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“Pfft … I’m good. In spite of what you might think from the past two days, I’m not a damsel in distress. I can walk for miles in these. They are actually more comfortable than they look.”

I have a long list of thoughts and lingering first impressions of this woman, but something tells me taking her for a hike in flip-flops will not change a single one of them.

“I’m not carrying you.”

“I’m not deaf. I heard you the first time. I won’t need you to carry me. Sheesh …” She attaches Swarley’s leash, flipping and flopping her way to the start of the trail.

“This won’t end well …” I mumble, spending a little too much time staring at her sashaying ass. My dick gives me a stern warning.

* * *

“Jaaake?”

“Wait, buddy.” I whistle and Swarley stops. After pouring him some water in the lid of my canteen, I retreat in the direction of the whiney voice calling my name.

Avery cringes, easing onto an old tree stump.

“What is it?” Planting my hands on my hips, I glare down at her, daring her to say one fucking word about her feet.

“We’ve been walking for miles. How much farther do we have to go?”

“Another mile or so. Why?” My eyebrows lift.

Say it, Princess. I dare you.

“I’m …” Her lips curl between her teeth.

“You’re what?”

“Hungry and thirsty. I didn’t bring water with me.”

Her feet are streaked in red marks from rocks and brush scratching them, and I’m certain the area between her first and second toes has to be raw. But … she’s hungry and thirsty.

I nod, pulling a granola bar from the side pocket of my shorts.

She turns her nose up. “Why is it wrapped like that?”

I stare at the bar wrapped in parchment paper inside a plastic bag. “Like what?”

“Like you didn’t buy it from a store.”

“Because I made it.”

“Oh …” She takes it from me as if it contains a grenade missing its pin.

“Come on. Eat while you walk so we can get back to the tent before it gets dark.”

Giving me a tight grin, she stands. I don’t miss the flash of a grimace as her step falters.

“You good?”

“Fine.” Her shoulders pull backward. “Water?” She stares at the canteen in my right hand.

“Sure.” I hand it to her.

Avery twists it in one direction then the other. “What side did you drink out of?”

“Really? You’ve probably eaten pig assholes in the form of a hot dog, yet you’re worried about my germs?”

She glares at me.

I smirk. “Fine. I’ll pour some in the lid.”

Tiny, painful grunts sound behind me as I lead her down the hill toward Swarley.

“Wait! No. Dude …” Her nose scrunches as I start to pour water into the canteen lid. “Did you let Swarley drink out of that?”

“Yes. I gave water to your dog since you didn’t think to bring any. You’re welcome. So if you are truly thirsty, then you will have to make the tough decision.” I hold up the canteen in one hand and the water-filled lid in my other hand. “My germs or Swarley’s?”

Her gaze flits between my two hands.

“You know …” Extending out my hand with the lid, I withdraw one of her options. “I don’t want your pig-asshole germs, and he’s your dog, so if you want the water, you’ll have to drink it from the lid.” Tipping up the canteen, I take a long swig.

“I do not have pig-asshole germs!” She tries to snag the canteen from my hand, practically hugging my arm in the process. “Give me a drink.”

I turn in a circle, keeping the coveted prize above her head as she chases my hand like a dog after its tail.

“Give me a drink! Stop being such a big jerk!”

I stop.

She stumbles over my feet.

With my free arm, I catch her, holding her to my chest.

She pants, eyes wild with adrenaline and maybe a little fear. “Don’t hurt me,” she whispers.

I flinch. Has someone hurt her? Physically hurt her?

Searching her eyes, I look for the answer. I don’t see it.

“I might kill you, Avery. But I won’t hurt you.”

Her unblinking eyes widen.

I grin. “It will be quick and painless.” Releasing her from my chest, I hold up my three middle fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

After several long seconds, she blinks. I offer her the canteen.

Slowly shaking her head, she clears her throat. “Is it true you had opponents leave on stretchers after fighting you?”

