Then he’d acted like a dumbass and touched her. And she hadn’t stopped him. Lord, what had he been thinking? The woman might want him physically, but she didn’t want more than that. He’d learned that harsh lesson long ago. And he couldn’t go through the torture of having her, then losing her again. He wasn’t that much of a masochist.
Standing in the foyer, he checked his gun out of habit. At creaking sounds he looked up to see her descending the stairs. She wore snug fitting jeans and a long sleeved black turtleneck. It shouldn’t have been sexy but his mouth watered as she passed him. Her familiar scent was buried deep inside his psyche and there was no way he could ignore what it did to his body. He didn’t know what perfume she wore, but it was fresh, citrusy and something that was pure Lilly.
“Did you find everything okay?” The question sounded breathy, sultry, and it washed over him with a desire he wanted to ignore.
Because he didn’t trust his voice, he simply nodded and followed her to the front door.
“Good.” She grabbed a black pea coat from the rack and her keys from the foyer table. “Is that your grandpa’s old jacket?” She crinkled her brow at him as she shrugged into her coat.
He ran his hands over the faded leather. “I’m surprised you remember.”
Her green eyes sparkled for a second. “I loved your grandfather. He always told the best stories. I’m really sorry about your parents and grandfather. I kept meaning to call, but every time I picked up the phone…”
Nearly three years had passed since he’d lost most of his family. Braden noticed she didn’t say anything about his brother who’d also died in the small eight-seater plane crash, but he just nodded and fished his keys out of his pocket. “I got your flowers and card.” Before an awkward silence could take over, he changed the subject. “My grandmother was asking about you before you arrived. She’s got a whole brigade of women ready to bake casseroles and desserts for the wake.”
“Really?” Lilly’s pretty mouth parted as he opened the front door.
“She didn’t want you to worry about anything. She also said she’d be stopping by for a visit today or tomorrow. She’s going to drop off some of the food early.”
“That’s one thing I can cross off my list. I thought I’d have to cook for the whole town or find someone to cater.”
Braden shook his head as they walked down the stone path. It surprised him that she’d forgotten that everyone in town took care of each other, but he brushed it off. She’d been gone a long time. He couldn’t expect her to be the same. Hell, he sometimes wondered if he’d ever truly known her. His brother had warned him she was just using him until she left for college, but he’d never believed it. Not for a second.
Until the day she’d walked out on him with a bullshit excuse and a kiss on the cheek.
He shoved those thoughts away and opened the passenger door for her. Again, she looked at him with a trace of surprise. Damn, did men not open doors where she lived now? Even though he didn’t want to want her, something primal inside him shifted at the thought of Lilly not being taken care of. And that just pissed him off even more.
She’d left him. Why the hell did he care?
“So what made you move back here?” Lilly asked as he started the ignition.
He shrugged and glanced in the rearview mirror. “It wasn’t just one thing. I loved the Marines, but I didn’t want that kind of life forever. I wanted to get my degree and constantly moving can be hard on a family.”
“Are you seeing someone?” Her words were harsh and almost accusing.
He glanced sharply at her. Lilly’s eyes widened as if she was just as surprised at her question as he was.
She let out a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. Of course you’re seeing someone. Just forget it,” she mumbled and glanced toward the window.
In fascination, he watched as a red flush crept up her neck. Obviously she wasn’t immune to him either. “Why ‘of course’?”
She shifted against her seat. “What?”
“You said of course I’m seeing someone. Why?”
She half snorted. “Are you looking for me to stroke your ego?”
“No, but I’ve got something else you can stroke if you’re interested.” He bit back a smile at the response he knew his words would elicit. He wasn’t sure what had come over him, but making her smile had always gotten him hot. It seemed now was no different.
This time she choked on air. “Braden! I can’t believe you just said that.”
He grinned at the fiery blush spreading across her delicate cheekbones. Getting her to blush had been one of his favorite pastimes a decade ago. It was also the only way he knew to get her to relax. Maybe it was because her parents had died in a car accident when she’d been five, but it always took her a while to warm up to people. “Hey, you’re the one offering. And you never answered my question.”
“You’re just as bad as I remember,” she muttered, but he didn’t miss the way her lips pulled up at the corners.
