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“Sorry. Yes. Good idea.” Lauren pulled her cell phone out of her purse.

“No, please don’t,” I said. “It’s fine.”

Lauren hesitated, looking between me, Mal, and Nate.

“Really,” I insisted, trying to look perky. “I’m going to have a shiner, but I’m okay.”

“I’ll carry her,” growled Mal when Nate tried to pick me up.

“I’ll walk. Just help me up.” I held up my hands and Nate gently pulled me to my feet. Behind me, Mal jumped up. He gripped my hips, holding me steady as the world slipped and slid.

“Whoa.” My head spun round and round.

“Easy.” Mal stood at my back, letting me lean against him until I found my feet. “Fuck, Anne. I’m so sorry.”

“I’ve never had a black eye before.”

“Could have lived without you getting one now because of me.” His lips brushed against my ear. “Let me carry you.”

“Okay.” Fighting was dumb. Mal and Reece fighting, and me resisting being carried.

Mal picked me up in his big, strong arms while I swooned like a proper romance-novel heroine.

“I’m thinking my career as a prizefighter has come and gone.” I rested my head on his shoulder, breathing in his familiar scent. Man, I’d missed that. Mal just shook his head. I don’t think he was quite ready to see the humor in my getting hit just yet.

Nate opened the front door to our apartment building and the rest followed behind me and Mal, Reece carrying the puppy, and Lauren still trying to pat the puppy.

“You’re back and you got me a puppy?” The concept still seemed strange. It might have been my recent brain injury. I looped an arm around his neck, taking liberties with him while I could. Who knew how long he’d stay this time. Or why he was even back.

“You never had one as a kid.”

“I can’t have pets in this building, Mal.”

“Yeah, I know. I got you a new apartment too. No point doing things halfway, right?”

“Riiiight.” I had the worst feeling he wasn’t joking.

Up the stairs we went. Nate rummaged in my purse and pulled out my keys, opening the door.

“Just put me on the couch, thanks,” I directed. “Ah, there’s an ice pack in the freezer.”

Without a word, Mal deposited me as told then went to find the ice. It didn’t hurt too badly to let him go. Not in comparison to my eye. I kept one hand over it, shielding it from the too-bright overhead light.

“Thanks for coming back, guys,” I said to Nate and Lauren. “Sorry to mess with your night.”

They just looked at me, sort of stunned still. Lauren had on heels and jeans, clearly ready for a night on the town.

“I’m sorry I interrupted your date. And Reece, relax,” I said, moving right along. “It was an accident.”

He gave me eyes full of guilt.

Mal came bustling back in with an ice pack wrapped up in a towel, a bottle of water, and a bottle of Advil.

“Thanks.” I swallowed two of those suckers straight down and held the ice pack over my eye. “Reece and Mal, you need to stop fighting. Can I have that for my birthday, please?”

Without delay, Mal stuck out his hand, ready for shaking.

“Yeah, okay.” Reece moved the puppy to one arm and shook Mal’s hand.

“Thank you.”

“Here,” he said, holding my new dog out to me. The big, red bow had flopped down over Killer’s face and he was growling and tugging on it with his teeth. Cutest thing ever. I hadn’t even realized I wanted a dog but despite my eye throbbing like a bitch, I couldn’t stop smiling. Reece placed him in my lap. Immediately he tried to climb me and lick my chin. Out of the three males present, he was definitely my favorite, despite being the jumpiest.

“Chill, little guy.” Mal sat beside me on the love seat, placing a restraining hand on Killer.

“You sure you’re okay?” asked Lauren, reaching in to give Killer a final scratch behind the ears.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks.”

“You want us to go so you can kick Mal’s ass?”

“Please.”

She nodded, grabbed a scowly faced Nate, and dragged him out the door. Because girls got it. Men, not so much.

“Listen, Anne,” said Reece. “I’m sorry about the scene out front. About you getting hit and everything.”

“I know you are, Reece. But right now, I need to yell at Mal. Can we do dinner another time?”

“You’re not going to yell at me?”

“No. I’m going to yell at him, because I’m in love with him.”

Mal stiffened beside me, the hand petting Killer missing a beat.

“Right,” said Reece. “Which means you’re definitely not in love with me, and I need to give up and back off.”

“I’m sorry, Reece.”

“All right.” Reece gave me a sad smile, then leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll remember that next time. Just do me a favor? Don’t come to work for a few days. Stay home and give your eye and my guilt time to heal.”

“You got it.”

“So damn sorry about that.”

“I know. It was an accident, Reece. No hard feelings.”

“Yeah, no hard feelings,” he repeated softly. Then he gave me a halfhearted wave and left, closing the door behind him. And here we were, me, Mal, and Killer. The apartment was eerily silent apart from the snuffling, panting puppy. Mal picked him up and put him carefully on the floor.

“I want to yell at you for leaving me the way you did, for disappearing on me,” I said, moving the ice pack from my face. “But I can’t because the situation with your mom is terrible and I know you’re hurting. And for some stupid reason I still feel guilty about not agreeing to marry you even though you asking me was an insane, ridiculous stunt that had next to nothing to do with me.”

