Yours After Dark

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 He didn’t believe in love at first sight… 

Until it happened to him.

Finn McCarthy, the youngest of the McCarthy cousins, is at a crossroads. As the lease on his Gansett Island rental comes to an end, he's making plans to return to his “real” life on the mainland. He’s enjoyed the nearly two years on Gansett with his boisterous fun-loving family, but it’s time to get back to the life he put on hold when he came to the island for his cousin’s wedding—and never left. With renovations to the Wayfarer, the family’s latest business endeavor, all but completed and the grand opening slated for Memorial Day weekend, the time is right to make a move. That is until he stops by the local salon for a quick trim that turns his life plan upside down...

Chloe Dennis, owner of the Curl Up and Dye Salon, is about to close the shop after another ordinary day when Finn McCarthy walks in and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Holy hotness! How has she never met the youngest of the McCarthys, and now that she has met him, why is it that she runs into him everywhere she goes?

Despite the undeniable sizzle of attraction between Finn and Chloe, she is dealing with life-changing news that makes her reluctant to get involved with anyone, let alone a man who plans to leave the island for good in two short weeks. Finn can’t understand why he reacts to Chloe the way he does or why she won’t give him a chance to see what they could be. When she makes it clear that it’s not going to happen between them, what else can he do but go forward with his plan to pack up and leave at the end of the month? Unless the push-pull of undeniable desire makes them forget the many reasons why this could be a bad idea...

Return to Gansett Island for another visit with all the series regulars and to find out if Finn and Chloe can overcome the obstacles that stand between them and the possibility of true love. Catch up with Mac, Maddie, Adam, Abby, Riley, Nikki, Blaine and Tiffany, attend Shane and Katie's wedding, and find out what happens when Blaine’s troubled brother Deacon comes to the island. Get ready for another hot, sexy summer on Gansett Island!

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Yours After Dark
Gansett Island, Book 20
By: Marie Force

Chapter 1

“What in the name of hell is on your head?”

Arriving to work slightly hungover and in bad need of coffee, Finn McCarthy ignored the question from his brother, Riley. Finn had forgotten to buy coffee—again—and had gone without this morning. Living alone sucked. Before his dad and Riley moved out, one of them had bought the coffee. Now he had to do it, and he never remembered it until he woke up late and realized he’d forgotten. Again.

Riley wasn’t giving up. “Hello?”

“What is what?” Finn choked back a yawn and tried to remember if he’d brushed his teeth before he left the house. He had, hadn’t he?

Riley stepped closer to him, boasting the freshly fucked look that had made Finn want to stab him more than once in the months since his brother moved in with Nikki. “That.” Riley pointed to the top of Finn’s head. “What is that?”

Finn had no idea what he was talking about until he reached up and encountered the lump of hair he’d secured with a rubber band to keep it out of his face.

Their cousin Shane joined them. “It’s a man bun, and it looks ridiculous.”

Riley, that asshole, busted up laughing. “What the hell is a man bun?”

“That.” Shane pointed to Finn’s head. “Is a man bun. They’re all the rage.”

Riley couldn’t stop laughing. He laughed so hard, he howled, while Finn prayed that his cousin Mac would bring coffee the way he did most days.

Thankfully, Mac walked into the Wayfarer a minute later with his business partner, Luke Harris, right behind him. And was that a tray of coffee Mac was carrying? Yes! “What’s so funny?”

“Finn has a man bun,” Shane said.

“And it looks ridiculous,” Riley added.

Finn stole one of the coffees and took a big sip. Ahhh, pure bliss. “There’s nowhere to get it cut out here.”

“Go see Chloe at the Curl Up and Dye,” Mac said.

“I don’t get my hair cut in salons,” Finn said disdainfully. “I go to barber shops, and there isn’t one on this island.”

“The way I see it,” Riley said, “if it’s a choice between a man bun or a salon, I’m choosing the salon every time.”

“The way I see it,” Finn said, “no one asked you.”

