The farther we drive, the less I require a distraction for my lecherous thoughts. The route we take absorbs all of my focus. We drive well out of the downtown area in the direction of the interstate. We’re on the edge of town when chain motels begin to appear, which I sure as hell don’t turn my nose up at, but they grow more and more rundown with every passing block. That’s when my jaw starts to bunch, along with my gut. “Beauty queen…”

“Right here is good.” She points to the sidewalk of the deserted road and shoulders her purse. “This is perfect, thank you. I can walk the rest of the way.”

“You don’t want me to see where you’re staying.” Those bolts in my stomach tighten all the more. “That’s why you didn’t want to get in the truck.”

“I’m proud of my accommodations, but I know you’ll want to ask me questions, and…” She bottoms out with a gusty sigh. “I’ve had too much beer to be cagey. It’s just ahead on the right. The Budget Max.”

“Jesus Christ.” After pulling into the parking lot, I cut off the truck’s engine and look around. Peeling paint. Unmarked doors. A sign advertising hourly rates. There isn’t a fucking chance I’m leaving Naomi here—but hell if she doesn’t already have a defensive chin raise thing going on. It makes me want to drag her across the console and lay bites on that jawline until it goes slack. “I’ve slept in war zones nicer than this,” I mutter, my hands flexing on the steering wheel. “We’re about to be neighbors, baby.”

“Pardon me?”

“I’d rather saw my arm off than leave you here.” I shove open my door and climb out. “Let’s go get your shit.”

“What?”

She hops out and I spring into action to cover her, my heart clamoring up into my throat. Fuck. Calm down. Calm down. There’s no immediate threat. I’m in Florida, not Afghanistan. Talking myself down only helps partially, though. And hell, maybe there is an immediate threat. Her name is Naomi and she looks ready to tear a strip off my ass. Beating her to the first word is the only offense I have.

“Mr. Bristow—”

“Jason. I’m Jason. You’re Naomi and…” I’m out of practice being sincere, so it takes me a lot of throat cleaning to continue. “You’re going through something and I want to help.” My words take some of the fight out of Naomi. “I need to help,” I finish quietly.

Her head tips to one side. “Why?”

The truth is not an option here. There’s something about this woman that raises the bar on my protective nature. I get jealous thinking of her with other men. I’m attracted to her like crazy. Fuck it, I like her, even when we’re taking swipes at each other. She comes off like an ice princess. Then before I can blink she’s soft and kind of silly. Getting drunk in the middle of the afternoon and telling war stories. There’s something about her. There’s a lot about her. But there isn’t a chance in hell I’m telling her any of that.

If this afternoon reminded me of anything, it’s that normalcy still escapes me. My sense of propriety and social cues haven’t returned and they probably never will. Especially since I’m planning to reenlist when Birdie is graduated and independent. Naomi is the epitome of social grace. She’s coaching my sister on how to charm, how to be diplomatic. We’re like chalk and cheese—which is a moot point, since she’s shown no signs of interest in me.

Better to go with a slightly different version of the truth. A valid truth. One that leaves out the fact that I need her where I can see her…because she makes me feel things.

“I was overseas for a long time. I haven’t really been able to turn off how I lived. How I operated. I’ve got all these signs when it comes to you, beauty queen. You changing in your car, living in a rundown motel a long way from home when you clearly come from some kind of money. You don’t want to be found. Something is wrong and I don’t know how to leave your safety to chance. What I know how to do is fix and protect and prevent bad things from happening.”

Unsure if I want to see how my blind stab at sincerity landed, I tip my head back and squint into the sun. “Can you please just let me do that?”

I don’t realize she’s come closer until she murmurs, “Where would I…reside, exactly?”

The softening of her voice, her nearness, knits a tight pattern at the back of my neck. “There’s a guesthouse above the garage. Nothing fancy, but it beats the hell out of this.”

“That is so kind of you, but I like being on my own. I like being able to make my own decisions.” She reaches out and squeezes my hand. “Thank you for the offer, but no.”

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