A high-pitched whimper echoed from the direction of the bathroom, followed by a scratching sound so startling it cut off Kelsey’s words midsentence.
She whipped around and looked in that direction. The whimper echoed again, but Hunt didn’t wake. Didn’t stir. Didn’t make any indication he’d heard it.
Confused, she quietly crossed the floor and reached for the bathroom door. The second it pushed open a crack, a golden fuzzball tore into the room and raced around her feet.
Kelsey jerked back and swallowed a gasp, then realized . . . it was a puppy. “What the heck?”
She hesitantly moved back into Hunt’s room. The puppy whimpered and darted back to circle her feet. Afraid it was going to start barking and wake Hunt, she reached down and picked it up, cradling it against her chest.
It was adorable. Golden fuzz, blue eyes, and a—she swallowed a laugh as it licked her nose—sandpaper tongue.
“She likes you.”
She sucked in a surprised breath at the sound of Hunt’s voice and glanced to the bed where he was still lying on his side. Except his eyes were open now, locked on her in the dim light, and a ghost of a smile toyed with his tempting lips.
Her mouth went dry, and her heartbeat rushed right back to racing. “I . . .”
Words wouldn’t form. She had no idea what to say.
“She’s a golden. The last of Princess’s pups.”
She blinked, completely confused. “What?”
“My neighbor? On the coast? Remember I told you Princess was their dog and she’d just had puppies? This is one of them. The last from the litter, actually. They called her Three. They named all of the pups in the litter by numbers so they wouldn’t get too attached. She’s only six weeks. Not old enough to leave Princess for good yet, but she will be soon.”
“She . . . Princess . . . she’s okay?” Kelsey stroked the puppy’s soft fur, confused why the dog was here.
“Totally fine. She was sound asleep at the neighbor’s house with the pups when everything went down at my place. Foster was taunting you when he sent that text about her.”
Relief—a relief she hadn’t even known she’d needed—filled her chest. “I’m so happy to hear that. No one told me.”
Silence echoed in the room. A heavy silence she was suddenly afraid to try to break. Why wasn’t he asking her what she was doing here? The puppy wiggled in her arms. And what was he doing with a dog in a hospital room? No way the nurses had allowed this. She had a million questions. She had a million things she needed to say, but she was suddenly deathly afraid to start any topic when she had no idea where it would end up.
“She needs a home, Kels.”
Kelsey blinked again, looking at him still lying on his side in the bed and watching her. He was talking about the pup. “She does? Oh.” She looked down at the puppy, already settling down to sleep against her. “I could take her.”
“Actually, you can’t.”
“Why not?” Now he was completely confusing her. “You just said—”
“Because I already bought her. Only I didn’t buy her for me, I bought her for us.”
Us . . .
That word echoed in her ears, and reflexively, her heart bumped.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said softly. “And the way I see it, if we have a dog we have to share, that’ll prove it to you.”
Oh . . .
“But . . .” Tears blurred her vision. Tears of hope she was almost too afraid to reach out and grasp. “But you told me you didn’t want a dog. That you didn’t want to get attached to one because it wouldn’t live long enough.”
“I was wrong.”
He shifted in the bed, gritting his teeth so he could sit upright, and it was all she could do not to rush right over and help him. “I was wrong to think a dog wasn’t worth the emotional investment. Just as I was wrong to think the same about relationships. I realized that after the week we spent together. I don’t want to go back to being alone. I want you, and this dog, and a million more weeks with you waking up by my side. Nothing that happened with Foster changes that. Your pulling away from me now doesn’t change that. I’m not your ex. What happened to me was not your fault. And I’m never going to let you blame yourself for any of it. So you can take as much time as you want, but just know I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait as long as it takes for you to realize you can’t live without me either. Because I know you can’t. I know you’re head over heels in love with me the same way I’m crazy in love with y—”
All the worry and fear and stress and guilt bubbled right up and over, pushing tears from her eyes and her feet across the floor. She reached the side of his bed and leaned down to kiss him, desperate to touch him and hold him and show him he was right. And he was right there to grab her and pull her close and not let go.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his lips, sinking to one knee so she could sit beside him. “I’m so sorry for everything. I was so scared you’d hate me for what happened that I didn’t know how to tell you I was sorry and . . .”
He brushed the hair back from her eyes and looked up at her. “Don’t you dare apologize. You’re done apologizing. None of what happened was your fault. Do you hear me?”
Her heart swelled. He’d told her he loved her. He’d promised he wouldn’t leave her. She’d been afraid to believe him before, but she wasn’t now. And it wasn’t because of the puppy, though she absolutely loved that he’d given her this gift. It was because in her heart, she’d always known she could believe in him. She’d just been too afraid to trust herself.
“Are you okay?” she whispered. “I’ve been so scared. I thought—”
“I’m fine.” He scooted to the side to make room for her on the mattress. “Better since I found out you’d been coming into my room every night.”
Her cheeks heated. “Who told you that?”
He smirked. “Couple guys I know.”
Her brothers. She shook her head. “They’re playing matchmaker now? They’re such girls.”
He grinned. “They totally are. And you love them for it.”
She did. They had her back. Always would. And she had theirs just as fiercely.
When the puppy grunted, Hunt glanced down at the sleeping bundle of fur in Kelsey’s arms. “So what do you think?”
She didn’t bother to look at the pup. Instead, she focused on the man who hadn’t just protected her, he’d saved her life in more ways than one. “I think . . . no, I know that you are the best thing that ever happened to me.” Holding the puppy tighter, she leaned down toward his lips. “I can’t promise I won’t freak out again. That kind of seems to be my pattern. But I can promise I will never stop loving you, just so long as you never stop loving me back.”
He slid his fingers through her hair and pulled her down for a kiss. “That’s an easy promise to keep. And one you can count on.”
No, she could count on him. He would forever be the one person she could always trust to support her through anything life threw her way. And that made him the most precious gift she’d ever received.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Photo © Curtis Almquist at Almquist Studios
Before topping multiple bestseller lists—including those of the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal—Elisabeth Naughton taught middle school science. A voracious reader, she soon discovered she had a knack for creating stories with a chemistry of their own. The spark turned into a flame, and Naughton now writes full-time. Her books have been nominated for some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, such as the RITA and Golden Heart Awards from Romance Writers of America, the Australian Romance Readers Award, and the Golden Leaf Award. When not dreaming up new stories, Naughton can be found spending time with her husband and three children in their western Oregon home. Protected is the third book in her Deadly Secrets series, following Gone and Repressed, which was a 2017 RITA winner in romantic suspense.
Learn more about Elisabeth at www.ElisabethNaughton
Elisabeth Naughton, Protected