you go around accusing. I wasn't accusing, I was informing you of why I don't care to have a conversation wit h you. I don't like my business being pried into just like I'm sure you don't like you rs. She smiled and shook her head. You have no idea what kind of man he is, do you? What the hell was with this woman? Now she was offensive and almost cackling wit h some kind of weird evil grin, like a villain unveiling a doomsday plan. I have a good idea about the kind of man Rhys is. A good one, I said. In that moment, what we had fought about came rushing back. I did understand him . Enough to be talking to wholesome nurse Barbie here and getting thoroughly pis sed because she didn't have a clue as to the amazing man I'd come to know. I can see how you'd think that about Rhys, Sara said, fluffing her ponytail and talk ing casually. Some people are reachers. Her eyes landed on me and there was someth ing scorned there. Something hiding behind the chipper girl next door faade. And t hat's always been Rhys's problem. He constantly reaches for women who are beyond him . It's like he needs a project person. She openly ran her glare over my entire body, as if she were looking at a barrel of toxic sludge. You see, Emma, the reason Rhys and I didn't work out, was because there was nothing about me to fix. I knew it and so did he. He may not have physically strayed, b ut he left our relationship long before I did.

This woman was all kinds of bitchy. My hand was twitching with wanting to slap h er so badly. I didn't even care that she was insulting me by association. I was fu rious that she was tearing down Rhys. And that shit wouldn't fly. I shook my head and took one last swallow of coffee. You're bitter because you lost an incredible man and it's obvious you're making a play to get him back. And that's fine. I shrugged. You can go after whoever you want. I'm n ot Rhys's keeper. Something in me wanted to mark him and demand everyone acknowledge that he was m ine. The notion was ludicrous. I leaned in and looked at her the way I did when I stared down Box-Top Freddy tw elve years ago when I caught him stealing my shoes. Whatever came from behind my eyes made Sara take a step back and swallow hard. But if I ever hear you say or even insinuate a single negative word about Rhys Striker again, you and I are go ing to have problems. She pursed her lips and lifted her chin a little but she was nervous, as well sh e should be. I didn't like the way she was trying to blame Rhys. Didn't like the way she looked at me and called me a project person. Because truth was, I already kne w Rhys took on things like this. Felt it in how he treated me. Like I was a woun ded dove in need of fixing. But Sara took my bad mood and confused mind to a who le new level. My grand plan of getting space and thinking just turned into a fuckall storm wit h Rhys's ex and her two cents now swarming dead center. How much for the coffee? I said. Sara just put her hands on her hips and took a deep breath. It's on the house. Thanks. I stood up and when I got to the diner door, I turned back and told her, Rh ys doesn't reach for things he has no interest in obtaining. Sara's face fell a little. Good. She needed to realize that Rhys was the catch in all this. ~ After I drove around for a bit, I finally came back to the cabin around eleven a nd had no more peace of mind than I'd left with. I thought about what Sara had sai d. There was something about Rhys that screamed protector. Problem was, I didn't k now what to do with that. There was a line between need and shame. A big part of me was feeling like I needed Rhys in certain ways, but that idea was shameful t o someone like me. I didn't want to be looked at with pity, or sadness, or anything else. I didn't want to be saved. That ship had sailed a long time ago and I didn't need saving not an ymore. But there was something about Rhys I connected with. A sense of loss. Lik e we were both lost in some way. Both running from things in the shadows of our past. I opened the front door of the cabin quietly and peeked in. Dark, except for a s mall lamp near the corner. With the back of the couch facing me, I could see Rhy s's long legs sticking out at the end. I placed the keys next to his wallet on the kitchen table. Taking the fifty-doll ar bill from my pocket, I picked up his wallet, opened it and slipped the money back in. There was a small photo stuffed into the corner. Opening the wallet a little wid er, I saw a beautiful woman with dark eyes and hair. Young, early twenties maybe , she looked happy. Judging by the crinkles in the photo and the fact that it wa s printed and in his wallet instead of on Facebook, I figured this must have bee n from years ago. I looked a little closer and saw just the hint of yellowish ba ckground and a tent. Sand. I knew right then that this was taken when he was deployed overseas. I closed his wallet immediately and set it down. I glanced at the couch and stil l saw his feet, unmoving. Now a fresh slew of questions flooded in. Who was that woman? What happened over there? Whatever it was, I'm pretty sure she was involved. Of all the things that

were racing through my brain, one question stood out. Did Rhys love her? I walked over to the couch and glanced over. Rhys looked at me. If you're planning to ever sneak up on someone, you should work on your ninja skill s. I let out a breath and grinned a little. Even though I'd left in a huff, he was st ill so calm. Funny, even. Sorry to wake you. You didn't. I was waiting up. Something beneath my skin warmed, like him waiting for me made me feel better. For a guy that runs a security company and is hiding me out, you let me go pretty easily, I said. He reached just below the blanket that was covering his navel and lower body. Hi s bare chest was as edible-looking as ever as his abs flexed with his movements. I know this town and knew where you were the whole time. When I frowned, he pulled up his cell phone and showed me the screen. A little GPS point was flashing on a map. You bugged the car? Like you said, I run a security company. His cute teases made me relax a little. I hadn't realized how exhausting fighting with Rhys was, how tense it made me. I sat next to him on the couch, deciding to go with simpler talk. And what if I was on foot? Well, that's a different screen. He winked and switched it over to show a different point on the map. Me. You bugged me? How? When? Shock fueled me. I wasn't mad, I didn't think. Just surprise d. It was actually kind of sweet how cautious he was while letting me assume a s ense of freedom. The bug is in your shoe. I glanced down at my boots, the only pair I had brought. He didn't bother explaini ng further, which I was fine with. I didn't want to get into the logistics either. Could this be considered weird and a bit much? Sure. But it also made me feel s afe, something Rhys was proving to be good at, so I'd focus on that. I don't want to upset you, Emma, ever. His eyes turned serious and he tossed his pho ne to the little coffee table nearby. I want to keep you safe. I nodded. I believe that. But . . . I didn't want to be another photo in his wallet. Hell, I didn't even know what that was about, but I knew that I was here, and she wasn't. Maybe he couldn't save her. M aybe she didn't need saving. I had no idea where to start or what to think. I'm tired , Rhys, I whispered. He nodded. I sank down a little, and he lifted the cover and tucked me beneath his arm. His warm skin and hard muscles folded around me and made me feel instantly safe. I wasn't the girl in the picture. I wasn't Sara. I had no answers and no clue what I was doing. All I knew was, when I was with Rhys, I felt the most taken care of in my whole life, and I was terrified that every moment I spent in his arms woul d only make it harder to walk away. ~ Rise and shine, Rhys bellowed and I shot up on the couch with a wicked neck ache. Good God, ever hear of a frickin' rooster? I could tell by the crisp morning air and faded beams of yellow coming through the window that it was barely sunup. I got some supplies to fix this place a bit. Clean up the weeds, plant some flowe rs and do some basic housework, Rhys said, like this wasn't something he could have waited to share with me until, say, after I had my coffee. He looked around, obviously pumped and ready to take on the day. I wanted to pun ch him. Instead, I rubbed sleep from my eyes and faced him. I also thought a lot about what you said, and you're right. I frowned at him, having no idea what he was saying, my poor brain still half as leep. Huh? I yawned.