“Wait till Dad, Uncle Mac and Uncle Frank see the man bun.” Riley started laughing again. “I gotta get a picture so we can show them in case they miss it.” The bastard whipped his phone out and had the picture before Finn could react or turn away. That picture would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Maybe the guys were right—a salon was preferable to putting up with this bullshit. His hair had gotten so long, it was either restrain it or wear a hat to keep it out of his face. Hats annoyed him when he was working, so he’d grabbed a rubber band to contain it without a thought to what it might look like. Apparently, that had been a mistake.

Today, they were finishing up the shingling on the exterior of the Wayfarer, which was due to open in a couple of weeks. They were on track to meet the aggressive deadline Mac had set for the project and had turned the interior over to Nikki, the general manager. She and the team she’d hired over the last few months would be loading in furniture this week, setting up hotel rooms and the dining room, hanging wall art and making finishing touches ahead of the grand opening on Memorial Day weekend.

On Saturday of that weekend, the Wayfarer would host its first major event—the wedding reception of Shane and his fiancée, Katie Lawry. They’d joked that they were the guinea pigs to test out whether the McCarthy family’s latest Gansett Island business venture was ready for prime time. The day after the wedding, Finn’s famous cousin Evan McCarthy would headline the outdoor stage at the grand opening to the public.

So far, the Wayfarer was a huge hit, with Nikki reporting that the hotel was sold out for the summer and ten other weddings were already booked. That was what they wanted to hear. Each family member had a stake in the business—some bigger than others—but everyone had put something into his uncle Big Mac’s latest venture so they could all be owners. Finn was proud of the work they’d done to bring the old place back to life and even prouder of being part of something the family had done together.

Before going outside to get to work, Finn slathered sunscreen all over his face, neck and arms, gathered his nail gun and a ladder and followed the others to the scaffolding that was set up on the north side of the huge building they’d spent the winter renovating. They’d done a damned good job, if he said so himself.

With the end in sight, Finn was making plans to move to the mainland after almost two years on Gansett Island. It’d been fun to hang with the family for a couple of years, to see his father and brother fall in love with women Finn liked and respected and to be part of Mac’s construction company. But it was time to get back to his real life, and that wasn’t going to happen on a tiny island located off the southern coast of mainland Rhode Island.

He looked forward to skiing in the winter, driving the vintage Mustang he kept garaged at home and spending time with the friends he’d left behind. Not to mention taking his career to the next level with the large construction company he’d worked for in Stamford, Connecticut. There, he’d put his degree in civil engineering to good use. Here, he was banging nails. Not that he didn’t enjoy the work, but he hadn’t spent four excruciating years in college to end up a glorified carpenter.

Missy—or Melissa as she preferred to be called these days—his on-again-off-again girlfriend at home, was threatening to come fetch him if he wasn’t home by June, and he would save her the trip to Gansett by heading home right after the grand opening. After going round and round in his mind about how he felt about her during the time he’d been gone, he was actually looking forward to seeing her. Despite the tumultuous aspects of their five-year relationship, they’d had a lot of fun together, most of the time anyway. Since they’d been broken up during the time he was gone, he’d indulged in a few one-night stands here and there, but nothing of any consequence.

It was definitely time to go home and figure out whether they had what it took to go the distance together. His dad and Riley said absolutely not. They’d never liked Missy for him, but Finn was determined to make up his own mind about her after seeing what remained after the long time apart.

He would miss his brother, father, aunt, uncles and cousins, and he would really miss working with Riley, Mac, Shane and Luke. He’d miss the family gatherings, the fishing trips Big Mac liked to organize and the time with his favorite men in the world. He’d miss Riley’s girlfriend, Nikki, whom he called Nicholas while she called him Finnbar. The three of them had spent a lot of time together over the winter, and she’d become a good friend to him.

He liked being able to regularly see his cousins Janey and Laura and their kids, as well as Mac’s brood and now Adam’s little guy, Liam, too. Mac’s wife, Maddie, was expecting another baby, and he’d heard rumblings that his cousin Grant’s wife, Stephanie, might be pregnant, too. In addition, his cousin Mallory and her fiancé, Quinn, were talking about tying the knot at some point this summer.

