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Lucas glanced at him. “You want to get there in how many minutes?”

“I’d do it in ten,” Joe said.

Lucas nodded. “If you shut the fuck up, I’ll get you there in eight.”

So Joe shut the fuck up. And Lucas got them to the hospital in the promised eight minutes.

But it was several hours before Joe got to see Kylie. She’d needed to be sedated to remove the drywall that was still embedded in her leg. Several other cuts, including the one on her temple, had needed stitches.

In the meantime, it was the dreaded waiting room for him, which had filled up. Kylie’s entire gang from the Pacific Pier Building was there, including his own sister, who gave him a big, hard hug and then smacked him upside the back of his head.

“That’s for Kylie,” Molly said.

“Hey.” He rubbed his head. “It’s not my fault she’s in here.”

A lie. He’d let her down. He’d let them both down and he didn’t know how he could forgive himself.

“That’s not what I meant,” Molly said and then sighed and hugged him again. “Joseph James Malone, Kylie being in here isn’t your fault.”

She hadn’t middle-named him since they’d been young so she clearly meant business.

“And I smacked you,” she went on, “because the rumor mill says you waited until she was passed out to tell her you love her.”

He gaped at her and then whipped around to look at his guys.

Lucas. Archer. Max. Reyes.

Lucas waved.

Joe flipped him off.

“Oh please,” Molly said. “Don’t even try to blame any of them for your idiocy. We talked about this too. You’re still too slow on the trigger.”

“Wow,” he said.

His sister went hands on hips. “Did you know that no one says ‘wow’ better than a guy who’s been accused of something he actually did?”

Joe pulled out his phone and looked at the dark screen. Where the hell was a call when you needed one?

“Sorry,” Molly said. “But the person you’re hoping is going to call you has been sedated, and even if she wasn’t, she’d be ignoring your sorry ass.”

Joe turned and walked out of the room. Because once again his sister was right—not that he could tell her so or she’d gloat. But he had indeed been way too slow, on several counts. He was supposed to protect Kylie. Instead he’d kept her out of the loop and she’d gotten hurt—on his watch. That was going to eat at him for a good long time.

He paced around and finally bribed a nurse he’d dated the year before to direct him to Kylie’s room. He waited there until her mom left before slipping inside himself.

Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be sleeping peacefully enough, so he dragged a chair as close to her bed as he could get and sat.

He didn’t realize he’d dozed off until he heard her low, raspy voice murmur, “Go home, Joe.”

She was sitting up carefully, hair wild, moving slow enough to tell him she hurt from head to toe. Her body was a tightly coiled spring, whether from the pain or stress he had no idea. Both, no doubt. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Better than you. You look like hell.”

Yeah, well, the past twelve hours had nearly killed him.

She stared up at him and then closed her eyes. “We’re not doing this,” she whispered.

“Not doing what?”

“You think it’s your fault I got hurt,” she said. “So now you’re going to change your stance on wanting a relationship with me out of guilt. But I won’t do it, Joe. I don’t want you under those circumstances. I want you to have wanted me all along.”

Heart heavy, he shook his head. “It’s not that, Kylie. I—”

“Oh my God, you’re awake!” Her mom came back into the room with a relieved smile. “I brought Jell-O. Red, green, yellow . . . all the Jell-O!” She set a tray on Kylie’s lap. “And I just talked to your doctor. He says I can bust you free in a few hours. And then I’m taking you out of town to recoup for a few days. I’ve got a friend in Aptos who’s letting us use his beach house!”

Kylie grimaced. “Mom—”

“Please, Kylie.” She sat at Kylie’s hip and took her hand in hers, gripping it tight, pressing it to her chest. “Please let me do this for you.”

Kylie stared at her mom and then nodded. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes—without looking at Joe again.

“Kylie,” he said.

“My head hurts,” she whispered, and just like that both he and her mom were ushered out of her room so she could rest some more. And later, when she was discharged, she left town with her mom and what was left of the tatters of Joe’s heart.

Chapter 33


One week later

Kylie carefully navigated her way out of the Uber in front of her place. It wasn’t easy with her bag and her crutches—she wasn’t supposed to put weight on her leg yet—but she managed because.

She needed to be alone.

Or more accurately, away from her mom.

They’d had a surprisingly and shockingly good time at the beach house. Her mom had been sweet and attentive and helpful, all new traits. She’d even cooked for Kylie. And they’d had to call the fire department only one time and that had been mostly because her mom wanted to see if Aptos had any cute new firefighter recruits, so she’d burned some cookies and set off the fire alarm.

But it was time for Kylie to get back to her life. Her friends missed her. Gib missed her. Work missed her. Vinnie missed her.

She wanted to get back to normal. Or as normal as her life could be. To say she still felt off balance about how everything had gone down would be an understatement. The boat was still off limits due to the ongoing investigation, so she had no idea what, if anything, had been recovered. But as far as she knew, the penguin hadn’t been found in the fire and that was devastating. Still, now she knew she didn’t need it to remember her grandpa by.

Kevin, who’d not been injured beyond minor smoke inhalation, was cooperating fully, and for that she was grateful. But it was far more than the fire that had her spinning. It was her broken heart. She’d done her best not to go there all week with her mom, but just walking up to the front of her place was like ripping off the Band-Aid.

Memories flooded her as she walked inside. Joe, and all those times he’d stood on this very porch right at her back, watching out for her. Joe, gently nudging her inside and then up against the wall, where he not so gently kissed the daylights out of her. Joe, tipping his head back and laughing at something she said. God, she loved his laugh. Joe, buried deep inside her, his hands on her face, eyes locked on hers, revealing emotion that he never seemed to have the words for.

With a shuddery exhalation, she made her way through the living room. When she heard something behind her, she turned to find Joe standing in the doorway as if she’d conjured him up.

He was in his usual work gear, loaded for bear, clearly straight from the job and appearing as if maybe he’d just walked off the cover of Guns & Ammo.

He looked like the best thing she’d seen all week—not that she wanted him to know it, so she steeled both herself and her heart. Clearly he’d set some sort of security or alarm to alert himself to her arrival and that should’ve infuriated her. But be still her beating heart . . . he seemed to be holding something. “Is that a bag of Tina’s muffins?” she asked, trying to remain unmoved.

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