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Page 45

Spence was in jeans and a cowboy hat. So was Lucas, both looking extremely hot.

And then there was Joe. He too was in a hat, but his was a backward baseball cap topped with dark sunglasses he’d shoved up there and clearly forgotten about. He wore an open flannel plaid shirt in dark blues over a white T-shirt and a pair of old, clearly beloved jeans well-worn in the stress points, and even from across the room it was obvious that he had some pretty excellent stress points.

She couldn’t tear her gaze off him.

As if he felt her looking at him, he lifted his head and locked gazes with her. They hadn’t spoken since he’d left her that morning still wet from their shower, naked and panting and practically purring.

His mouth curved in a barely-there smile and she felt her face heat.

Next to her, Archer and Elle were arguing over his order, which had just arrived. “Look,” he was saying, “I love you but I asked you what you wanted and you said nothing, so I ordered wings. The exact amount of wings I wanted to eat.”

Elle narrowed her eyes. “But I only want a few—”

“Exactly the right amount, Elle.”

She paused. “Okay, but I want you to remember this because later when you want to get lucky, I’m going to tell you that you’re S-O-L because I’ve already had all the lucky I want today.”

Archer opened his mouth, but she held up a finger. “Exactly the right amount,” she said.

He stared at her and then laughed and hauled her onto his lap. Elle smiled and grabbed a wing, making yummy sounds as she ate it. Archer watched her, then leaned in and licked the sauce off the corner of her mouth, making his own yummy noise.

“Is that what love is?” Molly asked the room. “Sharing food when you don’t want to?”

“Yeah,” Kylie said softly. And it was also letting someone in when maybe you hadn’t meant to. Again her gaze sought out Joe and again he looked at her right back, not bothering to hide it. He clearly spent zero time worrying about what anyone around them thought. It wasn’t a problem for him.

Nope, his problem was that he didn’t want to let love in.

Which of course had somehow, when she hadn’t been looking, become her problem.

Later, after they’d all finished eating, Molly opened her presents. When she got to Joe’s and unwrapped the gorgeous mirror Kylie had made, she went stock-still before lifting suspiciously sheeny eyes to Joe.

“It’s the right one, yes?” he asked in the universal voice of male panic when a woman appeared to be on the verge of tears.

“Yes, you idiot,” she said and then limped her way closer and threw herself at him.

“Okay.” Joe patted her on the back. “Okay, then.”

“Such an idiot,” Molly muttered and held on.

He grimaced. “Are you crying or drooling?” he asked, trying to break free.

“An asshole idiot.” Molly only held him all the tighter. “I love you, you big jerk.” She pulled back and gave him a shove.

And that, clearly, Joe knew how to deal with. He didn’t budge, of course, but he did laugh and looked greatly relieved that his sister was over her moment.

Anyone could see that they had a close, strong relationship. But sometimes, like now, Kylie also caught glimpses of an odd, nameless tension between the two of them that she didn’t quite understand.

After the last present had been unwrapped, everyone scattered, to dance or play pool or get another drink. Molly plopped next to Kylie.

“You can take the boy off the street,” she said, “but you can’t take the street out of the boy. He really hates it when I get all emotional over him.”

“You like to bait him,” Kylie said.

Molly shrugged. “It’s my civic duty as his sister, right? You have any siblings?”

“No,” Kylie said. She’d often wished for a sister or a brother, someone to share the load with, someone with the same blood so she’d always have them at her back. Friends like Molly, Elle, Pru and all the others had filled the gap for her, but deep down there was a hole where family should be.

Molly was watching Joe. “He pretends he’s so tough, but I’m his kryptonite. Thanks for making that gorgeous mirror for him to give to me.”

“He paid for it.”

“Of course he did,” Molly said. “Joe knows better than most that nothing comes free. Not even friendship—or whatever it is that you two are really up to. My point is that he’d never expect anything from you.”

Kylie knew this. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. “Friends do stuff for friends.”

“Not where we come from,” Molly said. “My dad told me he met you. He also told me you’re going to be the one to bring Joe to his knees.”

Something deep inside Kylie reacted to that. She wanted to say it was denial. And maybe a week ago it would’ve been. Deep, dark, head-in-the-sand denial. But today, right now, after all the things she and Joe shared, all the intimacy . . . it wasn’t denial at all.

It was hope, which was infinitely more dangerous.

Chapter 24

#IllBeBack

Molly glanced at Kylie. “You look like you either just swallowed a bee or had an epiphany.”

Kylie managed a laugh, but yeah. She’d just had a hell of an epiphany.

She was falling for Joe.

So not good and so not smart, but before she could freak out about it too badly there were some cheering and a few groans across the bar.

Joe had won at pool.

“Yeah,” Molly said, laughing wryly as her brother collected cash for his victory. “Definitely the street rat in him still comes out here and there. He can’t change everything.”

Kylie tore her gaze off Joe and looked at Molly. “Change? What has he changed?”

She shrugged. “Growing up, he was always . . . well, untamed.”

“Don’t see how that’s changed at all,” Kylie said dryly.

Molly laughed. “Trust me, he’s definitely mellowed, a lot. Oddly enough, the military did that for him. Or to him. Same with working at Hunt. He’s more focused now. Driven. And . . . caring.”

“You guys are close. He cares about you very much.”

“Yes,” Molly said. “But a good part of that is guilt.”

“Guilt?”

Molly hesitated and then pushed her beer away. “Okay, clearly I’ve hit my quota.”

“Guilt?”

Molly grimaced and looked away. “It’s an old, long story from before we both changed—for the better, I should add.” She shifted her bad leg and grimaced again.

“I’m sorry,” Kylie said. “It’s clearly a painful story and none of my business—”

“He blames himself,” Molly said.

“For what?”

Molly was quiet a moment and then she sighed. “I see how he looks at you, you know. And you’re my friend, but . . .” She hesitated. “Don’t hurt him, okay? Only I get to do that.”

“I’m not going to hurt him,” Kylie said. “To be honest, I’m not sure I even could. And in any case, it’s not like that between us.”

“Come on.”

“It’s not,” Kylie said, knowing she sounded defensive but, well, she felt defensive since even she didn’t believe herself. Because they were like that, at least somewhat. But she’d meant what she’d said. She didn’t think she had the ability to hurt Joe. He held too much of himself back for that.

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