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“Partly. She was also pretty and made me feel like I had a purpose—taking care of her.” He chuckled but it didn’t have any humor in it. “She never looked at me as more than a friend or a brother, not once. Most of the time she was encouraging me to do what everyone expected. She wanted me to play football, to be prom king, to date a cheerleader, and she wanted me to keep my mouth shut and let the other men in her life treat her like crap. Something your dad and her boyfriends never failed to do.”

I turned and rubbed the end of my nose into his chest. This wasn’t exactly a pleasant conversation to be having but I think it was long past time that we did.

“What about me? You loved her on first sight because she was stable and planted in the Texas dust, but what about me, Rowdy?”

He chuckled again and this time there was amusement in it.

“To a ten-year-old boy you were the prettiest thing I had ever seen. You were wild, loud, and didn’t seem to be scared of anything. I knew you hated to be home, hated all the rules your parents put on you, but you never let it stop you from having fun and being full of joy. I just wanted to be around you all the time because it was like having the warm rays of the sun touch everything that was so cold inside of me. You were the only person that ever made me feel like it was okay to be a lost kid that was really mad about his mom getting killed. You never once made me feel like I should be groveling in gratitude for the bare minimum the universe saw fit to lay at my feet. You were everything to me and then you were gone and I was lost all over again.”

That made my throat close up and I cuddled even farther into him. I hooked a leg across his thighs and looked up at him from under my eyelashes.

“I should have tried to keep in touch. I meant to but I was just overwhelmed and lost in my own way. You need to know that leaving you was hard. That leaving Poppy behind sucked, but I really did have to do it.”

I should tell him that he was wrong. I was absolutely scared of things back then. I was scared of never getting out of my house. I was scared that my life was always going to be full of endless rules and regulations. I was scared my sister was going to turn into my mother. And I had been scared for him. Scared he was going to get trapped into doing something he didn’t love, scared he was going to chase my clueless sister around forever, and scared he was going to let other people decide for him how he should live his life and what his passions should be. I was glad only a select few of those fears had been realized.

“I guess we all had to do things that we didn’t really want to do in order to make it to where we were supposed to be.” His voice was wistful and sort of smoky-sounding. I could hear a hundred different shadows filled with memories coloring it.

Since I was looking up at him, he leaned down and placed a sweet kiss on my lips. That was all it took to turn the moment from something dark and weighted with ghosts and regrets into something hotter, something crackling with desire and need. I wanted to tell him that was what moving forward into the good moments looked and felt like but I needed for him to figure that out on his own.

GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT ON THURSDAYS had changed a little over the last month. Cora couldn’t drink because she was breastfeeding, Shaw couldn’t drink because she was pregnant, and no one wanted to get too out of control and misbehave because Saint usually showed up with Royal, and even when Royal was off of patrol she was still a cop and that meant everyone tried their best to act right. I loved that all these sweet, strong women had invited me into the fold even before Rowdy and I had started hanging out and hooking up. They were an amazing group of women and the fact they believed I belonged among their ranks made me feel really accomplished and pretty proud of myself.

Instead of posting up at Rome’s bar or the dive that was next to the shop, Cora had made the executive decision for everyone to gather at a really nice restaurant that was a few blocks over from the new shop, and instead of doing shots until we all threw up, we ordered a bunch of appetizers and sipped on fancy martinis.

Cora was rolling her eyes at Shaw and telling her that she was going to murder Rome. It seemed that now that Rule was going to be a dad, a husband, and a homeowner, Rome was all over her to pack up the house they rented and move into a place they would buy. She swore up one side and down the other that there wasn’t anything wrong with the rental, Rome just couldn’t handle his little brother being more domesticated and settled than he was. She rolled her multicolored eyes and insisted that if he proposed out of pure competition she was going to shove the ring down his throat.

That bold statement had Ayden laughing and telling Cora that she knew for a fact Cora would snatch the ring up so fast Rome wouldn’t even get a chance to put it on her finger. That had the tiny blonde laughing and she didn’t deny it.

I looked at Saint and lifted an eyebrow at her. She and Nash were still pretty new in terms of being in a committed relationship, but they were obviously very much in love and meant to be together.

She just shook her head adamantly, the red and gold strands of her ponytail hitting her in her face. She blushed hotly. I knew she was shy and didn’t like being the center of attention, but she couldn’t help but smile when she talked about her sexy man. Nash was an interesting mix of sweetheart and badass. He was a good match for the lovely and quiet nurse.

“I just barely got my head wrapped around the fact that I have a boyfriend. Marriage, kids . . . none of that stuff is even on the radar yet. I’m probably going to go back to school and Nash is busy with the business expanding. We struggle to make time for each other as it is.”

Royal nudged her with a shoulder and wiggled her eyebrows up and down. “You won’t have to work as hard at making time if you move in with him like he’s been hounding you to do.”

Saint blushed even harder and glared at her friend.

“I’m going to.”

