My Darling Bride: Chapter 2

EMMY

The hot Arizona sun, a pool, and a beverage. Sounds delightful, but the sun is a volcano, the pool belongs to a shithole place called the Golden Iguana, and my beverage is a tepid bottle of Fiji water. Not to mention, there’s a sketchy scorpion poking its head out at me from the rock garden. I saw one in my bathroom earlier, scurrying over the tile. Screaming bloody murder, I smashed my sneaker on it, then promptly vomited in the toilet. Goodbye, shoes. I can never wear them again, and I may not be able to go back in my bathroom. And if I see one more prancing around like they own this motel, I’m packing my shit and leaving.

There’s one thing that makes me smile: the motel sign has a faded green-and-gold iguana on it, standing upright and grinning as he welcomes you with open arms. He reminds me of that insurance lizard. I’ve named him Darcy.

Welcome to Old Town, a small place outside Tucson in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. A six-hour drive from Vegas, it seemed the last place Kian would look. Sure, I could have caught a plane back to New York, but I wasn’t thinking straight when I left the Bellagio.

The Vegas Incident unfolded so fast. As soon as Kian let me go and stormed out of the room, I ran from the hotel, hopped in a taxi, and told the driver to hit the highway. I didn’t have a plan, and I couldn’t think of what to do or where to go, so I just told him to head east.

This is where I ended up, and I just wanted to sleep.

Pushing Kian out of my head, I swim the length of the pool several times, trying to wear out my body, hoping that will stop my brain from mulling over the past few days.

I cling to the edge of the pool as a Lamborghini with blacked-out windows roars into the parking lot, the engine growling like a beast. Low slung and shiny, the car is lemon yellow, the golden bull emblem sparkling in the sunlight. It parks next to a rusted pickup truck.

“I guess the Four Seasons was booked,” I snark to myself, then wince at my raspy voice. My throat is swollen and aches horribly.

When no one gets out of the car right away, hair rises on the back of my neck.

Wait a minute . . . did Kian rent a different car and follow me?

Nah. He had a bachelor party last night, which means he’s sleeping it off today; plus, I only grabbed a small bag of essentials when I left. My suitcase is still in the room at the Bellagio, along with most of my clothes. For all he knows, I’m wandering around the casinos, pissed at him.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m overthinking it.

I’ll never let you go, Emmy.

I push Kian’s last words away as I sink underwater, swim to the ladder, and scramble up the steps. I gather my book and sunscreen, then adjust my hair around my shoulder, hiding the purple bruises on my neck. Sliding on my flip-flops, I’m dripping water as I make my way to the gate that leads to the rooms, keeping a wary eye on the car.

The driver’s side door opens, and a dark-haired man gets out.

I’m not even aware of how relieved I am until my shoulders sag. Not Kian.

Stretching his arms up and rolling his neck, the man squints at the sun, swears under his breath, then reaches inside the car. His back is broad. Like, fucking big. He must be at least six and a half feet tall. He thrusts on a pair of aviators and glares at the iguana on the sign as if he’s got a personal vendetta. I don’t know what he has against Darcy.

Muttering a curse, he slams the car door, then shoves a ball cap over his hair. The hat casts his face in shadow, giving him a dark aura.

Lambo looks about as cuddly as a steak knife.

Dressed in designer jeans that cling to his thighs and an expensive-looking button-down with the cuffs rolled up, he has a blade for a nose, sculpted cheekbones, and sensuous lips. Tall. Broad. Muscled. Sex on a stick. Swipe right, ladies.

He takes long strides yet somehow manages to appear graceful—no, scratch that, athletic.

My guess? He’s felt the crack of bone under his hands.

He exudes broodiness. My favorite.

I allow myself to picture just what kind of sexual damage he might cause, wondering at the thrill of being caught up in his arms when he unleashes.

Oh yeah. I’d ride that stallion like a cowgirl gone wild.

I mentally slap myself.

No. More. Men.

My next date will be with a rom-com and a kitten. A cat would be a superb boyfriend—hair balls but no drama.

As I’m picturing kittens dancing around a ball of yarn, Lambo slings a duffel over his shoulder and heads to the front office.

Goodbye, sexy beast. Enjoy your stay at the crappiest motel in Arizona.

Hustling, I head in the opposite direction and take the rusted metal stairwell up to the third-floor-balcony breezeway that leads to my room.

The motel is a squat, crumbling hulk of faded teal stucco with the rooms on the outside. My room is sparse and ugly with ceramic tile instead of carpet and a bed frame that used to vibrate but doesn’t work anymore. As soon as I walked in last night, I stripped off the bedding, checked the mattress for stains, then settled for sleeping on the top sheet with towels as my covers.

