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“How’s that? He was trying to protect me from you—”

Shaw swung around, his eyes blazing. “Get a f**king clue, Emerson. He was standing near our table the whole time you were on the dance floor.”

I pulled my hand free with a violent yank. “So?”

“He was telling his buddies and anyone standing nearby all the dirty things he was going to do to you.”

I blinked and swallowed, pushing down my disgust that some strange guy had been talking trash about me before he even approached me at the bar. That was no shock. I knew just what kind of guy he was the minute he opened his mouth. I was more bothered by Shaw “rescuing” me. What made him think I needed rescuing? I could handle myself. I had been doing it forever.

“Oh, aren’t you the noble knight,” I mocked. “News flash. I didn’t need your help back there.”

“Sure as hell looked like it to me.”

What? Did he think I was going to let that guy take me home and act out all his perverse fantasies on me? The very idea that he thought that way of me only made me angrier. Contrary to what all of Dartford thought, I wasn’t a slut.

But isn’t that what you want people to think? That you’re tougher, stronger, more experienced? I can’t be offended that they all believe the image I created. Including Shaw.

I took a deep breath and reached for my composure. Determined to not let Shaw rattle me, I shrugged. “So he was talking shit. Like guys don’t do that.”

“Not to you,” he growled. “You might not think you deserve more respect than that, but I do. You deserve better.”

Stunned, I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Reclaiming my hand, he resumed hauling me through the parking lot, weaving us through the cars. My mind reeled. What was that supposed to mean? He thought I deserved better? Like what? I wasn’t Pepper or Georgia or Suzanne. I wasn’t a nice girl looking for a fairy-tale ending. That wasn’t in the cards for me.

I lifted my face and inhaled the biting-cold air, trying desperately to cool the heat firing my cheeks as he led me toward his truck.

“Contrary to what you think,” I got out, staring at his back, “I don’t need rescuing.”

He laughed harshly then. We were almost to his truck. I spotted it through the cars. Without breaking stride, he tossed over his shoulder, “You, sweetheart, need rescuing in the worst way.”

I stared at his back, wanting to hit something. Him.

He led me to the passenger side and yanked open the door. Jerking his head, he snapped at me, “Get in.”

Neanderthal. I crossed my arms over my chest, not budging. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve survived just fine for almost twenty-one years before you came along.”

His gaze flicked over me and that glint of scorn was back in his eyes. “That’s debatable.”

I flinched. It was as if he saw right into me . . . saw that I was a girl hanging on by a thread. How did he know that about me? How could he read when I managed to fool everyone else?

Again, I felt judged. Like he somehow found me lacking—which I knew was in direct opposition to what he had just said, that I deserved better. But that summed up how he made me feel. Confused. Lost. Low one moment and high the next. I didn’t know where I was going with him, which was a definite first. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time, but mostly scary.

“Get in,” he repeated, his voice hard.

“I don’t have to do what you say. And I already have a ride home.”

“Yeah, and they’re having a good time out. Their night shouldn’t end just because of you. So stop being selfish.”

The truth of that statement flayed me. Which was probably the desired effect. I felt guilty.

I lifted my chin. “Who said I’d bother them? I’ll find another ride.” Unable to take it anymore—take him—I whirled around. I didn’t make it two steps before he caught me up in his arms.

That was all it took. I fought, struggling against him. His arms circled and held me prisoner. The memory shouldn’t have flashed before my eyes, but it did. It was there. Inside me, consuming everything. That feeling of helplessness. Of being trapped.

Wild animal sounds escaped me. I growled and snapped my teeth, actually trying to bite him.

“Emerson, stop! Emerson!” Still holding me, he carefully lowered me down, setting my feet back on the ground.

“Easy, Emerson. I won’t hurt you.” His voice faded as he caught sight of my face. Air sawed past my lips as I stared out at him through my wild tangle of hair.

I felt them then. The hot slide of tears. Shit.

His arms loosened around me without entirely letting go. Still, it was enough room to move my arms between us. I dashed at my cheeks with shaking hands, feeling like the biggest idiot. I knew I needed to keep my distance from him. From the moment I’d spotted him, he threatened my careful control. And now look at me. I was crying.

“What? What do you want from me?” I whispered feverishly. “Why are you here . . . why are you doing this to me?”

Why couldn’t he just leave me alone?

He loomed over me. So close. Too close. Looking down at me, he shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Mortified that I was actually crying in front of him, I shoved free with a choked little sound and spun around again, sniffing back tears.

“Emerson.” He said my name on a breath that I felt right at my nape. My skin turned to goose flesh. Part of me wanted to turn around but I held myself still.

His large hands fell on my shoulders and rotated me around. Standing face-to-face again, his hands dropped. He dragged one hand through his dark hair, sending the strands flying briefly before settling back into place. We just stared at each other in a silent communion. It was strange. There were no words, but something was happening, something passing between us. It sounds like a cliché, but I’d never felt anything like it before. Not with any other guy.

His hands lifted and slid over my tear-soaked cheeks, holding me almost tenderly. He looked troubled. There was no other word for it. “I don’t know what it is you do to me.”

I do something to him?

His voice continued, a dark little whisper rushing over my lips. “But I’m not going to fight it anymore.”

As his warm mouth came down on mine, a jolt that felt like electricity shot through me. Along with that, a thousand thoughts chased through me as his lips pressed to mine, softer and more persuasive than I would have imagined possible from this hard-looking guy.