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He rose and accepted the bottle she held out to him. “What is it you regret?” he asked.

“Wasting so much time and energy being mad at my parents and how we were raised,” she said. She hopped up onto the low-lying dresser next to the fridge and drank deeply. “The truth is, I always had a roof over my head and food and clothing, more than plenty of people.”

AJ leaned a hip against the dresser and wished there was more light so he could better see her face. “It’s okay to be mad at them.”

“I’m the one who got into trouble in the first place,” she said. “And when they sent me away, I’d get into even more. My own doing, all of it. It was only when they refused to help me when I needed it, or even to call Wyatt and Zoe to do so instead, that it got pretty rough, but at least I’m here to tell the tale, right? And at least I learned to fend for myself.”

“It’s okay to be mad at them,” he repeated, hating them all over again. “What happened at school?”

She shrugged. “The usual. I screwed up. Though the time I landed in Switzerland’s equivalent of juvie for stealing some girl’s wallet, that I didn’t do.” Her laugh was short and she took another long drink of water. “I’d never steal from someone, but hey, who was going to believe me if my own parents didn’t.”

“They let you stay in jail?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yeah.” She shuddered and hugged her water bottle to her chest. “And trust me—every single story you’ve ever heard about evil headmistresses and their enjoyment of torturing the bad girls? All true.”

“How long?” he asked, trying not to let his anger for her show.

She slanted him a quick glance, so clearly he hadn’t been all that successful at hiding it. “Three months,” she said.

Jesus. “They hurt you?”

“It was a long time ago,” she said, clearly regretting her decision to tell him the story that he knew for damn sure neither Wyatt nor Zoe knew.

God, she’d been so alone. No wonder she’d grown up and gone on to wander the world for a living. It was all she knew. “It doesn’t matter how long ago it was,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened. You were innocent.”

“Maybe that time, but there were plenty of other things I got away with, so it all equaled itself out.”

He didn’t believe that. And he didn’t know how to get rid of the temper now pulsing through him. He wanted to go back and vindicate the girl she’d once been, and he felt helpless that he couldn’t. She amazed him, she really did. All she’d been through and yet she showed no visible weaknesses. She was good at making people believe she was okay. Real good.

Too good.

She’d been taught the hard way not to depend on those around her, not to trust love, and worse, to be ashamed of any need for it. “I’d really like to strangle your mom and dad,” he said as mildly as he could.

“Lots of people suck at being parents,” she said. “And the bottom line is I made it out alive in spite of myself.”

“Hell yeah, you did,” he said. “And you’ve chosen to really live, too, not just survive.”

Maybe it was the dark and the forced intimacy. Maybe he’d finally gotten inside the real Darcy, but she kept talking. He hung on every word.

“I have a lot I want to do,” she said. “I want to start a website where people in need of emotional support dogs can register, and I’ll do my best to get them what they need. I want to work with trainers and breeders willing to donate dogs, or maybe I can get grants like you’re doing to fund PT for those in need. I don’t want someone to lose out on getting a dog just because there’s no money for it. Or for a service dog to have to go to a shelter because his job no longer works out.”

His chest constricted. He knew damn well she saw herself as a throwaway, just like one of those dogs. “I want to help you with that.”

“No.” She softened her voice. “You’ve helped me so much already, AJ. More than I even knew. I can do this.”

He understood that. He’d always felt he needed to prove himself, too. To his father. To the military. The big difference was he’d always had someone at his back.

His grandparents. Friends. And even his dad, as hard on AJ as he’d been.

Darcy had Wyatt and Zoe, but she didn’t often let even them in.

But she’d let AJ, at least tonight.

Still, he had no grand illusions. Sex did not equal a relationship, not when it came to Darcy. But it was a start.

To remind her, he took the now empty bottle from her and set it aside, along with his, and then he took something else. Her mouth. He needed this, needed her, and he liked to think she needed him just as much, at least in the moment. When his tongue stroked hers she moaned, a deliciously helpless sound as she clutched at him.

He stepped between her legs, happy to note that the height of the dresser was perfect. He nudged the hem of her T-shirt northward.

“Again?” she murmured.

“Always. Lift up, Darcy.”

She did and he swept the shirt over her head. She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned in until her lips barely touched his. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”

“Actually,” he said, “the question is, what’s going to get into you?” He slid his hand between her thighs, causing her to dig her fingers into his biceps.