Ava surprised her again when she gave her a satisfied grin and said, “That’s good; I’m glad. He’s been alone for too long. He was never good at that, no matter how much he tried to convince everyone, including himself, that he was fine. Brant was meant to be married and have a family. He shouldn’t have been saddled with so much responsibility so early on. Our parents were irresponsible and the old man was a sadistic bastard.”
Despite herself, Emma was intrigued. Other than throwing out bits of information here and there, Brant wasn’t the type to disclose a lot of personal stuff. She knew that his parents were killed in a plane crash and that his grandfather had raised them afterward. She also knew that Declan had been the wild child and had enlisted in the military at eighteen. “So . . . um . . . your grandfather was tough on you?”
Ava’s laugh was devoid of any real humor. “He didn’t care enough to be tough. Yeah, he expected certain things . . . certain behavior, but mainly he just wanted us to stay out of his hair. His household staff raised us. Of course, we were all teenagers when we came to live with him, so it wasn’t like we were in diapers and dependent upon someone for all of our care. What we were was traumatized but he never considered that.”
Emma felt tears prick her eyes and hastily wiped them away, knowing that Ava wouldn’t appreciate the show of sympathy. “I’m sorry,” she offered, not knowing what else to say.
Ava looked at her blankly for a moment before draining the last of her drink and standing abruptly. “I’ve got to be going if you’re ready.”
Emma stood and followed her out. They made their way back to Walmart in silence. Emma had lost the urge to go back inside for her shopping cart full of sugar and movies. Suddenly this seemed more like a bottle of Jack Daniel’s kind of evening. When she stopped at her car, Ava turned and squeezed her shoulder. “I meant what I said. Brant needs you. Don’t let him push you away.” Then with those words, she was gone.
Emma drove home more confused than ever. Her cell phone started ringing just as she shut her apartment door behind her. She saw Brant’s name on the ID and smiled. Apparently, she was irresistible to the Stone siblings tonight. “Hey you,” she answered.
A moment of silence followed her playful greeting before Brant said, “Hey . . . Em.” Emma thought he had been close to using an endearment, but had settled for shortening her name. “Where are you?”
“I just attempted to gorge on chick flicks and chocolate at Walmart but was saved by your sister. I’m home now.”
Brant chuckled that sexy laugh that she loved so much. “I don’t even know what that means, but I’m glad you’re safe. So you saw Ava?”
“Yep, I ran across her in the store and we went for a drink. I . . . I don’t think she was having a good evening.”
“Why not?” Brant asked, concern evident in his voice.
“I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with Mac and his new girlfriend.”
“Shit,” Brant sighed. “I figured that was going to hit her hard.”
“I’m confused about that situation,” Emma admitted. “If Mac cares about her and she obviously cares about him, then why can’t they just admit it?”
“It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Mac has never made a secret of how he feels for my sister, but Ava hasn’t been able to accept it. I know you’ve heard enough to know that she had something happen to her when she was younger. She was . . . raped by her prom date. I don’t want to go into everything that happened afterward, but I will say that Mac found her and a bond was formed between them. My grandfather handled everything terribly and Ava has spent the years ever since then angry and grieving.”
“Oh my God,” Emma breathed. “She said that Mac was too good for her. She blames herself, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Brant bit out. “Everyone made damn sure of that. The bastard who did it never faced any consequences. I know regardless of what she says, Ava has done nothing but look over her shoulder since then. Luckily, Mac will always watch out for her even if he isn’t with her.”
They ended up talking for hours that night before finally giving in to the need to get some sleep.
That evening started a pattern that continued every night while Brant was away. Emma spoke to him a few times during the day on business matters but at night, it was all personal. They shared their earliest memories all the way up to the present. There was also a point each evening when their words turned teasing and sexual. Emma had never had phone sex, but when Brant asked her to touch herself and imagine it was his big hands sliding through her slick folds, she hadn’t been able to resist. Their calls always ended with a release for them both. Somehow it felt like she was falling for him even harder during these regular nightly phone calls. When they were finally together again in person, she didn’t think she would be able to resist ripping his clothes off regardless of where they were. God, she was so ready to have him back home.
Brant was barely holding on by a thread. The physical toll from a combination of stress and sexual frustration was making it difficult to function, let alone not blow up at the smallest setback. He had been back in town for just a few days and already it was a few too many. Alexia had been waiting at the door when he’d gotten home and she’d done her best to remind him that he had once loved her. He needed to resolve things with her before he could move forward with Emma.
Emma was doing her part to make things damned difficult on him, although he knew it wasn’t her fault. Since he had returned to Myrtle Beach, she looked better than he could remember, smelled better, and on those occasions when gravity brought them close enough to touch, she felt fucking amazing. He had been forced to lie to her and tell her that he had come down with a bug while he was away, that it probably wasn’t anything serious, but he didn’t want to risk giving her his sore throat. She had assured him that she was willing to risk it, but he had held firm. Somehow, it just didn’t feel right to him to touch her, without having the situation with Alexia resolved. He had never been a man to string a woman along and this whole situation felt wrong to him. But he knew Alexia was fragile and the last thing he wanted was to send her spiraling backward.
After two days, though, the excuses were starting to wear thin, and every time he kept her at arm’s length, he almost choked on the hurt in her eyes. He couldn’t even blame her. At this point, he’d be damned skeptical, too. Oh, let’s see, ex-fiancée living with you, sudden business trip where you didn’t come home when you could have and now doing the Texas Two-Step every time she comes too close. Yeah, nothing remotely unusual about any of that. He found it hard to believe she was still speaking to him, much less still had the desire for anything more personal.
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