You said being able to defend yourself is more beneficial than relying on someone else to do it for you. So I'm going to teach you how to protect yourself. While I appreciate your enthusiasm, another yawn took over my mouth, why couldn't you have told me this later today . . . after I woke up? He grinned. Get dressed. Striker's Self-Defense class starts in fifteen minutes. Tha t got my eyes to fully snap open. You're at your most alert in the mornings, now ge t your ass moving. With a groan, I headed toward the bedroom to change. You're going to have full-blown rules, aren't you? You know it. Rule number one is don't hold back. Oh, I won't, I grumbled. Oh, and groping the instructor is optional. With a wink, he headed outside and I w asn't sure if I should follow him or hide under the covers. ~ I'm going to knee you in the junk, I said happily, responding to Rhys's question. That's the first thing you'd do to an attacker coming at you from the front? Yeah. I was pretty confident, seeing as how I'd had to knee a few guys in my time. G ranted they were high, spastic, homeless creepers, but whatever. Okay, I'm going to come at you and you do what you do to defend yourself, Rhys said. His fitted T-shirt clung to his chest and his low-slung shorts made him look lik e the sexiest pretend predator I'd ever seen. My whole body flushed and the skin t hat my yoga pants and tank top didn't cover instantly broke out with goose bumps. I smiled. Bring it, big guy. Rhys came at me, the dirt and leaves crunching beneath his steps. I went to knee him just like I said, only he deflected my knee, grabbed my ankle and Umph! I landed flat on my ass. Guys expect you to go for the groin first. He held out his hand and helped me up. A nd an attacker can see a foot or a knee coming. Once they get a hold of your leg and you're on the ground, it's over. Rule two: Stay on your feet. I nodded, hating that I was just bested, but the way he was instructing me pumpe d a different kind of adrenaline through me, one I didn't recognize. I wanted to l earn. Wanted to make him proud. Rhys was all calm, focused and everything from t he way he spoke to how he moved showed that this man was definitely good at what he did. I could see how he led a unit. How he led a company. It had been two minutes, on e fall, and already I wanted more. Wanted to prove myself. Be worthy. For him. Rule number three, he held up his hand, don't punch with your fist. I frowned. Uh, what am I supposed to punch with, then? Kindness? He grinned. No. Reaching out, he took my hand and heat instantly spread up my arm. Was this why some people liked rough sex? My heart was pumping and my chest was rising fast w ith quick breaths. I wanted to own something. Overpower it. Be overpowered by it . And it was Rhys. He closed his hand over my fist and held it up in my line of sight. This is such a small surface filled with fragile bones. You'll hurt yourself more than him if y ou go to hit him. His thumb brushed across my knuckles. He placed my arm up in a swing position. You're going to throw your arm out like you're going to punch me with your fist, but instead I want you to hit me with your forearm. He patted his tor so. Right here. I paused and my arm dropped. I won't hit you, Rhys. He smiled. While I appreciate that you have a stance against hurting me, I promis e you that you won't. I chewed my bottom lip. Still not sure. Before, when I went to knee him, he knew it was coming and I didn't even try that hard because the idea of hurting Rhys ju st felt wrong. Here. He put his palms up. I'll catch your hit. But I want you to go as hard as you c an. You'll catch it?

He nodded. Hard as you can. Use all your strength. Okay then. I made a fist and swung, throwing my forearm into Rhys's waiting hands. He actually stumbled on his feet . . . barely. But still it was enough force to make him adjust his stance. Whoa, I said in shock. That was perfect. You have a lot more force and are you hurt? I shook my head. No. Good. Use your height and your size to your advantage. Crouch low and instead of kneeing him in the nuts, jab with your elbow. You're too low for him to get a good grip on you before he realizes you're pounding him in. I smiled. Loving the sound of that. Feeling powerful from Rhys's instruction. Now, I want to work on the frontal choke attack. Are you okay with that? Yeah. You sure? His voice was a deep rasp and the sound was an aphrodisiac all in itself . Keeping his eyes on mine, he walked into my space, forcing me to step back. He did it again and again, until my back hit a tree. If at any point you want to st op, just say the word. I nodded. He put his hands around my neck so gently that it reminded me of how he held me right before he kissed me. It wasn't threatening, it was consuming. The zing from his fingertips shot down from just below my jaw to my spine and wr apped around my breasts, beading my nipples and making me want to practice somet hing else entirely with his lower region. His eyes were dark, hungry and I hoped to God he felt the same things I did. He glanced down and cleared his throat, effectively breaking the trance. Ready to think of me as the enemy? he asked. Nope. But it was part of this exercise, so I nodded. When an attacker has a grip on your neck and squeezes, you'll only have a few secon ds before passing out. I'm not going to squeeze, but I want you to try to break fr ee of me. Okay. I gripped his forearms and pulled down, but he didn't budge. There's no way, I sai d, a little annoyed that I felt so weak. Don't push against me. Use your size to your advantage. I'm bigger and coming down on you. When something's coming down, how do you combat it? By going up. Exactly. Put your hands together like you're praying. Okay, did that. Now push up between my arms and use your forearms to part mine. I did and another dose of shock hit. I smiled because I forced his grip to loose n. It's enough to get the pressure off your neck and give you a few more seconds of ai r, Rhys said. I realized then that he was calm and calculating because he saw the big picture. Bought time to make big moves later. He set things up to win the overall war. I was the kind of person who went in swinging, trying to win all the battles. Now, I am still in your space, he said and my gaze landed on his mouth. He was in my space, and that's where I wanted him to stay. My hands on your neck, but you can breathe and your hands are now in a position to fight back. What do you do? With those blazing gray eyes swallowing me up and our breaths mingling, I surged to my tiptoes, snagged his bottom lip between my teeth and tugged him to my lev el so I could kiss him fully. With a small hiss, he bent enough, giving me more of his mouth and I took it. Pl unging my tongue and drinking down all his sweet taste and strength. His hands slid from my neck to my breasts, stroking them briefly, leaving them h eavy and desperate for more. He trailed his palms down my sides and gripped my h ips. I moaned when his thumbs snaked just past the waistband of my pants and pre ssed low on my stomach. A shot of pleasure crawled from where he was touching me to my core. I arched my back and gripped the front of his shirt, tugging him closer. When his hard cock pressed against my belly I groaned and tried to lift his shirt up, so ready for

him to be naked and inside me. But he caught my hands and stilled me. Taking a step back, he took a deep breath, regaining his composure. The answer I was looking for could have been grabbing my head and slamming it on the top of yours, breaking my nose, or you jamming your thumbs into my eyes. Not kiss the assailant. I smiled. Technically, I bit your lip at first. He didn't smile back. Instead, he looked like he was silently battling with himsel f over something. Why don't we call that lesson one and go inside to hydrate. Releasing me, Rhys stepped back. My whole body felt instantly cold and rebuffed. What just happened here? I asked. One second we were kissing, then you stop me and now you look all serious. I was breathing hard, but not from lack of oxygen, from adrenaline. Looking at h im and his massive frame, I felt strong. Like he had shared some of that power h e harbored. And I was grateful for that. Wanted to hold on to the feeling. Today we started self-defense training, Emma. I shouldn't have taken it to a place other than that. What place would that be? My pants? Yes, he said quickly. This is meant for you to feel strong on your own. But we've been together before. I know and the lines have been blurred. You made a good point last night. I want you to be able to take care of yourself, detached from me. Detached. That word delivered a blow worse than anything Rhys and I had just pra cticed and it didn't sit right with me. He was doing something, behaving a certain way, because of what I'd said last night. I should appreciate that. I did appreci ate that. But the distance that came with it didn't feel right. In fact, it felt wrong. Very, very wrong. I couldn't have it both ways. So I'd take what Rhys was offering and use it. Just af ter this one morning, I was feeling stronger. And it was thanks to him. My shoulders straightened a bit. All right, I conceded. Because honestly, this was another battle in which I didn't k now what side to fight for. Well, at least I know how to go for your balls now, I said and walked past him back into the house. Better be on your toes, Marine. I heard him snicker behind me. With you, Emma, I have yet to have my feet on the damn ground. ~ It had been eight days. Eight consecutive days of self-defense in the morning, c leaning up the house and planting in the afternoon, followed by mild conversatio n and dinner in the evening. And in all eight days there had been zero sex. Worst math I'd done since long division in second grade. Ever since our first training session and our little spat, Rhys had seemed to pu rposefully keep things dialed back to platonic. Problem was, I enjoyed spending time with him. We spent most our time keeping busy with the house and landscapin g. I liked Rhys. A lot. And sex had nothing to do with it. As for this weird twitch my body was starting to develop, I was pretty certain i t was withdrawal from feeling him inside me. Withdrawal from the connection. He'd brush my hair out of my face here, and steal a lingering touch there, but nothin g. Not a kiss, not an ass grab. Something had shifted in his brain, and whatever it was, it was starting to hurt mine. I hate to tell you, Gwen, but this bad boy is toast. She stared over my shoulder at the computer she had had since Clinton was in off ice and frowned. I thought for sure it was just a faulty wire or something, she said. I really think that the laptop Rhys got you is a great one. I can install some pr ograms and show you how to use it. That would be great, honey!

