Darcy Burke

Excerpt: A Rogue to Ruin

Book 3: The Pretenders

Prologue

Late February 1819

Scandal had nothing to do with following the rules and everything to do with getting caught. This was the code by which Anne Pemberton lived and the rationale she used to spend two hours every week tucked into a corner at Hatchard’s with a veil over her face while her “chaperone” was elsewhere.

Where that was, Anne never asked, nor did she want to know. She certainly wasn’t going to contribute to her godfather’s daughter—her godsister?—getting caught.

Anne also didn’t care. Not when it allowed her a reprieve from the demands of her parents and an escape into another world. Not the bookstore, but the books themselves. Though she was a fast reader, she wasn’t able to finish a story in one sitting. Perhaps she ought to stretch her visits to three hours. Would Deborah mind?

Distracted briefly from the book resting on her lap and tucked beneath her long veil, Anne refocused her energy. The Fast of St. Magdalen was not as enthralling as she’d hoped, which was unfortunate since The Hungarian Brothers was one of her most favorite stories.

“Back again, eh?”

The masculine voice invaded Anne’s mind and space. She closed the book on her forefinger and turned her head slightly toward whomever had interrupted her.

There were two young men, so she didn’t know which had spoken. Both were of average height and girth, dressed in rather average costumes, and in possession of utterly…average features. Though she supposed the one on the right had a rather long nose.

Anne chose to ignore them. Turning her head back, she reopened her book and found her place once more.

One of them coughed. Then they moved. Their legs were now visible beyond her book. Though Anne had taken care to angle her chair somewhat toward the corner, she’d stopped short of sitting actually in the corner for fear that would look bizarre and potentially invite notice when she was doing everything in her ability to escape it.

“What are you hiding beneath your veil?” one of them asked.

Anne looked up from the book and scowled at them, though they wouldn’t be able to see her expression. “A hideous visage,” she snapped. “Now, if you’ll be on your way, I prefer my solitude.”

“Hideous?” Long-nose glanced askance at his friend. “Sounds intriguing. I think we should have a look.”

“And I think you should be on your way.” The suggestion, low and deceptively pleasant, came from a third man. His tone was deceptive because the look in his eyes was unmistakably malevolent—even Anne could see it through the gauze of her veil.

She shivered.

Regular-nose pivoted and looked the new man, who was incredibly tall and impeccably dressed. “Just who are you, her father?”

“Who I am is of no concern to you, as is this woman. Move along before I’m forced to help you do so.” He took a step toward the younger men.

Whether it was due to his imposing height or his menacing glare or his ominous tone or the nasty scar across his lower lip and chin that marred his otherwise strikingly handsome face, the men abruptly walked away.

Anne exhaled. “Thank you.” She eyed him warily. “What do you want?”

“Nothing. It seemed they were bothering you. I only sought to provide assistance.”

True relief made her breathe even easier. “I appreciate that. I believed a corner at Hatchard’s to be a safe place to avoid interruption.”

“Particularly when you’ve angled yourself away from everyone and you’re wearing a veil.” The edge of his mouth ticked up, but only briefly. So quickly, in fact, that she wondered if she’d been mistaken. “Would you like me to remain? I won’t disturb you.”

“Are you offering to be my bodyguard?” Anne turned so she faced him.

“I suppose I am.”

“I should decline, but if you have a book to read…” She inclined her head toward the one in his hand. “You’re welcome to join me. Is there another chair?” She looked about.

“I’ll fetch one.” He returned a few moments later, hefting a chair by the back with one hand. Setting it near hers so that he mostly blocked her from the rest of the room, he sat down.

Not only was he tall, but he was muscular in a thoroughly masculine way that differed from most men she’d met. Not that she’d met terribly many as of yet. Her Season was just getting under way.

Through her veil, she made out the aquiline planes of his face, the piercing blue of his eyes, and the lush sweep of his lips. The lower one was bisected by a scar that cut down into his chin. It was pale, indicating the injury had occurred some time ago.

“That must have hurt,” she said without thinking. “My apologies. I shouldn’t have said that.”

He touched his mouth and chin, his gloved finger sweeping down over the scar. “This? Yes. But it happened a lifetime ago.”

