I’d be fighting tonight, but it wouldn’t be with some guy who was getting too close to Amanda. It would be with her brother. He’d been watching me closely, and I’d just given him a very good reason to suspect something. But it had been a choice between letting the girl paw all over me in front of Amanda and watching her face fall, or having my best friend take a swing at me, so I was going with the ass kicking.
I couldn’t let her walk out of here like that. She’d been upset and about to bolt. I wasn’t going to let that happen.
“What are you doing?” she asked as I pulled her into my arms once we were in the mass of moving bodies. Hopefully, far enough in that Marcus couldn’t see us. Although there was a good chance he was right behind us.
“Dancing with you,” I replied, slipping my hands down over the curve of her hips.
She smiled. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
I glanced back over my shoulder to see if Marcus was barreling down on us. Coast was still clear. I turned back to Amanda. “You were about to leave,” I told her.
Her face pinched into a frown. “Yeah, well, I’d seen more than I could stomach.”
I pulled her closer to me and bent my head to whisper in her ear. “I’m only interested in you. If you’d left, I’d have chased your sexy ass down.”
She laughed, slipped a hand up my chest, then twined it behind my neck. “I’d have let you catch me. You wouldn’t have had to try real hard.”
I was ready to haul her out of here and get her alone. But that wasn’t going to happen until I faced one big hurdle.
“I’m gonna have to talk to Marcus about this.”
Her smile fell. “I know.”
I wanted to kiss her and reassure her, but I’d pushed it far enough. There was a good chance Marcus, me, or both of us could end up in the emergency room if I gave in to that urge.
“He’s gonna be upset,” she said.
I laughed. “No, baby. He’s gonna be pissed. So damn pissed he’s gonna go for my throat.”
Her hands fisted in my hair. What was she going to do, try to hold me here?
“Maybe we don’t have to tell him. I can learn to deal with the girls.”
No, she couldn’t, and I sure as hell couldn’t deal with the guys. There was no hiding that. When that dickwad had stepped in front of her, I’d been one-track-minded. I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought. I just wanted him to move. If he’d touched her, it would have been a lot worse.
“I want guys to know you’re with me. I don’t like them getting close.”
She giggled and pressed against me again. “Well, at least no one was hanging all over me. You had a girl making out with your back.”
I eased both my hands down over her butt and squeezed it gently, causing her to laugh louder. “If he’d touched you, things would have gone down a lot differently.”
“Oh, really? How so?”
She was teasing me. It was easy to forget we weren’t alone when she looked up at me like that.
“I’d have beat. His. Ass.”
A hand gripped my shoulder. It was too big to be a female’s, and the hold it had on me meant Marcus had finally come after me. Amanda’s eyes went wide, and she started shaking her head at him.
“I got this. It’ll be okay,” I assured her. She dropped her hands from my neck and grabbed on to my arm tightly.
“Outside. Now,” Marcus said in a loud, angry snarl. Oh yeah. He was pissed. “Let him go, Amanda,” Marcus snapped at her.
“Don’t talk to her that way.” I raised my voice and got right back in his face. I understood he was mad, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to take it out on her.
“Outside. Now,” he repeated.
I looked back at Amanda as Marcus stalked toward the door. She was holding on to me so tight her fingernails were digging into my arm. “Stay here,” I told her, and she shook her head.
“No way,” she yelled over the crowd. I started moving over the crowd with her holding on to my arm. She was going to have to let me go. Marcus was only going to get more furious if she kept holding on to me like this.
“Ah, fuck. What the hell have you done?” Rock said as he stepped in front of us just before we reached the door.
“Move, Rock,” I said, pushing past him.
“Please, God, tell me you didn’t”—he paused and looked over at Amanda—“do what I think you did,” he finished.
“This isn’t your business. Just let me go talk to Marcus,” I replied.
Rock let out a hard laugh. “He ain’t planning on talking to you. He’s planning on whooping your ass and then locking his sister up in her bedroom for the rest of her life. I just hope he ain’t got a gun on him.”
