Valentine's Rewind Blog Hop

I don't know about other writers, but I find that, after I type THE END a la Joan Wilder (The Joan Wilder), I don't really think about my characters much. While they've "spoken" to me--and through me--during the drafting and revision process, once I've told their story the best way I know how, it's over for me. I don't revisit them or think about them much. 

I must confess: sometimes, I have to go back and re-read my notes to remember, six months later, what their names are. (SORRY IF THAT KILLS THE MAGIC FOR YOU, BELOVED READERS.)

Which is to say, all of this made the prospect of agreeing to this Valentine's Rewind hop...a challenge. Until I remembered Kenna Madison, the much-maligned vapid heiress to a vast pencil fortune in ONE WEEK IN HAWAII. What made it even more challenging? The story came to me in first person. (That...never happens.)

Kenna is a minor character who, once I remembered her, wouldn't let me go until I gave her a problem...and a love (L-O-V-E) story. And, as a matter of fact, in the telling of her story, I'm even more determined to get to Leo Bugiardini's story--that crafty, dead-sexy Italian bastard. Eventually. I have a few more lovers on the writing schedule before I can get back to Leo, but get back to Leo, I will. 

But, without further ado, I'd like to reacquaint you with the charming McKenna Madison: 


I NEVER

 

If a person could die of embarrassment, then somebody better start digging a big ol’ hole for me.

 Scratch that, I’d already dug a huge one all by myself. Not all by myself. I’d had a hell of a lot of help on that front.

 This is what I got from listening to my mother on the subject of love. Of all people, Mary Ellen Madison was the absolute last person who should advise on matters of the heart. Hers had been Botoxed within an inch of its life by my fifth birthday, I’m sure.

 I knew better. Hell, my mother knew better than to force that engagement shoot for Noise and Beauty. (Actually, Mom had been pushing for an exclusive feature in Southern Living—not the weddings issue which was ridiculous—but she knew I would pitch a fit big enough for Daddy to intervene. Noise and Beauty had been a grand compromise.)

 And, of course, now it was a compromise that haunted me.

 I’d fucked up in Hawaii. Big time. And that fuckup had set into motion this path of mortification I was now on. Figuratively speaking.

 And literally.

 I’d exited the interstate miles ago, and, after a roundabout path through “town” to lose anyone who might be trailing me—that almost got me lost in the process—I was now on some tiny state byway that would soon give way to a road that could only loosely fall into the taxonomy of thoroughfares.

 And I’d yet to find a radio station that didn’t cut out—or didn’t blare a solid set of country’s greatest hits. My phone wasn’t helping much either. There was no playlist to get me through this particular pain. Although the piano version of “Forever and Always” wasn’t a bad choice.

 If I had been just plain old dumped, that would be one story. Heartbreak happened. It sucked. Then you moved on. It was regrettable, but name me one person who hadn’t suffered that particular fate.

 I, however, hadn’t been dumped in the good old-fashioned way. No song even scratched the surface of what it was like getting dumped after your gorgeous so-in-love, over-the-top, shot-in-Paradise engagement photos dropped on the internet’s hottest lifestyle blog. God, even poor TSwift hadn’t suffered that. (I didn’t think.)

 So I knew there was no song on any playlist of mine—or anybody else’s—that dealt with being dumped after you showed up on gossip sites with only a couple fuzzy, pixelated bars over some seriously strategic areas of your body on the same day your engagement photos went up on the internet’s hottest lifestyle blog.

 Ha! Sing about that, Ms. Swift, I dare you.

 Switching off my Bluetooth and listening to the thud of bad rental car tires on asphalt was preferable to lame, generic songs about heartbreak. Because no agony could come close to mine. Not even close.

 It was all my fault. I freely admitted this. But it was still agony. (Even if I admitted it was more like agonized embarrassment than the true agony of a broken heart.)

 A presidential candidate’s son couldn’t be associated with—much less affianced to—that kind of trash, now could he?

 Never mind that my father’s family could buy and sell the Waters political dynasty ten times over and I’m fairly certain the Madisons had never once been considered trash since well before the Mayflower.

 In one crystalline moment, I went from being a face only a handful of people recognized to…oh, God. I’m pretty sure every teenage boy in America now knew I had a freckle…there.

 And the only problem?

