This Time I'm Keeping You

The Book With No Name 

 

Chapter One

“I’d inject him with a substance that caused him to die slowly and painfully.”

Poppy Sylvester looked up at the woman standing before her. Middle-aged, she was short, with a pretty face beneath auburn curls. Her dress was a soft material in bright splashes of color, and she looked like someone’s mother or aunt. Not a woman with murderous tendencies.

“Would you? Well, I’ll keep that in mind, Sally, when the time comes to kill Mr. Debruler off.” Poppy signed her name before handing the book back to the woman. She then did a nervous sweep of the people she could see in the bookshop.

This was first book signing, and considering she’d published five novels, all of which had hit best seller lists and given her a career, that wasn’t normal, or so her agent told her. ‘The reclusive look is only so cute, Poppy. People need to see the real you,’ her agent Astrid had said, loudly, down the phone to her last week.

“Hi, what name would you like me to autograph this too?” She said as a man who was next in line stepped forward and held out his book.

“Chandler Howard,” he said. “Actually, I’m thinking of writing a book just like yours. It’s good, but it can’t be that hard, right? I mean, you don’t need a degree or anything, just sit down and type,” he said as she wrote his name, and scrawled her signature for the hundredth time. “I’m an accountant. Now that took years of study.”

Poppy fantasied about killing off an accountant in her next book. “Not hard at all,” she said instead of, it’s actually really hard work you idiot. She’d had this conversation with a few people since she’d started writing, and arguing achieved nothing.

“I’d set it in Monte Carlo,” Chandler added. “It’s always sounded exotic, don’t you think?”

Her eyes looked around the room again as Chandler elaborated about the plot of his book. Not that she could see much from where she was sitting, but still. He wasn’t here, because it had been a year since he last contacted her, which is why she’d agreed to the book signing. There had been no phone calls or emails. In fact, there had been only silence from the man who had ruined her life.

Poppy exhaled slowly. She was finally safe. And that was why four months ago she’d moved her to Brook, back to the place she’d once thought felt like home.

“So what do you think? Will it be a best seller like this?” Chandler tapped a finger on the cover of The Sister They Forgot.

“It’s a perfect location,” Poppy said looking at the line of people still waiting to have her book signed and gauging how long it would be before she could get out of here. Being around so many people made her edgy. For five years it had just been Poppy, her cat, and her laptop, and now Astrid had forced her out of hiding she was feeling like a goldfish in a glass bowl, exposed.

Before her life had turned upside down, she’d liked socializing, but not now. Now she did that online and met her fans through social media, but now that the threat had gone, maybe she could come out of hiding and start living again.

“Hi, Poppy, I’m Sally,” the next person in the line said when Chandler had finally left, no doubt full of book writing ideas.

Thirty minutes, maybe forty and she could be out of here. Go home, make some chamomile tea and snuggle her cat with the door shut.

Her agent had chosen her home town for her book signing, to ease her into it. She’d agreed, but said no one was to know this is where she’d lived. It had been a risk, but one she’d been willing to take. Here she had control and place to hide. but Poppy had insisted no one knew she lived in Brook. That had to stay as secret because she didn’t want to move again if he found her.

“Ooh, look at the man who just walked in,” Sally cooed. “Now he’d be a lovely hero in one of your books.”

Poppy followed Sally’s eyes to the end of the line, where she saw several large blobs. Her reading glasses stopped her from seeing things clearly, but she couldn’t be bothered taking them off.

“We don’t judge people by their looks now do we, Debbie,” the woman behind her said.

“When they look like him we do,” Debbie said totally unrepentant. “He’d make a lovely Christmas gift for some lucky woman.”

Poppy thought about taking off her reading glasses to look at the man, but then she’d just have to put them back on, and she really wasn’t that interested.

“This book is for my sister, Jackie,” Debbie said. “It’s her birthday, and she loves your books. I’m more of a romance girl myself.”

“Good for you. I love romance novels too,” Poppy said writing the words to Jackie: best wishes Poppy Sylvester as Christmas carols rang out around the store.

Christmas, and she still hadn’t put up a tree again this year. But maybe she would, because this time she was determined to stay here in Brook.

Poppy could feel a headache forming as she worked steadily through the next signings, answering questions and chatting with a smile on her face.

“I’m the last,” a deep voice said, making her look up.

“Oh, hell no!” The words exploded out of her mouth.

“Hi, Poppy,” Nick Atherton said with a slow, sexy smile that had once made her melt.

“What do you want?” She got a good glare going on.

“To have this book signed for my sister Gracie.”

“Fine,” she grabbed the book, opened the first page and wrote ‘to Gracie, and signing it with her name. Handing it back, she then glared at him.

Ten years, Poppy. You care nothing for this asshole anymore. Besides, he wasn’t her type now. She liked sophisticated men who cared about their appearance. Not this shithead with his line-backer’s shoulders, messy brown hair, which looked like it needed a good cut, and t-shirt with ‘oldest Atherton,’ and a tick next to it. Then ‘head elf’, with another tick beside that across the front. The small rip in the shirt was situated over one of his abs, which she could see was hard and defined, did nothing for her anymore. He’d cured her of that.

“Ecstatic,” he drawled. “And this one is or me.”

Poppy gripped her pen so hard as he lowered another book to the table before her. It flew from her fingers across the desk, and hit him on the zipper, it then bounced back and landed just inches from her fingers.

“To Nick, love Poppy, will do nicely thanks.”

Poppy didn’t acknowledge the drawled words, instead keeping her head down and writing, ‘to the world’s most arrogant asshole. May he be plagued by bitey insects for the rest of his life, Poppy Sylvester.’ Standing, she then slapped it into his chest with as much force as she thought she could get away with before someone noticed, and then quickly grabbed her things.

Brook wasn’t a big town, but big enough that she could keep to herself if she wanted too. Where she’d be safe and the man who’d made her life hell for the last few years, wouldn’t find her again. Turns out he wasn’t the only asshole she’d wanted to avoid for the rest of her life. The other one was standing in front of her.

“Well, that’s original; I bet none of your other fans got such a personalized message. I’m not sure bitey is a word, though, which you’d think you’d knowing seeing as you’re a famous author now.”

Poppy turned her back on him. Clenching her eyes shut briefly, she inhaled and exhaled before slinging the strap of her laptop over one shoulder and her handbag over the other. Ten years Poppy, it’s been ten years since you last saw him, she reminded herself. You should have forgotten about him by now.

“Thank you, Mrs. Rubin’s,” she said to the bookstore owner when she reached her desk. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Of course, Poppy, you come back soon now.” The little Santa’s hanging from her ears had flashing lights for eyes.

“I’d love to,” she said forcing her lips into their last smile for the day.

Poppy left, without looking over her shoulder. She couldn’t, however, walk through the door as he was standing there. His large feet planted, hands holding the books to his chest. Nick, the world falls at my feet, Atherton.

She could hardly turn and run for the back door. She’d done enough ridiculous things in front of this man in the three years they had spent in each other’s company that he didn’t need more ammunition. Besides, she was an adult now, no neanderthal jock was getting to her ever again.

“By that reaction, I’m guessing you’re still pissed with me for—”

“You have that wrong, Atherton. I stopped feeling anything for you many years ago. “Now go away,” she added with a bit more bite than she intended. Hoisting up the shoulder strap of her handbag again as it slipped; she then made her way around him and headed for the door.

“It’s been years. Surely you’ve forgiven me by now?”

“Go away. I have no interest in rehashing those years, and I’m sure you must have a wife or girlfriend to pick on by now. Who by the way has my undying sympathy,” Poppy ground out, which quickly turned into a squeak as he pulled her laptop from her grasp.

“Give that back!”

“Relax, I’m just being a gentleman, Tinker Bell. you should be happy I know how.”

Poppy felt the old rage and frustration boil up inside her as she looked up at Nicholas Atherton. Everything about had once been imprinted on her corneas.

When those deep brown eyes had focused on her in college, it was as if no one else existed. Handsome, yes, but that was almost too simple a term for Nicholas Atherton. His wasn’t a face made up of simple planes and angles. It had hard edges on his cheekbones and jaw, a deep dimple on the left and a long arrogant nose. Poppy had once classed him as sinfully handsome. The kind of man that made a woman uncomfortable with just a look.

She’d had no idea why one of the most popular students had decided she was worthy of his friendship. She’d soon found out why.

“Don’t call me that!” she snapped, trying to retrieve her bag.

He leaned closer, his eyes going to the simple gold chain around her neck. Poppy fought the urge to yelp and retreat.

“Where’s your bell?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about?” Poppy said, buying time. She knew what he was referring to, the little bell necklace he’d given her. A birthday present he’d said. She’d loved it so much and never taken it off, at least until the day she’d overheard him telling his friends he was just using her to get his grades up.

“Yes, you do.”

“Whatever, now give me back my laptop.”

“It’s been years, Poppy. Surely you can spare a few minutes for an old friend,” he said, skirting around her to walk through the door first and then hold it open for her to follow.

“I’m game for another fifty if you are,” Poppy said, walking outside behind him. “And we are not friends, and never were.”

 

Chapter Two

Nick looked at the woman before him. Angry woman, he amended.
He wasn’t sure why he’d walked into that bookshop, but as soon as his sister told him that Poppy Sylvester was here signing a book, and didn’t he know her, he hadn’t been able to put her out of his head. The plan had been to keep out or her line of sight, but one look and he’d wanted to talk to her. Needed to.

Poppy was one of the few regrets he had in life. Not her, or the time he’d spent with her, but how things had ended. The way he treated her. He needed to apologize even if it was years too late.

Last night he’d stayed up to finish Poppy’s book. Nick tried to visualize the sweet, slightly gawky girl he’d known writing a thriller, and come up short. He’d enjoyed it, but still it had surprised him Poppy had written it.

She’d been smiling at the person before her when Nick first saw her in that book shop, and he’d felt like someone had sucker punched him. A jolt of pleasure and heat had traveled through him as he looked her over.

She’d changed since he’d last seen her, but not enough that the girl he’d known wasn’t visible. Her blonde curls were clipped into a messy knot. Reaching his nose, she was short and curvy, and every inch a woman. She wore a blue dress that crossed between her lovely breasts and caressed and hugged where, in his opinion, it should caress and hug.

He’d been drawn to her in college and never quite sure out why. They’d had a few classes together, and he’d started talking to her. She’d been funny and smart, and totally different from the other girls he hung out with.

Then he’d ruined everything, and she’d left and he’d never seen her again until now.

“Have coffee with me, they do a really nice peppermint mocha at Brew Stop,” he said, heading down the street with her laptop bag strap, slung over one shoulder. “We’re both older and wiser now. We can be friends, surely?”

“No! Damn you, Atherton, come back here.”

He kept walking, shortening his long strides until he heard the patter of her heels seconds later as she ran after him.

“Bet those are a killer to run in,” he said, looking down at her ridiculously high red heels as she appeared breathless beside him. Visions of her naked wearing those and nothing else flashed through his head. “A nice change from the grunge look you had going on in college.”

“If I didn’t think it would take a wooden stake to do the job. I would take them off and ram the heels through your black heart.”

“Ouch, I believe that hurt.”

Nick smiled as she glared at him. Her deep green eyes looked bigger, lashes longer, and he guessed that resulted from whatever she’d painted around them. It worked, they sucked a man into them. She then looked over his head, appearing to search for something.

“There must be a police officer around here somewhere?”

“Just coffee, for old time’s sake, nothing more. Surely you can manage that,” he coaxed in his most reasonable voice.

“There is no old times’ sake. I hate you, end of story. You’re an asshole and I doubt you’re capable of personality growth, so that won’t have changed.”

Nick swallowed his smile. He’d always loved the way she talked. Big words mixed with swear words.

“Give me my laptop and go away.”

He’d known she would hate him. Hell, he hated himself when he remembered what a jerk he’d been. But in his defense, he’d only been twenty-one and full of hormones and bullshit.

“I read your book. It's good,” he said, hoping to soften her up a bit.
That stopped her. She looked at him again, eyes wide as she studied him.

“You read?”

Once, she’d been softly spoken and quiet, until you got to know her, and that was part of the attraction to him. He’d been surrounded by loud, volatile people most of his life, so when she came along, she’d intrigued him.

“I don’t remember you being such a hard ass, Poppy.”

“Life lessons made me grown up.”

Nick hated that he may have contributed to those life lessons.

“Let me buy you a coffee, and I’ll tell you how much I liked your book.” He wasn’t sure why he didn't want to walk away from her, but something was keeping him here listening to her insults. “It’s Christmas time, surely you and find it in your heart to sit and talk with an old friend at this time of year?”

“I dislike you, Atherton, and while what happened was years ago, and I was a gullible young fool, I have no wish to become reacquainted with you.” She spoke in a slow, precise way. He knew this was because once she’d stuttered.

Placing a hand on his chest, Nick tried to look hurt. “You wound me, Poppy, and here I am extending the olive branch to you.”

Tilting her head to one side, Nick watched all the fight and anger suddenly ease from her lovely body. She lifted one hand and urged him closer. Leaning forward, he waited for her to agree, waited for her to capitulate as eventually most women did. Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the subtle hint of some elusive floral scent that wrapped around his senses and made his eyes cross with lust.

“I’d rather decapitate you with it!”

“Oomph!” She’d punched him hard in the stomach.

“Stay away from me, Atherton!”

He felt her wrench the strap of her laptop bag from his shoulder as he doubled over, gasping for air. Nick heard the clip of her heels on the sidewalk as she hurried away.
Relieved when he felt the welcome rush of air fill his lungs, he straightened.

Who knew someone her size could pack such a punch? She’d never been violent before. In fact, he didn’t remember her raising her voice. Clearly, this adult version of Poppy was vastly different.

He looked left and right, when he could focus, and found her. Head high, those ridiculous heels clipping along the pavement. He watched a man approach her. A fan, maybe? Poppy took a step back as if to evade him, and then a group of people blocked her from his sight. Her scream made his blood run cold.

“Poppy!” Nick sprinted in her direction. The people parted, and he saw her. The man now held her shoulders, and she was struggling to get free.

“Release her!" His roar had the man looking his way. He wore a batman mask He then shoved Poppy. Nick tried to reach her, but she fell, and the sound of her head hitting the sidewalk was loud.

“Oh my God! Did you see that?” Someone yelled.

Nick reached Poppy. Throwing her attacker one last look, he dropped to his knees beside her. She wasn’t moving, and her eyes were closed. His heart was pounding hard inside his chest as he bent over her.

“Poppy, open your eyes.” Nick’s hands were shaking as he cupped her face. “Please wake up.”

Her lashed fluttered open, and he exhaled. She tried to sit up, but he held her down.

“Easy, Tinkerbell. Let me check you over first.”

“My laptop?”

“You held on to that. Your main supply line’s been cut though,” he said, slipping a hand beneath her head to feel her scalp. She winced as he ran his fingers lightly over where she had hit her head. “Nasty lump there,” he said, but didn’t add that it was bleeding.

“He took my handbag?” she whispered.

“Afraid so.”

She tried to speak, but hissed out a breath as he touched around the edges of the lump.

“Anyone got something to hold on to this?”

A hand passed a wad of tissues to Nick, and he pressed them to her head gently.

“Ouch!”

“I remember when you walked into that door in college, you weren’t very brave then either.”

“I was too,” she gritted out. “You were the wimp, the Jock who was always limping or wearing a sling.”

Nick smiled as he ran his hands up her shoulders, and down to her wrists.

“It’s called sport, Poppy, and if I remember correctly, you had an aversion to it.”

“Ouch! Shit, Atherton, stop torturing me!”

“But it’s so much fun.” Nick looked down at her slender wrist, lying at an awkward angle in his hand.

“Do you hurt anywhere else?”

Poppy slowly moved her legs and arms.

“Just my head and wrist,” she whispered. “I feel sick.”

“Okay, well, if you’re going to be sick, you tell me and I’ll make sure you’re aiming away from me.”

“Such a shithead,” she whispered.

Nick looked at the circle of faces above them. He focused on a lady about his mom’s age.

“Can I use that pretty scarf of yours to make a sling, ma’am? I’ll replace it for you, I promise.”

“I-I can’t believe that still works,” Poppy hissed as he slowly helped her into a sitting position.

“What works?” he said, tying the satin around her neck and fashioning a sling

“That smile,” she hissed. “It opened more zippers and buttons in college than lunch wrappers.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, smiling.

“I’m immune. Hell, that hurts!”

“I know, honey, but we need to immobilize it. Hang in there, almost done. Small breaths.”

“I’ve called an ambulance,” someone said above them.

“No ambulance, please Nick.”

“You need to go to hospital, Poppy. Your head could need a stitch and your arm an x-ray.”

“No hospital,” her words were desperate.

Nick took the fingers she had dug into his forearm and held them tight. Most people had an aversion to hospitals, but he could see by the terror in Poppy's eyes that this was more.

“I'm pretty skilled at most things, Poppy, but stitching and setting breaks is even out of my range.”

“I don't want to go to hospital again.”

Again? What the hell had happened to her since that day he’d humiliated her in front of the entire football team.

 

Chapter Three

“You’re going by ambulance, Tinker Bell. Now suck it up.”

“I’m hurt. Y-you can’t speak to me like that!”

“Sure, I can. Asshole, remember?”

She tried to glare, but winced instead.

“I’m taking off your stilts now.”

Poppy didn’t speak, just concentrated on breathing as Nick removed her left shoe. Her ankle felt small in his hand, the skin smooth and soft.

“How the hell do your feet survive being jammed into these things? Don’t they give you back ache? Mine are weeping just looking at them.” He studied the high heel.
How did she balance?

“I’m short. They make me tall.”

“You really expect me to believe that?” he scoffed. “I mean, fashion has shit all to do with it, right?”

“I-I like shoes.”

He slid the last one off her foot before speaking.

“I like shoes too. Sneakers, flat and comfortable.” Nick watched as she rested her weight on her elbows, clearly uncomfortable. He wrapped an arm around her back.

“What are you doing?” The words came out between her teeth.

“It’s called being nice. Extending the hand of friendship, that kind of thing. You know how that works, right? He nudged her back to rest against him. “There now. Isn’t this nice? Just like old times.”

“I can’t believe you’re being a dickhead when I’m hurting.”

He leaned in and spoke in her ear.

“I know you’re hurting, Tinkerbell. I’m just trying to distract you.”

The tension which was holding her stiff eased from her body, and she slumped against him.

“Thank you.”

“Welcome.”

“D-do you live here in Brook?” she asked.

“Yes. My family has all their lives. Generations of Atherton’s come from Brook.”

“Huh, and I p-picked this town to relocate too.”

“Clearly you have taste. How come you’re relocating?”

They both heard the siren, and the tension was back. She didn’t answer his question.

“Breath, Poppy, inhale and exhale.”

“I really don’t want this, Nick.”

“Now that’s too bad.”

“I don’t want to get in that ambulance alone.”

“You asking me to stay with you, sweetheart?”

She nodded, but didn’t look at him over her shoulder.

“Somebody get a pen and write this down,” he whispered in her ear. “Poppy Sylvester has asked me to stay with her.”

“Just until the hospital. Please, Nick.”

The color drained from her face as she watched the medics get out of the ambulance.

“These people are going to help you.”

“P-promise, Nick.” Her good hand grabbed a handful of his shirt.

“Promise,” he said, running his fingers down her cheek.

“I’m guessing you’re the reason we’re here?”

“Yea, she just got mugged,” Nick said to the guy now crouching beside them. Poppy kept silent. She hadn’t even looked at the man, instead keeping her eyes fixed on the hand she still had clenched around his shirt.

“What’s your name?”

“Poppy Sylvester.”

“The writer?”

Nick nodded and then, when the guy looked his way, he gave him a look and then glanced down at Poppy. They had some kind of telepathic guy moment, and then the ambulance driver nodded.

“So, Poppy, my name’s Jason and this is Miranda.”

“Hey, Poppy,” a voice said from behind Nick.

“I’m going to check you over now,” Jason added, pulling his bag closer as he opened it.

“You promised!”

Nick had just been moving aside to let Miranda take his space, but Poppy was not letting go of this shirt.

“I’m not going anywhere, just moving to make some room for the second medic.” Prying her fingers free, he repositioned to her feet where she could see him.

They worked fast and efficiently, with either Jason or Miranda talking to Poppy. She kept her eyes either on him or clenched shut as they checked her over. He smiled when she looked at him, but she never returned the gesture.

Hard to believe that recently she was all attitude, serving him up a mouthful when he’d tried to get her to have coffee with him. She looked vulnerable and small now; the pain etched in her beautiful eyes, and it made his chest hurt.

“Nick.”

“Right here,” he said, moving to her side as the medics retrieved the bed to carry her on.

“I-I could you call someone for m-me before you leave?”

He took the hand she had clenched into a fist.

“I said I’d come with you, have a little faith in me, woman.”

Her eyes shot to his. “Why?”

“Why have faith in me?”

She nodded.

“Because you can trust me.”

“I don’t think—”

“I’ve grown up since college,” he snapped.

She wanted to argue that point with him, but they were getting ready to move her and fear replaced the words. He knew he’d hurt her. Knew he deserved everything she threw at him, but it still stung. Having your dumbass behavior thrown in your face was never enjoyable.

Nick walked by her head with her hand clasped in his when they were ready to load her into the ambulance. The grip on his fingers grew punishing as they reached the doors.

“Breathe,” he whispered.

“I-I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” He locked eyes with her. “Inhale, exhale. You’ve been doing it your entire life, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“N-not that easy, and you’re an—”

“Asshole. Yeah, yeah, that’s getting old.”

They wheeled her in, then he followed. Poppy was breathing rapidly now. Bracing his hands on either side of her head, he forced her to look up at him.

“You need to calm down now, or you’ll be unconscious in seconds.”

“When we get there. You can go, but I need you to call my neighbor to feed my cat..”

“Okay. But I’m not leaving.”

She was terrified. It was in every line of her face, and the knuckle whitening grip she had on his fingers. He talked to her about a lot of nothing until they arrived at the hospital.

“Ok, Poppy, we’re here now.”

Nick moved out of the way once more as the ambulance stopped, and then, grabbing her laptop and shoes, he walked beside her into the hospital. She handled it, but hated every moment. Her fingers gripped the railings on the bed and kept darting between him and the lights overhead until finally they wheeled her into a cubicle.

“The doctor will be in soon, Poppy.”

“Thank you.” Nick watched her force out a smile to the two medics as they left her. She then looked around the room.

“You’re safe here.”

“I-I hate hospitals.”

“I worked that one out for myself. You want to tell me why?”

She didn’t, he could see that, but then she let out a loud breath.

“It’s not something I like to talk about.”

He didn’t speak. If she wanted to tell him, then he would listen, otherwise he would just support her for as long as she needed it.

“My brother and I were in a car accident. I remember the pain and then the ambulance ride to the hospital.”

“I never knew you had a brother.” 

“You never asked.”

And wasn't that the truth. He'd never asked her anything about herself because he'd been obsessed with himself.

“How bad were you hurt?”

“Broken tibia, fibula, femur and pelvis, internal bleeding, punctured lung, and broken ribs.

“Ouch.”

He watched the memories come and go across her face.

“I don’t remember much after arriving at the hospital. I heard Lucas call out my name and then nothing more. For days, I would wake occasionally only to have another nurse medicate me and then I’d sleep again.”

“How old were you?”

“Fifteen.”

“So, the reason you didn’t play sport in college or run anywhere was because you couldn’t?”

She nodded.

“And I never asked you why.” He was pretty disgusted with the self-obsessed jock he’d been.

“I told you because you asked. Nick, I don't want you to feel guilty.”

“I’m sorry just the same.” He hooked his foot around a chair leg and dragged it closer. “Was your brother badly hurt?” he said dropping onto it.

She looked away from him briefly and when she turned back, the pain in her eyes told Nick what she hadn’t said.

“Ah hell, Poppy.”

“Hell about sums it up,” Poppy whispered. “When he died, everything good in my life was taken away. He was the reason I smiled when I opened my eyes every morning. The only person I’ve ever truly loved.”

Nick remembered the look in her eyes sometimes when she didn’t know he was looking at her, the sadness. He’d just never asked her why.

“The words are inadequate, but I’ll say them, anyway. I’m sorry for your loss, Poppy. I’m doubly sorry you didn’t tell me, and that I could have been there for you if I'd been able to see past the end of my nose.”

“We, you and me, weren’t like that.”

He knew what she meant. They’d spent time together, and she’d helped him study, and he’d made her cool. It had been an odd relationship that he’d wanted but never worked out how to tell her that. Then he’d broken it.

“Y-you can go now,” she whispered.

“Sure, and then you’d have another reason to hate me.” Nick said, catching a tear as it slid down her check.

“Seriously, Nick, I’m ok. I can handle this.”

She was trying to offer him a reassuring smile, which only made her look more pathetic and made him angry because she was pushing him away, which he deserved.

They were strangers now.

“Shut up.”

“I’m too weak to argue with you, but tomorrow I’ll hate you again.” Nick snorted.

“You weak? Give me a break.”

“If I say I forgive you, will you go?”

He looked at her lying there, hurting. The strong indomitable Poppy Sylvester. She’d been one of the few girls in college who he could talk to. Someone who didn’t’ want anything more than friendship from him.

She’d given, he’d taken and the entire time he’d never once asked about her life. The entire time he’d been worrying about grades and football scouts, she’d grieving for everything that had been good in her life. She’d lost the only person she’d ever loved, and he hadn't known or cared.

 

Chapter Four

Nick had spent the hour Poppy had been gone for x-rays, sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chair that was too small for a man his size. He was currently reading a pamphlet about thorough hand washing, which as it turned out, he’d been doing wrong his entire life.

He’d spent the time thinking about the Poppy Sylvester he knew in college. Contained, quiet, with attitude when pushed hard enough. The girl who had dressed like a boy, and put up with his shit, and he’d never really worked out why until it was too late.

He’d forced her to listen to his teenage self-important BS for hours. Hell, she’d even listened to him discussing the upcoming plays he needed to work through for the next game.

Poppy, he’d found out too late, didn’t like football, but she hadn’t told him that until he’d ruined everything between them.

There weren’t many times in his life Nick was ashamed of something he’d done. For the most, since he’d grown into a halfway responsible adult, he’d been a good person. It was never nice to have the moments in your life when you weren’t, thrown in your face.

“Hey, you,” he got out of the chair as a nurse wheeled her in.

“It’s sprained, not broken,” Poppy said pointing to her arm that was now in a sling

“We’ve stitched her head wound, and the doctor would like to keep her in overnight,” the nurse said. “We need to monitor her concussion.”

“No,” Poppy said.

“Yes,” Nick said. “She’ll stay,” he added, overriding her.

“I don’t want to stay.”

“Tough.”

“Excellent, someone will be along shortly to take you to your room,” the nurse hurried out, clearly seeing an argument brewing.

“Before you launch at me, you’re going to listen to what I have to say, Poppy. First off, these people are medical professionals, you are not.”

“It’s my decision, Nick. I’ve been making them for years, and I don’t need any help from you. In fact you have no say in this.”

She’d clamped her lips together, making her look like one of his nieces or nephews when they were pissed about something.

“I’m pretty sure these people have a few letters after their names that suggest they’ve done years of study to back up their need to keep you overnight.”

“I can look after myself.” She couldn’t cross her arms, so she continued to glare at him.

The woman was way too cute.

“Second, if my memory serves me well, and it usually does, you studied business in college, not medicine. So, I’m going with the doctor’s diagnosis. Third,” he said, lifting a hand as she opened her mouth. “You’re pale, sick and have a head injury and unless you can assure me you have someone with a medical degree waiting to care for you at home, you’re not heading there anytime soon.”

“I hate hospitals and I don’t want to stay.”

“Answer the question,” Nick said, looking down at her.

“No, there’s no one at home, medical degree or not.”

