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“I asked her to come back.”

“And when she told you no?” Please, please, Shannon, tell me you said no.

“I offered her another contract.”

It was a very good thing Lori was at a stoplight. “I’m going to play lawyer here for a minute . . . Are you listening, Paul?”

He was silent.

“Your contract specifically stated that any continuation or changes or anything in regard to Alliance has got to go through us first. You’re in direct violation just bringing the subject up without consulting us first. Do you understand that? Or have you forgotten everything you learned in law school?”

“Yes, Counselor.”

Good! The man could understand basic English.

“Now that we have that out of the way . . . Are you that big of a moron?”

The light turned green, and she shifted her car around a slow driver and hit the gas. “I understood you were a player when you signed on to Alliance, the risks were spelled out to Shannon, but you changed the rules when you filled her with hope that you were both more than temporary—”

Paul started to interrupt.

Lori didn’t let him. “You didn’t love her, fine. But you knew damn well she loved you, and you worked that for all it was worth. Now that Shannon is finally over you, you try and drag her back? That makes you a special kind of douchebag, Paul.”

“I’m glad you’re being diplomatic about this, Lori.”

“Oh, I’m not being diplomatic. I’m being a friend who is pissed off.”

“Fine. Now that your tantrum is out of the way—”

“My tantrum hasn’t even started.”

“I want to hire Alliance again.”

She laughed. “Not in this lifetime.”

“One good reason why . . . and don’t say Shannon.”

Lori sucked in a breath. “Alliance as you knew it no longer exists. In fact, it was someone searching for the truth behind your marriage to Shannon that helped shape our new business model. If you remember right, you and I had a conversation about this two years ago.” The fact that Lori’s now husband, Reed, was the private investigator searching for dirt on Paul’s hands was left unsaid. “Having you as a client a second time would be entirely too risky.”

“I forgot all about that,” Paul said with a sigh. Maybe she was finally getting through to him.

“Why don’t you find a wife the old-fashioned way? Leave Shannon and Alliance out of it.”

“I’ll consider your advice.”

“Good. You do that.”

“I never meant to hurt her, Lori.”

She wanted to believe him. “If that’s true, then leave her alone now.”

“I’ll let you extend my apologies, then.”

“I’ll do that. Goodbye, Paul.”

“What did you do?”

Victor stood behind his desk when Stephanie escorted Avery into his office the next morning.

“Hello, Avery.”

Stephanie ducked out of the room, but if Victor was laying bets, he’d place one on her standing close to the door to overhear the conversation.

“I swear to God, Victor, if I find out you were playing her, I will kick your ass.”

The term Wade used for Avery, the blonde pit bull, flashed in his head.

He looked at the small baby bump that was just starting to pop out.

Pregnant blonde pit bull.

He decided the desk between them was probably a good thing.

“We had a fight. I’ll make it up to her.” He was giving her some space since she wouldn’t take his phone calls.

Avery took a step forward, placed both hands on his desk. “And how do you plan on doing that when she’s left the country?”

Victor was vaguely aware he was staring. “She what?”

“Africa, or Brazil . . . someplace that probably doesn’t have running water. What did you do?”

His head was racing. “Slow down. What are you talking about?”

“She went to her sister’s . . . who is some tree-hugging do-gooder living in a hut somewhere. Does that sound like something Shannon would be good at?”

He started to answer and Avery cut him off. “No. She isn’t. She’s fragile and delicate and needs protection. And you did something, so give it up. What was it?”

The emotional roller coaster that was Avery standing in front of him was something that needed a careful hand.

“I believed the newspapers.”

“You . . . you what?”

“About her ex-husband.”

Avery gasped. “Paul orchestrated the whole thing. How could you be so stupid?”

Yeah, he’d asked himself that question for the past twenty-four hours. “Jet lag?”

Avery tossed her hands in the air. “Great! That’s just great. Shannon finally breaks her sexual sabbatical for a man who doesn’t trust her any farther than he can throw her.”