“That’s not true. And keep the ice on your face.”

I covered my war wound back up. “I can’t see you clearly if you sit on that side.”

He sighed and knelt before me, his hands on my knees. “Can you see me now?”

“Yes. Why aren’t you with your mom? That’s where you should be.”

“She wanted me here with you on your birthday. I wanted me here with you on your birthday. Neither of us wanted some other guy taking you out. Just the thought of it drove me nuts.” His face tensed up and his hands smoothed up and down my woolen-tight-covered thighs. “Mom and I talked … about you and about everything. She helped me figure a few things out.”

“Such as?”

“You just told Reece you were in love with me.”

“Yes. But what did your mom help you figure out?”

There was growling going on down by Mal’s shoe. We both ignored it.

“I dunno, what a relationship is, what love is. Lots of things. Seeing her and Dad together these last few days …” He pressed my knees apart, getting closer. “You know, I’m in love with you too. I just, I pushed too hard on the wrong thing, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason. I was a whole lot of wrong, pumpkin.”

“Yeah.”

He nodded. “Right girl, wrong everything else.”

My good eye teared up. My bad one had never really stopped, but that was something else altogether. “Thank you. But things went to shit and you disappeared on me again. You need to stop doing that. That’s a boundary, Mal. It’s not the sort of thing I can keep taking from you.”

“I won’t disappear on you again. I promise. We’ll sort things out together.”

“Okay.” I sniffed and smiled. “You better get back to your mom.”

“In the morning. I hired a jet to take us back. She, ah … they think in the next day or two.” He shut his eyes tight and pressed his forehead into my lap. “Hardest f**king week of my life. Hardly gotten any sleep at all. Will you sleep with me, Anne? I really need you to sleep with me.”

I placed my hand on his head, rubbing at the soft strands of hair. “Whatever you need.”

***

Eleven-forty glowed green on my alarm clock when I woke. We’d turned out all the lights and lain down together on my bed (still a mattress on the floor). The Advil had knocked me out like it always did. Where Mal was now, I had no idea. Distantly, there were footsteps on the stairs, the door opened, and little nails were clicking across the floor. Next thing I knew, Killer was jumping all over me, being psycho energetic. Having greeted me properly, he then bounded over to my stripy jersey dress. I’d tossed it at the set of drawers but they’d failed to catch. It lay on the floor, a perfect puppy bed, apparently.

“Our son needed to take a leak,” said Mal, stripping off his hoodie and toeing off his boots.

“You’re a good father.”

“I know, right? I’m the best.” His jeans went next and there was nothing but him beneath. If only there was more than ambient light from the street to see him by. He crawled underneath the blanket next to me. “How you doing, pumpkin? Your eye’s looking a little messed up.”

“I know. I can’t see out of that side at all. But you’re supposed to tell me I’m beautiful, no matter what.”

“You are beautiful no matter what. You also have an awesome black eye. In the future, no running into fights.” He kissed me, soft and sweet. Then he kissed me deep and wet, sliding his tongue into my mouth. His taste was home, the feel of his hands cradling my head perfection. I ran my fingers over his rib cage and up over his thick shoulders, getting familiar with him once again. My thighs tensed, between my legs turning swollen and wet for him. His thickening c**k nudged my hip bone. So damn nice not to be alone in this.

“Happy birthday,” he whispered.

“It is now that you’re here.”

“Fuck, I missed you.”

“Missed you too.”.

“You fell asleep so fast. What’s under here?” He toyed with the hem of my sleep shirt.

“You’ve forgotten already?”

He dragged my T-shirt over my head and tossed it aside. “Oh, br**sts. Best present ever. Thanks, pumpkin.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m all about the giving on my birthday.” I sucked in a harsh breath as he licked across first one nipple, then the other. They hardened, aching in the best way possible. “Wait till you see what else I’ve got for you.”

“In here? Show me.” His fingers hooked in the waistband of my underwear, dragging them down and off. “Nice. I need a closer look.”

He crawled between my legs, his fingers drifting up and down my thighs featherlight. Torturously slow, he licked a path from the top of my sex up to my sternum. Every part of me he touched tingled. His mouth covered mine and his hand massaged my pu**y, a finger sliding deep inside with ease. “I think you like me.”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

He laughed. The finger inside me moved and he rubbed at some sweet spot that drove me out of my f**king head. I gasped. My neck arched and my eyes opened wide, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling.

“Christ, Mal.”

“That’s it.” His thumb circled my clit, making my leg muscles tremble. This was going to be fast and hard, no doubt about it. I might have somewhat neglected my orgasms during his absence. My libido had been on vacation. Now, it was back and then some. A hot mouth closed over one nipple, sucking hard, teasing with tongue.

I moaned and held him to me. “More.”

A second finger joined the first, stretching me slightly, making the contact on my sweet spot so much more effective. My heels dug deep into the mattress. He might just kill me this time, but it would be worth it.


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