I got her laptop and sat on the couch, going to work. Showing her the ins and ou ts. She paid half attention, then started throwing in her own questions. So you and Rhys, things going well? Um, yeah. Just hanging out. Heading back to Chicago next week. The parole hearing was only a few days away and I was getting anxious. Is he okay? Gwen asked. From what I can tell. Should he not be? I just worry about him. The anniversary of his father's death is tomorrow and he al ways takes it kind of hard. Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know. He hadn't told me. It did explain why he was distant and n ot so chatty lately. It can be hard with his death still being so fresh. What are you talking about? Gwen asked with a perplexed look on her face. Rhys said his dad died a few years ago. Rhys and his time references. Gwen shook her head. Should have known he didn't say an ything. My son tends to keep things in. Of course, I guess I'm not surprised, Gwen mumbled to herself. His father died fifteen years ago in the woods. They were out hiking and he had a heart attack. Rhys was sixteen at the time and did CPR but, you know, these things just happen. My mind and body instantly surged with some kind of sick shock and realization. Threads of Rhys were weaving together right in front of my face. He still blames himself, Gwen said. Thinks it was his fault he couldn't save him. But there was nothing to be done. I had no idea, I whispered. Rhys had done an amazing job keeping me distracted and conversation light and ca sual over the last two weeks. This whole time I had felt like I was making progr ess in getting to know him, but in reality, the big parts of his life were still in the dark. Held back. He's a good boy. He just thinks he can take on everything. Then, of course, the inc ident in Afghanistan didn't help. I scooted a little closer. Forgive me, Gwen, but Rhys never talks about that. I had tried a couple times to gently push the conversation in that direction, bu t Rhys always shot me down and didn't give me anything. I've seen his shrapnel scars, I said, then my face heated because I realized where t hey were located and knew that I had just inadvertently confessed to Rhys's mother that I'd seen him undressed. I haven't wanted to force him to talk, but if you can g ive me some perspective, that would be great. She nodded and patted my knee. He's never spoken much about it with me either, dear . I only know a few facts based on what he told me at the hospital right after h e was hurt. He was on a lot of pain medicine, but what I gathered was that his u nit worked with some locals who delivered information and I guess one of the peo ple got found out and was forced to walk into camp with some kind of hidden bomb strapped to them and that . . . She covered her mouth. That was the explosion tha t Rhys was injured by. A couple men died, but Rhys, thank heavens, wasn't as close . Oh God . . . My lungs felt like they just shriveled in my chest and my whole face turned to ice. What an awful thing to see. To experience. I couldn't begin to imag ine. Rhys took it hard, obviously, Gwen said. It wasn't until his security company took of f a couple years ago that he started coming back around. He's at his best when he is doing something to help others. It's just the kind of man he is. I know, I whispered. I could barely process this fast enough, feeling more like the outdated computer in the other room than anything else. Pieces were coming together. Reasons why Rhys was the way he was. To his core, he was a good man. Honest and caring. Prob ably too much. And I didn't know how to balance that, much less live up to it. How did I help him? Not that he needed my help in the first place, but . . . What do I do, Gwen? I palmed my brow, hating that my thoughts couldn't form words. I want to do something, Gwen. I want to . . . I balled my hands into fists that ho vered over the keyboard. Gwen's soft hands enclosed mine. You want to take it from him, dear.

I looked at her and the truth of her words sank in. She was totally right. Yeah. I do, I whispered. I know. She rubbed my back with one hand. I want to take it from him too. I wish so much he didn't have to live with that pain and the scars it came with. Reality hit me. That was how Rhys felt about my past. This whole time I was thin king it was pity. But what I felt for him right now, was rage. I was angry. Hate d that he went through what he did. No man, especially one like him, should ever have to experience such loss. Such fear. Such devastation. I have a favor to ask you, dear. I looked at Gwen. Is there a way you can talk Rhys into not selling that hunting lodge? I frowned. Why? He loves it. Deep down I know he does, and his father left it to him. But he's sell ing it for the wrong reasons. I don't know if it's my place to push him in one direction or another. She shook her head. He's happy with you. He hasn't stayed at that lodge in a long tim e and when I see him, how he treats you and how you look at him . . . She smiled and nodded. You're helping him, Emma. I know you are. I was helping him? If only I could laugh and tell her what was really going on. That Rhys was the one saving my ass. Hiding me. Taking care of me. I really think if he can get through tomorrow, find some peace, he will keep the lodge and it will be a good thing for him. Anything you can do I'd appreciate. Seeing her gray eyes, the same ones that Rhys had, go glossy with tears was unbe arable. I couldn't turn down her request. Okay, Gwen. I'll talk to him, but I have to be honest, talking isn't my strong suit. She smiled and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. I know, dear. That's why I like you. You don't waste time with the formalities, just go in cussing and swinging. Sh e patted my shoulder. And that's just the kind of woman my son needs. ~ Don't you usually go for a run in the morning? I asked as Rhys came out of the bathr oom in his shorts and T-shirt. Well, I'm going tonight instead. He was snippy, and thanks to the chat I'd had with Gwen earlier today, I knew why. I made grilled cheese. You hungry? No thanks. He walked toward the door. Hey, um, can I talk to you for a second? He turned to face me. All the chiseled fe atures of his face resembled smooth stone. Fierce and unmoving. I put the spatula down and leaned against the counter. Deep breath. Initiating c onversation maybe wasn't normally this scary for a regular person in a regular sit uation, but staring down a man twice my size and me having the verbal finesse of a drunk sailor, made me worried. I know that tomorrow is the anniversary of your father's death, I started. Damn it, he mumbled, glancing at the ceiling. I thought you were going to help her with her computer, not talk about things that don't matter. But it does matter. This obviously affects you and you lied to me about what happ ened with your dad. I said he died a few years ago. Fifteen is not a few and you didn't mention that you were with him. Because that's not your business. My chest stilled for a moment. This was not going how I needed it to go. He was hurting, so whatever I needed to say, to do, to help, I'd try. You know what, Rhys, you're right. Maybe in a different circumstance it wouldn't be my business, but it is now. And why is that? Because I care! So much for finesse. I blurted out the plain truth with no smooth voice or verbal setup. He took a step toward me. Really? Yes, I said. I know I've been difficult, I don't do this whole feeling, talking stuff w

ell, but I do care, Rhys. The expression that took over his face about made me keel over. He looked at me like he wanted to believe me, but wasn't sure if he could. Good God, I'd had those s ame thoughts before, now that I was standing on the other side of things, it hur t bad. This doesn't concern you, Emma. I can deal with my issues. That stung. I wanted Rhys to open up. Wanted to push him the way he pushed me, b ecause it wasn't until I did that he'd trust me. He had my trust. Earned it. It was my turn now. Talk to me, I said, the same way he had asked me a few weeks ago. I'm sure my mother already told you. We were out on the property and he had a heart attack. There's nothing more to say. Though he looked right at me, the topic made him obviously tense. There is more to say if you felt like you could have saved him, I said softly. His jaw clenched. But his death wasn't your fault, Rhys. Doesn't mean you failed. He died, Emma. I'm not really interested in discussing this. But you need to talk to someone if you're still holding on to this guilt, this feel ing that you could have done something to help him. He shook his head. Emma, I'm fine. My father died, it's hard, but it's done and now I'd l ike to go for a run. He gripped the door handle and just before he walked out I c alled after him. What about Afghanistan? He turned slowly back to face me. The look on his face was so deadly, it made me tremble. Swallowing hard, I pushed lightly, wanting so much to have him open up . Let me in. So I could help. Help lighten some of the burden like he did for me . Even just be there to listen. Anything. I'd do anything. What about the bombing? I whispered, pushing a bit more. Careful, Emma, he growled. You're going into things you have no idea about. Then tell me. Please, I added. It's obviously still haunting you. Haunting me? You know what's fucking haunting me? The people that died, Emma. A per son was blown up right before my eyes. Did the woman in your wallet die too? He clenched his teeth. You're going through my shit now? I was just putting money back last week and saw it. His eyes were so hard, they looked like freshly poured concrete and his teeth we re about to snap from the pressure of his jaw clenching. Oh no . . . Was she the one they caught and sent in with a bomb? His lips pulled back from his teeth as if the truth I was speaking was boiling h is skin over. But what was even stranger was that there was just a hint of water lining his eyes. Everything he said came rushing back: I saw a lot people . . . I was there a long time . . . Good people looking for a way out . . . You loved her, I said around a choking sob in my throat. Didn't you? She was a nineteen-year-old woman trying to escape. She came to us, we prepped he r, and for years she was an informant and translator. I was personally responsib le for her safety. Each word looked like it cut his throat coming out. My eyes hurt and matched the water lining his. Rhys . . . I took a step toward him, but he just yanked open the front door and sl ammed it shut behind him. Running into the night, from himself, from his past, f rom the guilt I knew he carried. And there was nothing I could do. My whole chest caved in on itself. I did the only thing left in my power. I sat down at the table, and waited for him to return. ~ The door boomed open and I shot from my seat. I stood up instantly, unaware that my eyes had drifted closed. Rhys was in the doorway, breathing hard, sweaty and

