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I rolled my eyes at her purposely obtuse attitude and pulled her a little closer so that she was the only one that could hear me when I told her, “I want to take you to do something on Sunday when we’re both off.”

She blinked at me and her glossy mouth dropped open in silent denial. I could see the indecision flash in her eyes but I just smiled at her and told her, “Don’t worry. What I have in mind doesn’t have anything to do with a bed or you being na**d in it.”

She wrinkled her nose at me and shook her arm free. “Fine.” She always had been defiant. There was no way she was going to turn me down and look scared in front of the other girls.

I nodded in satisfaction. “Don’t dress like that, though.”

Her ebony eyebrows furrowed together and her cheek twitched at me. “Why?”

“You need to be able to get a little dirty. I’ll pick you up around noon. Grab the dog; he can come, too.”

I could see I had her curiosity piqued but I didn’t give her a chance to ask any more questions. I wanted to do something that took us both back in time, put us in a place where we remembered how to be around one another without all the baggage and weight of the past holding us down. I thought I had a perfect idea.

I smiled at Shaw again and slid past Salem to head down the stairs. I made sure to press into her space, to brush across her chest just so I could feel her quick intake of breath.

“Congratulations again, Shaw. This is going to be an awesome adventure for you and Rule. Remy needs a little playmate.”

Salem broke into a blindly pretty smile. “You’re pregnant?”

Shaw nodded. “We waited until we saw a doctor to know for sure and Rule wanted to tell Rome and his parents first.”

Salem tossed her head back and laughed. The sound was husky and rich. “I haven’t been in this city for very long but even I know adding more Archers to the population is bound to be a good time down the road. How exciting for the two of you.”

And just like that I was outnumbered by waves of estrogen once again and I couldn’t get away fast enough.

Rule was working on a client and bent intently over an intricate design of a Hindu god that spanned a burly man’s bicep. I lurked over his shoulder until he looked up at me, his pale blue eyes sharp and knowing.

“Other things on your mind, my ass.”

He chuckled at me and looked back down at what he was doing. “We had to be sure. It’s not like it was something we were planning on. Now that I know for sure, I’ll be able to focus more on the shop and the store.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Rule paused and lifted the machine up off the client’s ink-smeared flesh. He looked back at me again and this time his eyes were winter cool and his expression pointed.

“Or sometimes accidents happen and we just work with them, consider them a blessing. Not everything is preordained, Rowdy. You should know this by now. Shit really does just happen. Look at Rome and Cora. None of what happened with them was on the agenda, but it happened and it all worked out.”

I disagreed, but I wasn’t going to argue the point and take away from the excitement of the fact he was starting a family with the perfect girl for him. And it was my firm belief that Rome and Cora had been thrown together by something far bigger than either of them so they could save each other. Little baby Remy was just a happy result of the fact the two of them were meant to be.

“Either way, congratulations, dude.” He nodded his thanks. I left him to finish his tattoo.

I always figured the things that happened, good or bad, had to be happening for a reason. There had to be a reason my mom was taken from me when I was too young to take care of myself. For a long time I reasoned that she had to go so that I could be taken in by the Ortegas and placed next to Poppy. I would have never met her otherwise. When Poppy had dashed all the dreams and hopes I had built on her young shoulders, I thought her turning away from me had been orchestrated to get me out of football, to get me on the path to my true calling and to Phil. Now all those little things, all those little pieces, were building a road to the other Cruz sister. I never considered a reason for all those things happening, but now I wasn’t so sure that Salem wasn’t the final destination my mother’s tragic end had been pointing me to from the very beginning.

SALEM WAS LOOKING AT ME like I was off my rocker.

The puppy was bounding around like a lunatic on the end of the leash. I think out of the three of us making the trek to City Park, he was the only one who was overjoyed to be headed out for day outside in the sun. His antic were making me have to hold onto the handle of his leash in a tight grip. The park was right off of Colfax. It was huge, green, and crowded with locals and tourists alike out to enjoy a beautiful Colorado summer day. I picked it because it was within walking distance of Salem’s apartment and that gave her an easy out if things got weird or if she decided she wasn’t going to get past the fact that she thought Poppy was very much standing between us even though I had no clue where the other Cruz sister was even at and frankly didn’t really care.

“The park? Are we twelve years old?”

She had heeded my warning and dressed down for our Sunday outing. Her dark hair was tied in long braids down either side of her head, the red stripe making her look like she had a flashy hot-rod racing stripe in her hair. She was wearing cutoff jean shorts that showed off her caramel-colored legs that had beautiful ink sprinkled across the surface and she was rocking black Chucks that were identical to my own. And just because she couldn’t help but emanate sensuality and dark beauty, she had on a tight plaid shirt that was tied up over her navel, flashing her taut tummy and a secret tattoo that dipped below the waistband of her shorts that I was dying to check out. She looked perfect and she didn’t have a drop of makeup on her face. The only thing I wished was different was that I could see her eyes, but they were hidden behind a massive pair of sunglasses that just showed my reflection back at me as I stared at her.

