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Authors: Shiloh Walker

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He gave her a heavy-lidded look and cupped her face in his hand, stroking a thumb over her lower lip.

“You a little less cranky now?” she asked, sliding her arms around his waist.

He caught her around the waist and she went, easing her body against his, careful not to press against him as he tucked his chin against her shoulder. “I don’t know.” He kissed her neck and then asked, “If I say no, will you do it again?”

She laughed a little. “No. But if you’re nice, I might climb into the shower with you. You don’t look like you can wash your hair without hurting.”

He jabbed her in the ribs. “I’ll have you know I can wash my hair just fine, Abs.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you can and you’ll hurt and suffer for it.” She leaned back and brushed his hair back from his face. “Let me help, Zach.”

Dark blue eyes met hers and he groaned, dropped his head to rest his brow on hers. “You help just by existing, Abby. But you’re killing my ego here.”

She snorted. “Your ego is just fine. Besides, you got jumped by two thugs and you kicked ass.”

“The chair helped. The idiot tripped and the chair helped break his fall.” Then he stroked a finger down her back. “I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing you all wet and naked. Might get me in a better frame of mind for when I call my folks and tell them what happened.”

“Hmm. And you better get that done before they find out some other way.”

* * *

“I’m coming out there.”

Zach winced and said, “Now, Mom . . . you don’t need to do that.”

“You had to go to the hospital, you’re hurt, and I’m coming
out
there,” she said, her voice flat. “You live alone and you need somebody there to help you.”

“I . . . ah . . .” He flashed Abby a look and without batting an eyelash, threw her to the wolves. “Well, I got somebody. Abby is staying with me.”

There was a pause. One of those heavy, lingering pauses that seemed to carry the weight of the world. Abby stood in front of him, her hands propped on her hips and her brows arched as she studied him. He mouthed out,
Sorry
.

She started to tap her foot.

“Abby . . .”

“Yeah, Mom.” He started to shrug and then swore as it sent pain crashing through him.

Through the roar of blood in his ears, he only barely heard his mom’s voice and since he was struggling to catch his breath, he went ahead and listened and turned the phone over to Abby.

A few seconds went by before he could focus past the pain to hear the conversation.

“Yeah, Denise . . . I’m here with him. Honestly, other than being battered, I think he’s fine.” She watched him with a questioning stare and he grimaced, pressed a hand to his side as he made his way over to the kitchen counter. The amber bottle of pain meds beckoned and he blew out a breath, deciding to go ahead and just get it over with. One pill. He’d take it, pass out, and hopefully when he woke up, the worst of it would be done.

As he opened the bottle, he heard Abby’s heels clicking on the floor and by the time he had a pill in his hand, she’d slid a Coke in front of him. He gave her a tired grin in thanks and popped the evil little pill in his mouth, washing it down.

“Uh-huh,” Abby said, still talking to his mom. “Hmmm . . . yeah. I can handle him, I swear. I’ve been doing it a long time. I promise I’ll call if he gets to be too much of an ass.”

A few seconds later, the phone was back in his hand and he caught Abby’s waist, tucking her up against him before she could pull away. “So can you sleep tonight, trusting I’ll be okay?” he asked.

“No,” Denise replied. “You smart-ass. Because I’m going to try and figure out what in the hell drove you to open that shop where you did. I’m going to worry about what would have happened if you weren’t used to fighting two idiot kids at once—we should thank your brothers for that crash course they’ve been giving you all this time—and I’m going to worry about every other thing that could have gone wrong.”

“Hey, in the end, things could have been worse,” he said. “I’m here and I’m fine.”

“Yes. You’re here. You’re fine. And you’re with Abby . . .” There was a smile in her voice, one that he heard loud and clear, but he wasn’t going to unravel that mess just then. “So. I’ll stop worrying some. Now. Have you taken the pain medicine?”

“I just did. I got a few minutes before I start getting completely stupid with it.”