Nick felt far too relieved there was no one waiting at home for her. No man, he clarified silently, but that didn’t mean she had no boyfriend. They may not be living together.

“Any family nearby you can call on? Mom or dad?”

She shook her head, and he could tell she wanted desperately to lie to him, but lying wasn’t in her nature. Something he’d always respected about her.

“Close friends?”

“Yes, but the one I’d call doesn’t live here,” she muttered.

He didn’t want to feel sad there weren’t a handful of people for Poppy to call on like he could. Not many people had five siblings, all living within spitting distance and enough relatives to populate a small island.

Nick tried to remember if he knew anything about her family. No. He hadn’t asked about them either.

“To my way of thinking, that settles it then.”

She sighed, and he watched as she slumped onto the bed, losing the stiffness and angst she had held on to for about five minutes.

“You win.”

“I usually do,” Nick said, knowing it would annoy the hell out of her.

He was subjected to a long look out of her red rimmed green eyes.

“I’m not going to say anything about that comment because without you today I would not have coped, but tomorrow that will change.”

“Fair enough.”

The nurse came back with the wheelchair, which Poppy said she didn’t need. Nick simply nudged her down into it.

“So see you, and thanks, Nick. Really,” she said to his chin.

“After everything we’ve been through, you’re just dismissing me?”

Her eyes shot to his. “What?”

“It really hurts, Poppy. I thought I meant more to you than that.”

“What?” She blinked.

“Us.” He pointed to her, then his chest. “It hurts you don’t take us seriously.”

The nurse made a tsking sound and glared at Poppy.

Poppy rolled her eyes. “Ignore him. This is a game we used to play in college.”

“I wondered if you’d remember that.”

“What game?” The nurse asked.

“To see who could make the other look bad in front of people by inventing some silly story. He was always the best at it because he was popular.”

He hadn’t thought she cared much about being unpopular. Of course, that had changed when they’d become friends. People had tolerated her then because of him.

“Go home, Nick. I release you from your duties.” She didn’t look at him, but the nurse. “Can I go to my room now please.”

“What floor are you taking her to?”

The nurse told him, and the room number.

“Bye,” Poppy said to his left ear. “Thanks again.”

She was wheeled away, and clearly thought he would leave and they’d never see each other again. Nick had other ideas.

He went to the cafeteria where Christmas carols played, and tired staff sat about eating crappy food. He ordered Poppy a coffee and some food. Was she allowed coffee? Then picked up a magazine from the gift shop. When he walked into her room, she was dressed in an ugly hospital gown, her cool forest green eyes locked on him as moved to her side.

“I thought you were going home.”

“You’re such good company I stayed. Nice dress.”

She looked small and vulnerable lying there, pale faced and scared, but trying not to show it.

“The nurse had to wrap the ties around twice. Seems they didn’t have my size.”

“Still, that prison wall pale grey really works for you. Brings out the red in your eyes.”

“Is that for me?” She pointed to the coffee.

“It is. I brought you some food and a magazine.”

“Really?”

“Why does me being generous surprise you so much?” Her response pissed him off.

“You weren’t generous in college. In fact, you were a self-satisfied loathsome jerk.”

“I always thought I admired your honesty.”

“I was never honest back then,” she muttered.

He thought seriously about not giving her the coffee, but then she was only being honest, and he likely deserved it. Even if her criticism was years too late.

“Sugar?” He held up the coffee.

“Three.”

“Three sugars? Who has that many these days?” Nick popped the lid and dumped in three packets. Luckily, he’d brought spares.

“Today, me.” She took it from him and drank. Her sigh came from the souls of her feet.

Nick wondered about the sounds she made while she was making love. Where the hell had that come from? It’s not like you’ll ever find out.

She took another mouthful of coffee. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be snippy.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard that word since you used it constantly in college.”

“You should head away now. I’m sure I’ve taken up more than enough of your time, and thanks again, Nick.”

Why did he not want to leave her alone? Yes, once they’d been friends, but now they were strangers.

“And what do you plan to do about your handbag, credit cards, and cell phone?”

“I… I forgot about them.”

Taking out his phone, he handed it to her. “At least one of us is thinking clearly. Seems that’s changed since college.”

“I have a concussion what’s your excuse?”

“Girls and hormones were clouding my thought processes then,” Nick said.

“How about now?”

“No, now I’m pretty much perfect.”

She flipped him her middle finger, but as it was the hand sticking out of her sling, it didn’t go so well. She moaned again, and the sound went to his groin.

“Poppy, If I say sorry again, years too late, will you forgive me?”

She looked up from his phone, and her smile didn’t reach her eyes.

“Unfortunately for you I can hold a grudge, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.”

 

Chapter Five

Poppy looked down at the cell phone in her hand again and then held it out to him.

“Just go home, Nick. Thank you again—”

“Shut up and make the calls.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up.”

“I won’t if you stop being an idiot.” His jaw was clenched. Eyes narrowed.

Why was he angry? She was the one he’d humiliated. Had his behavior today erased some of the hurt he’d inflicted in college? Yes. They’d both changed. He’d grown into a hot hunk of a man, that she was sure… her thoughts trailed off as she looked at him.

“What?”

“Are you married?”

“No. Why? You want to put your hand up to be my wife, Tinker Bell?” The frown on his face eased.

“No. I just wondered is all,” she mumbled.

“No significant other, either.”

She ignored the relief. Nick Atherton was nothing to her. Angry with her reaction, she started punching the number she knew by heart into his phone. First she rang the bank, next her neighbor to feed her cat and then she made the last call, the one she didn’t want to make but had too.

“Hi, Aunt Jenny. I’m totally fine, but I had a minor accident. Don’t freak out,” Poppy added quickly as her aunt shrieked. “I’m ok, truly. They’re just keeping me overnight for observation.”

She loved her aunt, but she could be dramatic.

“You are not flying here to look after me! I will call you tomorrow when I get home. If anyone needs to fly, it will be me to you, which I’m doing in a few weeks anyway for Christmas.”

She looked at Nick, who was listening to the conversation. A small smile on his handsome face.

“I won’t have my phone on me, Aunt Jenny, so don’t try calling me,” Poppy said. “No, there is no one you can talk to about my condition because the doctors are not—” the phone was pulled out of her hand.

“Hi, Aunt Jenny, this is Nick.”

“Give it back!” Poppy tried to grab the phone, but he just walked away from the bed.

“I’m a close friend of Poppy’s.”

“Don’t tell her that!” If Aunt Jenny thought she had a close male friend, her life would be hell. She’d be harassed from sunup to sundown. The bright lights would come out and there would be endless hours of relentless interrogation. Her aunt believed Poppy should be married by now and producing babies for her to spoil.

“Yes, we went to college together and reconnected recently.” He was a regular Chatty Cathy now.

She tried to climb out of bed, but the movement hurt her wrist.

“You just stay in bed, honey, I’ve got this,” Nick said with a smirk on his face.

Poppy looked for something to throw at him. Only her coffee cup was handy. She wasn’t giving that up.

He sent her a smug look as he continued to talk. Even annoyed with him, she couldn’t help but admire the way his butt looked in those faded jeans. Worn in all the right places. He was the quintessential sexy hunk. She wrote about men like him, tall, dark and far too handsome for their own good. Even his hair was perfectly tousled.

Poppy could only imagine what hers looked like but didn’t have the energy to care. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the pain that seemed to be in every part of her body.

“Sure, I’ll make her rest and she’ll call you in the morning. Yeah, you too, Aunt Jenny. Take care now, and Merry Christmas. She sends you her love,” Nick said, pocketing the phone.

“I’m too tired to be angry with you now, but I will be tomorrow when my aunt calls me every five minutes and then appears on my doorstep demanding to meet Nick.” Poppy yawned loudly. “You never understood personal boundaries.”

“Five siblings. Personal boundaries weren’t something any of us understood.”

“Your siblings have my sympathy.”

“Why? I’m a great older brother.”

“I’m sure. I mean you had to grow up at some stage I guess.”

He glared at her.        

“Nick, I was thinking about the mugging. There’s probably no chance of getting my bag back, but I think I should still report it.”

“I’ve called my cousin Billy. He’s a cop. He’ll be here soon.”

“You have a big family, don’t you?”  

“Huge. We have someone in most of the key occupations. There’s a doctor, pediatrics,” he added, shaking his head, which she guessed meant that field was of no use to him. “Dentist, lawyer, accountant, and two detectives. My cousin Tom plays American Football,” he added, looking at her as if she should be impressed.

Sport wasn’t her thing, so she shrugged.

“We’re lacking a few areas, but we’re hoping to work on that with the next generation.”

“You’re multiplying?” She tried to look shocked, but yawned instead.

“I have nieces and nephews who already know I’m their favorite uncle.”

She could tell by the look on his face he loved his family.

“There’s a sandwich and muffin in here.” He picked up a paper bag. “What do you want?”

“I just want to sleep, Nick. But thanks.”

“I told Aunt Jenny, I’d make you eat.”

“Ha.” Her eyes closed. “Go home.”

“No really. You don’t need to thank me again for reassuring your aunt.”

“Aha. Go away.”

“Nick. Hey, buddy.”

Poppy opened her eyes to watch a large dark-haired man approach Nick. There was no mistaking the blood tie between them, and she guessed this was police officer Billy.

“This is Poppy, bud. She was mugged today by some dude wearing a mask.”

Billy’s smile was like his cousin’s and reached his soft green-brown eyes. She didn’t get the same feeling in her belly like she did with Nick.

“Hey, Poppy, real sorry about what happened.” He took her good hand and squeezed it gently.

“It’s not your fault,” Poppy said. He looked so sincere.

“Billy takes his job seriously, don’t you, Detective Atherton?”

 “There are enough cops who don’t,” Billy said, ignoring his cousin’s teasing.

“Surely a detective must have better things to do than deal with a mugging,” Poppy said.

“When family calls, Atherton’s come.” Billy smiled again. He then started questioning Poppy gently but thoroughly until he had all the answers he needed.

She should probably tell them about her past, but then it was on her police file, and she was sure that hadn’t been him mugging her. He hadn’t spoken, and she couldn’t see his face, but still. She was fairly sure it wasn’t him, so there was no need to mention it she told herself.

“We probably won’t catch him, Poppy. I’m telling you that right off. But we’ll try.”

“Thank you anyway,” Poppy took his hand again.

“Is there anything else you can tell me about the mugger?”

“He wore a batman mask.”

“Yeah Nick told me that too. Anything else you can think off? Did he speak?”

“No. He just wanted my bag. It hadn’t been him. She had to believe that.

Her agent had forced her into the book tour, and she’d had to agree to appease publishers, but Poppy had hoped he’d stopped looking for her. She hadn’t had a phone call in months, so she’d hoped he’d moved on.

What if she’d been wrong.

“I’ll be out soon, Billy. I need a lift.”

“Take your time, bud.” Billy raised a hand and left.

Poppy closed her eyes on a sigh. She really needed to sleep and not think about the man who had ruined her life.

The soft touch of his lips on hers had them opening, and there he was, inches from her face.

“Sleep well, Poppy.”

“Th-thanks. See you around, Nick.”

“Count on it.” He kissed her again. This one longer, and because she was tired and her head all over the place, she didn’t push him away. Then he was gone.

Poppy closed her eyes and let sleep take her. Tomorrow was soon enough to think about today, her past, and Nick Atherton again, and how she should really still hate him, but wasn’t sure she had that in her anymore.

 

Chapter Six

Honeys was a bar Nick and his siblings had been going to for years. Always busy, tonight was no different as he made his way to the rear, passing tables full of patrons.
Brick walls, polished wood floors, and a big screen to watch the game on, it was a place that held good memories for Nick.

Michael Bublé was crooning when he entered, and the place was decked out for Christmas. A large tree stood in a corner with twinkling lights.

He raised his hand a few times, acknowledging those that knew him, and headed out the doors and into the garden bar where is family would be beside the outdoor heaters. On the second Friday of the month, this was where he and his siblings gathered. No parents, or partners, just Atherton sibling night.

“Three, Gracie. I shot three baskets to your one!”

Their voices reached him before he rounded the partition to find them all leaning on a table. Moving to his youngest sister, he wrapped his arms around her from behind, giving her a squeeze while rubbing his chin over her blonde head.

“Hey big brother,” Emma Atherton said, turning to plant a loud kiss on his cheek.

“Hey little sister.” Nick let her go, moving to the taller blonde to her right. “Gracie,” he said, doing the same with his chin.

“Nicky.” She patted the arm he had around her before continuing on with the conversation she was having with Thomas. The brother that sat between her and Em on the Atherton ladder.

He slapped hands and bumped chests with his brothers and then made for the space at the end of the table where a long, cool bottle of beer waited for him. Swallowing a mouthful, he looked at his siblings. They were a mixture. His sisters and Thomas were blonde, with brown eyes like their mother. Nick and Sam were dark with blue eyes like their father.

“What made you late, Nick?” Sam, the second eldest, questioned.

“I met a friend today, and she had some trouble.” Was Poppy okay? Or was she terrified and thinking about her brother? Nick hadn’t wanted to leave her. He’d wanted to sit in that uncomfortable chair and hold her hand if she got scared.

“What friend?”

“What trouble?”

He should have stayed.

“Nick!” Two fingers snapped in front of his face.

“What friend? What trouble?” Sam demanded.

Having a large family was the best, but sometimes you wanted to sit on something. Mull it around a while and talk about it when you were ready… or not.

“Spill,” Gracie said.

“Remember Poppy Sylvester.” Nick drank deep from his bottle.

“The writer?” Em screwed up her face, which made her look about ten.

“Didn’t you go to college with her?”

Nodding, Nick pointed his bottle at Sam.

“She was there, tops, two years, wasn’t she?” he added. “Weren’t you two friends or something?”

“We were.”

“Then something happened,” Sam added. “I don’t remember what.”

Yeah, I was a jerk,” Nick said.

“I remember those days. You thought you were the shit,” Gracie said.

“Thanks,” Nick drawled.

“How’d you meet her again today, and what kind of trouble?” Thomas asked.

As the lawyer in the family, he liked to get all the facts on the table straight away.

“I went to her book signing. I thought Aunty Jean might like a copy signed for her birthday,” he added to strengthen the reason he was there. Luckily, they bought it.

“How’d Poppy look?” Sam asked.

Hot. Nick thought about the body beneath that soft clingy dress, her lovely face and the mass of blonde hair piled on top of her head.

“She’s good,” he said. “Anyone ordered yet?” he added, hoping to throw them off Poppy and the inquisition he knew was coming. Food to the average Atherton was as vital as air for most people.

“Yeah yeah,” Sam waved his hand about.

“What did she say when she saw you?” Em asked.

He sighed.

“It’s all coming back to me now.” Gracie snapped her fingers. “You and Poppy were sort of friends and then suddenly you weren’t.”

“What’s a sort of friend?” Thomas asked.

“A friend sometimes, but only when you want something,” Sam added. “Nick was an asshole in college, remember?”

He glared at his brother. “Shouldn’t you be nice to me, seeing as I’m your blood?”

“Since when is that a thing?” Thomas said.

“Whatever, and she doesn’t remember college.”

“You’re lying,” Em said. “Your shoulders are up to your ears, which is a sign you’re seriously uncomfortable.”

“Okay, fine,” he snarled. “She remembered me, and signed the book, ‘to the arrogant asshole who made my final year in collage torture, may he rot in hell’, Poppy Sylvester.”
There was absolute silence after these words, for about five seconds, which must be some kind of record, Nick guessed. Sam then let out a bark of laughter and the others followed.

“Why were you such an asshole to her?” Em asked, recovering first. “I mean, you’re usually one of the good guys.”

“Love you too, baby,” Nick said.

“She wasn’t his usual kind of friend. Smart, shy, and dressed like a boy. Everyone thought he was friends with her because she could help him pass his exams.”

Nick glared at Sam. Had he really been that shallow?

“I’m just telling the truth.” Sam held up his hands.

Nick raised his middle finger.

“You said she was in some kind of trouble. What happened?” Thomas asked.

“I invited her out for coffee. She told me to get lost, and then walked away,” he said, omitting the part about taking her laptop. “Someone attacked her on the street. Before I could reach her, he’d thrown her to the sidewalk.” Nick remembered Poppy fall and him not able to reach her.

Em whistled while the others made several unflattering comments about the attacker.

“Is she all right?”

“Broken wrist, concussion and shaken up. That’s where I’ve been, with her in the hospital.”

“You need to tell Billy in case any of her stuff turns up,” Gracie said.

“Already done. He visited her before I left.”

Thankfully, the server arrived at that moment, so there was a move toward food, which Nick hoped would put an end to the conversation about Poppy.

“So, they got her bag?”

Apparently, food was not enough of a deterrent.

“Yup. Anyone watch the Hawks game last night?”

“Does she have friends and family looking after her now?” The most tenacious Atherton, Gracie, asked.

“No,” Nick said, only just refraining from pinching the bridge of his nose.

“You left her!”

“I stayed with her the entire time, in the ambulance and at the hospital. I brought her food and drink and then I even kissed her… Shit!” Nick lowered his forehead to the table in front of him and kept it there. He could feel the beer ring from his glass dampening his forehead but didn’t care.

You never mentioned kiss and woman in the same breath when your sisters were around. Brothers, yes, they just slapped your back and winked. Sisters no. They got all bent out of shape if you were kissing and running or kissing and staying or just kissing and they didn’t know the woman.

“You kissed an injured woman?”

Lifting his head, Nick said. “It was a comfort kiss. The woman is petrified of hospitals, Em, cut me some slack.”

“You gave a woman who wasn’t family a comfort kiss?”

“Shut up! All of you,” he added, sending a menacing look around the table his younger siblings knew well. “Now I want to drink, eat and hear all your news. I do not want to hear one more word about Poppy Sylvester. Is that understood?”

“Just one more question,” Em said. “Does she have family or friends who can take her home from the hospital? Because if not, who will? She can’t take a cab, surely?”

“I’ll take her home! Now shut up.”

Em sat back on her stool with a satisfied smile that unsettled him, but he rallied.  

“How’d your day in court go, bro?” he asked Thomas.

Thankfully, the others started talking, and everyone, but him, forgot Poppy.

Was she okay?

They laughed, joked and talked serious when serious talk was required, and at midnight, they called it quits.

“See you at home on Sunday, twelve, right?” he said to his siblings when he reached his car. “Is Gracie still picking up Aunt Jean on the way?”

“Yes, and seeing as you already got a gift, we’ll leave you out of the whip round,” Gracie said. “But you get to man the grill, otherwise dad will burn everything.”

Nick nodded and then he realized he would need to get Poppy to sign another book for his aunt now. He started the car, then sat tapping the steering wheel for several seconds before putting it in drive. Turning left instead of right, which would take him to his home he headed to the hospital.

 

Chapter Seven

Walking through the hospital emergency department doors, Nick took the elevator to Poppy’s floor. It wasn’t late and the place still had plenty of people walking the corridors, so he didn't get too many side eyes. He nodded and smiled and wondered if someone was going to stop him getting in to see Poppy.

“Can I help you?” The woman behind the reception desk said as he approached. She looked tired, and there was a stain on her uniform he was fairly sure he didn't want to know the origin of. He checked her name badge.

“Hey, Sally. Long day?”

Her face moved into a smile, and then a yawn.

“The longest.”

“How long you got left of your shift?”

She looked at the clock behind him on the wall. “An hour.”

“Not long then.” Nick smiled.

“I’m getting drive through.” Her smile grew.

“Nice. Look, I know it's midnight and visiting hours are long over. Sally, it’s just that my friend is terrified of hospitals, and I’d like to check on her before I head home. I’ve had at least ten panicked text messages about her death if she has to stay in here. I just need to settle her down for the night.”

He had no problem lying it if was for the greater good.

“I’m really sorry. We can’t allow that.”

“She’s in a room on her own. If she’s sleeping, I’ll leave,” Nick said, giving her a slow smile, the one Poppy said opened zippers in college.

“Well…”

“You can come with me if you like, just to make sure I’ll behave. I’d be doing the next shift in a favor. When Poppy goes off, she goes off. No calming her when the fear takes hold. Once, she bit the arm of a nurse, and kicked another in the stomach. Then there was that time she just took off with that thing in her arm. I had to bring her back.”

“The IV?” the nurse asked, now looking worried.

“That,” Nick pointed at her. Sally looked like she was wavering, so went for the sympathy vote.

“She had a real rough time as a kid in hospital. It’s scarred her. If you’ll just come with me, I’ll check and then go—”

“It’s all right, Sally. Let him see the patient. He came in with Miss Sylvester today, and I know she’s nervous,” the doctor who had admitted poppy approached the desk. By Nick’s calculations, the guy had been working for ten hours straight and looked about ready to drop.

“Cheers, Doc, I won’t stay long,” Nick said. He walked softly past doors until he reached hers. Pushing it open, he saw the room was lit by a small wall light. Tiptoeing around the bed, he looked down at her.

“Nick?” her eyes were open.

“Hey, Poppy, you should be sleeping.” Her hair was tangled around her head, and she was lying propped on several pillows, looking uncomfortable.

“I don’t want to stay here anymore. Smuggle me out, please.” Her voice was husky.

“You been laying there thinking about that since I left?”

“I hate hospitals and I want to go home.”

“And here’s me without my violin,” Nick drawled.

“Asshole.”

“True,” he said, hooking a leg around the chair behind him. Nick dragged it forward.

“What are you doing here, Nick? Surely there’s a woman somewhere waiting for you?

“No, I gave her the night off, and the hospital is on my way home,” he lied, dropping into the chair.

“It’s late. How is being here anything to do with going home?”

“It was Atherton night. We never finish till twelve.”

She studied him through eyes filled with pain and exhaustion. Unable to stop himself, he lifted a hand and brushed a curl off her forehead.

“Your family has a night?”

“We tried to pass a bill through congress, but they wouldn’t give us a whole day, so we go for a night. Every second Friday each month is for us, just siblings with no extras.”

“Extras being?” She asked.

“Cousin, parents, nieces and nephews, aunt, uncles, friends, and parents,” Nick said.

“Are they all like you?”

Nick brushed her hair away again, because he liked touching her and she seemed to relax when he did.

“Hot and intelligent?”

“Arrogant and annoying,” Poppy added.

“Pretty much. Atherton night is held in a bar called Honey’s,” Nick said, resting his elbow on the bed beside her head.

“I bet it’s a real classy joint.” Her smile was small, but still a smile.

“Honey’s is gold standard. I’ll have you know. Spareribs that are rare and covered in sauce so hot you need two cool your mouth down in between bites.”

“My tummy’s rumbling.”

Nick heard the yawn she tried to stifle, so he kept talking.

“I’m the oldest Atherton at thirty-one and then comes Sam. He’s twenty-nine. We’re in business together.”

“What kind of business?”

“Architecture and construction.”

“I thought you studied finance in college?” She sounded sleepy and looked really cute lying there rumpled. So cute he wanted to lie down and pull her into his arms.

“Yea, I guess it just wasn’t my thing.” Nick picked up a lock of her hair and ran it through his fingers.

“But you were such a swot,” she said in mocking tones. Nick had hated studying. He’d made her help him with assignments. The more he thought about his time spent with the younger Poppy, the more he realized he was a selfish shit head.

“If you’re going to keep interrupting, my family history will take longer to tell.”

“Sorry.”

“Next comes twenty-seven-year-old Gracie. Tall and blonde, she’s the numbers girl in the family. After her comes Thomas, twenty-five. He’s the facts man as the family lawyer and then lastly is the baby, Emma. Twenty-two, she’s a teacher.”

“I had no idea there were so many of you,” Poppy said sounding drunk on tiredness now. “I thought anyone as arrogant as you were in college had to be an only child.”

“You weren’t a total picnic in college either, Poppy. Always bristling with suppressed rage, snarling and spitting at me whenever I got within a foot of you.”

“You are not putting me in the same category of asseholery as you, surely?”

He ran his hand over her head in soft, slow movements. This used to put Em to sleep when she was a child. Her head felt small under his palm.

“I’m sorry if I was mean to you, Poppy, or you felt like I took advantage of you.”

She turned her head to lock eyes with him, their faces now inches apart.

“You need to stop this, Nick. I’ve hated you for so long. I’m not sure I can change my opinion this late in life.”

Her words were whispered. All he’d need to do was lean in and he could kiss her. He fought the urge. Now was not the time, but soon he vowed.

“It wasn’t all bad until the end. There was that one time, when that assface with the long blonde hair who used to play the guitar, knocked me off my feet as he ran by,” Poppy said.

“Morrison Kemble, one of those skateboarding idiots,” Nick said, remembering how much he hated the guy.

“Yeah him. You appeared from nowhere, picked me up, asked me if I was okay and then punched Kemble in the mouth.” She smiled at the memory.

He remembered that day. Still felt the rush of anger at seeing Poppy fall. Nick hadn’t been a total asshole all the time, just most of the time.

“Do me a favor, Poppy, don’t tell my sisters that story. They already think I have a hero complex.”

“Kay,” she whispered.

“I’ll be here in the morning to take you home.”

“D-don’t have to.”

He didn’t speak again, just sat there stroking her hair until she’d finally stopped fighting and fallen asleep. Her body slowly relaxed as he continued his movements until he was sure she was really out. Only then did he stop.

Nick didn’t want to leave her alone to wake up in the scary hospital, but he also knew he couldn’t stay here. He’d be back as soon as he could in the morning. Looking down at her, he wondered how she’d worked her way into a place inside his chest in such a short space of time.

They hadn’t been friends in college, kind of, he added. But Nick had a feeling this could be more.

She moved and then moaned in her sleep as something in her sore body tugged. She then resettled on her back, arm resting on her chest. Finding a spare pillow in the cupboard beside her bed, he placed it beside her and lifted her injured arm onto it. She didn’t wake, exhausted, she slumbered on. Placing a soft kiss on top of her head, he then sat for another thirty minutes. When he was sure she wouldn’t wake, he left. Walked out of the room before he followed his impulse and stayed the night.

But he’d be back, and something inside him that this time he may be sticking.

 

Chapter Eight

Poppy woke as she moved, and her body let her know how much that would hurt. Biting back a moan, she rose on her good elbow and looked around the room.

“You’re an idiot,” she muttered. She’d thought he might be here, but of course he’d gone home. Sleeping in a hospital chair beside a woman you only met again yesterday wasn’t realistic, she reminded herself. A needy, slightly crazy woman, she amended.

Memories of Nick coming to see her late last night filtered through her head. He’d talked about his family. She heard the love he had for his siblings as he talked. Pride too. His large, warm hand on her head had put her to sleep.

That man is dangerous, Poppy thought. Dangerous because he was hot and had charm. He’d been hot in college, but the charm had been missing.

He had done for her what he would have done for anyone because he was a good guy now, Poppy reminded herself. Sometime during the hours she’d spent with him, she’d realized that fact. He was a man who cared for others and had changed from the spoilt college boy into a man who cared, and that shook her.

At first, she’d not wanted to acknowledge that. Poppy had held onto her dislike of Nick Atherton, and now that would need to be adjusted. The big guy had stopped the panic yesterday and made sure she knew she wasn’t alone. She’d needed that.

It wasn’t just his looks; it was his manner. He had cared what happened to her and Poppy didn’t have too many people who did that. Which was on her, because Poppy didn’t like to get close. Opening up to someone had taught her that was the path to being hurt.

“Good morning, Miss Sylvester.”

Poppy watched the doctor walk toward her.

“Good morning. Will I be able to go home soon, Doctor?”

“I’ll let you know in a few minutes.”

Two hours later, Poppy was in a wheelchair being pushed out of the hospital wearing yesterday’s dress and carrying her laptop and heels. She’d decided to go when the doctor discharged her, simply because she didn’t want to wait around for Nick. Yesterday she’d been emotional, today she was thinking more clearly. The man made her go weak at the knees, and Poppy had no time for that in her life, so she was leaving in a taxi.

Climbing into the back of the cab like an old lady, she was soon heading for home.

