Taken by Love

Chapter 4

Chapter Four

DAISY TEXTED LUKE as she left her parents' house, and as she neared her apartment, worry stewed in her stomach. She called Kevin as she pulled into her apartment complex. It struck her that even in high school there were a few girls who were nice to her, but Kevin had always been her go-to friend. Her college friends had prodded her to see if there was something more between them, but amazingly, there had never been a time when either of them had wanted their relationship to be anything more than a friendship. As she listened to his voice when he answered the phone, she was glad they'd never tried to force something that wasn't meant to be. She loved him-like a friend.

"Hey, Kev. You would tell me if Luke had done something horrible that I needed to know about, right?" Of course he would.

He laughed. "A little late to ask, isn't it?"

"Shut up. You told me he was arrested in another town and the charges were dropped. That made me feel a little better, but...I've been gone a long time. Is there anything else I need to know?"

"Daisy, I wouldn't have led you to that room if I were worried. He's Luke Braden, so you know about what he used to be like in high school, but I haven't heard anything bad in the last few years. I mean, he's a Braden. They have a great rep here and in Weston. Besides, I know you, and you'll make him tell you the real scoop. Do you need a chaperone on your date?"

She laughed as she unlocked her apartment door, even though she knew he was only half kidding. He'd come along if she asked him to. With the dirty thoughts she'd had all day about Luke, she probably did need a chaperone.

"I'm twenty-nine. I think I can handle him as long as he's not an ax murderer, and I doubt my dad would sell hay to an ax murderer. I just wanted to see if you knew anything else."

She ended the call, red flags waving loud and clear in her mind. She had no idea why she was willing to risk her reputation on a guy she had a wicked crush on. She trusted her gut instincts where Luke was involved, and her instincts were to trust him-but she wasn't sure she could trust herself.

Daisy had been lucky when she'd found an apartment that would rent to her on a month-to-month basis. After living on her own for so long, she didn't want to stay at her parents' house for an extended visit. She liked having her own space, and she was sure that by now they were used to having their own space, too, even if they missed her. She showered and dried her hair, taking an extra minute to look at herself in the mirror. She fingered the ends of her hair again. Seeing her mother's beautiful blond hair made her miss her own lighter hair color. She pushed the thought away and weaved around unopened moving boxes as she changed her outfit for the fifth time. She'd put most of her belongings into storage until she decided where she was going to be living, but she'd brought her medical books and clothes, her necessities. Unpacking seemed like a commitment to staying in Trusty, and she wasn't willing to go that far. For now, dodging boxes was just fine.

She heard Luke's motorcycle in the distance, and her stomach fluttered. She ran a comb through her hair one last time. She was lucky. Her hair still felt silky even though it was dyed, and it had just enough natural waves to negate the need for heavy styling. Her black sleeveless sweater would be the perfect weight for the brisk evening. She had no idea where they were going on their date, but she was dressed appropriately for just about anywhere in Trusty. She'd worn her favorite pair of jeans instead of the short skirt she'd wanted to wear, in anticipation of riding his motorcycle-and hoped that the extra material would serve as a reminder to keep her clothes on around Luke.

She answered the door and felt her cheeks flush at the sight of Luke, freshly showered and sporting a lazy smile. Sensuality rolled off six feet of solid muscles wrapped tightly in low-slung jeans and a T-shirt like sugary sweetness wafted from a bakery. And Daisy was starved.

"Hi." Like everything about Luke, his voice was deep and easy.

"Hi." She felt her steely resolve slip away like melted butter.

He handed her a single red rose. "You look beautiful. I almost didn't recognize you without a needle or bandage in your hand."

She took the rose, her eyes never leaving his, and for a second-or thirty-she stood there, rooted to the ground. His smile widened, and she blinked away her stupor.

"Sorry. Come on in." She stepped aside as he passed. His eyes danced over the still-packed boxes that lined the far wall as she went to the kitchen and put the rose in a vase. "This was so nice of you."

"Did you just move in?" He waited for her just inside the door.

"Two weeks ago. I haven't had time to unpack, and I'm only here for a few weeks anyway, so why bother?" She joined him by the door, and it struck her how similarly they were dressed. "We look a little like we called each other to match outfits."

Luke looked down at his clothing, as if he'd forgotten what he had on. "Indeed it does." He pointed to the door. "Want me to go home and change?"

