Protected deadly secrets.., p.24
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       Protected (Deadly Secrets Book 3), p.24

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  Voices echoed lowly in the room as she shoved Ken’s arms and legs back onto his torso again and set the doll up on the carpet once more so Emma could crash into it with her trucks and dismember the thing. Long seconds later, Hunt slid to the floor beside Kelsey and leaned back against the couch. But he was careful not to touch her, and she didn’t know how to read that or even if she should.

  “You should know,” he said in a low voice as Emma made crashing sound effects and backed over Ken, “that your father is the only reason I’m still breathing.”

  Kelsey huffed and grabbed Ken’s head before it rolled under the couch. “He’s a total pacifist. He could have thrown Julian out of this house years ago and saved me a messy divorce, but he didn’t because he doesn’t believe in violence. Don’t feel special.”

  Hunt sighed and glanced sideways at her. “You’re really funny, you know that? I told him, Kelsey.”

  Her hand stilled against Ken’s mangled arm, and something in her chest cinched down tight. “Told him what?”

  He reached for Ken’s arm and head from Kelsey’s hands and handed them back to Emma. “I told him and your brothers that I’m crazy about you, that I have been for a long time, and that I’m a complete idiot for nearly messing this up.”

  “Thank you,” Emma said, then hummed “Ring Around the Rosie” while she shoved Ken’s parts back together.

  “Why would you do that?” Kelsey asked, staring up at him with wide eyes.

  “Because it’s true.” He slid one hand around her nape, pulled her toward him, and kissed her—right there in front of everyone as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence—then released her. “And because I am.” Looking away from her toward Emma, he said, “So who taught you to run over guys like this, Em? Was it your dad? Is he teaching you to be a man-hater already?”

  Emma threw her head back and laughed, showing off her little white teeth. “Daddy didn’t teach me. I taught me.” Jumping up from her spot, she picked up Ken’s torso and one of her trucks, then plopped down on Hunt’s lap. “Look. Ken can’t fit in the seat with his legs. He’s too big. I have ta cut them off so he fits.”

  Still too stunned to speak, Kelsey watched as Emma launched into a conversation with Hunt about the uselessness of legs, and Hunt let her boss him around like she did all the men in the McClane family.

  Kelsey glanced up and around and realized everyone was watching them—Ethan and Sam from across the room with amused expressions, Alec and Raegan near the dining room table, his arm over her shoulder, a reluctantly accepting look in his eyes, her with a knowing smile as she wrapped her arms around his waist. Rusty was still in his chair brooding, but he no longer seemed ready to pound his fist into Hunt’s face, just resigned to the current situation. And in the kitchen, her parents didn’t seem the least bit surprised. Her mom was grinning, and her dad stood behind her mom rubbing her shoulders and whispering something in her ear Kelsey couldn’t hear. Even Thomas, eating straight out of a carton of ice cream, didn’t seem fazed by what Hunt had just done. Which, after the scene only minutes before in the basement, didn’t just strike Kelsey as bizarre, it told her loud and clear that whatever he’d shared with the men in her family had convinced them he was telling the truth.

  “What?” Hunt looked sideways and smirked. “You look confused, Kels.”

  “I . . .” She was. Way the hell confused. Because something told her she never could have smoothed things over with her family the way he just had.

  Hunt’s phone in his back pocket buzzed. He shifted to the side and pulled it out. But when he stiffened, Kelsey knew something was wrong.

  Her adrenaline spiked, and her pulse whirred in her ears. “What is it?”

  Hunt sat forward, gently shifting Emma from his leg to the floor, then carefully held the phone out so only she could see the screen.

  An image flashed. And Kelsey’s heart shot straight into her throat when she saw the picture of the two of them, sitting side-by-side on the floor with Emma on Hunt’s lap.

  The picture that had been clearly taken through the windows of her parents’ home only seconds before.

  Hunt hadn’t told Kelsey what to do.

  He’d been careful about that. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. But he’d been strung tight as a drum the whole time her family had been discussing what was best for Kelsey now that they knew Foster was still following her. And more relieved than he could show when she agreed that leaving with him and going back to his beach house was the best option at this point.