 Well, one of the only problems? I loved Cameron. I really did. And if our parents hadn’t been ridiculous, throwing us together and all but forcing us to settle down just as I was out of college… Who knew how different life would be? Hopefully, I’d have been living a life free from photographs of my private places appearing in public spaces.

 The worst part—aside from all of my bizness being in creepers’ spank banks, and the fact that my parents were devastated, plus about a million other things about this that were The Worst? I loved Cam. Like, seriously loved him. How could I not? I didn’t have a single good memory that didn’t include him. But I didn’t love-love him.

 I couldn’t say I loved him like a brother, either, since I’d obviously made out with him a million times—and, um, quite a bit more as everybody on the planet now knew. Sex was one thing. Love? It was altogether different.

 Ugh, I could just strangle Leo Bugiardini for putting me in the most humiliating situation of my entire life! But that wouldn’t help me win Cameron back. Nothing would.

 Not that I wanted to win him back.

 Especially since I was head-over-heels in love with his best friend. A man for whom I definitely didn’t feel bland, almost-sisterly affection.

 No, for years, all I’d felt was abject shame and heinous guilt that I could love one man with all my heart and sleep with another because a relationship with him meant I was toeing the line. Doing my part to make family alliances happen even though it was the freaking twenty-first century and I had a freaking degree in chemical engineering. Making everyone happy.

 Except the two of us, of course, whose chances of happiness were utterly ruined.

 Something else that was all my fault.

 And with the world now watching my every move, Colt Robles was going to be my salvation whether he wanted to or not. It didn’t seem fair, and it made me feel a little queasy. But I also couldn’t wait to get there. To see him again.

 Nobody would expect me to retreat to a sleepy little town in Arizona. It was quite literally the only place on earth I’d have any hope of privacy. I could count on about nine fingers who else even knew this speck on the map existed.

 A speck I almost missed. Okay, I did miss it and had to execute a rather hairy eighty-point turn in order to circle back—but I just told myself it was all part of my plan to lose any tail I might still have. (I’d become really good at believing my lies over the years.)

 Finally, I turned left and steered my rental car down the dirt road that didn’t show up on GPS. I’d been here once before. And I prayed at least Karen, his foreman’s wife, would welcome me with open arms. Even if Colt wouldn’t.

 # # #

 What seemed like an hour later, I made a right turn at the old sign post that—once more—I’d almost missed. I tried to not take that particular happening as yet another omen. At this point, I had so much bad luck stored up, I could break a hundred mirrors into the teeniniest pieces and it wouldn’t make one bit of difference.

 After another bend or forty in the road, the house came into view. Bracketed by lush green crops to the north and steely-grey mountains to the south and east, it was a perfect prairie house. Wrap-around porches, gabled windows up top—all creamy white with dark blue shutters. It was a dreamy little piece of architecture, and so different from the mostly adobe-inspired and Italianate buildings you saw in Tucson.

 As I’d been before, I was charmed by this place.

 After killing the engine, I didn’t even take a moment to check my hair in the rearview mirror or slick on some gloss. What difference would it make? I was already at rock bottom. No point in putting on a party face. But I did try to wait for the dust and dirt to settle before I got out of the car.

 The dogs had stirred the moment my car came up the drive; they were now totally riled up; and I could hear them sending up a curious round of ruh-rooooos.

 Some watchdogs—they about wiggled their little butts to death the moment I got my feet on terra firma.

 “Hey, dogs,” I cooed to the group and bent down to give lots of scritches. Hopefully, they’d let me get to the porch and the front door beyond without absolutely covering me up in hair. Their happy greeting must have alerted some secret animal reception signal, because even a few old cats came rolling around the corner of the house. They kept their distance as they made their high-pitched hellos, which was fine by me.

 I wondered where Colt was—if he was even here. I hadn’t talked to him in…well, what seemed like forever. But just standing in the late-summer shadows of this old farmhouse was enough. For the first time since this whole mess started, I felt a little measure of stillness come over me.

 Until the door opened to reveal not Karen, the crankiest, most loving woman west of the Mississippi, but the subject of my previous at-home speculation.

 “Hey,” I offered to the man behind the screen door, my heart caught somewhere in the vicinity of my uvula, preventing me from saying more. Guess I never really thought he’d be the one to answer the door.