She laughed. "Half of Trusty will be wearing jeans and T-shirts tonight. In fact, probably most of Trusty." He was naturally easy, relaxed. Her nerves tied themselves into a hundred different types of knots, and she envied that about him.

"Shall we?" He opened the door.

"Where are we going?" Out in the hall she waited as he checked to be sure her door had locked behind them. Hm. It had been eleven years since anyone had looked after her in that intimate way-and eleven years ago it was her father checking the locks. She realized how similar checking the locks was to how Luke had kept her safe all those years ago. She liked seeing that protective side of him toward her.

"It's a surprise." He placed his hand on the small of her back as they walked through the dimly lit parking lot toward his motorcycle. A wave of heat pulsed beneath his touch. Daisy had dated a guy in college who drove a motorcycle, and the memory that stuck with her was how she'd thought that straddling the bike, and her date, would stimulate sexual feelings when she rode, and she'd been surprised when they didn't. Her body was already humming with desire at the sight of Luke-and walking close, with the breeze at her back and his masculine, musky scent wrapped around her, sparked fires in all the right places. Wrong places. Oh God. Maybe she did need a chaperone.

"I should have asked if you minded riding a motorcycle," he said as he picked up a helmet.

"It's okay. I don't mind."

He helped her on with the helmet. "You look cute as hell."

She doubted that, but he'd just earned bonus points by saying it with such sincerity.

"I won't drive too fast, but you need to hang on tight."

He climbed on in front of her, and she put her hands on his hips. She'd forgotten the awkward feeling of not knowing how close to sit. He took her hands from his hips and drew them all the way around him, until her breasts pressed against the hard planes of his back and her hands were flush against his rock-hard abs-and heat warmed the area between her legs. When he started the engine, it heightened her arousal. As they drove out of town and onto the highway, being that close to Luke and the vibrations of the engine made her body hum. This is way better than holding you in my dreams.

They drove into Allure, Colorado, two towns away, and Luke slowed as they rolled down Main Street. Allure was about the same size as Trusty, but while Trusty was a small ranch town and everything about Trusty smelled of horses, leather, or hay, Allure was more suburban, with restaurants and bars, and a quaint, brick-paved village that was lit up year-round with white lights, giving it a perpetual holiday feel. Luke drove past the Village and all of the restaurants along the main drag. When he turned down a dirt road and the lights of a Ferris wheel came into view, Daisy remembered about the county fair. She hadn't been in years, and she felt a smile press her cheeks as they parked in the field of cars and climbed from the bike.

Her body was still vibrating even after she was on solid ground. She put her hand on the bike to steady herself as Luke helped her take off her helmet.

"I hope you haven't already been to the fair." He brushed a lock of hair from in front of her eyes with his index finger.

"I actually haven't been in years." The intimate gesture took her by surprise, as did his choice of where to go on their date. She'd expected him to take her to the local pub for a beer and try to feed her a burger and fries in hopes of getting laid. She was relieved, even if a little disappointed that maybe he didn't want her in that way, and once again, intrigued, by this man whom she realized she'd judged unfairly based on a reputation he'd had when she'd left town eleven years ago. If anyone should know better than to judge someone unfairly, she should. Well, I'll just have to make up for that. She grinned at the dirty thoughts that conjured up.

"Was the ride okay?" He locked the helmets to the bike and settled his hand on her lower back again, sending another shiver of warmth through her.

"Yeah. I hope I didn't hold you too tight."

The right side of his lips lifted. "I doubt you could ever hold on too tight."

Why did everything he said sound sexual? If Kevin had said the same thing, she would have wrapped her arms around him and squeezed until he pleaded for her to stop, just to prove she could. There would have been nothing sexual about the words or the touch. If she were to wrap her arms around Luke, she had a feeling they'd have to pry her off with a crowbar.

They crossed the grassy field that served as a parking lot, and headed toward the lights. The air smelled of buttered popcorn, hot dogs, and livestock. Daisy felt herself smiling. She wouldn't have even thought of going to a fair. She looked up at Luke, and at that very second he looked down at her. The air between them sizzled. They meandered through the crowds. Shouts from the rides and laughter filled the air. Arms shot out from the cars on the Ferris wheel as they went around and around. Dozens of people waited in line for the carousel, while parents stood off to the side taking pictures with their phones and waving at their children. The din of laughter grew as they neared the bumper cars. Just being at the fair eased Daisy's nerves, and when Luke slid his hand into hers and pulled her toward a funnel cake vendor with a spark in his eyes, she realized that she was breathing normally for the first time in two weeks. She wasn't thinking about work, or her father's injury, and she wasn't counting the seconds until she could leave Trusty and get started on her real career.

