“After you left the convention hall,” she said from across the room, “I came back here looking for you.”

“I went for a walk.”

She paused, refusing to be deterred by his less than approachable tone. “Agent Terry Smith is an ass.”

“Yes, he is.” He didn’t even look at her when he went on. “He always has been.”

“You two never got along?”

There was a pause before he spoke. “He considered me a rival at work.”

Her eyes dropped to the glass in his hand, as she decided how to proceed. “Is that bourbon you’re drinking going on your hotel bill...or obnoxious Agent Smith’s?”

The hardness in his expression lightened a touch, and the frosty look in his eyes thawed half a degree. “It’s going on mine.”

Encouraged, she crossed the last of the distance between them. “I figured as much,” she said, tossing her purse on the bed as she passed by on her way to Hunter. “Pete’s the one who’s been hacking the hotel computer every year and switching the bar bills, isn’t he? And you’ve been anonymously paying the tab.” The scenario fit with everything she knew about the two. The eccentric mathematical genius and—ever the white-hat-sporting defender—his brilliant and fiercely loyal friend smoothing the way.

His brow crinkled in the faintest of amusement. “A little continued rivalry would be understandable, given our history. But hacking the hotel computer would be illegal,” he said.

She came to a stop beside his chair, and something in the way he’d said the words, in his expression, made her question her assumption. “Are you the culprit?”

He finally looked up at her with a hint of a secretive smile on his face. “Why would I admit to a criminal act?”

Her heart untwisted and eased. She adored the look on his face and was relieved to see the barrier drop a fraction. But her curiosity climbed to heretofore unseen levels—and for her that was saying something.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” she said.

“No,” he said. “I’m not.”

She fingered the strap of her dress, hesitating, but she had to ask. Although she suspected she knew the answer it was several seconds before she worked up the nerve. “Was your ex a reporter?”

Nothing changed in his demeanor, but his fingertips blanched against his drink, as if crushing the glass. “Yes,” he said. “She was.”

The implications of the news were enormous. It explained a lot about his initial attitude toward her, and it opened up a slew of potential about what had happened between the couple. Was it more than just a girlfriend who had decided to move on? More than just a woman who’d changed her mind about a man she supposedly loved? Carly’s thoughts spun with the possibilities.

She knew he wouldn’t answer, but she tried anyway. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

The pause was lengthy. “Probably not.”

His answer was more painful than she’d expected. “What happened?”

“It’s not important,” he said, his voice grim, and then he tossed back the last of his drink.

She blinked back the hurt and the growing sense of panic. Inviting her to the conference had seemed like a major step forward. Now she wasn’t so sure. But there had to be hope, and the pain she sensed he’d buried for years currently outweighed her own. Her own need to heal his hurts, to tear down those barriers once and for all.

Exactly why she felt it so keenly wasn’t a matter up for consideration. The last thing she wanted to do was examine just how much she needed to get back to the connection they’d shared the last few days. It had felt like a real relationship, not the over-him-in-forty-eight-hours kind. More like an intense, never-will-recover, want-to-be-with-him-forever kind.

The thought of this man walking away came perilously close to being frightening.

He carefully set his glass on a nearby table and looked up at her with an expression that squeezed her chest—utter bleakness, infused with a burning desire. A compelling combination that made his tone gruff. “Did you put that outfit on for me?”

Heart now rapping hard, she glanced down at the leopard print slip dress she’d worn the night of their first TV show. She’d put it on earlier, with the thought of teasing him into a better mood when she found him, but now it seemed inappropriate. And very, very wrong. The light in his eyes was encouraging, but the fatigue, the sense of emptiness he kept buried beneath it all, was unmistakable.

“Hunter,” she said, looking down at him. “It’s been a difficult day, and you’re tired.”

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