Protecting her...again.

The host’s smile was clearly self-serving. “We’d all love to hear how your app got its start.”

Hunter’s ultra-cool demeanor and hard-edged alertness didn’t diminish as he settled deeper into the couch, as if getting comfortable before beginning his tale. “It began where all good break-up apps begin, Brian.” The secretive smile was back, and Hunter’s control was firmly in place. “It started when I got dumped by the woman I loved.”

* * *

Late Sunday evening, fingers curled around the leather rim of a newly purchased cowboy hat, Carly stood just inside the upscale boxing gym, empty save the two men in the ring. Hunter lightly bobbed and weaved in a circle around his opponent, his face obscured by protective headgear. His movements were light. Graceful. And the sheen of sweat on his naked torso only added to the moment of pure masculine beauty. His chest was nice to touch, but the visual was a sight she might never recover from.

She loved a well-dressed man, and Hunter knew how to play that card well. But he wore the silk shorts and athletic shoes with ease too. Hunter’s sparring partner was heavier, but Hunter had the advantage of speed, agility and a calculatingly cunning patience. With every swing of his opponent’s arm Hunter ducked, his reflexes lightning-quick. With a sharp jab, his fist snapped against his opponent’s headgear. The two circled, ducked, successfully landed hits, and the dance continued. It was Hunter in his most elemental form. And it was magnificent.

Focus, Carly. Just focus.

She sucked in a breath, trying to concentrate on the task at hand. Since Hunter’s startling on-air confession and his abrupt departure when the show was over she’d been struggling to make sense of it all. She felt stunned. Dazed. Never had she met a man with such a conflicting mass of mixed messages. When the going had gotten rough, her father had remained silent. Thomas, her boyfriend, had cut her loose to save himself. Yet Hunter, the man she was at odds with, had sacrificed his privacy to protect her.

In the ring, the two men finished, a double fist-bump signaling the end of a well-matched round. Hunter’s opponent ducked between the ropes, hopped off the platform, and headed past her toward the front office, nodding on his way by. Seemingly oblivious to her presence, Hunter pulled off his headgear and picked up a towel draped in the corner, using it to wipe his face.

Gathering her courage, she took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of leather tinged with a hint of sweat. “I brought you a gift.” White cowboy hat in hand, she approached the ring. Hunter slowly turned to face her, the hair on his forehead damp, sexily mussed from the headgear. As she drew closer, he leaned on the top rope, looking down at her.

“How did you find me?” he said.

“You told me the first day we met you belonged to a boxing gym. It wasn’t hard to figure out which one.” She held the hat in his direction. “This is for you.”

He glanced at her offering. “You got the truth. You won the bet,” he said. “No need to give me a consolation prize.”

“It’s not a consolation prize.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s a simple thank-you gift.” She stepped forward to the edge of the ring, the hat still extended up in his direction. “You asked me before if I believed you were falsely accused of leaking information. Now I can say unequivocally that I do.” His expression was careful, his blue eyes cautious. He didn’t respond, or take the hat, but behind his guarded look she saw the truth—even if he wouldn’t confirm it out loud. She stared up at him and dropped her arm, asking the question that had been haunting her since his actions on the show. “Why did you do it?”

She knew the answer, but she wanted to hear it from Hunter. After all his talk about his business, his priorities, and the rest of the rubbish he’d said he believed in, his good deed proved otherwise.

“It seemed like a good way to get you off my back,” he said simply.

Twenty-four hours ago she would have believed him. Now she shook her head. “Liar,” she said. “That’s not why you offered up your confession.”

If you could call it that. His account of his break-up had been sweet and simple—laced with a no-nonsense attitude and summed up in a mere four words. He’d loved. He’d lost. But even as he’d coolly stated the facts Carly had sensed the part that he wasn’t sharing. He’d fooled the audience, even the host, but Carly had seen in his eyes what the others hadn’t. A part of him was still recovering, and the fact that he’d offered up the truth, all in the name of saving her, had been humbling.

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