Beware Of Me

July 28, 2015 – Dark Obsession, Book 4

Walk on the wild side with New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Cynthia Eden’s dark new romantic suspense, BEWARE OF ME.

Criminal. Killer. Monster. Ethan Barclay has been called many things in life, and he usually doesn’t care what people say about him. He’s tough, hard, and brutal when he needs to be. But even the most dangerous of men can have a weakness. Ethan’s weakness has—and always will be—Carly Shay.

Their pasts are tied together—twisted and melded by blood and death. Walking away from Carly was the hardest thing that Ethan ever did, but it was also his one good deed. He knew Carly deserved far better than him, and he wanted her to have a perfect life, a life that didn’t involve paying for Ethan’s sins.

Only now the secrets from their past have been revealed, and Carly’s life is on the line. Ethan’s enemies, Carly’s enemies—the predators are closing in on them. But Ethan isn’t going to let Carly be threatened. He will move heaven and hell to protect her. He won’t lose Carly, not again, and for those foolish enough to try and take her from him…they are about to see just how deadly Ethan truly can be.

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Prologue

Carly Shay heaved against the ropes that held her prisoner. The rough hemp cut into her wrists, making her bleed even more and the wooden chair that she was tied to shuddered as she jerked and twisted. Her hair fell into her face as she screamed, “Don’t! Stop!” Tears streaked down her cheeks. “Please, I am begging you, don’t hurt him anymore!”

But the men kept up their attack. Not on her, not now. She wasn’t the target right then.

Ethan was.

Ethan Barclay. The man who’d been her only friend on most days—and the man she’d secretly loved for the last two years.

But Ethan was on the floor, and four of Quincy’s goons—Quincy Atkins, a man who truly had to be the devil—were beating him.

Was Ethan still moving? Still alive?

“Please!” Her cry was both a plea and a scream. “Stop hurting him!”

Quincy stepped forward. A big, hulking man. He hurt me. So much. But…she slammed the door on that thought. She couldn’t go there, not right then. She couldn’t remember all that he’d taken from her. The memories would come later, she knew that.

Right then…she just had to help Ethan. He’d come to save her, but if she didn’t do something, soon, he’d be the one to wind up dying.

Quincy Atkins was a crime boss who pretty much ran D.C. Terrifying. Psychotic. And he wanted her.

What Quincy wanted, he took.

Don’t remember. Don’t. Focus on Ethan.

Because Ethan’s golden eyes had just met hers. She could see that he was gathering his strength. Preparing for an attack.

Ethan. Twenty-one years old. A fixture on the D.C. streets. He’d always watched her back. Always looked out for her. She knew the whispers—the stories that said Ethan was turning into just as much of a criminal as Quincy. That Ethan was even gunning for Quincy but…

Those stories were wrong. Ethan was good. He was her friend. He’d risked his life for her. She didn’t care what anyone else thought of him.

Ethan is good…

But if she didn’t stop Quincy, Ethan would be a dead man.

As she watched, Quincy motioned for his men to leave the room. Relief made her a little dizzy. Maybe he’ll stop now. Maybe…

But as soon as the others were gone, Quincy took a knife from the sheath at his hip. ‘I’m gonna cut Loverboy open,” Quincy announced, his voice cold and cruel. “Then you’ll be mine. Body and soul. I’ll own every inch of you…and no one will ever be able to help you again.”

This was her fault. All her fault. She’d taken the job dancing at his club. She’d lied about her age to get the gig, but she’d needed the money so desperately—her dad, he wasn’t well. If she hadn’t gotten that money, she and her dad would have been cast out on the street.

Her gaze slid back to Ethan. His handsome face was battered, but his golden eyes glittered. He wouldn’t stop fighting. Giving up wasn’t in his blood. He’d battle Quincy and Quincy’s men until—until Ethan died.

Then what would she do? Her hands kept jerking at the ropes behind her. Her whole body hurt. She had so many bruises. So much pain. But she wouldn’t let Quincy take Ethan away from her. Almost distantly, she heard herself say… “Please. Don’t hurt him anymore. Don’t. I’ll do anything—just don’t!

But even before those words were fully out of her mouth, Quincy had lunged toward Ethan. As she yanked against her ropes, Quincy kicked Ethan in the ribs, again and again. Then Quincy rolled Ethan onto his back and put the knife right over Ethan’s heart.