Around the motel, tumbleweeds blow and grass pokes through the asphalt. It’s like something out of an old western movie. Last night I heard wolves howling, the lonely sound echoing in the silence. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so solitary if my headspace were clearer.

There’s a diner across the street and a gas station down the road, yet the motel is far enough from Tucson to see miles and miles of desert. I stood at the edge of it this morning, looking out into its emptiness. Being a city girl, I’d never seen such a sight, and its beauty made my heart swell with appreciation for nature, but there was also fear. It’s a harsh and ambivalent place, one that could swallow me up and never let me go.

Like Kian.

Like any man, really.

Just as I think that, my phone vibrates with a text from him.

Pick up the phone and talk to me!

Bastard. I scroll back. He called me over twenty times while I was in the pool. Guess he knows I left him.

My gut twists, part of me getting a rush that he’s frantic, the other side of me sickened by my response. This thing between me and Kian feels too much like the relationship my mom had with my dad.

Texts pop up, one after another.

Come on, talk to me.

I’m sorry. I fucked up. I never should have put my hands on you. It’s been a hard year, you know that. With you by my side, I’ll be better.

Be better by yourself, jerk.

Yes, he’s had a tough year. He got two DUIs and was removed from the team’s roster, then put money into a restaurant with a friend that later failed. He actually asked me to marry him this weekend. My stomach swirls with anxiety. Doesn’t he know who I am? Marriage is the last thing I want.

Emmy. I was there for you when you needed me. I sat by your side when your gran died. I held you. I didn’t leave. I’m sorry, baby. It will never happen again.

Oh, Kian. That’s what they all say.

Come on, call me. You’re messing with my head.

Nope. I’m done riding his roller coaster. I’m getting off and saying “See you in hell” to his amusement park.

I ram my phone in my bag but miss, and it skitters across the open-air walkway. Cursing, I bend down to swipe it up.

“Hey, gorgeous,” a voice murmurs from behind me, and I whip around in surprise to see Clint Eastwood—not the real one, but a cheap knockoff.

Fake Clint showed up in the motel honky-tonk bar last night in a legit black leather duster, boots, and a hat. He lurked in the shadows cast by the flashing neon lights while I drank at the bar. He made the rounds, chatting up every woman in the place, and I left before he got to me. If he’d been interesting and less of a creep, I might have fooled around with him. Just to get over this awful feeling Kian has left in the pit of my stomach.

Gran said it best: Darling, if he’s no good, pick another pony. Of course, she was talking about the racetrack, but still, it’s a good reference for men as well.

I want to snap back a reply to Fake Clint, but an image of the last time I saw Kian flashes in my head, the shocking sound of his fist hitting the wall next to me, the pieces of drywall that flew into my hair, then the awful press of his fingers against my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I could only fight and slap and scratch at his face. Nausea bubbles as I recall the smell of lemon and butter from the fish we’d had for dinner.

He shoved me away, overturned the room service tray, then stomped out of the door.

I glance around the empty breezeway as my unease rises higher. A knot forms in my gut, and my breathing quickens. I’m alone here. Best to not engage with Clint. I make a noncommittal sound and start to my door.

“Hey, wait, don’t run off,” he says as he follows on my heels. “I saw you at the pool. You were swimming laps like it was your job.”

His eyes linger on my breasts, and I groan inwardly, regretting I didn’t pull on a shirt. I’m in a black rash-guard shirt and bikini bottoms I bought from the dollar store in town.

“Thought I’d join you, maybe get a few laps in, but now you’re done. Too bad.” He holds up a longneck beer. “I’ve got more of these in my room if you want one?”

“I’m in for the day,” I say as I rummage in my worn patchwork bag, searching for the motel key.

“You’re alone here, right?”

My warning radar spikes. “No,” I reply slowly. “My boyfriend is asleep in the room.”

“I didn’t see him last night.”

“He doesn’t like crowds. Or guys hitting on me.”

“Hard to believe he’d let you drink alone.” He stares at my navel ring peeking through my rash guard, then gives me a smarmy grin. “I noticed your room is next to mine. Talk about some cardboard walls. I heard you crying this morning. Did you have a fight with him?”

Play nice, the angel on my shoulder says, while the devil . . .

I find the motel key and grip it tight. “Should I wake up my boyfriend and tell him you’re being a dick?”

“I like your spunk, but I’m just trying to get to know you. No need to involve your man. If that’s even true.” He eases around me until he’s blocking my door.

