“You’re staring,” he said.
Oh, she was doing more than just staring. Christ, she was looking so hard that she was pretty sure the image of him was branded into her mind so her memory wouldn’t dig up hazy images of him shirtless anymore.
Flushing to the roots of her hair, she forced herself to look away. “I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t apologize. I like you staring at me.”
Her gaze flew to his and she saw him smile. There was a predatory twist to his lips, the kind that almost left her wishing she was the prey.
He slowly crossed his arms, the position popping out his biceps. “I’m guessing you heard the footsteps.”
Finally remembering why she was actually out in the hallway, she found her voice. “You heard them, too?”
She wanted to ask if he planned on checking it out or was he just going to stand there and serve as eye candy. She decided against that. Stepping around him, she bit back a groan when he followed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m here to protect you.”
Julia tilted her head to the side. “From what exactly?”
“You never know.”
She rolled her eyes as she tugged the ends of her sweater together and she continued down the hall. “I’m pretty sure the only thing I need protecting from is the one thing masquerading as a protector.”
“You wound me, Ms. Hughes. Deeply.”
“Sure,” she said, casting a slight frown at the flickering wall sconce.
Lucian fell in step beside her. “You didn’t come to dinner tonight.”
“You didn’t come to dinner the day before either.”
Making use of the groceries Livie had picked up for her during the afternoon of her second day here, she’d made herself a small dinner both nights. After her brief introduction to Devlin’s fiancée, she really didn’t want to face the potential of having to sit through a dinner with her. She didn’t trust herself to remain polite if the woman made another snide comment.
“And I have this feeling you’ve been avoiding me,” he said as they climbed the stairs.
Which was also another reason why Julia hadn’t attended their dinners. After what he said to her and how she reacted to his honesty about what he wanted from her—how her body had been ready to board the Hell Yeah train—she figured it was smart to keep her distance.
So she had.
During the day, she took the outside staircase to avoid walking past his rooms. Around the time he showed up the first time to con her into taking a lunch, she made sure she was hard to find, usually taking her lunch in her room. And when he arrived to spend time with his sister, she used that as a perfect moment to slip away and check in with her parents.
Or pretend to do so.
But she had talked to her mother yesterday about Adam and how he could’ve gotten her new number. Neither of her parents knew how and she knew they wouldn’t lie over something like that.
Adam hadn’t called again and, up until this very moment, her Operation Avoid Lucian had been working just fine.
He was quiet, blissfully so, as they made their way to his sister’s room.
Of course, they found no one in Madeline’s room. The porch doors were shut and locked, and she was sleeping. Careful not to disturb her, they left the room quickly.
“Are you going to check her room every time you hear footsteps?” he asked once they were back out in the hallway.
“Yes.” Holding the edges of her sweater together, she started back down the hall. The smartest thing for her to do was to get back to her room and in her bed. Alone. “It’s my job to make sure she’s okay. If someone is disturbing her in the middle of the night or if . . .”
“If what?” He was right beside her, easily keeping up with her with his long-legged pace.
She didn’t want to suggest that it was Madeline, but at this point, anything was possible. “I just need to check on her.”
Lucian was quiet for a moment. “You take your job seriously.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
In the middle of the hall, he stopped and stood in front of her. “I like that about you.”
“My life is now complete.”
A grin formed. “Not yet, but I can help you with that.”
Her eyes rolled so hard she was surprised they didn’t fall out the back of her head. “I’m curious. Would you have checked this out if I hadn’t?”
“All of us are used to the weird noises,” he explained, still standing in front of her. “We’ve spent many late nights tracking those sounds down and finding nothing. We usually just ignore them now.”
“But your sister—”
“I would’ve checked this out,” he cut in. “Your presence is like a nice little bonus.”
Julia ignored that. “Have you been hearing footsteps coming from this room for a long time?”
He didn’t answer immediately. “We’ve heard footsteps all throughout the house.”
“But what about Madeline’s room?”
Reaching up, he scratched his fingers through his messy hair. “I know how this is going to sound, but I don’t remember hearing anything coming from that room until . . .”
She waited, brows raised.
“Until the night my father died,” he finished. “I heard footsteps then. Didn’t find anything.”
Well, that was interesting and . . . and suspicious. She hated thinking that, but who wouldn’t? “And there’s no way it could be Gabe or Devlin?”
He huffed out a dry laugh. “Like I said, it’s not them.”
Julia thought about the open doors in her room. She had to have left them unlocked and not closed properly, but the footsteps? Maybe it was the house settling. Because if it weren’t one of the brothers and the whole ghost thing was ridiculous, it had to be tricks of the mind.
There was no other option.
She sighed. “I need to get back to bed.”
“But I have a secret to tell you, Ms. Hughes.”
The good Lord only knew what kind of secrets he had. Julia stepped around him and started walking again.
“There’s a reason why you’ve been so successful in avoiding me,” he said, and she looked up at him sharply. Hadn’t this conversation ended before they even made it to Madeline’s room? “It’s because I haven’t been pushing it.”
She almost stopped walking, almost took the bait. “Lucian—”
He moved so fast she didn’t have a chance to react.
One second he was a little behind her and then suddenly her back was flush with the wall and he was right in front of her, his hands planted on either side of her head.
There were just a few inches between their bodies, but she swore she could feel the heat he was throwing off as he lowered his head so they were eye level. Julia’s breath caught as she pressed back against the wall.
“Damn.” His warm breath danced over her cheek, stirring the hair at her temples. “I really, really love the sound of my name coming off your lips.”
Something akin to anticipation skated over her skin. “I really, really need you to back off.”
The hue of his eyes deepened as he tilted his head, lining their mouths up in a way that would be perfect for them to kiss.
And then the most ridiculous thoughts started swirling around in her head.
Would this be so bad? He claimed he wanted her. He’d put that right out there, as blunt as humanly possible. Her skin was buzzing with the mere idea of touching him again, exploring all that bare skin and those lips. All she had to do was move her head forward an inch and then . . . then she just needed to live a little. Plunge into whatever dark promises those sea-blue eyes of his offered.
Bizarrely, she didn’t feel threatened. Not at all. Even given everything that had gone down with Adam, she had felt something entirely different than fear or anger.
She’d felt daring instead.
This wasn’t like her. Not at all.
Just like taking him back to her apartment wasn’t like her.