  He’d taken every roundabout way between Lake O and the coast that he could, doing his best to throw anyone off their track. While Hunt had contacted PPD and the Feds about Kelsey’s most recent text before leaving her parents’ place, her brothers had hoofed it across the lake to where the picture appeared to have been taken. They hadn’t found Foster—not that Hunt had expected him to be standing there waiting—but they had found a camera set up in the trees across the water that was most likely controlled by a remote cell phone app and a nearby nonsecure wireless signal.

  The police were currently checking all security footage from PDX, searching for any sign Foster had come through the local airport either brazenly or in disguise. If he’d been in California just the day before, taking photos of them at that coffee shop, he had to have flown in. He couldn’t have made the drive and set everything up in Oregon in time. Not unless he had an accomplice.

  The thought that he might have someone working with him formed a knot in Hunt’s stomach as he wound through the last part of the drive toward his beach house. Since they’d left her parents’ place after dinner, it was already dark, and the storm moving in, slashing rain across the windshield, wasn’t helping his mood. He was confident once he got Kelsey into the house, though, that everything would be okay. The beach house was wired tighter than Fort Knox. Since it was owned by his company and really only used when clients needed a safe getaway or he needed a place to think, it wasn’t known to many. And just in case anyone got past the high-tech security—which they wouldn’t—he always had the safe room that was completely impenetrable.

  He rolled down his window to type in the access code at the main gate, then pulled onto the property and watched the gate close behind him. A winding, paved drive took them another half mile to the house. He used his secure cell phone app to open the garage, then pulled into the middle stall and closed the doors after them.

  Kelsey hadn’t spoken much on the drive. He knew she was likely freaked, still processing everything that had happened at her parents’ place and trying not to let her emotions show. But he really wanted her to lean on him. Needed her to, especially because he knew she was still a little irked at him about earlier.

  He met her at the back of the vehicle. She’d already popped the hatch, but he grabbed her bags before she could and tossed the straps over his shoulders.

  She frowned up at him. “I can carry my own bags, you know.”

  “I know you can. And I’m a big feminist supporter whose mother taught him to be a gentleman.” Shutting the hatch, he nodded toward the steps that led into the house. “Come on. Let’s get inside. You can scowl at me in there just as easily as out here, only in there it’s warmer.”

  He stepped past her and opened the door to the house. Since the house was built into a hill and the garage opened to the main level, he took her bags in and dropped them in the guest room she’d stayed in before. More than anything he wanted her stuff in his room, but he wasn’t about to push things with her and risk another major fuckup.

  He set her bags on the bench at the end of the bed, then glanced toward the door where she stood just inside the room with her arms crossed over her chest and an unreadable expression on her tired face. “It’s late. You’re probably exhausted. I’ll let you change and get some sleep. I need to go check the security system and make sure everything’s running right.”

  She didn’t say anything as he stepped past her. Didn’t try to stop him or make an
y move to join him, and he tried not to be disappointed by that fact. She’d agreed coming here with him was the best place she could be at the moment. He hadn’t coerced her into being alone with him. When her brother Rusty had asked her if she was sure she felt safe with Hunt, she hadn’t hesitated to say yes—in front of her whole family. But he couldn’t shake the reality that she hadn’t kissed him back in the living room. She hadn’t reached for him or held his hand in the car on the drive out here. And she hadn’t once given any indication she was glad he’d laid his feelings bare before her and everyone else.

  His chest was tight as a drum as he made a full sweep of the house, checking the entire system and all the monitors. He tugged on a coat and walked the perimeter of the property in the rain, trying not to think about Kelsey and what the hell was happening between them, failing miserably because thoughts of her just wouldn’t leave his brain. Stepping back inside, he shook the rain from his jacket and headed down to his office to call Davies, hoping an update would get his head back on straight. But when he learned there was still no concrete news and that no one had a fucking clue where Foster had gone, his adrenaline spiked all over again.

