“It would have led to a conversation we couldn’t have. I was in the middle of a shitstorm with our families and the ranch. I didn’t know who I could trust or how it tied to you. What I did know was there were half a dozen men waiting to kill you if you returned to Sandbank.” I ghost a finger along her hairline, lightly stroking the soft auburn strands.” “I couldn’t give you a reason to come home. I couldn’t be that reason.”

She pulls away. “Tell me about the shitstorm with our families.”

“I will. I need you to trust me.”

“That’s a tall order from a chronic liar.” She crosses her arms over her chest, putting a barrier between us. “While you were letting me go in the name of protection, how many women have you been with?”

Three year’s worth.

“A lot.”

She winces and turns away, but I don’t miss the stricken look on her face or the way her shoulders hug her ears. Anything I say at this point will sound cliché and counterfeit, but I can’t leave this unsettled.

“I’ve done things, Conor. Unforgivable things.” Coercion. Assault. Murder. “Had I let myself hope for a future with you, I would’ve done more things. Greedy, jealous things. Like sabotage your chances with Miles York.”

Watching her relationship with him sprout and bloom changed me on a molecular level. I became an unrecognizable thing. Sullen, hostile, and viciously angry. I fucked women like I hated them. I did hate them, simply because they weren’t Conor. When those encounters didn’t sate me, I picked fights. I killed people. Bad people. The self-destructive pattern lasted three years.

One more murder, and I’ll be finished with it for good.

“I suppose I should thank you.” She shifts back to me and straightens her spine. “Despite how things ended with Miles, I’m grateful you let me move on. Of course, you put an investigator on him and continued to stalk me like a mental patient, but that’s beside the point.” She rests her hands on her hips and stares at her feet. “And I can’t be mad at you for not living like a monk. We’re not together. You’re a free man. Where you put your dick is your business.”

I press my lips together, chomping at the bit to tell her all the reasons why she’s wrong.

“I’m going to bed.” She climbs onto the far side of the mattress.

“We’re not finished.”

She tucks herself under the quilt and faces the edge with her back to me.

That’s it? No crying or raging or pounding her little fists on my chest? She needs to do all those things, not bottle it up.

Fuck, I don’t know what to do. I can’t force her emotions.

Tossing my hat on the dresser, I drag a hand through my hair and approach the opposite side of the bed. She doesn’t move a muscle.

Boots, belt, jeans, shirt—it all needs to come off. To spare her from more discomfort, I turn off the lamp and strip in the dark.

After the conversation we just had, I probably shouldn’t crawl into bed with her wearing only my briefs, even though my cock thinks it’s a fantastic idea. Just thinking about sleeping beside her makes me hard. We’ve never done this. Our relationship was always restricted by rules. Rules that were enforced by two fathers who lived in the same house.

So much has changed since then.

“I’m just going to talk. You don’t have to say anything.” I slide under the covers, keeping a couple of feet between us, and lie on my back. “I cleaned up the shitstorm and made it safer for you to be here than anywhere else. That means I’m not just letting myself hope for a future with you. I’m pursuing it with single-minded focus. And I will do things, jealous things, to sabotage your chances with any other man.”

The curves of her silhouette don’t twitch.

Impatience urges me to close the distance, but I can’t crowd her back without setting her off. Everything inside me tenses to demand, take, control, and overrun.

She doesn’t need any of that right now.

I know she’s thinking about our conversation, and she knows I’m right here, at her side, when she’s ready. So I force myself to stay put, relax into the mattress, and embrace the silence.

Minutes pass. I watch the clock count through them, unable to sleep.

Forty minutes into my misery, her breathing changes, grows fitful, and her shoulders start to shake.

I lift on an elbow and reach for her, but she’s already turning, rising on hands and knees. Her hair tangles around her face as she scrambles toward me, huffing and wheezing.

No, she’s sobbing.

“Conor.” My pulse races, and my throat seals shut as I pull her against my chest. “I’m here. Right here.”

She climbs up my body, circles her arms around my shoulders, and buries her face in my neck. The tears come instantly and brutally, drenching us. Saving us.

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