Life on Gansett was rarely boring with the McCarthy family and their friends around to keep things interesting. It wasn’t like Finn was dying to get out of there, especially with the summer coming. That was the best time of year to be on the island. But he’d promised himself over the winter that once the Wayfarer was finished, he’d make a move.

The Wayfarer was almost done, and the lease at the house was up at the end of the month. It seemed like the universe was conspiring to tell him it was time to get back to reality.

Nikki had offered him the garage apartment at Eastward Look, her family’s home, if he wanted it. He was tempted to stay for the summer, but that would only prolong the inevitable.

No, he was going home at the end of the month. Tonight, he’d text his old boss in Stamford to let him know he’d be available in June, and he’d touch base with Missy, too. As he applied the nail gun to a row of shingles, he felt a sense of calm come over him. For so many months, the stay-or-go tug-of-war had raged in his mind while his family had pressured him to stay with them. He’d be the only member of the McCarthy family not living on Gansett, and while it was tempting to give in to the pressure from his family, he had goals and aspirations that couldn’t be achieved on the island.

Someday, he’d like to own his own company the way Mac did. Finn considered self-employment the holy grail, accountable to no one but yourself and your employees. Mac worked his ass off, but it seemed nice to be the boss. Finn thought he would like that—someday in the far-off future that would be much farther off if he stayed here than it would be if he went home to Connecticut.

The workday dragged. Shingling was boring, monotonous work that gave him too much time to think. He wanted out of his own thoughts for a while. “What’re you guys doing tonight?” he asked Riley as they helped the others clean up and shut down for the day.

“Not sure yet. Nik might be working late again.”

“I want to go out.”

“I’d be up for that. What do you feel like doing?”

“Drinking, raising hell, the usual.”

Riley smiled. “That’s your usual. Not mine anymore.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re not married yet.”

“Nope, but I’d like to be. Sooner rather than later.”

Finn stopped and took a closer look at his brother. “You’re serious.”

“Dead serious. In fact, I was going to ask if you’d help me pick out a ring.”

“Wow. This is huge.” While Finn was thrilled for his brother and Nikki, he couldn’t ignore the nagging ache that came with losing his best friend. As soon as he had that thought, he felt stupid. Riley was getting married, not dying, for Christ’s sake.

“You okay?” Riley gave him an odd look that had Finn pulling himself together.

“I’m happy for you, Ri. Nicholas is a great girl.”

“I love her.”

The stark simplicity of his brother’s statement stayed with Finn on the ride home. Riley had promised to text him after he caught up with Nikki about the plans for the evening. I love her. He puzzled over his brother’s heartfelt words while showering, and then while drinking a beer and eating his favorite after-work snack of corn chips and Cheez Whiz. I love her.

What must it be like to be so certain?

Had he ever said that about any woman, even Missy? Nope, and he wasn’t sure whether what he’d felt for Missy was love or lust or some weird combination of the two. One thing he knew for certain—he hadn’t had with her what Riley had with Nikki. The realization made him uneasy as he ran fingers through his unruly mop of hair, recalling that he’d planned to get a haircut.

He searched for the Curl Up and Dye salon’s number on his phone and put through a call.

A female voice answered. “Curl Up and Dye.”

“Hi there. What time do you close tonight?”

“Seven.”

“Can you take a walk-in?”

“If you get here soon.”

“I’ll be right over.”

“What’s your name?”

“Finn McCarthy.”

“Got it. See you soon.”

He downed the rest of the beer and put the Cheez Whiz in the fridge next to the beer that was the only other thing in there. The meager contents of his fridge were further proof that he needed to get a life.

Since the salon was in town, he decided to walk rather than drive. As the season started to pick up steam with Gansett Island Race Week underway, parking in town could be hard to come by. A block from the salon, he noticed the dark purple paint and the sign with the catchy name painted in gold leaf. Two smiling, laughing women were leaving as he reached the door, and he held it for them.

One of them gave him the once-over as she went by. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” She was old enough to be his mother.

Inside the salon, the first thing he noticed was the rich scent of shampoo and the décor that consisted of golden wood floors, black leather chairs, chrome accents and mirrors all over the place.