His bloodshot hazel eyes hold mine. He’s older than my twenty-eight and reeks of beer. Today he’s wearing cutoff shorts, a faded shirt, and flip-flops. I guess the duster and boots were too hot for day attire. With a buzz haircut, a weak chin, and beady eyes, he looks like a mean hamster. And now I’m picturing a hamster in a cowboy outfit riding a horse in the desert and having a gunfight with Darcy the Iguana.

I’m five-nine and can hold my own, especially in heels, but he towers over me.

“Ease up. Just have a drink with me. I’m bored here. Where are you from?”

“Get out of my way, or my boyfriend will kick your ass.”

“Yeah? What’s his name?” His lip curls.

My brain scrambles for a name. “Darcy.”

“Weird name.” He touches a strand of my hair, and my heart thunders, part outrage, part fear.

Scenarios dance through my head. He’s bigger than me. He’s intoxicated. His door is currently open, and he’s blocking me from mine. He could push me inside his. He could drag me. Flashbacks of my father dragging my mother burn inside my head.

The air thickens with tension. Sweat beads on my upper lip as my muscles quiver with the instinct to flee.

The sounds of footsteps arrive on the walkway, and relief hits like a tidal wave.

Lambo strides our way as he tucks his sunglasses into the pocket of his shirt. He seems to weave on his feet, then rightens himself by clinging to the balcony rail. His head turns to us, and he pauses, his eyes tightening, flicking from me to Fake Clint.

“What’s going on?” he asks, his tone a dark velvet rumble.

Fake Clint takes a step back and holds his hands up in a placating manner. “I’m just on my way to the pool. You checking in?”

Lambo ignores him and comes back to me, his face expressionless. “You all right?”

It’s as if I’ve manifested him. Give the man a cravat, and he’s Darcy! As in, the guy from Pride and Prejudice, not the iguana. Well, him too.

A surge of adrenaline hits. Pasting on my brightest smile, I drop my bag and rush forward and wrap my arms around his waist in a bear hug. He grunts as we collide, his body a solid wall of hard muscle. My head hits him midchest. Oh, he must work out twenty-four seven, and kill me now, but he smells intoxicating, like dark cherries, expensive leather, and cedar.

My head tilts back as my eyes implore him, hoping he catches on quick. Swallowing down the pain in my throat, I manage to say the words in a husky (hopefully sexy) voice. “It’s okay, honey bunny, he didn’t mean anything. Honest. No reason to get upset—you don’t want to violate your parole. I know how jealous you get. Remember in Chicago, when you beat that man to a pulp for dancing with me? We can’t repeat that. It was carnage.”

“What? I don’t—” he starts.

“Oops, I shouldn’t have brought that up. You don’t like me to talk about your time in prison. It was so hard to be away from each other. Your passionate letters were the only thing that kept me going.” I stretch up on my tiptoes and brush my lips over his cheek. The scruff on his square jawline tickles my lips. “Don’t worry, I told this guy I was taken.”

His hand lands on my ass and tugs me closer—instinct, I suppose, when a woman claiming to know you throws herself in your direction.

I burrow into the curve of his shoulder. I’m aware that my body is damp, and I’m probably getting him wet, but needs must. My finger doodles little hearts on his chest. His dress shirt is silky soft and obviously expensive. Now that would be nice to sleep on, instead of the scratchy sheets on my bed.

“You surprised me,” I say. “I thought you were taking a nap.”

“I wasn’t,” he says as his eyes flash at me. A thrill dashes over me at the intensity in them. They’re an icy gray, surrounded by extravagantly thick black lashes. The color is striking, startling against his sun-kissed face. I see striations of blue and gold around his pupil. Mixed with the gray, his irises are like storm clouds with flashes of lightning. Straight brows slash over a face carved like granite.

My gaze moves lower, tracing the strong muscled lines of his throat to the gold necklace around his neck, a pendant hidden in the folds of his shirt. Men who wear necklaces are a little sleazy, in my opinion, but he carries it off like a champ. My man has style.

His face darkens. “What the hell is going—”

Shaking myself out of my detailed perusal, I pretend to hold him back as I whip my head around dramatically at Fake Clint. “This guy was just being neighborly, honey bunny. He said he was sorry for talking to me. Don’t let him ruin our vacation. What we have is a unicorn romance.”

“‘Unicorn’?”

“Yes, honey bunny. Our love.

Fake Clint bobs his head. “Yeah, sure, whatever, sorry, man, I don’t mean to get in the way of, um, whatever. Just saying hi to my neighbor. No need to . . .” He looks at Lambo, then at his bag, his eyes narrowing with suspicion. “But wait, aren’t you just checking in—”

“Oh good, you bought it,” I interrupt as I try to take the duffel from Lambo’s hand. He refuses to give it up, so I end up patting it awkwardly. “Thanks for getting this for me. My luggage is worn out.” (Not even here. It’s in Vegas.)