This can’t happen! I won’t let it!

Her fear faded as rage burned through her. Quincy had taken too much from her already. He wasn’t going to take Ethan, too.

Quincy’s back was to her. And in that moment, as she saw him with that knife over Ethan’s heart, something broke inside of Carly—even as the ropes that bound her finally gave way. Carly shot out of the chair and lunged for Quincy. “Don’t hurt him!” It wasn’t a plea this time. Her words were a roar.

She slammed into Quincy’s back. They both fell down, tangling over Ethan’s body. She heard Quincy give a choked gasp and she scrambled back as he heaved up—

Only to immediately sag back to the ground.

That was when she saw that the knife wasn’t in Ethan’s chest. When she’d slammed into Quincy, she had saved Ethan. She started to smile and then she saw—

The knife is in Quincy’s chest. She hadn’t meant to stab him, had she? No, no, she’d just wanted to stop him and he’d fell—gotten all tangled up and somehow the knife had gone into him. The handle stuck out, but at least half of the blade was in his chest. In his heart?

Quincy opened his mouth, and she realized that the guards were just outside of that door. If they heard their boss call for them, if they rushed in and saw what she’d done…

I’m dead. Ethan’s dead.

Carly put her hand over Quincy’s mouth. The tears kept pouring from her eyes. Shudders racked her body. She could feel Quincy’s lips moving beneath her palm. Nausea rolled in her stomach, and Carly thought she might vomit.

Ethan crawled toward her. He left a trail of blood in his path. His hand lifted—

Ethan?

And he shoved the knife even deeper into Quincy’s chest. Quincy’s lips stopped moving beneath her palm.

She kept her hand over his mouth. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t hear anything but the scream—a scream echoing only in her mind.

She’d done this. She’d killed a man. Killed the man who’d attacked her, raped her, who’d tried to kill Ethan.

And now…now his men were just outside the door. She wasn’t going to get away. There would never be an escape for her.

Ethan’s fingers curled around her wrist. “It’s okay, baby,” he told her, his voice a rough rasp.

No, it was so far from okay that it wasn’t even funny, but Carly couldn’t manage to speak.

“I’m…going to take care of everything,” Ethan said, his words little more than a whisper. “All you have to do…is trust me.”

His hand lifted—the hand that had just driven that knife deeper into Quincy’s chest, and his fingers curled around her wrist. Slowly, he moved her hand away from Quincy’s mouth.

I did that. I killed him.

For Ethan, for her own survival…I’d do it again.

Darkness stretched inside of her, threatening to consume her. She clamped her lips together to hold back the scream that wanted to break free.

“Trust me,” Ethan said again.

But she was afraid she’d never trust anyone again.

Especially…not herself.

Chapter One

Present Day…

Carly Shay hurried up the subway steps, her high heels making the climb feel far more difficult than it should. People jostled around her, moving quickly, but she kept pace with them. After all, she’d been living in New York for years. She knew this town. Knew this place inside and out.

The crowds—the wonderful energy—she could disappear in this city. Blend in easily. And no one gave her a second glance.

That was why she’d first come to New York. To vanish in the crowd. To stop attracting attention. The way Carly figured it, she’d done a damn good job of vanishing.

One hand kept a firm grip on her bag as she marched forward and across the street. A few more minutes, and she’d be home free.

“Carly.”

She almost slammed into him. She’d been focused on the crowd. On the guy in the fancy suit who was yelling into his phone. On the mother trying to comfort her crying toddler.

She hadn’t even seen him.

But now, she couldn’t look anywhere else.

Because in the middle of the sidewalk, standing less than three feet from her, was the man who haunted far too many of her dreams. Well, her nightmares really.

Ethan Barclay.

Tall, dark, and far too dangerous to know…Ethan Barclay.

The dying sunlight fell on his dark hair. Hair that was a little too long. Dark stubble covered his jaw and his golden eyes—tiger eyes—were locked on her with the full intensity of a predator who’d just found the perfect prey.

I won’t be his prey. Not this time.

“You left D.C. without saying good-bye,” Ethan told her. His hands were shoved deeply into the pockets of his coat, and that coat stretched across his broad shoulders. Powerful. Yes, she knew Ethan was incredibly strong. He wasn’t the twenty-one-year-old boy she’d known so long ago.

