“I don’t need your help.” The second the words came out I wanted to call them back. Because there was a slight tremble on the last word and it made me want to grab my throat.
Apparently Rhys heard it too, because he turned his attention to me fully and his expression softened.
“Okay, Emma. I believe you. You don’t need help.” And just like that, he let me keep my secrets and have my dignity.
It was a shallow victory because we both knew better. Only I didn’t do help, didn’t know how anymore.
Relying on someone usually ended up badly. And for whatever reason, I liked Rhys. From the second I met him at that damn party and danced with him. The way he looked at me, held me, like nothing in the world could touch me when I was in his arms. It was that same intensity that got me hooked on him. The same reason I didn’t follow up that kiss with dinner.
I wasn’t a classy, take home to Mom kind of girl. Rhys was out of my station and comfort zone. I didn’t know how to handle him, or how he made me feel.
I cared. Enough to know that we would never work. He was former military with three tours under his belt. A self-made man who owned a security company that protected the rich and famous. Facts I’d gotten out of him a few weeks ago. He never gave details, but he wore honor like a very real badge in every move he made.
“Is this your area of expertise?” I asked. “Gaining information and supplying aid?”
There was something very haunted behind his eyes. As though he went somewhere else, to a different time or memory, right in front of me.
“Something like that,” he admitted. “People break into places looking for things to steal or a place to hide. Whatever is going on with you, I would never want you in danger. Especially if I could prevent it.”
“I’m not your duty, Rhys.”
He didn’t say anything. The look on his face was one I’d seen many times. And it was enough to chill the achy heat that had been building up for the past several weeks.
He was a goddamn hero and I was the pathetic little victim in need. A position I refused to be placed in. Especially by him. I didn’t want to be someone’s obligation, even if I had a criminal after me.
The less Rhys knew, the better. Tomorrow I’d try Ben again, hopefully get my money, and be on my way, hiding out somewhere else until the parole hearing. For now, I’d stick to my words and whatever kind of front I could put up.
“Good night,” I mumbled and turned on my heel, heading back to the bedroom. I had a feeling sleep wasn’t coming anytime soon.
The dull blade sank in like a hot knife into cold butter . . .
“No!” I shot up in bed, breathing hard, a cool sweat covering my face.
I gripped my stomach. Just a nightmare. The same one I’ve had for years. The same one that had kept me from sleeping lately.
I glanced at the clock. At least I’d gotten a good three hours of rest before this newest dream awoke me.
It was another two hours of staring at the ceiling later, I tossed around in the massive bed, hating how cold I felt. In nothing but panties and one of Rhys’s T-shirts, I could smell him, but not feel him. The nightmare weighed heavily on me, but not as much as Rhys’s earlier comments.
He looked, acted like he cared. Genuinely wanted to help. Which was impossible because we had no real history. Right? I had to be seeing things. Yet here I was thinking of him more than any other man I had ever known before.
I closed my eyes and tried for the millionth time to sleep. But every time my lids closed, I saw him: Castor James. He was behind bars. Couldn’t hurt me anymore. I knew that. But his brother Mase could.
Mase James was big and mean and would do anything to get his baby brother out on parole. Including taking me out. When I got the summons for my appearance, it was the first time a ping of fear went through me. But when Mase found me in Chicago, hanging out by Adam’s workplace, I knew I had to get out of there.
I was the only witness from that night, and the James brothers knew as well as anyone that without a witness, the case was less solid. It had happened over ten years ago, but I could still hear the screams — feel the pain slice across my stomach —
Forcing my thoughts to stop and running a palm over the raised scar just below my bellybutton, I pushed my hair out of my face and took a deep breath. There was only one thing that felt right. The only thing that could calm my nerves. And he was on the couch.
I walked quietly to the living room.
A sad smile hit my face, taking in the sight. Rhys was well over six feet of chiseled muscle and all of it was smushed onto a narrow five-foot-long couch. Shirtless, one arm thrown over his eyes while the other rested on his stomach. Easy breathing, up and down. I watched the hard ridges of his torso move gracefully with every exhale. The blanket was covering his lap. A massive man in dog tags, boxers, and a knitted throw was a hot sight.
I reached out to touch the tags around his neck —
His hand snapped around my wrist like a cuff. Sleep quickly cleared from his eyes as he looked up at me.
“Hi,” I whispered.
“Are you all right?” He sat up, causing amazing things to happen to his abs and making that drooling problem I had come back full force.
“I’m fine, I just . . .” I reached out again for his chest. He kept his grip on my wrist, but let me touch him. “I don’t want to be alone right now, Rhys.”
He looked at me for a long moment, then sighed a little. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Emma. Go back to bed.”
“No.” I sank to my knees. Rhys was a good man. Too good. I knew this just by the way he looked at me. The way he treated me. “I want to be with you.”
No more pretending otherwise or opting for a physical agenda. Rhys was different. Tonight would be different. Everything else didn’t matter. Mase after me, the trial, all of it wasn’t a concern in that moment. I had one more chance with Rhys, and it was right then.
I didn’t want to regret for the rest of my life not knowing what it felt like to have him inside of me. I could always go to denial tomorrow, but for now, Rhys Striker was the only thing in the world I wanted.
I laid my hand over his heart. The hard muscles jumped, the steady rhythm was strong, pulsing against my palms.
“This isn’t a game,” I said.
When I met his eyes, they were wild and alive. Even if I’d wanted to do my flirty, look at him from beneath my lashes number, I couldn’t. Not tonight. Not with him. Because for the first time since our spat in the hallway, I was telling the truth.