Fake Clint darts his gaze between me and Lambo. I’m not sure he’s buying this charade.

Time to go for the gold. “Did you get the other thing, honey bunny?”

A few moments tick by as Lambo glares at me.

Come on, Lambo, help me out. Geez. Keep up. You are my honey bunny.

A dark eyebrow rises in question, annoyance just barely under the surface.

I ignore it.

“Lube. The cherry,” I say playfully, nudging him slightly. “It’s my favorite because it smells like you.”

He scowls.

“You forgot,” I say with a heartfelt sigh. “You’re just so big, honey bunny.”

His mouth parts, and before he can ruin my performance, I crook my arm through his and herd him to my door, unlock it, and tug him in. Surprisingly, he doesn’t give me much trouble.

I slam the door with a bang—take that, Fake Clint—then engage the dead bolt lock.

Leaving Lambo to his own devices, I tense my shoulders as I peek through the blinds.

Fake Clint leans against the rail and lights up a cigarette, and I huff. Go away, you rat.

“Okay, what . . . the . . . fuck?” Lambo calls from behind me.

I turn, and he looks angry.

Sadly, it does nothing to hamper his attractiveness. On a scale of one to ten for hotness, Lambo is a million. He’s truly a mountain of a man and stands with authority, his feet spread and arms crossed, calling attention to the roped muscles on his forearms. He doesn’t have that pumped-up steroid look with a short neck; no, his muscles fit his frame perfectly.

“Well?” The sharp word hangs in the air, and I get it, totally. This man is someone, and I’ve just messed with him.

I note the Rolex on his wrist, the Gucci belt, the Italian loafers. La-di-da. He knows how to dress. Men like him are a dime a dozen in Manhattan. I can walk out of my building and see ten. Carry on, Emmy.

I sigh, nudging my head back at the door. “Clint was right; these walls are thin. I can practically hear him exhaling his cigarette. Keep your voice down.”

Disbelief flits over his face. “I don’t even know who you are.”

I raise my hands, my voice going back to the terrible scratchy one. “I know, I know. I’m sorry for the drama. Truly. He was being weird; then you showed up, and I just went with it.”

It was as if I was possessed.

I didn’t even recognize myself.

I could have just told Lambo the guy was bothering me from the get-go. Maybe Fake Clint isn’t even that menacing, but with Kian doing what he did, I may have gone overboard.

I’m not an impulsive kind of girl. Okay, that’s a lie. Obviously.

“Lots of weirdos at the Golden Iguana,” he says tightly.

“I hear the sarcasm.”

He grunts as his eyes rove the messy room, taking in the clothes that drape over every surface, my books, the packages of tart candy. I have several from an emotional binge run to the gas station. I move to stand in front of the nightstand, hiding the copious number of empty miniature prosecco bottles. I bump into the table, and several fall to the floor, clanking together and confirming that yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a slight hangover. I’ve named my headache the End of a Relationship Throb. I thought a swim might help. It didn’t. I rub my head absently, and he watches me.

The air-conditioning clicks on, and the room chills—and my nipples threaten to rip through my rash guard. His gaze drops to my breasts like they’re beacons, and I imagine he can see right through the material. Right. I’m barely dressed. I grab a white button-up shirt off the bed, one of Kian’s I snatched, and slip it on, thankful it comes to my thighs. I close a few of the buttons. “Sorry for the mess. I didn’t know I was going to have company.”

“Jesus. I’m not company,” he says as he nudges his head at the door. “I need to go to my room, lady.”

“Of course, but first, let me explain . . .” I offer him a tiny bottle of prosecco, one that isn’t empty, and he frowns.

“A little early, don’t you think?”

I shrug. “Depends on how one’s morning is going.”

“Today is totally sucking. You’re. Annoying. Me.”

Oh, I can see that. There’s an angry glint in his eyes, and his stellar cheekbones are flushed. “Fine, okay, I see what you mean. The guy out there, the one you rescued me from, was hitting on every female with a heartbeat last night, and today he was watching me swim, and when I came up the stairs, he cornered me. He asked if I was alone, and I told him I had a boyfriend in the room, but he didn’t believe me.”

“Where is your boyfriend?”

I wince. “That’s the thing. I don’t have one. Well, I did, but that’s another story. That’s why I needed you.”

“I see.”