He was a man now. A stranger. One who was reputed to be far more dangerous than Quincy Atkins had ever been.

When Quincy vanished, Ethan took over D.C.

And…

Carly had tried to pick up the pieces of her life.

Even though it was warm for New York at that time of the year, a shiver slid over Carly. “I…I was only back in D.C. to check on my step-sister.”

“Um…” His voice was a low, deep rumble and he was closing in on her. Eliminating that space between them as he stalked closer. Someone jostled her from behind, but before Carly could stumble, Ethan’s hands—big, strong, but oddly gentle as they held her—curled around her shoulders. “Back in D.C. long enough to save Julianna’s life…and get shot.”

She’d been shot twice, actually. But it had been worth it. Julianna had been put at risk because she’d been trying to protect Carly—and the crimes from Carly’s past. Quincy’s murder. “I wasn’t going to let Julianna be hurt again because of me.”

His eyelashes flickered. Long eyelashes. They should have looked ridiculous on a man like him, but they didn’t. They just made his intense eyes appear all the…sexier. Dammit. She shouldn’t find him sexy. Not at all. She should have moved way, way beyond him by this point.

The way he’d moved beyond her.

“I thought you were going to die.” His voice was rough as he made that confession. Ragged around the edges. Very much not Ethan.

You don’t know him any longer. You probably never knew him—not the real guy.

“You were bleeding out on the floor of that apartment,” Ethan said, as his hold tightened on her. “And during the ambulance ride to the hospital, shit, you left me.”

She stilled. “I didn’t know you were in the ambulance with me.” And I left him? What does that mean? No one had said anything about her paying some visit to the afterlife. Maybe the EMTs didn’t share that info with her though because they might have realized…it freaks me out.

“I was in the ambulance,” he told her grimly. “And at your hospital bedside, until I realized that I was a threat to you.”

Carly had to swallow to ease the growing lump in her throat. You’re always a threat to me.

“But I left too late, and now others know…”

“Okay, Ethan, I really don’t get why you’re in New York, but we don’t have anything to discuss.” Did her voice sound cool? Dismissive? Probably not, but she’d really been aiming for that tone. “Now let me go because I want to get home.” It had been her first day back at her job since she’d been shot and she was exhausted. It took all of her strength not to show that weakness to him, but she knew that if he realized how close to trembling she was…the guy would pounce.

“You know why I’m in New York.” He didn’t let her go. In fact, he seemed to inch even closer. Because Ethan was a big guy, well over six feet, she had to tip back her head as she gazed up at him. Even in heels, she didn’t come close to his height. “I’m here for you.”

Once, she’d longed to hear him say those words. When she’d been a terrified teenager, when she hadn’t been able to deal with the guilt and shame and horror of what had happened to her…she’d longed for him. She’d broken, her whole world imploding when her father had passed away so closely behind her attack by Quincy.

And a psych ward had become her home when she’d lost control.

I screamed for Ethan. But Ethan hadn’t been there. “Let’s be clear on a few things.” She kept her body stiff in his hold. “Our relationship is over. Long over.” As in…years over. “It ended one blood-soaked night when you put me in a cab and just walked away from me. You didn’t contact me again…you didn’t so much as call me. You built up your life and you moved the hell on.” Now she jerked back, tearing out of his hands because she didn’t want his touch. It made her remember too much about the past. “And now, so have I. Just because I returned to D.C. to help my sister, that did not mean that I went back for you.”

His eyes glittered with emotion.

“Now get out of my way, Ethan. Because we’re done.”

His blazing stare raked over her. “How many secrets do you carry?”

She wasn’t going to keep talking to him in the middle of that crowded street. In fact, she wasn’t going to keep talking to him at all. She had a life now. A good life. She wasn’t going to throw it away. Her past—and the secrets there—were locked up tightly inside of her. Carly took a deep breath, and she gave Ethan a wide berth as she headed around him. If he wouldn’t move, she’d just keep going on her own.

Keep going…and keep in control. Carly knew maintaining control of her emotions was vital. She’d contained her pain and anger for years. Nothing got past her control these days.

But then she heard his footsteps, and Carly realized that Ethan was following her.

No, no, no.

“I let you go once before…” His words drifted to her. “Do you have any fucking idea just how hard that was for me?”

