“What if he did things? Un … unthinkable things.”
Dropping to my knees, I crawl in front of him, grabbing his face and forcing him to look at me. I don’t really know what to say. He’s not thinking anything that I haven’t thought. To rule out foul play, they had to do an autopsy. So nothing must have shown up. No signs of rape or anything like that. But … the mind still goes to a million things that he could have done to her that would not have been detectable with an autopsy.
I can’t go there and neither should he.
“Thinking these thoughts won’t change what happened.” That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
I don’t have to feel what she felt. I feel him right now, and it’s the kind of pain that will never completely disappear. The ache in my chest will linger forever.
Nate snakes an arm around my waist and pulls me onto his lap, the same way he held me on his bed the first time I tried to tell him about Doug.
We hold each other like we’re just trying to hold onto life, like we’re holding each other together.
After long minutes, he eases his hold on me. I sit back until our faces are just a few inches apart. His hands cup my face like I’m someone very precious to him. I hold my breath. He’s not going to kiss me. I’m pretty certain of it. And I wish I could define what this is between us, but I can’t. Nor can I resist his touch. It’s like my body craves the familiarity of it. Is it just morbid curiosity and obsession over the story of Daisy and Nate?
“Thank you for finding me,” he whispers.
Why does he keep saying that?
My hands move to his shoulders. I just need to steady myself. I need to feel in control. “Do you really believe that? That I found you?”
His thumbs caress my cheeks and he smiles. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. But mostly, it’s familiar. “Yes.”
How can the touch of two different men reach my soul? I’m engaged to Griffin. I love him unequivocally. But when Nate’s hands meet my flesh, it doesn’t feel wrong, and maybe it should. It feels like he’s reclaiming something that’s his. It’s like he’s whispering an eerie “thank you for taking good care of her, but I’ll take it from here.”
And right now I want to melt into him.
Closing my eyes, I lean into his hold on me, ghosting my fingers along his arms. “Why did you say you loved Daisy as much as your wife? You married Jenna. You made a child with her.” I open my eyes.
Nate’s mouth settles into this pleasant smile, like he’s looking at his daughter, not her nanny.
“It doesn’t make sense, Nate. You should have loved Jenna more—so much more.”
“I think we love many people for a lot of different reasons. I also think people pass in and out of our lives to give us an experience. You were—”
“Don’t.” I pull my head back, tripping over a few things as I get to my feet. “Don’t say you. Say she.”
His brows knit together as he lumbers to standing. “I don’t care that your eyes are a different color. I don’t care that you’re fifteen years younger than me. You are my friend.” His voice tightens with the last word. “Some things last forever. What if our friendship lasts forever? What if the connection we have transcends time?”
I’m certain no what ifs have ever been more beautiful, except this one … what if he’s right?
“You taught me how to be a friend. You taught me how to love. You were my first kiss and my first heartbreak. You fed my hunger. You comforted me when my family fell apart. You convinced me to dream big. You were my absolute everything.” He frowns. “You didn’t give me a child, but you sure as hell gave me life.”
I bat away the tears before they escape. “I had this flashback. I was above you … my hair tickling your face. You wore the biggest grin and you said, ‘So, what are—’”
“So what are you going to do with me,” Nate says with a grin almost as big as the memory in my head. And I know now … he’s going to be okay.
“You used to wrestle with me. I’d let you pin me to the ground, or my bed, or a patch of grass and weeds on the old abandoned property. You’d say ‘ha’ so triumphantly. And I’d grin because there’s nothing I loved more than your hair feathering my face. I always said the same thing … ‘So, what are you going to do with me?’”
I smile. “And what did she say?”
“You licked me. It was weird. But with the most wicked intentions flashing in your eyes, you’d lick a path from my Adam’s apple to the tip of my chin.” He shrugs, twisting his lips to conceal his smirk. “What can I say? You were one odd chick.”
I shove his chest. “Stop saying you. That’s not who I am. She’s hijacking my brain, but I was not the odd chick who licked you.”
We can do this. We can uncover the past together. And when one of us breaks, the other one will know how to glue all the pieces back into place.
But I can’t really touch her.
But I can’t really see her.
But she’s no longer mine.
“Promise me you’ll stay away from Doug Mann. Promise me you won’t go anywhere by yourself until we get this figured out. Always lock the door when you’re here. Remember there’s a panic button on the security system keypad.”
Her jovial expression fades. “Don’t go anywhere by myself?” She coughs a laugh. “That’s a little hard to do. I don’t have a bodyguard.”
“You have family and friends. Find someone to go with you. Find someone to be at home with you. And if you can’t, then promise you’ll call me.”
I hate scaring her, but this revelation has gutted me. Daisy was murdered. When she told me, it felt like my father breaking the news to me all over again.
I didn’t save her then, but I’m sure as hell not going to let history repeat itself.
Stepping over the debris, I bring her into my body and hug her. Swayze Samuels is a clash of everyone in my world. It’s difficult to make sense of the feelings I have for her.
The boss in me thinks she’s the perfect person to look after Morgan.
The boy in me feels elated to have his friend back.
The father in me wants to protect her like my own child.
But the man in me wants things that I shouldn’t want—not from a twenty-two-year-old woman engaged to another man.
So I kiss her head like a friend or a father, even if I want to know what the skin just below her ear would feel like against my lips or what her tongue would taste like sliding against mine.
I release her, taking a cautious step backwards before my dick gets any harder. I chastise myself for letting those thoughts take form in my head. Even if Dr. Greyson would dismiss them as harmless, they don’t feel harmless when I can’t control an erection.
“Are we done renegotiating my contract?” She cocks her head to the side.
“You chatted with my dad?”
“He liked you.”
She frowns. “Daisy.”
I shove my hands into my pockets. “He thought you were good for me.”
With a slight headshake, she rolls her eyes. “He thought Daisy was good for you and that’s because she fed you when money was tight.”
I nod with ease, thinking about every sack of food she brought to my house, the two sandwiches she packed in her school lunches, the money she slipped in my wallet when I wasn’t looking. “I didn’t deserve you.”
She goes to speak but clamps her jaw closed like she’s giving up on correcting me. Daisy is not a separate person, she’s just in a different body with a different name, but part of her is right in front of me. I’ll take any part that I can get because I loved everything about her. I still do.
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
There’s so much more I want to know. Did Dr. Albright mention hypnosis? I’d give anything for her to remember us like I remember us.
“Thank you, my big bad bodyguard.”
I hold open the door to the black truck. “You’re welcome.”
She rubs her lips together, hugging herself as if to keep warm and as if she’s waiting for something more. I’m not going to kiss her, even if that’s all I want to do at the moment. There’s no fucking way I’m that guy. But … I’m not a total saint either.
“Do you have my picture in your pocket today?”
“Pfft …” Her nose scrunches. “You’re full of yourself, Professor Hunt.”
I lift a single eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Yeah, that’s so.” She turns to climb up into the truck.
I slide my left hand around her waist, pressing it flat to her stomach to pin her back to my chest. And fuck me if she doesn’t gasp in a way that I imagine she would if my cock were sliding into her for the first time.
Knock that shit off! My mind wars with itself and my body.
The fingers of my right hand dip into her front pocket. I slide out a photo—the photo of me. She doesn’t fight me. Not a word. I’m not sure she’s even breathing.