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AJ smirked at Darcy.

She rolled her eyes.

“So … youngest first,” the emcee said, and half the people in the room protested.

Darcy included. “Age racist,” she muttered. AJ just waited.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m afraid of spiders.”

He shook his head. “No, you’re not. I caught you just last week saving Ariana from one in her locker and I watched you carry the thing outside rather than kill it.”

“Because hello,” she said. “I’m afraid of them.”

“Seriously. You are such a liar.”

“Hey, maybe I’m afraid of killing them.”

“Try again.”

“Whatever,” she muttered and sighed. “Fine. Maybe I’m afraid of everything, you ever think of that? Maybe I’m just one big coward.”

AJ tipped his head back and laughed, his white teeth flashing against that dark jaw, his eyes lit, all the while keeping his balance with annoying ease.

“I don’t know why that’s so funny,” she griped, looking away because looking right at him laughing was like being in a candy shop. So tempting.

And so bad for you.

“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to laugh at my fears,” she said.

When his fingers gently squeezed hers, she looked up and was startled to find his expression now serious, eyes warm. “You’re not afraid of much,” he said. “But there is one thing and it’s not spiders.”

Again her heart pounded. “You don’t know.”

“I do.”

“You don’t.”

“Alright, then tell me,” he said.

“Oh, no. I don’t need half of a thousand bucks that much.”

“I’ll double it if you tell me,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes. “You’d pay me a second grand just to hear me say my biggest fear?”

“Think about it,” he said. “More dogs.”

She stared at him. “That’s hard to resist.”

“I am,” he agreed.

This made her smile but it faded quick. “I don’t like that I can be bought,” she said quietly.

“For a cause,” he said just as quietly. “And we can all be bought for our cause, Darcy.”

“You admitting your fears, Youngest?” the emcee called out. “Because you’ve got two minutes left.”

Darcy only needed two seconds. She closed her eyes. “My biggest fear is …” Her lips tightened, not allowing the words to escape. Which was silly; they were just words.

“You’re afraid of love,” AJ said.

Her eyes flew open and she stared at him.

His gaze dared her to contradict him.

She blew out a breath. “Well, that’s not true at all,” she said. “I love plenty. I love Wyatt, for instance. Zoe. Xander. Oreo.”

“If you’re not afraid of love, then what?” he asked, his eyes daring her to say it.

She’d known him for years, though not like she had the past eleven months. Since then he’d had his hands all over her in a healing capacity, and as of yesterday in an elevator in a not healing capacity. He knew her better than just about anyone else, and she didn’t call his bluff because she’d bet he did know the truth about her deepest fear. “Okay, so it’s not love I’m afraid of,” she admitted. “I can love, just like anyone else.” She paused, her gaze caught in his. “I’m afraid of what happens once you do love. And when that person stops loving you back.”

“Abandonment,” he said.

She shrugged, looking away.

“Neglect. Being discarded.”

“I didn’t ask for synonyms,” she said, getting pissy.

He squeezed her fingers again until she tipped her head back to meet his gaze. He was utterly serious, so much so that it stole her breath.

“You’re right, Darcy. You have people in your life who you love and who love you. But you should also know that those people would never stop loving you back.”

“Never say never,” she said as lightly as she could.

He opened his mouth to say something but she’d never know what, because the emcee spoke.

“Time’s up,” the guy said. “But don’t move. There’s one more thing.”

Darcy’s leg buckled. “Crap—”

AJ caught her, holding on to her just until she found her balance and righted herself.

If he’d been the one to slip she’d never have been able to catch him. They’d have both gone down in a heap.

“Okay, everyone,” the emcee said in a way-too-jovial tone that made Darcy want to smack him. “Now you all have a choice. Stay with the partner you have or switch. Hold your position unless you’re switching partners on my count of three.”

Darcy felt a bead of sweat trickle between her breasts. The horror of being possibly dumped and made to switch made her pulse race with anxiety.

“One …” the emcee said.

AJ shifted and Darcy sucked in a breath, trying like hell to look like the kind of partner he couldn’t possibly live without. But her muscles were already protesting and quivering and she didn’t know how much longer she could do this. “I don’t blame you,” she said to AJ. “There’s a thousand bucks on the line here, so …”

“Two …”

Oh God. She closed her eyes, unable to take the suspense.