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Beck might seem perfect. He might act perfect. Hell, he might BE perfect. But that means nothing in the long run. I’ve never met a man that could have a relationship without it turning sour eventually. I’ve been a revolving door for assholes my entire life. It isn’t a stretch that all of my ‘man issues’ start and end with my father. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just impossible for me to have love.

I’m pretty sure that Beck is the closest thing that I will ever have to happiness, but after today, there is no way in hell that I’m taking that chance. I can’t, because deep down I know, I know, if I give him a chance, he will steal my heart. I’m just not sure what would happen to me if I let him in, and he ever changes his mind.

So, it’s best that whatever this is between us ends now before something bad happens. I take a deep breath, trying to get the images of Izzy, broken and beaten again, out of my mind. I tremble violently when the painful images of her filter through my mind again.

“You going to keep huffin’ and puffin’ over there like a damn brat?”

My eyes widen and my spine stiffens before I look up and glare at Maddox. How dare he! How freaking dare he!

“You don’t know me well enough to judge me, Maddox Locke.” I’ve never been good at throwing sass around. Izzy is better at giving those stank eyes out to get her point across. I can tell that I’m doing a crappy job when the corner of his mouth tips up slightly. “This isn’t funny.” I pout, crossing my arms over my chest.

“It’s pretty damn hilarious.”

My jaw drops, and I stop right in my tracks.

“Excuse me?” I don’t have to fake the displeasure that laces my words.

“You want me to lay it out for you?” At my nod, he just shakes his head before continuing. “Here’s how I see it. Two months, give or take a few hours, you and my boy have been fuck buddies who act more like a couple than some married people do. I’ve watched you, Dee. I see you pushing back and at the same time, running forward. You’re hot and cold, but when you’re cold, it’s fucking frigid. Last couple of weeks, I’ve seen that fear leave you. The crazy emotions, ups and downs, all those stupid games you’ve been playing with him, have stopped. You were finally ready. I won’t act like I understand your life, but if you let what happened today ruin what could be something worth trying for, then that’s on your shoulders.”

“Are you done?” I spit out. Literally, spit the words out at him. I’m sure I look hilarious. I might even be frothing at the mouth at this point.

“Yeah, I’m done. For now.” He starts walking again, and after a second of stunned shock, I rush after him.

“You have no right to judge me, Maddox. You have no idea what I’m going through right now.” I almost stumble, but he reaches out before I can nosedive to the asphalt.

“Really? Want me to let you in on a little secret? This,” he waves his hand around us, “isn’t even close to being about you. Your best friend is up there with God knows what wrong, and you’re stewing in your own shit. We all have a jacked up past, all of us. You aren’t special because you’ve been fucked over. Do you know how much I would love to have someone solid to share my life with? Both of you girls, running and running. Where exactly will you run when there isn’t anywhere left to go?” His chest is heaving, and his black eyes are just taking me in, judging me without knowing what he’s judging.

“You don’t think I want that? I crave that! But I know better than to ever let someone hurt me again! I will never, NEVER, be at the mercy of another man. I’ll tell you that much, Maddox! You want to stand there and stare at me with those judgy eyes, that’s fine, but you better have all the facts before you condemn me to hell!” His eyes narrow slightly before he gives me a slight nod and starts walking again. “Seriously! Where are you going?”

“Food. You need to eat and calm the hell down. When you’re done eating, we’ll talk.”

Bullheaded, asshat, infuriating MAN!

We’re sitting at a small diner around the corner from the hospital. He’s already had a meal that could feed a small army, while I’ve been picking at everything and anything on my plate. His words from earlier are still slapping me in the face.

Slap.

Slap.

Slap.

What is it with these damn men and their ability to see right the hell through me? He’s hit the nail right on the head, and I’m silently freaking the hell out. If he can see past my mask right into my deepest hurts, then I’m sure Beck can, too.

“My father used to slap me around. My mother wasn’t as bad, but she was still bad. I’ve had a few boyfriends. All used me and left when they got what they wanted. Some more bad relationships and friendships with men scattered here and there. My track record with female friends isn’t much better. Izzy and Greg are the first real friendships that I’ve ever had in my life. Ever. I don’t trust easily. I don’t really even believe that I could love someone. The last time I felt what I thought was true happiness and love is when Izzy met Brandon.” I continue to move my food around, trying to find the right words. I’m not even really sure what it is about this man that has me opening up, but now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can stop. We’ve known each other just as long as I’ve known Beck, but there is something about him that makes me feel like he could take my secrets on and lock them tight.