Impossible. “You sent me away.” She kept walking.

“Because I’d already brought you blood and death and hell.”

No, she’d done that…herself.

“I can’t do it again,” Ethan said. “I won’t…”

The crosswalk light up ahead was red. She had to stop at the corner. He closed in behind her, and she could actually feel the warmth of his body reaching out to her and then—his fingers brushed along her hip. Her eyes closed, just for a moment, as her control cracked, faint spider-webs of emotion breaking through the surface.

Then she made her eyes open.

“I want something for myself,” Ethan said. “I want you.”

Liar, liar. “You’ve got plenty of women, Ethan. Go back to D.C. Go back to them.” The crosswalk light changed. Green. Yes! “Leave me the hell alone.”

“Sorry, baby,” his voice murmured after her. “But that just isn’t going to be possible.”

Her steps quickened. She didn’t look back at him. Ethan had left her alone for years. No visits, no notes, nothing. Now he suddenly wanted back in her life? Like she was supposed to believe he’d missed her or some crazy crap like that?

No, she wasn’t a fool. She also wasn’t looking back. Because she didn’t want to see if he was following her or not. She didn’t care.

Really.

Dammit.

She kept walking, heading toward her building. It was a brownstone—one that her company actually owned. She’d been allowed to take one of the apartment’s there as part of one very sweet employment deal. Some days, Carly still couldn’t believe her luck on that one. But she wasn’t going to question fate too much. After all the hard times she’d had, a little bit of good luck had been ever-so-welcome.

A few minutes later, she could see the hard, heavy lines of the building. Old architecture on the outside, but the place had been completely updated on the inside. She’d be home free soon, locked inside her home. No way would Ethan get to her then.

If he’s still following me.

Maybe she should spare a glance over her shoulder. Just in case. Just to be sure—

“Ms. Shay?”

A man in a fancy suit had straightened as she approached. Handsome, with close-cropped dark hair and blue eyes. He flashed her a quick smile even as he approached her.

Okay, now what?

“Ms. Shay, I need a moment of your time.”

The guy had better not be some kind of salesman. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice apologetic, “but I’ve had a really long day and—”

“Your wounds have probably sapped your strength,” he cut in, nodding. “No doubt, you just want to go inside and collapse after your first day back on the job.”

Goosebumps rose on her arms.

“But I can’t let you collapse just yet.” His smile hardened a bit. “Like I said, I need a moment of your time.”

She backed up a step. And suddenly, the idea that Ethan might be trailing her—that idea wasn’t so scary. The devil you know…

Is far better than the one you don’t.

“Who are you?” Carly asked him, notching up her chin.

He pulled a wallet out of his pocket. No, not a wallet—ID. Real official looking ID. “I’m with the FBI, ma’am. My name is Special Agent Victor Monroe, and I need to talk with you about Quincy Atkins.”

No, no, no. Her heart stopped beating. She stared up at the special agent and actually felt her world start to collapse around her. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t know what she’d done. Could he?

Victor Monroe’s head tilted to the right. “Are you okay, Ms. Shay? You’ve gone quite pale.”

“I-I’m still recovering, like you said.” She put her hand to her temple. “And it’s warm today. I-I need to get inside and cool down. Our talk will have to wait…”

But when she tried to step around him, the FBI agent—Victor—moved into her path. “It can’t wait.” Suspicion had sharpened his gaze. “Can’t help but notice…you don’t act at all surprised to hear that a federal agent wants to question you about a missing crime lord.”

Her heart was racing now—seeming to shake her chest. And her mouth had gone bone-dry.

“Do you know where Quincy Atkins is, Ms. Shay?”

Hell. That was exactly where she suspected he was. But she wasn’t about to tell the FBI special agent that fact. “How would I know? I think I saw some special on 20/20 about him. The man’s been missing for years.”

His hand reached out and curled around her shoulder. At that touch, Carly flinched. It was her normal reaction to being touched. Only…I didn’t flinch when Ethan touched me. She’d figure out that messed up thought later, but for the moment… “I want you to take your hand off me.” Her voice was cool. “I don’t know anything about Quincy Atkins and his disappearance, so I don’t have anything to say to you.”

Victor’s jaw hardened as his hand immediately dropped. “I’m here to help you.”