looking ready to fight, to scream, to hug, I had no idea which. But tension pou red from him. I was fine, he said and walked toward me. I backed up until I felt the counter beh ind me. Then you came along, with those big eyes and smartass mouth and I knew . . . He pressed against me, the counter digging into my lower back. He smelled like t he earth and wind and spice. Everything in me responded to him. Wanted to reach out, to hold him. But I could tell this wasn't a tender moment. This was Rhys, loo king for something. I just hoped I could be what he needed. There was something about you from the beginning that called to me, Emma. Made me think you somehow needed me. His breath hit my lips, but tension rolled from every part of his body. I did, I admitted. I do need you. I looked up at him. I just didn't know how to say it. But you're saying it now. I nodded. I tried staying away from you. Tried spending this last week keeping things on th e surface. Because I can't fail again. He gripped my hips and I felt his erection p rod me. The man was aching. I felt it as clearly as if his pain was my own. Caug ht somewhere between what to do and how to feel. It was the same battle I was ha ving. Everything you do, he whispered, is like a goddamn call to me. I ran for hours, and I still heard you, felt you. The only time I feel like I can truly keep you is when I'm inside you. His words made an entire army of hot shivers rake over my skin from my toes to my breasts. I can't keep this professional. Professional? That was an odd way to put it, but he had mentioned before helping me that sex was no part of the deal. Despite our few relapses. It was the same way he referred to the woman in his wallet. He put it on himself to keep her saf e. I don't want you to save me, Rhys. I want to save myself. He grinned, but there was no humor behind his eyes. And now you want to save me? Kind of hypocritical, don't you think? He bit my bottom lip quickly, then pulled aw ay. It was long enough to leave a sting, but not for me to kiss, or bite, back. You confuse me, Rhys. All I know is what happened with your dad, with that woman, it's not your fault. You have to stop carrying the weight of everything around yo u. Mysha. What? Her name was Mysha , and it was my fault. No. I shook my head and reached out for him, but he got my wrists and brought them behind me. Wrapped in his strength, I couldn't move. How are you going to get out of this, Emma? He ground his hard cock against me and I stifled a moan. I don't want to get away. He looked at me for a long moment and I kissed the edge of his jaw. With one han d wrapped around my two wrists, he used his free hand to grip my chin. You drive me insane, he said in a low growl. You play games, toy with me, tell me e xactly what I don't mean to you, only to then tell me you want me. He tugged a litt le harder and my gaze snapped to his. You tell me now that you care? That you wan t to know? That you don't need me to save you? Yes, I whispered. Emma Wade isn't some delicate thing, huh? No, I'm not. Only with him was I considered delicate. But right now, I needed him to see me as his equal. See that I could take his baggage just like he had taken m ine. That I could handle his past. Be there. A safe place for him to land. You're tiny. A petite little thing that should be made love to in a bed, not fucked right here on the counter, he ground his hips again and I gasped because his coc k hit just where I needed it, sending a bolt of pleasure though my body. Sweet an d gentle, that's the kind of woman you look like. But everything else about you, he ground again, your sexy moans, your pissy little glare you give when you're mad .

. . you're begging for something else. I'm begging for you, I said sternly. Showing him, telling him, I was there, ready to take him, however he'd have me. I shook my head, enough to move his grip from my chin and I bit down on his fing er. He hissed and his eyes fired. I can handle you, Rhys. I've told you that from the beginning. I sucked the same fin gertip and his eyes went heavy. Let me show you. Take me, fuck me, make love to m e, whatever you want. But just know that I'm here. And I see you too. The real you . With that, he groaned, hoisted me up onto the counter and yanked my little short s down my legs and off. He hit his knees and I tugged the neck of his shirt and he raised his arms so the cotton came clean off. I tossed it to the ground. Do you have any idea what you do to me? he said. With his hands splayed on the outside of my thighs and his face settled between my legs, he delivered one hard lick to my clit and pulled me onto his tongue. Yes! I threaded my fingers into his hair and met his seeking mouth. Plunging deep into my pussy, he fucked me hard with his tongue and I just held on the best I c ould. Need you . . . Missed you . . . I mumbled incoherently. Because all I could think about was him. How he felt against me. How he worked my body over like he owned it. Knew it. How he moved, how he kissed, how he hurt, every thought was for him . Everything I was, for him. I just wanted this, us connected, understanding eac h other enough to realize the problems and acknowledge that neither of us had it one hundred percent together. But we were getting there. It felt like we were finally making way through this. Together. I could eat you for every meal, baby, he breathed against my heated flesh, then do ve back in. You come off as so strong, tough, but I see something else. He flicked my clit, and I almost bucked off the counter. You're sweet. Passionate. He licked every last nerve ending and that was all it took. My orgasm raced over me and drenched his tongue, but he continued his assault. Devouring me, like an animal with pent-up need dying to get out. And you're all mine, he said, dropping a few lingering kisses along my thighs, bring ing me down from the brink. There was a moment when he pulled away completely. W ith my eyes squeezed shut, I didn't know where he went. But by the time I got them working to open again, he was standing between my thighs, naked and rolling on a condom. Can you handle more, baby? I locked my legs around him and reached between our bodies to grip his cock and place it at my opening. What have I said about you questioning my capability to handle you? He grinned slightly and wrapped one strong arm around my waist. Yes, ma'am. He thrust inside of me and my breath caught, refusing to surge from my lungs. Fuck, he said and placed his free hand on the cupboard behind me. He pulled almost all the way out, then surged back inside. I gasped. He groaned. The counter shook. Why, Emma? he muttered against my neck. I placed my forehead against his as he wit hdrew and returned with another deliciously punishing thrust. Why do you feel so right? My lashes brushed the sensitive skin beneath my eyes because I was squeezing the m so tight to keep the water back. With my elbows on his shoulders, I threaded t he hair on the back of his head through my fingers and kissed the top of his hea d. I don't know. You're so wrong for me. He thrust again, as if physically showing that he disagreed. My breasts bounced against his chest. But I don't want to let go, I admitted. I was doing that a lot lately. Saying things out loud that I probably shouldn't. H

