Staying silent, he waited.
My hands clenched and I looked away. Yeah, I knew what fear the tarot cards had picked up on, but I had no intention of sharing it, especially not with Aaron. He’d make fun of me, and then I would hate him. I didn’t want to hate him.
“Tori,” he murmured.
I squeezed my hands into tighter fists. Forcing myself to meet his eyes, I knew no matter what I said, he wouldn’t tease me. Maybe … maybe if I told him part of it, the tarot reading would stop digging holes in my brain.
“My dad is a piece of shit,” I said, going for a light and casual tone. “My mom had had enough by the time I was seven and took off. After that, it was just me and my brother. When Justin turned fifteen, he ran away from home. I was ten. Then it was just me and Dad …”
Grabbing my bar rag, I twisted the cloth into a knot, forgetting I was feigning nonchalance. “I ended up living with relatives for a while. When I was sixteen, Justin showed up again and got me out. I cut all ties with our relatives and started to get my life together.”
Aaron tugged the rag out of my white-knuckled grip. Pulling my composure back into place, I forced a smile. It probably wasn’t convincing, but I tried.
“Things were good. I was happy. But then Justin applied to the police academy here and when he got in, he …” I coughed before the faint tremor in my voice became too obvious. Why was this so hard to talk about? I mean, yeah, I’d never told anyone before, but it shouldn’t be this difficult.
“It was fine,” I concluded. “He was following his dreams. I’m happy he gets to do what he wants. I moved back in with my least revolting relatives, but then my dad started showing up, so I relocated here.”
“And now you’re living with your brother again,” Aaron murmured. “You’re afraid he’ll abandon you a third time?”
“No, not that.” Giving an overly careless shrug, I reclaimed the rag and wiped a few water droplets off the counter. “I know he won’t always be there. He’s got his own life to live and he doesn’t owe me anything. When he’s off again doing his own thing, I’ll be okay this time. I don’t need him.”
“I see,” Aaron said softly.
My wary gaze shot to him. “See what?”
“You still have my number, right? You should memorize it.”
“So that no matter where you are or what happens, you can call me. I’ll always be there to help you.”
I didn’t want help. Not his, not anyone’s. If my mother would abandon me, and my brother would ditch me twice, and my relatives would only help when it was convenient, how could I trust a near stranger to be there for me?
The only person I trusted was myself. Once, I’d put my faith in Justin, my white-knight hero, to help put me back together. But when it hadn’t been easy, when fixing my temper and my insecurities and my broken self-control had grown too tedious, he’d left me all over again.
Screw that. I wasn’t giving anyone the power to crush me like that, not a second time. I would count on me to take care of me.
Before I had to come up with a response, Cooper stuck his head through the saloon doors. He’d taken over kitchen duty for the night since Ramsey was out hunting rogues with Kai and Ezra.
“Hey, Tori,” he said, the stink of cigarette smoke wafting off him. “Will you be okay on your own? It’s dead tonight so I’m going to take off. There’s a Chinese place I wanna hit for dinner before they close.”
“What time is it?” I asked, too lazy to get my phone out of my pocket.
“Quarter after eleven.”
“Oh, yeah. No problem. I’m going to start cleaning up in a few minutes anyway.” With a wave, he vanished back through the doors, and I stretched on my stool, rolling my shoulders. “I could go for some Chinese food too. Or even better, something sweet.”
Aaron’s eyes lit up. I’d come to discover he had a sweet tooth worse than mine. His ordering a margarita with a mandatory candied cherry on top should’ve been my first warning.
“Chocolate would be perfect.” I sighed wistfully, remembering the box he’d given me as part of that dumb bet. “How far is the nearest 24/7 gas station?”
“Too far,” he replied, sounding as disappointed as I felt. “Besides, your shift isn’t over yet. And we’re supposed to wait here, remember?”
“Damn it.” I tapped my lower lip, considering my options. A genius idea popped into my head. “Aha!”
“Nothing,” I said brightly, hopping off my stool. “I’m going to clean up in the back.”