He’d ask about the sabbatical later, right now he wanted to know more about Africa. “She’s in Africa?”

“I don’t know where she is. No one knows where she is. She ran off. Do you know how unlike Shannon that is? Me, yes . . . Trina, check. We’re the runners. Shannon is the rock. She never runs. She thinks and considers her options in quiet silence. Until you.” Avery blew out a breath and rubbed her stomach.

Victor suddenly felt the pull of his protective male sex. “Avery, please calm down.”

She snapped her head his way.

He warded her off with a display of his palms. “This can’t be good for your baby. I know you’re upset, I get it. I’ll fix it. I promise I will. But if something happens to you, Shannon is never going to give me the chance.”

Avery took a couple of steps, turned, and sat in the chair.

He waited for her to take a few breaths before he sat opposite her and spoke as calmly as he could.

“How can we find out where Shannon’s sister lives?”

“Reed is working on it.” Avery opened her eyes, which sparkled with unshed tears. He hated to see a woman cry. “Did you know that today is Shannon’s birthday?”

Victor frowned. “No.” That was something he should have known.

Avery nodded. “What a mess she must be. Between last week, the papers . . . you . . . her birthday.”

Victor stopped trying to pick apart the fact that he didn’t realize today was Shannon’s birthday and analyzed Avery’s words. “What was last week?”

“Corrie vandalizing her house. A late night visit to the ER . . . ,” Avery said as if he should have known what she was talking about.

“Whoa, back up. Corrie did what?”

“She wasn’t positive it was Corrie, but yeah, she was pretty sure.”

It was Victor’s turn to feel his blood pressure rise. “Can you start at the beginning? I don’t know anything about this.”

When Avery completed the tale of rocks, windows, and stitches, Victor turned hard. No wonder Shannon was so upset and unreasonable when he’d asked her for an explanation. Here she was, trying to save his worries by keeping the situation away from him while he was away on work and unable to do anything about it, and here he was . . . not trusting her.

Such an asshole.

“She was even going back on the pill for you. Do you know that?” Avery was in tears now. “For over a year she’s been talking about how much she wants a baby, and then you come along and she’s like, ‘No, can’t risk an accident and him running away.’” Avery looked at her stomach. “I told her it wasn’t all that. Emotions all over the place, the need to pee all the time. And the morning sickness. Such a mess.”

“Did you drive here?” he asked.

She grabbed a tissue from his desk, blew her nose with a nod.

He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed Liam’s number. “Let me get you a ride home.”

As soon as Liam tucked his wife into his car, Victor called Reed.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Shannon pushed her toes into the sand of the Mediterranean waters. Her sister sat by her side, a blanket covering their shoulders. She’d forgotten how alike the two of them were. Angie had put on a few pounds and her hair was shorter than Shannon remembered, but she was the same.

When Shannon arrived in Spain, she crashed on Angie’s couch for six hours. Now it was dusk, her birthday almost a memory, and the two of them watched the sunset.

Shannon explained the past few months of her life and Angie listened.

“Why did you marry Paul?” Angie finally asked when Shannon had run out of words.

She studied her pink toes, realized she was in need of a pedicure. “Money,” she finally revealed.

Angie blew out a breath.

“Freedom, a way out from under Mom and Dad.”

Angie looked away.

“Don’t look so shocked. It wasn’t a lot different from what you did.”

“How can you say that?” Angie asked.

“You ran away, found a cause . . . to escape them. Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll believe you.”

Angie shrugged but didn’t deny her.

“I wasn’t that brave. I finished college with a major they approved of and set out to follow the photographer dreams I’d envisioned while in school. Maybe I would have found success if I was also a journalist or spent my summers as an intern for the paper. But I didn’t, and the back room studio I started barely put food on my plate. Mom and Dad refused to help, and I’m not afraid to say that when it comes to my life skills and living on next to nothing, I’m ill prepared.”

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