Do you ever wonder if you’re being framed? Set up for disaster? Jumping on a freeway that you can never exit from?
You don’t even realize you’re barreling down the wrong direction until it’s too late.
A collision waiting to annihilate you up ahead.
Invisible to the naked eye. A trap.
Or maybe, it was just the direction I was supposed to be traveling all along.
I wasn’t sure.
Only thing I knew was I wasn’t ready for what I was heading toward.
I reached up and grabbed the oversized box.
“Got it. One size small box of diapers, my friend. Mission accomplished. And you said I was good for nothing.” It was all a rough tease into the phone that I had pressed between my ear and shoulder.
Nothing more badass than going on a diaper run. But it was man up time. Be there for your crew when they needed you most.
And when my best friend, Ian, had sent out an SOS call, I’d dropped everything and come running.
Of course, I did. Would anyone have expected less of me?
I’d had Ian’s back so many times I’d long since lost count. Maybe as many as he’d had mine.
We didn’t keep score.
We just did whatever the hell the other needed, and did it without questions.
Of course, this commission was a whole ton cleaner than some of the filthy shit the two of us had been involved in back in the day.
Something that wouldn’t get my hands dirty because I’d given up dishonest deeds a long time ago.
Ian blew out a relieved breath around the cries of his newborn son. “Thank you, man. Take it all back. Pretty sure I’m going to regret saying this, but you’re basically my favorite person right now. You need to get here and get here fast. Grace will be back from her writing workshop in like . . .”
I could sense him checking the clock.
“Shit,” he whispered. “Less than an hour. I can’t mess this up . . . and dude, I am seriously messing this up. It’s a fucking disaster over here.”
His voice dropped on the last, keeping it low from the kids.
He might not think so, but I was convinced the asshole deserved a father-of-the-year award. And that wasn’t me being sarcastic.
It was mad crazy at their house. Straight mayhem. The good kind you’d do anything to protect, commit your whole life to, but it would still have you laid flat out on your ass at the end of the day.
The guy had become daddy to four in the period of a year. That took some serious man balls, and I was honestly proud of him.
Didn’t mean I wasn’t gonna give him shit.
“Sorry to break it to you, brother, but in case you’ve forgotten, you’ve been messing things up with that amazing girl since the day you met her, and somehow, your ugly ass got lucky enough that she still wants to crawl into bed with you every night. Think you’ll be just fine.”
A huge crash of shattering glass and splintering wood reverberated through the line. The magnitude of it had me wincing for the poor sucker, the disaster he’d just been talking about clearly coming to fruition.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered in abject horror before his voice twisted in defeat. “Sophie Marie, sweetheart. What did you do?”
“I bwoke it, Daddy.” Sophie Marie was clearly working up to a meltdown, the way she did best, hiccupping through the words and sucking for air. Two seconds later, a loud, mortified cry came wailing of her little body.
At three, she was nothing but a tiny ball of energy, all white, wild hair.
A demolisher with an angel face.
Couldn’t ever get frustrated at her since she was the sweetest little thing, all crazy smiles and wide blue eyes.
Oh, but the kid could belt it out. Her cries coming through the phone were so loud, I was pretty sure the entire store was being subjected to it from across the distance.
It only made Baby Collin cry louder, and if it were possible, Sophie started to do the same.
A terrible case of sibling rivalry.
A battle to see who could bring the walls down first.
“You did, didn’t you?” Ian mumbled his encouragement through the disorder. “You really, really did. It’s okay. It’s okay. Come here, sweetheart. You’re not in trouble. It’s okay.”
I could almost see him trying to wrangle the weeping toddler into one arm while he balanced his screaming infant in the other.
No doubt, Collin was flailing his little fists all over the place.
Like I said, father-of-the-year.
Don’t tell his brother Jace I said that, either. I wasn’t picking favorites. It was four to two. A simple mathematical equation, and not that shit they tried to teach in school these days.
Cringing for my best friend, I booked it up to the registers, picking up the pace.
Because let’s be real. Dude was totally messing it up.
But his heart was in the right place. I knew Grace well enough to know that was all that mattered. Still, my boy was about to a have his own meltdown. I needed to get my ass over there and do it quick.
“Hurrying as fast as I can. Be there in like ten.”
“Ten? Come on, asshole. This calls for sirens and lights. Straight-up emergency.” I could almost see the wry grin pulling to his smug face.