  He drew a deep breath. Told himself they were safe in this house. And headed into the kitchen to grab two cold waters from the fridge.

  His feet slowed outside Kelsey’s bedroom door, and he glanced into the room. She hadn’t unpacked a single thing. Hadn’t taken off her shoes, hadn’t changed into pajamas. While she was no longer standing in the doorway, she hadn’t moved far. She stood still at the end of the bed, staring down at her unopened suitcase as if it held the mysteries of the world.

  Nerves churned in his belly. Cautiously, so he didn’t spook her, he stepped into the room and set a water bottle on the nightstand. “Everything okay, Kels?”

  “No.” She shook her head quickly. “I’m not okay.”

  He tensed. Shit. She hadn’t lost it when that building collapsed, or when Julian had attacked her, or when she’d seen Foster’s pictures of her in California. But she was about to lose it now because the fear had finally gotten to her. He took a step toward her, desperate to console her. “Kels, you’re safe here. Everything’s going to be oka—”

  She turned his way. “What did you tell my brothers and my dad?”

  He stilled. Blinked once because that wasn’t what he expected her to say. Then blinked again because the look in her light brown eyes wasn’t one of fear or emotional instability, it was one of confusion. “I-I already told you.”

  “Did you tell them we slept together in California?”

  Heat immediately rushed to his cheeks. “No. I didn’t get into detail like that. I didn’t need to.”

  “What does that mean?”

  Cracking his water bottle with suddenly shaking fingers he hoped she couldn’t see, he took a deep drink. “It means it wasn’t necessary.”

  “Why not?”

  Double shit. She wasn’t just confused, she was angry. “Because your dad and your brothers aren’t stupid.”

  “So you told them what? That you’re crazy about me, then hinted we fucked, and they just were okay with it?”

  He cringed. “Don’t say it like that.”

  “Why not? That’s what we did, isn’t it?”

  “Is that all it was to you?”

  She stared at him long seconds in silence, and his chest tightened all over again because he couldn’t read a single thing in her eyes. Had no idea if she was remembering their nights in California together or if this was her finally regretting what had happened between them.

  Please don’t be regretting what happened between us . . .

  She broke eye contact before he could come up with an answer, shoved the suitcase off the bench, and sat. Dropping her face into her hands, she muttered, “This is a mess.”

  He wasn’t sure what she was referring to—the situation with Foster, what had happened at her parents’ house, or them—and instinct urged him to turn out of the room before she clarified and he got his heart broken for good. But he couldn’t make his feet move. Didn’t want to let this fester between them. Because even if she was having second thoughts, he needed her to know he wasn’t.

  Setting his water bottle quietly on the nightstand, he moved around the bed, knelt on the floor in front of her so they were at eye level, and gently pulled her hands from her face. She blinked several times and met his gaze, but he didn’t see anger in her eyes anymore. He saw fear. A fear that gave him strength because it was the same damn fear he felt.

  “Kels.” He lowered her hands to her lap and brushed his thumb across her silky-smooth cheek. “I told them I’m in love with you.”

  “Why would you do that?” she whispered.

  “Because it’s true.” He skimmed his thumb along her jaw. “And because I know you’re in love with me.”

  Her eyes fell closed, and she drew in a shaky breath. But she didn’t deny it. And that was all the encouragement he needed.

  “Look, I know you’re scared. And I know I didn’t help matters much when I freaked out about that text. I told you in California that I suck at relationships. I will make mistakes, like I did today. I guarantee you’ll want to slap me on numerous occasions for being such an idiot. But I’ll never hurt you. Not intentionally. And if you give me a chance, I can prove that to you. I know what I want and that’s you.”

  She opened her eyes and looked at him—really looked at him—and the emotion in her eyes was so raw, he felt as if he were seeing into her soul.

  “It’s hard for me to believe you. Not because I don’t trust you but because I stopped trusting people who weren’t my immediate family a long time ago. I could never believe anything Julian said to me, especially when it came to his emotions. Affection was something I got when he was in a good mood, or when I’d done something that pleased him, or when he wanted to prove to other people we were the perfect, happy couple. In public, he was the doting husband, but in private he was quiet, cold, and controlling, and I never knew what was going to set him off and send him into a rage.”

