“For you,” she said. “It’s over for you.”
He acknowledged that with a shrug. Not his problem. So it wouldn’t be Mallory’s either, she decided.
Turning to her, Ty ran a finger over the dainty gold chain at her neck, then beneath the infinity charm, looking at it for a moment. “After I lost my team in the plane crash, I spent the first six months recovering alone, by choice.” He let out a breath and dropped his hand from her. “I couldn’t…I didn’t want anyone close. I still don’t want anyone close.”
He’d lost his parents, his friends. Everyone. She couldn’t imagine how alone he must have felt.
Or maybe she could. Hadn’t she, even surrounded by all the people in her life, still felt alone? Mallory scooped her necklace in her palm and tightened her fist on it. “Karen gave this to me right before she—” She closed her eyes for a minute, and pictured Karen’s own laughing eyes. “It’s the infinity sign,” she told him. “Forever connected. She wore it all the time, and I always bugged her to let me borrow it. I wanted to be just like her. It used to drive her nuts. Then one day, she took the necklace off and just put it around my neck. She kissed my cheek and told me to be good, that being good would keep me out of the trouble that she’d always found herself in. She made me promise. Then she said she’d be watching me, guiding my way, making sure I was okay. I thought—I thought how sweet, but then…” Her throat tightened almost beyond bearing. “It was the last time I saw her,” she said softly. “The next day she…” She let out a shuddery breath and shook her head, unable to speak.
With a low sound of empathy, Ty slid his hand to the nape of her neck, drawing her in against him. It was her undoing, and she fisted her hands in his shirt as a few tears escaped.
“I know your losses hurt,” she managed. “But you’re not alone, Ty.” She said this fiercely, choking out the words. “You’re not. I mean the pain doesn’t go away, it never goes away, but it gets easier to remember them. And then one day, you’ll remember them with a smile. I can promise you that.”
He tightened his grip on her and nodded. They stood like that, locked together, a light breeze blowing her hair around. A strand of it clung to the stubble on his jaw and he left it there, bound to her, liking it…
“I thought maybe you’d left,” she said.
But soon…Those words, unspoken, hovered between them. When he got medically cleared, he’d be gone.
“Maybe you can’t walk away from me,” she said, meaning to tease, to lighten the moment.
“I can always walk away,” he said. “Discipline runs deep.”
Okay, so he wasn’t feeling playful. Shaken, she took a step back and came up against the railing, but he put his hands on her and reeled her back in. “I need to get back to what I do,” he said.
“You aren’t your work.”
“I am.” Maintaining eye contact, he tightened his grip on her. “But I’m not ready to go yet.”
“It’s the sex,” she said.
“It’s more than sex.”
“Not if it’s still something that can be walked away from,” she said.
He held her gaze, his own steady. Calm. So sure. “It’s the way it has to be, Mallory.”
She already knew that, oh how she knew it. The question was the same as always—could she live with it?
For now…Because the alternative was losing him right now, right this very minute, and she’d tried that. It didn’t work for her. She wasn’t ready to let him go.
He pressed his forehead to hers. “Your call,” he said quietly. “Tell me to fuck off. Walk away from me right now and avoid any more heartbreak, I’m not worth it. Or—”
“Or,” she said with soft steel. “I choose the or.”
“Mallory.” His voice was gruff. “You deserve better.”
She pulled him farther down the pier, past the yacht club entrance and around the side of the building where no one who happened by could see them. There she pushed him up against the wall and kissed him. She took full advantage of his surprise, opening her mouth over his, causing a rush of heat and the melting of all the bones in her legs.
He was a soldier and knew how to turn any situation to his own advantage, and this was no exception. In less than a single heartbeat, he’d taken complete control of the kiss, stealing her breath and her heart with one sweep of his finger.
“If the decision is mine to make,” she said breathing hard, her voice utterly serious, “then I’m keeping you, for as long as I can have you.”
Falling in love is like eating a whole box of chocolates—it seems like a good idea at first…
The next day, Ty woke up in his bed with a gloriously naked woman sprawled out over the top of him. Not that he was opposed to such a phenomenon, but this gloriously naked woman was all up in his space, and he’d always valued his own space. He was a big guy and he didn’t like to feel crowded. Mallory was half his size, and as it turned out, she was a bed hog. She was also a blanket hog and a pillow hog.