A light chuckle rippled out. “Pretty sure you can handle it. Take a deep breath and count to ten.” I was only half teasing when I said it. “What happened to that tough-as-nails attorney I used to know?”
Soggy cries were still coming from his kids, though somehow the volume had decreased by a decibel, the guy no doubt managing to soothe them.
“Uh . . . that asshole got disbarred and then went and got married and inherited a brood of kids. He’s been unmanned.” His words left him on a self-deprecating chuckle.
“And you need me to rescue you? Whisk you away to safety?”
Or more likely, hit up Monty’s, our favorite bar in Charleston. Of course, now that he’d moved back to Broadshire Rim, those nights spent bellied up to the bar came fewer and farther in between.
More laughter, softer this time as the hiccupped cries of his children faded. “Nah, man, wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
There was nothing but tenderness in his voice.
Couldn’t help the way gratitude stretched across my chest.
Ian used to spend his nights living the fast life.
Now he was living the good life.
That was the thing though . . .
Sometimes it was the hardest fall that cracked the mold and opened us up to something greater than we ever imagined. And Ian had slipped, shattered, and broken at Grace’s feet.
She had been exactly what he’d needed, what he’d had no clue he’d been looking for. She was the one who’d been there to make sure when he’d healed, he healed with a whole heart.
It was one of the things I’d wanted most in this life—to see Ian and his older brother Jace find joy outside the unfair brutality that had been our childhood.
It’d been so fucked up, it was a damned wonder that any one of us were still standing today.
Maybe it was the fact I was thinking about us in high school, or maybe it was the simple fact my ass was in Broadshire Rim on a diaper run, but the second I even cracked my mind open to that time, a flood of memories came rushing up through the fissures.
It was a wave of that old bullshit I never allowed myself to agonize or fret or fucking brood over.
What was done was done.
I’d made my own choices. Followed the path that was set.
Even if it wasn’t the one I’d wanted to take, I was committed to it. Knew it was what I was meant for. Proof of that was the badge in my pocket and the gun strapped to my side.
I shook off that bullshit and pasted on a smile. “Hold tight, brother. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
Ending the call, I shoved my phone into my front pocket and went for my wallet.
There was only one woman ahead of me who was unloading a few things she had from a small, hand-held basket.
I wasn’t really paying all that much attention, but there was something about her that had me doing a double take.
Gaze getting tossed from my wallet to the shape in front of me.
My heart rate kicked, a smack of uneasiness slamming into my senses.
But that was the thing about the past. It liked to haunt you. Just like it’d been doing not twenty seconds before. That’s what happened when you let the shit you couldn’t control get to you. When you let the past remind you of what you’d lost and what you’d never fucking have.
She loaded her things onto the conveyor belt, a couple boxes of cereal, apples, oranges, and bananas. She seemed to waver before she tossed a lipstick onto the pile, like she wasn’t quite sure if she should buy it or not.
Maybe it was the price or the color or the necessity. Or maybe she was just throwing off the vibe that she was questioning everything.
Just. Like. Me.
Because my mouth felt sticky, and my head felt light. That crazed feeling of being willing to do anything to protect a girl welled so fast I felt it like the surge of a storm.
With her back to me, I took her in from head to toe, trying to slough the familiarity from my bones. To remind myself that it just wasn’t possible.
Still, my eyes were held, taking her in.
Lush locks tumbled in loose waves down her back. This crazy, wild mix of blondes and browns that shimmered like bronze beneath the light.
She was short, but wearing black high heels, a black skirt, and a white blouse. Dressed up, but somehow, she still appeared a little disheveled.
Like maybe she was wearing an extra layer of anxiety.
Too thin and too frail and too vulnerable.
A spike of energy pulsed at my veins, and a goddamned stone ridged itself in my throat.
I tried to swallow it down. Exactly like I was trying to do with the moment’s idiocy. There was no chance . . . no way—
She shifted to the side, and her profile came into view, and my heart that was beating double time completely stalled out, faltering at the sight in front of me.
My skin went clammy at the same second I was belted with a punch of lust.
The same fucking way it’d always been.
And there I was, out of control as I raced down that freeway, a collision coming into a quick, sharp view.
Izzy Lane was standing three feet away.
The girl had been a hazard for me. I’d never once been able to look at her without getting greedy. Wanting to take it all.
The most striking, unforgettable girl a man could ever hope or dread to stumble upon.
Sexy as fuck.