e said he only felt like he kept me safe when we were joined. All I knew was tha t feeling Rhys inside of me was the single best thing I'd ever experienced. This last week, he had moved me into some kind of friend zone where he taught me self-defense and I went about my day just counting down the hours until this me ss was over. But now, finally, we were back. The way we should be. The way we we re from the beginning. The way that felt right. He wasn't saving me and I wasn't trying to save him. We were just us. One. Connected . Using the other for support and understanding. I clung to him tighter. I'm here Rhys . . . I've got you, I whispered. He leaned back just enough to look me in the eyes. A sad smile spread his face a s he examined my face. That's my line, he said. I shook my head. Not tonight. Tonight I'm taking care of you. I'm here. And no matter what you want to say or don't say, no matter what you feel, I'm here. You won't break me, you don't have to worry about me. Just let go. Let me have you. His mouth landed on mine hard and in that moment, his kiss said everything. I wondered if Rhys had ever felt like he had a partner, an equal. Maybe he'd never see me that way. But in that moment, he was trying. I felt it in the way his st rong grip tightened. The way the cupboard behind me pounded from his fist agains t it as he took me over and over, no holding back, no gentleness, just using all the power in his big body to unleash everything onto me. His lust. His pain. His past. I was there to take it. Happily. For the first tim e feeling like I meant something to someone. I offered them something. It was li ke I found what I was meant to do. I was meant to love Rhys. The word stuck in my brain and made my body hurt and my eyes water. Made my skin buzz and my brain swim. I was on the brink of such intense pleasure and breakin g apart at the seams like my bones were nothing more than dried-out pencils bein g snapped apart. Again and again he buried himself inside of me. I wrapped my arms and legs even tighter, taking everything. All he had. His skin started slipping against mine f rom a light sheen of sweat and he wouldn't give up my mouth. He just kept going. D evouring, drinking, thrusting. I gave back the best I could but I was being consumed. Body and soul. And there was no going back now. My skin heated another degree and tingles surged up my legs and burned my core. I was going to come again. Hard and slow, just like Rhys was taking me. Rhys, I whispered his name between kisses. He released the shelf behind me and used both arms to embrace me so tightly I co uld barely breathe. But I loved it. Loved all the power surrounding me. Protecti ng me. My love . . . he muttered and I wasn't sure I heard him right. But something pinged in my chest in response to the rawness behind the words and my body shot over th e edge in one shattering release. My muscles burned from clutching to him so har d. He hugged me back, his breath heavy against my neck and I felt him shudder and g roan as his orgasm slid over him. We held on to each other for a long time, simply breathing. Coming down from the most incredible thing I'd ever endured. What should have been quick and dirty counter sex after a round of fighting turn ed into something much scarier. I was pretty sure Rhys and I had just made love. ~ I scrambled the eggs, pushing them around in the skillet and zoning out, replayi ng all the moments of last night. Rhys was still asleep in the bedroom and I tho ught maybe a change of pace would be good, so I took on the task of breakfast.

He had opened up a little and talked about his past. Which was promising. And me ? I felt like my world was painted in new colors I didn't recognize. Part of me wa s excited and happy. The other part was confused and terrified. I had thought the word love. Thought it when picturing Rhys. Problem was, I didn't know if it was love because I had nothing to compare it to. I loved Adam and Kate and Megan and Preston, but this was different. The intensity of my feelings for Rhys was on another scale entirely. It made me more irrational than I already was, but I also felt a little freer. Like who I w as, was okay. My past was okay. And my future would be okay. Things weren't as ble ak-looking as they were a few weeks ago. Then again, I hadn't considered any type of future other than mere survival. But after the trial, things would be up in t he air. What would happen then? I heard soft footfalls from some pretty big feet, then a warm, yummy-smelling male engulfed me. Good morning, he said in a sleep-roughened voice, running his hands along my hips and kissing the back of my neck. I felt his hot skin against my shoulders throug h my tank top. Shirtless Rhys was the best Rhys. I made eggs, I said, and turned to face him. He didn't step back, just kept me close and kissed me softly on the lips. Thank you, he said. Go sit down, I'll bring you a plate. He raised an eyebrow. What? I can be domestic. He laughed. Domestic as a tiger, baby. He agreed, only not really agreeing. I woul d have shot him a glare but just then the eggs went from perfectly cooked to ove rdone, so I took them off the burner and turned off the stove. Giving the eggs a moment to stop crackling, I went to pour Rhys a cup of coffee and spilt it all over the counter instead of in the mug. Damn it, I sighed. He moved to help and I glared his way. I've got it. He held up his palms and sat down in the chair with a grin, watching. I quickly batted at the coffee with some paper towels and put the eggs on a plat e. Crap, I forgot meat. I opened the fridge to see what quick choices there were . Bologna was good enough. Taking a slice out and I slapped it on the plate next to the eggs and took that and the mug and set it in front of Rhys. He looked at the food, then at me and picked up his fork. I didn't realize I was s taring at him until he met my eyes again and took a heaping bite of bologna and eggs. Second-best thing I've ever tasted, he said, and smiled. I frowned. What is the first best thing? His eyes were dark like a storm cloud and slid up my body. You. He delivered a little wink that made my knees weak and my cheeks heat. But I kep t it together. I grabbed my coffee and sat across the table from him. You seem in good spirits today, I started carefully. He met my eyes. Sex can do that to a man. Again that stupid blush crept up, but I batted it back. Why did you . . . I mean, why didn't we do that sooner? I sounded like a moron. I mean, you were avoiding me in that way for the past eight days. You were counting, huh? Again with the wink. He leaned in a little and said, You kn ow what? So was I. So why didn't you put the moves on? After the shower, you never attempted to touch me until last night. I just reasoned that my initial thought was correct. Keeping things platonic betw een us was best. But I admitted that I wanted you. Gave you what you wanted. You're welcome, I threw in for my own pride, which made him grin. I know. I just didn't want to be that guy who couldn't say what this thing was betwee n us. And it made sense that if I couldn't figure it out, I shouldn't do it. You mean, you shouldn't do me. He looked at me with an exasperated expression. That's not what I meant and you kno w it. There were lots of confusing aspects I had to consider.

That made sense. Hell, I had no idea how to classify our relationship or if it eve n had a title so that I could describe it to myself, let along others. But wait, if he stayed away from me before because he didn't know what to call this liaison we had going, but he gave in last night, did that mean he had finally figured i t out? So, since we hooked up last night, now you know what this is? I motioned between u s. He set his fork down. First off, we did a hell of a lot more than `hook up' last nigh t. Secondly, I knew from the beginning what this was, it's intense. I just didn't kn ow how to approach the situation so I backed off until I had a better idea. I suppose this grand theory and realization of what we are comes with an exit str ategy? He got serious real quick. We're together, Emma. Unless you tell me otherwise, and have good reasons to back up why we shouldn't be, I have no intentions of going an ywhere, now or after the trial. My eye brows shot into my hairline. That sounds heavy. Like . . . serious. I am serious. My pulse pounded in my temples and I felt suddenly too hot, then too cold. I thin k that we should see what happens and go from there. See what happens when? Well, after the hearing. I don't know what will become of Mase. I'll probably move ba ck to Chicago and find a job and you live in New York and I will find Mase and he will be put behind bars. The guy has a rap sheet and a wa rrant. He just hasn't been caught. Once he is, he'll be put away with his brother an d yes, you can go back to your life. He glanced at his food, then at me. We can fi gure out the details later, I'm just hoping you'd consider having me be a part of it when that happens. That stupid ping in my chest was back. I was losing it for Rhys Striker. Do you want to talk about something else? I offered, because I had no idea what to say. Rhys was a possibility. He seemed to want me and that was a good feeling. But first things first. I had to get through the hearing. Then deal with Mase, t hen the future. At least Rhys might be in it, which made me happy. Are you okay? With today being your dad's anniversary and all? I said carefully. Yeah, I'm okay. He died a long time ago. I don't think I'll ever be able to let certain things go, but today, I feel less weighed down by the guilt. I've woken up to fif teen different days like today, and never once did I feel hopeful, except for to day. He ran his finger down my hand and finished with, And it's because of you, Emma . Rhys looked more peaceful than he had since I met him. And if I'd helped, if I'd had anything to do with that, I was beyond thrilled. Your mother doesn't want you to sell the place, I said and took a sip of coffee. Oh, I know. She's made her opinion very clear over the years. Yeah, well, now she has me on her team and I think that if this place makes you h appy, you should keep it. He looked at me for a long, long moment, then finally gave a curt nod. I just may keep it, then. We enjoyed the rising sun and coffee, and I didn't bring up the woman, Mysha, agai n. Something deep down told me I knew more than anyone else and I wasn't about to ruin this good moment for Rhys. It was a tricky enough day and I was tired of th e pain. For him, for us, I just wanted to let it go. I looked at Rhys's hand, reaching out from across the table and holding mine. Reaching . . . Feeling content and, yes, hopeful for the first time in a long time, I reached b ack. ~ Rhys crawled into bed and pulled the covers over both of us. The last several da ys had been wonderful. The sound of the wind lightly blowing outside the open wi ndow was soothing and I had learned quickly that Rhys was always warm. A comfort

