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“Knox, we’re not throwing away the poop cot. It’ll come clean. They’re short on cots as it is.”

Fuck me, the things I’d do for this girl. I soaked the sponge in soapy water and began scrubbing at the cot, fighting back the gagging in my throat.

When I was done, she giggled and said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“I need a shower.”

“They have showers here.”

I rolled my eyes. The idea of showering here made me feel even dirtier somehow. “Come on. We’re going out.”

“We are? I was going to find the director and see if I could help with anything else.”

“McKenna, we’ve been here all day. My hands are pruned, my knees are sore from kneeling on a concrete floor, and I was just subjected to human feces. We’re leaving.”

She giggled again. “Okay, I suppose you’re right. We did enough for one day.”

I was about to correct her and let her know I’d done enough for a lifetime, but I didn’t want her to change her mind about leaving, so I shut my mouth and trailed behind her.

After a stop in the restroom, where I doused my hands, forearms, and even my face and neck in scalding hot soapy water, I waited in the hallway for McKenna in the hallway. While she washed up, I called home to check on my brothers and let them know I wouldn’t be home for a while. When she emerged, McKenna had secured her hair in a neat braid hanging over her shoulder. How she could look pretty after the day we’d had, I had no idea.

Her eyes met mine and she tipped her head shyly. I needed to be careful about how I looked at her. I was watching her like I wanted to eat her alive. Hell, I wasn’t opposed to it.

“Where are we going?” she asked as I led her out into the fading sunlight.

Chapter Thirteen

Knox

I held open the door for McKenna and we entered the small diner just blocks from the shelter. It was already after four, and after skipping breakfast and lunch, I was starving. Of course when I’d set out this morning to find McKenna, I hadn’t known I was signing up for an all-day volunteer activity.

I asked the hostess for a table for two and noticed her gaze flicker between me and McKenna. Did she think we were here on a date? Shit, were we on a date? I never did things like this—take a girl out to eat. Even if it was just to a crappy diner. I hadn’t done anything like this in years. Mostly because of the boys. I felt only mildly guilty about not being home when they got home from school. Something told me they’d approve of my being with McKenna, though.

McKenna surprised me by asking for a box of crayons at the hostess station. Then we slid into a squeaky leather booth and McKenna accepted her menu, smiling at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Thanks for helping today.” She flipped over her place mat and began doodling on the back in purple crayon. The girl continued to surprise me.

I sensed that something between us had changed today. I’d shown her a different side of myself and put us on more equal footing. It wasn’t what I had planned for my one day off from work this week, but I was glad I’d stayed and helped her. I couldn’t imagine her doing all that alone today; she’d still be there. I knew people gave their time and resources to causes that were important to them, and I’ll admit, it had felt good to give back today, but either McKenna had the soul of a saint, or her need to serve was something different.

“What drives you to volunteer, McKenna?”

Looking up from coloring, she chewed on her lower lip. “It’s just what I do. I spend pretty much every free minute at the homeless shelter.”

“You do this to avoid being at home?” If that dickhead Brian was making her uncomfortable, I’d head right over there and handle it.

“Not exactly. More like to fill my time. I don’t like being alone with too much time to think. It’s just…not good for me.”

I wondered what worries could possibly be weighing on her mind. “What are you running from?”

She went back to coloring and I realized I didn’t know much about this beautiful girl who sat in front of me. She grabbed the brown crayon and drew a two-story house, coloring in the windows with blue curtains, and then drew three stick figures in front of the house. On one of them she colored long dark brown hair and blue eyes, and I realized she was drawing me something from her childhood.

I watched her in silence, wondering if she was trying to give me a clue about her life. The thought of someone harming her rose the hairs on the back of my neck. Before she finished her drawing, the waitress delivered our orders—a salad and soup for her, and a burger for me. Setting her drawing aside for the moment, we dug into the food in silence, the weight of our conversation still hanging over us.

McKenna picked at her salad, using the tines of her fork to push a cherry tomato around the plate.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked, wiping my mouth on the napkin.

Pretty blue eyes pierced mine as she hesitated to answer.

“Say it, angel.”

“When I met you…I don’t know. I could feel your pain and knew you’d experienced more than your fair share of trauma too. I felt connected to you.”

I knew what she meant, but that didn’t mean I wanted to encourage her attachment to me. I would only end up hurting and disappointing her. Even if I did everything in my power not to, that was my track record with women.

I pushed my plate away, my appetite all but vanishing. “McKenna, I’m not going to deny that we have a connection. We do.”

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