They had given her some pain killers so her wrist wasn’t unbearable and her body was just one big dull ache instead of the throbbing pain she had experienced earlier. Getting out of the cab twenty minutes later, she realized she had no keys to get into her house. Walking barefoot up the path with her laptop and red shoes she found the large pot plant and tried to ignore the screams of ‘water me’ from its wilting leaves as she bent at the waist to retrieve the key from beneath the stone she’d put in there.

“Hello, Poppy. Did you have a good night?”

“Oh hey, Mrs. Leibowitz,” she said to the elderly neighbor who was standing behind her in her doorway. She’d only been living here a few months, but her neighbor had been the first to knock on her door when she moved in, and had been doing so daily ever since.

“Who was the lucky guy?”

“Pardon?” Where the hell was the key? Poppy knew she’d put one under this stone. She dug her fingers into the soil.

“You’re in yesterday’s dress and carrying those sex heels,” Mrs. Leibowitz added.

Tall and thin with the constitution of a professional athlete, Poppy’s neighbor could eat whatever she wanted and not put on a pound. She ran five miles a day and worked out with other seniors down at the rec center twice weekly.

She put Poppy to shame.

“I fed Hercules, so don’t let him fool you.”

Poppy knew she’d have to rise from her bent position at some stage, and when she did, Mrs. Leibowitz would see the damage she’d done to herself. Sighing, she dug deeper into the soil and found the key. Straightening, she turned.

The shriek was loud enough to ensure every other resident on the street heard her.

“I’m all right, Mrs. Leibowitz. I just had an accident and had to spend the night in the hospital.”

“Get inside that house at once. Look at you all bruised and broken!” The woman ran to her, long silver braids bouncing on her shoulders. Dressed in pink leggings and a fitted exercise shirt, she had the body of a teenager and the face of an eighty-year-old cowboy who’d spent every day in the sun.

She was ushered inside, then nudged toward the stairs.

“No tree yet, Poppy, we need to fix that this week.”

“I’ll get around to it, I promise,” Poppy lied. She hadn’t put a Christmas tree up in two years.

“Wash off the blood,” Mrs. Leibowitz said like she’d been in a gunfight, and it was dripping off her. “Don’t get your injuries wet. Do you need help?”

“I got it,” Poppy said, shuffling into the bathroom. Closing the door on Mrs. Leibowitz telling Hercules she would not be conned in to giving him more food, she moved to the toilet and sat… fell, actually.

Exhaustion rolled over her in waves. Resting her head on the wall, she thought about Nick. Would he try to find her? She felt the sting of tears that maybe he wouldn’t.

“That’s enough of that,” Poppy rose. Easing her sling off, she removed her clothes, trying to minimize the pain. Turning on the shower, she stepped into the warm water and sighed.

Nick was not part of her life, just as that other man who had hurt her was no longer a problem. She was not letting any man dictate her actions anymore, she’d been doing that for too long. Pep talk over she shut off the water.

“You all right in there?”

“Doing good thanks, Mrs. Leibowitz!”

“I can help you dress.”

“No need.”

“If you’re sure?”

“Perfectly sure!”

“I’m making you chicken noodle soup.”

“Yum,” Poppy said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Mrs. Leibowitz was heavy-handed on the salt and herbs.

Dragging her body out, she pulled on a baggy t-shirt and shorts. Looked in the mirror at her pale, bruised face. Her hair could simply stay a tangled mess. Brushing her teeth, she left the shower to the scents of vegetables being boiled to mush and fell onto the sofa.

Closing her eyes, Poppy sighed. She wondered what Nick was doing.

 

Chapter Nine

Nick walked into the hospital with a bunch of flowers and his sister, Emma. He’d woken early, even though he’d gone to bed late. Poppy had woken him, and his worry for her, lying there alone and vulnerable in a hospital bed.

After a shower, he’d pulled on clothes and been about to head out the door when his youngest sister had arrived carrying two to go cups of coffee.

“Remind me again why you’re here?”

“Poppy may need a woman to help her,” Emma said, smiling at the man behind the reception desk as they walked past.

“And the flowers are for?”

“Everyone needs flowers when they’re in hospital, idiot. It makes them feel like someone cares,” Emma added, stabbing the button for the elevator with a fiery red fingernail.

“Silly me,” Nick said, following her inside.

“I also had some time off today, so I thought I’d spend it with my favorite brother.”

Nick wasn’t fooled by that or the sweet smile accompanying it. “You said the same thing to Sam at Honey’s last night.”

“I was lying then. I’m telling the truth now.”

He studied his baby sister for several seconds as they rose to Poppy’s floor. She didn’t avoid his gaze once, even though she was lying through her perfectly spaced front teeth. Teeth that had cost his parents a lot of money, because she’d worn a retainer for years.

“You’re good.”

“I learned from the best,” she said as the doors opened and she sailed out.

“We’re here to see Miss Sylvester and take her home if she’s ready,” Nick said to the woman in pale blue manning the desk this morning. “I know it’s early, but we can wait with her.”

She frowned, then looked at something on the screen before her.

“Miss Sylvester has been discharged.”

“What? When?”

“About an hour ago. Is there a problem?” The woman looked up at him.

“She has a concussion and broken arm and you let her go? Who picked her up?” Anger surged through him.

“She was cleared to go, therefore we had no right to stop her. We called her a taxi,” she added, thinking that made everything better, when in fact it made it worse for Nick.

“A taxi! You put an injured woman into a taxi!”

“All right, that’s enough, Nick.”

He felt himself turned and then two hands were on his back, pushing him toward the lift.

“What the hell are you doing, Em?”

“Getting you out of here before we’re thrown out.”

“I was just attempting to find out where Poppy was,” Nick said as he was pushed back into the elevator. “What idiot, let’s an injured woman leave alone.”

“You were making a scene, and while it was pleasing to see you showing so much emotion over a woman, I don’t think this is the place.”

“It’s to do with being careless and nothing to do with showing emotion,” Nick snapped. “She’s a friend who’s not thinking clearly. She should have waited for me to take her home.”

“Right, so you’re angry because she got into a taxi, but if her boyfriend had picked her up, then you’d have been fine with that?” Emma said.

“What boyfriend? How do you know she has a boyfriend?” Nick growled without thinking.

“Hypothetically speaking.”

Nick glared at his sister, who just smiled back at him now.

“You’re behaving irrationally, which I have to say I kinda like, because it doesn’t happen often.”

“I’m telling dad you’ve been seeing that loser with the nose piercing and motorbike.”

“You wouldn’t!” Emma hissed, the smile falling from her face.

“Try me.”

Nick knew he’d get about a minute’s reprieve before she started talking again. Em was never one for silence.

“How come you’re irrationally angry?”

“I’m not irrationally angry. I just don’t think you should let a woman who has a concussion and injured arm leave without checking she has support to look after her.”

“You think the hospital staff would have time to check that every patient they discharge has someone to support them when they get home?”

When she laid it out like that, it made him sound irrational. Not that’d he’d admit it.

“You like her, and that’s why you’re being irrational.”

“Drop it, Em.”

Emma ran alongside him as he stalked out of the hospital seconds later and back toward his pickup. Wrenching open the car door, he jumped in. Turning on the ignition, he waited until Em’s seatbelt clicked and then they were off.

“Do you even know where she lives, Nick?”

“Yes, I filled out her forms.”

His sister thankfully stayed silent while he negotiated the traffic and tried to cool his temper before he reached Poppy’s house.

He was angry, and it was irrational, but knowing she’d left alone got to him. Poppy had been scared and hurting last night. Chances were she was still those things this morning.

And you care about her.

He shelved that thought as he parked outside the small brick house a while later. Getting out, he headed up the path to the front door. He’d have plenty to say to little Miss Sylvester when he got hold of her.

“I hope you’re going to greet her with that look on your face.”

Ignoring these words, Nick rapped on the front door. No one answered quick enough, so this time he lifted his fisted and hammered that against the panel.

“Will you chill out,” Em hissed from beside him. “She’ll take one look at your face and have a relapse.”

“I’m coming!” He heard Poppy yell.

The door opened, and there she stood.

“No chains or locks on your door, Poppy?”

“What?” she looked confused as she took in him and then Emma, who stood behind him.

“You opened the door, and I didn’t hear you unlocking it or sliding a chain across,” he said with a patience he was far from feeling.

Seeing her was heating him up all over again, and this time not because she was hurting and vulnerable. Not because that sling told him she was hurting, this was more than that.

She wore a faded pair of cutoff denim shorts that exposed her lovely legs. An old sweatshirt that was falling the slender shoulder that didn’t wear a sling. He saw no straps beneath, so he figured that meant she was braless, and that made his body heat more. Her hair was wet and falling in tangles about her shoulders. She looked like a bloody wet dream, except for the pale cheeks and brace, of course. Dropping his eyes to regroup, he noted her bare feet and soft pink toenails.

“It’s daytime. Why would I lock up when the sun is still up, Atherton?”

“You think the bad men only come out at night, Poppy?” Nick said, dragging his eyes back up her body.

“Seeing you on my doorstep, I may have to revise that opinion.”

He refused to be amused, so he scowled at her. “And there was me thinking we’d turned that corner yesterday.”

She didn’t answer him, instead gave her head a little shake and then looked behind him.

“You’re obviously his sister because no woman would have him,” she said, much to the delight of Em, who laughed loudly. “You want to tell me why you’re here and why he’s so pissed?”

“Emma, this is Poppy Sylvester, belligerent writer and general all-round pain in my ass.”

“Hey, Poppy,” Emma said, nudging him in the ribs, so he’d step aside. “Nick brought these for you.”

What was it about some woman and flowers, Nick wondered as Poppy’s face softened when she took them and immediately buried her face in the bright blooms. Still, if they worked, why fight it?

“Let me in and I’ll tell you why I’m here,” he said, crowding her by moving into her space.

She took a step backward. “I don’t want visitors. I want to sleep all day, eat chocolate and watch T.V.”

“Tough.” He placed a hand on her stomach and nudged her back another step. “Although the chocolate sounds good.”

Having had manners hammered into him endlessly by his father, Nick then waved Em to go first. Even though she was a sister, she still qualified as female and if he didn’t, she make him pay.

“Why the hell did you leave the hospital before I got there, Poppy?”

Nick and Em followed Poppy through the house to the kitchen, where she put the flowers on the bench before opening a cupboard above the sink and collecting a vase.

“Nice kitchen.”

And it was, Nick thought, agreeing with his sister. The walls were white, and it wasn’t overloaded with stuff like some woman did to their kitchens. Compact, but it had a comfortable feel about it.

“You did enough for me yesterday. I didn’t think you would come back for round two.”

“Nick has a hero complex,” his sister said.

“I did wonder. He’s changed since college, is my guess?”

“Oh definitely. Even I couldn’t stand him back then,” Em said.

“You finished?” he glared at her. “You’re meant to be on my side, you know.”

“I didn’t say I don’t love you,” Em said and then poked out her tongue. “Can I use your bathroom, Poppy?”

“Second on the left, down the hall.”

For the second time, he moved into her space.

“What are you doing? Back away.” Poppy now had a flower pressed to her chest as she backed into the cabinet. Nick braced his hands on the bench on either side of her. Not touching her but close.

“I told you I’d pick you up.”

“I-ah, didn’t have your number, and they had discharged me.”

“And that’s bullshit.” He leaned in closer so their faces were inches apart. “You left because you were scared.”

She tried to scoff, but it came out like a choking sound.

“Scared of this.” He whispered the words softly, his mouth inches from hers.

 

Chapter Ten 

She’d thought the kiss would be hot and hard, instead it was soft. He took her lips on a sensual journey that had her biting back a moan. One hand moved to the waist, the other slid under her hair to stroke the skin of her neck above the sling. 

Their bodies weren’t touching. He kept his distance because of her arm, Poppy knew that. But she was fairly sure she was going to melt right there in her kitchen.

“I said I’d take you home because you told me there was no one else.” The words were whispered against her lips.

“I-I’m not your responsibility.” She should pull back, but the hand on her neck was kneading her muscles, and it felt so good.

“I don’t do things I don’t want to. I wanted to pick you up.” His lips took hers again. This kiss was harder, more insistent.

“We shouldn’t be doing this, Nick,” she whispered.

“We should and will,” his lips brushed hers, “but not until you’ve stopped hurting.” His hand slid to her ass briefly where he squeezed, and then he pulled away. She felt like he’d branded her. Poppy’s entire body ached with the need for more.

“Coffee?” Emma, Nick’s sister, said, coming back into the room. Her eyes went from her brother to Poppy. Her smile was knowing, and Poppy’s face flushed with color.

“I’ll make it.”

“How? You have your arm in a sling,” Nick said. “Let Em do it. She’s the lazy Atherton. It’ll be a change watching her do something.”

“Ha, funny.” Emma punched brother in the arm as she passed him on her way to the coffee machine. “You tell her off about leaving the hospital?”

“Sure. Not convinced she listened though,” Nick said, prowling around her space and making it feel like the walls were closing in.

Poppy wasn’t used to considering others when she made decisions. Her aunt and her neighbors were the only people she cared about.

“Do you have siblings, Poppy?” Emma asked.

“Em—”

“It’s okay, Nick. I had a brother. He died when I was younger,” Poppy said.

“I’m sorry.” Emma headed Poppy’s way. She was then hugged gently. “That must have really sucked.”

“Ah, yeah it did.” Poppy dropped into a seat after she was released.

These Atherton’s were overpowering. Open and emotional, something she’d never been. Poppy kept everything inside her. She could only imagine what their family gatherings were like.

The other woman went back to the coffee and started pouring it into the mugs she’d taken from the shelf above. Poppy’s eyes found Nick again. He’d moved a chair, so it was close to hers, and sat.

He was unshaved and wore another faded t-shirt and this time shorts that stopped a few inches from above his knees.

“Hey, pretty girl, eyes up here.” He said the words so only she could hear. Her eyes shot to his. There was a smug smile on his face now.

Emma put a mug in front of both of them and then took a seat.

“I’m sorry I left the hospital without letting you know.” Poppy said when the silence settled around them.

“Okay, you’re forgiven,” Nick said.

“Yeah, it’s not like we’d don’t mess up constantly,” Emma said. “Aunt Jean’s going to be pretty happy with your book, especially as you signed it personally, Poppy,” Emma said. “You’re her favorite author. She has read everything you’ve written and was going to come to your signing, but got held up.”

“That’s very nice,” Poppy said feeling guilty about what she’d actually written in his book now. Especially after what he had done for her yesterday.

She shot Nick a quick look. The smirk on his face told her he knew what she was thinking..

“Didn’t you lose that book yesterday helping me, Nick?”

“I did, Poppy, any chance of another copy,” he said, shooting her a wicked look.

Not being a good liar herself, it always impressed Poppy when someone could lie without blushing or lowering their eyes. Nick was good, he didn’t even flinch.

“Sure, I’ve got a couple of copies upstairs. I’ll get one now.”

“I can get it. You’re injured. Just tell me where it is?”

She tried to rise, but Nick held her down. “Let Em get it. You’re hurting and tired.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Poppy said.

“Not sure why’d you be different, we all have to,” Emma said, getting out of her seat. “Where are they?”

“The copies are on my desk.”

She opened her mouth to tell him what she thought about his bossy attitude, and he turned her chin and kissed her again.

“Stop that,” she pushed him away.

“I enjoy kissing you.”

“Look, Nick. This—”

“Got them.” Emma ran back into the room. “How come you have no Christmas tree or decorations, Poppy.”

“I haven’t got them up yet.”

“Want help?” Emma asked.

“No, I’m all good.”

“Got plans for the weekend, Poppy?” Nick asked her.

“Not much. I’m going to rest and write.”

“Awesome that you’re not busy because we’re having a party for Aunt Jean and she’d love you to come. Nick told her all about meeting you and she asked me to invite you this morning,” Emma said.

“I don’t think I can make it.”

“Sure you can.” Nick got out of his seat. He then dumped his coffee down the sink, and his sister followed. “I’ll pick you up at 2:00 pm tomorrow.”

“I don’t think I can go,” she followed as they left the kitchen and headed to the door.

They both stepped outside. Nick turned on the doorstep while his sister kept walking.

“I’ll pick you up at 2. Be ready.”

“I—” he kissed her. When she’d regained her wits, he was by his car. She watched them leave.

“Well hell.”

 

Chapter Eleven

Nick pounded in another nail. He and Sam had arrived to find the wrong timber delivered and the owner having a change of heart over the remodeling plans. They’d spent an hour talking things through until the client was happy, but that had put them behind.

“You know, we could just get one of the boys to do this, right?”

“If you stopped moaning, we’d be done by now,” Nick said.

It was true the Atherton family had money and he and Sam had made a success of their business and didn’t need to work the tools if they didn’t want to, but both enjoyed it.

Nick loved the physical side of building.

“How’s Poppy?” Sam asked.

“How should I know?”

“Em said you were pissed when she left the hospital before you arrived and that you went to see her.”

“If you knew that, then why are you asking me about her?”

His family had a grapevine that could spread quicker than a bush fire, and Em was usually the one with her finger on everyone’s pulse.

“Yeah, but it’s more fun trying to get the story out of you.”

Nick threw down his hammer and glared up at his brother. Perched on the top of a tall ladder, he was grinning like an idiot.

“What story? For fuck’s sake, I helped a friend. Is that a crime in this family?”

“Em said you kissed her again.”

“So what? She’s hot.”

“And that’s another thing,” Sam continued, now perched on the top of the ladder like a butt ugly bird. “You’re angry, which means you’re invested.”

“How do you figure that?”

Nick knew he was making things worse. He usually ignored this kind of teasing, but he was hot and, yes, worried about Poppy and her sore body, all alone in that house.
If it was him injured, his family would have started a roster system and he’d have a fridge stocked with chicken dumplings and a dozen cakes by now. But Poppy didn’t seem to have anyone to look out for her and it was just plain wrong.

He wanted to see her. It was that simple. He had three days to wait until he could pick her up and take her to Aunt Jean’s birthday. It felt too long.

Sam made several loud juvenile kissing noises that had Nick stepping closer to the ladder, intending to shake it, so his brother fell. His phone rang, stopping him.

“You’re lucky,” he said, jabbing a finger Sam’s way. Pulling out his phone, he looked at the caller ID, and then answered.

“Hey you.”

“Someone broke into my house and it’s really bad, Nick. The mess I mean,” Poppy said, her voice high pitched and shaky down the phone.

“Are you inside now? Are they still there, Poppy?”

“No, they were gone when I got back.”

“Get out and go next door to a neighbor, Poppy.”

“They’re—”

“Just do it. I’ll be there soon.” Jamming the phone back into his pocket. Nick watched his brother jump to the ground, all teasing gone from his face.

“Gotta go. Poppy’s house has been robbed. She just called.”

“What! Shit, that woman has bad luck. What’s her address? I’ll send Billy over, then come and see if you need any help.”

Nick told him and then ran for his pickup. Throwing his tool belt in the back, he then jumped into the driver’s seat. In seconds, he was pulling away from the curb.

The traffic wasn’t bad, but it still took him twenty minutes to get there. He ran up her path and was pushing open the front door seconds after he’d parked.

“Jesus.” The house was wrecked. Furniture overturned, stuff dumped out of drawers.

Someone had come through here in a rage.

He shouted Poppy’s name but got no response, which told him she’d hopefully done what he said, and gone to a neighbor.

Once he’d checked the lower floor, Nick ran up the stairs.

He found Poppy standing by her bed.

“I told you to get out of the house.”

She spun to face him, clutching a huge tabby cat under her arm, the other one was in a sling. Pale and wide eyed, Poppy wore leggings a t-shirt, and was shoeless. Her hair hung in scruffy ringlets down her spine, and he wanted to pick her up and walk out of here. Tell her everything was going to be all right.

“Are you all right?” His voice came out a rasp.

It surprised him to see anger, not fear, in her eyes. They had dark smudges beneath and were bloodshot, but there was no doubting the fire in the green depths.

“I went to the store and came home to this,” she said, her voice shaking with anger. “Why would anyone want to do this to me?”

“I don’t think the type of people who did this needed a reason, honey,” he said, moving to her side, where he lifted a hand and ran it slowly down her spine. It was rigid, and he realized she may appear in control, yet she was shaking like a leaf. “They were probably looked for money, or something to sell.”

“Come here,” he added, tugging her into his chest for his own sake as much as hers.

“You want to drop the fur ball,” Nick said as he felt a claw dig into his stomach.

“Hercules,” she said, putting the cat on the bed and then turning to throw herself at him. Nick just grunted and caught her. Wrapping his arms around her, he held her close. Her good hand gripped a handful of his shirt while she tried to get closer.

“It’s all right now, Poppy, I have you.”

“Again.”

“Again,” Nick confirmed. “Easy now we don’t want to hurt you anymore than you’re already hurting.”

“You’ve saved me twice now.”

“Superhero complex.” His words came out muffled because he had his face buried in her hair.

“I hated you once.”

“And now you can’t get enough of me,” Nick said, looking around the room as he held her head into his chest. Some assholes had trashed the place. It was quick and the result destructive and he wanted to find the bastards and make them hurt as much as Poppy was right now.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Nick, but you stink.” She eased out of his arms.

He laughed as she wrinkled her nose.

“I’m a builder, Popsicle, hot, sweaty work. Had I known it offended you, I would’ve stopped for a shower.”

She chewed her lip as her eyes once again looked around her bedroom. “I don’t know why I called you.”

She’d lost the fire and suddenly looked like a small lost child.

“I’m glad you did. How about putting on some shoes? There’s glass everywhere.”

He watched as she moved to the closet. When she reappeared, she was wearing rainbow colored slippers with unicorns all over them.

“Nice.”

“My neighbor got them for me.”

“She’s got great taste.” He pulled her in for another hug because she looked scared. Pressing his lips to her head.

“It’s going to be okay, baby. But no touching anything now, Poppy. Billy will be here soon, and he’ll need to see everything as it is now, okay?

“My home is about to be overrun with Atherton’s again,” she sighed.

  

Chapter Twelve

“Nick?”

“Up here, Billy.”

“Sam will take a look around and then we can get the place cleaned up.”

She managed a nod. Why had this happened to her? Was it random, or did someone hate her that much they’d destroyed the inside of her house?

“Stop thinking. I can see it’s hurting your head,” Nick said.

“Someone just entered my home and did all this,” she waved a hand around. “I’m entitled to think about it.”

Before Nick could reply, his cousin walked in through the door.

“Hey, Poppy.” Sam Atherton’s smile was like Nick’s, and then she was engulfed in another gentle hug.

The Athertons were huggers. It was disconcerting because Poppy wasn’t. It’s not that she didn’t like it exactly, she just wasn’t used to it.

“Really sorry this happened to you, and so close on the heels of that mugging,” Billy said, releasing her.

“Thanks.”

“I’m going to take a look around now, Poppy, then I want to ask you some questions.”

“Ok.”

“You’re shivering,” Nick said.

“And I repeat, someone broke into my house and did this.” She waved a hand about again. “Shivering and thinking, is all part of processing, I’m sure.”

“You’ve go such a smart mouth,” Nick said, moving to her closet.

“What are you doing?” Poppy asked when he looked inside.

“Here. Put this on.” He handed her a hoodie. It was her writing sweatshirt. Big and sloppy. When she didn’t move fast enough, he held it out.

“Hand up.”

“I can put my sweatshirt on, Nick.”

“Your arm is in a sling.”

“The other one works.” Her words were muffled as he dropped it over her head. He then leaned in and kissed her before joining Sam, who was looking at the words written on her desk pad.

The man needed to stop kissing her like that, she could get too used to it.

“Nick?” a voice called from downstairs.

“Up here, Em.”

“Do you people do everything as a unit?” Poppy asked as the youngest Atherton ran up the stairs, and appeared in the doorway.

“Usually,” Nick said.

“Man, this sucks.” Emma studied the mess.

“Big time.” Poppy accepted the inevitable hug.

“Em, you help her pack a bag and then come downstairs,” Nick said. He then walked out of the room with Billy on his heels.

“Why do I need a bag?” Poppy asked.

“You can’t stay here,” Emma said diving into the closet and finding a large overnight bag.

“Right. I’ll need to find a hotel.” Poppy gave herself a mental shake. She couldn’t seem to think clearly. First the mugging and now this it was taking its toll on her.

“Sit in the chair, Poppy, and I’ll put your socks and shoes on, because even though those slippers are nice, I don’t think you want to wear them outside.”

“I can do that,” Poppy protested.

“With one arm?”

They were forceful these Athertons, she thought minutes later as she sat in the chair while Emma put the sneakers she’d found in the closet on her feet, and laced them up.

“Ok, now you direct me, and I’ll load the overnight bag.”

She was too tired to protest, so Poppy told Emma what she needed. When they had the toiletries packed, they were done.

“Ok, let’s head downstairs.”

“I should stay and clean this,” Poppy said, not moving.

“You have to wait until Billy tells you, you can,” Emma said, taking her good hand and tugging her to the door.

“You’re as determined as your brother,” she muttered.

“I have three brothers and a sister, Poppy, all older. There was no room for indecisiveness, or I’d end up last in the line.”

“And that was bad?” She said, gripping Em’s fingers, as she saw the spray paint over her hall walls. 

“Terrible. No second helpings. No green jelly, only red, which, by the way, I hate.”

“A fate worse than death,” Poppy whispered, concentrating on Emma’s words. Seeing her brother’s picture on the floor with the glass smashed made nausea swirl on her stomach. She saw her old stuffed dog then, hanging by a rope around his neck from the handle.

    “Why would someone do this? I don’t understand. I was only gone for two hours and it’s the middle of the day.”

“Kids that are high and bored. People who are scum. They’re out there no matter how much we wished they weren’t,” Emma said.

“Yes, I know you’re right. You just that I never think it will happen to you.”

“Me either.”

They made it downstairs. She couldn’t see Nick and his cousin in her living area, but could hear their voices coming from the front door.

“Sit, I’ll bring you coffee,” Emma said.

When she’d disappeared into the kitchen, Poppy walked around the mess in her living area and then headed for Nick and Billy.

“So her bag was snatched and now this happened,” Billy was saying to Nick as she got closer. The words made her stop and listen before the two men saw her.

“You think there’s a connection?”

“I’d say it’s an odd coincidence if it’s not, Nick. The door was unlocked, not smashed,” Billy added.

The words sent a shiver through her. “Are you saying that whoever has my bag broke in here?”

“Listening to other people’s conversations is rude, Popsicle,” Nick said as she walked out the front door.

She straightened her shoulders, which hurt, so she hunched again. “This is my house, so I have a right to overhear. I need to know what I’m dealing with. I should also probably tell you something.”

“What?” Nick demanded.

“There was this guy a few years ago. We dated for a while, he was really nice to start with, and then he started doing strange things like coming over in the middle of night and knocking on my door to check I was home. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore, and he didn’t believed me. I changed my phone but he began stalking me. It’s all on my files because I reported it, but he hasn’t come near me in two years now, so it’s probably not him.”

“And you’re telling us this now?” Nick said, looking seriously pissed.

“I didn’t’ think it was him. I still don’t.”

“That is not your call to make,” he snapped.

“What is his name?” Billy asked.

“Malcolm Davy,” she said. She hated speaking his name out loud.

“And you say there was a police report filed on him?”

She nodded.

“Okay, I’ll look into it, Poppy,” Billy added, looking her in the eye. “You’re famous. That kind of thing comes with problems, namely crazy fans.”

“I’ve had a few of those.”

“I need to hear about other ones you remember, okay?” Sam said. “I’ll get some people in here to take pictures and fingerprints. You heard me say the door wasn’t forced and no windows appear broken, so it’s possible someone got in here using a key.”

“Where’s your spare?” Nick asked.

“Under that pot plant.”

Nick sighed loudly.

“What? It’s a perfectly logical place to put a spare key!”