I had grown accustomed to. We leave in the morning, I said, and turned to face him. Each of us on our sides l ying in bed, we looked at each other. Everything will be okay. I called your brother and he'll meet us at the courthouse tomorrow. It was Rhys's idea to go straight to the hearing. He'd also called Adam to tell him what was going on. It was an early morning flight back to Chicago and we'd be ther e in plenty of time. I didn't know exactly what Rhys said to Adam. They had met briefly at Megan's weddin g a while back and were familiar with each other. Rhys told him that I had been on a mini vacation, which was kind of true, and a few basic details of my situat ion. Still, it was enough to make Adam want to meet us at the courthouse. At the end of the day, my brother was supportive. I just wanted to keep him and his fa mily out of this. Adam was really okay with everything? I asked Rhys for the millionth time. Rhys nodded. I didn't go into a lot of details, but he seemed to be happy that he'd b e seeing you and glad that you're okay and enjoying life. It's just weird. I know Adam and I can go a couple weeks without talking, especiall y since I moved to New York, but he really didn't seem worried or surprised that w e were `vacationing' together? Rhys shrugged. He seemed fine. Just said he'd meet us tomorrow to support you and t hat would be it. I took a deep breath. Things were feeling smooth and easy. Oddly so. So I just show up, say my piece, leave and hopefully we'll catch Mase at some point ? Rhys's eyes went a little cold. Mase will be near that courthouse tomorrow. Unless he's stupid, he won't go inside since there's a warrant for his arrest, but I guarante e he'll be close by. This whole thing has been leading up to one moment. Once I fi nd him, this mess will all be behind you. I nodded. It seems so easy. Instead of us chasing him, he'll come to us and when he does, you'll be safe. You'll keep me safe? I said with a wiggle of my eyebrows, half joking, but Rhys was very serious when he responded. I will always keep you safe, Emma. I snuggled a little closer. Is it weird that a part of me wants to stay here? To never be found? He tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. Only if you think it's weird that I have th e same thought. So you're going to keep the cabin? I looked up at him and tapped his chin. Something kind of sad washed over his face. We'll see. I let it go, because while I could push, there was something more pressing I wan ted to get straight before we went back to the real world tomorrow. Rhys, will you tell me about Mysha? His jaw tightened. I've never talked about her with anyone, until you. I nodded, figuring as much. But the fact that he was opening up meant that maybe I could help. Take some of the bad thoughts away. I did love her, which was why I wasn't heartbroken when I found out Sara cheated on me, he said. Mysha and the other locals were like a part of our unit. Men and wom en we protected. You spent years together? He nodded. Did you two ever . . . He gave a sad grin. No. Nothing physical ever happened. That would have been unpr ofessional. He'd used that word once before with me, only we weren't in a business relationship. But I was sure that it was the protector in Rhys that made him look at things t his way. I knew he would never take advantage of a female, or anyone. The first day I met Mysha, she told me her story. She had been beaten, abused, in the worst ways. His eyes landed on me. I wanted to save her from it. Thought I wa s. Thought we were by offering her our protection. But in the end, it killed her

. I cupped his face and shook my head. No, you did your job and she did hers. You c an't take out all the assholes in the world, Rhys. I should have been able to keep her safe. His wounded stare landed on my face and he said, Please believe me, Emma. When I tell you I will, I will. I know, I nodded. You don't have to prove that to me. He slowly moved to rest on top of me and my legs parted to cradle his hips again st mine. I felt his hard cock grow further and press against my core. But I want to. If you'll let me, he said and kissed my lips. Thank you for telling me about her. I looked up into those fierce grays and saw wh at I had always seen. Determination. I had taken it personally before, but knowi ng Rhys now, what he had gone through, made it all make sense. He wasn't fighting me, or memories, or his past, he was fighting himself. I want you to let go of the guilt, I whispered. Just try. You deserve to let it go and be happy. He reached for a condom on the bedside table and slid it on. He dipped his hand beneath my panties and began stroking my clit until I was panting and melting fo r him. Right now, with you, I'm happy. He took my mouth with his. You've changed me, I said against his lips. I feel stronger. I'm glad, baby. He removed his hand, tugged my panties aside, and slowly pushed his cock inside of me, Because when I'm with you . . . I feel weak. I wanted to search his face because I didn't know if that was a good thing or a ba d thing, but he consumed my mouth before I could ask. Slowly kissing as he plant ed himself to the hilt and filled me up like the last puzzle piece I was missing in life. Rhys entered me, over and over, taking his time and building up so much pleasure it almost hurt. Like the soul was about to burst from my being. If I wasn't certain before, I was now. What Rhys and I had was different. Better t han anything I'd ever experienced before.

Chapter Eleven Everything will be fine, Rhys said, standing behind me, rubbing my shoulders. I wiggled on my high heel shoes, ones I hadn't worn in forever and tugged the stra p of my purse higher on my shoulder. It was crazy that I was carrying around a p urse again. Rhys had given my cell phone back this morning and I was slowly reen tering the real world. The courthouse was large, daunting and pretty quiet at the moment. I could hear the echo of my heels as I clicked down the hall. Adam pulled me into a hug and said, I'm glad you're okay. He stepped back and looked a t me. Always composed in a three-piece suit and ready to rule the world. You know you can tell me things. I didn't want you, Kate or Simon around me when I knew Mase was looking for me. I could have helped you Emma, Adam said sternly. I knew he meant well, but there w as more to it. Adam, you and Kate fought so long and hard for Simon. What if there was a scandal involving me and my past coming to light, one that could hurt you or ruin your chances of getting him? I didn't want to risk it. He glanced down. I sighed. I don't want to fight. He gave a half smile, something he was doing more of lately thanks to Kate, and patted my shoulder. Well, I'm glad you're safe and we'll get this asshole so you can co me home. I looked at Rhys and he gave me a sad smile. We never talked details about the f uture. There was no point. There were still too many variables. Like Mase. And R hys's life. I'm going to get some water, I said and squeezed Rhys's hand as I walked around the co rner and out of sight to the drinking fountain.

The few sips of cold liquid felt good going down my throat, which was dry and sc ratchy. I wanted to splash some on my face, but I was wearing my nice clothes fo r the first time in the past several weeks and I wasn't willing to ruin the illusi on that I was a put-together woman. Taking a deep breath, I headed back the way I came. Just before I rounded the co rner to where I left Rhys and my brother, the serious tone of his voice caught m y attention and I stopped. I have a few men walking the perimeter of the building. If he comes close, we'll ge t him, Rhys said to Adam. I want to thank you for your work in this and for keeping Emma safe. I've never hir ed a bodyguard before, but I'm glad you were available for this extended period of time. My brain felt like it was instantly swelling, struggling to process what my brot her was saying to Rhys. I sent contracts over to your New York office this morning, Adam continued. I'd like Striker Solutions to be Kinkade Enterprises' security detail. I peeked around the corner just enough to see Rhys nod and my heart stopped. I f elt dizzy and my face tingled like I had been smacked. There was no way I was he aring this right. Rhys? I stepped from the corner and both Adam and Rhys looked at me. Rhys looked l ike he was caught in a firestorm and Adam's expression was sort of sickly. Bad sig n. I kept my eyes on Rhys. Did my brother hire you? Just now? Adam interjected. Yes, I did. No, I said quickly. I'm talking about me, and you know it. I looked back at Rhys. Were you hired to protect me? He didn't frown like he'd misheard me or smile and shrug it off, saying I was being dramatic. He just stared. And one thing I recognized covered his face. Guilt. Yes, he said and his voice broke a little. That's how it started, at least. Started? I breathed out, my world suddenly lacking enough oxygen. When exactly did this start? After the night I came to your hotel room? He closed his eyes and looked down. No . . . I shook my head, bile rising in my throat, threatening to make me throw u p. Tell me it at least started after that night. Adam hired me the night before the gala. You mean before we even met? My heart dropped to my feet. That was the beginning. Before the beginning. Rhys approached me knowing I was a job. But it . . . how . . . no . . . I was mumbling, couldn't find any solid ground to st and on. The night I came to your hotel, the night Mase almost got me in Times Squ are I was right behind you the entire time. I was about to take Mase out but you brok e free and ran. I went after you instead of him. Reality hit. I had been running toward Rhys, and he was following me the entire time. That was why he came in after me. Because he was hired to do so. Emma, Adam said and held up his hand. I knew you were running. Knew that's why you we nt to New York. You weren't listening to me, to Kate, we couldn't get you to tell us anything or come home. I just wanted you to be safe. Rhys came highly recommend ed and Did he? I choked out. I'm so glad he was a good choice for this setup. The only thing my brain would churn out right then was every moment, every exper ience, I had shared with Rhys. Everything I'd said . . . felt . . . all of it just left me the fool. It was all lies, I said, water creeping up behind my eyes. No, Emma. Rhys stepped toward me and I backed away. Everything that happened betwee n us was real. I looked at him and for the first time, I couldn't hold back the tears. I didn't cry when I was roofied, didn't cry when I thought I was being followed, didn't cry when the apartment got broken into. But there, standing in front of Rhys and realizi ng what a pathetic person I was . . .