“I’ll be right out.” The same distinctive voice he’d spoken to on the phone.

“Take your time.” Finn looked around at the glass shelves of products that promised shine, body, vibrancy and a variety of other things he never gave much thought to.

“You don’t need that.”

Finn looked up from the bottle he was studying to find the sexiest woman he’d ever laid eyes on looking at him in amusement. Shoulder-length dark hair streaked with dark purple, ears pierced multiple times each, her left arm boasting a colorful sleeve tattoo, a sparkling diamond stud in her nose and violet eyes that riveted him. He’d never seen eyes that color before. She wore a black sleeveless top over black skinny jeans that clung to curves that made his mouth go dry.

“You must be Finn?”

“Ah, yeah. That’s me.” He put the bottle on the shelf and managed to knock two others to the floor. As he bent to retrieve them, his head connected with hers in a painful smack that made him see stars. Fucking hell, that hurt! When he looked up, he found her rubbing the side of her head.

“Ow.”

“Sorry about that.” He picked up the bottles and returned them to the shelf.

“You’ve got a hard head.” Her face flushed when she realized the double meaning behind her words.

A surge of heat to his groin caught him by surprise. It’d been so long since any woman had interested him, and he’d nearly given this one a concussion. “May I please request a do-over of the last minute?” He held out his hand. “I’m Finn McCarthy.”

She eyed his hand before she reached out to take it. “Chloe Dennis.”

The brush of her skin against his made his entire system go haywire. What the hell was that about? Stunned and unnerved by his reaction to her, he quickly retrieved his hand. “Do you have time for a quick haircut?”

“Sure, but with all that hair, it’s not going to be quick.”

“I can come back another time.”

“No, it’s fine.” She gestured to one of three black chairs positioned in front of a row of mirrors. “Have a seat.”

Finn headed for the chair she pointed to and sat, feeling out of sorts and off his game after the head bump. He wasn’t usually so clumsy or awkward around women, but he’d rarely encountered one like Chloe.

Goddess was the word that came to mind. She projected a cool, aloof aura of self-confidence, which he found incredibly sexy. He stared at her in the mirror as she approached the chair, and when she ran her fingers through his hair, he felt her touch in every corner of his body. Even the bottoms of his feet tingled with awareness.

Holy crap.

“What’re you thinking?”

He didn’t dare answer that question.

“Short or on the longer side?”

God, she was talking about his hair, and his imagination had run away with him.

“Um, short enough that it’s not in my face at work, but not super short.”

“What do you do for work?”

“Construction for my cousin Mac.”

“Ahh, gotcha. He’s insane. In the best way, of course.”

Finn laughed. “That he is. He keeps us well entertained.” Finn would miss the older cousin he’d always looked up to. The ten years between them had all but disappeared in the time Finn had lived on Gansett Island. These days, Mac treated him more like a peer than a pesky baby cousin. Finn had learned a lot from Mac, both professionally and personally.

“You McCarthy men sure were blessed with great hair.”

Watching her run her fingers through his hair was one of the most erotic things Finn had ever experienced.

“I cut your dad, your uncles, your cousins. You guys could be shampoo models.”

Finn cleared a huge lump from his throat. “You think so?”

She met his gaze in the mirror. “I really do.”

Was it his imagination or did she look at him much longer than necessary? No, definitely not his imagination. He shifted in the seat, hoping she wouldn’t notice his embarrassing reaction to her. The movement startled her, and she looked away.

Nothing like this had ever happened in a barber shop.

 

Chapter 2

Holy hotness, Batman. The McCarthy men had gotten far more than their fair share of good looks, but this McCarthy was in a class by himself.

Chloe told herself to quit being a nitwit as she cut his gorgeous, silky dark hair, the same McDreamy hair his father, uncles and cousins had. But none of them had turned her into a stuttering fool the way he had. What the hell was wrong with her? She didn’t go silly in the head over men, but she would have to be dead and buried not to notice Finn McCarthy.