Amanda’s grip on me tightened. I wasn’t sure if it was because she was worried about Marcus hurting me or keeping us apart. I’d never fought with Marcus before, so I wasn’t real sure who was gonna come out of this one on top, but I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let him keep Amanda from me.
“Manda, girl, you need to stay inside with Trisha,” Rock said, reaching out to get Amanda’s arm. “Ain’t no reason for you to go out there. Let go of Preston before Marcus sees you clinging to him and blows up.”
“Don’t. Touch. Her.” I clipped out, trying real hard not to jerk her away from him.
“Chill the f**k out. I’m trying to keep her from seeing you and Marcus beat each other’s heads in. Ain’t something she needs to see.”
I took a deep breath and looked down at her. “You want to go with Trisha, Manda?”
She shook her head and squeezed me tighter.
“I’m not making her leave me. Besides, neither one of us will let her get hurt.”
Rock shook his head and sighed. “What were you thinking?” he asked. “She’s Marcus’s little sister. You could screw around with anyone else. Why did you mess with his sister?”
I didn’t care that Rock was the size of a bear and built like a brick wall. He wasn’t going to lump Amanda in with any other girl I’d ever slept with. I stepped up until I was in his face. “Never talk about her like that again. She is not someone I’m screwing around with.”
I swung the door open and walked outside with Amanda still attached to me.
“Maybe you should have been nicer to Rock and brought him out here with you,” she said, walking as closely to me as possible.
“I don’t need Rock. It’s gonna be okay. But he’s right. You need to let go of me. This ain’t gonna help Marcus’s temper.”
She shook her head, and I gave up.
Marcus was pacing in front of his truck. When he saw us, he stopped and his hands fisted at his sides.
“Let go of him, Amanda,” he ordered as we approached him.
“No, Marcus. Listen to me. You don’t understand. You need to calm down and let me explain.”
“I don’t need an explanation. I’ve known Preston since we were kids. I’ve seen it all from him. Enough to know that he isn’t the kind of guy a girl like you needs to be hanging on to and defending. You don’t know him, Amanda. I do.”
“Yes, I do! I know a lot about him, and you have no idea what is going on here. I started this. He ran from me for months. He pushed me away, and I just kept on coming back. And he is not treating me the way you seem to think he is.”
“She didn’t chase me,” I said. I couldn’t stand to listen to her tell him she’d come after me so hard and I’d just given in. That wasn’t the way this had happened at all.
“I didn’t think she did,” Marcus replied in a deadly calm voice.
“Yes, I did! I even took advantage of him when he was drunk one night,” Amanda said, stepping in front of me.
“He was completely drunk, and I came on to him. He doesn’t even remember it. He tried so hard to keep me at arm’s length. He was nice to me, but he kept telling me no. Then his sister got sick and I ran after him to his Jeep and went with him. She is so sweet and little, Marcus. We took care of her together, and then things just happened. I finally got past his walls. He let me in. Don’t ruin this for me. I’m in love with him.”
Marcus reached for Amanda and jerked her away from in front of me. His fist was planted firmly in my face before I could wrap my head around the fact that she’d just said she loved me.
“You sorry-ass motherfucker!” Marcus roared, and jerked me up by my collar before his fist connected with my face again.
I could hear Amanda’s screams in the distance. But my eyesight was blurry and my head felt foggy. I shook it and raised my hands to block any more attacks while I tried to stop my world from spinning.
“Marcus, NO!” Amanda was crying. My head cleared up real fast. This was making her cry. I didn’t want her to cry.
When his fist came at me this time, I blocked it and shoved him hard in the chest to get him to back off me. Hitting him would upset Amanda more, but I couldn’t let him beat the shit out of me either.
“I trusted you. You’re my best friend. How could you screw around with my little sister? She thinks she loves you,” Marcus roared. “She doesn’t even know you. Tell her, Preston. Tell her the shit you’ve done.”
“Shut up!” I yelled. “You got your hits in. She’s upset. I’m not going to hit you and upset her more.” I reached up with my arm to wipe the blood that was trickling out of my nose. Amanda ran past her brother and barreled into my chest.
