Right, yet all wrong.

“Are you working tomorrow?” he asked, still gripping her hand in a continuation of the awkward handshake. Why was he hanging on? Why was she?

She shook her head. “Today was my last of three on.”

Not that she wouldn’t be working over the next three days she had off from the hospital. She’d pull twelve-plus-hour days for the insurance company.

“I’d like to see you tomorrow. Before you tell me you can’t, let me assure you that you can. I’d like to come by here after I finish at the hospital.”

She bit the inside of her cheek, then ordered herself to stop. She was making a raw spot with how much she’d chewed at the area that day. Of all the ways of dealing with stress, she needed to find a nervous tic that was less self-destructive.

Stone wanted to come there tomorrow evening. Normally, she’d either be sitting with her mother or working, usually both.

“I’m not much of a cook if you’re fishing for an invite to dinner.” Cooking would mean going to the grocery store, which would mean getting Joyce to sit with her mother and dipping into her rainy-day fund. Which she’d already done once that month for her mother’s new meds.

“I could pick up something for us. Just tell me what your mother eats.”

“That isn’t necessary. Besides, she chokes easily so is on a high nutrient, thick liquid diet.”

His thumb brushed across the back of her hand in a slow caress. Were the lightning bolts of awareness shooting through her supposed to be friendly? They weren’t. More like an assault on her nerve endings, setting them on high alert.

“Getting Mom to take in anything by mouth is a chore.” Not that she and Joyce didn’t do their best every single meal. Continuing to take in meals via normal methods was important mentally and emotionally—for her mother and for Carly. “She gets most of her nutrition through her feeding tube, unfortunately.”

How ill her mother was seemed to finally click, and Stone’s grip on her hand tightened. “I’m sorry, Carly.”

The pity in his voice raised walls of annoyance. She didn’t want his pity. She didn’t need his pity.

Taking a deep breath, she made herself step back, made herself allow him to express his empathy without her going on the defensive. Hard to do because she’d had years of keeping her chin held high.

“It is what it is.”

He sat quietly a moment, then asked, “It’s okay if I bring you dinner?”

Carly’s chest ached at the sincerity in his voice. He wanted her to say yes. He wanted to spend time with her.

She had so much work to do.

But if she had to sit up all night without sleeping, it would be worth it to spend more time with Stone.

“You realize I can’t have a normal friendship with you? That you’re wasting your time if you’re hoping for something more?”

“What’s normal, Carly?”

He made a good point. What was normal? Were there any easy, perfect relationships out there? When she’d dated back in her university days everything had seemed easy, but maybe that hadn’t been a true reflection of life. Not that they were talking dating. They weren’t. They were going to be friends.

Friends with Stone.

“I suppose it wouldn’t do any good to offer to give you money to cover my portion?” she asked, conceding to his request against her better judgment.

“You suppose correctly.” His smile was so bright it almost lit the car. His dad must be a fabulous dentist. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening.”

She pulled her hand free and opened the car door. Before getting out, she hesitated. “If you don’t show, if you change your mind about our friendship, I’ll understand.”

He opened his door, came around, took the dessert bag from her and walked her to her front door. “If I don’t show, call 911 because something major happened on my way here.”

Staring into his green eyes, she nodded, but still didn’t quite let herself believe.

“Goodnight, Carly. I will see you tomorrow.”

With that, he bent, kissed her cheek, and whistled as he walked back to his car.

Carly stared after him long after he’d driven away in his fancy SUV, wondering what in the world she’d gotten herself into and why she hadn’t stopped it.

Why she’d ever let it get started to begin with.

She couldn’t blame Stone.

She’d been the one to know the crazy details of her life. Yet she had spent time with him, had a few flirty conversations, given him her address.

Wanting him as her friend hadn’t motivated any of those things.

Her suddenly come-to-life raging hormones that had been dead for five years had taken over her brain and body.

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