“I doubt that.” Carly wondered how he’d even learned about her…and her connection to Quincy. Someone had tipped off the FBI, obviously, but just who was that someone? She marched briskly for her building.

“I have reason to believe that you may be connected to Quincy’s disappearance.” The agent was shadowing her steps. Making her way too nervous. “And if I have reason to believe that…” He sighed. “Then others will believe it, too. You may find yourself…hunted.”

At that one word, hunted, Carly turned to face him. “Are you trying to frighten me?” She thought he was.

He didn’t deny her accusation. Instead, Victor said, “When you were seventeen years old, you were put in a psych ward for three weeks. That was two weeks after Quincy Atkins vanished. That timeline is interesting, don’t you think? Especially since I know you worked as a dancer at Quincy’s club, and word from some of the people who knew him back then, well, they said Quincy took a special interest in you.”

“A special interest,” she repeated, disgust sharp in her voice, “in a seventeen year old girl.”

He stepped even closer to her. She didn’t like it. Fear rose within her. Because this agent—he could destroy her life. She knew it. He was staring at her with speculation in his eyes, and the guy could probably smell the blood trail that led straight to her.

“I can be an enemy,” Victor told her. “Or I can be a friend. It all depends on you.”

She shook her head. “What are you asking? For me to make some kind of deal with you?”

“You don’t strike me as the killing type,” Victor told her.

Then you don’t know me very well.

“But if you know who did kill Quincy Atkins, if you know what happened…your life could be in danger. I can help you. The FBI can protect you. We can—”

You can move the hell away from her, asshole.

Carly’s breath heaved out at that low, deadly command. A command that had come from Ethan. Her gaze shot to the left, and he was there, glaring at the FBI agent and his golden gaze seemed to burn with fury.

Two things were clear to her in that moment. One, Ethan had kept following her. So that meant he’d probably been close and overheard her whole conversation with the FBI guy.

And two, the FBI agent—he didn’t look surprised at all to see Ethan standing a few feet away. In fact, Victor turned to look at Ethan and said, “And the predators are already closing in…See, Ms. Shay, I told you that you’d be hunted.”

Ethan smiled, a chilling sight. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of a formal introduction, and I don’t really fucking want one. What I want is for you to step away from my fiancée.”

His what now?

“And I want you to go back to whatever government hole you crawled out of. Carly doesn’t concern you, and you need to stay away from her.”

She could practically feel the tension rolling off the agent. His gaze cut to her, and the smile he gave her was obviously forced. “You’re going to need a friend soon.” Victor handed her a card and forced her fingers to curl around it. “When you realize just how much danger you’re in, call me.” Then he leaned in toward her and said, “Because the last thing that you want to do…that’s trust him. Ethan Barclay is a threat to you, and if you’re as smart as I’ve been led to believe, you’ll realize that. And you’ll come to me as fast as you can.”

“She doesn’t like it when strangers touch her.” Ethan was just a step away now. “So either get your hand off her, or I will be removing it.”

The agent’s hand slid away from hers. He nodded to Carly and said, “I hope I hear from you soon.” Then he was gone. Heading down the street with a confident, determined stride.

She still held his card in her hand. And Ethan— “Fiancée?” she murmured.

“It sounded good to me.”

It sounded terrifying to her.

“Let’s go inside, baby,” he told her gruffly. “Because we have seriously got to talk.”

The last thing you want to do…that’s trust him.

Oh, hell.

***

She was afraid of him. Not surprising, really. Ethan knew that most people were afraid of him, and with good reason. He didn’t make for a good enemy. In fact, becoming his enemy was usually a fatal mistake.

Carly’s hands were shaking as she shut her door and secured the lock. He was inside, she’d let him in without another argument, and his gaze slid around her home. It was odd. He knew Carly had been living there for about six months, but there weren’t a lot of personal touches in the place. It still had that “decorator” look, as if Carly didn’t want to change anything that had been there before.

Carly had once loved bright colors. Bold art. She’d laughed freely and danced—

He cut off that thought. Hard. Because he’d once seen her dance when he should not have seen that show. When no one should have seen it.