A lifetime was a very long measure. But she suspected he was quite a bit older than her twenty-two years. He was at least thirty, if not older. Aside from his appearance, he carried a weight and…almost weariness about him that suggested lived experience. Anne possessed none of those things.

He opened his book. Apparently, they were just going to read. And why wouldn’t they? That was what she’d come to do, and she’d invited him to join her. Except now that he was here, she was consumed with curiosity and something more visceral. It was as if she couldn’t look away from him.

“Are you going to read?” he asked, his deep voice settling into her with a delicious comfort that was akin to burrowing into a warm, soft bed.

“Yes.” She tipped her gaze back to her book and tried to find her place. Eventually, she got there; however as she listened to him turn one page and then two, she realized she wasn’t reading but just staring at the words.

And stealing covert glances in his direction.

This went on for some time. Anne began to turn pages, but she still wasn’t reading them. She wanted to talk to him, but every time she started to, she pressed her lips together.

“You aren’t reading, are you?” He didn’t look up from his book.

“How could you tell?”

“You just turned three pages in such rapid succession that I must question the speed at which you can read. Especially since prior to that, you were hardly turning pages at all.”

Anne smiled beneath her veil. He’d been paying as much attention to her as she was to him. “I’d rather talk to you. Do you come here to read often? Most people come to purchase a book—or books—and leave.”

“That is what I typically do, yes,” he said rather drily. “You come here to read, however?”

“Every week. Or at least, every week since I arrived in London a month ago.”

“You’re here for the Season?”

“I am. Are you?”

“I live here. All the time.”

“Do you like it? I find London exciting and wonderful—not that I’ve been allowed to see much of it.” She knew she sounded wistful and perhaps disgruntled.

“What would you like to see?”

It seemed a genuine question. Nevertheless, she asked, “You truly want to know?”

“I do.”

Anne considered what to reveal and ultimately decided to be honest. If he judged her poorly, so be it. “Covent Garden. I love to watch people, and it sounds like a fascinating place to do so.”

He tipped his head to the side, his eyes narrowing slightly. “You are here for the Season and your costume is of high quality, so you must be a Society miss. You’re wearing a veil, the reason for which is apparently due to some hideousness. However, if you are here for the Season, I can’t imagine there’s anything hideous about you.”

There was no stopping the blush that rushed to Anne’s face, but he couldn’t see it anyway.

“Yet you are hiding beneath a veil by yourself—apparently every week—at Hatchard’s. Where is your chaperone?”

“I don’t need one.” She leaned toward him and lowered her voice. “You see, I’ve a bodyguard instead.”

His lips spread slowly into a wide grin. “You’ve a bit of sauce,” he whispered. “I like that.”

Anne’s breath caught as she stared into his eyes. He looked back at her, but with the veil between them, it wasn’t the same. “What about you? You are also finely dressed. Have I netted an earl as my bodyguard?”

His gaze was unwavering as his smile faded. “You have not.” There was an edge to his answer that sent a shiver down her spine. “I think perhaps we should remain anonymous—since you are expending such effort to hide your identity.”

“People frown on Society misses who don’t have chaperones and only bodyguards.”

“They do. Your effort is commendable. You will be back here next week, then?”

“I shall.”

“Wear your simplest gown. We’ll go to Covent Garden.”

“I only have two hours.” Anne didn’t want to explain further. She liked the idea of anonymity almost as much as she liked the idea of him taking her to Covent Garden. A forbidden excitement embraced her.

“It will be a swift tour, then,” he said. “But I promise it will be enjoyable.”

Of that, Anne had no doubt.

#

One week later

After meeting at Hatchard’s, Lord Bodyguard—which was the name Anne had given the gentleman—escorted Anne into his cabriolet and drove them to Covent Garden. Rather, near to Covent Garden, since they left the vehicle in the charge of Lord Bodyguard’s tiger while they made their way to the square.

“I think I was right to call you Lord Bodyguard,” Anne said as she took his arm.

He turned his head, his brows elevating in surprise. “Lord Bodyguard?”

She arched a shoulder. “You seem wealthy.”

“Not all nobles are wealthy,” he said with a slight laugh. “And not all wealthy men are noble.”

“You’re also imposing.” And intelligent and witty.

“Not all nobles are imposing.” The disdain in his tone spoke volumes. “I told you I wasn’t an earl.”

She waved her hand before he could respond. “I don’t care. You’re firmly Lord Bodyguard in my mind.”