“What Kian did was beyond reproach. I left Vegas and came here to get away from him. I should have just flown home from there, but I wasn’t thinking. I needed time to process. That’s how I ended up in the middle of the desert.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m never dating again. I’m going to get a cat. A rescue one. The ugliest one they have, the most pathetic creature, the one that no one else wants. It’ll love me unconditionally.”

“I really don’t care, lady. I despise cats.”

Jeez. He’s a tough nut. And a man who hates kitties? Concerning. Sure, a man (or woman) is allowed to like what they like, but cat haters are a good way to find out which humans to avoid.

Men who like cats, in my opinion, are usually kind and gentle, important qualities for a relationship. Men who don’t like them can be quick to judge and impatient. On the other hand, Kian loved cats, and he’s currently the king of douchebags. Dammit. There goes that litmus test down the drain.

I refocus. “Anyway, the guy outside is in the room next to mine and claims he can hear me. See, when he says that, I’m picturing him with a glass to his ear on the other side of the wall to spy on me. Or—and this is scary—maybe there’s a tiny hole in my wall, and he can actually see me. I’m not saying he’s a serial killer, but you seemed the better option.” Anxiousness rises. I’ve judged Lambo safe, but hell, what do I know? “Um, are you one?”

“One what?” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands.

“Serial killer. You have to tell me if you are.”

“Let’s see, let me think. No! I’ve never killed anyone, but if I had, I wouldn’t say, now, would I?”

“Guess not. I mean, how ironic would it be if I evaded Clint, only to end up being murdered by the hot guy?”

“‘Hot’?”

“I misspoke. You’re a troll.” I smile tightly.

“Hardly.”

I shrug. “Whatever. Guys like you are a dime a dozen. It takes a lot to impress me.”

“What if you’re the serial killer?”

“You’d twist me into a pretzel in a heartbeat.” I snatch up one of the prosecco bottles. “Guess I could kill you with some miniature prosecco.”

“So you might kill a man if you had a better weapon? Please tell me you’re not armed.”

“I only kill scorpions,” I say. “Better check your bed tonight.”

“I’d prefer a scorpion to this.”

“I’ll send them all your way,” I snip.

Ten seconds of silence pass. It’s so quiet I can hear the drip of the faucet in the shower in the bathroom. The air buzzes with tingles of electricity. Oops. Perhaps I should have been nicer.

“You’re brave,” he says softly, dangerously, as he studies my face, roving from one feature to the other. His piercing gaze makes the hair on my arm rise, goose bumps popping up. His eyes seem to see dig under my skin, right to the heartbreak I’m trying desperately to hide.

Gray eyes land on my mouth and linger. My tongue darts out to wet my lips as he watches avidly. Oddly, his perusal doesn’t make me feel exposed, like Fake Clint’s did.

I look like something the cat dragged in. I saw myself in the mirror when we walked in. My hair falls in a wet tangled mess down my shoulders, my face is angular, with high cheekbones, and my eyes have dark smudges beneath them from a lack of sleep—and crying. The freckles across my nose and cheeks look stark against my pale complexion.

His gaze hits my neck, and his eyebrows jerk down as he sucks in a sharp breath. Eyes flash back up to mine, and I fidget as I pop the collar on my shirt to hide the bruises. He opens his mouth to say something, and I just know he’s going to ask about them, so I cut him off.

“Ever read Death in the Desert?” I ask, my brain scrambling. “It’s a true crime story about a serial killer, Wayne Hopper. He murdered women staying at a motel like this one and buried them in the desert. Absolutely chilling. I wanted to go for a walk earlier but couldn’t stop thinking about the book. Clint gave me Wayne Hopper vibes.”

A few tense moments pass; then something about him softens as if he’s come to a decision about me. His lush lips relax. The furrow leaves his forehead as he uncrosses his arms and tucks his hands in his pockets. Body language is an art, and I’ve perfected it at the bookstore by people-watching.

“I haven’t. Is it any good?”

“Yes.” I nod an affirmative as I offer a tentative smile. “Look. I’m sorry, really. I practically jumped on you, then dragged you into my room. You have every right to be upset with me, and I’m sorry for that.”

“I get that a lot.”

A laugh bursts out of me, more nerves than anything, but wait, he’s serious; this isn’t a joke. I straighten my face. “You’ve had women pull you into motel rooms before?”

“It makes me sound like an ass, but yeah. None were as wacky as this one, though.” He shrugs, avoiding my gaze.

Is he famous? A celebrity? There’s a familiarity to his features, but before I can place him, he pulls off his ball cap and rakes a hand through his hair. My thoughts stutter as thick raven waves settle around his face as if they had been choregraphed. No man should have hair that shiny and layered, with soft curls that glint in the light.