“What’s holding you back?” As always, it was Cora that had to be all up in everyone’s business.

Saint looked away and then sighed and looked back at the group. “I don’t want him to get sick of me.”

Dead silence met the statement and then Ayden started laughing so hard other diners in the restaurant turned to see what was going on. Once Ayden started, Shaw followed, and soon the entire table was chuckling, much to Saint’s chagrin.

Saint chomped down on her lower lip and fiddled with her hair. “It’s not that funny.”

Royal patted her friend on the shoulder. “I told you that you were being ridiculous. That boy is sprung on you. He would keep you in his pocket if he could.”

I nodded in agreement. “He would. He talks about how great you are, about how the new shop wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for you. Just go for it. You don’t want to look back and realize you wasted time with someone that matters to you.”

That of course had all eyes on me, so I picked up the hot-pink drink in front of me and met Cora’s questioning gaze head-on.

“Are you speaking from experience, Salem?” There was laughter in her tone but something deeper as well. I knew she was really close to Rowdy, looked at him almost like a little brother, so I wasn’t going to play coy with her.

“Rowdy and I have a lot of lost time between us. I don’t know that I would do anything differently necessarily, but I do know that when I look at him now I see a lot of things I wish I had been around to experience.”

“What exactly is going on between the two of you?” That came from Ayden and she didn’t have any humor in her tone. Rowdy was her man’s BFF and she wouldn’t tolerate me playing around with him. It was clear in her amber eyes and the firm set of her mouth.

I shrugged a shoulder. “He calls it getting reacquainted.”

One of her dark eyebrows shot up until it almost touched her superstraight bangs. “What do you call it?”

I was going to answer when Shaw suddenly interjected and I realized she was the peacekeeper of the group.

“Leave her alone, Ayd. None of us have any room to talk when it comes to figuring out what is happening with these guys. It was like walking across a shaky bridge with no handrails hanging over the steepest canyon trying to get from where we were to where we wanted to be with all of them, so lay off of Salem. Rowdy is happy, he’s not out sleeping with half of Denver anymore, so why doesn’t everyone just leave it at that?”

I didn’t love having the fact that Rowdy’s salacious ways were well known and thrown into the mix but I couldn’t pretend he had been saving himself for me. I sighed and ran my finger around the rim of the glass.

“There’s a lot of history we have to wade through, so for now I’m just taking it day by day. I came to Denver mostly because he was here, but once I got here I found out some stuff about him and my sister I didn’t know, and that’s been challenging to work through.”

Cora tsked and reached for her plate of food. “He’s always been hooked on this idea that there is one true love. We’ve all tried to tell him that’s silly and that there are a million wonderful women in the world that would be happy to have him, but he’s been adamant—at least he was until you showed up. His tune changed real quick then.”

I sighed again. “He asked my sister to marry him when he was eighteen and she turned him down.”

A collective gasp went up from all the other girls that again had the other restaurant patrons looking in our direction.

I shook my head ruefully and forced a lopsided grin. “I knew he had a thing for her, a crush, I thought. I had no idea he was thinking forever and ever with her. I worry that he might have lingering feelings that he can’t separate from this thing we have going on now.”

Cora snorted and poked the end of her fork at me. “We all do dumb things when we’re eighteen. You don’t even wanna know about the guy I was with when I was eighteen. It was just a mistake born out of loneliness and insecurity. We all made them back then.”

Ayden nodded vigorously. “I made really bad choices way before I turned eighteen and my idiot brother had already been locked up more than once by the time he was that age. It isn’t fair to hold the past against him.”

Saint even chimed in. “Nash broke my heart into a million pieces right around the time he was eighteen. It almost kept me from giving him a fair chance when he came back into my life last year. That would have been the worst mistake I ever made.”

I sighed again and picked up my drink to finish the last little bit of it. I needed another and maybe another when I started thinking about Rowdy and his feelings for my sister.

“It’s my sister.” That was a complication I don’t think any of them could really grasp, because as much as I cared about Rowdy, there was no way I was ever going to not have the same blood in my veins as, and undying loyalty to, Poppy.

“What does he say about it all now?” Man, I really did love Shaw. She was always so levelheaded and her entire demeanor was just so loving and open. She was going to make a spectacular mother even if the kid turned out as wild and unpredictable as its dad.

“He says it’s not all his story to tell. I’ve tried to get Poppy to fill in the blanks for years but she always changes the subject or assures me that whatever happened between the two of them was in the past. Something bigger than what I always thought is working underneath everything I’m trying to build on and I don’t like it.”

“So what if it doesn’t work out with you and Rowdy?” Ayden’s drawl sounded deceptively languid. “Are you just going to pack up and roll on to the next tattoo shop—the next guy?”

I should’ve told the sultry southern bell to mind her own damn business but I couldn’t fault her for being protective over her friend.

“That’s what I normally do.” The truth wasn’t pretty but it was what it was. “I don’t like it when things get messy and complicated.”