Like his older cousins, he had McCarthy blue eyes, dark wavy hair, prominent cheekbones and a mouth made for sin. In addition to those attributes, Finn was also built like a man who worked hard for a living, with muscles bulging under a formfitting Henley and perfectly faded jeans that left very little to the imagination.

Yum.

She took her time cutting his hair, while trying to process the odd hum of attraction that simmered between them. Every time she caught his eye in the mirror, he was looking at her.

Chloe tried to think of something she could say to break the tension, but everything she came up with sounded stupid, which was so ridiculous. In addition to cutting hair, she made small talk for a living. So why was her brain totally blank when it came to chatting with him?

He solved the problem for her. “This is my first time at a salon.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I’ve always been more of a barber shop kind of guy, but I’m seeing that I’ve been missing out.”

There was that look again, the one that told her she wasn’t the only one who was attracted. Too bad he was off-limits to her. The McCarthys were one of the island’s most prominent families, many of them regular customers. Indulging in a flirtation or whatever this was with one of them wasn’t in the best interest of her business.

Better to keep things professional, even if a romp with the sexy Finn McCarthy would be a great way to break the longest dry spell in history.

Don’t think about romping or anything else with him. Just cut his damned hair. Sometimes she deeply resented the voice inside her head that made her act like an adult when she really wanted to bust loose and do something fun and reckless. When was the last time she’d been reckless? Never. She hadn’t had the luxury of being reckless. She’d been far more concerned with supporting herself when other people her age were off partying and doing what twenty-somethings did.

She’d risked everything to buy the salon five years ago, and since then, she had been so focused on work and growing the business that she’d barely had time for anything resembling a social life. Of course, she had much bigger reasons for staying focused on her business rather than her personal life, but she tried not to think about those things. When she did think about them, she ran the risk of sinking so deeply into the abyss of depression, she might never find her way out. So she didn’t allow herself to go there.

“Have you been working on the Wayfarer?”

“Yep. My home away from home for the last six months.”

“It looks incredible from the outside.”

“The inside is even better. You should come by and check it out sometime. I’d be happy to show you around.”

“I’d love to see it. Everyone is so curious.”

“When is your next day off?”

“Monday.”

“Come over at lunchtime. I’ll give you a tour and buy you lunch.”

Curiosity about the Wayfarer had her wavering. The thought of seeing him again tipped her toward saying yes. She forced herself to meet that intense blue-eyed gaze in the mirror. “That sounds like fun.”

“Great.” His smile lit up his face, and it was all she could do not to sigh. He was just too damned sexy for his own good—and hers.

She ran a comb through his hair and then shaved his neck. “How does that look?”

“Might be the best haircut I’ve ever gotten.”

Amused, she rolled her eyes. “Sure it is.”

“I mean it. It looks really good. A thousand times better than Joe the Barber in Stamford. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She rang him up and watched him head for the door, her gaze fixed on the way his jeans hugged his awesome ass. Then he spun around and caught her looking.

“Do you want to get a drink?”

I do. I really, really do. But I can’t. “Thanks, but I have plans. Another time, maybe.”

“Sure, that’d be great.” Once again, his smile lit up his impossibly handsome face. “See you Monday, if not before.”

After the door closed behind him, Chloe stood there staring at it for a full minute, calling herself ten kinds of crazy for lying to him about having plans. The only plan she had was another night completely alone with her yellow Lab, Ranger. At thirteen, he was getting so old, he had trouble getting around, but Chloe refused to acknowledge the inevitability that was looming in the near future.

Life without Ranger was inconceivable.

Though her hands, hips, knees and ankles ached fiercely after the long day, Chloe gave the salon a thorough cleaning, as she did every night, and locked up an hour after Finn left. Why was she still thinking about him? He was a customer like all the others who frequented her salon, the only place to get a haircut on Gansett Island. Everyone who was anyone came through her doors from one week to the next. Why should he be any different from all the others?

She’d cut his brother’s hair a couple of weeks ago and hadn’t had any reaction whatsoever to Riley, who was equally handsome and charming. What was so special about Finn that had her body still tingling with awareness of him more than an hour after he left? Chloe was trying to reconcile her unusual reaction to him when she stopped at the island’s only grocery store to pick up a few things on the way home, including a rotisserie chicken for Ranger. He’d lived long enough to deserve chicken with every meal.

