Matt took a slow sip of his beer. “Nope,” he said thoughtfully. “I don’t think I need to.”
“You don’t.” Stephen straightened. “But if you’re worried, you shouldn’t have asked me to come.”
“I’m not worried, and you’ve always been welcome. You know that.”
Yeah. He knew. But the longer he’d stayed away, the harder it was to come back.
He moved from the drafting table to stare out the window. “Look, I know what you’re thinking, and—”
“No. I don’t think you do. Stephen—”
“Well, fuck me. She’s here.” Stephen looked across his brother’s manicured lawn at the newest guest coming down the sidewalk. “I can’t believe she actually came.”
“What?” Matt followed his line of sight. “Who’s here?”
“My date,” Stephen said, surprised at how badly he’d wanted her to come. He was halfway out the door when he heard his brother’s shocked response.
In white pants and a pastel, long-sleeved top, she walked past parked cars, following the curve of the cul-de-sac. Beautiful, sweet, and…not alone.
Stephen was still five yards away when a large man caught up to her. That was bad enough, but when the guy wrapped his hand around her upper arm, he had an instant hell no response. A wave of possessiveness slid down his spine. An emotion that had no place in him, was unwelcome, and surprising, but he sure as hell didn’t want anyone else’s hands on her.
Hannah faced down the stranger and the two of them began a heated discussion. Lucky for him, the guy dropped his hand just as the three of them converged at the end of the sidewalk leading to Matt’s front door. Stephen took in the other man, not quite as tall as he was, but he had bulk that showed through his olive-green army T-shirt.
Stephen reached them and conversation stopped. “Hannah.”
“Hi.” She sent him a somewhat reluctant smile. “This is my brother. Luke.”
Brother. That cooled him a bit.
Hannah introduced him and Stephen took Luke’s hand in a hard grip as each man sized up the other.
They dropped hands and Luke gave his sister a searing glance. “Thanks for the invite, but she’s not staying.”
Stephen didn’t like the tone or the glare.
“He’s right,” Hannah said. “This isn’t a good idea.”
Stephen didn’t take his eyes from hers. “I think it’s a very good idea.”
Hannah held up a shiny pink bag with overflowing ribbon. “I’m sorry. I can’t stay. This is for your niece.”
Stephen didn’t take the gift.
That one word from her brother seemed to convey an entire conversation between them, which pissed him off almost as much as Luke wrapping his fingers around her upper arm. Stephen shifted, aiming to put himself between her and Luke. “Brother or not, you need to take your hand off her arm.”
Luke angled his head and shot Stephen an icy look. “This is a family discussion.”
“Really?” Not backing down, he fired his own right back. “I think she’s old enough to make her own decisions.”
Hannah’s eyes moved between the two of them, obviously uncomfortable.
Luke turned his body to hers. “Hannah. Don’t be an idiot.”
A flash of hurt crossed her face and that bothered Stephen more than anything, but her chin lifted a bit and she straightened.
His brother chose that moment to join their party.
“Matt McKinney.” Matt offered his hand to Luke. “I’m Stephen’s brother. Father of the birthday girl,” he added. “Glad you could come.”
“Luke Walker.” He took Matt’s hand.
“Senior chief, navy,” Matt said, eyeing the visible tattoo on Luke’s upper arm.
Well, wasn’t this special. He eyed Hannah while Matt and Luke exchanged a few get-to-know-yous, where were you stationed, and joint exercises. Then, just when Luke looked like he was gearing up to whisk his sister away, Abby joined them.
“This is my wife, Abby.” Matt slipped his arm around her waist. “Abby, this is Hannah, Stephen’s…friend. And her brother Luke.”
“Hi.” Abby went straight to Hannah. “I’m so glad you could come. You’ll both stay,” she said, gracing Luke with a smile no man could resist. “You and Matt can exchange war stories while the rest of us talk like civilized people.” She gave Matt a wink as she laid a hand on Hannah’s arm. “Let’s go inside, sweetie. I could use some help.”
Luke started to say something to Abby, caught Matt’s eye, and thought better of it.