“Okay. Get off the phone then. And Zach? Make sure you’re not being . . . stupid about other things.”

The phone disconnected and he sighed, putting it on the counter and hoping Abby hadn’t been paying that much attention.
Stupid about other things
. Yeah, Mom. Real subtle, that hint.

“So. Just how completely loopy do you get with the pain meds?” Abby asked, brushing his hair back.

He grimaced and shot her a look. “I took something last night. Did you notice any . . . ah . . .”

“Oh. Yes.” She grinned. “There were a few moments. And I’ve seen you on pain meds before. It’s just been a while. I was wondering if it had gotten any better.”

“Shit, no. If anything, it’s just gotten worse.”

* * *

“You want to tell me
why
?”

Zach folded his arms over his chest and stared at a point somewhere over Abby’s shoulder. “Look, are you going to give me a ride in or not? If you’re not, I’ll call Keelie or one of the others. Hell, I can call a cab if it’s that much trouble.”

“Trouble . . .” Her eyes narrowed on his face as she drawled the word out and he suspected that probably hadn’t been the ideal way to try and move this conversation forward, but fuck. All he needed to do was go to the shop for a little while.

Clenching his jaw, he counted to five silently. “I spent all day laying around yesterday. I took it easy. Now I’m getting back to work.”

“You can’t even move without hurting.”

“I’m aware of that fact, thanks.” He went to shove a hand through his hair and had a dismal reminder of that
fact
, one that left him biting back a curse as his ribs shrieked at him.

“Gee, Zach . . . did that feel good?”

He glared at her. “Can we go or am I calling somebody else?”

“Are you
trying
be an ass?” she demanded, propping her hands on her hips. She tapped her nails against her skin and part of him was thinking about the way she’d raked those pretty nails across his belly as they’d woke up. That was a thought that just made him
more
irritated because when he’d tried to pull her on top of him, she’d given him a nice little kiss on the cheek and then rolled out of bed.

She had him twisted up, damn it. She’d always had him like this, but it was worse now and he couldn’t even tell her how much worse it was. The bad thing was that if she really pushed it, he’d probably go ahead and do whatever in the hell she asked him, just because he didn’t want to see her unhappy and
fuck
, but he couldn’t do that. Couldn’t live that way and he knew it.

“I need to go in,” he said, keeping his voice flat because if he started to yell, they’d end up fighting and he didn’t want to fight with her. “I need to get an idea of what damage was done and figure out what to do about insurance and all. Keelie never thinks about it. I want my guys to see I’m okay and if by chance it’s some thug from the neighborhood, they are damn well going to know that this bullshit doesn’t mean I don’t go to work.”

“You’re right,” Abby said mockingly. “And resting through the damn weekend, giving your body a couple days to recover really proves what a macho piece of work you are.”

Shifting his eyes to hers, he just stared.

Their gazes locked and after a minute, she looked away and groaned. Zach closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over the back of his neck.

Did he
have
to go in?

Hell, probably not. But he needed to.

It was what
he
needed to do and couldn’t she—

He didn’t let himself finish that thought because the answer was going to hurt too much. Things were changing, he thought. He hoped. And maybe someday she’d understand what Steel Ink meant to him. Why he had to go. But not yet, he thought sourly as he turned away and pulled out his phone. It wasn’t quite ten. Keelie was probably heading in and she had to get there to open but he could probably get Javier to pick him up. “I’ll call Javi,” he said brusquely. “He only lives about twenty minutes or so from here. I—”

Abby’s hand closed around his and she plucked the phone away with the other. “No.”

“Abby, I—” Whatever he planned on saying was cut off as she reached up and pressed her fingers lightly to his mouth.

“No,” she said again, her voice quiet. “Look, I’m sorry. I . . . damn it, Zach, I don’t
get
why you can’t let yourself take another day when just looking at you hurts me, but if it’s that important for you to go in, I’ll damn well be the one to take you.”