“I’m waiting.” He flipped on his left blinker and slowed for a red light.
She shook her head. “You’re relentless. I said of course because, hello, look in the mirror, Braden. I bet half the single women are lining up to be the next Mrs. Donnelly. Satisfied?”
Everyone except her. He grunted in response as the unexpected thought quickly doused the short-lived pleasure he’d experienced in her presence.
A slight frown marred her face. “What?”
“Nothing.” He kicked the vehicle into gear when the light switched colors.
“You don’t get off that easily,” she persisted.
Braden gritted his teeth and kept his eyes trained on the asphalt. He shouldn’t have started down this road with her. Flirting with her was like playing with fire. And he’d be the one who ended up in the emergency room with third degree burns, not her. He inwardly cursed as he pulled up to another red light. Of all days not to have his cruiser.
“Damn it,” she muttered.
It was his turn to be confused. “What?”
Her green eyes flashed as she looked at him. “I know you said everything between us was water under the bridge. Do we need to talk about anything?”
He shrugged. “You tell me.”
“What does that mean?”
“You sure as hell didn’t want to talk when you left.” He didn’t like the obvious annoyance in his voice but all he’d gotten was an apology, a goodbye and a chaste kiss. Now he wanted answers. Hell, he deserved some damn answers.
“Is that what this is about?”
He gritted his teeth when someone behind him laid on the horn. Focusing his attention toward the road, he didn’t respond.
“Braden, my leaving had nothing to do with you. Nothing. I told you that then.”
Then why did you leave? He didn’t voice his question aloud. A sliver of pride was about all he had left when it came to this woman.
She continued, her words low and intense. “There was so much I wanted to do, Braden. So many places I wanted to see. I didn’t want to have any regrets. If I’d stayed, it wouldn’t have been fair to either of us.”
“And do you? Have regrets?” He looked at her and was surprised by the brief flicker of pain that crossed her face. Her eyes flashed a brighter shade of green for a split second. It happened so quickly, but he knew what he’d seen.
She nodded. “Some.”
That surprised him. He’d expected a flat out denial. Something about her reasoning didn’t sit well with him. It sounded good, but it didn’t make sense. They’d both planned to travel together. She was going to attend college while he served in the Marines. She was quick on her feet, he’d give her that, but he’d bet his family’s estate that she was holding something back. Years ago he’d sensed it, but she hadn’t given him an inch. She’d just left.
One day they’d been a couple with big plans. The next she’d simply been gone. It was obvious he’d been the problem. He was the reason she’d left. What they’d had together hadn’t been enough for her. Losing a girlfriend would have been one thing, but she’d been his best friend too.
As he steered into the parking lot of the coroner’s office, he felt Lilly tense beside him. Instinctively, he reached out and squeezed her thigh.
When her entire body stilled at the contact, he froze for a split second and jerked his hand back. Touching her was bad. It got him into trouble. And Lilly Carmichael had always been trouble for him. With a capital T.
“Thanks for coming with me.” She wiped her palms on her jeans.
He nodded tightly. Of all people, he knew what it was like to have to identify family members. He’d been here a few years ago under much worse circumstances. Losing practically his entire family in that plane crash had almost sent him into a downward spiral. Moving back to Hudson Bay to be closer to his grandmother and settling down had been the best decision he’d made. Steeling himself against the memories, he got out and rounded the truck to meet her.
“As soon as we’re done, we’ll go get some breakfast or coffee, okay?” What he should do was get Lilly a rental car and avoid contact with her. He just couldn’t walk away from her though. Not now. It was partially so he could keep an eye on her, but leaving her when she was mourning was something he couldn’t bring himself to do. No matter how much she’d hurt him in the past.
She nodded, but kept her gaze down as they headed to the glass front doors of the two-story building. Tears glistened through her eyelashes so he looked away, giving her time to compose herself.
Lilly might have avoided Hudson Bay like the plague, but she’d flown her aunt to meet her in various destinations at least three times a year. And she always flew her aunt to D.C. for the holidays. If she was in the country, of course. Lilly definitely liked to do things her own way, but she’d loved her aunt more than anything.