Declan watched him approach. “Where’d you come from?”
Nate gestured behind him. “They made me leave out the back. I walked around the block and back up front.” He looked over at me. “Ahhh. Autumn Jones. We finally meet. I’m Nate.”
So, the Facebook invite hypothesis was true. Declan had known my name. And so, apparently, did his inner circle. Great.
Nate extended a hand with a grin. “You know, you’re quite the local celebrity. I’ve got a sister who’s dying to meet you.”
“Nate,” Declan warned.
Nate’s smile widened. “What? She does.” His hair was mussed, the top button of his shirt undone, but I couldn’t see any damage, though there was a smear of blood across the front of his blue shirt. He followed my gaze and shrugged. “All his, none of mine.”
“Awesome,” Declan drawled. “We were so worried.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Nate stepped back, his head ricocheting from Declan to me. “Did I… interrupt something? Were you two having a moment?”
“No!” I interrupted hotly. Jeez, this guy was the king of awkwardness.
“Where’s the other guy?” Declan asked, and I snapped to attention, realizing the imminent danger. We shouldn’t be standing here. That guy could leave the bar at any moment and storm over, a broken beer bottle or makeshift shiv in hand. I started to feel hot, and wasn’t sure if it was a sign of trouble or just pure embarrassment.
Nate shrugged, and with such a reckless best friend, I didn’t know how Declan had lived this long. “The manager has him. The guy pulled a knife, so they’re calling the police.” He waved away the news, and I felt faint. A knife. I thought of the man’s hand closing around Declan’s ankle, the fury in his eyes. He could have been reaching for his knife right then. He could have stabbed Declan’s leg, hit a major artery, and it would have been all my fault.
“Cute outfit.” Nate tilted his head at me. “You going to a costume party or something?”
I wanted to sink into a puddle and ooze through the sewer grate. He didn’t intend the question to be mean, and that made it even worse. Here I was, in this ridiculous dress, provoking a man with a knife into a bar fight, and bringing Declan into it. I put him in danger. Me. And all in heels that I could barely walk, much less protect anyone, in.
I felt a surge of emotional hysteria coming on and stepped back before it hit. “It was nice to meet you both.” I managed the words without beginning to cry, a Herculean feat, and turned to walk away. Declan called my name, and I increased my pace, digging in my purse, searching for my phone.
Tears began to burn the edges of my eyes, and I skittered along the sidewalk, cursing the unfleeability of my heels. He jogged up beside me, cutting me off, and I stopped, my head down, eye contact avoided as I frantically rummaged through my purse. Why in God’s name did I have so much inside it? Who needed ten tampons? Or a spare package of tissues? Ohhh! Tissues. I pulled the little package open, then thought better of it, preferring to hide my tears behind a casual brush of my hand.
Declan moved directly in front of me, blocking my path, and I abandoned the search for my phone and zipped up my bag, adjusting the strap higher on my shoulder. He repeated my name and I blew out a breath. “What?” I snapped.
“Look at me.”
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. I snorted and moved left to skirt around him. He matched the motion. I moved right and he did the same. I growled in frustration and made a mental note to burn these shoes when I got home because oh my piglet, my toes were killing me. A woman shouldn’t have to deal with losing a wonderful date, public groping, a brush with danger, ridicule, a potato dress and painful shoes, all in the same night.
He stepped closer and I caught a hint of his cologne as I inhaled. Damn, he smelled good. In the bar, it had been mixed with grease and beer and strangers but out here, the night crisp and empty, the surrounding scents muted, I was hit with the full force of it. His hands settled on my shoulders, pulling me a little closer, and he leaned down and whispered in my ear. “Thank you.”
It was so unexpected that I lifted my head, risking a glance up, and when his eyes met mine I wanted to sink into them and never come up for air. He was so beautiful. It was the wrong moment to be around a man like that. I was too weak, too fractured. I needed my bed and my pillow and the gentle sounds of Mr. Oinks’ snores. I should run. Turn and take off, before I did something stupid. He was thanking me? I thought of Mom, all alone, stumbling out onto that street without anyone there to protect her. I will protect him. I need him to be safe. I couldn’t handle the gentle comfort of his touch, the kindness in his voice, this tender look he was giving me. I reached forward, clutching the front of his shirt and then, unable to stop myself—he was so freaking everything—kissed him.