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She blew out a sound of disgust. “You need to take this outside,” she said as if she owned the place. “Your negative energy doesn’t belong in here.” She marched to the entrance, where there was a large drink machine. She pulled a dollar out of her pocket and fed it to the machine, getting a chilled bottle of water for her efforts.

This she brought to Xander. “For your eye,” she said. “It’s already getting black and blue from the fight you didn’t have.” She pressed the cold bottle to his face and Xander winced but took ahold of it.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“You’re welcome,” she said tightly, very un-Ariana-like, and strode off, leaving the building, steam coming out of her ears.

In her wake, AJ carefully moved his jaw back and forth. Hurt like a bitch but it didn’t feel broken.

Xander pulled the bottle away and gingerly touched his eye. “Jesus, you’ve got a right hook.” He turned to make sure Ariana was gone before he spoke again, keeping his voice down as if he might be afraid of her. “And you can fuck off. You of all people don’t get to say shit to me about how I treat Darcy, not when we both know which of the two of us is going to end up hurting her—and it isn’t me.”

And then he stalked out.

AJ locked up and left, too. He went home, where he tripped over Thor and Stark, both of whom had lots of bitching and complaining and caterwauling about how much he’d been gone lately. He showered and told himself he was going to fall into bed and sleep like the dead until dawn.

He did the shower part.

But then he stared at his big, comfy bed, not seeing that but the look of devastation on Darcy’s face after Xander had gotten done with her. “Sorry,” he told the cats, and grabbed his keys, heading out into the night.

He needed to see Darcy.

She’d come so far this past year, worked so damn hard. She’d fought her way back physically and mentally. She’d given everything she had to the jobs she’d taken on even though they weren’t jobs of passion for her. She gave everything to the dogs she rescued, too, just as she gave everything to the few people she let into her life.

Even him.

She’d been there for him in Boise even when she hadn’t wanted to be. He’d watched her work her way through the trust exercises with a surprising and touching honesty. Yes, she was still wild, untamable, unpredictable Darcy.

But she was no longer reckless.

Whether she knew it or not, she’d put herself out there, letting some roots take hold. She’d shown more courage in her little pinkie than most people had in their entire body.

He pulled up to the aging Victorian that she shared with Zoe and knocked on the door.

Zoe answered and sighed. “I heard about Xander.”

For a beat AJ thought she meant the physical altercation they’d just had, but then he realized she was referring to Xander and Darcy’s fight. “I was there,” he told her. “Where is she?”

“Not here. She didn’t tell me where she was going but I’ve been stalking her dot on my Find My Friends app. She’s at the hot springs. I was just about to send Wyatt after her.”

“I’ll go.”

Zoe looked at him for a long beat as if skeptical of AJ’s intentions. “She’s hurting.”

“I know.”

“I want to kick Xander’s ass,” she said.

“She wouldn’t want you to.”

Zoe blew out a breath. “He walked away from her—the very worst possible thing he could’ve done to her.” She shook her head. “Promise me you won’t do that.”

“Never,” he vowed.

This had her blinking. Then she narrowed her eyes. “Then why aren’t you two together?”

It had all started out so clear to him exactly why they weren’t together, but somewhere along the way he’d forgotten. “It’s complicated.”

She rolled her eyes in a damn good imitation of Darcy herself. “You know what?” she asked. “I think you’re afraid, even though you’re the bravest person I know.”

The bravest person she knew was almost rendered speechless. “It has nothing to do with being brave,” he said. “It’s about what’s best for Darcy.”

She looked baffled at this. “AJ, what could be better for her than you?”

AJ headed to the hot springs, a place Darcy sometimes went to in order to be alone.

But she’d had a lifetime of feeling alone, and he wasn’t going to let her feel that way again.

He’d been out here at the hot springs with her before, as a part of her early therapy had involved swimming. They’d done that in a cove on the north side of the springs, protected by trees and rock caves.

Sure enough, her car was there. He parked his truck next to it and walked the quarter of a mile path to the springs.

Steam rose from the water into the night, making it look like another planet. Darcy was sitting on a rock staring up at the moon.

AJ could feel her loneliness from where he stood, and it killed him.

He’d told himself he wasn’t interested in love but he’d been talking out his own ass. When it came to Darcy he was interested in everything, and he’d take whatever scraps she’d give him.

“Hey,” he said quietly, not wanting to startle her. He had no idea if she’d reveal her emotions to him or not. Retreat or lash out, he never knew with her.

She let her hood fall back from her face, her expression revealing nothing.