In the produce aisle, she picked out vegetables for a salad to go with some of Ranger’s chicken—he was good about sharing with her—and was turning toward the register when she ran smack into the chest of the man next to her, who happened to be Finn McCarthy.

Of course it was him, and of course her entire body went haywire all over again.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said.

That smile. That freaking panty-melting smile. It was, without a doubt, the best smile she’d ever seen on a guy—sexy, sincere, friendly, unguarded perfection.

“Chloe?” His brows furrowed as he studied her with those piercing blue eyes that made her want to sigh. “Are you all right? That’s twice in two hours that I’ve nearly injured you.”

“I-I’m fine.” She hated that hitch in her voice that told him he made her nervous. Men didn’t make her nervous. She made them nervous, and she much preferred that to this.

“You’re sure?”

Thanks to the haircut she’d given him, he was even more devastatingly handsome than he’d been the first time she’d laid eyes on him. Had that really been only two hours ago? It seemed longer than that.

“Excuse me.” A woman behind her needed to get to the tomatoes, which snapped Chloe out of her Finn-coma.

She moved to let her in. “Sorry about that.”

“What’s for dinner?”

He’s talking to you. Stop being so weird! “Ah, salad and chicken that I’ll share with my dog.”

“You have a dog? Boy or girl?”

“A boy named Ranger.”

“I love dogs.”

That clicking noise was the sound of him going up a few notches in her estimation. Men who loved dogs were the only ones worth bothering with.

He gestured to his handheld basket. “I’ve got pasta, sauce and garlic bread. I make the best garlic bread around. Ask anyone. If you let me meet your dog, I’ll make some for you to go with your salad.”

Dear God. Every hormone in her body was on full alert and screaming YES at the top of their lungs. Did hormones have lungs? Hers did, and they were screaming.

Then he made a little pout face. “I haven’t seen my dog in months. He lives on the mainland with my mom. I sure do miss him.”

A stronger woman would be able to resist this handsome, sexy man who also loved dogs and garlic bread. Apparently, he was her kryptonite, because she was incapable of saying no to him. “I’ll let you meet him in exchange for the garlic bread.”

Again with that lethal, panty-melting smile. It ought to come with a warning: May cause panties to spontaneously combust in the produce aisle. “Deal. Lead the way.”

She walked toward the checkout counter, aware of him behind her, probably watching her every move because that’s what she’d be doing if she were following him. Chloe didn’t make a habit of inviting men she’d just met home with her, but she knew his family and respected the fact that he had gracefully taken no for an answer when he asked her out.

Plus, she was trained in Krav Maga and wasn’t afraid of any man. If anything, they ought to be afraid of her, not that they ever realized that until it was far too late. The foster father who had raised her had been an instructor and had taught her to defend herself. Her skills had come in handy more than once with men who didn’t understand the word no. Instinct told her that wouldn’t be an issue with this man, but in a world in which she was almost completely alone, she’d learned to be wary of all men until they proved themselves worthy of her trust.

Chloe paid for her groceries and then waited for Finn to pay for his.

On the way out of the store, he stepped aside for her to go ahead of him. “Did you really turn me down for a drink because you had plans with a dog?”

“What if I did?”

“That’s one lucky dog.”

Oh, she liked him. So many guys would be offended that she’d chosen her dog over them, but Finn found it amusing and had turned it into an opportunity to compliment her. He was racking up the points, and she hadn’t even tasted his garlic bread yet.

“Should I follow you?”

Chloe nodded while trying to think about how she’d left her house that morning. Messy but clean. It would do, provided Ranger hadn’t left any surprises for her. He had the run of the place during the day, and she left the dog door open for him to get in and out. She’d even built a ramp to help him down into the yard from the deck since stairs were difficult for him these days. Whatever he needed was fine with her.

She got into her battered Toyota sedan and waited for Finn to follow her.