“Logical to you and pretty much everyone else,” Nick muttered.

Billy went to look and found her key still there. He handed it to Poppy. “Maybe find somewhere else to put it.”

“Oh god my diary was in my handbag” she blurted.

“You have a lock on your cell phone, though, right?” Nick looked at her.

“Yes, but my diary is not on my phone.”

“Aren’t you a famous writer shouldn’t you be into technology?”

“I’m old-fashioned!” Poppy snapped.

“Ok, let’s take this back inside,” Sam said. “You can tell me what else you carry in your bag?”

“You got an hour?” Nick asked.

“Are you deliberately trying to piss me off, Atherton?” Poppy glared at him as they all headed back in through the door. She made for the living room and fell in a seat that had nothing thrown on it.

Nick ignored her as he bent to inspect something beside a chair. “Just tell me you didn’t put all the codes for your cards and passwords in that diary? Or other personal stuff, like every address and phone number you know?” Poppy’s silence made him straighten to stare at her.

“Jesus, Poppy!”

“Shut up and let me think.” Poppy tried to remember exactly what was in her handbag.

She spent the next hour being questioned by Billy, who may appear gentler than his cousins but was not. He was thorough and asked so many questions her head was aching by the end of it.

“Ok, so I’ll need to go over some other stuff tomorrow, and look into the Davy guy, but I think that’s enough for today,” Billy said. “I want to speak with your neighbors before I head off.”

“Watch out for Mrs. Leibowitz next door. She’ll lure you in and won’t let you leave,” Poppy said.

“Thanks for the heads up.” He disappeared, and she heard him talking to Emma in the kitchen.

“Okay, let’s go,” Nick said.

“I was going to call a cab.”

“No point, as we’re going to the same place.”

“What?” Poppy got off the sofa. “I’m going to a hotel.”

“Not happening. You’ll be staying with me.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

Nick kept his eyes on Poppy, waiting for her reaction.

“No, I’m not,” she said. “There are plenty of hotels nearby.”

“Yes, you are, so be a good girl and find fur-balls carry cage and we’ll leave soon.”

“Not happening,” she said. “And don’t treat me like I’m your little sister.”

The thoughts he had for this woman were nothing like what he felt for his sisters.
Hurting, scared, and trying not to show it, Poppy thought she’d win this round. Nick had news for her. She was not staying in a motel alone and unprotected.

“I’m looking out for you,” he said calmly, “because from where I’m standing, there’s no one else close by who can do that.”

She exhaled slowly.

“Look, Nick, you’ve done a lot for me and I’m grateful, really, but I’m not your problem.”

She was exhausted. Almost swaying on her feet was his guess, but trying not to show it.

“Nice speech,” Nick said, moving in front of her. “But you’re coming home with me, so shut up and pack the fur-ball.”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“No,” Poppy said, turning and walking to the kitchen where he guessed she thought she’d get support from Em and Sam.

He followed. Nick would carry her out of here, if he had too, but she was coming home with him where he could keep her safe.

“I’ve organized for patrol cars to drive by here tonight, Poppy, and we’ll get it all photographed and fingerprinted, then Nick has a cleaning company he uses that can get through on Thursday,” Sam said.

“Thanks, you guys have been amazing,” Poppy said and then yawned. “I won’t argue about the cleaning company because I need one, but I can take the rest from here.”

“We Atherton’s can be pushy sometimes, but it’s well meaning,” Em said.

“Poppy thinks she can go to a hotel. I told her she’s coming home with me,” Nick said from behind her. “Tell her it’s the right thing to do, Sam.”

“Is there anyone else you can stay with, Poppy?” His cousin asked her.

Nick moved so he could see her face. Watched as she debated and worked out how to tell them she had someone when she didn’t.

“I could call Aunt Jenny. She’d come.”

“And what about tonight? She won’t get here until tomorrow,” Nick said.

“My friend Cindy is away, and my assistant lives in Manhattan. One of them could come—”

“And neither of them will arrive until tomorrow,” Nick added making her frown. Did she really only have one friend and a single relative in her life? “Let’s go,” he said.

“I want to go to a hotel.”

“Ok, sure. You win,” Nick said, pushing her gently out the kitchen door. “What do you carry your cat in?”

“Really? You’re giving in?” She narrowed her eyes, studying him.

“I said so didn’t I.”

She didn’t look convinced. Wise girl.

Fifteen minutes later they’d managed to coax her cat into the carry case. Nick carried it, and Sam took Poppy’s, and the cat’s bag of supplies, out the door.

“Where is the nearest hotel?” Poppy asked. “I could drive there if it’s not far.”

“You’re not meant to drive after what you went through,” Em said. “So let Nick drop you.”

He intercepted matching stares from his cousin and sister. Which Nick interpreted to mean, do not let her stay alone in a hotel. Sam then went to speak with the neighbors and Em left.

He loaded Poppy’s bag in the back of his pickup with the now pissed off cat, and then got into the driver’s seat.

“You hungry? Want me to stop for anything on the way?”

“I just want to sleep, so please take me to a hotel, Nick.” Her eyes were closed, head resting on the seat behind her. “I can order room service later.”

“Sure thing,” he said, pulling away from the curb.

“Life was normal a few days ago,” she whispered.

“And it will be again. You need some rest, and things will look better,” he said.

“How’s the head and arm feeling?”

“Ok.” Poppy sighed, sounding pathetic and sad. It made his chest hurt.

Nick turned on the music and soon the soulful sound of jazz filled the cab.

“Figured you more for a heavy rock. Bite the heads of chicken’s, man.”

“You obviously did a lot of ‘figuring’ about me in college.”

“You were such an asshole I was trying to work out what made you tick,” Poppy said around another yawn.

“Ouch.”

“Truth hurts,” she said. Minutes later, she was out. Mouth open, snuffling like a small puppy.

“You are way too cute,” he whispered. Nick had had a few brushes with strong emotions where women were concerned. He couldn’t remember any making him feel like

Poppy did, which was a scary thought.

Turning into his driveway thirty minutes later. Two level and back from the road, it was old, and he’d brought it when it needed love. He and his family had helped him give it that. Probably too big for a single man. It had four bedrooms, two living areas and a big section. Nick loved this place.

Hitting a button on the remote, he parked in the garage. She didn’t wake, so he leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Welcome to the hotel, Atherton.”

“What?” she woke slowly, the word coming out slurred.

Nick watched as she blinked several times. She then sat up and looked around her.

“Where are we?” Her voice was husky, and it took some effort on his part to not reach for her. He wanted to hold her and make the pain and worry go away.

“Hotel Atherton.”

Her eyes went from him to the interior of his garage. Tools, a few toys, his motorcycle, and a jet ski. Nick was neat, mostly. Things usually had a place, but there was the corner to their left that had a bunch of stuff that needed re-homing. He called it his, get to it, space.

“I’m not getting out,” Poppy said, locking her door. “You promised you’d take me to a hotel.”

“I did. My family call this hotel Atherton because if anyone needs a place to crash, this is it,” Nick said.

She turned her head and looked out the window. He wanted to laugh because she looked like a child. Instead, he got out. He then opened the back door.
“Don’t touch my cat!”

“When you have your shit together we’ll be inside.” He grabbed the cat carry case in one hand, and the other bags in the other. Shutting the door, he then walked inside the house.
His family, mainly the woman, had a lot to say about the interior of this place. Especially the kitchen. There were appliances he’d never wanted, but had to have, apparently, and a stove that was huge, and he’d fought not to get. He’d lost.

Heading into the living area, big windows gave him a view of the backyard. Trees, and some gardens that his sisters had planted. His tree had been selected by his nieces and nephews. They’d also decorated it. Tall and fat there were a lot more decorations on the bottom than the top.

Placing the cat cage on the floor, he went to check doors and windows were shut so it couldn’t escape. Nick then found a plastic tray and put some wood shavings in it.

“Out you get, fur ball.” He opened the cage.

Heading back into the kitchen, he then got out the cat’s bowl and filled it with food and water. When this was done, Poppy still hadn’t arrived.

“I can do stubborn as good as the next person,” he muttered. She was safe and couldn’t go anywhere, so he headed upstairs to the spare room.

After changing sheets, he took a shower, which he rushed, even though he told himself not to. The cat was sitting on one of his stools when he walked back into the kitchen.

“Brace yourself, fur-ball. She’s coming,” he said when he heard the car door slam.

“I fell asleep again.” She stood in the doorway to his garage, looking sleepy and pale.

“Thought you might have,” Nick said conversationally.

“I’m ungrateful, and I know you’re going out of your way for me, and I appreciate it honestly. Sometimes I can be an ugly person, especially when someone takes away my control.”

He moved closer, lifting a hand to run it over her hair because he needed to touch her.

“My siblings would tell you I like control, and if you want ugly, check out Em when she’s tired and hungry,” Nick said. Putting his hands on her shoulders he urged her to the door that led to the living area. “Now I’ll show you your room and you can wash or crawl into bed. I’ll throw something together for dinner.”

“I can cook.”

“With your arm in a sling?”

Her eyes held his for long seconds. He placed a soft kiss on her lips.

“You shouldn’t do that,” she whispered.

“I enjoy doing it.”

“I keep trying to remind myself what an asshole you were in college. It’s not working. You’ve been so nice to me, Nick.”

“Am I growing on you, Poppy?”

“Like a fungus. Do you mean?”

“Ha-ha.”

“Yes, you are,” she whispered, ‘and that’s terrifying when I’ve hated you forever.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

After Nick left, Poppy wandered around the room, taking in the large bed covered in a thick navy comforter, with enough pillows to promise that one would be just right for her. The walls and curtains were neutral tones. Nice, she thought, stopping before the windows that looked down into the backyard. What she’d seen of the place felt like a home.

Did he live here alone? It was a big house for one person.

Nick had asked her if he was growing on her. She had to answer that with, yes. Everything she’d always believed she felt about Nick Atherton had changed in the last few days.

When he’d shown interest in her in college, she’d been shocked. Nick was one of the popular students. Poppy wasn’t, but he’d seemed to want to spend time with her. She’d thought they’d become friends, but realized differently months later.

Poppy had gone to meet him at the library. They had an assignment due, and he’d needed her help. On the way, she’d walked by the track where he sometimes trained to see if he was ready. She’d overheard him telling teammates Poppy did his assignments, which was a good reason to keep her around. She hadn’t stayed to hear more and let him know he was a total shit head when she saw him next.

He'd tried to explain. Poppy wasn’t listening and had never spoken to him again until he’d walked into the bookshop a few days ago.

“But he’s not that Nick anymore,” she whispered. He’s kind and protective of his family. Sexy, she added. The man wore clothes well, and she could only imagine how he looked without them.

“And that will not happen.” If she said it enough times, maybe she’d stop melting every time he touched or kissed her.

Taking clothes out of her bag, she went to the ensuite. After a quick wash, she changed into jeans and a cardigan, which Poppy struggled into one handed. Her hair was tangled, but way too hard to wrestle with, so she ignored it. Putting on her sling, she headed back downstairs.

Checking out more of the house on the way, Poppy reached the kitchen and found him talking to her cat. Hercules was out of his cage and sitting on the floor watching Nick cook.

“The thing is, bud, you’ve already eaten, and to my way of thinking, your waistline is a little thick, and I’m not your human, so I don’t have to feed you constantly.”

“Harsh but true,” Poppy said.

He turned with a smile on his face that made her heart flutter.

“He looks at me and I cave and give him a treat. It’s just him and me—”

“So you spoil him,” Nick finished for her.

“Something like that,” she mumbled.

“I had a dog who died of old age last month who could get me to feed him any time of the day.”

“I’m sorry. It must have been hard losing him.” Poppy saw the sadness in his eyes.

“Yeah, it was tough. Barney grew up with me. I miss him.” He turned back to the stove. The smells coming from whatever he was cooking were wonderful and had her mouth watering.

“Are you going to get another dog?”

“Not yet. I’m not ready.” The words told her he was still hurting.

“I’m really sorry you lost your companion, Nick.” Poppy touched his shoulder. She felt it rise and fall, and then he turned to face her again.

“He used to sleep on my bed.” His hands settled on her waist. “It’s getting easier, but sometimes I wake up expecting him to be there.”

“I bet.” She tried to back away, but he pulled her in close. “Nick, you need to let me go.”

“I’m sad. Surely, that deserves some comfort?”

Before she could argue, he was kissing her again. Soft kisses while his big arms wrapped around her, pulling her closer. Poppy felt her pulse spike and that liquid heat flood her body. She wanted this man, and that was a terrifying thought.

“Nick.” Poppy whispered. “This is not a good idea.”

“Why?” He nipped at her lower lip. “Feels like a really good idea to me.”

“We hated each other a few days ago.”

“Correction, you hated me because I was a brainless idiot in school. Now I’m not, so you like me. There is no reason at all for us not to get naked.”

Her laugh was choked. His lips settled on hers again, the kiss harder and making her limbs go weak. If he wasn’t holding her, Poppy thought maybe she’d melt into a puddle at his feet.

Nick didn’t let her go until he was ready, and then he eased her back from him, just enough to look into her eyes.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Me either,” he said.

“Are you in a relationship?”

She shook her head.

“Two for two. We’re going to get naked. But first, I need to feed you. Are you hungry?”

“A bit, and no, we’re not,” she said, dazed and confused as to what had just happened. Had he told her they were getting naked?

“I made enchiladas.”

“You can cook?”

“That shock in your voice is sexist, Poppy. Men cook, and well.”

“Men, yes, but I never expected you to be one of those.”

His sigh was loud. “You need to move on from college. I was a dickhead, and I’m sorry for how I behaved, but it’s years later and I’m all grown up. And you weren’t exactly a picnic all the time either.”

“You’re right, sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

“Me too,” she whispered.

“Good. Want to kiss again to seal it?” His smile was lecherous.

“No, I don’t,” she lied, stepping back and out of his reach. “I have a bruised and battered body, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I’d be gentle,” he said, still looking like the big bad wolf about to eat little red riding hood. “I could rub some ointment on your ouchies.”

“Ha ha, no thank you.”

“Sure?” he waggled his eyebrows.

“Your kitchen has a lot of appliances,” Poppy said, changing the subject.

“I like to eat, so I learned to cook, and to cook well, you need appliances.”

“You need a coffee machine to cook?”

“I see that sarcastic streak hasn’t eased any over the years,” Nick said.

She watched as he plated up the enchiladas. “Come on.” He nodded to the door she’d just walked through.

Poppy followed and was soon sitting at the small table in his dining area. Her first mouthful told her he knew how to make enchiladas.

“Good?”

She nodded.

“Tell me about what you’ve been up to since college, Poppy, other than becoming a bestselling author?”

“I didn’t have ties here other than Aunt Jenny, so I decided to travel before going to law school.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to study law.”

She raised a brow.

“Right, I never asked,” Nick said.

“One day I started writing this story that had been forming inside my head for ages. It took me a year and then I paid to get it edited using my savings. I published it, and it did well, so I wrote another one, and the rest is history.”

“I’m sure there is a bit more to that,” Nick said.

“Maybe, but the rest is boring.”

His phone rang, so he got up to answer it, and disappeared into the kitchen. She could hear him talking, deep and steady, and then he was back, taking the seat across from her. The look on his face had her tensing.

“What?”

“Malcolm Davy’s fingerprints are all over you place.”

She could literally feel the color draining out of her cheeks. All she could manage was a gasp.

“Tell me everything you remember about what happened between you and him.”

“He… ah,” she felt lightheaded just thinking about that night.

“Tell me,” Nick demanded.

“I told you I dated him, and that he became weird and stalkerish.”

“Got that,” Nick said in a hard voice. “Tell me what else you remember.”

“I met him after I published my first book. He told me he’d read it and loved it. We started talking and then dating. He seemed normal and then he wasn’t. I decided to go see him and tell him I was done, and we were over.”

“You went to his house when you knew he was stalkerish? God save me from idiots.”

“I’m not an idiot!”

“Whatever. Tell the rest of the story.”

“He had my favorite jacket at his house. I wanted it back.” She glared at him, but Nick simply folded his arms and glared right back.

“He opened the door with a smile. I said I was here for my jacket and I wouldn’t be coming. He said don’t be like that, and that he was having a rough time of things lately, but that he was better now. It was weird, it was like all the crazy inside him had gone suddenly. We stood in the doorway chatting about my book.”

“You do realize that someone can’t flick a fucking switch and change just like that.”

“I’m not a complete idiot. There was no way I was going inside, and I thought if maybe we parted as friends then he would leave me alone.” To his credit Nick didn’t scoff.

One minute we were talking and then next he’d pulled me into his apartment.” Poppy clenched her eyes shut at the memory.

“What did he do to you, Poppy?” Nick’s eyes were angry now. Angry and worried on her behalf.

“He tried to strangle me.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

“He did what?” Nick’s words came out a growl. “Jesus, fuck, Poppy. You should have told us!”

The thought of anyone hurting this woman sent rage through him.

“Malcolm Davy tried to strangle me,” Poppy said. “I got free and escaped. He followed, but I was quicker, and reached my car.” Her eyes were on him and he could see the fear of what she’d gone through.

She looked cute in worn faded jeans and a strawberry-colored sweater that was buttoned up the front all wrong. Her hair was still a tangled mess as clearly brushing it was too hard with her arm. Sweet, he thought, and really disturbing, and Malcolm Davy had tried to kill her.

“So you drove from him straight to the police station, right?” She gave him a look that suggested he wasn’t the smartest person she’d ever met.

“Of course I did,” she tried and failed to glare at him again. He could see she was shit scared. “They took my statement and said they’d follow it up.”

“And?” he said with zero patience. Someone had tried to kill Poppy, and he wanted answers.

“And they brought him in for questioning. He denied it and said I was hysterical because he’d been trying to break up with me. I’d overreacted due to the fact I wanted to stay in a relationship with him—”

“The cops didn’t buy that, surely?”

He knew before she answered they had. The look in her lovely eyes told him they’d thought Poppy was lying.

“Apparently I make up stories for a living, so it wasn’t a stretch to think I’d do that in real life.”

“Your neck—”

“His hands hadn’t been around it that long, so there wasn’t deep bruising. He, Malcolm, was a Tax Specialist. Apparently well respected by the people they questioned.”

“If he tried it with you, he’d have done something like that before. There would have been a pattern of this kind of behavior, Poppy.”

“The police said they were dropping my charges.”

Nick swore, long and loud.

“Malcolm called at my house the following day like nothing had happened. I told him to leave and never come back, and that he needed help as clearly he was unbalanced.”

He could see her agitation. The hand she’d pulled from his was clenched on the table as she relived what that shithead had done to her.

I’m going to find you, Malcolm Davy, Nick vowed.

“He told me, in a calm, terrifying voice, that I would never be free of him because he’d been waiting for me his entire life. A week later, I packed and moved to another state.”

“Where were you living?”

“Baltimore.”

“How many years ago did this happen?”

“Five.”

“And what? You’ve been moving around ever since?” Nick demanded.

Her eyes dropped to her plate.

“Poppy, answer me. This is the time for truth.”

“Not constantly. But I didn’t want to live with Aunt Jenny or near her because I worried he’d come after her.”

“Has he come at you again?”

“I haven’t seen him, but I would get these phone calls saying he knew where I was. When that happened, I changed my phone and moved.”

“Why didn’t you go back to the cops?” Nick demanded.

“And say what? They didn’t believe me last time, and a few phone calls were no proof.”

“They could have traced the calls.”

She laughed, but it held no humor. “He would have used a burner phone.”

“This is bullshit,” Nick hissed. “When did you hear from him last?”

“Two years ago, and that’s why I thought this wasn’t him.”

“He’s been stalking you for five years, Poppy. You’ve changed your life for him. He needs to be caught.”

“I haven’t changed my life. Don’t be dramatic. I’m a writer, Nick. I live in the public eye, and like I said, he hasn’t contacted me for two years, so it was logical to think he’d given up.”

“And now he’s the one who likely mugged you and entered your house,” Nick said, watching her. The color had drained from her face, and she had a green tinge to her skin now.

“Malcolm Davy put his hands on you again, Poppy. He needs to be stopped.” Nick had the urge to punch something, but stayed in his seat.

“I’ll tidy up,” she got out of hers quickly, clearly deciding the conversation was over.

Nick had other ideas. “He has to be found, Poppy.”

“I know, and now maybe he will be. I’m going to clean up,” she added.

“How? You have one hand and look like you’re going to puke.”

“I can manage two plates.” She had that belligerent look in her eye again, which he found ridiculously appealing. “Ouch!” she yelped, jarring her wrist.

He sighed and got out of his seat.

“Stop fighting me, Poppy, I’m your friend, not your enemy,” Nick said slowly, so he didn’t yell. “I know you're hurting and scared, and this is all out of your control.”

“I like control,” she muttered as he took the plate from her.

“Yeah, I remember that about you, too.”

“I have to fight you because if I d-don’t, I may fall apart, and I don’t want to do that. I need to be strong,” she whispered, and then burst into loud tears.

He’d wondered when she’d crack. Picking her up, Nick carried her into the living area and sat on the couch with her on his lap.

She’d been mugged, her house trashed by some crazy man who had been stalking her, and Nick had watched her take it all, but he also knew women, more importantly his sisters. When one of them was near breaking point, they usually yelled and smashed a few things and then came the tears. Poppy was well past that point in his book.

“It’s all right.” He held her close and let her cry. Like the hospital, she was noisy and loud but didn’t last for long. Soon, she was sniffing and sighing with the occasional hiccup thrown in.

“I don’t cry,” she said, her voice husky with tears. “I mean, not usually.”

“Duly noted.” Nick rubbed his thumb under her eyes. “I won’t put out a press released that the famous author Poppy Sylvester is human and cries.”

“Okay, so maybe that’s twice in two days, but in the usual course of events that would be a few years’ worth of tears for me,” she said.

“Cut yourself a break. You’ve had a rough couple of days.”

She was exhausted, eyes bloodshot and long lashes were clogged with tears, and still heart stopping lovely.

“You’re beautiful, you know that right, always have been,” he said, using the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe her cheeks.

“You don’t have to say things like that because I’m low. Really,” Poppy said, struggling to get off his lap. Nick just tightened his hold on her.

“I don’t lie, Poppy.”

“Are you telling me I was hot in college?”

“There was something about you that got me worked up, but I was never sure what,” Nick said.

“If you say so.” Clearly she didn’t believe him, but before he could argue his case, she added, “I’m sorry about this, Nick. The mugging, me coming here after what happened to my house. I don’t usually fall apart, but the book tour has been so long, and I guess I’m tired.”

“Like I said, cut yourself a break because you’ve been through a lot. You’ll heal, and we’ll put your house back together. But for now, I think it’s bedtime. Tomorrow is soon enough to deal with this again.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t argue, just climbed off his lap, and he had to fight the need to pull her back into his arms.

“Thanks, Nick. I really am grateful. I owe you.”

 “I’ll think of someway for you to repay me.”

“Okay, sure,” she turned away from him. “I-I need to go to bed now,” she muttered, heading for the stairs.

Ten minutes later, Nick knocked on her door.

“Come in.”

He entered and found her sitting in the chair by the window, looking at her phone. Poppy had pulled on a t-shirt and silky shorts. She should not look as sexy as she did.

“I thought you were going to bed?” He moved closer, and she looked up at him.

“Just checking some emails.”

“Here’s some water and pain meds in case you need them in the night.” Nick lowered them to the side table. “Now get in here.” He held up the covers.

“I can get into bed myself, Nick. I’ve been doing it alone for years.”

“So do it.” Had she never slept the night with a man?

She stared at him, but gave in and rose. Skirting around him, shed dropped her phone on the nightstand and got into bed.

He tucked her in, which made her smile. “I can’t remember the last time someone did that for me.”

“My mom still does it if I’m sick.” He bent to kiss her softly on the lips. She tasted of toothpaste. Funny how that was a turn on now.

“Night, Nick.”

“Night, Poppy. I’m close if you need me. Just call.” He ran a finger down her cheek.

“Thank you… for everything.”

Walking away from her, lying there vulnerable and hurting, was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

 

Chapter Sixteen 

She woke to the bed shaking and knew instantly that Hercules was scratching.

“You have no fleas,” she croaked.

But he wasn’t really the reason her eyes were open. She’d rolled over and landed on her wrist and the bite of pain had woken her.

It was dark, no light slipped in through cracks in the curtains. Sitting up, she reached for the lamp on the nightstand. Her hand connected with the glass of water and sent it crashing into the wall.

“Well, hell.” Fumbling for the switch, soft light soon flooded the room.

The cat gave her a look as she pushed aside the covers.

“You’re no picnic to sleep with either, bud.”

Looking down, Poppy saw the water had mainly hit the wall and carpet. Getting out of bed, she grabbed the pain meds and went to the bathroom. Turning on the lights, she headed to the sink and swallowed a couple of pain meds. Washing them down with water.

It wasn’t the wisest idea to look in the mirror, but it was over the sink, so it was the natural thing to do. She looked like she’d slept in a dumpster. Her hair was a mess, eyes bloodshot. “Not your best day, Poppy.”

Grabbing a towel to soak up the water, she headed back into the bedroom. The tap on her door had to come from only one person.

“I’m okay, Nick.”

The door opened and there he was. Sweat pants and no shirt. Hair standing off his head and eyes sleepy. Who looks that hot when they’re woken from sleep?

“Can’t sleep?” His voice was raspy.

“Go back to bed, Nick. I just needed to take the pills. Why are you awake anyway?”

“I heard a thud.”

“Light sleeper?”

“Not usually.” He yawned. “What’s the towel for?” He came closer.

Poppy wondered what his skin would feel like. Still warm from sleep, or cool? Dragging her eyes from the broad expanse of skin that curved with nice slopes of muscles across his cheeks and down his abdomen, she lowered herself to the floor.

“What the hell are you doing?” Hands grabbed her and soon she was back on the bed.

“I spilled water and was clearing it up!”

“You’re injured.” He glared at her, but seeing as his eyes were all squinty from sleep, it held little weight.

“I made the mess. I can clean it up.”

“Shut up.” He dropped the towel onto the water and stomped on it.

“Don’t tell me to shut up,” Poppy snapped back at him.

“I will if you’re being an idiot. It’s water, no big deal.”

“Water can leave marks!”

He didn’t answer, just wiped the wall, and whatever else he saw had water on it. Poppy then watched his really nice ass walk to the bathroom, where he threw the towel in the sink. He then returned and stood beside the bed, looking down at her.

“You take the pain meds?”

“Yes.”

“Did your wrist wake you?”

She nodded and then sighed.

“What’s the sigh for?”

“I’m tired. Go back to bed, Nick. I’m okay now.” Poppy moved to sit against the headboard. “Really, and thanks again.”

“You hate thanking me, don’t you?” After those words, he moved, and she’d thought he’d leave. He didn’t. Instead, switching off the light, Nick walked around the bed and sat on the other side, because she felt the mattress dip.

“What are you doing?”

“You can’t sleep. I’ll stay here until you do.”

As a loud yawn followed this, Poppy said, “you’re tired, just go to bed, Nick. I’ll fall back to sleep soon.”

He bounced a bit, and Hercules made a noise, expressing his displeasure.

“Settle down, cat. I was just testing the mattress,” Nick said. “I’ve never slept in here.”

“Possibly because it’s your guest bedroom,” Poppy said.

“Possibly.” He lowered himself down the bed until his head was on the pillow. “It’s comfortable.”

“It is.”

“So lay down then.”

“Do you spend your life telling people what to do?” Poppy asked, but she did as he said because her head hurt, and she wanted to.

“Most of the time.”

Poppy snorted.

“I need to ask you something, Poppy.”

“What?”

“Did you overhear me talking to my friends that day, or did someone tell you what I said in college? It’s been riding me, not knowing for years.”

She was an adult now and that time in her life no longer hurt, Poppy reminded herself.

“I overheard you.”

