All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel) (6 page)

BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
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But the second his hands made contact, she went completely rigid, snatching herself backward as she jerked into an impenetrable
ball.
“Whoa! Hey, hey, it’s me. Brennan,” he corrected, his heartbeat ratcheting higher. What the hell would make her react like that? “I want to help you. Just let me see if you’re hurt.”
“Oh.” Ava blinked, her green eyes going wide, but then realization washed over her face as she clumsily pushed herself up to sitting. “No, no, I’m . . . ow.”
“Did you hit your head at all?” he asked, fingers
itching to travel over her in search of injuries, but she seemed spooked, so he settled for letting his eyes do the job. She was alert and reactive, although clearly rattled, and Brennan revisited the urge to introduce his fist to Trotter’s smug-bastard face.
“No. I don’t think so, anyway. I’m fine.” One hand fluttered up to the center of her blouse, accompanied by a sigh of pain as she struggled
to get her feet beneath her. But looking okay and being okay weren’t always the same beast, especially if she might’ve also hit her head. There were half a dozen injuries that could be lurking beneath her “fine” exterior.
“Do you feel short of breath or dizzy?” Brennan palmed her shoulder to get a better visual on her eyes, and jeez, he felt her trembling all the way down his arm.
“No.” She
aimed the word at her lap, but it came through loud and clear. “Really, I just want to get up.”
The request came at the same time Teagan arrived at Ava’s side, her eyes doing the exact same tour for injuries as Brennan’s had not twenty seconds before.
“Hey, Ava. I’m a paramedic. I want to take a look at you, just to see what’s what, okay?”
Ava’s cheeks went from pale to pink in less than
a second. “I promise, I’m fine.” She shifted to an awkward stand, but rather than stepping back to give her space, Brennan slid his shoulder under Ava’s arm to help steady her feet beneath her.
“No LOC, no visible injuries, breathing seems okay, but the jackass popped her pretty hard in the sternum before she fell and she might’ve hit her head on the way down,” he told Teagan, already guiding
Ava toward the pass-through to the kitchen.
Teagan’s brows shot skyward, but she kept up with him, stride for stride. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go up to the office so I can do a quick RTA.”
Brennan nodded in a single lift of his chin. “Couch’ll work.” It would be a hell of a lot more comfortable to do a rapid trauma assessment there than on the floorboards in the dining room.
Ava huffed
out a breath of protest. “I don’t need a . . . whatever that is. Seriously, I just got knocked down. It’s no big deal.”
“I know,” Teagan agreed, cutting off both Ava’s argument and the protest Brennan was brewing to fight it. “An RTA is just an assessment, that’s all. I want to take a quick look at your head and the spot where you got hit to make sure your ribs aren’t bruised. It’s strictly
precautionary, but it’ll make me feel better. Please?”
“Oh.” Ava’s breath fluttered against his side as he guided her up the stairs leading to the Double Shot’s office, one step at a time. “Well, if you put it that way . . .”
Relief pulsed through Brennan’s veins. Although both her tone and her expression had gotten exponentially tougher with each passing second, Ava was still shaking like
crazy.
Shit. Maybe that was him.
“Okay, here we go.” Teagan’s voice threaded past his realization, and Brennan lowered Ava to the bright orange couch cushions. He sucked down a breath, then another as Teagan placed her hands on the crown of Ava’s head and started to work her way downward. Taking in Teagan’s movements and Ava’s ensuing responses with care, Brennan mentally checked off each
step in the process, letting the precise order calm him further.
At least until Teagan’s hands coasted over the spot where Ava’s pale skin met the green silk of her shirt and Ava jumped about a mile off the couch.
“Sorry,” she murmured, her black hair spilling over her eyes as she dropped her chin toward Teagan’s frozen hands.
“No problem. Can you rate that pain on a scale of one to ten?”
“Oh, um. Not bad. Maybe a two?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?” Teagan slid her glance from Ava’s rib cage to her face, but Ava shook her head, suddenly resolute.
“It’s a two.”
“Okay,” Teagan said. She continued even though her expression said she wasn’t buying Ava’s assertion, and hell if that didn’t make two of them. But Ava sat statue-still, with her hands on the knees of her black
dress pants and her eyes locked forward as Teagan asked her a few more standard-issue questions and took a look at the bruise already blooming at the open neck of her blouse.
“You’re going to have one hell of a tender spot on your chest for a few days, but other than that, I think you’re okay.” Teagan stood, taking a few steps to the small refrigerator tucked away by the desk to grab a bottle
of water for Ava. “Driving after you’ve been rattled up probably isn’t the best idea, though. Is there anyone we can call for you?”
