It’d been a long time since I’d seen her, and this new woman in front of me didn’t compute with the waifish girl I’d done my best to scare off.
“I couldn’t sleep.” She blinked with eyes too hooded to be innocent. She spoke with a voice too rich and feminine to belong to the annoying Hope Jacinta Murphy.
My hands curled, fighting away sick appreciation. For years, I hadn’t bothered mingling with anyone other than family. Back when I’d attended school, the girls showed off their newly formed bodies and flaunted their sexual preference. Their obvious flirting turned me off rather than on. They all seemed so desperate to impress, so eager for a connection that would end up destroying them.
Hope, meanwhile, was none of those things.
She was shy beneath strength. Quiet beneath conversation. And when she’d hugged me?
God, she’d shown me pain had multiple levels.
A hug from family could sear and sting.
But a hug from her?
It drew blood.
“It isn’t safe to wander around this late on your own.” My hands balled, my voice thickened, and I did my best to keep my eyes on her face because there was no way I could look at her body. No way I could permit myself to see the change in her, the growth, the knowledge that she might drive me to rage and disturb my carefully perfected world, but she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
Soft but sharp. Trusting but careful. Fragile but brave.
All the things that drew out the best and worst in me. I wanted to be kind, so she was happy. I wanted to be cruel, so she’d leave.
I didn’t have the strength to fight both instincts or convince myself I was content with being alone. My phobia of getting close to anyone ordered me to back up and point at Mom’s house. “Go back, Hope.”
She bit her lower lip, looking at where I pointed before capturing my stare again.
I didn’t stand a chance with the way she studied me. The same way she’d watched me as a child with a certainty and calmness that made me fidget and bristle. Only now, a deeper element was there too. A terrifying welcome. A petrifying invitation that had nothing to do with the years we’d danced around each other and everything to do with this new torturous existence.
“I don’t want to go back yet.” Her voice whispered through the grass, sounding part breeze, part shadow.
“What do you want?” My jaw clenched.
What the hell sort of question is that, and why did I ask it?
She cocked her head, hair tumbling, eyes searching. “To walk.” Taking a hesitant step toward me, she smiled softly. “Want to walk with me?”
“What I want is for you to get off my property.”
Her smile warmed instead of cooled. “Can I walk on it first? Then I’ll get off it.”
I couldn’t understand her. Was she joking with me? Teasing? Being plain exasperating? Crossing my arms, I raised my chin. “Walking it would take hours. It’s big.”