 I certainly didn’t expect him to look so…grown up and wonderful and all glowery in a way that made me think I had maybe made another big mistake.

 He didn’t say anything. Or, if he did, I couldn’t make it out.

 For a moment, I wasn’t sure he was going to make a move to swing open the old screen door. But he did, eventually, and Joe, his old black lab—now completely white around the muzzle—shot out to greet me. Or ambled, actually.

 And that’s when I lost it.

 “Fucking double standards,” I cried into Joe’s scratchy old fur. The urge to just sit down right there on Colt’s front porch and bury my sorrow in that sweet old dog’s neck was strong. I had to remind myself I was working myself up into a mad. I had no time for ugly tears.

 After one last kiss to Joe’s bony head, I stood up, dusting my hands on the rear of my denim shorts before running them under my eyes.  

 “Cam was right there in those pictures with me. But did anyone see him? Did anyone say a damned thing about the front-running Republican nominee’s son at an Hawaiian or-orgy? Noooo, they just saw me spread-eagled on that—that—”

 “Saint Andrew’s cross?” Colt offered as I waved my hands, looking for the words.

 I could only nod. Of course he’d know. And of course he’d seen the pictures! Pretty sure my father was the only man who hadn’t. (Knowing that Daddy had been briefed about them was torture enough.)

 “What do you need, Kenna?”

 He looked tired. As sad as I felt. But also so damned handsome I wanted to rush to close the distance between us. To grab on and never let him go.

 A lifetime ago, it seemed like, I had made my choice. It hadn’t been the right choice, but it had been the best choice. I’d made it, so I’d stuck by it. Because that’s what a Madison did—the honorable thing.

 Only it hadn’t really been that honorable, had it? Because I’d lied to everyone, including myself.

 “I need you, Colt.” I confessed. It wasn’t what I’d planned to say—not at first, anyway—but it was the truth. And damn if I didn’t feel like saying it again and spinning in a circle until I fell down, dizzy. “Just you.”

 If he’d slammed the door in my face, I wouldn’t have been surprised. As it was, when he reached out and brought me to him, it took me completely off guard. And…I melted. Just absolutely melted against the strong, solid wall of his body.

 I knew exactly what I was doing when I decided to come here. I knew what I was risking.

 But if I had to be branded a whore by the western world, at least I’d be the whore who was—finally!—able to be honest with the man she loved.

 Being in his arms felt like coming home. Like Christmas and my birthday and Spring Break and green bean casserole and biscuits and gravy all rolled into one shimmering, perfect moment.

 And it was, until he kissed me on top of the head and said, “you can’t stay here.”

 “I don’t care what people say.” And I didn’t. I also didn’t care if a thousand deranged cameramen fell from the sky and captured this moment on their hateful equipment and broadcast it to the moon. Right now, I was exponentially more vulnerable than I had been strapped in, buck-naked to a couple pieces of steel and wood.

 This time, Colt would keep me safe.

 “No. You do. And falling into bed with me won’t solve anything.”

 My heart was no longer in my throat. It had dropped. Way down. Way, waaaay down. My entire life force was now focused in that spot.

 I breathed deep, loving that I could still smell him beneath that laundry-fresh T-shirt he was wearing. Loving that he was thinking about taking me to bed—even if he’d said it was a bad idea.

 “But it will. It’ll fill up this huge hole in my life.” It was a terrible idea. The Worst. But even so, it would be the best worst idea we’d ever had.

 Of course, that wasn’t the right thing to say. We’d been circling this for years, but I’d laid it all a little too bare and out there. When he pulled back, I missed—oh God, I missed!—the warmth of his chest beneath my cheek.

 “What are you really running from, McKenna?”

 A thousand answers ran through my head at once. Chief amongst them, one single word: everything.

 Those blue, blue eyes of his saw everything. Knew everything. I didn’t have to answer him; he already knew. Even so, I couldn’t stop myself from telling him. Trying to make him understand.

 “I’ve been lying to everyone, and to myself, for a long time. Maybe forever.” I put on my party smile like an accessory, but it tarnished under the weight of his gaze. “You know me. McKenna Madison, the docile creature who doesn’t want to make waves. The ultimate people pleaser.”