“So, back to this guy outside . . .” He nudges his head at the window.

I clear my throat. “Right. He wanted to know if I was here alone. He blocked my door so I couldn’t get inside. He could be a killer.”

Anger tightens his eyes. “Fucking asshole. I hate guys like that.”

“I have a younger brother, and he’s a sweetheart. I’ve tried to teach him better manners.”

“He really scared you, huh.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t be on edge, but . . .” I look away and brush my fingers over my throat.

“I see. Should I go out there and put my fist in his face?” His voice deepens to that dark velvet, and I shiver.

“Nah, I hate violence, and you don’t want to go back to prison, honey bunny.”

His lips twitch until it spreads into a slow, wondrous smile, turning him from a cold, handsome guy into a sexy AF man.

“That’s cute,” he drawls. “Never been called that before. Your ‘unicorn love’ was, um, something. Did you see his mouth gape?”

I chuckle. “I should have added a Scottish accent and said ‘wee’ a few times. I never took a drama class, but hey, maybe I missed my calling.”

“You deserve an Oscar.” He hands me an empty prosecco bottle. “Wanna make a speech?”

Warmth spears me as I laugh shyly and take the bottle. The tightness in my shoulders finally eases completely. He’s all right, once you get past the exterior. I pretend there’s an audience and put my hand over my heart. “Thank you for this award. It means everything to me. If only it wasn’t empty.” I bow.

He smirks. “Had a big night drinking, huh?”

“Just drowning my sorrows. Bad breakup and all.”

“Hmm, if I’d arrived earlier, I could have joined you.”

“Bad breakup for you too?”

He shakes his head. “Just life.”

“Maybe we can meet up at the honky-tonk later and swap stories?” I ask.

Without answering, he peers over my shoulder and out the window. “It looks like he’s left.”

A tinge of disappointment hits—and that is just downright silly. Do I want to keep talking with Lambo? Maybe.

“I’m Emmy, by the way.”

“I’m . . .” He stops, his brow furrowing as he debates.

“Ah, it’s okay,” I murmur. “Names have power. No need to share.”

“No, it’s fine. Call me G.” He sticks his hand out, and I place mine in his. It engulfs mine and it’s warm. Tingles race up my arm, and I laugh nervously as I pull away.

“Is it short for Greg?”

“No.”

“Grant?”

“No.”

“Geoff?”

“Is this the name game?”

“It could be. You already know my name and you won’t tell me yours, so now I’ll have to guess for the rest of my life. I’ll be wandering the shelves in the bookstore, thinking, ‘Who was that guy that saved me from a grave in the desert?’”

I bite my lip to stop the rambling. “Again, I’m sorry I pulled you into this . . . spectacle. You should have seen your face. Me, a complete stranger, jumping at you like a wild woman, talking about lube. The horror.” I wave my hands.

“Hmm. Not so much a horror now.” His eyes brush over me, his gaze pausing for a long moment on my lips again.

My breath catches.

Who are you, really?

What are you doing in this shithole?

“Thank you for the rescue,” I say softly.

The moments tick by and the silence builds up, for what I’m not sure, but it’s as if—

A horn blows outside, interrupting the moment. I start, and he blinks. He picks up his duffel and room key. He’d set them on the desk chair when he walked in. Curious eyes linger on my throat again. “Um, you need me for . . . anything else?”

“If you see Clint later, give him a menacing stare, maybe bump chests, but nothing violent. I don’t want you to get into trouble because of me. Oh, FYI, I told him your name was Darcy.”

An eyebrow rises.

“The hero in Pride and Prejudice,” I say.

“Guess that makes you Elizabeth Bennet?”

Kill me now. He knows Jane Austen.

“Yes,” I squeak. “You read?”

His face softens into a smile. “Pride and Prejudice was my mom’s favorite book.”

Was? I hear the ache of loss in his voice. Already I feel an affinity with him.

And before I can reply to that, he hitches his duffel back to his shoulder and seems to think about his next words carefully. “I’m on the other side of you. If you need anything, bang on the wall or come over, yeah? I’ll protect you.”

I’ll protect you.

From a deep well inside me, unbidden, emotion rises up.

No one has ever protected me except Gran, and she’s gone.

I’ve been the protector of myself and my siblings ever since the day they came home from the hospital, bundled up in their little blankets. I took on the role of their mom with a ferocity that came from instinct. I kept the three of us safe by doing whatever it took to survive. Sometimes that meant climbing up the rickety steps with two babies and hiding in the attic. We’d sleep there in a cramped storage area surrounded by Christmas decorations and old dresses until the rage had cooled in the house.

