I kissed him like I had never kissed anyone before. My lips were rough. Needy. I tightened my grip on his shirt and rose up on my toes, bringing us closer, my tongue begging, his mouth opening, deepening, taking. His hands found my waist and pulled me tight to him. My hands clawed up, past his collar, skating over his strong jaw, those perfect ears and stealing into his hair, my nails raking into his scalp, my fingers pulling at his hair while my mouth fought over his and poured out every emotion that was pumping through my heart.
I felt a sob well in the back of my throat and I pushed away from him, my eyes flooding with tears. “I’m sorry,” I choked out, my words barely audible. Reaching down, I yanked at the straps of my heels, freeing one painful foot, then the other. I abandoned the pumps and turned, ignoring Declan and sprinting down the sidewalk, past the closed restaurants and open bars, running until my bare feet burned and my chest ached from the exertion.
Thank you. Two words, and I’d be damned if they’d broken every latch around my heart.
Declan sat in the passenger seat of Nate’s Jeep and watched as passing streetlights illuminated spots of the city. A homeless man, curled up on a bench. A chain of newspaper stands outside a closed convenience store. He should have chased her. She had been all alone. Downtown, despite the city’s improved initiatives and efforts at revitalization, wasn’t a safe place for a single woman. What if someone attacked her? Took her somewhere? What if she stopped at another bar and got drunk? He thought of that tattooed prick and his hand tightened reflexively into a fist. Maybe this one would be a smooth talker in a suit. Someone who’d feed her drinks and listen to her woes. Run his hands up her thigh and under the tight hem of that dress. Lean in and offer to take her home.
That was how women died. And he’d let it happen. He’d let her run off without shoes, down that filthy street, and hadn’t chased her. What the fuck had he been thinking?
“She’s like Cinderella, man.” Nate chuckled from his place behind the wheel.
Declan glanced down at the heels in his lap, understanding the analogy. He picked up one of the tan pumps, turning it over in his hands. It was scuffed, and he remembered her attempt to kick it off.
“So, what now? We show up at her house and stick that on every one of her stepsisters’ feet?”
“Your knowledge of the story is impressive.”
“I blame it all on Bridget. She watched that damn thing on repeat. You want to hear the mouse song? I know every word.” Nate rubbed the back of his neck and looked over at him. “Stop moping.”
Declan didn’t respond, his thumb running over the heel’s smooth sole. He studied the dash’s clock, trying to calculate how much time had passed since he’d last seen her. Thirty minutes? Forty-five? He’d had Nate circle downtown, checking every block for her. Lots of drunk blondes, but no Autumn. No curves of temptation, no mouth that… his stomach tightened at the memory of her kiss. Fuck, she knew how to kiss. Her tongue, her reckless passion…
“She’ll be fine,” Nate insisted. “Crazy takes good care of crazy.”
“She’s not crazy.” It was the dumbest statement he’d ever made. Because clearly, she was nuts. No one who thought they had an ordained calling to protect a stranger would be considered sane. Especially someone who took it to the extreme she did. Batshit crazy, that was the term he and Nate had used so many times, back when they’d thought her fascination with him had been a romantic one. Now that he understood the motivation behind the stalking, he hated to use such a cruel term. She was … misguided, he decided. Adorably delusional.
Thanking her had been an act that came out of left field. Still, it seemed as if something should be said for her dogged efforts, all which seemed to be centered around a selfless plight to keep him safe.
Nate made the turn into Declan’s neighborhood and he watched the dark homes pass, the families inside asleep. Crazy that one of them belonged to her sister. He smiled at the thought that she had been so close. How often had he come in contact with her and not known it?
“What’s so funny?”
Declan shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just thinking over everything.”
Nate pulled into his driveway and shifted into park. “I’ve got to admit, you’re freaking me out. This situation isn’t funny. It’s alarming. And you’ve suddenly gotten stars in your eyes over this girl. Don’t forget everything she’s put you through.”
“Says the guy who wanted me to be her Facebook friend. Plus, she hasn’t really put me through much.” So, she had followed him around. Had fucked with his trash. Occasionally thrown a public spectacle. It had been entertaining. Flattering. It had definitely gotten his mind off Nicola, which had been a blessing in itself.