The truck had pulled over, and the driver honked. Riley would have jumped right into it, but Amy grabbed her. “You don’t have to do this, you know you don’t. Stay. You’ve got a job here if you want it, and people who care.”
The truck driver honked again, and Amy flipped him off. The driver rolled down his window and blasted them with a litany of foul oaths before hitting the gas, choking them with dust.
Riley looked impressed. “Wow, you flipped that guy off.”
Riley shook her head, baffled. “Why do you even care?”
Because once upon a time Amy had been in trouble, and there’d been no one to care. Because she recognized the helplessness in Riley’s eyes. “Maybe I need to see something good happen to someone like us. Stay, Riley. Stay and say you’ll think about the job.”
Riley stared at her for a long beat. “I’ll think about the job.”
Relief filled Amy, and she relaxed a margin. “Come on. You can come back inside and wait for me to get off work.”
The teen paused and then shook her head. “I still can’t stay with you.”
Riley’s mouth tightened. Clearly, she had her reasons, good reasons, and just as clearly she wasn’t going to say what those reasons were. Amy had a terrible suspicion that Riley was in some way trying to protect Amy by not staying—which didn’t make her feel any better. “Where will you sleep?”
“You have to promise not to tell.”
Oh, boy. Nothing good ever started with that sentence. How could she make such a serious promise like that when Matt would want to know what was going on? “Listen—”
Riley’s desperation was palpable, and Amy looked into her eyes and saw fear mixed in with a desperate need to believe in someone. Damn. That someone was going to be her. “I promise,” Amy said softly. “Riley, I promise you.”
“Not a single soul.”
Oh, how she hated to make such a promise, especially one she was already regretting, but the look on Riley’s face made her do it. “Not a single soul. I promise.”
And still Riley hesitated. “I’m going back to the forest.”
“Riley.” Amy shook her head. “You know Matt asked you not to camp illegally.”
“He won’t know.”
“He’ll ask,” Amy said.
“Then tell him I’m still with you.”
Oh, no. That was a very bad idea. “Riley—”
Behind them, the door to the diner opened, and the man himself stepped out. How did he do that? Did he sense when she was thinking about him? Amy met his gaze and then turned back to Riley to tell her that they really needed another plan. But Riley was gone.
Matt strode across the lot. Amy had no idea what was on his mind, though she knew what was on hers. Worry for Riley. Anxiety that she’d just agreed to lie to the one man who’d made her feel something since… well, ever. And as always, that conflicting sense of free falling and yet being safe, simply because he was near.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded again and hoped that covered everything he wanted to know. But she should have known better. Matt wasn’t the sort of man she could brush off or fool with a smile. He might be laid-back and easygoing, but he was sharp as a tack.
“Problem?” he asked.
She shook her head no while thinking yes. Big problem. Many problems. There was a secret between them, something that wouldn’t have bothered her in the past but was bothering her greatly now. She had no idea what she was doing with him, but the anxiety ratcheted up a notch now. “I’m just really bad with morning-after discussions,” she said. “Even though technically, this is an afternoon after. Or evening after. Or—”
“Maybe you’d be less bad at them if you didn’t run off.”
Yeah, maybe. Probably. But running off was what she did.
“Okay,” he said with a shake of his head, as if he wasn’t sure how they’d gotten on this track. “Let’s start this conversation over. You really okay? And I mean that as a general how-are-you question.”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m really okay. You?”
“Better than okay.”
She rolled her eyes, but felt a smile threaten. How he did that, coaxed the fun out of her when she’d been fresh out of fun, was a big mystery.
He nudged his chin toward where Riley had vanished. “Tell me about Riley.”
Well if that didn’t wipe her smile right off. He thought Riley was staying with her, and he thought that because she’d told him so. By not correcting that assumption and telling him that Riley now would be back in the woods was as good as lying to him.
But she’d promised. She’d promised a teen who desperately needed to be able to trust. “Nothing to tell, really. I was feeding her.”