Then she lowered her hand and leaned in, kissed him gently, avoiding the cut on the right side of his mouth. “I’ll take you in. You either call me or figure out a way home. And I’ll bring you dinner tonight and when you’re sore and bitching about how you shouldn’t have bothered going in, I get to point at you and say
ha, ha, I told you so
.”

“Is that how it works?” he asked, ignoring the way his voice went kind of raspy on him as he wrapped his hand around her ponytail and tugged her head back.

“Yeah. And you
will
say it.”

* * *

“I can’t believe he came in,” Javi muttered, watch
ing as Zach limped around the break room, surveying the damage.

“Me, neither,” Abigale said.

Keelie snorted and glared at them both. “Javi, you should know better. I’m surprised he didn’t stumble in here
yesterday
, although I know it was late when he finally got out of the ER. Zach all but bleeds this place.” Then she gave Abigale a look of mocking condescension. “Although I’m not surprised the glamour girl doesn’t know any better.”

Javi chose that minute to beat a retreat, disappearing down the hallway. Abigale couldn’t say she was sorry. Folding her arms over her chest, she shot Zach a look, but he was preoccupied and the music Keelie had blaring from her office was loud enough to offer at least the illusion of a private conversation. Narrowing her eyes, she studied Keelie and debated. Did she go for subtle?

Keelie met her gaze with a bold, almost hostile glare and Abigale decided subtlety would be pointless.

Fine. Screw subtle.

“Keelie, you want to tell me what in the hell your problem is with me?”

Keelie shrugged, her narrow shoulders moving restlessly under the fishnet top she wore over a skintight tank top. Flowers and scrolled tattoos wrapped around her biceps and danced along her collarbone. Beautifully done, elegant . . . almost soft, Abigale thought sometimes.

Ironic, because Abigale didn’t think there was anything soft about Keelie.

But then again, anytime Keelie was around
her
, it seemed like the woman was pissed off.

“Who says I have a problem with you?” Keelie asked.

“Pretty much every word out of your mouth, every look you give me, and the general
why don’t you kiss my ass, bitch
attitude you seem to have with me,” Abigale said, shrugging. “Look, maybe that’s just you, but I don’t see you calling everybody you meet glamour girl. I’d think maybe you had a problem with people from the entertainment industry, but I saw you talking to Sebastian and you didn’t treat him like something you’d scrape off your shoe, and you work with Zach just fine. Which leads me to think it’s just me.”

“I don’t care what
industry
you worked in,” Keelie snapped. She gave Abigale a dismissive glare and added, “If you think being an actress makes you
special
, you’re dead wrong.”

“I agree. It doesn’t make me special. It was a job and it’s not one I miss. So . . . if it’s not that, what is it?”

It was quick. Very quick, but Abigale saw it. That flicker of a glance toward Zach. Swallowing, she waited as Keelie gave another one of those jerky, dismissive shrugs. “It’s nothing.”

“You have a thing for him,” Abigale said when the other woman went to turn away.

Keelie stiffened.

Slowly, she lifted her head and Abigale could see her staring at Zach. And the man was still oblivious, squatting on the floor and eyeing the damage to the door. It was clear somebody had attempted to clean things up yesterday, but the door would have to be replaced. He had a look of resignation on his face as he shoved a hand through his hair. Even with his face battered and the bruising from his eye spilling down over his cheek, he looked beautiful. Too beautiful. Hell, just then, he looked a little
more
beautiful . . . like a fallen angel ready to go on the warpath.

A second later, Keelie turned back around and her mismatched eyes met Abigale’s. “A
thing
for him? You think
that
touches it?” Her voice was low and angry. She paused, her mouth working as though she was looking for something else she needed to say. Finally, she just shook her head. “You don’t know
what
I feel. But that’s not a surprise. You don’t even know how
he
feels about shit, half the time. You’re so fucking clueless, and that makes you pathetic. You’re supposed to be his best friend, but you jerk him around like a puppet. No wonder Sebastian was so pissed off at you.”

