Gavin sighed. Of all the people he’d hurt with his refusal to forgive himself, he regretted Hannah the most.
God, he hoped he hadn’t lost his chance with her.
“Hannah, I would really like to talk to you.”
“I’m not sure it would do any good,” Hannah said. Her West Texas drawl always deepened when she got serious. That twang dripped now as she spoke. “I think we’ve said just about all we have to say.”
“That’s not true. I told you a bunch of lies meant to protect myself. Will you let me explain?” She hesitated, and after a halting nod, Gavin went on. “In college, I met this girl named Nikki…”
He explained the entire story, every terrible detail, including his failure to act on her suicide threat. When he finished, the car was dead silent. She was probably judging him, and he deserved it, but Gavin wasn’t ready to give up. It had taken a lot of courage to tell someone with a heart as big as Hannah how small he’d been in the past.
Finally, she said, “It wasn’t your fault. Nikki made a choice. I’m sorry you’ve been living with so much guilt.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t hate him. “I have utterly regretted my part in Nikki’s death. And I’ve been convinced since you walked in my office and shook my hand that, while I might love you, I’d be poison to you. When you said you loved me, my first instinct was to push you away. But you just wouldn’t be deterred, my lovely, stubborn girl.” She smiled softly, and the crushing weight began to ease off his chest.
“I promise, I didn’t mean a word I said to you.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel as he tried to figure out how to convince her of his sincerity.
She turned those green eyes on him. They were so big and pure. God, nothing he or his brothers could do would ever wipe away the innocence that seemed an innate part of Hannah.
“But on some level, you did mean it, Gavin. There was a lot of truth in those words.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t have hurt so much. I don’t fit into your world. I don’t even know that I want to. It’s easier with Slade and Dex. They don’t really care what others think.” Gavin sat back in the driver’s seat with a sigh. Just because she was innocent didn’t mean she wasn’t wise. Hannah wouldn’t fit easily into his world. She would always run the risk of being ridiculed. It would happen behind her back because he had the money and clout to hurt whoever rejected her, but he was too worldly to believe it wouldn’t happen.
But Hannah was wrong about one thing. “You’re mistaking political savvy for caring, sweetheart. I don’t give a damn what anyone outside my family thinks. I am very good at corporate politics, but they don’t mean anything to me. Outside of work, none of that matters.” He would never go to another party, charity event, or social gathering if it meant making Hannah miserable.
“But all you do is work, Gavin. That’s your whole life.”
It had been, until he’d realized how important she was to him. Now he wanted something so different. He’d chosen his executive team carefully. Black Oak Oil could do with less micromanaging from him and still run like a well-oiled machine.
Gavin tentatively reached out and put his hand over hers. She didn’t wrap her fingers around his hand, but she didn’t move away, either.
“You’ve made me realize that I want something different. I’ve proven myself as a CEO. Now I want to prove to you and my brothers that I can be a good husband and someday, hopefully, a father.”
She slanted her gaze his way and pulled her hand back. Gavin missed its warmth. “After this afternoon, someday might come around sooner than you think. I’m not sure I’m ready for that.
I’m not sure you are, either.”
He let his hand find the steering wheel again. He’d dug a very deep hole with Hannah. He needed to patiently fill it back in. “I am ready. If you’re pregnant—and even if you’re not—I want to prove to you that I’ll be here every step of the way. We’ll all be here for you.” Because he and his brothers were in this together, he wouldn’t have to worry about Hannah or their children if anything ever happened to him. Dex and Slade would protect and shelter her and the kids. They would pick her up if she was down. No way would his tragic history repeat itself with her.
Something warm and infinitely secure settled in Gavin’s heart. It felt so right. This was exactly the family he wanted, three planets rotating around one beautiful sun—with lots of little moons to follow.
“If I have a baby, and he’s not biologically yours, I won’t let you turn your back on him.” Hannah’s words hit him straight in the gut. She really believed he’d abandon her or any of her children? Of course, what else would she think after hearing his part in Nikki’s death? His satisfaction and rosy outlook for the future dissipated. A million gut-wrenching worries rushed to the surface. How could he convince her that he’d changed?
He raked his hand through his hair then pinned her with an earnest stare. “Never. I will never put myself before you again. I will never turn away if you or one of the children needs me. I know it must seem like I would after hearing about Nikki, but I really didn’t think she was serious or pregnant. Please believe me.”
The long silence nearly sliced him in two. He had way more fences to mend with her than he’d believed. What the hell was he going to do?
“Gavin?” Her voice trembled and went straight to his heart.
God, he was afraid to look at her if her opinion of him was that low. But he’d promised just moments ago to be there for her. He couldn’t renege now. He faced her.
Her eyes were wide, pooling with unshed tears. “I’m sorry you had to live with that. I’m sorry you’ve been hurting. The man I know would never abandon his own child—or anyone else’s.” Hannah shook her head, her blonde hair brushing her shoulders. She reached for his hand, and he gave it to her. “When you found out Dex existed, you moved heaven and earth to find him. You paid for his college, gave him a good job, and brought him into your family. Many people wouldn’t have done half so much.”
“I couldn’t leave him there. He’s my brother. I just wish I’d known sooner.” Gavin remembered walking into the dingy house where Dex had lived for the last year of his stay in foster care. More like confinement. The house had been filthy. His foster mother had cared far more about herself and her damned dogs than the kids in her care. Before Dex could even say hello, Gavin had tossed a wad of cash at the woman and packed his brother up in the Benz. Everything Dex had owned fit into a grocery sack.
