Blue-Eyed Devil Page 67

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But instantly I knew that was the wrong thing to say. Instead of making him leave, it guaranteed that he would stay. Nick wanted a look at the next man in line.

"You said you weren't dating."

"Well, now I am."

"How long you known him?"

I stared at him coldly, refusing to answer.

"Does he know about me?" Nick pressed.

"He knows I'm divorced."

"You f**ked him yet?" His tone was soft, but there was contempt and anger in his gaze.

"You have no business asking that."

"Maybe he'll have better luck thawing you out than I did."

"Maybe he already has," I shot back, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen in surprised fury.

I saw movement, someone coming to the doorway . . . Hardy's long, lean form. He paused for a moment, assessing the situation. And his eyes narrowed as Nick turned to face him.

I knew Hardy realized immediately who my visitor was. He could tell from the angry bruised weight of the air, and the bleached whiteness of my face.

I had never expected to make direct physical comparisons between the two men. However, with both of them in the same room, it was impossible not to. Objectively speaking, Nick was more handsome, with smaller, more chiseled features. But Hardy's roughcast good looks and self-assurance made Nick look callow. Unformed.

As Nick stared at Hardy, his aggressive stance softened, and he actually moved back a half step. Whatever kind of man Nick had been expecting me to date, it wasn't this. My former husband had always felt superior to everyone — I had never seen him so visibly intimidated.

It struck me that Hardy, a seasoned, high-octane male, was the authentic version of what Nick was always pretending to be. And because Nick knew deep down that he was a fraud as a man, he occasionally gave in to the explosive rages that I had been a casualty of.

Hardy walked into the apartment and came to me without hesitation, brushing by Nick. I quivered as he slid his arm around me, his eyes dark blue as he stared down at me. "Haven," he murmured. The sound of his voice seemed to unlock a tight clamp around my lungs — I hadn't been aware that I'd been holding my breath. I took in some air. His grip tightened, and I felt some of his vitality jolt into me like an electric current.

"Here," Hardy said, pressing something into my grasp. I looked down at the offering. Flowers. A gorgeous burst of mixed colors, rustling and fragrant in tissue wrapping.

"Thank you," I managed to say.

He smiled slightly. "Go put them in water, honey." And then, to my disbelief, I felt him pat my bottom familiarly, right in front of Nick. The classic male signal of this is mine.

I heard my ex-husband take a swift breath. Darting a glance at him, I saw the glow of anger begin at his shirt collar, rising fast. There had been a time when that flush of fury would have heralded untold misery for me. But no longer.

I felt a strange mixture of emotions . . . a knee-jerk uneasiness at the sight of Nick's anger . . . a twinge of annoyance at Hardy . . . but mostly a sense of triumph, knowing that no matter how badly Nick wanted to punish me, he couldn't.

And although I had never especially liked the fact that Hardy was so physically imposing, I relished it at that moment. Because there was only one thing a bully like Nick respected, and that was a bigger bully.

"What brings you to Houston?" I heard Hardy ask casually as I went to the kitchen sink.

"Job interview," Nick replied in a subdued tone. "I'm Nick Tanner, Haven's — "

"I know who you are."

"I didn't catch your name."

"Hardy Cates."

Glancing back, I saw that neither of them had moved to shake hands.

The name rang a bell for Nick — I saw the flicker of recognition on his features — but he couldn't quite put it in context. "Cates . . . wasn't there some trouble between you and the Travises a while back?"

"You could say so," Hardy replied, sounding not at all regretful. A deliberate pause, and then he added, "Getting friendly with one of 'em, though."

He was referring to me, of course. Pushing Nick's buttons on purpose. I sent Hardy a warning glare, which went completely unnoticed, and I saw the quiver of outrage run across Nick's face.

"Nick was just leaving," I said hastily. "Goodbye, Nick."

"I'll call you," Nick said.

"I'd rather you didn't." I turned back to the sink, unable to look at my ex-husband for another second.

"You heard her," came Hardy's murmur. And there was something else, some brief exchange of words before the door closed firmly.

I let out a shuddery sigh, unaware that I was gripping the bunched flower stems until I looked down and saw a smear of blood on the fleshy pad beneath my right thumb. A thorn had punctured it. I ran some water over my hand to clean it, filled a vase, and settled the flowers in it.

Hardy came up behind me, gave a quiet exclamation as he saw the blood on my hand.

"It's okay," I said, but he took my hand and held it under the water. When the tiny wound was rinsed, he reached for a paper towel and folded it a couple of times.

"Keep pressure on it." He stood facing me, gripping the paper towel against my palm. I was so unsettled by Nick's visit that I couldn't think of a thing to say. Unhappily I acknowledged that I couldn't throw out my past like an old pair of shoes. I would never be free of it. I could move on, but Nick would always be able to find me, walk back into my life, remind me of things I would have given anything to forget.

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