All the color that had returned to her cheeks disappeared, and Ava took a long sip of water before answering. “No, thank you. I’m grateful for your concern, but really, I’m not rattled up. I feel fine.”
“Hmm.” Teagan ran her palms down the front of her jeans,
flipping a glance at Brennan that broadcast her displeasure. “Why don’t you take a few minutes to just camp out here and relax, then? Brennan, can I see you in the hall for a second?”
Murmuring a quick “be right back” to Ava, Brennan followed Teagan to the narrow space in front of the Double Shot’s office. He knew Teagan well enough that he could already hear her protest about Ava driving herself
home.
So it was a complete and total potshot to his gut when she crossed her arms over her white T-shirt and said, “Would you like to tell me how you know what an RTA even is, let alone all the other medical procedures that go with trauma assessment?”
“Uh,” came the only answer Brennan could readily grab. Shit.
Shit
. Of course Teagan would’ve noticed his instinctive reaction. She’d been just
as well trained to notice details as he had, and he’d been too firmly ensconced in go mode to cloak his response to Ava’s injury or his default terminology afterward. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”
Teagan surveyed his face, her gaze sliding to the gently closed office door before she finally shook her head. “Damn, Brennan. You’ve got a lot of secrets, don’t you?”
At least he had her here.
“No. I’ve got a lot of shit in my past that’s going to stay there.”
“If you say so. Look, I can respect that you want certain things in your rearview. But one of them damn near got seriously hurt in my restaurant tonight. I may not know the details, but between this fire at Joe’s, the roomful of reporters downstairs, and the woman sitting behind that door, it looks like your past is coming for
you whether you like it or not.”
Brennan silently bit out every curse word in the book. Seeing Ava again might sting, but he could manage that well enough.
The rest of his past was a different story. He’d barely lived through it the first time, and he’d been the lucky one. No way was he letting what had happened that night—and everything that followed—back under his skin.
He wouldn’t survive
it twice.
“I’m straight, Teagan. A scuffle like this won’t come back into the bar again,” Brennan promised, clenching his fists hard enough to make his knuckles throb.
“It’s not the bar I’m worried about,” she said, her tone softening. “Now do me a favor and take care of Ava, would you? I meant it when I said she’ll be fine, but if she thinks she’s driving herself home after taking a slap-shot
to the chest like that, she’s out of her mind.”
Brennan nodded, and Teagan gave his forearm a comforting squeeze before heading downstairs to deal with the crowd. He stood in the hallway, digging for a solution and coming up woefully short.
Teagan was right. His past was coming back to haunt him. Only this time, he could control it. He
would
control it.
There was no alternative.
Palming
the handle to the office door, Brennan moved back inside the comfortably cluttered space. Ava sat against the bright cushions, watching carefully as he parked himself on the other end of the couch.
“Hey. How are you doing?” Zero points for originality, but Brennan really did want to know, and anyway, he couldn’t exactly avoid being a point-A-to-point-B kind of guy.
“Fine.” Ava slumped against
the back of the couch just a little too much for the sentiment to stick, and something twisted deep in Brennan’s chest.
“Yeah. I know that feeling.”
“Really?” One dark eyebrow went up. “You’ve been knocked flat on your ass in front of all your colleagues recently?”
A puff of humorless laughter escaped his lips. “In a manner of speaking. If it makes you feel any better, I’m certain Adrian
wasn’t gentle about showing Trotter the door.”
“I’m sure I’ll go to hell for this, but it kind of does. Guys like Mike Trotter make the rest of us look bad.” She paused, her tiny smile fading as she ghosted her fingers over the front of her shirt. “Anyway, I know you’re busy. I don’t want to keep you.”
Brennan’s heart took a swipe at his rib cage, but damn it, he really had no choice. Tonight
had come within inches of wrecking him, and things were only getting worse every time he said
no comment
.
These reporters weren’t going to leave until he gave them a damn good reason to go, and that reason was sitting right in front of him.
“I thought you wanted a story.”
Ava’s eyes went perfectly round. “I thought you didn’t want to tell it.”
Understatement of the freaking century. “Considering
what just happened downstairs, it doesn’t look like I get much say. If I give you the story, the rest of those reporters will go away, right?”
“It depends,” Ava said, and he had to hand it to her. She was treading just as carefully as he was. “Reporters won’t infringe on each other under certain circumstances. If you really want them to back off, you’d have to offer me the story as an exclusive.”
“You’d have to make me a few promises,” Brennan countered. The resulting flash of steel-tipped determination in her eyes jabbed at his resolve, but he turned toward her in an effort to hammer the words into place. “They’re not negotiable.”
“Such as?”