The venom in Keelie’s voice was like a slap in the face and the fury in her eyes was almost palpable. Keelie opened her mouth to say something else, but then she snapped her jaws together and shook her head. “You know what? Fuck this.”

She turned on her heel and stormed away, while Abigale stood there and tried to figure out what in the world had just happened.

Just what in the world . . .

Chapter Sixteen

“You going to tell me what had you so upset earlier?”

Zach put the empty plate on the coffee table as Abby stood up.

It was late, almost nine and it had been a long, tense hour. Hell, it had been a long, tense day and not just because the two of them had almost had their first fight as . . . whatever the hell they were.

“What?” She gave him a distracted glance and then shrugged. “Oh, nothing. Here, let me . . .”

He caught her wrist before she could take the plate. “Leave it for a few minutes.”

She resisted at first but as he continued to tug on her wrist, she sighed and placed her plate with his and went to sit down next to him. He caught her hips and tumbled her onto his lap, shifting her so she didn’t bump against his ribs.

“Zach, damn it,” she said, trying to pull away. “You need to be careful. Did you forget about your ribs?”

“I was.” He combed a hand through her hair and leaned in, pressing his brow to hers. “Besides, they’re
my
ribs. If I do something stupid, it’s my own fault. Now . . . what’s bothering you?”

She squirmed again. “Nothing.”

“Liar.”

She slid him a look out of the corner of her eye and then just shrugged. “I . . .” She stopped and sighed, leaning in to rest her head on his shoulder.

Closing his eyes, he curled an arm around her. How many nights . . .

“We’ve done this a lot,” she murmured in an eerie echo of his thoughts. “Just this, you know that?”

Opening his eyes, he glanced down at her and saw that she was looking up at him. And unless he was mistaken, there was a look in her eyes that held both satisfaction and sadness.

“Yeah. I know.” Brushing her hair back, he leaned in and touched his brow to hers. “Abby . . . what’s wrong? I know you too well to buy the
nothing
bit.”

“Do you know me?”

Alarm stirred inside him. “Yeah, sugar. I know you. Hell, how could I not? We’re best friends.” Tracing his finger down her neck, determined to make sure she hadn’t forgotten, he added, “And more . . . now. I’m pretty damned pleased with that
more
bit, let me tell you.”

She curled a hand around his wrist and some of the tension knotting his gut eased a little as she added quietly, “So am I.” Then she shifted her gaze away from him. “I do think you know me. Better than anybody else. But . . .” She cleared her throat and paused, her mouth opening, then closing like she was trying to find the words. “Lately, I’m wondering . . . hell.
I
wasn’t but then people keep saying . . .”

People
.

His mind shot back to earlier in the day. He’d seen Keelie standing there, seen her storm down the hall and the woman had been in a mood all damn day. But Keelie was a brat and a half most of the time anyway. Now, though? Not to mention the conversation he’d interrupted between Abby and Sebastian.

Stroking his thumb over her skin, he said quietly, “People keep saying what, Abby?”

Pink crept up her cheeks and she shook her head, leaned back in against him. “This is stupid, Zach. Hell, you’ve had the worst couple of days and I’m sitting here griping.” Once more she tucked her head against his chest and seconds ticked by, but he knew her too well to trust that it was done. The odd tension in her body, the way her hand fisted his shirt, knotting the fabric up, then smoothing it out, over and over. Yeah. She wasn’t done, not by a long shot.

“Sebastian and Keelie are both mouthing off about how I don’t know you,” she finally said. “Are . . . are they right? Do I know you?”

He was going to kick his little brother’s ass. Screw being considerate and not messing up his brother’s pretty face. If the idiot wanted to make sure he wasn’t messed up for his job, maybe he shouldn’t have been messing with Zach’s woman.

His hand tightened on her waist as those words rolled through him.
My woman . . .
damn. He’d only been waiting half his life to be able to say that. Think that.

