“Problem?” he finally asked.
“Oh my God!” She tossed up her hands. “You did. You said yes. Why?”
“She said she’d make meatloaf. I don’t think I’ve ever had home-cooked meatloaf. I thought it was a suburban myth.”
She’d never wanted to both hug and strangle someone before. “I’ll make you meatloaf!”
“You dumped me,” he said reasonably. “And besides, you don’t cook.”
Dammit. Dammit, he was killing her. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes but she couldn’t rub away the ache. Spinning on her heel, she walked out of the garage.
He caught her at her car, pulling her back against him. She felt the shaking of his chest and realized he was laughing at her.
At least until he caught sight of her face.
His smile faded then.
With a frustrated growl, she shoved him away and got into her car, but before she could shut the door, he squatted at her side, the muscles in his thighs flexing against the faded denim he wore. He blocked her escape with one hand on the door, the other on the back of her seat, his expression unreadable now. “This isn’t about meatloaf,” he said. “This isn’t even about me. Tell me what the real problem is.”
I’m in love with you…
“My problem,” Mallory said, “is that you’re blocking me from shutting the door.”
“And you’re shutting me out.”
“That’s pretty funny,” she managed, throat inexplicably tight. “Coming from you. The King Of Shutting Me Out.”
“I didn’t shut you out intentionally.”
“Ditto,” she said, with no small amount of attitude.
He studied her for a long moment. “Tell me about the night Karen died.”
She felt like he’d reached into her chest and closed his fist around her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. “She’s not a part of this.”
“I think maybe she is. She took a walk on the dark side, and it didn’t work out so well for her. She made you promise to be good, and you kept your word. Until me.”
“Someone has a big mouth.”
“Many someones,” he agreed. “But then again, you love it here. You love all those someones. And they all love you.”
Mallory dropped her head to the steering wheel. “Look, I’m mad at you, okay? This isn’t about me. I know my painful memories are relative. My life is good. I’m lucky. This isn’t about how poor little Mallory has had it so hard. I’m not falling apart or anything.”
He stroked a hand down her back. “Of course you’re not. You’re just holding the steering wheel up with your head for a minute, that’s all.”
Choking out a laugh, she closed her eyes. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah, you are. You’re so much more okay than I’ve ever been. You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever met, Mallory. Do you know that?”
“But that’s just it. I’m not strong at all. I always thought I could save everyone. If I was good, I’d excel. If I was good, my family would stay together. If I was good, nothing bad could happen.”
Ty’s hand on her was calming. So was his voice, low and even, without judgment. And the dash of affection didn’t hurt. “How did that work out for you?” he asked. “All that being good?”
Another laugh tore out of her, completely mirthless. “It didn’t. All that work, all that time spent trying to please everyone, and it fell apart anyway. I failed.”
“You know better than that.”
“Do I?” She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. It was her only anchor in a spinning world. Nothing was working out for her. Not her job. Not the way she wanted people to see her. And not her non-relationship with Ty. “I don’t want to talk about the past anymore. My sister made her choice. My family each made their own choices after that. My parents handled everything the best they could, including their divorce.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But it still chewed you up and spit you out.”
“You don’t always have to be okay.”
“Well, I know that.”
“Then say it. Free that sixteen-year old, Mallory. Say it wasn’t her fault; not your parents’ divorce, not Karen, none of it.”
She gulped in some air and let it out. “It wasn’t my fault.”
He wrapped his hand around her hair and gently tugged until she’d lifted her head and was looking at him. “That’s right,” he said with terrifying gentleness. “It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you could with what you had. You made the decision to progress beyond that little girl who lived to please. You stepped outside your comfort zone and went after what you wanted.”
She felt the heat hit her cheeks. They both knew what she’d gone after.
And she’d gotten him.
“Stop carrying all the responsibility for everyone,” he said quietly. “Let it go, let it all go and be whoever the hell you want to be.”
She gave him a little smile. “Are you going to take your own advice?”
“I’m working on it.”
“You’re pretty amazing, you know that?”
“Yeah.” He flashed his own small smile. “Too bad you dumped my sorry ass.”
She looked at him for a long beat. “I might have been too hasty on that,” she whispered. “Twice now.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. Because your ass is anything but sorry.”
He gave her a smile. “Come here,” he said, and then without waiting for her to move, rose to his feet and pulled her from the car.
She curled into him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Where are we going?”
“To show you how much more amazing I can be when we’re horizontal.”
A life without chocolate is no life at all.
Ty set Mallory down in his bathroom, and she looked around in confusion. “I’m not horizontal.”
Leaning past her, he flipped on his shower and cranked the water to hot. Then he stripped. And oh good Lord, he looked so damn good without his clothes that it almost made her forget her problems, including the fact that he was her biggest problem. “What—”
“You’re wet and frozen solid. Kick off your shoes.”
While she was obeying that command, he peeled the wet clothes from her and let them hit the floor. And while she was distracted by his mouth-watering body, he checked the temperature of the shower, then pushed her in.
She sucked in a breath as the hot water hit her, and then another when he reached for the soap. He washed her with quick efficiency while she stared down at the erection brushing her stomach.
“Ignore it,” he said.
She stared at it some more, and it got bigger.
He shook his head at her and washed her hair, his fingers heaven on her scalp, making her moan. Then he set her aside, soaped himself up with equally quick efficiency, which absolutely shouldn’t have turned her on, but totally did.
It must have showed because his eyes went dark and hot. Turning off the water, he wrapped her up in a towel and sat her on the counter. With just a towel low on his hips, he crouched down, rooted in a drawer, and came up with a first-aid kit and a box of condoms. Both unopened. Saying nothing, he set the condoms on the counter at her hip.
She went hot looking at them.
Grabbing the first-aid kit, he straightened to his full height and pushed her wet hair from her face. He dipped his knees a little and eyed the cut over her cheek. “A few butterfly bandages will do you, I think.” He disinfected the cut, and when she hissed out a pained breath, he leaned in and kissed her temple.
“Nice bedside manner,” she murmured. “You patch up a lot of wet, naked women?”
“Almost never.” He carefully peeled back the plastic packaging on the sterilized butterfly bandages and began to cover her wound.
“So what exactly happened that you’re okay with handling this sort of thing again?” she asked.
He slid her a look. “You think you’re the only one making changes in your life?” he asked. “You work your ass off, no matter how much shit you see, and you see plenty. You just want to help people, heal them. I used to be like that. I didn’t realize I missed it, but I do.”
“The job you’re going back to,” she said. “It’s obviously very dangerous work.”
“Not as dangerous as being a SEAL. That was about as bad as it can get.”
“Like the plane crash,” she said softly.
“Yeah. Like the plane crash.”
“Do you have PTSD, Ty?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Probably, a little. Not debilitating though. Not anymore anyway.”
He was still damp from the shower, his hair pushed back from his face. He concentrated on his task, leaving her free to stare at him. His mouth was somehow both stern and generous at the same time, his jaw square and rough with a day’s worth of scruff that she knew would feel deliciously sensual against her skin. He had a scar along one side of his jaw and another on his temple. His chest was broad, his abs ridged with muscle.
He was beautiful.
“You really miss it,” she said softly. “The action.”
“Once an adrenaline junkie, always one, I guess.” He finished with the cut on her face and lifted her hand, turning it over to gently probe her swollen and already bruised wrist. She had no idea how he’d noticed it.
‘It’s not broken,” she said.
He nodded in agreement, then lifted it to his mouth and brushed a kiss to her skin.
While she melted, he expertly wrapped it in an Ace bandage, then looked at her shin.
She hadn’t even realized.