“You didn’t turn up to class for a couple of days, and seeing as the only person you really seemed to hang with was Lindy Rae, I asked her where you were. She told me you’d left college and town.”

“It wasn’t just because of you, so we’re clear.”

“I went to your dorm room to check, but it was cleared out. Then when I got back to mine, I found your envelope.”

Poppy had written him a note and, along with the two books of his she had, had left them outside his dorm door.

“I won’t be your brains anymore. Go find someone else to use, you asshole,” Nick said in a deep, rumbling voice.

“Not my finest literary work, but it said everything I needed it to,” Poppy added.

“I couldn’t find you anywhere. Even your cell phone was disconnected.”

“I decided I wanted to work. College wasn’t for me.”

“Yes, it was. You were really smart, Poppy.”

Maybe it was the dark, or maybe she was ready to talk about it with him, so she did.

“My mom never recovered from my brother dying. Dad left us when I was young, and we didn’t see him. She kind of derailed. The night after I overheard you, she called and told me she was leaving and I needed to get home and grab my stuff.”

“You were seventeen, right?”

She nodded, then realized he couldn’t see her. “Yes. I picked up my stuff and went to stay with Aunt Jenny for a few years. I got work, then started writing. The rest is history.”

“I bet it’s not that simple,” he said.

No. There was a whole lot of hurt and pain, but she’d dealt with it.

“My Aunt Jenny is pretty special,” Poppy said.

“I know. We’re friends now.”

“Ha-ha.”

“And because of Malcolm Davy, you can’t live near her?” His words were hard now.

“Yes.”

“I’m so sorry they didn’t believe you, Poppy. Sorry, the cops took his side over yours.”

He moved and suddenly his face was closer, and just inches from hers.

“It’s okay, maybe now something will happen.”

“Oh, it will happen,” he growled.

The kiss was inevitable. His lips took hers, soft and slow. It melted her bones and made her sink into the mattress. Poppy slid her good hand around his neck to hold him there. Nick made her feel good and took away the pain.

“I enjoy kissing you, Poppy.”

“I like it too.” She whispered the words against his lips.

The kiss got deeper, heavier, and then his hand was on her. Sliding under her shirt, one large, hot palm moving up her body. Stroking, caressing every inch it encountered.

He eased back, but she noticed his hand stayed where it was. Palm flat on her stomach. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

She could hear the tension in his voice and feel the evidence of his arousal pressed into her side.

“You won’t hurt me,” Poppy whispered.

“Never again.” His thumb brushed her lips.

“I mean now, you won’t hurt me.” She felt a bit desperate to have this man’s hands on her.

His smile was sweet.

“You have bruises and aches, baby. If you promise to lie still, I’ll make you feel better.”

“What?”

His hand slid higher and cupped her breasts.

“Y-you are not doing that.”

“That?” His hand moved in slow circles, stroking the sensitive peak. “Getting a bit hot and heavy, do you mean?”

“You know what I… oh god,” her words fell away as two of his fingers rolled her nipple.

“I always enjoyed necking. Just the kissing and touching stuff.” His breath was hot on her damp skin, making her shiver. “I like the other stuff too, but this, getting the feel of a woman’s body, exploring and mapping it.” He made a noise deep in his throat.

“I’ve only done it once!” The words exploded from Poppy’s mouth.

Nick looked up at her. “Tell me it wasn’t with that, soon to be dead, Malcolm Davy?”

His hand moved from her breast to lie flat on her belly again. How did he look so calm when she was on fire? Well, maybe not calm. There was the length of hard flesh pressing into her thigh.

“I-ah, we probably shouldn’t. I mean, we’ve only just met again and—”

“Are consenting adults who like each other… now,” he said with a wicked grin. “But getting back to you being an almost virgin—”

“I’m not!”

“I said almost. It wasn’t him, was it?”

She shook her head. “But after him, I didn’t want to get close to anyone.”

“Because he could hurt them?”

“Just like he could hurt you, so maybe you should go back to your room, Nick.”

“You’re staying in my house. If he’s watching you, he’ll probably know that, Poppy.”

The panic that sliced through her at his words had Poppy trying to get out of bed. He held her in place with one hand.

“Nope. No more running. We’re dealing with this, and I’m not scared because I’m an Atherton. Untouchable.”

But he wasn’t he could be hurt just like anyone could.

“Stop thinking.” His hand moved to stroke her hair and down the side of her face. “It will be okay, Poppy. I promise.”

“People can be assholes,” was all Poppy managed to whisper as her eyes drifted shut.

“I hope I’m not included in that any more, and you’re talking about assface Davy?”

“Yes. One act and my life changed.” Her words sounded slurred now.

“And we’re going to change it back. We won’t do any more necking for now, but we will get back to it. You’re tired, and I was wrong to touch you, but soon, baby. Real soon.”

He didn’t speak again and she couldn’t because waves of sleep were crashing over her. She was safe here with Nick, and for now, that was enough.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Nick woke with Poppy in his arms. At some stage during the night, she’d rolled, and her injured wrist was resting on his chest. Her head using his shoulder as a pillow. Nick thought he could get used to being Poppy’s pillow. Turning his head, he saw she was still out. Eyes shut, mouth open, hair everywhere.

Cute.

His body woke as he’d expect it to with a sexy woman pressed to his side, and the memory of his hands on her last night didn’t help. But, much as he wanted to wake her with his mouth and touch, he knew she needed sleep to heal. Plus, sleep meant she wasn’t thinking about her life, and that asshole who’d sent her running after the police didn’t believe her.

Poppy had slept with one man. His guess was due to what happened with Malcolm Davy. She had made no connections since. She’d avoided people to keep them safe. Her aunt was one of those, and that wasn’t right.

Anger burned inside him that the cops hadn’t believed her. Clearly Davy had been watching her and waiting to strike again, and Poppy had thought he’d given up. Seems she was wrong.

Looking at the curve of her nose and soft lips, Nick thought what he was feeling deep inside was different. He wasn’t sure if that was because of Poppy needing his protection, or he felt different about this woman who he’d only just reconnected with.

It had in no way been normal to this point. The mugging, hospital, and then this Malcolm Davy loser, who needed a serious beating.

He leaned closer and inhaled her hair. Soft and citrusy. As his body was enjoying this way too much, he kissed her nose softly and eased his arm from beneath her.

Nick got off the bed, doing several maneuvers. Pulling up the covers to her chin, he then picked up the cat and left the room. It was early, this he knew, as Nick always woke with the sun. He’d usually be heading out for a run, or to the gym, but right now, he had a call to make.

Once he reached the kitchen, Nick put on the coffee and fed the cat, who he tripped over twice on the way to getting the kibble. Once that was done, he went back upstairs to his room. After a shower, he pulled on clean clothes. Nick listened at Poppy’s door, but there were no sounds of movement, so he decided it was time for his first coffee of the day.

He stepped out the back door into the cool morning air, holding his mug in one hand and calling Billy from his cellphone with the other.

“I’m trying to sleep in,” the groggy voice said down the phone.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll buy you a toasted white chocolate mocha and sprinkle cookie. Now shut up and listen while I tell you what Poppy told me last night.”

He filled his cousin in on everything she’d said.

“So she’s lived with this shit for years, and no one knew.” Nick could hear the disgust in his cousin’s voice. “And all because the cops she told her story to didn’t believe her.”

“Not all cops are as diligent as you, bud,” Nick said.

“Don’t I know it? I’m going to request a look at those case files from the original complaint. Plus, I’ll see what I can dig up on this Dickwad, Davy. I should imagine that has already started, and maybe he’s gone to ground and will be hard to find, but we will find him, Nick.”

“I know it, and thanks, Billy.”

“Nick, he may already know you have her at your place. You could be in danger now, too. It also sounds to me like she’s kept her distance from men until you came along.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“No one can dodge a bullet, bud.”

“I’ll be careful and watch over Poppy too.”

“I know you will, because you care about her.”

“As I would any friend,” Nick added.

“Sure, if you want to see it that way. Stay safe,” Billy said before cutting the call.

He took a walk around his yard while he drank his first coffee of the day. Something he did most mornings when he didn’t have an early appointment.

Nick loved this place and usually felt peace here, but not this morning. Worry for Poppy gnawed at his gut. It hadn’t eased when he finally headed back to the house.

To keep her safe, he had to keep her close, or have his family watch her when he was working. Nick just knew she’d love that idea about as much as a dose of the flu.

“Hey.”

She was standing in the doorway when he turned. Hair tousled, eyes sleepy, she’d pulled on a long cardigan over her P. J’s.

“Hey. How are you feeling this morning?”

She retreated the nearer he got. Backing into the house and putting distance between them. Nick saw the walls that he’d broken through last night were once again in place.

Time, he thought. She wasn’t like him. Used to touching and being hugged. Used to being cared for. It would take time to make her accept that from him. Did he want her to accept it?

Yes.

“I’m good, thank you. Ready to head home and clean up the mess.” Her smile was forced, and the fear in her lovely green eyes had Nick wanting to hold her.

“You can’t go back there yet, Poppy. It needs cleaning, and it’s not safe.”

“I’ll go to a hotel.”

“Are we going to run through this entire argument again?” he walked around her and got down another mug. “Sit. You still look tired and pale.” He poured her a coffee.

“I’m okay, and I need to go to a hotel, Nick.” She sat and Hercules leapt into her lap. “Last night was wrong. We shouldn’t have—”

“Why not? It felt good for both of us, so don’t tell me otherwise. I have the room, and you’re safe here. You’re staying.”

Her chin rose. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Patience, Nick. She wasn’t used to having him throw orders at her like his family was. Not that they listened, but with so many of them, it was often the easiest way to get things done.

He placed the coffee in front of her, then went to get out the fixings for breakfast.

“I’m worried about you being alone, Poppy.”

“I can look after myself.”

“How? You’re bruised and your wrist is damaged. He mugged you and then got into your house. What next? He finds a way into your house or hotel room, and you can’t fight him off?”

“Nick—”

He faced her. She was cuddling the cat now, eyes locked on Nick.

“I understand pride, Poppy, and that you’ve handled this alone for years. I even understand independence and the need for control. Plus, there’s the fact that you’ve disliked me for years. You can’t just erase that in a few days.” He raised a hand when she opened her mouth. “But you are not thinking about this rationally.”

“I’m entirely rational!”

He moved to stand before her. Bracing his hands on the table, he leaned closer, locking eyes with hers.

“You don’t want my help because you don’t trust me, or want to put your trust in me,” he amended.

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t want your help because you have too many people in your life who could be hurt, including you, Nick.”

“I told you last night he probably already knows we’re connected. First, I was at the hospital, then your house.”

“Well, we have to put distance between us, so he disconnects you.” Her voice had risen. “Not be seen together anymore.”

“Not happening.”

“This is my life. You have no say in it! I’ve finished with the book signings. I can go into hibernation somewhere.” She was talking fast now, words tumbling out of her mouth. “Yes. Maybe I’ll go to England, or… or France. Maybe New Zealand.”

“And what happens when he finds you again, which he will,” Nick said. “You can’t keep running. Besides, this time I’m not letting you.” He moved closer. Lifting the cat out of her arms, he lowered the pissed off feline to the floor. 

“What are you doing? Put me down, Nick.”

“I thought we’d turned a corner last night.” Nick picked her up and sat with her in his arms and settled her on his lap. “When I kissed you and touched your perfect—”

“Stop,” she whispered. “You have to know this is dangerous, Nick. Have to know if he’s not caught, then I need to—”

“You are not running again.” He turned her chin, so their eyes met. “We’re dealing with this.”

She tried to get off his lap, but he simply tightened his grip.

“You’re not alone in this anymore, Poppy.”

“I don’t know how to do this any other way,” she whispered.

Her eyes were glassy, face pale, and it hurt that until him, she’d dealt with this alone. But no more.

“Hello!” A woman’s voice reached them.

“You have to be kidding me,” Nick muttered. He then placed a soft kiss on Poppy’s lips, before he lifted her off his lap. “Brace yourself, Tinkerbell, we have company.”

“Anyone home?” The voice got louder. “Nicky, it’s your mom and dad.”

“Oh, my god!” Poppy looked down at her P. J’s. “I can’t meet your parents’ now… ever,” she added.

“In here, mom,” Nick said, resigned. “Don’t try to run. You think I’m tenacious. You’re about to meet the person they wrote the word for.”

The doorway was suddenly filled with people. He saw his parents and Gracie. They were carrying to go coffees, and a large box that Nick knew would be filled with baking.

Clearly, Billy had been on the phone.

“There is no way you could have baked that in the hour since I spoke to Billy, mom.”

Bernice Louise Atherton was a force of nature. Tall, willowy, with thick gray curls, she wore a reindeer antler headband, and a wide smile. She’d raised her brood with a firm hand and lots of love.

“Well, now, we thought you needed some Christmas cheer in your house, so I baked the grandkids some snowman cupcakes, and had some left, so I thought I’d bring them over.” His mother’s smile was wide. “When our eldest child needs us, we’re there. Isn’t that right, Gerry?”

“Exactly right, Bernie.”

Gerry Leonard Atherton was a bear of a man in stature and personality. He laughed a lot and could put the fear of God into his kids with just a look. He was the first man Nick had respected, and that had never changed.

He’d rebelled like most teenagers, but Nick had always known that he had these two people in his corner, and for a hormone fueled boy that had been needed.

“And what the hell are you doing here, Gracie?”

“I have the day off, and wanted to visit my big brother.” He didn’t buy that. She wanted to meet Poppy because Em had.

Poppy was frozen in place to his right. She’d not moved a muscle. Nick placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently.

“These are my parents, Gerry and Bernice, and my sister Gracie. None of them understand personal boundaries or a need for privacy. Family, this is Poppy Sylvester.”

“All true,” his dad said, lowering the tray of coffees to the table. He then moved into hug Poppy. “Hey there, sweetheart, I understand you’re having a rough time of things at the moment.”

The sob came out of nowhere, and then Poppy was crying all over the front of his dad’s Christmas sweater.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Nick watched his father hug Poppy. He was a good hugger, always had been, but then he’d had a lot of practice over the years. His dad would simply move in and wrap his arms around you if he thought you needed it. It didn’t matter if you were angry, sad, or happy. A hug, according to Gerry Atherton, was one of life’s necessities.

“I’m sorry,” she pulled back. “Really. I don’t usually fall apart like that all over a stranger.”

Poppy kept backing away from his dad, and into Nick. He settled his hands on her shoulders when she reached him.

“Sorry,” she said again, stepping away from him. “I need to get dressed and pack.”

Panic was written all over her sweet face now.

“Sorry for this,” she waved a hand at Nick. “I mean, being here and…sorry.”

She ran then, out the kitchen door and no doubt back upstairs to the room she’d slept in.

His mother made clucking noises when Poppy had gone. “That poor girl. Clearly, she’s at her wit's end. All pale and bruised. Her arm too, that has to hurt,” his mother said.

“It’s been a tough few days,” Nick said, taking the coffee his father handed him. “She’s running scared and not used to anyone in her corner.”

“I can’t imagine what that would be like,” Gracie said.

“We don’t know all the details.” His father took a seat at the table, which to Nick suggested he was settling in for a nice long chat.

“I’m pretty sure she’d feel more comfortable if you guys left. I’m struggling to make her see reason about staying here as it is,” Nick said.

“We’re not going anywhere. You just told us that girl needs support, so were supporting her. Now you sit, and I’ll tidy your kitchen and finish fixing breakfast for you and Poppy,” his mother said.

“What did Billy tell you?” Nick sat.

“Nothing. I knew she was here. Em told me,” Gracie said. “So what’s the deal? You and her, I mean.”

“No deal. She’s got some stuff going on and I’m helping her.”

“We know she was attacked on the street after her book signing. Then her house was broken into, and now she’s here with you,” his mother said. She was polishing his toaster.

Bernice Atherton was a clean freak. She loved nothing better than going into her kids’ homes and cleaning. When she left, there was usually some baked goods on a counter. However, you made sure there was nothing lying around that may incriminate you, or she’d make a big deal if required. Once he’d out left an overdue traffic violation, his life had been hell for weeks.

“Sam said you and her went to college together, but you weren’t very nice to her,” his father said. “We raised you better than that, Nicky.”

“I hadn’t matured yet,” Nick said. “Cut me a break.”

“And you have now?” Gracie made a scoffing sound.

Nick lunged out of his chair her way and she squealed. Job done.

“Pinhead.” Swearing was not allowed in front of the Atherton matriarch.

“Em said her place was tossed. Is there more you can tell us about what is going on, Nick?” his father asked.

“Any chance you can just leave,” Nick said with no hope they’d do what he wanted.

Three sets of eyes looked at him.

“This is dangerous.”

“We laugh in the face of danger,” his father said, crossing his arms. He liked sayings and had a load of them stored inside his head to throw out when needed.

“All I can tell you is that some guy has been hassling Poppy for a while now. She thought he’d stop, turns out he hasn’t. Billy’s looking into it, and his prints were all over her house,” Nick said. “This could get ugly, because this guy is clearly here now, and watching Poppy. He may know she’s here, and we don’t want you guys involved.”

“You’re a ‘we’ now?” His mother had moved on to polishing the front of his refrigerator.

“Mom,” Nick said.

“Don’t you mom me in that tone, Nicholas Atherton,” she pointed her cloth at him.

“I like her,” his father said.

“Me too,” Gracie added.

“You just met her, and for only five minutes,” Nick gritted out.

“You wouldn’t have her here in your house if you didn’t like her too,” Gracie said.

Slapping his coffee back on the table only resulted in it sloshing through the hole in the lid and landing on his hand. His mother tsked and bustled over with her cloth. Nick pushed back his chair.

“I’m checking on Poppy.”

“Good. I’ll make breakfast, come back down soon so you can eat it while it’s hot,” his mother said.

Trying to have a rational discussion with his family was impossible, so he left before he started yelling. Taking the stairs, he was soon outside Poppy’s door. He knocked.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” came the reply.

“Open the door, Poppy.”

“I’m all good, Nick, and won't be long.”

He turned the handle and found it locked.

“Poppy, unlock the door.”

Silence.

“You have to come out at some stage, so it may as well be now.”

“I’m dressing!”

“Can I watch?” He heard her gasp through the door.

“Just open the damn door, Poppy. I need to tell you something.”

“What?”

“I’m not discussing it through wood.” There was more silence, so he started hammering his fist on the door.

Coming from a large family taught you a few things. Persistence, and how to be really annoying when required. On the fifth thud, he heard the lock click and the door open.

“Stop that! your family will hear,” she hissed. “Or have they gone?” She looked hopeful now.

“Mom’s cooking breakfast for you,” Nick said, running his eyes over the fluffy blue sweater she wore teamed with jeans. Placing a hand on her stomach, he nudged her back a few steps, and then used his heel to shut the door.

“Don’t push me, and I don’t want to have breakfast. I’m packed and will be leaving.” Her words came out louder than was needed, but he guessed that was because she wanted to convince him she was serious.

“Mom would be hurt if you left before eating it… even if I let you leave.”

She slapped the hand that was still on his stomach. He didn’t remove it, instead sliding it around her back to pull her in close.

“Now you need to listen to me, Tinkerbell, and make sure you understand what I’m saying.”

“No, I don’t,” she snapped back.

“You need to stop fighting me and understand I’m in your corner. You need to know I’m not going anywhere and it’s my choice, and the choice of my family, who I cannot control no matter how much I wish that sometimes I could.”

“I think you’re lucky to have them.” The words had a whole lot of longing in them he would unpack another time.

She looked up at him. Nick could lose himself in Poppy’s eyes. Deep green and fringed with thick lashes, he could read the turmoil. She made him feel things he’d never felt before. He wanted to fight her demons and take away her worries.

“I know that, Poppy. I love them, and count my blessings daily that I was born into my family, but sometimes the thought of solitude—”

“Until you’ve lived with solitude, don’t wish for it.”

He cupped her cheek. “I’m sorry you’ve lived alone, Poppy. Sorry, what that asshole did to you forced you to avoid people.”

“I didn’t avoid people.”

He just stared at her, and she stared right back.

“You are not leaving, and I am sticking to help you through this. Get used to it,” Nick said

“You don’t—”

Nick kissed her to shut her up, and then he kept right on kissing because she tasted like sin, and that was one of his favorite flavors.

 

Chapter Nineteen 

Poppy sat in the corner of Nick’s sofa with her laptop. He was down the other end with his. She was sure it was a scene playing out all over the world right then, but the other people cared or loved each other.

They were not those people. This was due to necessity.

Her eyes kept drifting up to look at him. The frown told her he was concentrating. The man could look hot in anything, even old sweatpants and a sweater.

Four days had passed since Malcolm Davy turned her house upside down, and Nick had not left her alone once. He’d stayed with Poppy to ensure she was safe. She knew that no matter how much he denied it.

Billy, his cousin, had interviewed her, and shown her the picture of Malcolm Davy to I.D., which she had. He was older now, but she’d know that face anywhere. She hoped they caught him soon, and her life could go back to normal… or better than normal if he was no longer a threat.

Every member of the Atherton family had dropped by at different times to meet her and check up on their brother, and Poppy liked all of them. She loved watching the way they interacted with each other. If she was honest, there was some jealousy there, too.

She’d never had a good relationship with her mother, and her dad had left when she was young.

Seeing Nick and his siblings highlighted what she didn’t have. Poppy hadn’t given much thought to the future, but maybe soon she could, and then what? Did she want a partner and a family?

“I can hear you thinking from here,” Nick said.

“Writing with one good hand and a bad one is difficult. It takes lots of brain power,” Poppy said. No way in hell was she telling him what she was actually thinking.

He put his laptop on the coffee table and then turned to look at her.

“Where are your parents, Poppy?”

“What?” The question surprised her.

“Your parents. How come they’re not helping you through all this?” he asked.

“I don’t know where they are.” She went for honesty.

“Which doesn’t answer my questions.” He got to his feet and took her laptop before she could stop him, placing it beside his.

“I was working. The books don’t write themselves, you know, and seeing as I’m slower now, I need to work longer.”

“You’ve been at it for hours. Give your brain a break,” Nick said.

“You’re bossy.”

He smiled. “We’ve already established that and why. Lots of siblings. My life is an open book, so tell me about your parents. I want to know about you.”

“I don’t want to talk about them, Nick. What I want to talk about is the fact that I’m still here in your house.”

His sigh was loud, as it had been every time she’d brought this up.

“I can’t work out if you’re saying that to annoy me or it’s your standard go to when people get to close and want to help you,” Nick said. “I mean, you’re not unintelligent. You know you can’t go back there until assface is caught, so my take is you just don’t like putting people out.”

He’s not wrong. “I don’t, you’re right,” she ignored the unintelligent comment. “That’s why a hotel would work.”

“You’re really ungrateful?”

“I’m not ungrateful,” she gritted out. “I can’t just cohabitate with you, Nick. You said there was no significant other, but I’m sure you date.”

“Actually, I have this little black book, and it has pages titled Tuesday through Sunday. Each day has three or four names, and I rotate the women. Monday is my day off.”

“Hilarious,” Poppy said.

“Look, Poppy.” He moved closer. “We’re ok cohabitating like this. You’re not like Em, and a messy pig. You don’t play loud music like Sam. I can handle having you here.”

“Hercules misses his home.”

They both looked to where the cat sat in the large armchair on the blanket Nick’s mom had brought over for him. He was currently purring loud enough to reach all corners of the room.

“Yeah, I can see it’s tough on him. What’s the real problem here, Poppy?” He moved so fast she’d not seen him coming. His large body was over hers in seconds. Knees on either side of her, arms braced behind her, effectively caging her in.

“N-no problem.” She stared into his eyes, that were now just inches from hers. “I just don’t want to be in your way.” She hated the breathlessness in her voice. “What are you doing?”

“The only time you stop fighting me is when I put my hands and mouth on you.” He brushed his lips over hers. “Where are your parents?”

She sighed. “My dad left when I was young, and me and my mom were never close, and lost touch.”

“That has to be tough.” He kissed her again.

“Not everyone lives like the favorite sit com family from your childhood, Nick.”

“I know, and I’m sorry you didn’t.”

“I did okay,” she said, and hated the breathlessness in her voice, but Nick kept dropping kisses in between words on her lips. She’d known there was tension between them. Felt it every time he was close, but Poppy had been fooling herself to think they could stop this happening if she stayed here.

“I’ve told myself for days we can’t do this, especially now I know you're innocent—”

“I’m not innocent, and it was more than once… with him,” she added.

“Close to innocent,” he said, “and I don’t want to hear the details about you and the only man you’ve slept with.” He growled.

“Th-that’s very neanderthal of you, considering you’ve probably slept with lots of women, starting in college.”

“Probably, but I can’t help how I feel. I should have slept with you in college.

“You didn’t want to. We weren’t like that back then.”

“There was something about you that got to me even then.”

She opened her mouth to deny that, but he closed it with his, and it was long heated minutes later that he whispered the words, “No more talking. I want to be inside you, Poppy.”

Molten lava flowed through her veins at his words.

“I shouldn’t want that too.”

“But you do.” His tongue licked just under her ear as one large hand pulled her shirt free. His big, hot palm settled on her stomach. “I need to explore you, Poppy. Every inch.”

“Kay,” she got out as he pushed her shirt over her head and off her body.

“You’re beautiful.” His hands cupped her breasts through the white satin of her bra.

“Feels so good,” she whispered as his thumbs stroked the peaks of her nipples.

“You feel so good.” He added, his voice was a sexy rasp. “Now I want to taste you.”

His fingers pushed the straps from her shoulders, and then his mouth was on her. Poppy shuddered at the long sweep of his tongue down one breast.

The sensations were unlike anything she’d felt before.

“Don’t bite your lip to stop making a noise, Poppy. I want to hear every sound that comes out of your mouth while I make love to you.”

“You’re always telling me what to do.” The words came out more a purr than a growl.

His laugh was low and to her ears, dirty, and then he was moving down her body, stopping every inch to kiss or lick her skin. By the time Nick reached the waistband of her leggings, she was wet and aching.

“I want you naked.” He tugged the leggings down her thighs, and then his hands parted her legs.

“Nick,” Poppy’s whisper was desperate as he eased the satin of her panties aside, and then his mouth was there, on her. His tongue wicked as it swept her slit, pulling moans and sighs from her as he caressed every inch of her wet heat. She could feel the tension climb as his teeth grazed the hard nub between her thighs. Then his fingers were inside her and Poppy cried out as the orgasm tore through her with shuddering intensity.

“I don’t think I’ll ever tire of that look on your face.” His words were deep and low.

Opening her eyes, Poppy found him above her.

“Take your clothes off, Nick,” she whispered, arching up to kiss him. It was hard and desperate, and then his weight was off her.

He dragged his sweater over his head, and then dropped his sweatpants and boxers. Muscles ran in ridges down his belly and sides, but it was the thick, hard length of his erection that drew her eyes.

“If you don’t cut that out, it will be over before it started.” Nick’s words were a growl.

“Condom?” Poppy whispered.

Nick dug into the pocket of his sweatpants and pulled one out.

“You carry one in those?” Poppy’s words came out husky and nothing like her usual voice.

“While you’re in my house, I do.” He tore open the foil packet and rolled it on.

He then picked her up and sat with her straddling his thighs.

“Take me inside you, Poppy. I don’t want to hurt your arm.” The muscles in his jaw bunched as he looked at her. His eyes traveling up her body to lock on hers.

“Now,” he demanded.

Poppy may not have a lot of experience, but she read books, and had learned a lot about sex that way. She rose on her knees until she felt the blunt, hot head of his erection pressing at her entrance. His hands gripped her hips as hers went around his neck.

“Just take it slow, baby.”

One large hand gripped the back of her neck as she slid down the first inch, and his mouth took hers. Poppy lowered further, feeling the delicious stretch of her muscles to accommodate him.

“So tight,” he whispered, and then she took all of him inside her.

He moaned. “Hell, baby, you feel good.”