“It’s Colorado. We do things outside here when it’s nice. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

The puppy looked at us, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, and I laughed at the goofy picture he made.

“You really want to do this?” She tossed the football I had handed her when we started our walk from one of her hands to the other and I grinned at her.

“Yep. You used to have a pretty good spiral.”

I was sure if I could see her eyes she would be rolling them at me. “I still do.”

That made me laugh, and once we got to the park and found a place that wasn’t overly crowded where we could throw the ball back and forth and let Jimbo run off the leash without bothering anyone else, I put my own sunglasses on and told her, “We used to toss the ball back and forth all the time. It was fun. We deserve to have things that are still fun from then. I just thought maybe it would take us back to a time that was easier for us to be around each other.”

She didn’t say anything for a minute but she did sink her teeth into her bottom lip and I wanted to tackle her to the ground and replace her teeth with my own. She tilted her head to the side and asked, “How long has it been since you’ve done this?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes when we have a barbecue the guys will toss the ball around with me, but Rule had a twin brother that passed away and he was a jock, a quarterback, so I don’t think tossing the ball around has the same kind of good memories for them as it does for me. You’re the only girl that I ever played with.” And I wasn’t talking about sex. She was the first girl to ever show me what a good time outside of the bedroom could be like and while I was greatful for that I was ready to add something far more adult and na**d to the mix now.

She bent down to take Jimbo off his lead and I groaned out loud as the denim tightened enticingly across her backside. She was going to be the death of any kind of restraint I might’ve had.

The dog yipped and pranced around as she turned and jogged several yards away. Jimbo jumped around her knees and had her laughing as she chucked the ball in my direction like a pro. The dog chased it through the air as I caught it with one hand. There was a little sting behind it as it connected with my palm. She did have a pretty good arm still.

I tossed the ball back at her far more gently than I would have if I was playing for real and laughed at the silly puppy as he zoomed back between us, barking his little head off and trying to jump in the air to catch the ball with each pass. It was like a giant game of keep away.

“I remember when you told me you were going to try out for the team.” She huffed a little because I purposely tossed the ball a little over her head so I could watch all her best parts bounce and her shirt ride up on her toned tummy. “You sounded so sad about it.”

I had to run to the side as she retaliated and I almost tripped over the dog as he got right under my feet. I scowled at her as she laughed and put a little more heat behind the next toss.

“I didn’t want to. I was just tall and big for my age. Everyone kept telling me I needed to. Your dad asked Poppy to mention it to me and the next thing I know I’m signing up for the junior varsity team and then starting on varsity a couple of months later. I never even thought about being an athlete before then. No one was as surprised as I was that I was good at it.”

She chucked the ball back at me and it hit me right in the gut. I grunted a little and bent down to pet the dog as he lay at my feet.

“You were the best. Everyone said so.” She sounded wistful about it.

I lobbed the ball back to her halfheartedly. “Maybe, but being the best at something you don’t love makes it a chore and no fun. Plus it still wasn’t enough to get me what I thought I wanted.”

“My sister.”

I wasn’t going to lie to her, so I nodded. “I don’t think I had a clue what I was f**king doing back then.”

She sighed. “Me either. I knew I had to leave, had to get away from my dad, but I didn’t really plan past that. The guy I left Loveless with left me in Phoenix after taking all my money and my cell phone. I ended up almost homeless and totally broke.”

I swore at her revelation and fell back a step as she really heaved the ball at me in her resurrected anger.

“I got a job waitressing, slept on the couch of this girl I met at the restaurant until her creep of a boyfriend tried to come on to me and she caught him in the act. Of course she blamed me and put me out on my ass, so I had to scramble again. I took a job at a strip club because it was the only work I could find on such short notice.”

I dropped the ball and gaped at her in surprise as she smiled sadly at me.

“A girl had to do what she had to do in order to survive, Rowdy. I’m not proud of it but I did dance for about six months. While I was there I met this guy that ran a burlesque club in Reno. He offered me a job with more clothes and better pay, so I took him up on it. He told me my looks were going to make me a hit and he was right.” She shook her head a little ruefully.

I didn’t know what to say, so I tossed her back the ball and she hopped around to make the catch because I was way off the mark after listening to her recount her days after she left me.

“I was in Reno for less than a month when I got asked to be in a hot-rod magazine photo shoot. I said yes and then next thing I knew I was getting all kinds of offers to model—tattoo magazines, trade shows, conventions, and retro-clothing websites. I just had to look pretty and I got paid pretty well for it, and I got to keep my clothes on for the most part. It was fun. I traveled, met cool people, but it wasn’t enough. Being a pretty face can’t last forever and I wanted something to be proud of, something I could put my name on.”

She didn’t throw the ball back at me, instead she cradled it to her chest and pushed her sunglasses up on the top of her head. “That’s why I got into the clothing line, why I wanted to be hands-on in the tattoo shop in Vegas. I wanted to leave a mark.”