He flashed a brief smile. “Then I shall be Lord Bodyguard.”

“What do you call me?”

“I don’t.”

Anne felt a prick of disappointment.

“What should I call you?” he asked as they walked into the square.

Her attention was instantly drawn to the people bustling about, the booths and wagons selling produce, food, and goods, the façade of St. Paul’s Church. They were utterly quiet as he squired her around the square. She took in every sight and sound, but by the time they reached St. Paul’s, she was beyond weary of her veil.

Pushing the gauze up, she flipped it back over her the brim of her hat and exhaled. “Much better.”

“Much.”

Anne turned her head to see him staring at her, his gaze shining with appreciation. She couldn’t look away. His eyes, a brilliant blue, were the most unusual she’d ever beheld. There was a bright orange mark in the right one, as if there was a fire burning within him that couldn’t be contained.

“Miss Dazzling,” he said softly, answering the question he’d posed several minutes before.

Dazzling. She’d been called beautiful, charming, graceful, but never dazzling.

“I think I’d better be Missus. For appearances’ sake.”

He smiled. “To be clear, I won’t be calling you that out loud.”

Just in his mind, as she called him Lord Bodyguard in hers. She tightened her hold on his arm. “What shall we do?”

“Finish exploring the square, and then I’m taking you for oysters.”

Anne had heard from her older sister that some men ate oysters daily to support their reputation as lotharios. She looked at him askance as they continued their circuit. “Why oysters?”

“Because that’s what the restaurant is known for. Have you had them?”

“I have not. I must admit they look rather disgusting.”

He paused and turned to look at her. “Do you trust me?”

She pressed her fingertips into his sleeve. “I do.”

#

Two weeks later

“What manner of sea delicacy do you have in store for me today? I do hope it’s better than last week’s caviar,” Anne asked as they walked along bustling Paternoster Row near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Booksellers and publishers lined the street.

Lord Bodyguard sent her a warm, teasing smile. “You liked the oysters on our first excursion.”

She squeezed his arm. “I did, but the caviar in Cheapside last week was not to my taste.” She pulled a face. The rest of the afternoon had been wonderful. Cheapside was a bustling area with all manner of shops and so many people. Anne could have gleefully gone there again this week.

Before she’d met Lord Bodyguard, she’d looked forward to her quiet reading time at Hatchard’s. But the time she spent with him was far more thrilling. This wasn’t just the highlight of her week. Recalling their afternoons together and anticipating their next adventure had come to consume almost every one of her thoughts.

With each meeting, they revealed more of themselves, but not too much. While she still didn’t know his name, she knew he loved books and was building a library in his new house, did not like to ride, which had shocked her, and that oysters were among his favorite things to eat. She’d been surprised to find she didn’t hate them, but that was perchance because of how much fun she’d had with him. Learning to suck the oyster out of the shell had taken effort and patience, and the process had come with a great deal of laughter, as well as a thrilling sense of awareness. Just recalling the way Lord Bodyguard had watched her, his lids heavy and his eyes dark, made her shiver.

Another gentleman waved at Lord Bodyguard from one of the publishing houses they passed. They’d already stopped to speak with two booksellers.

“You spend a good portion of time on this street,” she remarked. “Your love of books is perhaps greater than you let on.”

At odds with his strong, confident personality, he gave her a sheepish look that she found incredibly endearing. “Guilty. I have endeavored to become familiar with as many booksellers and publishers as possible.”

“For your library?”

He nodded. “I will have new literary works before anyone else in London.”

“My goodness, that’s exciting, isn’t it? Is your goal driven by your love of books or the desire to be first?”

He let out a sharp laugh. “You’ve a keen skill of observation. How did you realize I’m competitive?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t. But now I’m very curious.”

“I’ve had to work very hard to achieve my place in this world,” he said softly.

Before she could ask why that was, he gestured toward the Chapter Coffee House. “Shall we stop in for a coffee?”

“I’ve never been to a coffee house. How can I refuse?” She pulled on his arm, drawing him to stop. The pavement was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast, and another gentleman walked toward them.

Lord Bodyguard edged closer to her to give the man more room. Consequently, they stood chest to chest. She looked up into his captivating gaze, and her breath caught.