And . . . she’d never known.

Do I know you?

The sadness, the uncertainty in her voice ripped at him. Yeah, there were things she didn’t know, but those were things he’d kept from her. Things he hadn’t let her see. That was his issue, not hers. And fuck Sebastian, fuck Keelie, for putting that pain in her eyes.

Shifting around on the couch, he tumbled her down onto her back, ignoring the screaming pain that went through him as he did it. He didn’t care how much it hurt just then, because he needed to touch her, needed to hold her, and he needed to see her and have her see him. Tucking her body under his, he pressed his face against her neck as he waited for the pain to fade a little before he spoke.

“How old was I when I decided I should start smoking?” he whispered against her neck.

She skimmed a hand up his back and sighed. “You were fifteen. And I laughed my ass off when you got sick on set and puked your guts up because you were trying to finish the damn cigarette with that cute extra you were trying to impress.”

He’d been trying to make Abby jealous, but that was beside the point. It hadn’t worked and that was because the feelings just hadn’t been there on her side.

“Yeah. And Mom thought I had the flu . . . right up until she smelled the smoke on my clothes. I had her convinced somebody else had been smoking around me but then you went and tattled on me.” He lifted his head and brushed her hair back from her face. “You remember how long I went without speaking to you?”

She laid a hand on his cheek. “A week. It was one of the longest weeks of my life.”

“Mine, too.” He rubbed his cheek against her palm and then dipped his head so he could kiss her mouth. That mouth, damn it. He’d only been waiting years to kiss her. “Although I
did
manage to get most of the scenes done in one take that week.”

She made a face at him. “Yeah, one week out of how many years? I
always
nailed things in one take.”

“You didn’t that week.” He stroked a thumb down her cheek.

“You probably had fun watching me screw up.” She pushed a hand through his hair. “I couldn’t help it. You were mad at me and I was miserable. I couldn’t concentrate.”

“I didn’t have fun watching you screw up.” Turning his face, he pressed a kiss to her wrist. “I missed talking to you, teasing you while we went through our lines. And I kept trying to think about how I could fix things.”

She stared up at him, her eyes solemn, dark . . . and still sad.

“When did I first start talking about opening a place of my own?”

“After your first tattoo. Zach . . . I know I
know
stuff about you, but lots of people know stuff.” Then she averted her face and sighed. “Damn it, I sound like an idiot. Look, forget I said anything—”

“Have I ever cried during a movie?”

She blinked and then started to laugh. “Okay, now Zach . . . that’s bad. You cry every damn time you watch
Old Yeller
.”

“I don’t.” He pressed a kiss to her collarbone. “I wouldn’t dare let myself do that if my brothers were around. Or anybody else, really. With you . . . it’s different.”

She snorted and rolled her eyes. “Geez, thanks.”

He skimmed his lips along the delicate line of her collarbone, along her neck, up until he reached her ear. Then he caught her earlobe in between his teeth. “What’s one place I’ve always wanted to go, and haven’t been?”

She lapsed into silence and when he lifted up, she stared at him. A slow, faint smile tugged at her lips. “Alaska. We were watching
Into the Wild
. Both decided we had to go.”

“You were going there. The honeymoon.” The word was like acid on his tongue even though the wedding wasn’t happening. “Now it’s off. Maybe one day we can try for it together.”

“I’d love that.” Then she bit her lip and caught his shirt in her hands. “Who was she, Zach?”

Distracted, he rubbed his lips over hers. That thing she did, when she was just a little nervous, biting her lip like that . . . she didn’t do it often, just around him really. It drove him nuts, though, and made him want to do all sorts of crazy things. Like bite her. In the same spot she was biting. Then he’d . . .

“Zach.”

Her hand tangled in his hair and tugged a little just when he was getting ready to do just that.

Blinking, he focused on her face. “What?”

“I was asking you a question.” Then she muttered, “I can see where
your
mind is.”