She felt the tension inside her climb again as she rose and then lowered back down onto his hot length. He let her set the pace. Let her take it slow. But Poppy felt the effort it cost him.

Soon the delicious shudders ran through her again.

“Fuck,” he gritted out, jaw clenched, and she knew he was close. “Come for me again, Poppy.”

He pulled her down as he thrust up, and she shuddered. Seconds later, she was free falling into another orgasm. Nick joined her, pumping hard into her again and again.

She lay there, breathless, slumped against that solid chest with his arms holding her close, wondering what she’d been thinking doing that with Nick Atherton. Because Poppy was sure of one thing now. He’d just ruined her for all other men.

 

Chapter Twenty

Poppy woke alone. Nick’s brother, Sam, was arriving early, and they were having a business meeting, so he’d left while she slept. Shaking the pillow to remove the indentation from his head, she pulled up the covers.

Poppy had never slept the night with a man before… anyone, if she was honest. It was unsettling. Her head was all over the place, and she wasn’t sure what to do now.

After making love on the sofa, she’d left Nick downstairs. Poppy hadn’t exactly run to her room, but it was a close thing, and the words she’d uttered while leaving had made no sense.

He’d followed, stripped off his clothes and joined her in the shower. After washing her thoroughly and making love to her again, pressed to the shower wall, in a scene she’d never be able to recreate in a book, if she wrote romance, that was. They’d then dried off and gone to bed.

Poppy had been tense, and was sure she’d never sleep with Nick so close. But he’d told her to stop thinking as he pulled her into his arms. The strange thing was Poppy had and slept all night.

“I just don’t know how to do this, Hercules.” The cat stretched and went back to sleep. “Don’t know how to play this cool and then walk away.”

Because after all this danger was over, surely that would happen? Or maybe it wouldn’t, and they’d date? Thoughts churned around inside her head, coming up with so many scenarios of what might or might not happen.

Needing a distraction, she pulled on jeans and a sweater, and sat on her bed to check the emails she’d been neglecting.

Her agent Jess was the first one that caught her eye. The heading said, urgent, in large shouty capitals. Why are you not answering your phone, Poppy?

“Damn, Hercules, I need to get a new phone.”

I know you always tell me to just make your appearances and appointments and email you the dates and times her agent had written. So here’s what you’re doing today. At 1:00 pm you’re going to the League Hotel. You and Hillary Bailey will be talking about your writing journeys to the invited guests and signing books.

Poppy was sure she’d told her agent no more public events for a few months. Clearly, she hadn’t listened, and this was what happened when you didn’t take charge of your professional life.

“Poppy, you want coffee? We’re done with the meeting,” Nick said, knocking on her door. The handle then turned, and he stepped into the room.

Hair tousled. Jeans and a black sweatshirt. On his feet were thick socks. It wasn’t healthy for anyone to be that hot, Poppy thought.

“Sure, be right down.”

“You all good?” He moved to the bed to look down at her.

“Yes, of course.” Had those words come out really squeaky and panicked?

“What’s the deal?” he leaned down and brushed a kiss over her lips.

“No deal.”

 “Definitely a deal.” He straightened and studied her.

“I don’t do this,” she waved her hand about. “I haven’t, and don’t know how it works.” Way to play it cool, Poppy.

“This being the morning after sex?”

She nodded.

“That’s okay, I know, and will get you through.” His smile was small. “Do all writers overthink things?”

“Pretty much. It comes with the job description.”

“Forewarned is forearmed.” He bent down to kiss her again. “Relax, Poppy. We’re all good.”

He’d left the room before she remembered about the appointment at the League hotel. Looking at her watch, Poppy realized it was in two hours. She wanted to go alone, needing the time away from Nick, but she was also no fool. He would never allow that, and she understood the reason. It just chafed at her. Poppy had done everything for herself for years.

Firing off an email to say she’d lost her cellphone to her agent, she checked a few more. Once she was done, Poppy left her room and headed down the stairs.

She could do this, be cool, like Nick was. “Get a grip,” she muttered before entering the kitchen.

Sam was still there, seated at the table, drinking coffee. He was just a different version of Nick, but he didn’t make her heart race when she looked at him.

“I have go and do a talk and signing today,” she blurted out. “At 1:00 pm at the League Hotel. My agent just emailed me.”

Nick was making coffee, but he stopped and turned to stare at her.

“What’s it like standing up there with all those people staring at you and wanting your signature?” Sam asked.

“I’m used to it now.” Poppy shrugged.

“You’re not going.” Nick’s words sounded calm, but the hard look in his eyes told her differently.

“I am going because it’s my job.”

“You’re not serious?”

“Nick—”

“She can’t go, Sam,” Nick cut his brother off. “That assface is out there somewhere, and now we know the authorities are not taking her seriously—”

“What?” Poppy’s word was a shriek.

“Nice work on the delivery, Nick.” Sam sighed. “What he meant to say, Poppy, was—”

“Billy called,” Nick said. “Apparently the assface was located by police back in his hometown—”

“What?” Poppy said again.

“He said he took a flight home after catching up with you in your house the day before your book signing. You invited him for dinner, and after a night spent with you in your bed, he headed home.” The anger had Nick’s jaw clenching.

“I didn’t,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t allow that man anywhere near me. You have to believe me.” She was backing to the door when he reached her. His hands settling on her shoulders.

“We didn’t believe him, Poppy.” He pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her close. “He’s good. Smart, Billy said, and knows how to play this game. He is also from a family with a lot of money, and Billy thinks they may have pulled some strings in the background regarding what happened between you two.”

“Is that possible?” Poppy asked. She was subjected to matching pitying looks. “What?”

“Not all rich people are bad, Poppy, I get that, but some are and throw their money around to make life easier,” Nick said. “I know you’ve heard the word corruption considering what you do. Writers know about that kind of think surely?”

“Of course I know, I guess I just didn’t think that the police could be manipulated for something like that.” The pitying looks were back. “Ok, I get it. Don’t look at me like that.”

“Billy said all they have to this point is assface’s word against yours, and that someone from the police station where you went stopped investigating after his family stepped in. This he heard from a source that did not want to be named.”

“Excellent, nothing like being stalked by someone with connections,” Poppy muttered.

“The way we see it is he’s got to have slipped up somewhere,” Sam said. “There have to be other women he’s hassled, or work colleagues. Billy agrees, and he’s looking into everything assface has done or is doing. If he trips on a kerb, he wants to know.”

“Let’s hope he smashes his head and gets amnesia,” Poppy muttered, easing out of Nick’s arms.

“About this gig today,” Sam said. “I haven’t got much on. I’ll come with you.”

“We will come with you.”

Sam smiled at Nick as if he’d said he’d go with Poppy just to annoy him, which he probably had. She’d noticed the Athertons did that a lot to each other.

“I really don’t need you to accompany me. Just drop me off,” Poppy said.

Sam got out of his chair and moved to stand beside his brother. They both then stared at Poppy. A wall of handsome, unmovable Atherton’s. They folded their arms and stood there in silence.

“All right, fine. But you have to sit and be quiet. Preferably at the back of the room.”

“Will there be food?” Sam asked.

“It’s me and another author talking to a group of people. They’ll be asking questions, and I’m sure there will be food of some kind.”

“What author?” Sam asked.

“Hilary Bailey, the romance author.”

“Get out!” Sam whistled. “She’s the shit.”

Nick looked at his brother. “How the hell do you know that? You don’t read.”

“I listen to audio books.”

“Romance audio books?”

“Sometimes.” Sam didn’t look embarrassed that he’d let this slip. “I went to mom’s book club once, and they were talking about one of Hilary Bailey’s titles. It sounded interesting.”

“You’re serious?” Nick said.

“What’s wrong with romance books?” Poppy demanded. “I love them.”

“Nothing is wrong with them. I just didn’t know my brother read them.” Nick shot her a look.

“It makes me more in tune with my feminine side,” Sam said with a wide grin. “Girls love it.”

Shaking his head, Nick said, “you won’t even know we’re there. Promise.”

“But if assface,” she was calling him that now, “is back in his hometown, surely I’m safe.”

“It’s called air travel, and you can get from one place to another in a matter of hours,” Nick said.

“Cool.” Sam clapped his hands together, cutting off any further protests from Poppy. “This will be awesome, and I can get a book signed for mom. Like Nick said, you won’t even know we’re there.”

She doubted that very much.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

“Why don’t you drop me off and I’ll call when I’m ready to come home?” Poppy said as they parked outside the hotel.

Nick was just about to say no when his brother spoke.

“Aww, come on Poppy, have a heart. It’s rare I get to play bodyguard to a hot writer,” Sam said. “Let me come in, please.”

“I don’t need bodyguards,” she said climbing out of the passenger’s seat.

“Give me that.” Nick joined her and took the bag she’d slung over her shoulder. “What’s in here? It’s heavy?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe books?” She gave him a sugary sweet smile that was totally insincere and then walked toward The League Hotel.

“I wonder if all body guards get treated like this?” Nick said loud enough for her to hear. She ignored him.

Sam whistled as they followed.

The League Hotel was one of the more high-end hotels in town, it was huge. Views from the top floor took in most of the city. Plenty of glass and gardens. Big white columns at the entranceway. Decorated for Christmas, massive boughs of greenery were hung with red ribbons and gold balls.

“I forget how impressive this place is until I’m standing outside it,” Sam said.

Nick grunted, his eyes sweeping the area. Poppy walked just ahead, looking hot as fuck in a dress that hugged her curves. The color of mint ice-cream. The hem stopped a few inches above her knees. Her shoes were strappy with a mile high heel. She wore jangly bracelets and smelled of something soft and sexy that had him thinking about what he’d like to do to her when they got home.

She’d insisted they stop by her house on the way here. Nick had gone in first, and then Sam had walked Poppy inside. The place was clean now, but no way was she going back there until assface was arrested.

“So here’s the rules,” he whispered in her ear when he reached her side. “No talking to strange men dressed like that.”

“What?” She frowned, almost like his words surprised her.

“You look hot. I don’t want any men hitting on you.”

She snorted. “Right, like that’s going to happen. Stop being a neanderthal.”

Her eyes looked bigger from whatever she’d put around them, and her lips were fire engine red, which was not helping him with visions of her body spread out on the bed beneath him.

“How is it you don’t know how hot you are?”

Ignoring him, she picked up the pace and walked in through the glass doors.

“Best behavior, bro,” he said to Sam as they followed. Both wore chinos, button-down shirts and had even polished their boots.

“I’m not an animal, Nick. Mum taught us manners, remember?”

“Right. Let’s go then.”

The inside of the hotel was as impressive as the out. Christmas music played but wasn’t intrusive, and a massive Christmas tree stood in one corner.

“Oh my god, it’s Poppy Sylvester!” The shriek came from a middle-aged woman who dropped her suitcase right there in the hotel foyer. She then ran to Poppy.

His girl smiled. A polite, sweet one he’d never seen, and held out her hand. “Hello, how lovely to meet you,” Poppy said.

Before the woman could pull out one of her books from the huge handbag she had slung over her shoulder, two more people had joined the group.

“Did you know she was a big deal?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, I went to that signing, remember, and saw her fans. I’ve read some articles about her too, and knew she was the shit.” It made him proud to see what Poppy had achieved. The nerdy girl had blossomed into this kick ass author that was known the world over.

“You’ve got it bad, bud,” Sam said under his breath. “I haven’t seen that look in a while.”

“Shut up.” Did he have it bad? Looking at Poppy bending to sign a book the woman held, he thought maybe his brother was right. He also knew that she wasn’t ready to hear that he felt something big for her, which was good, because he needed time to adjust to it.

Plus, there was assface to deal with.

Nick and Sam moved closer and watched Poppy in action. The line grew and her smile never slipped. She greeted every fan the same way. Smiling, taking time to talk. Some wanted pictures, others a hug, and some just to talk about the book. She handled it like a pro. No one looking at her would see that she was being stalked by someone who had made her life hell for years.

“Your girl is impressive,” Sam said.

“And then some,” Nick agreed. He liked hearing Poppy labeled as his, and that was a reaction she would hate, so it would stay in his head.

“One O’clock,” Sam said.

“My one O’clock?”

Sam jabbed a long finger in the direction. Nick looked that way and saw two hotel staff approaching, with their eyes on Poppy.

“Maybe just say look right.”

“I’ve always wondered what being a cop would be like. Now I know,” Sam said.

“I think there’s more to it, but if you talk to your cuff, we’re going to have problems.” Nick looked at his watch. Poppy was due to start in ten minutes. Moving closer, he bent to whisper in her ear. “Wrap it up sweet cheeks, ten minutes until go time.”

“Is that your partner?” The woman who’d spoken was about Em’s age, and the eyes she ran over him were X-rated. She was standing in front of Poppy now, cellphone ready to take a pic.

“No,”

“Yes,” Nick said at the same time as Poppy. “We’re keeping our relationship a secret, or were,” he smiled. “Games up, sweetheart,” he kissed Poppy’s cheek. Her body was stiff beneath the hand he had on her spine.

“What are you doing?” Poppy hissed, still smiling, no easy feat, but she nailed it, and clearly had, had practice.

What he was doing was giving assface something to think about. If he saw Nick with Poppy in a picture or on social media, he may think twice about hassling her again.

“What’s your name?” The girl asked.

“Nick,” he said. “Poppy’s got an engagement to attend now, but I’m sure you’re going to catch up with her again real soon,” Nick said, nudging her forward. “Say bye,” he whispered.

“See you all again soon,” Poppy said.

Her adoring fans parted, and he led her to where the two hotel staff stood.

“We’re ready for you upstairs now, Miss Sylvester.”

“Thank you.”

He could almost feel her vibrating with the need to tell him how pissed she was he’d said they were together.

The elevator ride up was silent, considering there were five of them in the small metal box. When the doors opened, Sam stepped out first and looked around, taking his job as Poppy’s minder seriously.

He missed what Poppy muttered but guessed it wasn’t complimentary.

Nick walked at her side down the long hall and the hum voices grew steadily louder as they approached a set of double doors. Walking through, he scanned the guests. The amount of people in here would have given him hives if he knew he was about to speak in front of them.

She moved to one side, then held her hand out for the bag he carried.

“Need anything else?” Her reply was a shake of her head. “Let me know if you do.”

She turned to walk to the front of the room, where another woman, presumably Hilary Bailey, was standing. Poppy turned back and glared at him.

“You shouldn’t have said you were my partner, Nick. That kind of information spreads when you have a public profile like I do.”

“I can handle it.”

The red lips pursed as she expelled a breath. Nick thought seriously about kissing her, but he’d annoyed her enough considering she was about to get up there and talk in front of all these people.

“Don’t say anything else. This is not a game,” she snapped.

“No, really? Because that mugging, and then the house trashing, all seemed a lot of fun to me.”

She wanted to slap him. He read it in her eyes and smiled.

“Go do you, Poppy. We’re all good, and me and Sam have got your back.”

He watched her battle with the need to say something else. Battle with the fact they were there for her.

“I am grateful,” she said. “Really, and I know I don’t sound it, but I’m not used to having minders.”

“Bodyguards,” Sam corrected her. “It has a better ring to it.”

“You go, and we’ll sit here and bask in your magnificence,” Nick said.

“You’re really annoying,” she muttered.

“He has been my entire life,” Sam added.

Poppy turned and walked away with her bag, and he looked at the sway of her ass in that dress. He’d thought the room would be full of women, but there were men too, and some of them noticed how hot she was.

“I don’t care if you are my brother, I’m dropping you if you don’t raise your eyes.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Poppy, what are you writing next?”

Nick listened as his girl answered the question. She was a pro and watching her filled him with pride. The shy, socially awkward girl from college was long gone.

“It’s like she’s two people,” Sam whispered. “The woman who is not big on interacting, and her.” He nodded to where Poppy sat in a red chair beside Hilary Bailey. “The hot, famous author.”

Nick jabbed Sam in the ribs.

“What?” his brother wheezed. “I can’t call her hot?”

“No.”

“Got it bad,” Sam sang under his breath.

She’d been up there an hour now, and the questions kept coming. The interviewer had introduced both Poppy and Bailey. Then he’d asked some questions, and now it was the audience’s turn.

Poppy smiled at the man, who now had the microphone in the back row close to where Nick sat. It was sweet and genuine and made something weird happen in his chest.

“Poppy, my name is Garrett Johns.”

“Hi Garrett. What’s your question?” She asked.

“What is your annual income? My wife is writing a book, but I’m not sure it’s worth her time financially.”

“Is that guy for real?” Sam whispered. “Who the fuck asks something like that?”

Nick’s temper spiked. It was downright rude and out of line, as far as he was concerned. He thought about telling the man that, but Sam shook his head.

“We promised her we wouldn’t make a scene. Let her handle it, Nick, I’m sure she’s had worse.”

“Doesn’t make it right,” Nick said under his breath. He watched Poppy look at Hilary Bailey, who gave her a smile, which he translated to, not this again, but then he didn’t speak girl, so he couldn't be a hundred percent sure about that.

“Is your wife here, Garrett?” Poppy asked, nothing in her tone giving away how pissed off and insulted she must be.

A woman in the seat beside the dickhead raised her hand.

“Do you enjoy writing?” Poppy asked her, and the woman nodded. “Well then, you write your book, and worry about the rest when it’s finished. Writing isn’t all about numbers, there has to be passion and enjoyment involved too.”

“But what do you make?” Garrett Johns persisted and Nick tried to rise, but Sam’s hand held him down.

Poppy looked at him for a few seconds and then said, “How about you tell me what you earn first, then I’ll tell you mine.”

Nick snorted. It was the perfect answer. Johns threw out a number, and Sam coughed out bullshit.

“Well Garrett, that’s an excellent salary, but as I don’t talk about what I earn, we’ll move on to the next question?”

The man sat down, and Nick could tell he was annoyed, but didn’t pursue it, which was just as well for him.

“We’re not shy,” Sam said. “But this makes me itch.”

“Public eye, bud, comes with the territory.”

“Yeah, but respect for Poppy, that smile hasn’t slipped.”

It hadn’t. The woman was beautiful standing up there doing her thing. It wasn’t just the outside, which was hot. Looking at her curves in that dress heated him up, but up there she was, glowing.

“Hard to believe she’s enjoying it.”

“I’d rather give you my Christmas present from mom seeing as mine is always the best,” Nick said.

“We both know that for a lie. I’ve always been her favorite.”

“And that’s the last question,” one of the hotel staff in a suit said. “Please help yourself to refreshments.”

Now the questions were wrapped up, those guests with books surged forward. Sam wandered off to get food, and Nick moved closer to Poppy. He listened as she talked and signed, taking the time with each fan.

“I answered your question, Poppy, now it’s just me and my wife here. You can answer mine,” Garrett Johns said.

“Garrett,” his wife said, clearly uncomfortable. “Enough.”

“I’m just interested.”

Nick climbed onto the platform and stood behind Poppy. Garrett caught his eye, and the man took a step back.

“Let’s go, Lucy.” He grabbed his wife’s arm and left.

He retreated a few steps when the man left, and Poppy had no idea, thankfully, what he’d just done. She was independent, and he got that, but no way was anyone being anything but respectful to her.

“Can we have a photo with your man and you?” The next lady to get her book signed asked Poppy.

Nick thought she was closer to his grandmother’s age of eighty. She wore a floral dress and beige shoes like the ones his uncle got after foot correction surgery. A thick Velcro strap secured them in place. He smiled when her eyes ran over him.

“Man?” Poppy looked behind and found him. “He’s—”

“Happy to have a photo,” Nick cut her off.

“You too, Hilary,” the woman urged, looking excited.

Nick had a weakness for seniors. They’d done their time and now could do what they wanted, as long as it didn’t include committing crimes, as far as he was concerned.

He was soon wedged between the two writers, and could feel Poppy vibrating with pissedoffness. When the picture was done, he retreated before she could speak, and walked around the room checking people out. Billy had sent him a picture of the assface, so he wouldn’t get by him.

Nick had done some research on people who appeared normal but weren’t. How they could function on a daily basis mimicking those around them, but in fact they were far from sane. His guess was this Malcolm Davy was that. They just had to prove it as clearly the man was fixated on Poppy. He also wasn’t dumb. Billy had said a smart criminal was a nightmare, but a smart insane one was even worse.

He ran Sam to ground at the refreshment table.

“That scene when Maggie leaves Jake, though, that made me cry,” he was saying when Nick arrived. “I had to skip to the end just to make sure they ended up together.”

“Romances are usually HFN or HEA,” the woman he was talking to said. “Sometimes there can be cliffhangers, but I’m not a fan of those.”

“HFN?” Sam asked before Nick could.

“Happy for now, and happily ever after,” she said.

“Huh,” Sam said. “I didn’t know that.”

Nick ate a sandwich the size of his thumb and drank a cup of coffee one of the hotel staff handed him as he listened to his brother talking about the books he’d read. Should he take one to Poppy? He left it for now, because she was annoyed with him, and he could end up wearing it. He smiled at the thought of how he’d make it up to her later, starting with a long, hot shower together.

“So, do you read romance, or are you into thrillers?” A man asked him.

“Thrillers,” Nick said, because he had read Poppy’s last book, and definitely not read anything with romance in it.

He stayed by the table talking and eating until he was sure Poppy would have finished signing books and had some time to cool off.

“Excuse me, are you Mr. Atherton?” One of the hotel staff approached him.

“I am.”

“Miss Sylvester asked me to tell you she was in the office and could you join her there, sir?”

He nodded, suddenly tense for no reason other than he was sure Poppy wouldn’t have sent for him unless she was desperate.

“Show me where she is, please.”

“What’s going on?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know, maybe nothing.”

“But you don’t think it is?”

“It’s through there, Mr. Atherton,” the staff member said, pointing to a door off the hall.

He found her standing at the windows, arms wrapped around her waist.

“What’s wrong?”

She turned at his words and he saw the fear again.

“Tell me. Poppy, what’s going on?”

“Jesus,” Sam said from behind him.

It was then Nick saw the long white box on the desk that he’d missed when he’d walked in. It looked like something long-stemmed roses would be delivered in.

“What the fuck?” Sam snarled.

“I’m so angry!” The words exploded out of Poppy’s mouth.

Nick grabbed her, pulling her to his side as he made his way to the desk. Looking in the box, he saw the grotesque faces steering back at him. One woman had a bullet hole in her forehead, the other a rope around her neck.

“They’re pinatas,” Sam said, reading the back of the card that was obviously inside. “Sick ones.”

“I hate him,” she growled.

Nick walked Poppy backward until he reached a chair, then lowered her into it. “Stay,” he said, then kissed her softly.

“I’m not a dog.”

“Please stay.” He ran a hand down her arm.

“Okay.”

Nick pulled out his cellphone to call Billy. The phone on the desk rang as he found his cousin’s number. Sam picked it up.

“This is not your office, Sam!” Poppy hissed. “You can’t just answer the phone.”

“Yeah, she’s here. Who is this?” Sam said into the receiver. “It’s your publicist, Poppy.” He held it out for her.

“Billy, assface has struck again.”

“Hi, Sally,” Poppy said, taking the phone as Nick talked to Billy.

“Sally?” Sam looked confused.

Nick watched as she listened to whoever was speaking. The color drained from her face, and her eyes then shot to his.

“Leave me alone, Malcolm!”

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Poppy loathed the familiar fear she felt as Malcolm Davy spoke. Fear slid its icy tentacles through her veins, making her knees weak.

“Give me that receiver!” Nick roared as the deep, raspy voice on the end of the phone told her she was going to pay for her betrayal.

“I’ve never been yours,” Poppy got out around the tightness in her throat.

Sam was wrestling with Nick, trying to hold him back. “We need a location, and the more she talks, the better chance we have of getting it,” Sam hissed, struggling to keep his brother away from her.

“Is he there with you, Poppy? Nick Atherton, the man you’ve played the whore for?” Malcolm Davy asked.

“You leave him alone!” The words exploded out of her mouth. Her fear turning to rage that he knew who Nick was. “You’re a weak coward for doing this! For hiding from me!” Poppy added.

Sam now had Nick in a headlock.

“I know that you’re letting him touch you, Poppy. Fucking you when you’re mine.”

“I loathe you,” she said, “and I have never wanted to be with you.” She felt stronger with Nick and Sam here, and the words she’d always wanted to say were suddenly pouring out.

Nick gave Sam a jab to the gut, and he was free and coming to her.

“It was all right while you were living your life alone and we were playing our game, Poppy! You running, and me finding you because I knew that was what you wanted,” the voice said.

“No! I don’t want you anywhere near me!”

“You want me, Poppy,” the voice insisted. “But now you’ve made me angry and you’re going to pay.”

“I’m not scared of you.” She pushed down the fear. Nick was here. She was safe.

Big muscular arms closed around her, and then she was surrounded. Nick’s front pressed to her back. She could feel the tension in him as his hand cupped hers, and turned the phone so he could hear what was being said.

“I’m killing him too, Poppy, and that’s on you. Your fuck buddy will die a horrible death, and you’ll watch because you’ve betrayed me.”

The courage fled as quick as it had come. Poppy couldn’t let anything happen to him because of her. “No! He’s not my man, we just—”

“Don’t lie to me! I saw you with him. You’re a whore and a liar, but I still want you, and we will be together,” the voice said. “I hope you weren’t too sore after that day in the street.”

“Wh-what?”

“I paid that man to mug you and got some valuable information out of your bag. All kinds of things that gave me insights into my girl.”

“You hurt me! How can you do that and say you care?” Poppy demanded. “And I’m not your girl and never will be.”

Nick’s hand was on her neck, the warm palm stroking her skin.

“I didn’t mean for him to hurt you. I made him pay for that.”

She shuddered at those words. What did he mean by made him pay?

“I love you, Poppy, and soon we’ll be together. I have to go now, because we both know that someone will track this call. You enjoy those dolls now, my love. Just remember, I can and will always find you. We’ll be together real soon.”

Nick took the receiver.

“You listen to me, you sick fuck. You won’t get near Poppy again. She’s not alone anymore like you want. I’m finding you and then you and me are going to have a little one on one. No hiding and playing games like you have with my girl. You’re a dead man, Davy, so you just keep your eyes open, because you’ll be seeing me real soon!” Nick dropped the phone onto the desk when he’d finished talking.

“It’s okay, baby.” He turned her in his arms and held her. “Sssh now, I have you.”

Poppy was making a gulping, choking sound when Nick pressed her face into his chest. Now the call had finished. The adrenalin that had coursed through her had left her shaking.

“I-I’m all right.”

“I’m not,” Nick gritted out.

“What did he say to you, Poppy?” Sam asked.

“Leave it, Sam.”

“No, Nick. We need this information.” Sam had found a pen and notepad on the desk. “Everything, Poppy.”

“Let me go, Nick.” She tried to push him back.

“No.”

“Just turn your head and talk to me, so your words are not muffled by his shirt,” Sam said.

“He said you’re mine, but he heard Nick’s voice, I think.” She pushed out of his arms and this time he let her, but her fingers were in his and she wanted the contact. Needed the anchor to him right then.

“What else did he say about Nick?” Sam asked.

She felt them both looking at her and knew she had to speak. “He said Nick was my man, and that he you’re we’re… ah, doing it.”

“It?” Sam frowned.

“You are not that thick,” Nick said. “Sex, for fuck's sake. You know what that is after reading those books.”

“Right, gotcha,” Sam scribbled more notes on the paper.

“And I am your man,” Nick said, and it sounded like a vow, but she didn’t want Nick in Malcolm Davy’s sights.

“Nick—”

“If the next words from your mouth are, I should leave you, and back away, because this could get ugly. That’s not happening.”

“I don’t want you and your family hurt. Don’t want you involved.”

“Now that’s just too bad because we are.” His jaw was clenched, eyes filled with rage.

“What else did he say, Poppy? FYI, Nick’s right, we’re not walking away from you and this. I want to bring this sick fucker down, too.”