“You’ve never been this excited about cleaning before,” he observed with squinty-eyed suspicion. “What are you really doing?”
“Cleaning.” I slid away from him. “You know, scrubbing … things. You wouldn’t like it.”
“Uh-huh.” Standing, he followed me. “You look guiltier than a kid with an empty cookie jar.”
“You’re imagining things.” I speed-walked around the bar, but he strode after me. “Hey! You’re not allowed back here.”
He smirked. “Who’s going to stop me?”
Scowling, I zipped through the saloon doors and across the kitchen to the dry storage room. Aaron scrambled after me, but I beat him to the door, jumped inside, and shut it behind me. Holding the knob with one hand, I grabbed the box of milk chocolate stir sticks used to garnish chocolate martinis.
“You found chocolate, didn’t you?” Aaron demanded through the door, the handle turning in my grip.
“Of course not!”
He pushed on the door and I dug my heels in. I was short the hundred pounds of muscle required to stop him, but I stuffed three chocolate sticks in my mouth before he got the door open.
His greedy stare found the box in my hand. “Is there a reason you can’t share?”
“Mmphrm.” I wanted to point out he’d eat twice as much as me if I let him, but three chocolate sticks was too much to talk through.
He reached for the box and I held it behind my back, frantically chewing before I choked. Dancing backward as he tried to reach around me, I darted for the door. He swung it shut, trapping me and my precious snack inside.
“You are a mean person, Tori,” he reprimanded as I skittered out of reach. “Talking about chocolate then eating it right in front of me? Cruel.”
I swallowed my mouthful. “You wouldn’t have to watch if you hadn’t followed me.” To emphasize my point, I stuck another chocolate stick in my mouth, the end poking out as I grinned unrepentantly.
Growling, he grabbed for the box again. I dove away but he caught me around the waist and pushed me back into the closed door, then his head dipped down. He caught the other end of my chocolate stick in his mouth, his lips brushing across mine as he bit the end off.
I went rigid. Suddenly, I was intensely aware of his hands on my waist and his heat radiating into me. He swallowed his stolen bite of chocolate and licked his lips.
“Not bad,” he remarked.
Then he kissed me.
His hot mouth pressed against mine and my stomach dropped. I almost crushed the chocolates in my hand, my breath gone from my lungs as he pulled me closer. My free hand found his arm, sliding over his bicep. He kissed me unhurriedly, the heat building, a slow fire stoked by each touch of his mouth.
Lifting his head, he arched an eyebrow. “Remember how I said I was going to ask you out?”
“Mm-hmm,” I agreed, embarrassingly breathless.
“Do you want to get dinner together once the evil rogue guild is no more?”
“Excellent.” His gaze slipped down to my mouth again. “Do I have to wait until after our date to kiss you again?”
I pretended to deliberate, distracted by his thumbs caressing my sides. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
I’d barely gotten the last word out before his mouth closed over mine again. Blindly shoving the chocolates onto the nearest shelf, I wound my arms around his neck. He pulled me into him and I pressed as much of my body as possible against the warm, hard muscles I’d been admiring for weeks. God, he had an amazing body. I wanted to run my hands over his bare skin. I wanted him back in nothing but his boxers. Ever since waking up Monday morning with him and Ezra practically naked in the same room as me, I’d been fighting nonstop fantasies every time I closed my eyes.
Wrapping one arm around me, he slid his other hand up the side of my neck and into my hair, pulling my mouth harder into his. I parted my lips, inviting an even deeper kiss, and his tongue flirted with mine, tasting of chocolate. I ran my hands over his shoulders, then slid one under the back of his shirt, wanting to touch his feverish-hot skin.
Then something smacked into the top of my head.
My eyes flew open as the offending object bounced onto the floor. A lemon?
With dull thudding, an entire bag of yellow fruit poured off the top shelf and rained down on us. I yelped, ducking out of the way, and Aaron backpedaled, hauling me clear of the citrus avalanche. Wide-eyed, I watched another dozen lemons bounce across the floor. Uh … oops. That was probably my fault. I may have been a bit rough when I rammed the chocolates onto the shelf.