I cried. You were unprofessional. I repeated the words he had said and now the meaning fina lly kicked in. I hadn't thought anything of it. But it was a slip. One I'd missed. T hat was why he'd tried to pull away that week. Because I was a job. I hadn't known it, but I was trading something for his protection. And the cost wa s far greater than what my brother was paying. There's nothing professional about us, baby. Rhys stepped forward again, but I backe d away. You're so much more to me. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, I was going to once all this was done. I trusted you. I felt sick. So incredibly sick. Yet he looked at me like I was the one who sucker-punched him in the gut. I know. I didn't want to hurt you, he said. I shook my head. I hate it when people say that. Because that's exactly what you di d. And you knew it. The whole goddamn time. I swiped the back of my hand under my eyes, turned and ran into the ladies room and broke down. Crying for everything that hurt. All of it didn't hold a candle to what had just been delivered. The pain took me to the floor. Slicing over and over, cracking my ribs and burni ng my throat. I let it spread through me and eat me alive, because it was the on ly thing left to feel. All the goodness, the ignorant bliss of believing there w as something between Rhys and me, was replaced with sharp stinging jabs of loss. Lies. All of it. Every moment we connected, every time he looked at me, every ounce of his warmth , every sweep of his hands against my skin . . . Lies. I hated him. I loved him. The warring feelings were tearing me apart from the in side out. I was never wanted from the beginning. Hell, before the beginning. I wasn't wanted when I was still part of my mother. I wasn't wanted by any family or foster home, and I was never wanted by Rhys. I was a job. A fucking job. He was hired to watch me. I should have listened to my gut the first ten times it told me that I didn't belo ng with a man like Rhys. Didn't belong in his world. Instead, I did the one thing I'd promised myself all those years ago that I'd never do: I hoped for more. Then I stupidly trusted him to deliver on that. Stupidly believed that I deserve d more, deserved what other people found so easily. Picking myself up, I gripped the sink and hung my head. Nothing made sense anymo re. Running from my past didn't matter because it felt like my future had just bee n ripped from my hands. I needed to get away. I needed to testify and get out of there. Though leaving now would have been preferable, I had to do my part to keep Casto r locked up. If he got out and hurt someone else because I didn't say something, t hat would be on me. Once this was over, I'd be gone. Away from Rhys, from Adam, from all of this. And this time, I didn't care who knew it or not. Standing up straight, I gasped when I saw a reflection beside mine in the mirror . Hello, Emma. Mase. I opened my mouth to yell but he stuck a gun to the back of my head. You fucking scream and you know what will happen? Yeah, the police will be on your ass in two seconds. It was all I could do to fake confidence, especially when my eyes were puffy from crying and my throat still ached from the sobbing. No. You scream and that pretty boyfriend of yours will come running in and I'll sho ot him in the head. I swallowed hard, knowing Mase was right. Now, you're going to come with me. Quietly. He flicked the gun in the direction of t he window.

No, I said, hoping he didn't hear the tremble in my voice. If you want to kill me, ju st do it. Right here, right now. I was tired of running. He caught me, this was it. Well, that wouldn't look good for my brother's case, now, would it? Little too conven ient. No, I'm going to hang on to you for a bit. Let this hearing happen. Once Cas tor is free, then kill you. He shoved me toward the window, opened it and gripped my arm, all but throwing me out. We were on the first floor which unfortunately made it easy to get out. You open your mouth, I will kill your boyfriend and may be even your brother just for fun. I swallowed hard. It was time to go quietly. I gripped my purse tight and crawle d through the window. Mase was right behind me. Just when he got out, I heard th e door boom open and Rhys call out for me. Get the fuck in the car, Mase yelled and pulled me toward a black Suburban on the side of the road. Emma! I heard Rhys call as Mase shoved me in the passenger seat, ran around the fr ont of the car and fired a shot in Rhys's direction. Don't! I screamed, and looked over the headrest. Rhys wasn't hit, thank God. Mase got into the driver's seat. Keeping the gun pointed at me, he started the ignition. The tires squealed and I looked over the seat to see Rhys running behind me. Emma! Pumping his arms he kept chasing, even as Mase picked up speed. Emma! he yelle d again, not slowing down. My chest constricted. No one had ever come for me before. And he didn't stop. Not when Mace gunned it, and not when he pulled into a major intersection. Even as t he distance between us grew, Rhys kept going. Kept trying to reach me. When he was just a small dot in the distance and I could barely see him, he was still running and calling out for me. ~ Really coming up in the world, Mase, I said as I looked around the abandoned wareh ouse dump he drove us to. Remembering one of the self-defense sessions with Rhys, I did my best to stay co nfident and slipped off my shoes to get better balance. He wasn't going to kill me just yet, so the best thing I could do was be aware of my surroundings and keep him talking. Shut up, he said and pushed me further inside, snagging my purse from my arm and d umping the contents. He smashed my cell, then emptied my wallet and took the cou ple bucks I had. Didn't you rip me off enough already when you wrecked my apartment? I spat. I needed every survival instinct, every bit of street girl savvy and attitude I could dr aw on to stay alive. You didn't have much to steal. He strode closer and I kept him in front of me. Circl ing as he circled me. So this is your grand plan? Bring me out here to shoot me? That wouldn't be very much fun. Mase's voice was enough to send a dose of terror up my spine. Clutching the gun in one hand, he ran the other along his belt while his eyes tr ailed from my knees to my neck and back down. My scalp instantly burned and pric ked with unease. I recognized that creepy leer. We still have a few hours before we're in the clear and Castor's hearing is wrapped u p. Another slow slide of that disgusting gaze over my body and he took a step tow ard me. And I know just how to pass the time. With me kicking your ass? Self-confidence was just a dream at this point, but I st ill tried. He laughed. Feisty. I like that. We both know how this is going to end, so be a g ood girl and make this easy on yourself. My stomach was in my throat and I refused to let my brain drift back to ten year s ago. The only reason I functioned decently now as an adult was because I had s uccessfully blocked out the short time I'd spent under the thumb of Castor. But I refused to be the victim. Then or now.