  “I’m not like that. You know I’m not like that.”

  “I know.” She glanced down at his hands holding hers in her lap. “But I need you to understand why sometimes it seems like I’m freaking out about nothing.” She met his gaze again with those open, honest, vulnerable eyes. “Because to me, it’s not nothing. Julian didn’t love me. He said he did, but he didn’t. Not really. You don’t treat someone you love the way he treated me.”

  The image of Benedict holding her to the floor in her warehouse slammed into him, tensing every muscle in his body.

  She tightened her hands around his. “I know what you’re thinking, and I need you to know what you saw the other day was the worst he ever did to me, physically at least. Most of the time it was mild. He’d grab me by the arm or push me up against the wall to get my attention. A couple of times I ended up with bruises, but not usually. And most of the time when he lost his temper, it happened when we were arguing, and I was yelling at him.”

  Hunt’s jaw clenched down hard. “That’s no excuse. No guy—husband, boyfriend, or whatever—should ever grab you or push you or hurt you no matter what you say or do. It’s unacceptable, so stop making excuses for it.”

  “I know.” She looked back down at their hands. “That’s one of the big reasons I finally had the courage to leave. But the worst . . .” She bit her lip. “The worst things he did weren’t physical. They were verbal, and they were emotional, and they damaged me. I know it’s easy to say everything he said was a lie, but he knew how to tap into my fears and neuroses, and he used them against me. He was good at that. He knew how to make me feel like I was never enough, and those feelings have lingered, long after I got away from him. Even when I don’t want them to.”

  She sniffled as she continued to focus on their hands, and a dozen different emotions swirled inside him, the strongest of which were the need to console her, and the urge to pound his fist through Benedict
s face all over again.

  “My parents raised me to be a strong, independent woman,” she went on, “and ninety percent of the time, that’s exactly what I am. I have a college degree, for crying out loud. I’m not stupid. But with Julian I felt stupid. And I was never strong or independent with him. I let him have control over my emotional well-being. If he was happy, I was happy. If he wasn’t, it meant I’d done something wrong and needed to fix it. My whole life with him was trying to act like everything was perfect in public while walking on eggshells in private. I never stood up for myself. I let him call all the shots. I wasn’t a partner. I was property.”

  A sick feeling rolled through his gut when he realized what she was trying to say. “That’s not me. I wouldn’t treat you like that. When I stupidly told you to stay at your parents’ house, it was only because I was scared what Foster had plan—”

  “I know.” She squeezed his hands again and met his gaze, looking fierce and gorgeous and strong—way stronger than she even knew she was. “I know you’re not like him, and I’m not upset anymore about what you said in the car. I’m telling you all this because I need you to understand. I stayed with him for a long time—way longer than I should have—because I thought if I could just make him love me, then it would prove I wasn’t as worthless as he’d said so many times. And in some sick sort of way, I guess I thought it would prove my birth mother abandoning me wasn’t really about me either. It took me a long time to trust Hannah and Michael. An even longer time to trust my brothers. And as much as I trust you and believe in you, and know you’re not like Julian, I’m still . . . scared. Because what if you change your mind? Or get tired of my irrational reactions? Or just plain decide I’m not worth the effort anymore? I don’t know what that would do to me.”

  Tears filled her eyes. She blinked rapidly to force them back. But just the fact she was confiding in him and not pulling away made him fall deeper in love with her.

  He lifted his hands to her face. “I don’t have any guarantees for you. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. The only thing I know for sure is that I love you. I love all of you. The strong you, the feisty you, the nervous you, even the scared you. And the way I feel about you has nothing to do with what happened in the last week. I’ve been half in love with you for at least ten years. I love you because of everything you’ve been through and survived. I love you because even though you think you’re weak, you’re not. You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever known. And I love you because you haven’t let any of your past—the hurt, the anger, all the disappointments—harden you as so many other people would. You let it shape you into the amazing, talented, incredible woman you are.”

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