 When he rubbed his hand up and down my bare arm, I knew he meant to comfort me, but all it did was inflame. “I only want to please one person now.”

 His hand fell as his eyebrow rose.

 “Well, you, too, obviously. But I want to be selfish. I want to take what I want. I want to be happy. And I want it with you.”

# # #

I knew the minute the bell rang it would be Kenna. I’d been counting the days for—oh, hell, I’d been counting the years, really—for her to come to me.

 By an accident of fate, Cam Waters and I had been roommates freshman year of UCLA. Brothers in arms during the long, bone-crunching, brain-threatening days of football glory. Where he had reveled in it, I couldn’t wait until I could be free of it all. Fulfill all of the obligations of my scholarship and get back home to my little slice of heaven.

 But the day McKenna Madison walked into my life junior year, I knew nothing—no place on earth, even home—would feel right without her.

 And now she was doing it again, making me see how shabby my life was because she wasn’t in it. Couldn’t be in it. Because she’d been engaged to my best friend.

 Forget bro code. Cam was the biggest asshole on the face of the earth. He didn’t deserve Kenna, never had. And especially not now.

 “He called last week. After the news broke.” News. Such a polite way of saying all-hell.

 Kenna just kept looking at me. Hearing all the words I wasn’t saying. Of course she knew he’d called, and neither of us needed to spell out just who “he” was or what he’d told me about—first, the pictures, and then the breakup.

 Truly, Cam needn’t have bothered to warn me. To give me fucking permission. I knew it would only be a matter of time before my deepest, dirtiest wish would come true: Kenna would come to me.

 This moment should be sweet. Should have me grinning like a fool. How many times had I fantasized about what it would be like—the moment she’d make a clean break of things and come to me? Knowing she’d picked me. Me.

 We wouldn’t be standing on the threshold of this old house; I’d have long since swept her up into my arms and inside, that’s for sure.

 Now, the only thing I could be sure of? That she’d picked me out of desperation. Panic.

 Make that two things I was sure of: she’d come to me because she didn’t know what else to do, and it still only took one crooked little smile from her and I was hard.

 I scrubbed a hand through my hair. I wasn’t sure whether to invite her in or walk her to her car.

 “So you’ve seen the pictures.” Her voice wasn’t small. She wasn’t deflated. Kenna kept her head held high even though she was pissed. And hell if I wasn’t torn between the urge to high five her or shake her. I knew what that tone was costing her. Probably about the same as what it was costing me—lots of sleepless nights and a hollow feeling deep in my gut.

 And she’d had the nerve to say to me, not three minutes ago, that she was done lying. To herself. To me.

 “Nope.”

 I’d heard all about them. Heard every intimate detail described in the corner booth down at the Zone over the Goliath Special. And I’d wanted to put my fist through Phil Proctor’s face when he seemed to remember in the middle of the story that Cam had been my college roommate—asked me if I ever had a chance to “hit that” back in the day.

 “I find that hard to believe,” she said and rolled her eyes. “They’re literally everywhere.”

 “Haven’t and won’t,” I repeated, taking a few deep breaths in an effort to tamp down that rage that bubbled and festered.

 I’d practically set my phone on fire trying to avoid seeing the images splashed on the internet. Not the carefully censored ones and especially not the more graphic ones. Thank fuck the tabloid selection at the Zone and the adjacent gas station was sorely lacking--and since Karen did all of the grocery shopping, I was safe there.

 Kenna stuck her hands in the back pockets of the little shorts she was wearing, and I closed my eyes. It was like looking at the sun—it hurt so bad to have her here in front of me—but it did no good because I could still see the shape of her behind my closed lids.

 “So can I come in?” She was wiggling the toe of her bright orange Chucks into a half-rotted knot in the piece of planking I’d been meaning to replace for months before I—or worse Bob or Karen—put a boot heel through it.

 “One night.”

 Her breath came out in a whoosh and I thought she was going to jump on me. I held out a hand. Too late for self-preservation—I’d already been an idiot and had hauled her into my arms. But I could keep this from escalating. I had to. For both our sakes.

 “Don’t want you out on the road this late during Monsoon Season. You don’t know where the wash runs.”

 Plus the handful of lodging choices in town weren’t safe. Oh, Amanda ran her place right—it was clean and comfortable, if Spartan—but she’d blab five seconds after seeing the name on Kenna’s AmEx Black.