“Of course.” She squeezed his hand. “You mean the world to him.”
“I haven’t always done a good job of showing that I care for him, too.”
“You’ll be a great father, Gavin.”
“I’ll do my best every day. I can’t promise everything will be perfect, Hannah. I can only promise that I’ll try. You’ll get everything I have to give, if you give me a chance.” She sniffled and released him, then folded her hands together in her lap. He wanted to hold her, but he hadn’t earned the right yet. “Can I think about it for a while?” At least she wasn’t saying no. Or blaming him for the deaths of Nikki and their unborn child.
Or throwing things at him.
He wouldn’t admit it to her, but she’d been hot as hell when she was mad. Hannah in a fury had done all sorts of things to his cock. Even as he’d ducked, all he’d been able to think about was throwing her on the pool table and fighting his way inside her.
“Of course, sweetheart. Take all the time you need. I want you to be sure.” The house loomed ahead. He wished the drive was longer. Even with all the tension between them, he enjoyed just sitting with her.
He sincerely hoped that Preston had been Hannah’s stalker. If so, with him dead, she would finally be safe, and he and his brothers could all concentrate on loving her. Gavin knew he should feel something for his former CIO, but after the way he’d treated Hannah, Gavin merely wished he’d gotten a piece of him before he’d taken the coward’s way out.
If the threat to Hannah was gone, they had no reason to rush back to Dallas. He hadn’t taken a vacation in years. Maybe they could keep Hannah captive just a bit longer.
With a grin, he thought about the items his brothers had brought. Whips and handcuffs and paddles, not to mention vibrators, nipple clamps, and that pretty pink anal plug—all the things a Dom would need to torture and pleasure a pretty little submissive. The idea of Hannah in nipple clamps, bound and trussed for his pleasure, really turned him on. Because it would be the woman he loved truly trusting him in every way.
“I don’t like that mischievous look on your face.” She frowned, lips pouting.
He’d like to shove his rock-hard cock past those plump lips. “Which look is that, sweetheart?”
“You remind me of a wolf about to eat a fuzzy little bunny.” His dick twitched. If she knew just how predatory he felt, she might jump out of the car.
“Thanks to my brothers, the little bunny I’m thinking of tasting right now isn’t fuzzy anymore.” Hannah gasped and turned the most perfect shade of red. “Gavin…”
“I barely got the time to look earlier. Am I right?”
As he parked the car, Hannah stayed utterly silent. Finally, she turned, wearing the naughtiest grin on her face. “This bunny might not be fuzzy anymore, but she is hopping away. For now.” She opened the door and slid out. Gavin followed, watching her ass sway.
Their talk had been more promising than he could have hoped. She hadn’t condemned him, hadn’t judged. Her understanding warmed his heart and made him more certain than ever that Hannah was the perfect woman for him. Gavin prayed like hell that he’d get his second chance.
* * * *
Slade’s stomach turned as he looked down at Preston’s body. On the surface, the man didn’t look so terribly different from the one he’d fired just hours before. He wore the same suit. His eyes were closed, but he lay too still to be merely sleeping. There was nothing left of Preston Ward in the vessel that lay before him. He was a cold, dead being.
“That’s him.” Slade forced himself to acknowledge Preston’s identity. He was relieved when the sheriff pulled the sheet back over the man’s lifeless face.
The sheriff nodded shortly. Mike Akna was a quiet but professional man. As far as Slade knew, he’d never had to handle a case like this. River Run was hardly a hotbed of activity, but Mike radiated a competence that earned Slade’s trust.
“Thanks, Mr. James. We knew who it was, but paperwork demands a formal identification of the body. We have witnesses who say you and Mr. Ward had an argument earlier today.”
“I fired him and told him to fly back to Dallas, if that’s what you mean.”
“Did you or did you not threaten to kill him?”
Slade felt his eyebrows raise. He looked to his younger brother.
“I thought this was a suicide,” Dex asked. “When your deputy called, he said Preston had hanged himself.”
Mike held Dex’s stare, gripping a notebook in his hand. “Someone wants me to believe that.” Slade’s stomach plummeted to his knees. “I didn’t kill anyone.” Dex thumped a hand across his chest to shut him up then slipped into professional mode.
“What was the time of death?”
Slade thought if Gavin hadn’t offered Dex a cushy job, he would have made a damn fine homicide detective.
“No TOD yet. Doc’s not here to take a liver temp. I have a timeline, though. The last time anyone talked to the victim was 2:35 p.m. Preston called the two techs he’d brought with him from Dallas, Scott Kirkwood and Lyle Franklin, and advised them to make arrangements to return home.”
“He’d been fired,” Slade ground out. “That wasn’t his call.”
“And they stayed put here for that very reason, according to Ben Kunayak. Ben said that Preston was madder than a wet hen when you threw him out of the office, not depressed. In the parking lot, security heard him shouting that he was going to call Gavin and demand his job back or sue.”
“Did you check Preston’s cell?” Slade asked. “Had he called Gavin?”
“I found his cell, but it was demolished.” The sheriff pointed to a table off to the side. Slade could see the decimated phone. It didn’t just look broken, but like someone had tried to disintegrate it.
“Is the SIM card inside?” The SIM card would tell them who Preston had called. Slade stepped toward the table, but Dex put a hand out.
“Don’t touch it. Chain of evidence is important. If this isn’t a suicide, then we don’t want to fuck up the evidence since you might be the prime suspect in a murder investigation.” Dex always knew how to put things as succinctly as possible. Slade looked to the sheriff, who solemnly nodded his head.
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