His other hand gently clasped her hip, holding her as the man moved past them. Lord Bodyguard did not immediately back away, nor did she want him to. Indeed, she could have stood like that all afternoon. It was as if the world had been shuttered out, leaving the two of them alone in this riveting proximity.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “For taking me places I could only imagine.”

“It’s my pleasure.” He took his hand from her hip, but then clasped her fingers and brought them to his lips. His eyes never left hers as he pressed a kiss to the back of her glove.

Anne shivered. Not with cold or dread, but with something she’d never felt before—desire. She’d never been kissed, and she wanted Lord Bodyguard to be the first.

They continued to the coffee house, moving more closely together than they had before. He escorted her inside, where they found a table in the back corner. He always sought to keep them away from the center of attention, which she appreciated. It was almost impossible that anyone in this area would recognize her, especially since she was new to town, but it was wise to be careful.

“This is also an inn,” he said as he settled her into a chair before taking the one next to her. He looked toward the door, while she was angled toward the wall, which kept her face averted from the main part of the common room. “Writers from out of town stay here when they come to London.”

“You know Paternoster Row very well.”

“I admit I love it. The last day of the month is Magazine Day. That’s when periodicals go on sale, and it draws quite a crowd. For someone who likes to watch people, you’d enjoy it.”

“Then I will make a point of returning at the end of the month. Too bad it’s not a Thursday afternoon.”

“I could still bring you. Or meet you here. Actually, if you come, you should dress like a man. Then you’d blend right in. There are far more men on this street than women, so you tend to stand out.”

The idea excited Anne. But where would she get a set of men’s clothing? “Could I pass for a gentleman?”

He eyed her carefully, his gaze moving down over her. He tipped his head to see around the corner of the table. “It would take some effort, but given your petite size, you could probably pass for a boy. If you bound your, ah, chest.” His gaze jerked to hers, his eyes widening slightly. He abruptly stood. “I’ll fetch coffee.”

Anne watched him as he went to the counter. He was always superbly dressed, from his tall ebony hat to his crisp white cravat to the molded fit of his dark brown pantaloons tucked into his black Wellington boots. His blue wool coat was expertly tailored, hugging the muscles of his shoulders and arms. Seeing him never failed to make her heart skip or her breath catch. Even now, just watching him, she felt a rush of excitement, of anticipation.

He returned with two cups of coffee and set them on the table. Retaking his chair, he offered her a slight smile. “I must apologize for my comment before.”

Anne tried to think of what he’d said—her brain had become quite transfixed on him. “Oh, about my chest?” She glanced down at herself, then looked at him and realized he’d followed her gaze.

He snapped his attention from her to the coffee. “I asked for a weak brew for your first taste. Coffee can be quite strong.”

She found his awkwardness sweet. “You didn’t have to apologize.”

“I shouldn’t have said something so…intimate.” One of his blond brows arched into a sharp peak. “Perhaps we’ve become too familiar.”

“I don’t think so.” She put her hand on his arm. He looked down at where she touched him, then into her eyes. The moment stretched until she finally said, “Now, show me how to drink coffee.”

Withdrawing her hand from his arm, she tamped down the desire that was swirling within her once more. She reached for her cup.

“Do you really need me to show you?” he asked wryly.

“I suppose not.” Lifting the vessel, she put her lips to the edge and carefully sampled the dark brew. An intense bitterness snapped across her tongue. She set the cup down rather hard, nearly sloshing coffee over the rim. It was a bit of a struggle to swallow it down. She ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth and backs of her teeth. “That’s weak?”

He lifted her cup and sniffed. “Yes.” Handing her his cup, he said, “Smell this and tell me what you think.”

She inhaled and immediately turned her head to cough and sputter. “Fine, mine’s weak.”

Suppressing a grin, he sipped his coffee before returning his cup to the table. “It’s somewhat of an acquired taste.”

She wouldn’t have cared if he’d given her dirt in a cup. Nothing could detract from their time together. “I want to come to Magazine Day,” she said. “I’ll make the necessary plans for a man’s costume and a reason to go out.” She’d have to ask her chaperone—her godfather’s daughter—if they could move their appointment that week from Thursday to Wednesday.

“You’re certain?”

“Absolutely.”

The orange mark in his eye seemed to glow brighter as he stared at her. His gaze suddenly shifted over her shoulder. His jaw tightened, and an almost imperceptible shadow fell over his features.