“The FBI knows that I—”

He lunged toward her and in one, fast move, he had his hand over her mouth. Her soft lips pressed against his palm even as her blue eyes flared wide with fear. I hate for her to fear me. Fear was good, as long as that fear came from anyone but her. Ethan brought his mouth close to her right ear and whispered, “The FBI was waiting outside of your building. I don’t trust those guys.” Not when he knew how badly they wanted to nail his ass to the wall. “There could be a listening device in here.” The whole place could be wired. So the last thing he wanted her to do…“No confessions, baby,” Ethan ordered, his voice a bare breath of sound.

She gave a slow nod.

His hand fell from her lips. Her scent—sweet and sexy and all Carly—wrapped around him. He knew he should step back, but he didn’t. He kept her pinned there, trapped between his body and the door, and Ethan thought about all the mistakes he’d made in his life.

The biggest one? Letting her go.

I won’t do that again.

“You should pack a bag and come with me. I have a suite in town. We can talk there.” Talk, fuck, whatever she wanted.

She wasn’t seventeen anymore.

Two consenting adults—and he’d never wanted anyone more than he wanted her.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Carly said.

Pity. But he hadn’t expected things with her to be easy. He had a whole lot of ground to make up.

“That agent—Victor—he just said I was being hunted—why? Why would anyone want to hunt me? How does anyone even know about my connection to Quincy?”

She wasn’t getting the whole listening device bit. Sighing, Ethan caught her wrist in his hand and he said, “Come with me.”

Then he pulled her down the hallway and opened the door on the right. He headed into her bathroom and shut the door behind them.

“What are you doing?” Now her voice had cracked a bit. “Why are we in the bathroom? How did you even know this was my bathroom?”

Because I own the building. I also own the company you work for, baby. But he didn’t tell her that, not yet.

He was coming across stalkerish enough without that big reveal.

“You’d better not start stripping,” Carly told him, voice sharp. “’Cause I don’t know what you think is happening here, but—”

He put a finger over her lips. She blinked up at him.

Sadly, no stripping will happen.

When she fell into silence, he reached for the faucet. He cranked the water on and let it run full-blast into the shower. For a moment, he stared at that rushing water. Oh, but he could imagine stripping and being naked in that shower with Carly. The water would pour over her skin and he’d lick every single inch of her.

“Ethan! Seriously, what the hell are you doing?”

He shook his head and temporarily said goodbye to that fantasy. “I’m giving us some sound cover. If there are listening devices, they won’t hear us, not over the shower.” But he had to get in real close while he talked to her. She’d pressed her back against the door, and he put his hand up against the wood, leaning in toward to her. He hated the way she tensed when he was near. It was like she sensed just how close he truly was to jumping her.

“Oh…so we’re not here for…oh.

His brows rose. “If you want to strip with me, hell, yes, I’m game.”

Her lips pressed together.

“I’m always game for you,” he added, just so there would be no doubt on that point.

He saw the small movement of her throat as she swallowed. Her lashes lowered, concealing her gaze. “You forgot me for years. Now you’re back. An FBI agent is on my doorstep and—”

He caught her chin in his left hand. “Look at me.”

Her lashes lifted.

“Many things happened over the years, but forgetting you? That wasn’t one of them. I never forgot you.” She didn’t get it, and probably never would. When he’d watched her walk out of his life—that had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. Because he’d already seen the danger in her…he’d known that Carly Shay could wreck him. Could own him.

And he’d known that he would break any law to have her.

Seventeen.

Hell, yes, he’d had to send her away. She’d deserved a life. A good one.

Not some criminal bastard like him.

Then she came back. And all hell has broken loose.

“You don’t need to lie to me,” Carly snapped. “You’ve had so many lovers—I barely registered on your radar. I didn’t even—”

Now she was pissing him off. So he leaned in even closer. “Yeah, I’ve had lovers. Plenty of them. And you know what? They weren’t you. You think I didn’t try like hell to get you out of my system? The shit I feel for you isn’t healthy or safe, but it’s there, and it’s consumed me for years. So don’t tell me that I forgot you.” He shook his head. “Never have, never would.”

For an instant, he could have sworn that pain flickered in her gaze, and his own chest burned then because the last thing he ever wanted was to hurt her. He knew she deserved someone a hell of a lot better than him, and he’d tried to play the noble card, even though that wasn’t his style. But she’d…hell, she’d killed to keep him safe. When someone did that, you owed the woman.

More than can be repaid.

But he was trying, dammit.

