She pulled the creamy, lacy shade down over the big picture window, effectively closing her in the twilight gloom of the shop. Becky had already rung out the register and was happily doing the accounts in the back, a pot of coffee and a huge container of Kung Pao chicken at her elbow while Emma finished closing down the front.

 

Emma loved this time of the evening. The streets were quiet, except for a few people heading either home or to their favorite restaurant for dinner. The soft light of early evening cast a glow over everything it touched, making it seem softer, more romantic. With a sigh, Emma headed into the back to gather up her coat and purse. With a wave to Becky, who waved her fork back with a grin, Emma slipped out of the back of the store.

 

“Emma.”

 

Emma shrieked, staggering back and pulling her can of mace out of her pocket before realizing that the man standing in the shadows was Max. “God damn it, Max!”

 

“Sorry.” He didn’t sound all that sorry; he sounded like he was trying not to laugh. “Don’t break out the grapefruit spoon just yet.”

 

Her heart was still beating a mile a minute. She put the mace away and  glared at him. “What?”

 

“Well, jeez, is that any way to greet someone who’s here to help you?”

 

Putting her hand to her chest, Emma glared at him in the dim light. The son of a bitch was laughing at her. “Help me with what?”

 

“Getting Becky and Simon together, of course.”

 

“Huh?” He looked entirely too smug as he moved closer to her.

 

“You want to get Simon and Becky together? I can help you with that.” He picked up her arm and placed it through his, trapping her hand beneath his own. Suddenly he frowned and looked around. “Where is  Becky, by the way?”

 

“She’s still inside, working on the accounts,” she answered absently, momentarily distracted by the feel of his arm under her own. It felt like it was hewn from rock, strong and solid and probably immovable. 

 

His face blanked. “You came out here, at night, by yourself.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. He sounded like he couldn’t quite believe his ears.

 

“Yeah. I do that every night. I’m parked right over there.” She pointed with her free hand and gently tried to extract her other one from his suddenly iron grip. Becky lived in the apartment over the shop while Emma lived in an apartment in a complex on the other side of town. When Becky was done with the accounts, and her Chinese, she’d probably head upstairs to her tiny apartment and veg in front of her TV.

 

“You carry mace. I assume that means there’s some crime in this area.”

 

She nodded slowly. “There’s crime everywhere, even here, what with the college nearby.”

 

He was beginning to worry her. His face was still blank, but something about his eyes had changed. They glittered strangely, almost as if he were angry. She decided not to tell him why she carried the mace.

 

“Have you been attacked out here before?”

 

Emma winced and quickly tried to cover up the telltale sign by babbling. “It’s perfectly safe out here, and Becky keeps an ear out for the sound of my car. Any minute now she’s going to run out here ready to annihilate anyone who’s bothering me, so you might wanna let up on the death grip!” Her wince was now one of pain as his hand squeezed hers in a vice-like grip.

 

He let go and stared down at her. She could have sworn his eyes were gold in the moonlight before he blinked, the illusion fading back into his normal blue as he prowled around her, circling her like a predator. “Who hurt you, Emma?”

 

“What is wrong with you?” Emma took back her hand and rubbed it, wondering if she’d have a bruise. She glared up at him, waiting for an answer.

 

Max’s frown was fierce. “I want to know who hurt you, Emma. I want to know now.”

The note of command in his voice was one she’d never heard from anyone before. He compelled her to answer him in a primal way, forcing her body back against the brick wall of the shop with his own, looming over her in a way that both frightened and soothed her.

 

Part of her wanted to bow down submissively and answer anything he asked of her. It took every ounce of her will to sniff and reply, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She saw the shock on his face as she turned her head away, dismissing him. She ducked under his arm and started walking towards her car, her back stiff, her chin high. “You know, not every woman appreciates the caveman routine. Why don’t you try it out on Livia? I’m sure she’d appreciate it!”

 

She gasped as her body was yanked back into the hardness of his. She could feel him in every atom, as if he was deliberately imprinting himself there. “If I’m reacting this way, how do you think Simon will react when he hears Becky’s here alone?”

 

Emma gulped. Becky who? Involuntarily her hand came up and grasped the arm around her waist, her nails digging in with pleasure at the strength in it.“Um, I don’t know?” God, her brains were completely scrambled if that was the best she could do. “Hit her over the head with a club and drag her off by her hair? Not that he’d have all that far to go; she lives over the store, for God’s sake.”

 

He leaned down, his lips tickling her ear, his hair brushing hers, blending with hers. His other arm came around her waist, pulling her tighter into his body. She felt completely surrounded. She could feel his erection against her lower back, hot and hard as an iron bar, and gulped. “Why do you carry mace, Emma?”

 

“Why do you care, Max?” She tried to ignore the feel of his lips as he—

 

Did he just kiss my ear?

 

“Emma. Tell me what I want to know.”

 

“And you’ll go away?” She tried to ignore the incredible feeling of him gently rocking her in his arms. Yeah. That’s it, I’m gonna start struggling any minute now. Any minute…

 

“Hell, no.” He laughed gruffly. He put his chin on the top of her head and continued to rock her. When her stomach rumbled embarrassingly beneath his hands, he stilled. “Emma? Am I keeping you from your dinner?”

 

“At this point, you’re keeping me from my dinner AND late night snack.”

 

“Hmmm. In that case, I suggest we go out to eat. Maybe after I feed you you’ll be more willing to tell me what I want to know.” He sounded positively cheerful as he grabbed her hand, whirled her around and half dragged her towards his blue Durango.

 

“Gee, Captain Caveman, care to slow down? I didn’t agree to go out to dinner with you.”

 

He huffed out another laugh and opened the SUV’s door. “In you go!” He gently lifted her into the seat. “Food. Then fight. Okay?” And with a smile he pushed her legs inside the SUV and shut the door.

 

She considered opening the door and hopping out, but part of her (okay, the majority of her) wanted to see what the hell Max was up to. Plus, hello! Dinner with Max! Could there be a downside to this? She snapped on her seat belt as he got into the car. She hadn’t enjoyed sparring with someone this much for a long time. “Don’t think you’re going to get what you want just because you buy me dinner.”

 

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Max purred, starting the SUV.

 

“Oh, boy,” Emma muttered as Max, with another choked off laugh, drove out of the parking lot.

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Dana Marie Bell.

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