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Darcy tried to put herself in Kayla’s shoes but she couldn’t. She’d always looked at her scars as battle trophies, was even proud of them in a weird way.

“She changed,” AJ said. “She turned angry, withdrawn. Bitter.”

Darcy wondered how she herself must look to him, a guy who’d been engaged to perfection, and she cringed. “What happened?”

He’d been staring sightlessly at the TV but his gaze tracked to her. “She wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me. She completely shut me out. Shut everyone out,” he said. “I took a leave to try to help her. I dragged her to counseling, forced her into rehab when she got addicted to her painkillers. It took two years to bring her back to the land of the living, and I was with her for every minute of it.”

“She recovered,” Darcy said.

“She went through the motions, but in the end she wasn’t strong enough to beat it. I couldn’t fix her, and that … that sucked.”

Yeah. Darcy could only imagine how tough that had been, fighting so hard for her, and yet in return she hadn’t fought for him.

And maybe that was why he’d always pushed her so hard in PT, why he wouldn’t allow anyone to give up on their own healing.

“No matter what I did,” he said, “she still couldn’t come around and let herself love again. She felt no passion, no desire.”

“Because of the scars.”

“That’s what she’d tell you.” He shook his head. “But the truth of it has nothing to do with that. She let the scars destroy her, and me while she was at it. She’d been pampered and adored all her life and she’d never had to develop a single life skill. She’d had everything handed to her and she didn’t know the meaning of the will to survive, much less how be a warm, giving person when there was even the slightest bit of a hurdle to overcome or any sort of controversy to face.”

Which had never been the case for him. He’d had to work hard for everything in his life and he’d been successful because of it, giving back to so many. And here he was, six hours from home trying to secure grants to help even more. “She should have tried,” she said. “For you.”

“I certainly wanted her to. But she’d never been broken before and had no way to come back from it.”

Darcy looked at him. “I think it’s okay to be a little broken.”

The very corners of his mouth turned up into a small smile. “Only a little?”

She smiled. “Or a lot. Either way, I’m pretty damn good at holding pieces together if you ever need help. Just wanted you to know that.”

“I’m not broken,” he said, like any alpha male, not willing to show a weakness.

“I think you’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” she said quietly.

“Muscles don’t mean shit when it comes to living life.”

She shook her head and crawled across the vast expanse of the bed to kneel at his side. She put a hand on his chest. Beneath her palm she could feel the slow, steady beat of his heart. “Inside,” she said. “You’re strong inside. Kayla was weak, AJ. You need someone who can weather whatever comes along.”

On her knees as she was, she was taller than him, so he had to look up at her. “Like someone who’s fierce and loving with those she lets in, even though she can count those people on one hand?” he asked. “Someone who’d drop everything just because I need her for the weekend, someone who’d defend me to her brother, someone who cares enough to use her own money to pay for emotional support dogs and give them to people in need? Someone who has some seriously out-of-control hair at the moment and is terrified of storms even though she’s the biggest storm in my life?”

His words robbed her of her own but she didn’t know how to respond anyway. She sat back on her heels. “You shouldn’t say things like that. It’s like a game that I don’t have the rules for.”

“Have I ever played you?” he asked, wrapping his fingers around her wrist so she couldn’t further retreat.

No. No, he hadn’t ever played her. He was stoic and stubborn as a mule and he thought he was always right. But there wasn’t an ounce of duplicity in his big, perfect body.

A bolt of lightning lit everything in the room in bold relief, including the fact that AJ watched her as carefully as she watched him, crowding her space while he did so, making her feel important to him.

His eyes had changed, she realized as the ensuing thunder shook the hotel.

They’d … heated.

And that heat in turn did something to her. It melted something deep inside, like the block of ice she’d settled around her heart a long time ago.

“Come here, Darcy.”

Why the hell was that quietly uttered command the sexiest thing she’d ever heard? She had no idea. And as a rule, she didn’t do “come here.” She didn’t do commands period.

And yet she swallowed hard and said, “I’m right here.”

“No, you’re not.”

She scooted a little closer, but then unsure, stopped. Held her breath.

With his free hand he crooked his finger at her and she closed the distance.

He let go of her to open his arms and she crawled onto his lap.

His arms came around her, a hand sliding up her back to the nape of her neck, bringing her mouth to his. He locked his lips on hers, kissing her senseless before pulling free only enough to meet her gaze, his own dark and searching.