LUKE BOUGHT A funnel cake and tore off a piece. "Mm. Open up."

Daisy crinkled her nose. "Do you know how bad that is for you? I haven't had a funnel cake in years, and just the smell of it makes me drool."

"Who cares? You're not eating twelve." He drew his thick, dark brows together and gently coaxed her. "Come on. One night of yumminess never hurt anyone. Besides, you can't go to a fair and not have funnel cake."

"How can I turn down logic like that?" She opened her mouth, and he popped it in and then ate a piece himself.

"You can't tell me that isn't delicious."

She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the sinful treat. "Sinfully delicious. The best dinner ever."

"I'm not that cheap. I'll still spring for a hot dog," he teased.

They finished the funnel cake as they strolled through the fair, and Luke felt the initial tension he'd sensed in Daisy fall away.

"Do you want to eat now, or have some fun first?"

Daisy narrowed her eyes. "I'm trying to reconcile the Harley-driving guy who wrestles with fences and uses duct tape for Band-Aids with the idea of a carnival being fun to you." She ran her eyes down his body, and holy hell, did it turn him on. "What other surprises lie beneath your tough exterior?"

Christ, he wanted to take her right there, feel her body pressed against him and kiss her until she couldn't think straight. He'd show her what lies beneath...

Holy hell. I need to get a grip. He shook his head in an effort to bring himself back to reality.

"What can I say? I'm a complicated guy." He'd chosen the fair because he'd be less likely to act on his desires as quickly as if they'd gone out for a drink. He hadn't realized it at the time that he'd made the decision, but now he realized he was leaving the old Luke behind. Sort of. He couldn't help but think about how sexy she was, even if he was trying not to act on it. "So? Food or fun?"

"I'm not very hungry. Let's go on a few rides first."

He narrowed his eyes. "How daring are you?" It was a loaded question, given that she was sexy enough to make him want to drag her behind the bumper cars to make out.

She shrugged. "Kinda sorta daring?"

He took her hand and led her to the line for the haunted house. "Let's put you to a test on ground level first. If you can handle being scared with your feet on the ground, then we can turn it up a notch." Like, on my bed. Shit. He had to stop mentally going there. He needed a distraction. She was too cute, and feisty.

"The haunted house? I'm more afraid of things in the dark than heights or speed. When I first moved into my apartment in Philly, I slept with every light on except my bedroom light. For a month."

He closed the gap between them, leaned in close, and rested one hand on her hip, then whispered, "Scared by things that go bump in the night? I'll have to remember that." Everything she said made him picture her lying beneath him in his big, comfortable bed. He'd take away all those fears of the dark and replace them with things she'd never want to forget.

The haunted house was set up inside a double-wide trailer. The line moved quickly, and when they pushed through the dark curtain that served as a door, the interior was pitch-black. The air was stale and humid, and Daisy hooked a finger into his belt loop. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her close. Her breathing was hitched, and when he settled his hand on her upper arm, it was covered with goose bumps. The floorboards creaked beneath their feet as they followed the darkness through what felt like a hallway. The floor began to undulate and Daisy's other hand gripped his abs-sending a wave of heat to his groin. He tightened his grip on her shoulder, trying desperately to rein in his desires. She felt so good pressed against him, touching him...

The floor swelled and swayed beneath them, causing them to stumble from side to side. Flashes of light up ahead briefly illuminated the path toward intermittent screams and a tremulous wooooo. A skeleton dropped from the ceiling inches ahead of them and Daisy screamed. Luke pulled her close and pushed the skeleton aside.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." She was shaking.

A black-gloved hand grabbed Daisy's arm. "Luke!"

He held tight and drew her closer. She pressed herself against him. It felt like she would crawl under his skin if she were able. Another flash of light up ahead, and a screech filled the air as a ghostly figure passed before them, causing Daisy to suck in a breath and freeze.

"It's okay. It's not real," he reassured her.

She slid her hand up to his chest. "Your heart isn't racing like mine." She drew away a little, and he knew she was making an effort to be brave.

The darkness filled with eerie, shaky howling. Something flew by their heads, screeching as another flash of light illuminated a bloody image by the wall. Daisy plastered her body against Luke again . She was barely breathing as he guided her through the dark tunnel around a bend. He felt guilty that he was loving the feel of her against him while knowing she was terrified.