It’s okay, he told himself. It was okay that they’d slept together because they both knew what this was and what it wasn’t. They’d fallen asleep together, that’s all. It didn’t mean anything. Now if it happened again…well, then he’d panic. “Mallory.”
She let out a soft snore, and he felt his heart squeeze. Fucking heart. “Mallory. Are you working today?” He already had one hand on her ass. Easy enough to add the other. When he squeezed, then went exploring, a low appreciative moan escaped her lips, and she obligingly spread her legs, giving him more room to work, murmuring something that sounded like “don’t stop.”
Then she froze and jerked upright. “Whattimeisit?”
“Seven,” he said, nuzzling his face in her crazy hair.
“Seven? Seven? I have to be gone!” She leapt out of the bed, frantically searching for her various pieces of clothing.
Enjoying the Naked Mallory Show, he leaned back, hands behind his head.
“Where are my panties?” she demanded.
“Under the chair.”
She dove under the chair, giving him a heart-stopping view that made him groan.
“They’re not here!” she yelled, voice muffled from her head-down-ass-up position.
“No? Check under my jeans then,” he said.
She straightened, and hair in her face—hell, hair everywhere—gave him a narrowed gaze.
She crawled to his jeans, another hot view, and snatched her panties. With her clothes in her arms, she vanished into his bathroom. Two minutes later she reappeared, dressed and looking thoroughly fucked. “Come here,” he said, smiling.
“Oh hell no. If I come over there, you’re going to kiss me.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I am.”
“And then you’ll…you know.’
He laughed, feeling light-hearted and…happy. “I do know. I know exactly what I want to do to you. I want to put my mouth on your—”
“Oh, God.” She shook her head and grabbed her keys. “I have to go!”
“Five minutes,” he said, and thought he had her when she hesitated, biting her lower lip, looking tempted. “It’ll be the best five minutes of your day,” he promised.
“I usually need more like fifteen minutes.”
“Not last night you didn’t. Last night you only needed four before you—”
“Bye,” she said, laughing, and shut his door.
Ty lay there smiling like an idiot for a few minutes. Then his phone beeped. Rolling out of bed, he accessed his messages. Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, there were only messages from Frances. That was no longer the case. The first message was from Ryan.
“Hey, man,” the vet said. That was it, the full extent of the message. Pretty typical of Ryan, and it could mean anything from “let’s have dinner” to “I’m jonesing and need someone to talk to.”
Matt had called as well, looking for a sparring partner. Josh had called inquiring about his health—and Ty knew Josh meant his mental health, not his leg.
Ty stared at his phone in surprise. At some point, when he’d been busy resenting like hell this slow-paced, sleepy little town and everyone in it, something had happened.
He’d made ties, strings on the heart he wasn’t even sure he had. His smile faded as he listened to his last message, which contained no words, just a seething silence.
He should call her and check in. After all, he was cleared to go back. But he didn’t call. Instead he checked up on Ryan, then he finished the last of the cars lined up for him—Matt’s Jimmy.
Now he could go back.
He showered and drove to the Health Services Clinic just as it was closing up for the day. It was Thursday, and he knew there were no activities or meetings scheduled there that night.
The front room was empty, but he could hear voices so he followed them and found Mallory in one of the small rooms, door open. She was facing a woman in her sixties. The woman was sitting in a chair, her face pinched like she’d eaten a sour apple.
Mallory was wearing purple scrubs today, and it was a good color for her. Her hair had been tied back, probably hours ago, and as usual, strands had escaped.
She wasn’t good at hiding her feelings, and right now she was on edge, tired, and frustrated.
A long day, no doubt, made longer since they’d spent most of the night tearing up his sheets. He knew exactly what he’d do to relax her, but he had to remind himself that she wasn’t his to take care of.
His own choice.
He was leaving, and someday, maybe someday soon, she’d stay up all night with someone else. Someone who would take care of her, help her unwind at the end of the day. Maybe someone from her list.