He abruptly stood. “Come.” Moving behind her chair, he helped her rise.

“What about our coffee?”

“I know you don’t really want it,” he whispered next to her ear, eliciting another shiver along her spine.

He slid his arm around her waist and guided her toward the back of the common room. They moved through a doorway into a narrow corridor. He stepped in front of her and took her hand.

A prick of alarm shot through her. “Where are we going?”

He looked back over his shoulder and past her. “Someone I don’t want to see came into the shop. We’ll leave through the back.” He continued forward, passing closed doors on either side.

“You seem to know where you’re going,” she said.

“I’m good at pretending.”

His words made her stop. She tugged on his hand. “Is that what we’ve been doing?”

He pivoted, and she moved with him until her back was against the wall. With more than a foot of height advantage, he towered over her. “What would we have been pretending? I am not a lord. I made that clear from the start.”

He’d made it clear he wasn’t an earl, but she wouldn’t quibble. Now that he was so close to her and the space was dim and small, she knew what she’d said was foolish. The time she spent with him was the most real she could be. He didn’t expect her to be a perfect young miss or to conquer Society and be the success her older sister wasn’t.

“I don’t pretend with you,” she said softly. She also didn’t tell him the complete truth, such as her name, and neither did he totally reveal himself to her. “You see who I am. Don’t you?”

“Yes.” His answer thrummed in her chest.

“And I see you.”

“No.” The word came hard and fast. “You see what I want you to see.” He put his palm on the wall above her head and to her left as he pressed his body against hers. He tipped his head down and looked into her eyes. “What do you see?”

Anne lifted her hand and touched his cheek. She glided her fingers down to his jaw. “I see a man. A man who makes me feel important and valued. A man I want.”

A soft but guttural sound lodged in his throat. “You can’t know what that means.”

“Can’t I?” She slipped her hand between his collar and his neck and moved it back to his nape. Pulling him toward her, she stood on her toes and touched her lips to his.

What on earth was she doing? This was utter madness. It was one thing to traipse all over East London in a stranger’s company, but to kiss him?

Only, he wasn’t a stranger. She might not know his name, but she knew him—his character, at least.

And now she was kissing him.

He clasped her waist and pulled his lips from hers but didn’t retreat. “Brazen,” he whispered against her mouth. “Beautiful.”

She looked up into his eyes. “Kiss me. Please?”

“I should decline, but fortunately for you, my judgment is questionable.” He slid his handbetween her and the wall, flattening his palm against the small of her back. Holding her fast, he pressed against her as his other hand cupped the side of her neck, his thumb stroking along her jaw. “Ready?” At her nod, he added, “Remember, I am not who you think me to be.”

His mouth crushed over hers, his hands pressing into her, capturing her for the onslaught of his lips and tongue. For that’s what it was—a tumult of desire and desperation that echoed her own. She had no idea what he was doing as his tongue slid into her mouth, but she wanted every part of it.

Sensation soared and spiraled, igniting little fires of need throughout her body. But it was the lush beauty of his kiss that captivated her. He tasted of that bitter coffee but there was something else, a masculine flavor and swagger that threatened to sweep her away if the sudden wobbliness of her legs meant anything.

His tongue swept against hers, exploring and teasing, provoking her to respond. She met him with a gentle thrust, and it must have been right because his thumb pressed into her cheek just in front of her ear.

His body was big and solid against her, making her feel both small and secure in his embrace. She never wanted to leave it. Or him.

The kiss gentled, slowing until he pulled back. But he didn’t move away. “That was unwise.”

She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. “That was heavenly. Please do it again.”

The edges of his mouth curved up. “What am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“Anything you like.” She trailed her fingertips along the underside of his jaw toward his throat.

“Brazen temptress.” He abruptly let her go and clasped her hand, leading her to a door. Once they were outside in a narrow alleyway, he wound around the row of buildings and back onto Paternoster Row. “Time to return to Hatchard’s.”

Anne sighed. “Pity.”

They walked in silence for a moment. Anne worked to organize her jumbled thoughts—and tamp down the persistent desire she felt toward him. “Would it be bad if we told each other who we are?”

“Yes.” He didn’t pause or even slow. “I meant what I said before—I am not the man you think me to be. If you hope I can court you, know that I cannot. Ever. I should not have kissed you.”

