He stared at her for what felt like forever, and then shook his head, looking a hundred years older than he should. “I’m sure your mother would have done a better job,” he said, his face haggard.

The sting of tears returned. “I’m sorry I was a difficult teen.”

“It’s just...” He blew out a breath and rubbed a hand across his forehead, leaving the wild eyebrows in even more disarray. He caught her gaze with an almost urgent intensity. “I won’t be around forever,” he said, his voice firm yet sincere. “And one of these days your choices are going to get you into real trouble.”

A dull ache thumped, and Carly pressed her fingers to her temples, hoping to ease the sudden pounding. “Okay,” she went on reluctantly. “You were right. Thomas was using me.” She dropped her hands to her side. “But I didn’t love him,” she said. That fact had been made abundantly clear when she fell in love with Hunter.

The constant free-falling feeling returned and fear froze her chest, making its work difficult. For a moment she could scarcely breathe.

Damn. Love didn’t just hurt. It paralyzed.

“I know,” he said.

Surprise drew her brows together in confusion, but her father went on with a small wave of his hand.

“Oh, I didn’t believe that you’d slept with the senator for the story any more than I believed the rumor you’d fallen in love with him and let your emotions cloud your objectivity. I knew better. And in some ways...” he shook his head with a grim look “...I almost wished the latter was true.”

Shocked, she stared at him, her mouth gaping as she tried to make sense of the words. “I don’t understand.”

He heaved out another heavy breath. “At least then you would have risked your career for something more than a fascination for a man just because he’d been labeled an individualist.”

Carly held still, absorbing the words that were hard to hear even as her father went on, serving up more of the same.

“And since then you’ve been in and out of a number of relationships. Most of the men weren’t worthy of your time, but I wouldn’t have cared so much if you’d actually loved one of them.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words of defense. And so far love had yet to provide her that warm, fuzzy feeling that got paired with the condition. Since the moment those elevator doors had closed in her face, with Hunter’s words haunting her, she’d started to wonder if her relationships since Thomas had been about avoiding the big L. Because Hunter’s accusations had left her raw, bleeding, for the second time in her life—abandoned again, without the chance to explain herself. Her father hadn’t wanted to hear her side three years ago, and Hunter didn’t want to hear hers now.

But maybe her father was finally ready to listen.

“Thomas and I didn’t start seeing one another until after the story was done,” she said.

“I know that now.” He paused, his frank expression brutally painful. “I wasn’t as convinced back then.”

It hurt to hear the truth and it seemed horribly unfair. But life wasn’t fair, and maybe it was never meant to be. Regardless, it was up to her to handle herself, despite feeling she’d been wronged. And maybe that was the ultimate lesson.

The only control she had was over her own behavior.

“Carly,” her father said, “when are you going to grow up and stop flitting from one guy to the next?”

Her heart wrenched, the pain stealing her breath. The time to come clean was now. Would he be happy to hear she’d finally fallen in love when he learned that in all probability her emotional development came at the cost of her job? Her boss had hired her despite her past, giving her the second chance that she’d just destroyed.

But the agony of losing Hunter put the threat in perspective.

“I’ve been asking my boss for approval to write a story on Hunter Philips.” The tone in her voice must have held the warning that bad news was ahead, because her father looked as if he was bracing for the impact, and a little part of her heart died again. “She finally gave me the go-ahead, but...” Her voice stalled. She was too afraid to go on, dreading the look of disappointment in his face. Apparently her expression said it all.

“You’ve slept with him,” he said, his face resigned.

Her heart clenched even as her stomach rolled. He eyed her steadily, and she wished she could read more beneath the weary acceptance.

“You can’t do the story now,” he said.

“I realize that.”

“You have to tell your boss why.”

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