You're a worthless piece of shit, I growled at him. Accessing every ounce of my ener gy and anger. Mase was right, I did know how this was going to end. With a fight . So you want to do this the hard way? He took another step toward me. I backed up until my shoulders met the wall. I will hurt you, I informed him just as he reached me. I said, shut the fuck up, Without warning, he backhanded me with the gun. My cheek exploded in pain and my vision wavered. I stumbled, clutching the wall behind me, forcing myself to sta y on my feet. A crackle of heat raced to where the butt of the gun hit my face and a warm drop of blood trickled to my jaw. Stay on your feet at all times . . . I heard Rhys's voice ring out in my head. Mase shoved the gun into his belt and pu shed me flat against the wall. This stunt isn't going to save your brother's ass and the cops will find you and you'll be rotting in there right next to him. That pissed him off. He went to grab me. I tried to outmaneuver him, but he deli vered a blow to my stomach, knocking the wind out of me, and slammed me against the wall again. You always had a fucking mouth on you, didn't you? he said, saliva hitting my face w hen he spoke. Weaving his fingers in my hair, he tugged so hard it burned my sca lp. He licked my mouth. I jerked my head to the side to get away. Oooh, don't like me anymore, eh, Emma? He stepped on my foot with one of his and pulled my hair again while his free ha nd reached down and yanked open his belt. Let's see if I can get you to loosen up. Seconds. I had only seconds, and suddenly I felt very much like the weak person I wanted never to be. No! I forced myself to stay conscious and get out of this. Using my forearm like Rhy s taught me, I punched out and caught Mase in the side. Fuck! You bitch! He hit me again, this time with a fist instead of a gun and that about put me over the edge of consciousness. My cheek and eye were swelling up and bleeding and this blow busted my lip and l eft a ringing in my ears. He used both hands on my neck now. I shot my arms up and spread them to alleviat e the pressure, then jammed my thumbs in his eyes. Ah! When his grip eased further, I hiked my knee between his legs and he went down . Breaking free and breathing hard, I tried to step around him, attempting to run. He kicked out at my legs, taking me to the ground. No! Feet! Stay on your feet! Help! I screamed and scrambled to stand. Help! I yelled again, but knew it was usele ss. I could barely see or maintain my balance from the throbbing pain in my head. I tasted blood on my lips, my belly stung and I couldn't breathe right. I was ten feet from the door when it was kicked open and I saw Rhys. You came, I choked out. It was like witnessing a miracle. Maybe it was. Maybe I ha d passed out already and this was all a dream. Mase yelled something from behind me. I turned to see him pull the gun from his belt and aim at Rhys. Fantasy or reality, my reaction was the same. I ran toward Rhys and threw myself at him just as a loud bang went off and a sha rp slice of pain hit my right shoulder. More of the bangs rang out, hurting my already sensitive ears. Everything was a blur and I couldn't stand up any longer. I tried to keep my body near Rhys, to cov er him, but I was slipping. A chill washed over me. It came from the inside, not the outside. Something like a warm blanket wrapped around me. With my eyes squeezed shut, I went to cling t o it, to pull it tighter around me, but it wasn't fabric, it was arms. Rhys's arms.

Emma? Emma baby, look at me. Rhys said, holding me and gently easing with me to th e floor. No, not the floor. Feet! I had to tell him Mase had a weapon. Had to save him. Get away, I said. H-he's got a gun. I know, baby. He's dead. He won't hurt you anymore. You just hang on, okay? It took every ounce of will I had to open my eyes. But only one did, because no matter how hard I tried, the other wouldn't move, it was swollen shut. Are you hurt? I asked, trying to look up at him. The concrete floor was so cold that even though Rhys held me, all I felt was a c hill seeping up from the ground and clawing at me. I'm fine. Ah, baby, what did you do? he said softly. I saved your ass. I smiled, then coughed and an icky metallic taste lined my throa t. My lip felt busted and my inner cheek throbbed and bled from being cut on my teeth. Something heavy and painful pushed down on my shoulder and it took me a m oment to realize it was Rhys's big palm putting pressure on the wound. I thought I heard him say that the bullet when straight through. I tried to stay on my feet, I said, but I didn't recognize my own voice. It sounded too garbled and distant to be mine. You did so good, baby. Something wet hit my forehead. Barely able to see through t he haze, I made out that it was Rhys's gray eyes shedding tears. Sirens sounded in the distance and came closer. Help is almost here, you just han g on. You found me . . . Of course, I bugged you, remember? His tone was soft and I wanted to smile, but it hurt. Emma, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. You're my world. I swe ar with everything I am, Emma, you're it for me. His hands tightened. This is my fau lt, baby. I'm so sorry. Please just hang on. Please. Somewhere in my foggy mind I realized that Rhys, a big strong man, was on his kn ees, begging me, a small woman, for something. I didn't know if it was the feel of him holding me or the look in his eyes, but I believed him. And I didn't care if that meant I was trusting or stupid. Instead, I decided that it meant I was in l ove with him. And there was something he had to know. I had to say before my mou th refused to stop working. Listen to me Rhys. I coughed again and that time a hefty taste of blood flooded my mouth. Shhh, just rest, they're almost here. I shook my head. No, listen. This isn't your fault. You have to promise me that you'l l let go of this. You can't keep blaming yourself for all the badness in the world . Emma . . . I love you, Rhys. Damn it, he growled and more of his tears hit my forehead. Emma Wade, you are the m ost stubborn woman on this earth. Don't you dare give in now. You hold on. Do you hear me? Will you just stay here for a moment? I said, but it didn't sound very clear. It was hard to talk with the rising ache in my throat. But I had a wonderful vis ion of Rhys next to me, within me, a part of me, all his warmth and strength the re for me as I looked up the last time I asked him to stay . . . I wanted that m oment. It was calling to me and I was following. Emma . . . Emma, damn it . . . no . . . stay with me, baby . . . The last thing I heard before giving in to the blissful numbing dream was Rhys's v oice doing the one thing I'd never heard it do. He called out for help.

Chapter Twelve Everything in my body hurt. Felt heavier than normal. There was a soft, soothing voice and an even softer palm brushed across my forehead. I could smell the fai nt hint of clay and basil.

Emma . . . ? Her voice seemed so far away. I tried to open my eyes, but everything was foggy. So I blinked repeatedly, trying to make the blur go away. My vision cleared enough to see Gwen, hovering over me and swiping tears away wh ile brushing my hair from my brow. I'm right here, dear. Rhys's mom. Which actually was the closest thing I had to one myself. But she was here. Was worried about me. She placed a small cup near my face and angled the s traw so I could sip some water. Nothing ever tasted so good. After giving me a few drinks, she glanced up and called out, Rhys. Emma's awake. I swear I felt the whole room shake as if Bigfoot was unleashed to run through t he halls. Then Rhys was standing over me. Hey, baby, he said softly. I tried to smile but it fricking hurt. I . . . I tried to glance around. Between the beeping and the sterile smell of met al, I could guess I was in a hospital. I'd love for you to elaborate right now, I gr ated out. He gave a half smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. You were shot in the shoulder a nd have been in and out of surgeries. You gave us a good scare. He stroked my hai r and took the seat his mother just had vacated. You've been unconscious for the pa st eight days. H-holy shit, I mumbled. He laughed a little. Only you would cuss in the ICU, Adam's voice rang out and then he came into my line of sight with an arm around Kate, who was holding a tissue against her lower las hes. Don't ever scare me like that again, Adam growled and Kate hit his chest. Sorry. He smiled and reached to gently touch my hand. God, Emma, I want to hug you, Kate sobbed. Please don't, I groaned and everyone seemed to snicker at that one. I'm okay, don't cry, Katie. Megan and Preston will be here in the morning. We've been taking turns watching Sim on. I nodded. Why don't we give these two some privacy, Gwen said to Adam and Kate and shooed them out. Once Rhys and I were alone his eyes were on mine and never left. I'm so sorry. You can be sorry you lied to me, I said, trying to adjust to see him better. But do n't be sorry for this. You saved me. No, baby. You saved yourself. And you saved me. He shook his head. You're so strong. So brave. Careful or you'll give me a complex. He slowly leaned in and barely brushed his lips over mine. God, I missed him. Hi s smell, his touch, everything sent my whole body into a relaxed state and I jus t wanted to wrap myself up in his presence. You ran after me. I saw you. And I also saw that he never stopped. He didn't slow do wn. Didn't give up. He just kept running. Kept reaching out for me even though I w as too far gone and out of sight. I love you, Emma. So much. I know I don't deserve a second chance, but I'm begging fo r one. I smiled against his lips. I like it when you beg. But what if I say no? He got very serious. I'm not above hunting you down until you say yes. I smiled a little. I guess I can save us both the time and say yes now, then. But , I amended, only if we get to move forward. Together. Everything else we let go o f and start fresh. You and I. I like that idea. Good, because I'm kind of into you. He grinned and kissed me again lightly. It was all real, Emma. The moment I saw y ou at the gala, it was real for me. I want you to know that. I looked up at him. It was real for me too.

With that, I kissed Rhys and everything seemed to fall into place. Lying in the hospital with every muscle hurting, I couldn't help but smile with hope and antici pation for the future. Because Rhys would be a part of it. Today has been a good day, I said against his lips. He gently ran his fingers along my chin. You're alive and okay. That counts as the best damn day in my book. And I'm never letting you go again. You're my world, Emma. Tears lined my eyes. This whole time I had thought we were worlds apart, and Rhy s had just made me his. I love you, I said. And right then, I knew everything would be okay.

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