"It's okay. It's almost done." Light trickled in through the dark curtains at the exit. She clung to him, and when they came out into the night, he held her trembling body close. They were chest to chest, and he could feel the frantic beating of her heart against his.

He tipped her chin up with his index finger. "You okay?"

Embarrassment heated her cheeks. "I'm sorry." She pulled away, but he held tight, keeping her against him.

"I'm not." Her lips were a breath away, his hands flat against her back. He lowered his mouth to hers, and she closed her eyes in anticipation of their kiss. A couple barreled out of the exit and slammed into them. Luke kept his grip on Daisy and swooped her to the side as the laughing couple stumbled past them, breaking the intimate moment.

Luke looked into her wanting eyes. He wanted-needed-to kiss her, and he could tell she was hoping for the same thing.

A man's voice broke their trance. "You stupid bitch," he hollered.

An icy shock ran down Luke's spine. He scanned the people walking past, and his mind rewound to a party years before, when he'd seen Daisy across a grassy field. She was breathtaking in her frilly tank top and jeans shorts, with white-blond hair that swept across her shoulders. He'd wanted to tangle his fingers in her hair and kiss her luscious lips. And in the next breath she was gone. He'd gone looking for her, and when he found her, she was fighting off a drunken guy he didn't recognize. Luke had stepped between the drunken slob and Daisy, and he vaguely remembered pushing the guy away before turning around. But when he did, Daisy was gone. She'd disappeared as quickly as she'd appeared-and he'd gone back to his partying like the bonehead kid he was.

Now he shifted his eyes to Daisy, who was clinging to the waist of his jeans. She was safe. She was right there with him.

"Damn you. I said back off, bitch." The man's voice sent Luke's pulse racing. He scanned the crowd again and locked eyes with the tall, blond man. Darren Treelong. Goddamn it. Darren was from their hometown, and he was a drunk. He wore his hair in the same style he had in high school, long and shaggy. He was younger than Luke, and Luke didn't know him personally, but he knew of him because of the rumors that ran through town about his drinking, and that was enough.

His tightened his grip on Daisy's hip, and the muscles in his jaw bunched. Daisy turned toward the voice and gasped.

The woman Darren was yelling at stood with her shoulders rounded forward, her eyes trained on the ground. Luke knew the woman was also from their hometown. She was also younger than him, and he assumed, Darren's wife. While he knew just about everyone that was his age or older because of his older siblings, he hadn't been friends with the younger crowd. By the look in Daisy's eyes, she knew the woman well, and she ached for her. And by the sway in Darren's stance, and the out-of-control, wide-eyed stare he had on the woman, Luke assumed he was drunk.

"Janice," she whispered to herself.

Luke's voice was dead calm, serious. "Is she a friend of yours?"

Daisy looked conflicted. Her eyes darted to the woman and back to Luke. "Not a friend, but we went to school together. Her name is Janice."

Janice reached for Darren's hand. He tore his arm away and raised his hand. In the next breath, Luke stepped between them. Daisy gasped behind him.

"Hey, buddy. Is everything okay?" Luke asked in a deep and serious voice. He stood firm between Darren and Janice and held his hands out to the side, blocking Darren from reaching Janice.

"We're fine," Janice said with a shaky voice.

Darren stepped closer to Luke, swaying a little. "Get the fuck away from my wife."

Luke held his palms up in surrender. "Hey, no worries. I'm just making sure there's no trouble here. You want me to call you a cab?"

Tears streamed down Janice's cheeks. People looked over, hesitated, then moved past quickly.

"I'm fine," Janice pleaded through her tears. "Let's go, Darren. Please, let's just go."

"Shut up, or I'll shut you up," Darren snapped. He pushed Luke's chest. "I don't need no fucking cab."

DAISY WAS ROOTED to the ground as the memory of the night Luke stood up for her came rushing back. She'd been at a party, and a group of high schoolers from another town had shown up. One of them had been trying to kiss Daisy, and no matter how hard she tried to push him away, he was too strong. Luke had grabbed the guy's arm and wrenched him away, throwing him into a group of his buddies. She couldn't remember what Luke had said, probably because at that point she'd run toward her car, but he'd done the same thing he was doing now, putting himself in harm's way for someone he barely knew. He was at least four inches taller than Darren, his broad shoulders and layers of muscle clearly outweighed him, and still Darren pushed forward, chest to chest with Luke. Luke's hands fisted. His jaw clenched and unclenched.

