11:55.

Booker picked up the remote control to the flatscreen TV mounted on the wall, holding it out to Hunter. “Do yourself a favor, Hunt,” Booker said. “Watch the show.”

Heart thudding loudly in his chest, Hunter removed his gloves and took the remote. Without another word, his friend headed for the exit.

Hunter stared at the black TV screen for a full four minutes, the digital numbers on the clock marking the passage of time, minute by agonizing minute. Either way, he had to know. He just wasn’t sure which would be worse. Losing Carly as a result of her actions...or his.

Finally, unable to take the tension any longer, he pushed the “on” button and flipped to the right channel. His fifty-eight inch TV was filled with the image of Carly sitting on Brian O’Connor’s couch. Beautiful, of course, in a gauzy top and skirt. But the sight of her lovely legs, glossy brunette hair, and warm, amber-colored eyes was nothing compared to the shock he got when the camera panned to the right. Sitting next to her were two young adults in typical urban street clothes. Thad and Marcus. The two graffiti artists she’d been interviewing that day in the alley. The first Miami residents to be featured in her new series. Not him, after all, then.

Hell.

Nausea boiled, his chest burned, and Hunter gripped the leather punching bag to steady himself, his mind churning with memories. The vile words from his mouth. The stricken expression on Carly’s face. She’d said she needed a man who trusted her. A man who had faith in her. Who believed in her. He’d screwed up royally at the very moment he’d confessed he loved her.

So how could he ever convince her now?

TWELVE

Despite the ebony-colored tablecloths with their centerpieces consisting of dried dead roses, the ambiance on the restaurant’s outdoor patio was festive. Carly was amazed that Pete and Abby had managed to find the perfect balance of Gothic and elegance to celebrate their recent marriage. Lit by candlelight that reflected off the blanket of fog covering the terrace floor, the evening was cast in an otherworldly glow. Waiters circulated, their platters laden with appetizers. Guests ordered drinks at two beautiful mahogany bars, crafted to resemble coffins. Or maybe they were real. If so, Carly hoped the caskets were new.

In jeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt, Pete Booker cast his wife of two weeks an adoring look, and Carly’s heart tripped over a mix of envy and happiness.

Standing beside her, her father muttered, “This is the strangest wedding reception I’ve ever been to.” He dubiously eyed a discreetly placed fog machine before turning his gaze to the bride’s outfit.

Abby’s black long-sleeved gloves were paired with a matching corset dress that flared into a full-length lace skirt, trailing to the floor with a Victorian flare and a Gothic attitude.

Carly’s lips twitched in amusement. “Thanks for coming with me, Dad.” She clutched the strap of her silver beaded evening purse, running a hand down her halter-top dress of midnight satin. It wasn’t her usual choice, but all the guests had been requested to wear black. At least the color suited her mood. “I hated the thought of showing up alone.”

“Yeah...” Her dad let out an awkward harrumph and shifted on his feet. “Well...” he went on uneasily, and Carly’s mouth twitched harder.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t start crying again.”

Her dad sent her a look loaded with fear. “Please don’t.”

Carly almost laughed. She had rallied and poured on the charm for the final show, but when it was done she’d fallen apart—and her father had barely survived the onslaught of tears. She’d finally come to realize her dad did not handle a crying woman well—something she hadn’t fully understood until now. He would never be the perfect parent, ready with an understanding hug, a reassuring smile and gentle words of wisdom. Then again, she was hardly the perfect daughter, either. But he was here tonight, supporting her in his own way. And for that she was inordinately grateful.

Because eventually Hunter would make an appearance.

Anxiety settled deep. If she ever decided to date again—like maybe a million years from now—she was going to give her choice more serious thought. Both for her sake and the man’s. Hunter might have been protecting himself by throwing up walls, but outside of Carly at least he hadn’t hurt anyone in the process. She, on the other hand, had left a trail of unhappy boyfriends in her wake.

All of them had deserved better than her pathetic attempts to stick with men who had no hope of capturing her heart.

When she spied Hunter heading in her direction, said heart sputtered to a stop, and she reached out to grasp the back of a nearby chair. After a few earth-shaking seconds she pushed away the budding, soul-sucking vortex of gloom.

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