“Daniel Duvato.” Just saying the name pissed him off. “Remember my psycho ex-bodyguard?” Actually, the guy had been his friend—fucking family. And he’d been a cold-blooded killer. Daniel had gone after anyone that he thought Ethan had cared about. So it’s a good thing I made sure you were far away from me. Because he would have killed you, and I would have gone insane. “When he was arrested, he wanted to make a deal with the cops. He was spouting BS and talking to anyone who would listen.” He heaved out a long sigh. “And one of the things he was talking about so freaking much? You, me, and Quincy Atkins.” He paused and had to say, “You know he had a video of that crime.”

She paled. “A video you destroyed.”

Yes, he had. Once he’d found out about the damn thing. By that point, the damage had been done. Daniel, I hope you are roasting in hell right now. He’d trusted the guy, and all along, Daniel had wanted to destroy him.

Daniel had said that he’d helped clean up the Quincy crime scene. Instead, he’d taken the security footage and kept it, waiting for the perfect moment to use that in his war against Ethan.

The war is over, asshole. You’re dead. I’m still alive.

“You…you did destroy the video, right, Ethan?” Her voice shook.

“Yeah, baby, I did.” But he had to be honest with her. “I found out that Daniel got word to the FBI. He wanted to talk to them about Quincy’s disappearance. Lucky for us, Daniel is dead now.” Not even by Ethan’s hands. “So he can’t tell the FBI anything else, but he sure made folks curious about what he knew.”

Like the FBI jerk who’d been outside. That guy had sure closed in fast. As soon as Ethan had learned of the FBI’s new interest in Quincy Atkins, he’d started working to get a new safe place set up for Carly.

“Maybe I should tell the FBI agent the truth,” she said.

What? Ethan shook his head, sure that he’d misheard her.

“I won’t talk about you.” Her shoulders sagged a bit. “I’ll confess that Quincy kidnapped me. I got loose. We fought. And the knife—it went into his chest.”

She was still trying to protect him. After all those years? How could he not be insane for her? “No. That’s not going to happen. The FBI isn’t dragging you down.”

“But—”

“I’ll handle the FBI. And you…” Damn but it was so hard to be this close to her and not kiss her. Her lips were right there. Inches from his. Full and plump and perfect. But when he kissed her, he pretty much ignited.

Beautiful Carly. She’d grown to be even more gorgeous over the years. Her wild child look was gone…no more short shorts and loose t-shirts. Now she was all sleek elegance. Perfectly cut clothes—a fancy blouse made of silk and a pencil skirt that fell just above her knees. Her hair—now shot with red highlights—was pulled back in a slick ponytail, and that style just accentuated her almond-shaped eyes. Big, dark blue eyes. A faint sprinkling of freckles slid across her nose, and he found that little sprinkle freaking delectable.

“What about me?” Carly demanded.

She wasn’t going to like this part. “I think you should start packing.” He’d originally hoped to follow her to New York and do something incredibly normal…like ask the woman out on a date. But with the FBI closing in, hell, no, that wasn’t a good sign. The FBI would come first, and other—more undesirable bastards—would follow in their wake. There were plenty of people out there who would like to know what had happened to Quincy Atkins, and those people wouldn’t hesitate to hurt Carly in order to discover the truth.

Ethan had no intention of allowing her to be hurt. He didn’t want her skin so much as fucking bruised.

“Packing?” She blinked at him, then gave a ragged laugh. “You’re crazy.”

“Perhaps. Probably.” He shrugged, not overly concerned with that bit. “But I’m still going to need you to get your bag ready. Everything you want to take with you. Feel free to leave unnecessary shit behind. I’ll buy you new stuff and you can—”

“No.” Her hands came up and shoved against his chest. He took a step back, mostly because he’d been caught off-guard by the force of her shove. “I’m not leaving,” Carly said adamantly. “Forget that. I have a life here.”

“A life that could end if you aren’t careful.” A life that would be destroyed if she talked to the FBI.

Her chin notched up. “Maybe I’m tired of running from the past.”

“Too bad. Because the past isn’t dead. You aren’t safe, and that’s on me. I’m the one who attracted attention to you when I wouldn’t leave your bedside. I’m the one who put you in the crosshairs, so now I’m the one who will keep you safe.”

She licked her lips. Rather helplessly, his gaze followed that sensual movement and—

“Get out, Ethan.”

