Becca shook her head. “I can’t do that anymore, Jase. You know that.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know that. I miss you, Bex.”


“No, I get it.” Jase’s face closed up, much as his sister’s had. “You have to worry about you.”

“Jase,” she said again, more softly now.

But the connection had ended. Becca went still for a minute, then pulled her heels up to her chair, hugging her bent legs and dropping her forehead to her knees.

Sam slid a hand down her back.

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Yeah. That’s why you’re curled in a protective ball.”

Closing her eyes, she shivered at his touch, and hoping that meant he was doing the right thing, Sam curved his palm around the nape of her neck and crouched at her side. “Talk to me.”

“I’m fine.”

Amelia had long ago schooled him in the fine art of fine. He knew that if a woman used the word fine, it actually meant the polar opposite of fine.

“You made it sound like I was running the free universe, rather than basically being a gofer,” she said.

“You’re more than a gofer, Becca. But Jase is right. You should be doing something with your talent, your dream—”

She lifted her head and leveled him—slayed him—with her big, luminous eyes. “You firing me?”

“No, of course not.”

She drew in a deep breath and let it out again, purposefully, like she was releasing some tension. “You should know that, while I find your whole caveman thing really annoying, I realize you were just trying to protect me. For some reason, that’s . . . arousing, but I don’t need protecting. I can take care of myself.”

“I know.” Sam paused. “Arousing?”

She snorted and turned her head to look at him. “Is that all you heard?”

“I’m a guy.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve noticed.”

Before Sam could even begin to interpret that statement, Cole strode in.

Looking like she’d been given a reprieve from her own execution, Becca jumped up. Sam snagged her wrist before she could move off and put his mouth to her ear. “We’re not done.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered, giving him a shoulder nudge that didn’t need translation—she wanted space.

Cole, one of the most intuitive people Sam knew, took in both Sam and Becca and stopped short. “What did I interrupt?”

“Just a little show of Neanderthalism, that’s all,” Becca said.

Cole grinned. “He dragging his knuckles again?”

Becca slid Sam a look. “Just a little.”

Cole nodded. “Runs in the family, along with our good looks.”

“She knows we’re not real brothers,” Sam said.

“Hell if we’re not,” Cole said, losing his good humor. “When you first came to stay at my house—what were we, thirteen? You were a stick, half-starved and always sick, but you still beat the shit out of those ass**les who kept jumping me after school. You said we were brothers, and no one messed with your brother.”

Damn. Cole was even touchier than Amelia about this family shit. “Listen, I just meant—”

“You said it, man.” Cole turned to Becca, who was probably soaking up this new information like a dry sponge. “And then our first year on the Gulf,” Cole went on, “that massive storm hit, remember?”

“I remember,” Sam said. “You don’t need to—”

“We huddled in that f**king tiny room the size of a postage stamp, the four of us,” Cole said. “And when that lantern fell and hit Gil on the head and sliced Tanner’s leg, I got cut trying to clear the glass. We were bleeding like stuck pigs. Tanner decided we were all going to die, and we were trying to keep him from bleeding out—”

“Jesus,” Sam said. “Dramatic much?”

“You kept your head,” Cole said. “Even when the blood was everywhere, even when you slashed open your hand trying to get the glass out of Gil. You got us through that night, and the next morning when we got outta that shithole, we all had each other’s blood on us and you”—He jabbed a finger at Sam like there might be any question of who he was talking to—“you said again that we were blood brothers. So go ahead, say we’re not.”

Cole had the patience of a saint, and a very long fuse to a nearly nonexistent temper. But one thing that pissed him off was whenever Sam brought up that they weren’t really family. Cole was Amelia’s son through and through. Sam shook his head and gave up. He met Becca’s gaze.

Hers had softened, and there was something new there. Like maybe she’d let him in just a little bit more than she had in the past.

Tanner came in and sank to the couch. As he always did after a trip, he immediately began stripping off his wet suit.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sam asked him.

Tanner had gotten the suit shoved down low on his waist. Bare-chested, he stared up at Sam. “Stripping,” he said. “What does it look like?” He went to shove the suit off the rest of him, and since Sam couldn’t be sure Tanner was actually wearing board shorts beneath—sometimes he went commando—Sam gave him a nudge with his foot. Actually, it was more of a kick. When Tanner looked up with a fight in his eyes, Sam jerked his head toward Becca.