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By:Kristen Ashley

f-preservation in order to save his bones getting crushed, and his point made, Deck let the man’s hand go.

McFarland flexed it twice before shoving it into his pocket.

Emme missed this. She was looking up at Deck.

“What are you doing in Gnaw Bone?” she asked.

“Could ask you the same thing,” he returned.

“I live here now.”

Another shock. Her family was in Denver and they were tight. She didn’t have a shit ton of friends but they were in Denver too. And she was the kind of woman he thought would settle early in a life she found comfortable and stay forever.

Then again, he thought a lot of things about the Emme he knew including the fact she was sweet, funny, interesting, and no one but his best friend Chace Keaton gave better conversation. But even if it made him a dick for thinking it, she was always sexless. She made it that way. Worked at it. Her looking like she looked, dressing like she was dressed, having a man, meant her making the move to Gnaw Bone shouldn’t be that big a surprise since she’d made a lot of changes.

But he didn’t like that she lived in Gnaw Bone.

It wasn’t her living there. It was that he had no idea how long she’d been there, but he couldn’t deny the fact that knowing she lived close for however long it was, he found upsetting.

“Your turn,” she prompted when he said nothing as to why he was in that town.

“Business,” he answered, and the dimple reappeared.

“That’s great,” she replied. “Please tell me you’re going to be around for a while. I’ve got to get back to work but I’d love to meet you for dinner.”

He’d be around for a while. He didn’t lie. He was in Gnaw Bone for business. But he lived in Chantelle, a twenty-minute drive away.

And he didn’t have plans. So he definitely could make dinner.

He grinned down at her. “You’re on.”

“Uh, Em, I got shit on tonight,” McFarland broke in, and both Deck and Emme looked at him.

“That’s okay, babe,” she told him, and Deck fought back his grin turning into a smile when McFarland’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Jacob and I can have dinner without you. And anyway, we have a lot of catching up to do and you probably would be bored seeing as you won’t know who or what we’re talking about.”

McFarland did not like his woman making dinner plans with another man, or having history with him even if it was platonic. It showed clear on his face but he’d learned from moments earlier and kept his mouth shut.

Emme looked back at Deck.

“Do you know The Mark? It’s just down the street.” She pointed behind him but he nodded as she did.

“Know The Mark, Emme,” Deck told her.

“Great.” She gave him another dimple. “How’s seven o’clock sound?”

“Works for me,” he agreed.

The dimple pressed deeper even as unhappy vibes rolled off her boyfriend.

“Looking forward to it, honey,” she said softly, words meant just for him, an endearment that made her boyfriend even less happy and that was reflected in the vibes rolling off him getting barbed.

But those words shifted through Deck like a razor blade through silk.

She’d always called him honey. Elsbeth had hated it. Then again, Elsbeth had eventually not been a big fan of Deck’s friendship with her BFF.

In his surprise at seeing Emme here in Gnaw Bone, hours away from where he knew her to live. Seeing her as he saw her, completely changed, hair much longer, those highlights, becoming clothes, at least twenty, probably more like thirty pounds off her frame. Seeing her with a man. Fuck, seeing her at all after what went down, how things ended and the last thing she did the last time he saw her.

With all that, belatedly, he realized he should have taken more care. He should have kept his shit together. He should maybe not have agreed to go to dinner with her. He’d shut the door on her, literally, after things ended with Elsbeth. It had hurt her. And he’d been so hung up on Elsbeth, he’d never gone back to open it.

But he did make dinner plans.

And he did because she didn’t look a thing like her, Deck wondered why, and Deck didn’t like puzzles. He found a puzzle, he solved it. This colossal change in Emme was a puzzle he intended to solve.

He also did it because of the last thing she did the last time he saw her.

And last, he did it just because she was Emme.

He may have hurt her but if he was reading her current behavior correctly, she held no grudges.

“Me too,” Deck murmured.

McFarland slid an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into his side and stating, “We gotta get to back work, babe.”

She looked up at him and nodded. “Right.” Her shades came back to Deck and she gave him another grin, no dimple. “Tonight. The Mark. Seven o’clock.”

Because her boyfriend was a dick, and because it made sense, Deck suggested, “Give me your number. I’ll give you mine. Just in case shit gets screwed, one of us is late, or whatever.”

As expected, McFarland didn’t like this and he gave Deck a hard look.

Deck ignored it and pulled his phone out of his back pocket as Emme moved out of the curve of her boyfriend’s arm to dig in her purse.

“You first, or me?” she asked, head bent, hair shining in the sun. He had her profile and the elegant curve of her jaw was on display. Something he never noticed before. Something else that surprised him not only because he noticed it but also because it was elegant, alluring, inviting touch, even taste and it also surprised him because he always noticed everything.

But he’d never noticed that.

And he didn’t need to be thinking about how Emmanuelle Holmes’s jaw might taste when she was standing next to her boyfriend.

“Me,” he said. She nodded and he gave her his number.

She did the same when he was done and shoved her phone in her purse.

“Now we’re good,” she told him.

“We are,” he agreed.

“See you at seven,” she said.

“Yeah,” Deck replied then looked up at McFarland. “Later.”

McFarland jerked up his chin, said nothing, slid his arm around Emme’s