The kind of sexy that had gotten under my skin and wedged itself deep. Kind that had kept me awake at night, dreaming of things I couldn’t have.
I’d learned that the hard way.
Still, I just stood there gaping while every cell in my body screamed, stretching that way, like it was remembering its home.
No doubt feeling the weight of my stare, she glanced my way.
That was all it took for time and space to freeze.
All except for the widening of those hazel eyes, mostly brown except for the tiny rim of green at the edges, this smoky topaz that held the power to suck me right into oblivion.
She had always reminded me of some sort of wild fairy. A piece of a fantasy while she’d been creating her own. Her mind so big and vast that she’d opened mine.
Waif-like with her high cheeks, angled chin, and pale skin, that starkness getting confused with the pinked flesh of her plump, bowed lips.
She was the kind of beauty that you couldn’t look away from. The kind that you got stuck on, wondering if you stared long enough, you could figure out if it was real.
She stumbled, reaching out to catch herself on the counter, like she was two seconds from being knocked to her ass.
I was already there.
Floored and somehow still standing.
What the hell was she doing here?
Regret and greed bubbled in my blood, and everything only got fuzzier when I inhaled. Swore, I could taste her on my tongue when I sucked down the gush of surprise that tore from her lungs and became one with the air.
Attraction and hate, all wrapped up in a bough of yellow jasmine.
Sweet and intoxicating.
“Maxon.” My name wheezed from her mouth, like it was pulling free before she gave it permission to.
I blinked hard, hoping to hell it might break me out of the stupor I’d fallen under. But the soft timber of her voice only made it worse, clouding everything.
That sultry sound kicked me straight back to a time I’d done my best to forget.
No one had called me that in years. Thirteen years.
I scrubbed a hand over my face, still wondering if I was hallucinating. “Izzy?”
When I said her name, it snapped her out of the trance, and that chin trembled, a broken smile pulling to her mouth.
I was pretty sure if I could read it, it was saying regret.
“Hi.” She was wincing a little, on edge, and she turned back to watch the cashier ring her things.
Like that was it.
But what did I expect?
I roughed an agitated hand over my face, mind racing with what to do, while my body was taking another step forward, drawn, completely at a loss to stop myself.
“You’re back?” My voice was rough with the question. A loaded one.
Was kind of surprised she’d never come back once in all this time. Had expected for her to. Even prepared myself for it.
But hell, I was a fool because there wasn’t a thing in the world I could have done to prepare myself for this.
She slowly turned back my way.
I got blasted with a shockwave of heat that hit the air, the intensity of it so fierce it had me sucking in a staggered breath.
Two of us magnets.
The only sound was her items beeping and the roar of blood pounding through my veins, hammering so hard through my body I was wondering if she could see it jerking my limbs.
“Not sure how long, but for now,” she quietly admitted.
Sadness had chased off the surprise, the girl standing there looking like the sight of me might make her cry, those big eyes watery and lips doing this trembling, distracting thing.
And fuck. I wanted to reach out. Stroke the lines of misery that marred her gorgeous face. Tell her I was fucking sorry. If I could take back every horrible thing I’d done, I would.
Wouldn’t change anything though, would it?
I would always be the same man underneath.
She glanced down and then jerked her attention right back up, another spear of shock seizing her expression. Though this time it was softer. A little hurt and a lot wistful. “You have a baby.”
“What?” My brow pinched in confusion, my mind struggling to catch up. Took me about two seconds to realize what she’d focused on—the box of diapers I’d grabbed for Ian. I had the urge to hide them behind my back or some stupid shit like that. Like worrying about her thinking I had a kid should even register as important.
But there I was, rushing to clarify, “No . . . No . . . I mean . . . these aren’t for me.”
Big, bad detective reduced to putty by a pretty face. But it was the only face that had ever mattered.
She shook her head a little bit, fighting for a smile to rise over the heartbreak muting that light that had always glowed from her. “You don’t need to explain. It’s none of my business.”
I swallowed around my unease, explaining anyway, needing a reason to keep her longer. To make her stay while I figured out what the hell I was supposed to do. “I mean, they’re . . . they’re not for my kid. They are for Ian’s baby boy.”
She pinned another one of those feigned smiles onto her mouth, one-hundred percent forced, pretending like everything was just fine when it was clear that it was not.
“What you do with your life is none of my business. I’m sorry I asked . . . I just . . .” Her brow pinched in regret, the girl tripping over her thoughts, and she squeezed her eyes closed and gave a fierce shake of her head. “It’s just been a long time and seeing you here caught me off guard. That’s all.”