“You okay?”

I nod, kicking away those thoughts. “Actually, do you mind if I make some loud noises later, just to show him we’re, you know, having a good time?”

He gives me that ten-thousand-yard stare, the gaze almost tangible, the intensity of it seeming to reach out to me and pull me closer. My body tingles as tension swirls in the room, thickening with possibilities.

I picture him pressing those luscious lips over mine, his hands on my breasts . . .

What? Worst idea ever.

I just broke up with a guy. Get in the game, Emmy. It’s cats from here on out. Meow.

Not that Lambo’s interested. This is probably his regular stare.

“I just don’t want you to think I’m actually being murdered when I start screaming ‘Oh, Darcy, yes, yes, yes!’”

He laughs! The man laughs! His entire face changes, his eyes crinkling as two dimples pop out on his cheeks.

I nearly melt into a puddle.

“Making me sound good, huh?” he says.

“My honey bunny is always good.” Jesus. Why did I say that? “Guess you should go now, so I can scream into a pillow with embarrassment.”

He smirks. “Gotcha. See you later.”

I want to say something clever. I give him a thumbs-up. “Keep it real.”

That wasn’t it.

Without saying anything else, he makes sure the coast is clear, then waves goodbye and steps outside.

I still have my thumb up as I shut the door. I lock the dead bolt and engage the chain.

I bury my face in my hands. What in the world. He thinks I’m a prosecco-drinking, name-game maniac!

I flop back on the bed as my head tumbles through our encounter.

I can’t believe I threw myself at him like that. It just . . . happened.

He was a little hostile at first, completely understandable, but then he offered to fight Fake Clint. I give a one-two punch to the air. Cat hater or not, he’s a good one.

Hours later, I awake and watch from the window as the sun sinks below the horizon. Half the sky is still dark, the other half tinted with pink and red. It’s pretty, but I can’t wait to get back home. I don’t want cacti. I want Central Park, my little family, and the bookstore.

I grab clothes for a shower. I don’t have much to choose from but find clean panties, a pair of gray sweats, and an “Arizona Rocks” shirt I picked up yesterday. I stand under the hot water and contemplate my dinner options, either pizza delivery or Chinese. I’ve picked Chinese by the time I get out and dry off.

As I stand in front of the mirror, my eyes snag on the small scars on either side of my rib cage from the surgery. I trace the raised red surfaces, then put my hand over my heart. Luckily, they didn’t have to do open-heart surgery. Going in through my ribs was the best option for the mini-maze surgery, with a shorter recovery time. I sigh, thankful for normal, steady beats.

I part my hair in the center and brush it out. There’s no motel dryer, so I scrunch the strands. When it dries, I’ll have a riot of loose blonde curls spilling to the middle of my back. If I stretch it out, it’ll reach my lower back. Pulling out my makeup bag, I dab foundation on my face and blend it in. Mascara is next, just enough to take away some of the paleness. Shimmery lip gloss coats my lips.

I laugh when I realize I have nowhere to go.

Maybe I’ll go next door and chat with G. I could buy him dinner, considering what I put him through. Ugh. I wish I had nicer clothes with me.

My phone rings as I come out of the bathroom, and dread fills me when I see it’s Missy. I debate answering but end up plopping down on the bed as I pick up. She’s Kian’s PA, and we’ve had some good times, but in the end, she’s his minion.

Her voice is hushed. “Emmy! Thank God!”

Alarm hits. “What’s wrong?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m not saying.”

She rushes through her words. “I’m in the restroom at a gas station just outside of Tucson. Kian’s in the car. He’s tracked your phone, Emmy. He knows where you are.”

“I turned off his tracker.” Two days ago in Vegas when I found it.

I’d been shopping for a dress to wear to Kian’s friend’s wedding. Back in New York, I’d packed one, a black number with cutouts, but I’d forgotten to try it on. On my flight to Vegas, I realized it would show my surgery scars and perhaps rub against them.

I’d left Kian sleeping and went shopping. I was in a boutique in Vegas when I heard him calling my name; then he barged into the dressing room where I was. When I asked how he knew where I was, he admitted he’d put a tracker on my phone.

You were gone for so long that I was worried, Emmy.

I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t just about being concerned for me. He invaded my privacy and kept up with my movements so he could hide what he was doing.

“He reinstalled and hid it under an app,” Missy says.

My teeth grit. “Do you see a motel outside the gas station?”

“Yeah. I think that’s where he’s going. I keep asking him, but he won’t answer. He’s really pissed because you won’t answer the phone.”

“Doesn’t he have the rehearsal dinner tonight?”

