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Worth the Risk(6)

By´╝ÜClaudia Connor



Which made this whole meeting for drinks thing so far out of character, she didn’t recognize herself. But maybe that was the point. Maybe she needed a little different if she was ever going to be different.

She slid out and climbed the three wide steps to the porch and entered her wooded refuge alone. Funny how just the sound of an animal breathing, the thumping of a tail, and the clicks of doggy nails on wood floor could fill a home. It was dead quiet.

No dog on the shaggy rug under the oak coffee table. No one to shoo off the leather couch. The main room opened into the kitchen, leading her eyes straight to the silver bowls on the floor. She should empty them, put them away. But not yet.

She headed to the shower, trying not to picture Max, and instead pictured the handsome man who’d wanted to have dinner with her. She hadn’t felt her usual heart-racing panic. Not so much of the irrational fear she was working to overcome but hadn’t quite managed yet. Instead there’d been a flutter in her stomach, a heat and tingle when her small hand had slipped into his large one. Warm and gentle for such a big man.

She showered, replaying the rules her brothers had drilled into her over the years, assuring herself she wasn’t breaking any. She’d broken a rule twelve years ago and it had nearly ruined all their lives. She stepped out of the hot water, wrapped her hair tightly in a towel, and piled it on top of her head. The steam-covered mirror blocked her reflection, but still, she closed her eyes as she dried her body.

She didn’t feel the marks over a decade old, didn’t feel the crisscrossing pink and purple lines. She inhaled the scent of vanilla and lavender lotion and pretended just for a moment they weren’t there. That she was normal. Inside and out.

But she wasn’t, and they were there.

Her brothers thought they needed to remind her to be careful and cautious. They didn’t. All she had to do was look at herself. Ugly. Marked.

She knew what a knife could do. What a man could do. How he could strike and slice and break your body until he broke your soul.

After a short drive into town, Hannah stopped at the valet in front of Reno’s, heart pounding, damp palms gripping the steering wheel. Maybe she wasn’t ready. And she might have slipped right on through the parking lot and straight back home, but for the baby-faced attendant who opened her door and offered his hand.

Just inside the restaurant, one she’d only heard of in terms of how impossible it was to get a table, she was greeted by a pretty little hostess in a black, knee-length cocktail dress. “Good evening. Welcome to Reno’s.”

“Thank you.” She wiped her hands on her silky black pants. She didn’t own dresses, so this and a flowing top would have to do. Zach bought her clothes for Christmas, or rather his current girlfriend helped him make online purchases. Rarely needed, but tonight she was grateful. She’d added sandals with tiny gems and for once left her hair down.

“A table?”

“I’m um…meeting someone, but I…” She looked past the girl into the elegant bar area.

“Mr. McKinney?”

“What?”

“You’re meeting Stephen McKinney?”

How could she know that? Had Stephen told her? Described her? “Yes. I am.”

“He’s waiting at the bar. Just through there.” She gestured with her hand. “Or I can get him if you’d like.”

So he came here often enough to be known. And the woman in front of her looked all too eager to get him herself. Probably not a murderer then. Probably. “No. I’ll find him. Thank you.”

Excitement warred with nervous energy as she moved into the darkened space. Delicate glasses clinked among conversations and laughter, soft light and shiny people. Heads turned, casually taking in the stranger entering their midst.

She spotted Stephen easily. He stood at least half a head above the rest, looking completely at ease, his forearm resting against the bar, a glass of clear liquid in his hand. Nerves fluttered and she stared, undecided which way to go, advance or retreat. Then he looked up. His hot gaze locked with hers and he crossed the room like a cat approaching prey. He was wearing black dress pants as he had this morning, his white shirt revealing a hint of dark hair at his open collar. Absolutely lethal.

“Hi.” He leaned in, brushed his lips against her cheek. “You came.”

“Yes.” The subtle scent of aftershave combined with the sheer size of him and the silky caress of his freshly shaven cheek did funny things to her stomach. And other parts.

A woman in a backless top bumped him in the crowded space and turned. “Stephen.” Her voice was low and sultry, her dark eyes flared with recognition. She casually sipped her tiny purple drink with fruity things floating on top and took in Hannah over the rim. Easily dismissing her, she swung a faintly amused gaze back to Stephen. “I see now how busy you were.”

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