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Grateful to be alive.

She hadn’t realized she’d been crying until she’d felt AJ’s fingers on her. He’d hunkered down at her side, balanced on the balls of his feet as he cupped her face and whispered her name.

She’d pulled him in with her one good arm and kissed him.

And for one glorious moment he’d kissed her back with his firm, warm lips, a sexy low groan rumbling up from deep in his throat, the delicious glide of his tongue to hers, and then …

And then he’d jerked back. He’d shaken his head in disbelief before speaking. “This isn’t going to happen, Darcy. This isn’t ever going to happen, not with you.”

Cue the humiliation.

Because she’d given it her best shot. She’d thrown herself at him, and he’d found her lacking. Worse, he’d refused to discuss it, apparently preferring to pretend it had never happened.

So after making him promise to never tell a soul, she’d done the same.

She’d been as good at that as she’d been at pretending the rejection hadn’t hurt. Really good. After all, she had good practice since for most of her life she’d been dumped like yesterday’s trash and she’d long ago learned to block off her feelings. She’d been good at that, too, and was able to do it with everything and everyone—except one man.

This man.

That night she’d made a pact with herself. She’d decided she didn’t need to know why AJ affected her the way he did. She only had to steer clear of him enough so that it didn’t become an issue. For the most part she’d done just that, except she hadn’t been able to resist stepping on his every nerve whenever possible to make things more even between them.

The hardest thing was also the most embarrassing—making sure she never gave herself away by keeping her tongue rolled in her mouth when he was at work looking hot and sexy and confident.

Or on the football field looking dirty and hot and sexy and confident.

“I’ve gotta go,” she said. “I—”

But Ariana had stopped at his side to give him a hug. The kind of hug that suggested familiarity.

Whatever. So AJ and Ariana had had a thing. Everyone knew that. They were well suited, what with AJ’s calm, stoic attitude and Ariana’s calm inner spirit. Hell, maybe they were still having a thing. Truth was, AJ had lots of things, with lots of women. That’s what happened when you had that whole badass thing going on. Women tended to be stupid when it pertained to big and badass.

Herself included.

No matter that she told herself she preferred sweet and gentle, the truth was that she wouldn’t mind being a little stupid with someone big and badass and sexy as hell. Problem was, she wasn’t exactly at her sexiest, and hadn’t been for a while. She walked like Lurch from The Addams Family, she was mean as a snake from not sleeping more than a few hours at a time due to the pain, and though she liked the thought of having wild monkey sex, the actual mechanics of it were undoubtedly beyond her now.

Bending, she grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder before starting to rise carefully back up. This was always the tricky part because when she didn’t pay attention, her right leg tended to buckle and she often ended up face-planting.

She’d done so just last week at the grocery store checkout in front of the really cute checker, going down like a sack of potatoes. Even more mortifying, the cute checker had crouched at her side and said, “Ma’am, I’ve called the ambulance, stay real still.”


He’d thought her old enough to be called ma’am, and hell, she’d certainly felt old. It had been a blow to her ego because there’d been a time when she could’ve batted her lashes, flashed a smile, and caught any guy she wanted, young or old.

Now? She didn’t even have the energy for a self-serve in her own shower.

So yeah, she’d fall in front of an audience again over her own dead body, especially an audience that included the guy who’d probably give her a new list of strengthening exercises to do every day and then watch over her like a drill sergeant.

But before she could make the careful struggle, a large hand appeared in front of her face. Reaching out, she gripped AJ’s hand, using it as a lifeline.

He didn’t let go right away, either, just squeezed his fingers in hers, setting his other hand on the curve of her waist to help her gain her balance, silently reminding her to put equal weight on both feet. She concentrated hard, her gaze up as he’d taught her. Feel the equilibrium.

The directives had been drilled into her by AJ himself, who stood there quietly, respectfully letting her get to it by herself on her own timetable.

The opposite tactic of Xander. While he had a lot of really great qualities, patience wasn’t one of them. He’d been known to pick her up, toss her in a fireman’s hold, and carry her where he wanted to go rather than wait for her to get there herself.

It never failed to piss her off.

At least Ariana had moved off and no one was staring at her struggling. She hated that most of all—the sympathetic gazes. Hated. That was one thing AJ had never done: pity her.

Piss her off? Oh yeah. But not pity her. She supposed he got Brownie points for that. “I’m good,” she said.

“I know.”

He could be such an annoying alpha pain in her ass, but it was in moments like these that she realized just how important his steady, imperturbable disposition was, and had been, to her recovery.

He’d given her back her life.