“I’ll tell you—and only you—what happened the other day at Joe’s. But no printing the boy’s name, no sensationalizing what really happened,
and absolutely no questions about anything occurring before this week. This story is the only one on the table. Take it or leave it.”
She slid forward, close enough for their knees to touch. “Agreed on the boy’s name. As far as the rescue at the grocery store goes, the truth is already pretty sensational. I won’t downplay that just to please you, but I won’t turn it into the script for an action
film, either. And regarding events occurring before this week . . . no guarantees.”
Holy hell, she’d gotten tougher over the last seven years. And holy hell in a hand basket, it was sexy enough to ruin him right here on the couch. “I mean it, Ava. I’ll tell you everything that happened at Joe’s. But no questions about anything other than the fire.”
“I mean it too, Nick. I want the story, but
I won’t lie to you about what an exclusive like this entails. I can’t promise I’ll limit my questions to just the events of the other day, or that I won’t press you to answer all the questions that pertain to the story. If past events are part of it, they’re fair game.”
Their conversation from earlier tonight streamed through his mind, stomping on his composure in one fluid stroke. A white hot
thread of uncut intensity surged up from his chest, barging out of his mouth before he could hook it back.
“Fine. You want the past on the table? We’ll trade. I’ll give you the exclusive, with free rein to print whatever you can find, both past and present. But if I’m dishing up a story, then so are you.”
The slender ridge of her shoulders locked into place as she whispered, “What do you mean?”
But Brennan didn’t budge. Damn it, after seven years, she could still wreck his composure with one sweet and sexy smile. As much as he hated it, he needed to know why she’d left, if only to finally move on, and the same sharp desire that had pressed the words out of his mouth earlier whipped back tenfold. “If you want me to talk, you’re going to have to go first. I want to know what happened
seven years ago to put you on that ferry off Sapphire Island. I want to know why you left without a good-bye.”
Unlike before, Ava didn’t even flinch. “If I tell you, will you give me the story on the fire?”
He nodded, certain this was insane. But Christ, he wanted the other reporters gone, he wanted the truth—hell, seeing how headstrong and serious and totally fucking gorgeous she looked sitting
there across from him, he wanted
Ava
too much to care. “I’ll give you the only story I’ve got, which is the one from this week. If you want anything else, that’s going to be up to you to find.”
“Done,” she said, without even flinching. “When do you want to start?”
Brennan stood to grab his jacket from the hook by the office door, equally unflinching even though his pulse was on mile twenty-three
of an emotional marathon.
“Well, since Teagan’s insistent you get a ride home and I get a break from the bar, I’d say there’s no time like the present.”
Chapter Six
“Okay, Mancuso. You can do this.”
Ava repeated the whisper over and over, letting it melt in with her breath as she stood in the tiled alcove by the Double Shot’s back door. The bruise on her chest was already throbbing in time with her rapid-fire heartbeat beneath it, but the deep-seated ache was the least of her worries. As if being manhandled in front of half the town hadn’t
been mortifying enough, Ava had been so stunned at the long-buried sensation of being knocked to the ground that she’d wheeled away from Nick’s touch as if he’d been on fire.
And now she was going to have to explain everything
else
she’d buried seven years ago in order to get the story that would save her career. God, what had she been thinking when she’d slapped out that impulsive, ridiculous
done
in response to Nick’s crazy offer? It was bad enough that they had a romantic past—one she had artfully kept hidden from her boss. But now Ava had to trot out said past like a show pony on parade day, all while staying one million percent calm, cool, and professional, because news flash! Brennan wasn’t just her sexy, brooding ex-boyfriend. Now he was her source.
Come on, girl. It’s time
to toughen up and do your job.
“Hey.” Nick appeared in the door frame of the pass-through between the now-closed kitchen and the bar, the rush of voices and music and bottles clinking together growing muffled as the swinging door
thunked
shut behind him. “Annabelle grabbed your stuff when we took you upstairs. Everything should be right here.”
Ava let out a breath of relief at the sight of
her black swing coat and her oversized work tote. “That was nice of her,” she said, trying to cage her wince at the streak of pain shooting outward from her sternum as she reached for both items.
The dark flicker in Brennan’s eyes told her he’d seen it anyway. He looped her bag over a hook by the alcove, holding up her coat to guide it over her shoulders. “She said she hopes you feel better.”
“Thanks, but honestly, I’m fine.” Ava slid her arms into the soft wool, a slight shiver taking over for the ache in her chest at the warmth of his breath on the back of her neck. She forced her fingers over the smooth, silver buttons, waiting until Nick was busy shrugging into his own jacket before lifting her bag from the hook.