 “Well, don’t sound so excited about it, Colt Robles. Maybe I’d rather take my chances with a rogue thunderstorm.”

# # #

 “Where’s Karen? She out riding with Bob?”

 I was trying to make polite conversation, but it was hard when all I wanted to do was sit on the front steps and watch the muscles under his tight grey T-shirt bunch and shift as he unloaded the trunk of my car.

 For someone who insisted I’d be staying one night only, he didn’t stop until all of my luggage had been carted inside. Not that I was traveling with that much stuff on this trip. But still. I had to hide my smile in old Joe’s fur.

 I followed Colt into the house, and my, my, was the rear view just as impressive as the side. And you know what? I didn’t even feel guilty for ogling. Not one bit.

 Maybe it was the giant, wide open space of the Arizona sky behind me feeding me wild promises. But I was free. F-R-freaking-E-E free for the first time ever. And it felt amazing.

 Maybe I should hug Leo Bugiardini instead of strangle him the next time we came face-to-face. Humiliation and public annihilation was a small price to pay to finally be free to follow my heart. One hundred percent guilt free.

 “Penny had her baby.”

 “Oh,” I murmured, as I tried to zap myself back into the conversation. I didn’t even know Penny, Karen’s daughter, was married much less expecting—and delivered, now, apparently. But a lot had happened since I’d been here last, and though I adored Karen and Bob, we weren’t exactly Facebook friends. “How wonderful.”

 “Sure. Karen’s just bonkers over him, and he’s cute enough. But I thought Bob was going to float away when he told me they’d named the kid Robert.” He took the stairs two at a time, a suitcase in each hand and my purse and duffle under each arm. He didn’t even get winded, the jerk.

 Meanwhile, I reminded myself I was in prime physical condition, it was just the scenery and sheer excitement zinging through me that had me huffing and puffing by the time I caught up with him on the second floor landing.

 He set my bags inside of what had been my room the last time I’d visited. It faced west, and I knew that I’d be able to see every star in the sky from the big bay window.

 But at the moment, all I could do was stare at his mouth when he turned to face me. “So they’re up in Phoenix for a week or so.”

 Which meant, for the first time, we were completely alone.

 It didn’t last long, that magic alone-ness. Colt mumbled something about figuring out supper now that he had company and rushed past me before I could so much as blink.

 I showered off the day and picked out a pretty floral dress before heading downstairs again, but I shouldn’t have bothered. There was a note on the table telling me to help myself to one of the meals Karen had left in the freezer, and it was two days before I saw Colt again.

 I didn’t know where he was sleeping. No, I knew he was coming home every night because I could tell his bed had been slept in. Tempting as it was to crawl in the middle of that giant bed and know for certain when he got home, I couldn’t do that. I’d already invaded his privacy; I wouldn’t push my luck.

 But no matter how I promised myself I would stay awake until I heard him come in, it never happened.

 Finally caught up on my sleep (I hadn’t been doing much besides surfing satellite TV—avoiding anything that remotely resembled a news feed—and napping), I woke up on Friday morning about five. And I felt good. So good. Especially when I heard old Joe’s snores mixing with Colt’s when I tiptoed past his—closed—bedroom door.

 Down in the kitchen, I found everything I needed to make pancakes. If nothing else, I’d lure him into acknowledging my existence with bacon. There was no way he’d just keep walking out the door with the scent of grease and goodness in the air.

 Sure enough, when I heard him clomping down the stairs about an hour later, his footsteps paused only for a moment before continuing on into the kitchen.

 “Morning,” he said and gestured to the flour-covered countertops I had hoped to have cleaned up by now. “You didn’t have to go to all this trouble on my account.”

 I took the bacon out of the oven and he plated up an enormous portion before heading to the table.

 After watching him inhale a short stack and make good work on the bacon, I knew he wasn’t in this for conversation. Time for direct fire.

 “Are we ever going to talk about this?”

 “Bout what?” He chewed and swallowed, and I would not let myself be distracted by the sheer male beauty of his Adam’s apple. “Didn’t know you could cook.”

 “Does it matter?”

 “That you can cook? Guess not,” he said then dumped more sugar than was healthy into his cup of coffee. “Does Cam know you can cook like this?”