“He said that while I was living alone, and we were playing our game of me running, and him finding me, he was happy. Now he’s not because of Nick,” Poppy added.

“You shouldn’t have let it get this far,” Nick growled.

She pushed completely out of his arms, glaring at him. “I was doing what I thought I needed to.”

“Yeah, well, you should have taken control before now by letting people help.”

“I’m the victim here!”

“You about done with that?”

She deflated like a balloon. They were looking out for her, and she wasn’t used to that, but maybe they were right, and she needed to let them. Could she?

“Maybe,” was all she was willing to concede. “I stood up to him just now. You heard me. I’ve never done that before.”

“How’d it feel?

“Terrifying.”

“He needs to know you won’t let him walk over you,” Nick said. “Now let’s get out of here. We need to take those,” he pointed to the dolls, “to Billy and show him what you wrote, Sam.”

“I’m showing him the bruises you inflicted too,” his brother muttered.

“Cry me a river. You shot me once with a BB gun,” Nick said. He then put the lid back on the dolls.

He also told me that he paid that man to mug me, and then said he’d taken care of him for hurting me,” Poppy added, remembering those words.

“Yeah, I heard that too,” Nick said. “Now get your shit. We’re leaving.”

“I’ll see you downstairs,” Sam said, now carrying the long white box.

Nick trailed her out of the room, and she collected her things. Then they were in the elevator. The doors closed, and they were alone, and the silence was loud and uncomfortable. She felt his anger and frustration. Well, good for him, she was those things and scared… really scared, and not just for herself.

Before she could speak, a hand grabbed her and hauled her in close. He then buried his head in her hair. She felt him exhale slowly.

“Nick, I’m okay.”

“I hate he scares you. You went really pale, Poppy. You looked like a ghost and there was no one I could punch. This faceless villain shit is really getting to me. I want to confront him.”

“Me too,” she said into his shirt again.

“You will never confront him, because you’re never seeing him again.”

He leaned down to kiss her. Just a soft brush of his lips over hers.

“I need you safe, Poppy. This, what’s between us is real.”

“Nick, we can’t—”

“Not listening,” he said, placing a hand over her mouth. “Right now, we’re giving Billy the information, and then we’re going to a Christmas party at my cousin’s house.”

“I don’t really feel up to that.”

“Sure you do. Music, food, drink and fun. What’s not to want?” He kissed her again. “Come on, Poppy. It will all be okay, I promise.”

“We can’t just carry on like nothing's happening, Nick. He’s out there and knows who you are. What if he comes after your family?”

“I’ll kill him.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Christmas was two weeks away, and Nick needed to do some shopping, or his family would be getting money, which told them zero thought had gone into the gift. The problem was that the Christmas spirit had deserted him. A beautiful blonde was tugging at all his protective instincts and a whole lot of other emotions he didn’t want to get into right now.

“How’s Poppy?” his brother Thomas asked, while Sam poured some beer on the grill to see how much it sizzled. The three Athertons were manning the BBQ outside in the cold, while the rest of the family partied inside.

“She’s scared and trying not to show it. This shithead has been tormenting her for years, but she’s kept him at bay by moving around and having no personal contact with people.”

“Why has he stepped up his game now?” Sam asked. “It can’t be just because of you. I mean, sure, it’s escalated since you decided she was your woman but—”

“I did not decide. I’m protecting her by having her living in my house.”

“Sure, if that’s the way you want to word it, we’ll go with that.”

“So, he paid someone to mug her, then stole her handbag, got into her house, and now presumably has the contents of that bag to stalk her with,” Thomas said before the discussion between Nick and Sam escalated.

“The only thing in there that can still cause trouble is her diary,” Nick said. “All the cards, bank details, and passwords are changed.”

“Who does that these days?” Thomas asked. “Has that stuff written down somewhere someone can find it easily? Even Aunt Jean is more savvy than that.”

“Sure, but she calls me every week to ask about how to get her passwords out of the password manager you set up, because apparently I’m the kindest brother,” Nick said.

“We all know that’s not true,” Sam said. “You’re just a suck up.”

“What did Billy say when you took him the gruesome pinatas?” Thomas asked.

They had left the hotel with Sam and gone to the police station. After handing over the long box of gruesomeness and giving their statements, they had gone to his house to change. Poppy had tried to tell him she was happy to stay there with her cat. He’d told her that was not happening, and Nick had won.

She had insisted they stop for supplies. He’d told her that wasn’t necessary, but she’d not budged. Her words had been ‘I am not going to a social gathering and arriving empty-handed.’

Nick hadn’t pointed out that there would be so much food and drink that it would take a year to consume it, because if she’d been thinking about that, just maybe Malcolm Davy could be pushed to the back of her head briefly.

“He’s really smart,” Nick said. “Malcolm Davy is one of those high functioning guys who are bat shit crazy, but really intelligent, according to Billy.”

“Oh goodie, because we don’t want Poppy stalked by a regular dumb ass,” Thomas said.

“I don’t get what his deal is?” Sam said. “She doesn’t want him and now the cops are involved again, and still he’s carrying on with the intimidation and threatening behavior.”

“He’s not sane, bud,” Nick said. “Plus, there’s arrogance is my guess. He is obsessed with Poppy and thinks he should have her.”

Which was never going to happen.

They needed to end this bullshit before things escalated, and after that phone call today, Nick was sure it would. Especially now Davy knew he was in Poppy’s life

“He can’t get about that quickly. How is he doing all this?” Thomas asked. “The man lives miles away and would need to be superman.”

“It’s called the internet; you can get anyone to do anything on there if you know where to look and how to throw money around. Plus, he probably does a whole lot of rerouting and back tracking to cover what he’s done online.”

“True,” Sam said. Billy thinks he’s using a fake ID to.”

“Don’t they have security cameras at airports?” Thomas asked. “If he’s travelling on two flights in a day, someone could find him surely?

“Yes, they do,” Nick said. “But if he’s as smart as we believe, he’s probably disguising himself.”

The back door opened, and his Aunt Jean walked out carrying a large plate of meat. She handed it to Nick. “Don’t burn them and make sure the temperature is up to heat before you start grilling.”

“This is not our first cookout, Aunt Jean. We’ve done this many times before and still you don’t trust us,” Sam said.

“Yeah, what’s with that?” Nick asked with a smile because Aunt Jean wasn’t above cuffing him if he wasn’t polite.

He felt edgy after what happened at the hotel. Edgy and angry, with no outlet. When they’d arrived at the party and Poppy was safe inside with his sisters, who had her wedged between them on the sofa, he’d needed to move. So, he’d walked out here. His brothers had followed.

“It’s my job to make sure you don’t burn the food, so don’t burn it,” his aunt said. “And I’m not letting your grumpy moods annoy me, because Nicky brought me his famous author girlfriend to talk to, and she said she’d sign the rest of my books.”

“How’s Poppy doing, Aunt Jean?” Nick asked.

“She’s okay, but that man needs to be caught, so you and her can be happy together.”

Sam hooted after that statement.

“Now, Aunt Jean, don’t go building fairytales around Nick and Poppy,” Thomas said before Nick could speak. “They’ve just reconnected.”

Their aunt had a sweet round face, bright red curls that were dyed in the Crimp and Cut salon every month. Her lips were always painted a hideous orange, and she had zero fashion sense, but somehow pulled it all off.

“Reconnected?” Her eyes shot from Thomas to Nick. “I didn’t know you were old friends.”

“Well not exactly—”

“Yes. They went to college together.” Sam picked up the story. “She was his childhood sweetheart.”

“Now wait a min—”

“No! Really?” Aunt Jean clutched her chest. “Why did your mother not tell me?”

“I think you should go ask her that, and check on Poppy for Nick,” Sam said with a smirk.

She kissed their cheeks, patted Nick’s as well, and then left, hurrying back inside to the warmth.

“You think that’s funny, I suppose. That right now Aunt Jean has gone back inside to spread the word that me and Poppy are childhood sweethearts, and have found each other again?” He started forking up the steaks and tossing them on the grill.

“Hey, it’s not like it’s a lie. You were friends, then you screwed it up. How do I know you didn’t secretly love her and her you?” Sam said.

“Him, I expect that kind of shit from. You,” he jabbed the fork at Thomas. “I don’t.”

“Just having a little fun, Nicky, lighten up,” Thomas said with another fork in his hand.

The door opened again behind them, and Poppy appeared. Nick’s heart kicked up a beat at seeing her. She carried a tray with another plate of meat and three glasses. Luckily, his cousin had a huge grill.

“Your mother handed me this tray and told me I had to bring it out here. I think the mugs have hot apple cider in them,” she said, walking slowly to where they stood. Her footwear had changed, he noted, and someone had pulled a grey wool hat with a white pompom onto her head.

“Life saver.” Thomas took a mug.

“Nice boots. I like the hat too,” Nick said, taking his drink, so he didn’t grab her.

She’d taken so many hits lately, he wasn’t sure how she was still holding up.

The hat and pink cheeks from the cold looked cute on her. Something about this woman reached deep inside Nick and touched that place he hadn’t known was empty.

Was this need he had for her just because of what was going on? You’re an idiot if you believe that.

“Who made you wear those?” He nodded to the fur-lined boots that were more suited for Alaska than city life.

“Your father. These belong to your cousin. He said my footwear was not suitable and I could slip on a patch of ice. He then forced your cousin Melanie to get a hat for me.” She spoke slowly, like a person in shock, which was the usual reaction to people being exposed to his family for the first time.

“No ice out here, but I bet your feet are toasty,” Thomas said. She nodded. “I’ll go get some platters for the meat,” he added.

“I’ll get help,” Sam said.

Nick didn’t sigh as he watched his brothers leave so he and Poppy could be alone. Instead, he put down his drink and reached for her.

“Nick, your family is inside.”

“Then let’s give them a show.” He kissed her softly. Her body was tense, which also wasn’t a surprise considering the hell her life was now. Finding the bottom of her thick sweater, he tugged it and the layer underneath out of her jeans, and slid his hand beneath. She yelped.

“Sorry, they’re cold. You want to warm them up for me?” He whispered the words against her lips as he stroked the soft, warm skin of her back.

“I don’t think we should do this, Nick.”

“By this you mean necking on my cousin’s deck?”

“I mean, your family all knows what is going on with me. How did that happen? I thought we were keeping this quiet. It scares me they may get hurt.” She tried to pull out of his arms. He held her closer.

“You can’t hide stuff from these people, Tinker Bell. Seriously, I should know because I’ve tried. They always find out, and trust me, Malcom Davy would be a brave man to take them on.” He kissed her again. Harder and deeper until she slumped into him. Only then did he ease back.

“Poppy, we are sticking until we get this shit sorted. We’ll deal with the after, later. Ok?”

Her eyes stared into his as if she was trying to read his thoughts. As he didn’t understand them, he doubted she would.

“For tonight, let it go, baby.”

“Nick!” His father poked his head outside the door. “Billy is here, and he’s going to give us all an update.” And just like that she was tense again.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Maybe we could go into another room and talk about this in private?” Poppy said to Nick as she looked at his family all perched around her like hens in a coop. Some held drinks, others’ babies, and the love and warmth were like a large blanket.

In his teens, Nick had thought it felt like a restrictive straight jacket. But he’d wised up and realized how lucky he was to have these people in his life.

“They’ll find out anyway, Poppy.”

“This is not their fight, Nick, and after all the stories they shared with me of loss and other things that have happened to you all, I won’t bring more bad down on them.”

“You’re not going anywhere, and neither are they,” Nick said, nudging Poppy to sit beside his dad. He then wedged her in on the other side. Next to dad sat his mom. They’d weren’t small people, and it may be a four-seater, but it was still a squeeze, even considering his girl’s size.

“Look,” she leaned close to whisper in his ear. “I know now I can’t keep running. I understand that. Davy is not going anywhere, and I’ll deal with him, but I can do that alone.”

The thought of her dealing with Davy alone made him go cold. No way was she doing that, and that bastard was not getting near her again. His family had claimed her, and he wasn’t going anywhere, so she may as well just get used to it.

“We’ve covered this off. I’m sticking, and so are they.” Nick then kissed her softly, in front of his family, which was like a declaration of marriage, but he didn’t care. Poppy’s lips were his kryptonite. In fact, all of her was.

“This is police business,” Billy started talking.

“We’ll find out anyway, so just talk already,” Nick’s mom said. Billy sighed.

“Just don’t give out names maybe, or stuff that’s personal, so if we’re tortured, we can’t say those,” Sam said, making everyone but Poppy laugh.

A scream came from down the hallway where the kids were playing some kind of game that had kept them quiet for about five minutes.

“Here,” another cousin handed Nick the baby boy she held. “Hold him, I’ll go play peacemaker, but I want a full report.”

“You’ll get it,” several people answered.

“Hey, buddy. How you doing?” Nick asked Liam, who was now staring at him hard.

“He looks like he can see every thought inside your head,” Poppy said, leaning into him again so he could smell that soft scent she wore.

“I hope not everything,” he said, giving her a look that had her blushing.

“You want to hold him?”

“Oh no, I’m not good with babies.” She sat upright, trying to put distance between them, which was impossible.

“Sure you are. They’re awesome, especially this one. He’s the most relaxed baby we’ve ever had in the family.” She sat rigid as he placed Liam in her lap.

“Put your hands on his sides, and hold him there so he can see your pretty face. If he gets fidgety, make funny faces, he loves those.”

Her hands held the boy gently, and he watched as she leaned in and spoke to him.

“I’m not that good with little people, so you let me know if you need to go back to Uncle Nick, Liam.”

The little boy reached out and grabbed a handful of her hair. He then jammed it into his mouth.

“That can’t be healthy.” She tried to wrestle it away.

“He’s usually eating something off the floor, so your hair, which I’m sure you washed sometime in the last few days, is probably cleaner,” Liam’s dad said.

Tugging her hair free, which took a few seconds, Poppy tickled him under the chin, which made Liam chuckle. The look on her face made Nick clear his throat. It was filled with wonder.

He caught his sister Grace’s eye, and the knowing smirk at him raising his middle finger.

“You got the floor,” he said to Billy, who was now holding a large mug of coffee.

“Not that much to tell, other than we now think, after today, that there could be someone else involved.”

Nick put an arm around Poppy’s shoulders as she tensed.

“Our guy from the department in Malcolm Davy’s hometown has been doing some digging. We’ve been making a lot of noise over how this case should have been handled better from the start, so my colleagues there are being more accommodating. He found out that Davy spent some time at this retreat for two months, six months after you, and he hooked up, Poppy.”

“They didn’t hook up,” Nick snapped. “They dated three times before assface showed his true colors.”

“My bad,” Billy said.

Nick could feel the eyes of his family on him, but he ignored them. Hearing that Poppy hooked up with anyone made him irrationally angry, which was just plain wrong, considering the women he’d spent time with over the years. Jealousy was a strange and ugly beast, he thought.

“So, the retreat?” his dad prompted.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nick could see Poppy pulling faces at Liam, and he was giving her gummy smiles back. She’d be a good mom one day, even if she didn’t believe that was in her future.

“Seems Davy made a friend while he was there. Brad Denton. The man is four years younger than Davy, and they hit it off straight away, according to the staff at the place.”

“And they think he’s the one helping stalk Poppy?” Nick’s mom asked.

“They do,” Billy said.

“Why?” Thomas asked.

“Because after he left, Brad Denton came to live with his sister here.”

There was absolute silence for a minute, which was almost an impossibility in his family.

“So there are two fuckers after her,” Nick snapped.

“Nick!”

“Sorry, mom.”

Billy took something out of the folder he had put on the floor beside his chair. He then turned the picture to face them. The man was short, slim, with straight brown hair. He was smiling and looked happy. To Nick, he didn’t seem like someone who could kill an insect, let alone stalk Poppy.

“I’ve seen him,” she said, handing Liam to Nick’s dad. She then rose to take the picture. “He was the man who knocked me down that day in the street.”

I’m killing him.

His blood was literally boiling now. Nick wanted to track down this Denton and beat him until he understood he couldn’t touch his girl again.

“Easy there, big guy,” Gracie said to him. “Remember, we’re not dealing with sane minds here.”

Poppy put her hand on the fist he had clenched on his thigh. He opened it and took her small fingers.

“So what happens now?” Thomas asked.

“Now you all let us do our job, and Nick keeps Poppy safe,” Billy said. “You know what Denton looks like. If you see him, call me.”

“I don’t want anyone taking any risks on my behalf,” Poppy said. “These are dangerous men, and I won’t have you hurt.”

His family all promised they wouldn’t take risks, which Nick was sure didn’t appease her. In fact, he was certain she was freaking out and about to make a run for it.

Not happening.

Nick got to his feet. “We’re heading out. You know where we’ll be, Billy,” Nick said, pulling Poppy up beside him.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, looking at his family. She then turned to face Billy. “Is there somewhere the police could put me I’ll be safe? Or would it be best if I just got on a plane and went overseas for a while?” The words were coming out fast now.

“Not happening,” Nick said.

“I’m not putting you and your family in danger anymore, Nick.” She sounded reasonable, but her eyes were wide, and she was terrified again. But this time for him and the people he loved.

He shot Billy a look. They’d known each other since they were kids, so he interpreted it easily.

“Your best just to sit tight at Nick’s, Poppy, until we can catch Davy and Denton. We have the phone conversation at the hotel, Davy’s prints in your place, plus the history between you. You’ve just identified Denton too, so we will charge him when we find him.”

“I think this family will be safer if I leave.” Her cellphone rang before Nick could tell her that wasn’t happening again. Looking at the caller ID, he relaxed when he saw it was a FaceTime video call from her Aunt Jenny.

“I’ll call her later,” Poppy said.

“You need to tell her what is going on. She deserves that from you,” Nick said. “How is she going to know who Davy or Denton are if they knocked on her door?”

The color literally drained from her face. Nick took the phone out of her hand and answered it.

“Hi, Aunt Jenny, it’s Nick,” he said into the screen, as an older lady with a short grey bob cut appeared on the screen. “How are you?”

“Give me my phone,” Poppy said, reaching for it.

“Handing you to Poppy now. She’s got something important to say.”

“All right, and lovely to see you again, Nick,” Aunt Jenny said, as if they were old friends and had actually met before.

“Tell her,” he said, handing the phone to Poppy. She shot death stars his way from her eyes, but did as he asked. She then walked outside.

“So, Nicky,” his cousin Howard said. “What’s the deal? Are you in love with that sweet girl?”

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

They had left Nick’s cousin’s house ten minutes ago and not spoken a word. Poppy’s mind was whirling with what she should do and she was sure Nick’s head was filled with what Billy had told them.

Because of her, his family could be in danger. Was someone following them even now? Had Brad Denton known where she was tonight? Poppy couldn’t allow this to continue. She had to leave now.

“You need to listen to me, Nick.”

He shot her a look. “Shoot.”

“You love your family, and you want them to stay safe.”

“Of course, that’s a given.”

“Well then, you see that me leaving is for the best. I don’t have to stay away forever, just until these men are caught. I have a book to write and could find somewhere Malcolm Davy and his accomplice can’t find me.” Her words came out calm and rational, the opposite to what was going on inside her head.

Poppy had told herself she needed to face what was going on with Malcolm Davy. Told herself to be strong, but the wall around her confidence had shattered when she’d heard that another man could be involved.

She’d sat in that house with Nick’s family and known that the men tormenting her could hurt one of them. That the sick and twisted minds of Malcolm Davy or Brad Denton could target Nick’s big, loud, amazing family.

“Not happening, Poppy.”

Stay calm and reasonable, Poppy reminded herself.

“It’s for the best.”

“Want some ice-cream?”

“It’s freezing outside, and how can you think about ice-cream now?”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those weirdoes who never eats ice-cream in the winter?” He shot her a looked that told Poppy he was messing with her.

“I mean it, Nick. I want to go away. Maybe Europe. I have an author friend there I could visit.”

“Aha.”

He drove like he did everything. Confident and controlled. Poppy wanted that desperately for her life now. She’d been scared for too long, but the only thing in her control was the ability to leave and keep people safe.

“So, I’ll book a ticket,” she added.

Nick directed his pickup into the drive thru lane. Lowering the window, a blast of cold air and festive music reached Poppy.

Damn you Malcom Davy, for doing this to me. And damn me, Poppy thought, for running away from what he was doing and avoiding dealing with it for so long. She’d truly believed that eventually he’d leave her alone. She’d been a naive fool.

“Hey, how’s your evening going?” Nick said, smiling at the young girl who was leaning out the small window to ask what he wanted. She had a flashing set of reindeer antlers on her head.

Poppy watched the girl return Nick’s smile, which was the standard response for any woman exposed to the Atherton charm. Especially this Atherton.
Looking at the man beside her, she knew she’d fallen hard for him. He protected those he loved and was a great uncle to his nieces and nephews. Then there was that body and face. Poppy was sure he’d ruined her for all other men. Not that she had experience to call on, but even an innocent in the bedroom knew when something was special… more than special. Nick was a total package, right down to his arrogant belief that he was always right.

“Thanks, and you have a great night now, Janelle,” Nick said to the girl as she handed him his order. He then dumped it all in Poppy’s lap.

“You just ate,” she said, looking at the pile of food.

“So? I’m a big boy and need constant nourishment.”

They were soon back on the road and heading to his home.

“Nick, you need to listen to me.”

“I’m all ears,” he said, as if she was giving him a list of groceries to pick up. “I need to leave here.”

“Nope, now pass me one of those milkshakes.”

She did as he asked and he took a loud slurp thru the straw.

“The other one is for you.”

“I don’t want it!” She hadn’t meant to shriek, but it came out that way. “Don’t you understand what is at stake here? That you and your family could end up hurt?”

He lowered his milkshake into the cup holder and then flipped on his turn signal. And soon they were in a park outside a Home Depot store. Nick then took the food she had in her lap and reached over to put it in the back seat. Next, he released her seat belt and dragged her into his lap.

“What are you—” he cut her words off with his mouth. The kiss tasted of strawberry milkshake, and in seconds all resistance in her had fled. He let her come up for air and then took her under again. The kiss was a studied, and thorough destruction of all her resistance.

“Nick,” she whispered against his lips, pulling back the inch he’d allowed her.

“Shut up.” A large hand slid under her sweater and tugged the other layers free. “You are not going anywhere.” His palm slid up to cup a silk-covered breast. Poppy could do nothing to stop the shudder as delicious heat streaked through her. “You think after what we’ve shared I’ll let you leave? Let you fly away to somewhere to hide. Somewhere he could find you.” His mouth brushed hers. “I’ll go crazy thinking about you and all the things that could happen.”

She sighed as his fingers tugged aside the silk. “I want to take you home and strip you. I want to lick every inch of your body and then let you take me deep inside you, Poppy.”

“Yes,” she whispered as her bones melted and heat pooled between her thighs. “Now, Nick.”

“So you understand?”

“What?” She arched as his finger stroked over her hard nipple.

“You are not leaving. Not running anymore, Poppy. Are we clear on that?” His eyes held hers now, the palm once again settled over her breast. It felt like ownership.

“I’m not agreeing to that.” She got out. “And manipulating me with sex is not changing that.”

His smile was wolfish. “I will get that promise from you, Poppy, and if I don’t, then I’ll become your shadow. “We Atherton’s can look after our own.”

“I’m not one of you, Nick. You need to see reason—”

He gave her a final hard kiss and then removed his hand from beneath her clothes.

“Get in your seat before I take you here.” His words were a low growl.

“You can’t kiss me every time I try to talk about this, Nick,” Poppy said doing as he said while trying to clear her head from the lust induced fog he’d created.

“Of course I can.” He then drove them out of the parking lot, toward home well above the speed limit.

Minutes later, they drove into the garage and got out. Nick waved her before him into the house. He then slapped her on the ass.

“Move it. I want you naked, now.” He then took her hand and tugged her toward the stairs.

“Please,” she said as he dragged her behind him. His response was a low growl. When they reached his room, Poppy walked in first her eyes going to the bed that dominated the room.

“No! There was blood smeared over the bedcovers, and a photo of her naked, with her hands and feet bound. A knife was stabbed through her chest.

Nick grabbed her, pulling her behind him.

“That fucker. I’m breaking him in half when I get my hands on him,” Nick snarled. “He came into my house!”

“That’s not me,” she whispered.

Nick walked closer to examine the picture.

“You have to believe me, Nick. I would never have done this with him.” She could hear the hysteria in her voice.

“Come here, Poppy.” Nick held out a hand.

“No.”

“Please, baby. Trust me.” He reached for her, and she let him take her hand and tug her to his side. “You have that really cute mark on your shoulder.”

“It’s a mole.”

“It’s cute. Do you see it on that woman?”

Poppy made herself look at the picture. “No.”

“So this picture is your face but not your body, baby.”

She studied it closer and saw he was right.

“No way are your breasts that small, either.”

“I can’t believe you said that, considering someone just broke into your house and did this.”

“I am angry, Poppy. Angry that someone came into my house and scared you again, but I need you to know that is not directed at you. None of this is your fault. We’ll deal with this, together.” He brushed a kiss on her forehead and then pulled out his phone.

Poppy listened as he called his cousin. She knew what she had to do, she just had to work out the how to get away from Nick, and when she would fly away from the man she loved to keep him safe.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven 

Nick wanted to beat the crap out of someone, namely Brad Denton, who they’d figured out had trashed his bedroom, because Malcom Davy was still holed up inside his house, and hadn’t left in days. Rage simmered below the surface when he thought about that assface entering his home.

He shot a look at Poppy, who was seated next to him in his pickup. Something was off with her too, which was understandable considering what she’d been through, but he had a feeling there was more going on in that pretty head. She was going through the motions, but inside she was closed off from him, and shut down.

Three days after someone had invaded his home, he was driving to talk to a prospective client. Sam was busy, so he’d had to go. He wasn’t leaving Poppy alone, so she’d come with him, without complaint, which was another red flag. He knew her well enough now to know she would usually argue with him that’d she’d be ok for a few hours. She hadn’t.

“So you don’t get carsick then?” He asked because she was looking down at her laptop, which was balanced on her knees.

“No. I can write anywhere.” Her voice was flat and monotone.

She wore jeans today, and a sweater in a deep green that was at least two sizes to big on her. He wondered who it had belonged too. On her feet were white leather sneakers. Her hair, which he loved loose so he could touch it, was under a beanie that he’d handed her because the weather had turned cold.

“What music do you listen to?”

“A mix of songs I’ve collected over the years. Some rock, others classic.” She shot him a smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

With as many siblings as he had, Nick had developed a Spidey sense when something wasn’t right with them. He felt it with Poppy. She was doing everything she always did. Talking when he asked her a question. Helping him in the kitchen, but he felt like she was just going through the motions. Like she was distancing herself from him.

Was he overreacting?

He knew she was under stress, and who wouldn’t be. Knew she was freaking out because her coming into his life had endangered Nick and his family, in her eyes.

He was sure she was planning something. He just didn’t know what.

The only time she let go was when he made love to her. Then she was un-inhibited and totally his. Every inch of her lush body drove him crazy. The feel of her hands and mouth on him, and when he was inside her —

“What?” she asked.

“What?” He parroted, shooting her a look.

“You made a noise.”

“Just thinking.”

She started tapping on her keyboard again.

“Poppy,” he said when they stopped at the lights.

He felt that little dip in his gut when she turned those green eyes on him.

“You’re not up to anything, are you?”

“What?”

“You’re not planning on running, are you?” Her eyes dropped to her laptop. “Because if you do, I’ll follow and when I find you, I’m going to be pissed.”

“I-ah, no.”

“That doesn’t reassure me.”

“If I want to leave, I can, Nick. You can’t stop me.”

“Sure I can, and I will, because you are not leaving my protection and letting either of those assfaces get their hands on you.”

“Ok,” she smiled, but her eyes were on his left ear. “I won’t then.”

He wasn’t reassured. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m wounded.”