“Dammit!” Marcus growled.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Amanda cried against my chest. Seeing her like this was making me crazy. Could he not see he was doing to her?
“Give me a minute,” I barked at him. “Let me calm her down first. She needs reassurance we aren’t gonna kill each other. Can’t you see that?”
I bent my head and cupped Amanda’s face so I could look down at her. My left eye was swelling closed, but I could still see her tear-streaked face. I hated seeing her like this. If it wouldn’t make things worse, I’d take a few swings at her stupid-ass brother for making her cry.
“I’m okay. I won’t let him hit me anymore. He caught me off guard.”
She loved me. Her words replayed in my head again. How could someone as f**king sweet as Amanda Hardy love me?
“I just want to go. I need to get you some ice, and you’re bleeding.” She hiccupped.
“I know. I’ll let you do both those things, but first let me deal with him, okay?”
She wrapped both her arms around my chest and held on tight. This was her way of protecting me. No one had ever protected me.
“Okay, I’ve seen enough,” came Rock’s voice from behind me. “Back off, Marcus.”
“It’s my sister he’s screwing with, Rock. Don’t tell me to back off.”
“Yeah, that’s why I let you beat his face in. I thought the same thing.” Rock stepped in between us. He looked back at me. His gaze dropped to Amanda, then lifted back up to my face. “This is different.”
“He doesn’t do different,” Marcus spat out. “She’s my little sister. I’m supposed to protect her. I’ve always protected her. I can’t let him near her. He isn’t good enough.”
The pain at hearing words I already knew were true thrown in my face by one of the only people who I had thought accepted me, flaws and all, was hard.
Amanda turned her head around to face her brother. “Don’t you dare say that. Just SHUT UP, Marcus.”
Rock waved his hand in our direction. “You see that? You ever seen him hold on to someone like that? He didn’t fight back—not because he couldn’t, because if it was a real fight between the two of you, my money’d be on Preston. He’s been fighting his whole life. He didn’t hit you because he didn’t like upsetting your sister. He was protecting her.”
Marcus took fast, angry breaths as he looked down at Amanda holding on to me, then back up at me. He ran his hands through his hair. “Shit.”
“But she said she loves him,” Marcus told Rock. Then he looked back at me. “She loves you. Do you even know what to do with that?”
I kissed the top of her head. “Cherish it like it’s the most precious thing on the face of the earth,” I replied with all sincerity.
“Well, hell. He’s gone and got all poetic,” Rock said, grinning and shaking his head. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
Marcus leaned back on the hood of his truck and crossed his arms over his chest, then hung his head. We’d won. He was conceding.
“Your eye’s gonna completely close up if you don’t go get ice on it. Y’all go on. I’ll deal with Marcus,” Rock said, nodding toward my Jeep for us to leave.
I wanted to promise Marcus I’d never hurt her, or to tell him I loved her too. But I couldn’t do those things. If she ever found out about what I did to take care of my family, she’d be hurt. I wanted her. I needed her. But did I love her? Could I love her if I couldn’t be completely honest with her?
I fixed an ice pack while Preston took a shower and cleaned all the blood off his face. I cringed thinking about his beat-up face. It was going to be hard to forgive Marcus. He’d just kept hitting Preston, who wasn’t even defending himself. I’d known Marcus would be upset, but I didn’t know he would be so violent. I’d never seen Marcus fight anyone, and I’d hardly ever heard him curse. He’d done both tonight.
Why he couldn’t have just listened to me and let me explain, I didn’t understand. He just lost it. If I hadn’t let go of Preston’s arm, he wouldn’t have hit him. It was my fault. The only thing I could have done to protect him was stay in the line of fire, and I’d moved thinking I could get Marcus to talk about it. To listen to me.
The bathroom door opened, and Preston came walking out in nothing but a towel again. I could get used to that. The bruises on his face and his swollen eye, however, had my complete attention at the moment.
“Sit down. We need to put ice on your eye,” I informed him before pushing him toward the couch.