“That’s pretty heavy.” A frown dipped at the corners of his mouth
as he sent a pointed look from her bulky bag to the center of her rib cage. He took a step toward her in the hushed space at the back of the kitchen, cutting the distance between them to less than an arm’s length.
“I’m used to it,” she said, tipping her shoulder into a shrug before her torso reminded her in no uncertain terms that using any muscles even vaguely attached to her breastbone was
a shitastic idea.
Nick took another step, close enough for her to see the unyielding set of his jaw beneath his shadowy stubble. “Not today.”
He slipped the strap from her shoulder with careful precision, the movement surprisingly gentle considering his obvious determination. Testing the weight of the bag with one arm, he ushered her to the door with the other, and despite her distaste for
being babied, realization settled deep in Ava’s belly.
Beneath the gruff exterior he’d gained over the last seven years, Nick was a good guy. Damn it, as emotionally hairy as this little sharing session had the potential to be, she
could
do it. Yes, she hated the reasons she’d left Sapphire Island, and airing out her past was right up there with back-to-back root canals on her list of
yes, please
. But seven years ago, she’d been too young and too afraid to realize what she couldn’t avoid now.
As much as she hated those reasons and how vulnerable they made her, Nick deserved to know the truth. Regardless of whether or not he gave her a story, Ava had cared about him.
Even when she’d gotten on that ferry.
“I owe you an explanation about why I left Sapphire Island without saying good-bye,”
she said, falling into step next to him as they crossed the narrow stretch of asphalt along the side of the building. Brennan stopped a handful of paces away beside a silver SUV, his breath billowing around his face in the frigid night air.
“Okay,” he said, but his shoulders hitched upward beneath his black canvas jacket, negating the word.
“Nick?” Ava leaned forward, staring at him in the
silvery light spilling down from the overhead streetlamp. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I just . . . might’ve gotten a little impulsive upstairs. I don’t normally force information out of people. I promised to tell you what happened last week at Joe’s, and I will. But . . .” He trailed off, and all at once, the dots connected into a bigger picture.
He felt guilty asking her to return the favor.
“But nothing,” she said, the words soft even though her voice was firm. Digging into her past to explain why she’d left him was going to hurt, yes, but if her upbringing had taught her anything, it was how to be tough. It was past time for giving Nick answers. After all, she was asking him for honesty, and as vulnerable as the words would make her, Ava was strong enough to finally tell him the
truth in return.
“I agreed to tell you why I left seven years ago. And story or no story, you deserve to know.”
 
 
Brennan stood across from Ava with his heart in his throat and his libido on fire. She had that gleam in her eyes, the one that had earned her that old nickname in spades, and Christ, she was as determined as she was sexy.
Which meant that if he wanted to maintain any
semblance of control around her, Brennan was screwed six ways to Sunday.
After the initial push of adrenaline from making the deal had worn off, a thick layer of guilt had settled into its place. He might want to know what had made Ava leave seven years ago, but emotional extortion so wasn’t his thing—hell, emotional
anything
gave him a solid case of indigestion.
But now Ava
wanted
to talk
about their past, and that curveball alone was enough to shatter the composure he’d carefully reconstructed over the last twenty-four hours. That she was still fastening him with that bright green tell-all stare on top of it all? Yeah, those shattered pieces might as well be dust.
“You don’t owe me any answers,” Brennan said, partly because it was the truth and partly to buy a second to recalibrate,
but she was already shaking her head to cut him off.
“Actually, I do. But more than that, I owe you an apology. I meant it when I said there were complicated circumstances. But that still didn’t give me the right to leave without a good-bye.”
Ava’s voice canted lower over the last word, revealing just a sliver of the vulnerability beneath her fierce exterior, and it tugged at Brennan’s chest.
“Let’s get in the truck,” he said, sending a covert gaze around the sparsely lit side lot. He popped the locks on the Trailblazer, opening the passenger door for Ava before rounding to the driver’s side. He might be taking cautious to a new extreme, but considering how ballsy Mike Trotter had been back in the bar, Brennan wasn’t taking any chances of being overheard.
He started the engine,
fiddling with the keys as the heat kicked on. “I looked for you,” he admitted, his muscles pinching around his spine. God, his PT session three days ago with Kat had barely nicked the surface of the ache, but he dug past his old urges for numbness, letting the pain ground him. “I even went to Virginia Beach, but no one had ever heard of you in Uniondale.”
“That’s because I’m not from Uniondale,”
Ava said quietly. “Nadine is.”
