“Liquor.” She sucked in a breath. “I need liquor.”

“That’s a given.”

Brent stood just inside Quincy’s, waiting for his to-go lunch. Matt stood propped against the wall to his left, both of them silent for once as they nursed Coca-Colas. Hoping to get some decent advice, he’d asked Matt to meet him there, but now he had nothing to say. It hurt to talk. Every joke sounded cheap and hollow to his ears. Every word reminded him of the spectacular shit-show the weekend had turned into. How badly he’d handled the confrontation with Hayden, severing the fragile tether between them with his big, stupid mouth. Pushing her until she’d been forced to hit him with that knockout punch. A kept man. Shit. A day later it still stung.

Then she’d gone and disappeared, driving him out of his mind with worry and hitting home just how hard he’d actually fallen for her in the process. If he’d had time to cool off after Lucy’s phone call, even just ten damn minutes, he might have been rational enough to communicate like a mature human being why her actions bothered him. Maybe right now he wouldn’t be sitting in a shit-stew of physical and mental fuckery. He could be sneaking a call to her on this lunch break, making plans to see her later, instead of waiting on notoriously overcooked French fries in silence with Matt. Not that he didn’t appreciate the company. He did. He’d just rather be talking to Hayden.

Now that he’d had a sleepless night and an equally shitty morning to replay yesterday’s scene in his mind, over and over, he kept stumbling on little roadblocks. Hayden’s confused reaction. The fact that paying Lucy’s tuition didn’t even feel like something she would do in the first place. The hurt on her face when he’d verbally cut down the bridge they’d managed to build over their differences. He loved their differences. Surprisingly, when it came right down to it, he didn’t care that she had a lot of money. She could be as rich as two Oprahs and his feelings would remain the same, because she would still be the same. He’d never be a big enough man to accept charity, but if accepting the differences in their bank accounts meant being with Hayden, the decision was a no-brainer. He wanted her.

For so long, he’d been written off as the wiseass in their group of friends. The one everyone counted on to make the dirty joke. The one everyone rolled their eyes at. Hayden saw more. She saw the man who relished his responsibility to his family. The man whose job didn’t make him insane, it made him committed. He’d even let down his guard in front of Daniel in Atlantic City thanks to Hayden’s influence. She made him better. She made him see that more was possible.

Convincing her to give him another chance would be a feat, especially after yesterday when he’d wasted no time in highlighting every reason they couldn’t work instead of all the reasons they would work. Off-the-charts sexual chemistry aside, he suspected they had more in common than either of them realized. They both loved a good fight. They showed one side of themselves to the world, keeping their compassion and vulnerabilities just under the surface. Family, duty, and responsibility meant everything to them both, even if their methods were vastly different. And hell…she fit right into his arms like she’d been molded for his body alone. He’d spent one night with her tucked against him and he was already ruined.

She’d talked about cannoli in her sleep. How ridiculously cute was that?

Oh God. He’d hurt the feelings of a girl who talked about cannoli in her sleep. The girl who’d tucked her feet between his legs to warm her toes. The girl who woke up smiling in his bed. He’d seen her in the mirror along the wall and it had nearly burst his chest wide open. He’d actually hurt that girl.

Okay. Don’t panic yet. He’d get through his shift and go see her. Apologizing to her voice mail and moping around like a heartsick Jolly Green Giant wouldn’t cut it any longer. He’d sit on her stoop and refuse to leave until she heard him out. Wasn’t that what Troy had done with Ruby? Brent checked his watch. Six hours. He had six hours to figure out the right words. The ones that would convince her to give him a chance. Give them a chance. It wouldn’t be easy, but he’d use everything in his arsenal.

“Hey, you know a good place to get roses around here? Not the cheap kind, like at the drugstore. Like, some legitimate roses that’ll make it through the night.”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? You’ve been standing there thinking for twenty minutes and your big epiphany is roses?”

“Really nice roses.” Brent rolled his shoulders. “It’s just a start. She probably won’t even notice them, she’ll be so dazzled by my eloquent speech.”

“Is that so?”

“No.” Brent dropped his head onto his hands. “I’m fucked.”

After a moment, Matt sighed. “Listen, just be honest with her. Don’t make any excuses for whatever jackass move you pulled. Sometimes all they need to hear is sorry.” He sipped his drink. “It’s a classic male move. Leaving out the sorry.”

“Who are you?”

Matt shrugged, not answering.

“How do you know so much about what women want to hear?”

A beat passed. For the first time since Brent had known Matt, his unruffled demeanor slipped and something akin to pain shone through. “Sometimes we find out these things too late. Don’t make that mistake.” He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, signaling the end of that particular topic. Brent reined in his curiosity and let it go without comment.

“All right. Any other advice, oh wise one?”

“Beg like hell.” Matt gave a quick shake of his head. “I don’t have a lot of experience with girls like Hayden. She’s an incredibly sexy girl—”


He held up a hand. “Don’t worry, my tastes are…different. However, she’s the only girl I’ve come across who is remotely capable of putting up with your bullshit. No offense. I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

“None taken.” Brent crossed his arms. “You’re right. I’m a dick.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” Matt sighed. “Actually, I take it back. I would go that far.”

“Thanks, buddy.”

“Any time.” They both turned as Daniel walked into Quincy’s. Looking highly preoccupied, he didn’t see them until Brent put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. He leaned against the wall beside Brent and nodded at them, but didn’t speak. Just stood there, twisting the engagement ring on his finger. Brent and Matt shared a look.

“Hey Danny, you missed it. Matt here just broke his record for consecutively spoken words. Giving advice, no less.”

No response from Daniel.

“Seriously, if I’d closed my eyes, it would have been like Dr. Phil was standing right next to me.”

Still nothing.

“All right, what’s up with you, man?”

Daniel blew out a breath. “I don’t know. Something was off with Story this morning. Have you spoken to Hayden?”

“Nope. And thanks for rubbing it in.”

“She wouldn’t even look at me before she left for work and now she’s not answering her phone.”

“It’s nothing,” Matt insisted. “You guys are solid. Stop overanalyzing.”

Brent smiled. “See? Dr. Phil without the goofy accent.”

Daniel grabbed Brent’s Coke and took a healthy swallow. “Yeah…yeah, you’re probably right.” Before the words left his mouth, a phone rang and Daniel all but gave himself whiplash trying to extricate the source of the noise from his pocket. “It’s her.”

Matt and Brent rolled their eyes.

“Hey, sunshine.” He listened silently for long moments, his skin growing pale. Brent could practically hear Story’s frantic voice through the phone and frowned. Something was definitely wrong. His whole body tensed as Daniel met his eyes. Whatever had gone wrong, Hayden was involved. Jesus. How bad could it be? When Story finally paused, Daniel’s responded very quietly. “Okay, listen to me, baby. You need to stall. Do whatever you have to do. Just don’t let it happen.” He hung up.

Brent swallowed.

“What is it?”

“We need to get down to City Hall.”