“You not gonna let me put on clothes first?” he asked in an amused tone.
“Nope. We’ve waited too long already to ice your eye. Sit.”
He didn’t argue. He adjusted the towel to keep it from gaping open when he sat down, and leaned back. I handed him the ice pack. “You do it. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Wish I had a steak. It would work better,” he said, taking the pack and holding it to his eye and wincing.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again. I couldn’t help it. Every time I looked at his face, I felt guilty.
“Stop it, Manda.” He reached for me. “Come here.”
I went willingly. I needed to feel him and know he was okay. Besides, his chest was nak*d, and snuggling up to it was something I wanted to do very much.
“I expected Marcus to come at me. He was mad. I can’t blame him.”
I ran my fingers over the ripples in his stomach. “He was an a**hole. I can’t believe he acted that way.”
Preston chuckled. “Yeah, well, baby, there’s a lot about me you don’t know. Marcus knows most of it. He knows enough to not want his little sister anywhere near me.”
What did that mean? Was he now saying I was an idiot too?
I started to pull away, and Preston’s arms tightened on me. “Where are you going?” he asked.
I’d told my brother I loved Preston tonight. Heck, I’d told anyone in the parking lot who was around to hear me yell it. But Preston hadn’t said the same. I hadn’t really expected him to. I knew he didn’t love me. But I guess I expected more of an affirmation from him. Something more than him agreeing that Marcus being mad was warranted. It was like he was agreeing that I was making a mistake.
“Manda, tell me what’s wrong.” I could hear the concern in his voice.
Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away. I was not going to cry. I was tired of crying about everything. No wonder Marcus treated me like a baby. I acted like one.
“You just sound like you’re agreeing with Marcus. Like you think my wanting to be with you is a bad thing.”
Preston’s body stiffened, and then the ice bag dropped beside him. His hands were on my waist, pulling me into his lap.
“Look at me, Manda,” he said gently.
I did as he asked, and the emotions I could see in his eyes were enough. He might not love me, but he felt something really close. I could see it.
“Nothing about this thing we have is a bad thing. I’m not gonna lie about it: I don’t deserve you. I’m sure as hell not good enough for you, but as long as you want me, I’m all yours.”
That wasn’t a proclamation of love, but it was as close as I would ever get with Preston. I knew enough about his past to know he’d never been serious about any girl.
“Is this thing with us going to be exclusive? Or is it just a thing . . .” I trailed off, not sure how to word this. I didn’t want to say “just sex,” because it wasn’t about the sex. We were more than that, or at least I thought so.
“Hell yes, it’s exclusive. You can’t date anyone else, Manda. I can’t deal with it. I was ready to rip a guy’s arms off for talking to you tonight.”
This was a two way street.
“Um, and you . . . is it exclusive for you?” I asked tentatively. I knew if he couldn’t tell me yes, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I was in too deep emotionally.
Preston grinned. He ran his hand through my hair and cupped the back of my head. “Baby, all I see is you. It’s something I’ve never experienced, but I can’t see anyone else anymore. Just you.”
My heart slammed against my chest. Preston pulled my head close enough that his lips could touch mine. I knew his face was sore, so I kissed him back softly. I didn’t want to hurt him.
“Manda, I want you,” he whispered against my lips.
Those weren’t the three words I wanted to hear from him. but they were a very close second. I eased off his lap and stood in front of him while I reached back and unzipped my sundress and let it fall to the floor.
“Sweet Jesus,” Preston whispered.
I hadn’t worn a bra with my sundress, and I’d worn a pair of the skimpiest panties I had. I was bending down to take off my boots when Preston leaned forward and grabbed my arm.
“Leave the boots on.”
“How am I going to get my panties off?”
He flashed me a wicked grin, then grabbed both my legs and pulled me in between his. Running his hands up my legs, he slipped both hands under the thin strings holding my panties up, and with one hard jerk they fell off me.
“I don’t even want to know how you knew how to do that.”
“I’ll replace them. I’ll buy you a bunch just like them,” he promised, pulling me down onto his lap as he removed the towel he was wearing.