“No, what you are is sneaky, and I know you’re planning something.”

She sighed, and he heard the cover of her laptop shut with a snap.

“If I go, it’s for the best,” she said in a reasonable tone. It made him unreasonable.

“We’ve covered this already, Poppy. Do you think if you go I won’t be worried? That they won’t find you and hurt you? That my entire family, who by the way are close to liking you more than me, those were Grace’s words, wouldn’t be concerned?”

“If I hadn’t been attacked that day in the street, none of this would have happened,” she snapped. “I would have never seen you again.”

“Is that what you want?” Nick demanded, hurt.

“Yes… no,” she sighed. “Yes, then you and your family would be safe. No, because I wouldn’t have had these amazing days with you.”

“At least you’re showing some honest emotion,” he said with less heat. “And while I hated you were hurt that day, the result was you stopped running, and we have this.” He jabbed a finger at her, and then into his chest. “Which is fucking awesome.”

His phone rang then, stopping the conversation, and he took the call through his car speaker. “Hey, Billy, you’re on speaker and Poppy’s beside me.”

“So don’t swear and talk about how hot she is, then?”

Poppy snorted.

“Something like that,” Nick added.

“I have news, and it’s good,” his cousin said. “We caught Brad Denton at the airport trying to leave, and he slipped up and we found his saliva on the picture.”

She only made a small sound, but he heard it.

“Where is he now?” Nick asked.

“At the station. I’m interviewing him,” Billy said.

“Don’t suppose I can come along?” Nick asked.

“Not in this lifetime or the next. You’d break his face. I just wanted Poppy to know we have one of them, and Davey hasn’t left his house in days. We have someone watching him.” Nick shot Poppy a look. Her hands were clenched around the edges of her laptop in a white knuckled grip.

“I wonder why he was running,” Nick said.

“Not sure he was. His ticket was for Utah, and could have been meeting up with Davy there, but as he hasn’t moved, we’re not sure.”

“And someone has actually had eyes on Davy right?”

“Yes, Nicky. He walks by the window, and then into the bathroom occasionally, but otherwise he’s watching TV or playing video games. Anyway, I gotta go. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Thanks, Billy.”

“Bye, Poppy. Don’t take any crap from this idiot.”

“I won’t. Bye Billy, and thanks.” Her voice was high pitched.

“You ok?”

“Yes.”

“It’s ok not to be, you know, baby. This shit has been dogging your life for years. It’s all right to be angry and scared.”

“I know it’s ok,” she gritted out. “I’ve been all those things since you met me again, Nick.”

Anger, he liked a lot more than the emotionless facade he’d had the last few days.

“You handled it by running, and locking it away inside you, but now you don’t have to because we’re dealing with it.”

“I ran to keep people safe,” she gritted out.

He pulled into a park before the large open space that would soon have offices. Directly across the road was a cute looking café which she was sure was hating all the construction work going on around it

“Look. We’ll talk after, and my mom is getting at me about not having a Christmas tree, so we’ll pick one up on the way home.”

“I don’t usually put one up,” Poppy said.

“Well this year you are, in my house. Decorations too. We need those, as she said mine are old and dated. Not sure how that’s the case, seeing as I only got them two years ago, but you don’t argue with my mother.”

He leaned across and kissed her head. “Come on, you can take notes for me.”

“I’m working.”

“Tough.”

He got out and went around to her door and opened it. She’d locked it. He had the keys in his pocket, so he unlocked it and pulled it open.

“Very mature of you, Ms. Sylvester.”

“I don’t want to come with you. I’m not a builder type person, and I know nothing about wood.” She looked like one of his nieces or nephews. Arms folded, chin elevated, radiating irritation.

“No time like the present to become a builder type person and learn about wood. FYI, we’re a construction company, so we deal with more than just wood, and builder type people.”

He unclipped Poppy’s belt and lifted her out, standing her on her feet.

“You’re always handling me and towing me about the place.”

“That’s because you’re so small and easy to move around. Plus, I like you, which is why I want you with me, and believe me when I say that’s a novelty. I tire of people real quick.”

“Nick, please let me stay in the car.”

“Nick?”

He turned to see a tall, long-legged brunette coming toward them. Shit. She wore nose bleed heels, and tight jeans. On top was a long draped knitted thing which he had no idea the name of.

He turned, blocking Poppy. He and Cassie had spent two months having fun a year ago, and lots of that fun had been in his bed.

“Hi, Cassie,” he said, sounding like he was being strangled.

“I’ve missed you.” She moved in close before he could stop her. Rising to her toes she pressed her mouth to his.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The woman currently draped all over Nick was beautiful, Poppy thought as jealousy stabbed its pointy talons through her. A beauty that was deep in the ridges of her spectacular cheekbones and pouty, pink lips. She wore slim fitting denim over her long legs, and she was sure the body pressed into his solid chest was curvy in all the right places.

Nick grabbed her elbows and eased the woman away.

“Hey, Cassie.” He backed up a few steps. “Good to see you again.” Nick shot a look over his shoulder at Poppy. He then grabbed a handful of her sweater and tugged hard, so she staggered forward. Slipping an arm around her waist he then anchored Poppy to his side.
Cassie’s eyes slid over her. She wished she’d taken the time to put on something more flattering than Aunt Jenny’s old green sweater. She called it her comfort sweater. It had had a lot of use in the last few years.

“This is Poppy, my friend,” Nick said. “Close friend,” he added.
Cassie gave a rueful smile, and then her eyes widened. “Get the hell out of here!” She squealed like a child, and suddenly her face changed. The smile was genuine. “You’re Poppy Sylvester!”

“She is,” Nick said.

Looking up at him, she saw his dimple. He seemed pleased that Cassie was excited to meet her.

“I love your books!” Cassie did a little hop, and another squeal. “I cannot believe I get to meet you. Best day ever!” She punched the air.

“It’s nice to meet you to.” Poppy found a smile. She loved meeting her fans, even Nick’s old girlfriends.

“I don’t suppose I could hug you and then take a selfie?”
Nick shot Poppy a look.

“What? You don’t like to have photos taken or something?” Cassie asked.

“Ah, it’s complicated,” Poppy said.

“Poppy,” Nick warned.

“I would love to have a picture with you, Cassie, really. But I need to keep my face off the internet for a while,” Poppy added.

“What’s the problem?” Cassie asked, but her eyes were on Nick.

“Hang on, I have something for you. Poppy dived back into Nick’s car and grabbed the book she’d brought with her. She always re-read the last book she wrote while working on the next one. It was one of her quirks, just to make sure she didn’t double up on anything, and if Poppy used the same characters, that her descriptions were right.

“Is that your latest?” Cassie asked when she returned.

“It is. Have you read it?”

The woman nodded. “But on my e-reader. If you're going to sign that for me then it's a hell yes! I tried to get to your book signing but had to work."

“What do you want me to write on this?”

“Just to Cassie is amazing. Thank you.”

“So, Cass, you still in security?” Nick asked her while Poppy autographed the book.

“I am. Do you need some?”

“I might, but I’ll let you know.”

Poppy had a feeling she was the person Cassie would watch, but she didn’t comment.

“Here you go,” she handed over the book.

“Thanks so much, Poppy, and if you need me, Nicky, just call. You have my number. Now I’m going in there.” She pointed to the coffee shop. “They do the best caramel macchiato and have huge chocolate chip cookies.”

Cassie then hugged him, and then Poppy, hard, and walked away.

“How long did you two date?”

“Not long.”

“Why? She looks perfect for you?” Poppy said.

He spun her to face him, and suddenly there were only inches seperating them. “If she was perfect for me, then what are you?”

“Trouble,” Poppy whispered, looking into his whisky brown eyes. “Nick—”

“I’m getting real tired of this conversation, so cut it out.” He glared at her.

When she opened her mouth, he kissed her. Right there in the street, Nick kissed her long and deep, and she melted, like she always did when he put his hands and mouth on her. They were both breathing hard when he eased back to rest his forehead on hers.

“No more, Poppy. We’re in this together.”

“No more,” she parroted.

He exhaled slowly. “I want you safe, baby. Can’t you see that?”

“I want you safe too… all of you Atherton’s.”

He kissed her again. “Got that, but you can’t protect everyone. Let someone protect you for once.”

“I’ll try.” And she would for him, but it wouldn’t be easy because her instincts were screaming at her to run.

“Good girl.”

“I really have to do some writing today, Nick. Can I sit in the car with it locked? Or even in there?” She pointed to the coffee shop that Cassie said had great chocolate chip cookies.

He cupped her face and gave her a last kiss. Then, taking her hand, he towed her across the street and into the building. Once there, he walked inside and looked around. It was small and most of the tables were full. Luckily, someone was just leaving the one in the window.

“If I sit here, I can see everyone coming and going,” Poppy said.

Nick checked the view by sitting where she would. “See that building right there?” he jabbed a long finger in the direction of a small portable office that had clearly been set up at the building site. “I’ll stand in the window. Wave if you need me.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. After all, there will be coffee and chocolate chip cookies.” She smirked at him. “And I’ll eat at least two before you return.”

“You have a smart mouth.” He kissed her again, right there in front of everyone. “Now be a good girl and don’t move. I mean it, Poppy.”

“I promise,” she said solemnly.

“Any trouble and you come get me. Any phone calls and ditto. No chances ok?”

“Ok, and I promise to do everything you said, but as Denton is in custody, I’m safe, Nick.”

He studied her and then said, “you’re important to me, Poppy, you understand that right?”

She nodded, her heart thudding hard.

“I know this has been an odd way to start a relationship, but this is that for me now, baby.” He kissed her again. “I need you to stay safe.”

“Kay,” she whispered. “And same.”

“Same?” He raised a brow. “You’re meant to be the wordsmith out of the two of us.”

“I’m a little off balance right now, and what you said was perfect.”

His smile was a thing of beauty, as was his dimple. “Behave,” was Nick’s parting word before he walked away in that slow, easy stride he had. Just watching him made her sigh. Hers she thought with a smile of pure feminine delight.
‘We’re in this together,’ he’d said, and it was time she understood that. Understand if she left, he’d find her now, because he cared. Maybe it really was time to stop running and start fighting. Not just think it, but do it.

Poppy ordered coffee and four chocolate chip cookies to go for Nick. He could have three. She was eating one now because Cassie was right. They looked amazing.
She sat, drank her coffee, and worked. The words were flowing, which surprised her considering the shit show that was currently her life. But then Nick had just said she was important to him, and she was allowing herself to have hope today. That just maybe she could believe him that things were going to work out.

“Is there a Poppy Sylvester in here?” One of the barista’s asked. He was holding out a portable phone. “I have a call for you.”

“Me,” Poppy rolled her eyes. She just bet it was Nick, making sure she was behaving. Although she’d be telling him that putting a call to the coffee shop a five-minute walk from where he stood was crazy. “Sorry about this,” she said, taking the phone.

“All good,” the guy said.

“Hello, Nick.”

“Not Nick, but if you want him to stay safe, Poppy, you need to listen to me.”

“Malcolm?” Shock had her gripping the phone hard enough so the edges bit into her palm.

“Walk to the window.”

Heart pounding, she did as he asked.

“Do you see a white van parked outside the coffee shop?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“I have someone in there who is an excellent shot, and he’s got a gun pointed at your fuck buddy. I don't want to make a scene but I will if you don't do as I say. Only you can ensure that Nicholas Atherton stays alive, Poppy."

“Wh-what do you want?”

“I think you know by now what I want. I’m not in the van, but the men inside will bring you too me, so listen carefully.”

“No.”

“Yes, or he's dead. Get inside the van. Try nothing foolish. Two minutes, Poppy. Your time starts now.”

She disconnected the call and hurried to the counter, where she handed the phone back to the man. “Listen to me, and do nothing but smile,” Poppy said quickly.

He looked wide eyed back at her.

“Go to that portable office across the road and tell Nick Atherton that Malcolm Davy has Poppy. White van,” she said. “I’m going to get in that.” She then turned away and walked out the door, praying he would do what she asked.

The van door slid open as she approached. A hand grabbed her and then she was pulled inside and forced face first down on the floor. Seconds later, they were driving away from Nick, and she had a desperate feeling she’d never see him again.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“We like what your company is offering, Nick. I’ve reviewed the proposal along with my board, and want to go ahead with the contract.”
“Thank you,” Nick held out his hand to the head of Clarksons, one of the biggest retail families in Oregon. His eyes shot to the window again when he stepped back.
The white delivery van was no longer there, and he couldn’t see Poppy either. But she was probably just ordering more coffee, he reassured himself.
“I’ll talk to my brother, and we’ll be in touch regarding finalizing a start date,” Nick said.
“Excellent, I will speak to you soon,” Peter Clarkson said.
Nick walked out of the office and headed straight across the road. A guy wearing a striped apron was running toward him at a sprint. He moved to the right to step around him and get to Poppy, but the man mirrored him.
“Do you know a Nick?” He demanded.
“I’m Nick,” he said, walking backward until they were on the sidewalk. “Why?” Something wasn’t right. He could feel it, and not just because two crazy fuckers were after his girl.
“Someone called Poppy told me to go to the portable office across the road and tell Nick Atherton that Malcolm Davy has her. She jumped into a white van,” he said. “I thought she was crazy, but you can’t be too sure, right?”
“Which way did the van go?” Nick demanded.
“Right.”
He ran then, pulling out his phone. Fear iced his veins as he called her. It went to answer phone, which he’d known it would, but he’d hoped Davy would answer… hell, he had no idea what he’d hoped. Cutting the call, he rang Billy. Davy had Poppy. He couldn’t let anything happen to her. Not now, when she’d just come back into his life.
“Calm down,” he muttered, jumping into his pickup as his cousin answered.
“My lucky day I get to talk to you twice,” Billy said.
“Davy’s got Poppy! I was in a meeting, she was across the street, I could see her, and then this white van pulled up—”
“Slow it down, bud.”
He exhaled as he drove fast along the now crowded street, heading right. There was no sighting of a white van.
“I’m getting someone to track her phone now, Nick. Davy is nobody’s fool, and that’s how he’s stayed a step ahead of the game all these years, but maybe he’s not thrown it away yet,” Billy said.
“I don’t know the plate number. White vans are everywhere in this city!” Nick’s pulse was racing, and his skin felt tight. Davy had his girl. Poppy, the woman he loved.
That realization hit him hard.
He loved Poppy, and she didn’t know.
“Go to your parents’ house now,” Billy ordered.
“No. I’m looking for her,” Nick said, his voice sounding raspy.
“You just said there are lots of white vans. You won’t find her,” Billy said.
“I have to try.” He cut the call. It rang constantly for the next twenty minutes and he ignored it as he drove up and down streets.
When he found a white van, Nick stopped to search inside or question the driver.
Where was she? Poppy would be terrified knowing what Davy was capable of. He was fucking terrified!
“Poppy,” he whispered as the fear slammed into him. He hadn’t protected her.
Nick didn’t know how long he drove for, but when the familiar gray sedan with the plate b$t sibling slowed to a stop in front of him, and the black hatchback with the plate, thy heart emoji me bst, pulled up behind him, he couldn’t do anything but stop.
His siblings then got out of the cars and surrounded his pickup.
“Move over,” Sam said, opening Nick’s door.
“Yeah, yeah, take a breath!” Em yelled when someone laid on the horn behind them.
“I need to find her,” Nick said. His fingers clenched around the steering wheel.
“I know you do, and we’re going to help you,” Sam said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Now move over.”
Thomas and the girls got in the back, and Nick slid over, because they’d stay there doing nothing to find Poppy if he didn’t.
“Eat this,” Thomas handed him a bag.
“I don’t want to eat,” Nick gritted out. “I want to find my girl now!”
“And to do that, you need to keep your strength up. Eat,” Gracie said.
“I can’t lose her,” Nick whispered.
“We’re not going to let that happen, Nicky,” Em said, resting her hand on his shoulder. “We’re going to find her.”
“Denton,” Nick said suddenly. “He’s being interviewed by Billy. He’ll know where Davy has taken her.”
“We can’t storm into the station, Nick,” Thomas said. “Let’s keep looking.”
“Go to the police station,” Nick gritted out, cursing himself for not remembering that his cousin was interviewing Denton.
Sam did a U turn in the middle of the street. Horns blared, brakes squealed, and then they were speeding toward the station.
“Billy, we’re coming to you,” Gracie said from the back seat. “I know you told him that, but he’s sure Denton knows where Poppy is. We bring him, or he brings himself.” Nick heard a lot of cursing on the phone before Gracie hung up.
“Behave like a human, not a crazed bear,” Em said, this time jabbing Nick in the shoulder. “Billy said he’ll put you in cuffs if he has to.”
All he could see was Poppy in his head. Crying and in pain. That bastard hurting her. Nick wouldn’t rest until he’d destroy Malcolm Davy if he had touched her.
“Take a breath,” Sam shot him a look. “Another one,” he ordered.
“I need her,” he got out. “I don’t think I can live without her.”
He heard his sisters sniff, and then Thomas, too.
“Will you three man up!” Sam snapped. “We’ll get her back bro, it’s our vow to you,” Sam said.
“How?” Nick demanded.
Sam screeched to a halt in a park outside the police station. Billy walked out the doors as they approached.
“You can’t go in there, Nick.”
“I can and will. That fucker knows where my girl is, and I want her back now,” Nick snarled. “I’ll stand out here until you let me in.”
“Not happening,” Billy said. “I’m interviewing him now.”
“Good timing then,” Sam said. “We can help you.”
Billy jabbed a finger in Sam’s direction. “You’re not helping, so shut up.”
Nick’s phone rang. He took it out of his pocket and checked the number, but it had no caller ID.
“Answer it on speaker,” Billy said.
Nick did as he asked.
“Hello, this is Malcolm Davy,” a nasal voice said. “Don’t speak or threaten me or I will hang up.”
Nick opened his mouth, but Thomas put his hand over it.
“I want my friend released, and then I will return Poppy to you.”
Nick shook his brother’s hand from his mouth.
“You’ve been stalking her for years. Don’t tell me you’ll release her now,” he said. “I’m going to fucking destroy you if you harm her, Davy. There will be no place you can hide I won’t find you.”
“Shut him up,” Billy hissed, taking his phone before Nick could stop him. “This is Detective William Atherton, Mr. Davy. What is it you want?”
“I want my friend back, and you have him.”
Billy waved everyone inside and followed. Clearly, he didn’t want to have this discussion on the street.
“What my cousin said stands,” Billy said, leading them all through the reception area and into a small room to the right. He then shut the door. Looking at each of his cousins, he placed a finger on his lips. “You have been stalking Poppy for years. Why would you stop now?”
“If you want Poppy back,” Em whispered in Nick’s ear. “Shut up.”
It went against everything inside him to drop into the seat she nudged him to.
Nick fixed things that were broken. He helped his family when they needed it. He was never helpless. That was for other people. A problem solver his mother called him.
He couldn’t do anything for Poppy in that moment but listen to this asshole dictate his terms.
“I want my friend back more, and it’s the least I can do for him. I will get Poppy, but not now.”
“I’ll kill you first,” Nick growled.
“You need to stop him from speaking to me like that,” Davy said, his voice high pitched and panicky now. “I’m in control here!”
Billy sent him a glare. “What do you want us to do?”
“I will give you the location and the time for the exchange.”
“I want to speak to her,” Nick said, ignoring the anger his cousin directed his way. “How do we know he’s even got her?”
There was silence on the phone and he thought Davy had gone.
“Nick?”
“Poppy,” Nick got out of his seat hearing her voice. “Baby, are you all right?”
“Yes—”
“So you’ve spoken to her, now you listen to me.” Davy’s voice came back on the line.
“Davy,” Nick said.
“What?”
“I will not rest until you are dead if you touch one hair on head.”
He cut the call.

 

Chapter Thirty

Nick stared at the phone in his cousin’s hand. Everything inside him went cold. Ice cold. Cold enough that surely his internal organs would freeze and stop working.

“Breathe, Nicky,” Em said.

“He will not hurt her,” he gritted out. “Not Poppy.”

“No one is hurting her.”

“No one,” his family all vowed.

“I want to speak to him, Denton,” Nick said.

Billy shook his head. The tap of the door had him saying, “Enter.”

A large baldheaded man walked in. His stomach hung over his trousers, which were a faded brown, almost beige. The cuffs of his long-sleeved white shirt were rolled up to show a black tattoo of a panther. His nose leaned to the right and looked like it had seen a fist a time or two.

“Chief Benowitz, these are my cousins. Nick, Sam, Grace, Thomas and Emma,” Billy said. “Nick is Poppy Sylvester’s partner.”

“I’m sorry your girl is going through this, but we’ll get her back,” the man said, shaking Nick’s hand.

He wanted to believe him, but he knew what Davy was capable of. He was a cunning bastard who had been stalking Poppy for years, as if she was prey.

“Nick’s phone just rang, and it was Davy. He wants to exchange Poppy for Denton,” Billy said. “There were threats made and Davy cut the call.”

“He’ll call back,” Chief Benowitz said, looking at Nick, who was now pacing the small room. “Malcolm Davy flew into town four hours after we arrested Denton, trying to leave. He used the alias Stephen Taylor. We tracked him through airport footage,” Chief Benowitz said in a slow voice Nick was sure had soothed a few frayed nerves in his time. It was doing nothing for him. He wanted his girl back now.

“Let me talk to him,” Nick said.

Chief Benowitz gave him a hard look. “I’d say that if it was my woman missing too, but I’m telling you it’s not going to happen, Nick. I hope you don’t mind me calling you that. The reason is that you’re not trained to deal with psychopaths like Denton. Second to that is, I want him alive, as he’s the only way we’re getting to Davy. If you talk to him, there is every chance he won’t be.” He raised a hand as Nick opened his mouth. “You can stand with your cousin in the room next door. It has two-way mirrors.”

“I want to look for her,” Nick growled.

“Where would you start?” the chief asked. “We have everyone checking everything to do with Brad Denton, Malcolm Davy and Stephen Taylor. If he’s leased a place or hired a car, we’ll know about it shortly.”

“We’re also checking the cameras in the location Poppy was taken, and trying to get a license plate of the van, or a picture of who was driving,” Billy said.

“Davy is smart,” Chief Benowitz said.

“Great, I would hate to think Poppy was being held by a dumbass,” Sam snarled.

“He’s convinced police he’s not after her, because he’s talked to idiots… until now,” the chief said. “We’re not dumb, and everyone makes mistakes. Even someone like Davy, who is next level intelligent.”

“What Chief Benowitz is saying is that we’ve got this. We’ll get Poppy back, and you need to trust us,” Billy said.

“I don’t want to sit here waiting until you do.” Nick said.

“Understand that, for now let’s go interview an asshole,” the chief of police said. He then left the room, with the Athertons on his heels.

Where was she? Had he hurt her? Was she crying? In pain. Would he see her again?

Nick had in his lifetime been through tough times. Family illnesses, financial stress. Friends suffering in various ways, and he’d suffered right along with them, but never had he felt this boiling rage, and absolute whole-body fear. The ferocity of it took his breath away.

Poppy, his girl, wasn’t anywhere he could get to her, because he didn’t know where she was. She was out there alone with a madman, and it was killing him.

“Nick, take a breath,” Grace said, placing her arm around his waist.

“She’s been back in my life for days, a week or two, and I don’t know how I ever lived without her. How I will live without her if she doesn’t come back to me,” Nick’s words came out thick with emotion. “What if he’s hurting her, Gracie?”

“No more.” She stepped in front of him, gripping his shoulders. “Stop that right now. Poppy is strong, and she’ll fight until we get her back. You have to believe that, Nicky. Be strong for her because she will be thinking of you and know you will do everything you can to find her.”

He closed his eyes briefly.

“Now, let’s listen to this assface, and while we are in there, we contact everyone we know. Athertons and their friends have a far reach in this town. We’re going to lean into that,” Grace said.

They all then filed into a small room. Nick stood with his back pressed to a wall, with Thomas on one side and Sam on the other. Grace pulled one of the two chairs in front of him and sat. Em did the same. They were boxing him in.

Billy stood with a pad and pen.

Denton was pacing the room behind the glass in front of him. He looked like a regular guy. Tallish, well built, and dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved Henley. His hair was a dirty blond and long on top, short on the sides. He had that floppy fringe thing going on that if Nick or any of his siblings ever tried it, their mother would pitch a fit, and insist on clipping it back with a bobby pin.

Nick wanted to get his hands on the man and punch until he told them where Poppy was.

Chief Benowitz wandered in with a coffee, pad and a recording device. He took the seat facing Nick and waved Brad Denton into the other one across from him.

“He’s a master at this,” Billy said.

“Interview with Brad Denton,” the chief said, relaying the date and time into the recorder.

“I’m texting everyone I know,” Sam whispered. “We all are. Description of Poppy, and any details we have about what went down.”

Nick pulled out his phone and handed it to Em. She could contact everyone on that too.

“Mr. Denton, you are here because you have been involved in the harassment and surveillance of one Poppy Sylvester,” Chief Benowitz began in a monotone voice. He then read through the list of things Davy had done, and Denton’s part in all of it.

“Fucker,” Nick snarled.

Denton said nothing, just watched Benowitz.

“Stalking is a felony punishable by 2, 3 or 5 years in state prison, Mr. Denton. Add to that kidnapping, threatening behavior and several other charges, and you will be lucky to be out before you die.”

That got a reaction, Nick thought. The man twitched.

“Malcolm Davy has been obsessed with Poppy Sylvester for years. He’s brought you into that, Mr. Denton. If anything happens to her while she is with Malcom Davy, that sentence will be upgraded, and you will be an accessory to her murder.”

This time, it was Nick who jerked. His entire body screamed no!

“He’s saying what he needs to, Nicky,” Billy said in a calm voice. “We have to shock this guy into talking.”

“Now Mr. Denton, I believe you were heading to Utah to visit with Malcolm Davy. It’s my belief also you were both planning your next move in the harassment of Poppy Sylvester, which let me be clear,” Benowitz leaned in so his face was close to Denton’s, “has destroyed her life for no other reason than Malcolm Davy is fixated with her. She turned him down, and he didn’t like that. His campaign has been thorough and forced her into hiding, which hasn’t been easy considering what her career is.”

“I-I didn’t do that.” They were the first words Denton had spoken.

“Maybe not, but you aided Malcolm Davy by trashing her apartment and then sending those disgusting pinatas to her at the League Hotel. You also broke into the house she was living in with her partner and left her a message that terrified her.”

“I-I never touched her.” Denton said.

“Is Malcolm Davy someone you trust, Brad?” Benowitz said. “I hope you don’t mind me calling you that, but I feel you need a friend, and I’d like to help you out. I have a son your age.”

“And now he’s softening him up after hitting him with the facts,” Billy said.

Denton nodded.

“My son Peter, he’s a good guy, but can do some dumb shit.”

“He has four daughters,” Billy said.

“Here’s what I’m going to do for you, Brad. I’m willing to fight to make the judges go easy on you, if you tell me where Davy has Poppy Sylvester.”

Denton jerked in his chair.

“By that reaction, my guess is you didn’t know he had her. Kidnapped her about three hours ago,” Benowitz said. “Remember what I told you, Brad. You’ll be going down as an accessory if anything happens to her. Tell me where I can find Miss Sylvester, and I’ll fight for you. But if you don’t, there will be nothing I can do for you.”

Benowitz sat back and looked at Brad Denton. The clock in the interview room ticked as long, tense seconds passed in silence.

Nick stared at the back of the man who could help him find Poppy. He wanted to smash a fist on the window, but his family would stop him before he reached it.

“W-we have a place here,” Denton finally said. “It’s where he wanted to take her when he finally got her.”

“Address?” Benowitz said, picking up his pen.

Seconds later, Nick was sprinting out of the room with his family on his heels, behind Billy.

We’re coming, Poppy. Be strong.

 

More soon ....

 

This story is edited by me, but before it is published it will have a full edit, and likely a few changes!