Anne hadn’t realized until that moment that she had been hoping for something. Perhaps not courtship, but if not that, what? Was she hoping he would tup her in the back corridor of a coffee shop? The idea sent a shameful heat blazing through her. “Then what are we doing together?”

“I don’t know.”

They went silent again, and it wasn’t until he steered her toward his parked cabriolet that she finally stopped, tugging on his arm to do the same.

She looked up at him and put her palm against his chest. “I don’t know what we’re doing, but it’s the thing I look forward to the most. I like you.” I love you. Yes, that was what she wanted to say, but wouldn’t. “I like our adventures. I don’t want them to stop.”

He stared past her, his pupils narrowing and the orange in his right eye becoming larger. “I don’t either.” His gaze moved to hers. “But there will come a time when this—us—must.”

Us.

How she loved that tiny word.

“Then I suppose we’ll have to make the most of every moment.” She stood on her toes and brushed her lips against his. “When we get to the cabriolet, I’m going to kiss you again because I can. Prepare yourself.”

He chuckled low in his chest, his eyes glittering. “I’m learning that I’m not sure I can ever adequately prepare myself for you.”

Pleasure flushed through her. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“I meant it at as such.” He put his hand over hers, which was still against his chest. “Be warned that I plan to kiss you back.”

Anne couldn’t wait.

#

She was late.

More than a half hour.

Rafe Blackwell stood across the street from Hatchard’s, just outside the Burlington Arcade, which had opened only a few days prior. His cabriolet was parked nearby, his tiger in command of the vehicle so they could quickly be on their way to Aldersgate Street.

She was never late.

Had something terrible prevented her from coming? Perhaps she was ill or hurt. The thought sent a shaft of stark panic piercing straight through him. And that scared him. Four years ago, he’d promised himself that he would never, ever open himself up to such heartache again.

Yet here he was, waiting for a slip of a woman who made his heart race in a way he’d never expected. Not after what he’d endured—what he’d found and lost.

After another quarter hour, he accepted that she wasn’t coming. Muttering a curse, he walked into the arcade. London’s elite mingled amongst the expensive shops. He wandered into a jeweler and browsed the display cases, stopping when his gaze fell on a cameo carved from oyster shell. He instantly thought of Mrs. Dazzling, because the woman’s curls rioted about her shoulders. Mrs. Dazzling’s hair didn’t quite do that, but one or more of her blonde locks often went astray, despite her best attempts to keep them tamed beneath her hat.

And of course the oyster shell reminded him of her. Would he ever eat another oyster without thinking of their time together?

Without indulging much thought, he sought the attention of an employee. “I’d like to purchase that brooch.”

“Aphrodite?” the middle-aged man asked.

Rafe nearly smiled. Of course it was Aphrodite. He’d always been drawn to depictions of the goddess, though he couldn’t exactly say why. “Yes.”

The man withdrew it from the case with a smile. “What a lovely gift. I’ll wrap it up for you.”

Rafe asked the price and paid the man. It wasn’t a gift. In fact, he didn’t even know why he was buying it.

Because you can.

Perhaps that was it. He was a man of considerable means now. To be able to walk into this new arcade, built specifically for Society’s most prestigious, and not be regarded as an interloper was an achievement.

Nevertheless, he wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps he never would be.

The attendant returned with the brooch wrapped in a box. Rafe tucked it into his coat and left the shop.

Frustration and disappointment warred within him as he made his way back to Piccadilly. He couldn’t help but look toward Hatchard’s, as if he’d see her waiting for him outside. She wasn’t. The depth of his emotions was unsettling. He’d been amusing himself with her, or so he’d thought.

Hell, he’d let his guard down spectacularly. He almost never did that, with two distinct exceptions: his sister and Eliza. And both of them were gone from his life, proof positive that he should never let people close.

There were reasons he held himself apart. Self-protection. Unworthiness. Keeping others safe. He was a risk that shouldn’t be taken.

He was broken.

It was good she hadn’t come. Good for him, but even better for her.

That the discontent he typically carried was now magnified troubled him, but the sensation would fade. She’d been a welcome distraction, and now it was time to let her go. It should be simple. He’d become a master of letting things—people—go. A sharp, quick press on his chest told him otherwise.

Perhaps she’d been more than a distraction.

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