Matt studied her for a long moment, eyes sharp and assessing. She could feel the heat of his body, the easy strength of him, and felt the utterly inexplicable urge to reach for him. It confused her. She’d spent most of her teens and early twenties doing her best to ruin her own life. This had involved some pretty stupid and massively unsafe things, like hitchhiking across the country, accepting rides and places to stay with no concern for her own safety.
Not having family to call had only increased the sense of walking on a tightrope.
She’d gotten good at it.
She’d also gotten good at self-preservation. She’d managed to survive in spite of herself, and yet here she was at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, and all she wanted to do was turn and burrow her face in Matt’s chest and let him be the strong one.
He’d do it, too. If she made the first move, he’d absolutely wrap her in his arms and hold her close. He’d murmur something in that low, calming voice, something she might not even catch, but it wouldn’t matter. She’d know everything was going to be okay.
He’d given her that, a sense of security, and it terrified her.
Reaching for her hand, he turned her to face him. “Amy.”
With a sigh, she let him tug her in against him, and when he kissed her, his mouth was warm and knowing, tasting both familiar and right. It was like coming home. That was her only excuse for letting him deepen the kiss, for wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him back until she had no air left. Finally she broke it off because this wasn’t like last time, when he’d been just getting off work and they could race to his house to get naked like two horny idiots. She had a long shift ahead of her. “I have to get back inside before Jan kills me,” she whispered against his mouth.
He let her unravel from him, but when she would have walked away, he tightened his grip on her hand. “Amy.”
His gaze held hers, and she did her best to keep her thoughts to herself.
“You’d tell me if there was trouble,” he said.
Some of her glow diminished. “What kind of trouble?” she asked cautiously.
“Any kind of trouble.”
Maybe she wasn’t quite as good at lying as she thought. “I can take care of myself. You know that, right?”
“That’s the thing, Amy. You don’t have to. You have connections here. Friends. People who care. I care.”
Hadn’t she just had this conversation in reverse with Riley? And now Matt was the one trying to be there, for Amy. Hell if that didn’t put a lump in her throat, which she ruthlessly swallowed. “There’s no trouble.” Please don’t ask me to promise.
He didn’t. Without another word, he nodded and let go of her hand, and without much of a choice, she went back inside the diner.
God gave the angels wings and the humans chocolate.
Two days later, Matt found Amy at the ranger station, studying the big board of trails. She was wearing her hip-hugging skinny jeans tucked into her kick-ass boots and a snug, thin tee with some Chinese symbols on it that he figured he didn’t want to know the meaning of. She was concentrating on the board, brow furrowed, lips moving as she read the names of the trails. Just the sight of her made him both smile and ache.
“Where to?” he asked.
She didn’t take her attention off the board. “I’m thinking of walking from the north rim to the south rim.”
“For… your heart?”
“For my grandma’s heart.”
He nodded agreeably. “You’re going to want to take the eastern trail to the top,” he said, nursing the Dr. Pepper he’d picked up at the convenience store on his way in. “It’s the longest, but it’s the only easy-to-moderate way to the top. There’s a loop but don’t take it. Come back the same way.”
She turned her head and looked at him, and he felt the same punch to the gut that he always felt when they were this close. He wanted to think she felt it too but it was hard to tell. She was damn good at keeping her thoughts inside. “You planning on overnighting again?”
Her mouth curved slightly. “No. I don’t think overnighting in the wilds is for me.”
He begged to disagree. He could remember, vividly, how she’d looked in his sweatshirt, in his sleeping bag, in his tent. Hot. “Then you want to make sure you turn around by three or four to get back before dark.”
She saluted him, the smart-ass, and made him smile. “We could meet up after,” he said.
Again, her brow furrowed. “For?”
“To go out.”
“Out,” she repeated, like the word didn’t compute.
“On a date,” he clarified.
“Yeah,” he said, laughing ruefully at himself. At her. “Unless you’re allergic to dates. Then we could call it something else.”
She opened her mouth, then hesitated.