 “What does that have to do with anything?”

 He shrugged and went back to scooping in food, one eye on the back door.

 “So I guess we’re not going to talk about this. About why I’m here,” I spelled out, just in case he wanted to talk about some tangential subject again.

 Pushing back from the table, he grabbed his coffee mug and went to dump it in a traveler I’d washed and put in the drying rack the night before. It was electric blue, and I’d had the ridiculous thought that it matched his eyes as I soaped and rinsed it like a good little housewife.

 “What’s there to say, Kenna? You need a place to hide out. I’ve got lots of land.”

 It was the closest he’d willingly stood to me since that afternoon up in my room, but I knew as soon as he topped off the mug and fitted the lid on top, he’d be gone.

 “Seriously?” I wedged myself between Colt and the drying rack. He stepped back as if I’d burned him, but he’s the one who’d burned me. His contempt was like hot brand. “You think that’s the only reason why I’m here?”

 He cursed at Joe who was underfoot and whimpering—at our raised voices or over the bacon, who could say—and slammed the travel mug on the kitchen table.

 “And what should I think, Kenna? You say you want me, only me, while every shred of past evidence points to the contrary.”

 He was right. Absolutely. We both knew it. And I could make a move to protest, but what would be the point?

 “Yeah, you’re here now, and I should be grateful for the opportunity to take the crumbs you’re willing to share with me? And fuck if it isn’t everything to me—everything!—to see you standing in my kitchen. To know that you’re tucked up safe in the house—doing my damned dishes, even—and that it would be so easy to keep playing house.”

 “I’m not playing, Colt.” The words echoed in the stillness of the morning. And I prayed that the keen edge of sincerity in them would pierce through whatever shitty reality he’d constructed for himself over the past few days while he’d been off on his own. “I promise.”

 “Oh, I know, honey. I know.” His eyes pinned me in place as he casually stalked his way across the room. Until I could feel his chest up against mine, until I could feel his worn jeans warming my bare legs where he caged them with his own. Until I felt the bite of the counter in my spine. “It’s not pretend. I know, like I know this land, that you love me.”

 Whatever I’d thought to say vanished when he framed my face with his big hands and swooped in for a kiss. It didn’t start out light. There was no tentative meeting of lips and certainly no shy exploration of tongues that came with a first kiss. No, he took my mouth as if he’d taken it a thousand times before, in a kiss that went on and on. And, in a way, he had kissed me like this a thousand times before—or at least, it seemed that way because I’d imagined it that many times, at least.

 And soon it wasn’t only the bite of the counter I felt. His hands fisted in my hair, begging me to yield something to him I thought I already had, and when I wrapped my legs around his hips, the thick ridge of his erection rubbed into me. Thrilling me. Terrifying me.

 A cacophony of want and need, of pleasure and pain, clawed its way through me until I felt the cotton of his shirt beneath my nails as they raked up his back. Until the rasp of his stubble made my lips burn and smart. Until his teeth scored a path across my neck and I cried out.

 Until the sudden sting of cool air across my bare breasts pierced my awareness just as he sat me on the counter and pushed back, tripped over Joe, cursed again, and overturned the travel mug of coffee on the old Formica table.

 “Dammit.”

 I watched the liquid pool on the cool grey tabletop, crest and breach the worn, metallic border that banded the table, until the inky stuff dripped to the checkered floor. I heard Colt take the keys off the hook by the door and call for Joe.

 Heard the back door screech open as I clumsily tried to right the straps of my tank top and will my legs to hold me up when I hopped off the counter.

 “Things will die down, Kenna. Tomorrow, another scandal will hold the nation in thrall and they’ll forget your name. Who knows,” he said on a laugh, “trusty Cameron will most likely fall to his knees after the election cycle is over and beg you to come back.”

 I swear, I could hear each little plip and plop of coffee splashing on linoleum.

 “But I never will.”

# # #

 I meant to stay gone all day, I really did. Give her enough time to pull herself together. Thank her lucky stars she hadn’t thrown in her lot with an asshole like me. Spur her into action and out of the idea that we could ever be happy together. But more than that, give her time to get out of the house that hadn’t felt like home since she went away the first time.