“He told Danny he was sick. His best friend is getting married, and he’s skipping it to look for you. He should be giving a toast right now.”

“It’s not my fault he makes dumb decisions.”

She huffs. “If you want to end this, then leave and turn off your phone. I’m sick of your ‘on again, off again’ thing with him.”

“Yeah, you’d love for us to be over. You’d just slip right in and take my place in a heartbeat.” I pause, my voice thickening. “He hurt me, Missy. Beware of him. Please.”

She huffs. “I don’t know why I’d need to know that. He’s my employer.”

No, he’s more than that.

As soon as I arrived in Vegas and met them at the hotel, my hackles rose at the undercurrent of tension I sensed. The way she fidgeted, her eyes darting to him over and over. The way he didn’t look at her. They’d arrived a few days before me, and I smelled something rotten. Sure, Kian and I had a tumultuous relationship and had broken up a few times, but I always trusted him to be faithful when we were together.

Finding a pair of women’s lacy white underwear under his bed had cemented my suspicions.

Then the awful fight that ensued afterward—the final straw.

“I’m throwing my clothes into my bag as we speak. You’re literally giving me seconds.”

“He’s been with me in the car. I couldn’t call you. I texted.”

I was asleep.

“He can’t focus when it comes to you,” she adds, her tone annoyed. “He needs to be getting ready for next season—”

I hang up on her and turn my phone off. I fly around the room, grabbing candy and water. My hands shake as my head runs in circles, trying to hatch a plan in seconds.

There’s no time to call a taxi or Uber; plus, I don’t want to use my phone until I can delete the app he installed. I could use the one in the room, but there’s no phone book, and I’d need to turn my cell on to find the listing for a taxi company. I could call from the front desk for information, but I wouldn’t have time if they’re just down the road. I could hide in the stairwell or a dark corner, but knowing Kian, he’ll walk every inch of this place. I picture him walking the outskirts of the desert around the motel with the flashlight on his phone. Right now, he’s thinking he’ll get me back by showing how much he cares by sacrificing the wedding to look for me.

Look at me, I’ve traveled hours to get you back in my arms. That underwear was left there on purpose—to break us up.

I’m almost out the door when I spot a set of keys on the desk. For the Lamborghini. G must have left them by accident. I snatch them up, dash out my door, and dart to his. I knock and call out his name.

Mayday. Mayday.

Please. Answer. Let me hide in your room.

“It’s Emmy, G!” I knock rapidly.

My reaction isn’t just about Kian being angry; it’s about my weakness. The man knows how to grovel. He’ll beg my forgiveness, say that he’s sorry for the tracker, that he never touched Missy, that he’s sorry he put his hands on me. He’ll make heartfelt promises with tears in his eyes, and I might just get in his car and go back to Vegas with him.

My heart thunders as a wild idea swirls.

Wait.

Could I “borrow” Lambo’s car?

Gran’s voice dances through my head. If it feels wrong, then it probably is . . .

I pull a notepad from my purse and scribble a barely legible message.

G

I’m in the middle of an emergency! You left your keys in my room, and I borrowed your car. You’ll find it in Tucson at the airport. I’ll leave cash for gas and the keys tucked on one of the tires. Thank you again for helping me. SORRY!!

Emmy

I slip the note under his door and dash down the breezeway.

After taking the stairwell farthest from the main office, I run through the parking lot. I click the fob to the Lamborghini, and the car unlocks. Relief hits as I open the fancy door and slide inside. It looks like a spaceship. And, wow, it smells like him, a spicy masculine scent mixed with rich leather.

I’m trying to figure out how to start it when a black Escalade pulls into the lot. Grunting, I duck down in the seat, recognizing Kian’s rental. He parks in front of the office and gets out.

His jawline tics as he strides to the doors. He’s dressed in black, from his Doc Martens to his expensively ripped shirt. Thick silver rings adorn his fingers as they tap the side of his thigh. I used to think his anger aura was just the result of him being a hot guy with inner demons. Which is true. He is angsty.

My eyes shut to erase images of him holding me when my grandmother passed away, his soft voice telling me he’d take care of the arrangements, that he’d make sure she got the service she deserved. Then there was the wake. While I was a mess, he arranged for a meal to be catered at the apartment and filled it with white calla lilies, her favorite flower. A few months later, I recall him carrying me into the ER, his face torn with anguish. I can still feel the brush of his lips on my forehead, the wetness of his tears—

I push him away. I have to end it. I’m not my mother.

The Lambo’s engine roars to life, and I creep slowly out of the lot, then hit the accelerator as I head toward the airport.

I’m sorry, G.

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