"Take a step back, dude," Luke demanded. "I'm not going to let you threaten her. I don't care if she is your wife."

Daisy's brain kicked in and she reached for Janice. "Come on. Back away. Come on, Janice. We'll get you out of here." We? How? Shit, she had no idea, but Luke was right. She couldn't just let her get bullied. No one else was stepping in to help, and it turned her stomach.

Janice wrenched herself free. "We're fine, Daisy. Get him away from Darren or Darren will hit him. Please." Janice grabbed Luke's arm and pulled, yelling through her tears, "Please, just let him go. I'll take him home." She looked up at Darren. "We'll go home, right, Darren? You'll let me drive you home?"

The veins in Darren's neck bulged, matching the adrenaline-infused veins on Luke's arms and snaking up his neck.

"Cab?" Luke offered again.

"No fucking cab. She'll drive me home." Sweat beaded his forehead and upper lip as he staggered away, mumbling beneath his breath, "Asshole."

Luke grabbed him by the arm, and through gritted teeth, he said, "Touch her, and I'll hunt you down and make sure you can never do it again."

Janice dragged Darren away. Daisy stared at Luke's back as it rose and fell with each heavy breath. His fists slowly unfurled, and she realized she was trembling, as a tornado of fear and admiration stormed inside her.

GODDAMN IT. LUKE closed his eyes and breathed deeply to regain his composure before facing Daisy. The last thing he needed was to get into another fight. The entire town would know about the confrontation by morning. Damn it to hell. He'd never been able to just sit back and watch guys like that, but since he'd bought the ranch and had begun to settle down from the restless kid he'd always been, things had changed. The other aspects of his life had calmed and settled, but his tolerance for this type of situation had declined and his reactions to such things had become visceral and immediate. He had no idea what had caused the change in his reactions, but he knew too damn well that he needed to try to figure it the fuck out and fix it.

He felt Daisy's hand on his back.

"Hey, you okay?" Daisy asked in little more than a whisper as she came around to his side.

He looked into her beautiful blue eyes and his gut clenched. "Yeah. Sorry. I...uh...I have a thing about guys like that." He watched her eyes darting to the people who were milling around them, eyeing him cautiously, and he felt guilty as hell for embarrassing her.

"All these years, and I've never seen anyone do that. I mean, I've seen it in movies." Her voice grew serious. "It was terrifying."

Terrifying. Great. He let out a loud breath and looked away.

"And impressive as hell." She stepped in the direction of where he was looking, so he had no choice but to meet her gaze. Her shoulders were tense, pulled up high. Her voice was firm and determined, like anger and compassion all wrapped up in a beautiful, confused package.

"It's not impressive." His pulse raced, and standing there was only making it worse. He needed to walk, to drive, to get the hell out of there.

"Well, I don't know many guys who would do that, especially to him. Darren's been in trouble with the law-"

"Yeah, I know all about trouble with the law." He headed for the parking lot. "Let's just go."

"Go?" She walked fast to keep pace with him.

"Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean to screw up the night." He ran his hand through his hair, irritated with himself for stepping in again. Hadn't he learned his lesson when he was arrested?

"Go? No." She stopped walking.

He turned, frustration building in his chest. The weight of knowing he'd caused an issue that could come back on Daisy pissed him off. Maybe Wes was right and he was the last person Daisy needed in her life.


She shook her head. "Why should we leave? You didn't do anything wrong."

He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I did. Come on." He headed for the parking lot again.

"Why? Because you stood up for Janice? At first I wasn't sure, you know?" Compassion filled her voice as she walked beside him. "But then I looked around and saw all those people just walking by, doing what everyone does-looking the other way as if some woman's life wasn't being torn to shreds right there in front of them. Everyone in Trusty has ignored the way he drinks and the way he's treated her for years. I mean, years. I have never heard about him raising a hand to her, but still. You have to know this, Luke. You live there." She crossed her arms.

He'd heard the rumors.

"Then you come along, and you didn't share classrooms with her for twelve years, or watch her bury her father in fifth grade...or get teased by her in high school. And you stepped in and put a stop to it."

"Daisy, I didn't put a stop to it. Guys like that will go home and do God knows what to her when he has her alone-and maybe worse than he would have if I hadn't stepped in."

"No, he won't," she said softly.

She took a step forward, reaching out to him as if her touch could make it all okay. Luke knew better. Nothing would make it all go away. Something was driving him to step in like that and he needed to understand what the hell it was. Later. Right now he needed to get the hell out of there.