 Except the road to Benson, for once, wasn’t packed. I’d stretched out my trip to Wal-Mart longer than I ever had and even pulled over to take a breather in Texas Canyon. But when I pulled up to the drive, her little silver rental was still sitting there.

 Blinking, I could almost convince myself the shimmering heat conjured it like a mirage.

 I made my way through the throng of dogs to the back door.

 The kitchen was clean. Kenna wasn’t in the den watching TV—or asleep on the couch like she’d been every other time I’d come home early to check on her—and Joe didn’t come when I whistled softly for him. Why I was tiptoeing around my own damned house was a mystery. Not like the damned dogs hadn’t started snorfling and braying as soon as the truck turned off the county road.

 She wasn’t in her room. And neither were her bags.

 Something like panic flickered to life low in my belly and flared out to all extremities. I’d never been a fanciful man, but suddenly all sorts of images assailed me. Ones that left me almost doubled-over in terror.

 Kenna, abducted.

 Kenna, airlifted away by the CIA or Secret Service or whatever damned mercenaries her father—or Cam’s—had on speed dial.

 But even in my wildest imaginings, I’d never pictured her bags in my room. My shower running, and the faint scent of some sweet-citrus soap dancing on the air.

 Joe was in his bed at the foot of the old iron bedstead that had been in this room long before it became mine, by default. He was ignoring me. I couldn’t blame him for that.

 The water stopped, and his head perked right up.

 Know the feeling, Joe.

 I should leave, or, at the very least, call out a warning. A hey, I’m home. Or something less sitcom-y. Instead, I sat on the edge of my bed, toeing off my boots. What on earth was Kenna up to now?

 It seemed like an hour before she came out, wrapped in some silky little robe that clung to those mile-long legs of hers. She acted like she didn’t even notice I was in the room.

 “Hey.”

 “Hey yourself,” she returned, and for the life of me I couldn’t read her tone.

 At one point, we'd been so close I could have probably translated her shrugs. Now, she was a mystery to me.

 She bustled about the room, rummaging in various bags until she had the outfit she was looking for. Or something. I couldn’t tell. Guess I was too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

 “I was thinking about stir-fry for dinner. Sound good?”

 “You’re staying for dinner?”

 She rolled her eyes and went back into the bathroom. When she came out again, the silky little robe had been replaced by a tiny little sundress, and she was combing out her wet hair. “I’m staying, period.”

 “I don’t—I can’t—” I couldn’t make real sentences happen. Out loud or in my brain. But she took pity on me and sat, cross-legged, down at the foot of my bed, still working out her tangles.

 “I’m not sure why, especially after this morning’s glorious performance.” She pointed her wide-toothed comb at me like it was a bayonet. “I’m still mad at you about that, don’t kid yourself. But,” she said, and went back to some kind of hypnotic haircare routine, “if I don’t leave, you’ll never have to break your promise and beg me to come back. So there.”

 “So there?” I repeated inanely.

 “I figured out a few things after you left me with that mess this morning, Colt Robles.”

 “You did?”

 “I did,” she said.

 I just stared at her. What could I say?

 Eventually, she put me out of my misery by continuing. “First of all, we’re even. It’s clear I hurt you, and you damned sure hurt me. So we’re done with that. Not like we’re keeping score. But.” She shrugged, and one of the little straps of her dress fell off her shoulder.

 I ached to right that little strap. To put her back together. But she didn’t need me for that. Kenna Madison was fully capable of putting herself back together without me. Without anyone.

 And it was a fucking beautiful gift she gave me to bear witness to it.

 “Second. I’ll have you know, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make you beg me—”

 “You misunderstood.” I shook my head, sick to my core. “I’m not sure what I could ever do to undo the hurt of this morning—” She started to interrupt, but I had to get through this. She had to know this. “If we were moving forward…no, since we were moving forward…I didn’t mean that I’d never beg.”

 “Colt, old Joe and I both were standing in that kitchen and heard you—”

 “I said, or at least, what I meant, was…” I couldn’t articulate that gnawing fear that one day, she’d wake up, remember who she was—what and who she deserved that was a fuckton more than I could give her—and I’d be left alone with the ghost of what we’d had for half a second.

 But I tried. Badly. And damn if my girl wasn’t close to tears and crawling in my lap by the time I got around to the important part. “All I meant was, the world might forget your name. But I never will.”

 


 

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