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“I’m really sorry.” She looked over her shoulder at him and laughed awkwardly. “And to think I’m going for my doctorate in psychology. I should know more about interpersonal relating, right? Guess theory and practicality don’t always go hand in hand. I apologize.”

Annnnnnnnnd Axe blinked again.

Fuck. He hadn’t expected her to get his boundary. Much less respect it.

At a loss, he sat down at the foot of her bed.

Running his hand through his hair, he put his elbows on his knees and thought, Yeah, he really needed to get out of here and away from her.

But instead of leaving, he said, “I’ve never known anyone who’s gotten their doctorate before.”

All things considered, Elise thought, Axwelle had been right to call her on her shit: The thing that she had forgotten—and this was especially true when it came to new people—was that you had to meet folks where they were. Arousal aside, he’d never given her any indication that he was an open book, and she had pushed him too far because she had ascribed her own characteristics to him.

But she was encouraged that he hadn’t bolted out her door.

“Yes,” she said, clearing her throat. “My studies have been years and years of work. That’s why—well, that’s why I got ahead of myself just now. It’s been a huge investment of time and effort, and if I don’t complete my dissertation, I feel like it’s all been for nothing? And my father can be so hard for me to deal with. The fact that he’s given me this opportunity is a miracle, and I guess … I just don’t want to lose my shot.”

As she fell silent, he cracked his knuckles one by one. “I can’t help it.”

“Being defensive? Why wouldn’t you have been. I put you on the spot.”

“No. Being attracted to you.”

Elise tried to look calm as her heart skipped in her chest. But Lord help her, she nearly let out a giggle.

Straightening her spine, she decided to man up. “That’s okay. I can’t help being attracted to you.” As his head whipped up, she rolled her eyes. “Come on. It’s pretty damn obvious.”

Axwelle cleared his throat. “So you’re the psych pro. Don’t you think that means we shouldn’t work together?”

“At least we know what the issue will be instead of having to discover it.” There was a pause. “Okay, that was a joke. You’re supposed to laugh.”

When he didn’t even chuckle, she—

The snort he let out was probably one of the most unattractive sounds she’d ever heard in her life, part wounded gopher, part grizzly bear, part old car backfiring. And then he cursed and slapped a palm over his mouth.

“Oh, my God,” she blurted, “that is frickin’ adorable.”

Across the way, on her girlie bed, with its pretty coral bedspread and the framing drapes of fabric that hung from a medallion on the ceiling, the fighter in his black clothes and bandaged face and his kill-ya-soon-as-look-at-ya affect turned the color of a stop sign.

“I burped. That’s all.” He stretched his back and rolled his shoulder as if he wanted to remind himself he was packed with muscle. “Look, I’ve never done this bodyguarding thing before, so I don’t know what to expect with any of it. I think the question for you is, are you willing to bet your life on me? ’Cuz that’s what it all comes down to. We could go a hundred nights without anything happening, but it just takes one where something does. And then you’re not screwed—either in a sexual or a bad luck sense—you’re fucking dead.”

“Do you doubt yourself?”

He frowned. “You want the honest truth?”

“Always.” She held up her forefinger. “I want to go on record right now and say this loud and clear. I always want the truth from you. That’s more important to me than anything else—for reasons that you’ll no doubt come to understand.”

He cracked those knuckles again. Rolled his other shoulder.

“Personally, I think my attraction works for us—I mean, you. It increases my protective nature and will make me more lethal. I’m not bonded to you, and I won’t ever be, but I am male, and in fact, I’m so much more raw than the overbred pansies you’re used to dealing with. So, yeah, anyone tries to so much as brush the ends of your hair with their elbow, and I will kill them four times over before I light their corpse on fire.”

“Well, isn’t that something to put on a Valentine’s Day card.” Except he probably had a point. “And listen, I firmly believe we aren’t what we think, we’re what we do. You and I will keep things professional on a physical level and all will be well.”

Axwelle got to his feet in a rush. “Okay, text me when you need me tomorrow. I can work until one a.m., but then I have training.” He nodded, in a way that made it seem as if they had shaken hands, and then he went for her door. “I’ll show myself out—”

“Wait, so my schedule—”

“Just let me know.”

Boy, he’d had it with the conversating, hadn’t he.

“We can do this, you know,” she told his strong back. “It’s all going to be okay.”

“You say that now.” He opened the door wide. “Let’s hope at the end of it, however long it lasts, you feel the same.”

“Wait, I need your cell phone?”

He spoke the digits over his shoulder like an afterthought and then he kept on going through the jambs without seeming to care whether or not she caught them.

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