"Yeah, he will. Come on." He walked determinedly toward the parking lot.

"Wait." She grabbed his wrist. "I heard what you said to him at the end. Darren might be a mean drunk, but he's never actually hit her that I know of. Has he?"

He shook his head. He didn't know Darren or his wife well; he only knew of them. There had been stories around town for years about his drinking and the way he mouthed off, but never about him hitting his wife. But when he saw him raise his hand, Luke wasn't taking the chance.

"You'd have heard if he did. Trusty doesn't keep secrets very well."

"Exactly. Another reason you don't need to be seen with the likes of me." He took a step forward, and she held on tight. He looked down at her hand gripping his wrist. "Daisy, listen. You're a beautiful, nice person. You've probably got guys lining up to take you out. Let me take you home, and tomorrow, when the shit hits the fan, you can write tonight off as a bad decision."

"A bad decision?" She let go of his wrist, and he wished she'd grab it again. "Wow, really? I've been blown off by guys before, but not after begging them to spend time with me. Fine. Let's go."

Christ. Most women would be glad to leave trouble behind. They walked in silence toward the parking lot, and when they cleared the carnival exit and the crowds fell away, Luke slowed his pace.

"I didn't mean that I made a bad decision by going out with you."

"I know you didn't." She held her chin up high, her shoulders back, and stared straight ahead as she stomped toward the motorcycle.

"Daisy, you don't know anything about me. You've been away for years." He stepped in front of her, blocking her path. "I need to find my way around trouble, not start it."

She pressed her full lips in to a firm line.

He'd hurt her feelings. Luke could sweet-talk a woman into bed in under ten minutes, but he sucked at dealing with real emotions or connecting on a deeper level-and sweet-talking Daisy into bed hadn't ever been on his agenda. He wanted more from life than sleeping with women, maybe even more with Daisy. Changing his personal life wasn't as easy as he'd hoped, but after what Wes had said, the last thing he wanted to do was prove he was exactly who Wes expected him to be.

"I'm trying to save you from getting wrapped up in this shit and having to deal with it back home. Why are you so angry?" He searched her eyes, but she looked away, her arms crossed, brick wall securely erected between them.

"Because." She blew out a breath and dropped her hands with a frustrated groan. "Because I was having fun being with you. Like, the most fun I've had in a very long time. I wasn't thinking about the rumors circulating about you getting arrested, or about how my body gets all hot for you for reasons unknown, or any of that. I thought, maybe, just maybe, we could have fun together. Then you go and get all heroic, and I'm a little rattled, and then I'm insanely impressed. And now you're telling me that I made a mistake. So that means my judgment is all fucked up, and I don't see it, because I'm still looking at you and wanting to get to know you better." She crossed her arms again. "I swear, just being in Trusty messes with my head."

Luke was struck dumb. She wanted to get to know him better? After everything he'd just said? He was too nervous and befuddled to think straight. He fell back on his fail-safe response and flashed a cockeyed grin. "You're getting all hot for me?"

"Oh my God. Is that what you got out of that?" She pushed past him.

He grabbed her and drew her back, bringing them thigh to thigh, her breasts pressed against his stomach. Her eyes filled with worry-and the urge to kiss her was so strong that Luke had to pull back to keep from settling his mouth over hers.

"Daisy, I suck at this stuff." He didn't recognize his own voice, which had suddenly begun spouting honesty like it used to rattle off pickup lines. "I didn't know what to say to you, so I tried to make you laugh. It's what I do. I can flirt my way out of any situation, and I'm not proud of it."

She arched one of her thinly manicured brows, her mouth still set in a firm, angry line.

"Okay, maybe a little proud, but...You just said you wanted to get to know me better." Suddenly the truth became hard again, like pushing rocks from his throat. "You might find that I'm not who you think I am."

"So what?" Her eyes were fierce, her body rigid against him.

"So what?"

"Yeah. So what?" She pulled from his grip. "So I've wasted a night."

He took a step back, unsure of what to say. So I've wasted a night?

"I..." One look at the determination in her eyes stole his breath. He scrubbed his hand down his face, completely baffled as to the right thing to do. He wanted to kiss her until the tightness in his chest eased, until he couldn't remember what had caused it in the first place, and at the same time, he liked her-really liked her-and he wanted to release her from ever knowing him so he didn't cause her pain or shame. He drew his shoulders back and gathered his courage to do the right thing.

"I'm done wasting other people's nights."


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