He shook his head.

“Out,” Carly enunciated slowly. “Out of my home. Out of my life. You aren’t doing this to me. You aren’t going to appear and—and take me away. This isn’t happening.”

Yes, it was. He’d wanted to ease her into the situation, but the FBI had moved too fast.

“I like things here. I’m safe.” She heaved out a hard sigh. “I need that safety. Being with you—you aren’t safe, Ethan.

No, he wasn’t.

“I need to think, so I want you gone.”

“We both need to go,” he said, fighting to keep the emotion from his voice. He didn’t want to force her to leave, didn’t want to reveal just how much he’d already been in her life, but…I can’t risk her.

“I’m not leaving. I-I can’t.” She slid a hand over her face, and he noticed the tremble in her fingers. Hell, she was still recovering from the gunshots. She needed to be sleeping right then, not dealing with this mess. “I want you to walk away from me, Ethan. Just like you did before. If the FBI comes at me, I’ll—”

“Don’t tell them the truth.” Because that would be another nightmare.

Her hand fell. “I’ll handle them, and I won’t incriminate you, okay? If that’s what you’re so worried about, just relax.”

“I’m worried about you.” Why couldn’t she see that?

She slid around him, no longer meeting his stare, and she turned off the storm of water. “Leave now, Ethan.”

Hell. “This is a huge mistake.”

“Then it’s my mistake to make.”

He didn’t move. He couldn’t. “You’re going to need me.”

“I haven’t needed you in years.”

At those words, he flinched.

“You have a way of wrecking my world, Ethan,” she said softly. “I don’t want that anymore.”

Every muscle in his body had turned to stone. “You mean…you don’t want me.”

She didn’t speak.

Fuck. He’d waited too long with her. But sometimes, you didn’t realize just what the hell you had…until you saw her bleeding out in the back of an ambulance. I can’t lose her. “When you get scared,” his voice was gruff, “when you think the world is going to pieces around you, I’ll be there. I can help you. I will help you.”

Her solemn gaze finally rose to meet his.

“Don’t forget that.” And, because he couldn’t help it, because he had to taste her before he walked away, Ethan closed the distance between them. His head lowered toward her, the movement slow, giving her the chance to back away.

She didn’t. Her hands rose to his chest once more. Would she push him away? Shove him again?

She didn’t.

“Ethan…” There was desire in her voice. A need. He understood—they both felt that physical connection, one that nothing could ever seem to sever. “You are so wrong for me,” she said.

And she was the only right thing in his world.

His lips brushed over hers. Slowly. Carefully. He savored her. Tasted her just enough…just enough to make him want so much more.

Then her mouth parted. Her tongue slid out and licked against his lower lip. That sensual touch went straight through his body, and his cock—already eager for her—jerked up even more. He took the kiss deeper. Made it harder as he tasted her—as he thrust his tongue into her mouth and thought of all the things he wanted to do with her.

To her.

If he’d been a better man, he never would have gone back into her life.

But…fuck that. Screw being good.

Ethan’s head lifted. “I’ll be close, when you need me.”

Then, before he could change his mind, before he could give in to the temptation to strip her right there, Ethan turned and walked away. He kept walking, until he was outside of her place. He paused on the front steps, glaring into the approaching night, his hands clenched at his sides.

It was easy enough to see the non-descript van parked at the curb. The FBI—so predictable. They’d be watching Carly for the night. So she’d be safe enough.

He’d give her this night. Long enough to realize that she needed him.

Then he’d have to take her away from the life she’d built. Because there was no choice. Not for either of them.

***

He wasn’t the first one to find the target. Watching from the shadows, he saw Ethan Barclay stalk out of the building, anger evident in every line of his body as he paused to glare at the van on the corner.

FBI agents were in that van.

Well, well…so the gossip he’d learned had been true. The woman called Carly Shay was an important piece in the puzzle—the puzzle that was the disappearance of Quincy Atkins.

He’d been trying to solve that mystery for years. A man like Quincy didn’t just vanish, not without plenty of help.

As Ethan marched away, he settled back into the shadows. He knew the right time to approach his prey. And he also knew the right time to wait.

The FBI wouldn’t be around forever. Carly Shay wouldn’t always have a guard. The minute she was vulnerable…

Then it will be my turn for a little one-on-one time with Carly…