He drove a big dark-colored pickup truck that suited him. She couldn’t picture a big guy like him in a small car like hers. No, he needed a big truck, which led her to wonder what the hell she was thinking. He needs a big truck? Who needs a truck? I’ve taken leave of my senses since he came strolling into my salon. That was the only possible explanation for the ridiculousness circulating through her mind as she led him to the house she rented on the island’s west side where he would be treated to her stupendous view of the sunset.

Sometimes Chloe couldn’t believe she paid only seven hundred dollars a month in rent, because the sunsets made her little house worth a million times that. The saltbox house was more of a home to her than anywhere she’d ever lived, and she loved it. In fact, she dreamed about someday saving enough money to buy it, but that was more of a pipe dream than anything. Real estate on the island started in the hundreds of thousands, and she’d have to cut a lot of hair to be able to afford a fraction of that.

She pulled into her usual spot and heard barking from inside. Ranger welcomed her home every night—and every night, she exhaled with relief when she heard that bark. She feared coming home to silence one day.

Finn parked next to her and waited to help with her bags.

He followed her inside, where Ranger greeted her with his usual enthusiasm until he spotted Finn lurking behind her. Then he went into protector mode, barking and growling.

“Easy, boy. He’s a friend.” At least I think he is…

Finn squatted and held out his hand for Ranger to sniff. “Hey, Ranger. I’m Finn. It’s nice to meet you.”

Swoon.

Ranger cozied up to Finn, sniffing and kissing him. Lucky bastard.

Jealous of a dog. That was what it’d come to. Amused by her thoughts, Chloe went into the kitchen and reached for the medication she took every night at this time to alleviate the pain in her joints after a long day at work. Today had been a relatively good day. She’d learned to appreciate the good days and dread the days when the pain took over, drowning out everything else. She subtly took the pills while he continued to chat with Ranger. She’d kill for a glass of wine, but alcohol didn’t mix well with the powerful meds she took, so she avoided it. “What can I get you to drink?”

“I stopped to pick up beer before the grocery store. Hope that’s okay.”

“Sure. Whatever you want.”

From his perch on Ranger’s level, Finn looked up at her, brow crooked. “Is that right?”

“You must’ve gotten an A-plus in flirting when you were in school. You’re rather accomplished at it.”

“Am I?” He stood to his full, imposing six-foot-something height.

She rolled her eyes. “You know you are, because women have been falling at your feet from the minute your voice changed.”

“It was actually before that.”

Chloe laughed, and Ranger started barking, as if he thought Finn’s comment was funny, too.

For a long, charged moment, she and Finn stared at each other, and Chloe wondered if he felt as off-balance as she’d been since he walked into the salon. She’d heard of these sorts of things happening to other people but had never experienced it herself. And, to be honest, she’d always been skeptical about the idea of instant attraction. In the course of one evening, he was changing her thinking on the subject.

Desperate to find her missing equilibrium, she got busy preparing Ranger’s dinner, cutting up enough chicken for him and a salad for two. As she worked, Finn leaned around her to grab a knife from the butcher block on the counter, his arm brushing against hers as he backed away.

She felt that subtle touch everywhere and then immediately dismissed it as a side effect of the dry spell. What else could it be? She didn’t do foolish when it came to men. Out of necessity, she’d been forced to be practical when other girls were frivolous. That practicality had followed her into adulthood, and this was no time to start acting like a silly, simpering girl just because a ridiculously sexy man had paid her some attention.

He would move on to the next willing female as soon as he realized she was going to be far too much work. It’d happened before, and she’d learned not to get invested. She’d been on her own so long, she didn’t know it any other way. Looking out for herself, first and foremost, was second nature because she hadn’t had anyone else to do it for her.

While her high school friends had been actively—and successfully—trying to land husbands, Chloe started a business and nurtured it into a modest success that allowed her to live in her favorite place year-round, far away from the madness of her childhood. She avoided drama like the plague and kept to herself most of the time. Sure, she had friends she enjoyed spending time with, but she was happiest at home with Ranger.

Chloe put his bowl down and watched him drag himself across the tile floor, her anxiety spiking. His struggles tugged at her heart and filled her with panic. What would she do without him? He was all the family she had left.

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