I edged closer, not even able to stop myself. Not sure that I wanted to. “Maybe that’s exactly what you should do. Ask.”
What answer I’d give her, I wasn’t sure.
Her face pinched in more of that honesty. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Excuse me.” We both jumped when the cashier lifted his voice, all kinds of irritated considering the two of us were completely oblivious to anything else but standing there staring into the past.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
Tearing herself from that tether I could feel stretching between us, she balanced her small bag next to the card reader.
Hand shaking, she fumbled to get a card out of her wallet. She swiped it and fidgeted like she was counting the seconds until she could make a break for it, while I stood there trying to figure out a way to get her alone.
Just for a few minutes.
I wanted to know how she was.
Who she was.
If she was happy.
“It says your card is declined.” I tore my attention from the spiral of thoughts going down in my mind and whipped it to the prick who was looking at Izzy like she’d committed some sort of felony.
Just as fast, I darted my gaze to her, catching her in the moment she was slamming those eyes closed.
Like she was expecting this result but had still been praying for a different outcome.
“Oh, I-I guess I brought the wrong card,” she stammered. She dug into the paper sack and pulled out the lipstick. “Can you . . . can you take this off, please?”
Her voice lowered, embarrassment rolling off her like a disease. For the barest beat, she glanced over at me.
Hoping I hadn’t noticed the exchange.
The cashier rolled his eyes.
I had the urge to reach out and grab him by the collar. Like he was raking in the dough? I forced myself to hold back, not to say anything.
Still, that thunder in my chest was growing louder by the second.
I could feel it collecting speed, something severe gathering at the horizon of my mind.
He re-rang it. “Twenty-two, ninety.”
He ran the card again, and she was already wincing before the punk had the chance to make her feel any worse, her card clearly being rejected again.
Defeat dropped her shoulders, and there was no missing the dejection that fully took her over. Looked like she wanted to crawl under a table and disappear.
Leaning around her, I handed the cashier my card. “Put the lipstick back on.”
She whirled on me. “I don’t need any handouts.”
Pain and defiance reverberated with the words.
I shook my head, not sure what situation she’d gotten into, but whatever it was, I didn’t like it a bit.
Didn’t like any of this.
“Not a goddamned handout if I’m helping out a friend.”
That was probably an insult, but anything else would no doubt send her raging.
“You forgot your card, remember?” I cocked my head, giving her an out.
“Maxon, please, just don’t—”
I set my hand on hers to let her know it was no big deal.
The least I could do.
But that was a mistake too because at the contact, a fire consumed me whole.
Fucking flames and heat and need.
Everything coming alive in an instant.
I jerked my hand away, feeling like I’d been sucked into a vortex. Tossed thirteen years back in time.
Izzy froze beneath it, drawing a shattered breath, and the cashier had swiped my card and handed it back to me before she’d regrouped and had the chance to argue.
The girl was clearly as shaken as me.
He handed her the receipt. She grabbed it and the bag.
She barely slowed to toss a whispered, “Thank you,” over her shoulder before she was bee-lining for the double-sliding doors.
I wanted to shout out for her, beg her to wait. To give me five freaking minutes.
But Ian was relying on me. Couldn’t bail on that.
As hard as it was, I forced myself to stand there and pay for the diapers, my attention flying toward the door about fifteen times during the transaction, and I let loose just as many silent curses when she disappeared out of it.
As soon as the little prick handed me the receipt, I grabbed the box and darted after her, jumping between two old ladies pushing carts, leisurely doing their shopping in the early afternoon, dodged a few stockers hauling in boxes, and basically took the store like it was my own personal obstacle course.
I almost laughed.
My entire life had been nothing but a long string of hurdles. No finish line in sight.
Except for Izzy.
She’d been my beginning. The girl had breathed her beauty and grace and goodness into my being. Made me think I could be something better. Saw me in a way I’d never seen myself.
In the same way, she’d been my ending.
The breaking point of who I’d been and who I’d come to be.
But by the time I made it out the door, eyes hunting the parking lot, an old, beater of a car rumbled to life toward the far end of the lot. It jerked out of the spot, engine sputtering and a cloud of exhaust billowing into the air as it lurched into drive.
I struggled to peer into the distance.
To get a read on the license.
But she was gone before I could make sense of her return.
Disappearing in a haze of smoke and dust.
Just like she had then.