But Morgan wasn’t cut out for straitlaced. He never had been and knew he never would be. For the first time, looking at Tara now, disappointment accompanied that realization.

As a kid he’d thought about running away from home, but he’d felt an obligation to his little brother. He’d stayed and taken the whippings for them both, knowing he might deserve some of them.

He’d married Sylvie, not because he loved her—he’d never believed he was capable of the emotion—but because he was young and stupid, and she was pregnant. It was his kid. His responsibility.

But the instant Brooke’s little body had settled in his hands, that pink fuzzy blanket all soft and warm; the instant she’d stared at him with those dark eyes—and opened her tiny mouth to scream in what he was sure was terror—he’d been hooked. He’d found that love was something he had a capacity for. At least that kind of love. He’d known in that instant that he’d do anything for her—even die for her—if that’s what it took.

Now, standing in Tara’s kitchen, he stared at the flour on her cheek, stared into her blue eyes and felt something inside him shift. Her face lit up when he’d said she was right. Her eyes sparkled. He nearly laughed out loud. Heat blossomed in his chest—and he couldn’t look away. He didn’t want to.

“You were right to call me on my behavior.” He slowly moved away from the wall. “I should be the one apologizing.”

“But you’re not?” she whispered.

Morgan slowly shook his head. “I’d be lying if I did.”

“So you’re not sorry?”

“No.” He took one step and there was no space left between them. “I’m not. Those men didn’t know you. They wanted you just because you were a woman, alone and apparently at their mercy. There was nothing good about their intent.”

“But—”

“I know you,” he whispered. “I like you. I want—”

Tara put her finger over his lips. “Don’t say it.” He watched her swallow. “Don’t put it out there. I—”

She stepped away, and he felt the cool air where her warm finger had been.

“We can’t and you know why,” she finished.

“We can’t what?” He grinned at her, laughing when the color swept up her flour-dusted face. Teasing her was the safest way to break this spell between them. “I dare you to say it.”

“You are so frustrating.”

She backed away from him, just as he’d hoped, despite his disappointment. But he saw the smile playing on her lips.

“I have to get to work.”

“Me, too.” He headed to the back door. “See you later?”

She didn’t answer, but he didn’t care. The sun was out, glinting off his truck at the edge of the parking lot. She wasn’t leaving and neither was he. And for the first time in months, that didn’t bother him.

He climbed in the truck. His phone was on the console and it flashed to tell him he’d missed a call and had a message. As he grabbed clean clothes, he hit Play and put it on speaker.

“Hey, Morgan.” Dewey’s voice was loud, as if the big man were yelling into the phone. “There’s a match tonight. I know I said I wasn’t gonna beg. But, man, you gotta come. There ain’t a one you can’t beat. Come on, give a guy a break. You owe me. Tate’s setting up at a barn out on County Road Eleven. ’Bout five miles out. Along the tracks. Hope you get this and decide to make us rich men. Call me.”

Morgan stared at the phone. He cursed, recalling the men he’d overheard on his run. Dewey was confirming their plans. Glancing through the windshield toward the diner, he knew what choice he’d make. He had to find his daughter, and Dewey and Tate’s illegal fights were the only lead he had.

He closed his eyes. He cursed and focused on getting ready for tonight. Hoping and praying he hadn’t lost any of his former skills for beating the crap out of another human being. He couldn’t afford to lose. He had to be able to walk away. He couldn’t get caught in that world again.

Brooke’s life—his future, so much—depended on it.

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