He grinned at her and then swore as the cut in his lip split. “Shit.” He shifted his weight to his elbow and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. A spot of blood appeared and he sighed. “I really want to beat on those punks even harder sometimes.”

Her eyes glinted. “Can I take a swing or two?” Her fingers were gentle as she touched his cheek. “I’m still having some bad moments here. But you didn’t answer my question.”

“What was it?” he asked, catching her finger between his teeth and biting gently.

“Who was she?”

It would have been easier if he could pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about. He took his time, though, formulating his answer, debating on whether or not
to
answer. Levering his weight off of her, he headed to the bar that separated his kitchen from the living room. “Why are you asking?”
Stall
. That was the way to go.

“Because I want to know. I want to know who she was, how much she mattered. I want to know what happened and if you still love her.”

Reaching for a bottle of whiskey, he splashed some into a glass and tried to figure
which
of those questions he could answer without lying. “Sometimes, sugar, people come into your life and they mean everything,” he said slowly, staring down into the amber liquid.

He heard the soft pad of her footsteps on the floor and looked up to see her crossing over to him. “So she means a lot to you,” she whispered, her eyes dark.

A voice in the back of his mind insisted,
Just tell her
.

But, hell, what if she wasn’t ready for this? They’d just gotten together and things were going
good
, damn it. He knew she felt something.
Finally
. What if he told her and it scared her and she took off running from him?

She reached out and touched a finger to the glass. “You know, if you’re going to take any of the pain medicine, you can’t drink that.”

“This works better than pain medicine,” he said absently. “And I don’t make an ass of myself.”

Sighing, he tossed half of it back and let it burn its way down his throat before he lowered the glass and then focused on Abby. The sadness was back in her eyes and he had to get it out, had to do something.

Catching her hand in his, he studied her face. He knew that face so well: every expression, every line of it, every curve, the way a smile would show in her eyes even if it didn’t show anywhere else. And the same for pain. The same for sadness. Right now, there was sadness.

“People come and go all the time. But there’s only been one woman who came and stayed and mattered . . . it’s you,” he said quietly. It wasn’t
exactly
what he wanted to say, but he wasn’t entirely ready to say that, just yet.

She flicked him a look. “That’s not what I was asking, Zach. I know I’m important to you. I just—”

He came out from behind the bar and tugged her toward him, hard. She landed against him with enough force to make his bruised ribs scream but he didn’t care. Cradling the back of her head in his hand, he lowered his mouth to hers. “Important . . . Abby.
Important
describes what I have to do by April 14.
Important
describes getting my license renewed, my bills paid, payroll . . . Abby. You’re not important. You’re everything.”

* * *

Her breath froze in her lungs and for a moment, she
was even convinced her heart had stopped. As Zach lowered his mouth to hers, she was afraid to even move. She felt the rough edge of the wound on his mouth and for fear of hurting him, she didn’t even kiss him back, but the gentleness of that kiss just about stole the strength out of her.

He pulled back and reached up. He was still holding her gaze as he freed the top button of the simple black blouse she’d worn for work today. Unable to look away, she just watched him as he stripped her blouse away, then her bra, letting them fall to the floor.

Her skirt and panties followed and then he caught her hands, guided them to his shirt. “Zach, are you . . .”

“I’m fine,” he muttered. “Hell, I was fine this morning when you gave me a little peck on the cheek like I was a schoolboy or something. It’s not like I’ve never had a few bruises or anything.”

A few bruises
, she thought weakly as she drew his shirt up. Ribs bruised, his eye swollen, knuckles ragged and torn, not to mention his mouth. But any argument she might have had faded away as he helped her pull his shirt away, throwing it to the ground.

The muscles in his chest and arms flexed and her mouth went dry at the sight. Then fury and concern, a fascinating mix, twisted through her as she stared at the dizzying array of colors that had bloomed across his torso.

She leaned in and pressed her lips to his ribs, traced a path along his flesh until she’d gone from one side to the other.

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