I swirl my fingertips over his biceps, down his forearms. “You don’t have any tattoos,” I realize.
“Is that weird?” he asks, looking puzzled.
“No, I just… I guess I assumed you’d have one. My brothers all do,” I add. “I figured it was the macho thing.”
Ryland shrugs. “I never wanted one. Something that permanent… It means you can’t ever escape the past.”
Understanding washes over me. I move my hand to rest over his heart, feeling the steady beat. A heart that’s seen so much pain and guilt. A heart that somehow has weathered the storm and remains strong and true.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” I murmur. “Someone pretty smart told me that.”
Ryland cracks a grin. “Sounds it.” He slides a hand down my back, over the curve of my hip and lands a light tap on my ass. “A man like that, you want to pay attention to.”
“I plan on it,” I tease, snuggling closer. Tiredness sweeps through me, a sweet weight to my limbs. I can feel him breathing, a steady rise and fall of his chest. The rhythm soothes me, and I drift for a moment in the safe warmth of his embrace.
A door slams down the hallway.
I sit up with a jolt. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” Ryland yawns. “Come back here.” He tugs me down, and I go, melting back against him. I must be imagining things. Then a distant voice calls my name.
We both freeze. My blood runs cold. I recognize that voice.
“My brother!” I hiss. “Quick!”
I leap up, scrambling to pull my dress on again as Ryland dives for his pants. It’s a fumble of shirt buttons and belt buckles, but by the time footsteps sound outside and the door swings open, we’re dressed again.
“Hey!” I exclaim brightly, moving to sweep Blake into a hug. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were coming!”
His blue eyes move past me to where Ryland is trying to look casual, sitting on the couch. Blake looks back at me. “Uh, sorry. Is this a bad time?”
I smooth my hair down, certain that what we’ve been doing is written all over my face. “No, of course not. It’s great to see you!” I turn Blake and push him back out into the hall. “I thought you were filming, that’s all!”
I turn back to Ryland and gesture frantically. His zipper is undone.
“I had a couple of days off, so I figured I’d come see you.”
We head back out into the living room, where Blake has left a duffel bag. My heart-rate is returning to normal now, but I cringe to think what would have happened if Blake had arrived a couple of minutes earlier.
By the wry look of amusement on his face, Blake realizes it too. “So, I’m guessing that’s Ryland?” he asks. “He seems…out of breath.”
I shove him, my cheeks burning up with embarrassment. “Don’t!”
“Just tell me you’re being careful,” he adds, smirking.
“I said, shut up!”
I’m mortified by his jokes, but I’m just glad it’s Blake here. Dex would have punched Ryland the minute he walked in, and Ash… Well, my eldest brother would probably be putting the fear of god into the both of us right about now.
Blake, at least, sees the funny side.
“Sorry to crash the party, kid.” He pulls me into an affectionate hug. “But after Zoey called—”
“I’m fine!” I protest quickly.
“I know,” he soothes me. “Did you ever think for a second I was the one who needed the break?”
I pause for a moment, looking at him closer. His usually magazine-ready face looks tired and drawn, and his thousand-watt charisma is barely a dull flicker.
He shrugs. “The usual. My agent fighting with my manager fighting with the studio head. Everyone’s got a big idea about what project I should be doing next. They all swear I’m about to break the big time, and this next movie is critical.”
“Poor little movie star,” I tease, but I give him another hug, just so he knows I’m kidding.
There’s a cough behind us. Ryland has emerged—his fly zippered shut—with a sheepish look on his face. He extends a hand to Blake.
“Ryland James, good to meet you.”
Blake shakes back. “You too. Sorry to show up unannounced.”
“It’s, uh, no problem.”
I’ve never seen Ryland look so awkward, but then again, he did nearly get caught with the guy’s little sister in a very, very compromising position.
I’ll have to make sure there’s a lock on the door next time.
“I should head out,” Ryland tells me.
“Take the Mustang,” I pass him the keys from the hall table.
Blake whistles. “You trust him with Dolly? It must be serious. She threatened to kick my ass all over town when I borrowed that thing last year,” he adds to Ryland.
“Ryland just spent weeks fixing it,” I tell Blake. “He knows to drive careful.”
Blake chuckles. “That was a threat,” he says, still talking to Ryland. “In case you didn’t know that tone yet.”
“I’m learning,” Ryland looks relieved Blake is being so friendly, but I’m not fooled. Blake may seem easy-going on the surface, but you still don’t want to mess with him.
“I’ll show you out,” I interrupt quickly, before either of the men in the room can start throwing punches. I slip my arm through Ryland’s and steer him to the front door.