“Izzy’s story isn’t pretty, Maddox. It’s about as bad as you can imagine, and a little worse than that. When she met Brandon, he was a great guy. Hell, I was actually for the first time in my life, rooting for someone to get their happily ever after. But, just like all the other men that have come into my life, his true colors came out. I can’t even remember how long they had been married before it happened. Small things, so insignificant that you only could catch on if you really know the person. I missed the signs. Izzy sure as hell missed the signs.” I stop what I’m doing and look him dead in the eyes. I want him to feel what I’m about to tell him. I have a feeling that is the only way I will gain an ally.

“They hadn’t been married long, maybe a year or two. I was working late, trying to get some last minute stuff done so I could take the following week off. I’m not even sure what I was doing. Anyway, I was alone in the office when I heard something fall in the backroom. I know what you’re thinking. Stupid little female taking off to check on the bump in the night. Oh, how stupid I was. I had just enough time to turn my head before I caught the first slap. He didn’t hit to leave marks; he just hit to hurt enough to get his point across. Ten minutes of hell, absolute hell. That was the day that I realized there really weren’t any good men left. My best friend’s husband beat the shit out of me for ten long minutes. I counted. Do you know how many seconds are in ten minutes? Six hundred. The last thing he said to me before he gave me one more kick in the ribs was to stay away from Izzy, or he would kill her. And you know what? I believed he would do it, so I left my friend alone with that monster.”

When I finish, I drop my fork, jumping when it makes a loud clatter against the plate and table before falling onto the floor with a loud bang. I’ve never told a soul that story. Now that the words actually left my lips, I want to grab them, shove them back in, and pretend that this conversation, as one-sided as it is, never happened. The only sliver of relief I feel right now is that I didn’t tell him everything.

“You’ve had a lot of shit in your life.” Well, leave it to Maddox to break it down like that.

“Yeah.” I laugh a little at the assessment of my life story.

“You going to continue to let that control your future?”

My head shoots up from where I’ve been picking apart a napkin, and once again, I find my mouth wide open.

“Uh…”

“You going to let the ghosts of assholes past ruin your chance at something good?” His brow goes up in question and immediately, I think of Beck. His handsome face and those eyes I love so much filter through my mind. The way he looks at me as if I’m the last woman on earth.

With a deep sigh, I nod my head.

“Right. You let them win then. Push away a good man, but when all this shit blows up in your face, I’m going to remind you of this conversation. No man in this world is worth the pain you have on your shoulders. There is also no way I believe that you aren’t able to love. Seen you with Izzy, seen you with Greg, and I’ve seen you with Beck. You’re wrong, Dee.”

“I have to protect myself, Maddox. I can’t… I don’t, I don’t know how to let go.”

He reaches over and grabs my hand. His huge palm covers it whole. He gives me a gentle squeeze, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I see something close to regret in his eyes. “Just because you let someone in doesn’t mean you have to stop protecting yourself. It just means you have someone to share the job with.”

We sit there in silence for a little while longer before he pays the bill and then head back over to the hospital. There really isn’t much more to say, at least on my end. Right before we hit the entrance to the hospital, Maddox asks me to stop.

“Can already tell you’re going to run. Promise me, you need to talk, you’ll find me?”

“Yeah, okay, Maddox.” My voice is just a whisper, but he hears me. He gives me another one of his nods before closing off his face again.

When we get back inside, everyone is standing around Izzy’s bed, waiting for her to wake up. I know she won’t be happy, but these people need to know this isn’t the first time we’ve been in this position. So, I open up and spill my best friend’s secrets. I watch as the men in the room grow rigid and the mood is waist deep with fury. My eyes move from Axel’s wrecked expression to Beck’s stoic one. He’s just looking at me. His face is expressionless except for his eyes. His eyes are begging me to come to him, to let him be my rock. When I give him a small shake of my head, his lips thin, and he drops his gorgeous eyes to the floor.

Just like that, regardless of my stupid, no strings rule, my heart breaks in two.

And, I have no one to blame but myself.

Chapter 4

Bullshit.

Yeah, that’s what my life’s been like the last few weeks. Absolute fucking bullshit. Dee’s walls are up higher than ever. Last weekend was the real kicker. I showed up at her condo with movies, snacks, and flowers. The fight in her eyes when she opened the door, shocked to find me standing there, was almost painful for me.

The smile on my face when she answered the door died a slow and painful death when she told me she wasn’t free. Something about ‘Stewart from the office’ was on his way over. I checked the time again and frowned when I realized ‘Stewart from the office’ wasn’t coming over to get work done. Not at eight o’clock on a Saturday night.

What could I say? Not a damn thing, because she made it clear she didn’t want a relationship, and whatever progress I had made went poof the second Izzy got hurt by her ex-husband. So I smiled, handed her the crap I bought, and left with my pride intact.

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