The words landed too close for comfort. “Is that what this party is really about?” Carly asked. “An excuse to get me here and harass me about my love-life?”

“It’s a sad day when I have to throw a party just to see my own daughter.” He let out the same long-suffering, resigned sigh he always did. The one that made her feel awful. “But as for your love-life,” he went on, “you’re an adult. Who you choose to run around with is your business.”

“That’s never stopped you from sharing your opinion.”

“I’m more concerned about your professional choices.”

Her heart withered a fraction as humiliation and shame came roaring back, and her patience slipped further from her grasp. “Come on, Dad. It’s me. No need to sugar-coat your words.” She stepped closer. “Why don’t you just say you’re worried I’ll screw up again? Repeat past mistakes?” The frown on her father’s face wasn’t an answer, but it was all the response that Carly needed. “Well, there is good news. If I do muck it up a second time, at least it won’t be on one of your newspapers. So you don’t have to worry about that precious bottom line of yours.”

Getting fired was her fault, not her dad’s. But her sharp stab of doubt about his role in the debacle still cut deep.

She stared at her father, and for once the truth spilled out, free of sarcasm. “It’s been three years, and I still can’t decide if you were the one who ordered my dismissal or not.”

Her dad’s face flushed red, and he stepped closer. “Damn it, Carly,” he said, the affectionate nickname long gone. “Your boss made that decision. Were you truly so naive as to think there wouldn’t be repercussions?” He narrowed his eyes in disbelief, as if he still couldn’t fathom how she could have been so stupid. “Just like you were naive enough to believe Thomas Weaver wasn’t using you?”

“He wasn’t using me. We didn’t start dating until three months after my story ran.” She lifted her chin, batting back the overwhelming emotion. “However I was naive enough to believe that the people who cared about me would stick around when things got ugly. But when the going got tough he turned his back on me to save himself. Just like you.”

“What did you expect me to do, Carly?” he said. “Make excuses about my daughter’s lack of judgment? Show a preference for my own flesh and blood? I run a tight ship, and business has to come first.” His face shifted from anger and frustration—which she could handle—to the worst expression of all...disappointment. “I don’t understand how you could have made such a rookie mistake.”

She swallowed against a tight throat, her words thick. “I have a heart, Dad.”

“Whether you choose to believe it or not, I do too.”

“But I can’t turn it on and off like you.”

“As I’ve said...” His scowl grew deeper. “I couldn’t step in on your behalf.”

The pressure of budding tears burned her lids, and she tightened her grip on her purse. “Don’t you get it, Daddy?” The name slipped out before she knew what she was saying. “I didn’t want you to step in on my behalf,” she said. She’d waited forever to hear her father say he believed in her. And here she was, three years later, still waiting in vain. “You have no faith in me at all, do you? I would never have asked you to show me that kind of favor.” She fought to control the ferocious hurt. “But you didn’t even trust me enough to give me the option of turning it down.”

Though her dad’s face broiled with anger, when Hunter appeared at her side with the champagne her father nodded in his direction and said, “Clearly you’re too smart to fall prey to my daughter’s charms.”

Her heart convulsed, and Carly wasn’t sure which was worse—the shame or the pain. She tried to respond, but her reply died when Hunter smoothly stepped closer to her side. A silent promise of protection.

His frigid, steel-like gaze focused on her father and he voiced an icy word of warning. “Careful.”

But this was one encounter Hunter couldn’t save her from. Wrestling with the need to cry, scream and lash out with her words, Carly blinked back the roiling anger. If she didn’t leave now she’d make a fool of herself. After a last glance at her father’s fuming face, she pivoted on her heel and headed out of the living room, leaving the murmur of happy chatter behind.

EIGHT

As William Wolfe stomped off, Hunter watched Carly head down the hallway and wrestled with the intense urge to follow her, resisting the impulse. Despite the danger she posed, he’d shown up tonight because he couldn’t seem to deny himself the pleasure of Carly Wolfe’s company.

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