Do I want the upper hand? Do I need it?

“Yes.” My toothy grin does nothing to bring color back to her face—except her lips. Whatever the hell she put on her lips still shimmers red.

Keeping her gaze locked to mine, she wraps her hand around the canteen, just above mine, and pulls it to her mouth.

Gulp. Gulp. Gulp.

After draining the rest of it, she steps back, breathless, with a drop of water running down her chin. “Did you feel bad?”

“No. Well … maybe in the beginning. But I learned to let those emotions go.”

“Why?”

I shrug. “I didn’t jump those men in an alley and beat the shit out of them. It’s a sport. There are winners and losers. One of us was going to end up facedown. That’s just how it works.”

“Do you still do that?”

I shake my head while rubbing my thumb along her wet chin. Avery pulls back, rolling her lips together and feathering her fingers over the spot where my thumb touched her face.

“Can I be honest with you?” She bats her eyelashes.

Bats her eyelashes. What the …

“No. Swarley, let’s go.” Turning, I let Swarley lead the way down the hill.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.” Avery chases after us.

“I do.” I pick up my pace.

“Jake!”

“Nope.”

“But Jake—”

“Not happening.”

“My feet hurt!”

“Not happening.”

Her shoes skid against the lose rock behind me.

Flip flop flip flop.

“I’ll pay you!”

I stop, turning slowly. “How much?”

She hops on one foot while rubbing the other, then changes feet. “Twenty dollars.”

I grunt a laugh. “Twenty dollars? To carry you a mile? I bet you spent at least fifty dollars on those stupid shoes.”

She murmurs a quick response. I don’t hear it clearly, but I’m fairly certain she said, “Two hundred.”

“I’ll carry you half the way for one hundred dollars.”

Avery traps the corner of her lower lip between her teeth, nose wrinkled. “Twenty is my limit.”

“Your limit, huh? Don’t even get me started on my limits.” With a quick whistle, I bring Swarley back onto the trail.

“At the end of the day, don’t you want to be able to say that you helped someone?”

“Princess?” I keep walking. “Do you have a steering wheel stuck around your neck? No? Well, then I think I already did my helpful deed for the day. I will sleep just fine tonight.”

“Until you wake up dead!”

I chuckle. “Aw, yes … until that. There’s nothing worse than waking up dead.”

By the time we make it to the campsite, she’s fuming. “You are not a gentleman!”

I stack wood and paper into the pit and start a fire. She plops into one of the camping chairs and slips off her flip-flops. Then she rants.

And rants.

And rants.

Squatting down in front of her, I rest my hands on her bare thighs. She jumps, holding her breath.

Mission accomplished.

“I need some peace and quiet now. Can you do that? Can you just not talk for a bit?”

She frowns, her rage simmering into something resembling defeat. “Why didn’t you help me out? Why would my dad and Deedy let someone like you take me across the country?”

I squeeze her legs until her muscles flex beneath my touch. There’s no denying she has spectacular legs, but flirting is not my intention. Still …

Fucking spectacular legs.

“I did help you. I suggested you wear sensible hiking shoes. Why should I be an enabler to your lack of common sense, stubbornness, excessive vanity, or whatever weird, self-destructive, female fucked-upness you seem to have?”

Her chin dips, gaze focused on my hands. I expect to see her bottom lip start to quiver and tears fill her eyes.

“I’m not happy,” she whispers.

No tears.

No quivering lip.

There’s just this shell of a woman with emotionless words spoken in a numbing tone.

After a few moments of welcomed silence, I move my hands from her legs to her wrists on the arms of the chair. Easing my body back to standing, I lean over her, letting my face linger over the top of her head. For a few moments, I contemplate pressing my lips to her hair—a friendly kiss that says, “Me neither.”

But I don’t. Instead, I press my forehead to the top of her head and give her wrists a slight squeeze. Avery sucks in a shaky breath. I close my eyes.

CHAPTER NINE

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