“Your college roommate?” An image of the pixie-faced redhead whose parents ran the main restaurant at the Sapphire Island beach resort bubbled up in his memory. Nadine had insisted she hadn’t known where Ava had gone on the morning she’d disappeared, only that Ava had been fine but had to leave earlier than planned. But eight hours later, Brennan had rushed off
the island himself to try to find Ava, and with the summer over and his pride run through the shredder, he’d gone straight home to Fairview two days after that. “I don’t understand. Why would you say you were from Nadine’s hometown?”
“So I wouldn’t have to tell you I was from mine.”
Ava’s mouth flattened into a pale line, and even though questions rushed at his brain from damn near every direction
imaginable, Brennan bit them back so she could continue.
“I told you I’d had a happy upbringing in Uniondale, but I didn’t. My brother Pete and I were raised in subsidized housing in Philadelphia. Our parents are alcoholics, and to say they were unkind is a gift. They’re terrible people, and they specialized in doing terrible things.”
“Jesus, Ava.” His pulse thrummed with undiluted shock,
chased by a hard-edged realization that made his blood run cold despite the heat now pumping through the Trailblazer’s interior. “Wait. Is that why you were so jumpy after you got hurt tonight? Did your parents hit you?”
Her wince was so slight, he’d have missed it if he hadn’t been trained to pick up every last detail. “It was a long time ago.”
Anger ricocheted through Brennan’s rib cage,
his fingers cranking into tight fists in his lap. “Is that a yes?”
“I told you, they’re terrible people. I had Pete, and we did our best to keep our heads down and stick together, but there wasn’t always safety in numbers.”
Brennan opened his mouth to let loose a string of upper-level curse words—Christ, the thought of anyone putting their hands on her that way made him sick to his stomach—but
Ava pressed on, as if she wanted her words out as fast as possible.
“Everyone else on Sapphire Island came from such happy, well-off families, and I’d lived with other people’s pity my whole life. Just once, I wanted to fit in like everyone else, to finally leave that awful life behind for good. I’d been to Uniondale a few times during semester breaks, and it was easy enough to adopt it as my
hometown, so just for the summer, that’s what I did. I didn’t think it would ever be anything more than a small indiscretion to save a little face.”
Brennan forced himself to take a mental step back and focus, but with the images in his head and Ava’s tough defenses crumbling by the second, it was no easy task. “So Nadine knew?”
Ava nodded, a swath of dark hair tumbling forward to shield her
gaze. “She knew about my parents, yes, and she went along with me being from Uniondale. But she didn’t know that I went to my brother’s place in Philadelphia when I left Sapphire Island that morning.”
Although the parameters of their past were changing with each word, the memory of that day still jabbed at him, hard. “Why didn’t you tell her?”
Sadness infused the tiny smile on her lips. “Because
I knew you’d look for me, and that Nadine would be the first person you’d ask for help.”
Well, hell. She’d had him pegged there. Still . . . “You could’ve trusted me with the truth instead of running away.”
The frustration shot from Brennan’s mouth before he could water it down or haul it back. But damn it, they’d spent every waking—and sleeping—moment together for three months. Hadn’t that
meant anything to her?
“I know,” Ava said, stopping his aggravation in its tracks. “At least, I do now. But I didn’t run that summer because I didn’t trust you, Nick. I ran because I did.”
The words, her voice, his first name, all of it hit him like a sucker punch, and he stiffened against the driver’s seat. “What?”
“I was twenty-two years old, and had never trusted anyone in my life other
than my older brother. I didn’t mean to fall for you, but . . .” She broke off, clamping down on her lower lip hard enough to leave a tiny indent. “I did, and I was scared. It’s not an excuse, but it’s the truth. I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings I had for you, and I panicked.”
Recognition flared in the back of his mind, becoming brighter as it took hold and spread out. “So you
didn’t leave because you wanted to end things?”
“No. I left because I didn’t want to end things at all. I was just too afraid to tell you the truth about my parents, let alone face feelings I’d sworn I’d never have. It’s not like good relationships are in my wheelhouse.” Ava paused to give a humorless laugh. “I’m sure this all sounds ridiculous to you, coming from such a normal, loving family.
God, it even sounds crazy to me. But—”
“It doesn’t.”
The words dislodged themselves from the deepest part of Brennan’s chest, shocking him on the way out. He needed to get control of what he was saying, and he needed to do it right now. Yes, she’d just been honest with him, but no way could he tell Ava, who was about to interview him for a goddamned newspaper exclusive, that he knew exactly
what it felt like to push back on reality when it gave you a healthy shove. He knew what it meant to panic, to numb the ache with distraction while you fought all the demons that were supposed to dull the pain.
For the last two years, Brennan had known exactly what it felt like to run.
“Look, we were young,” he said, tamping down his unease. “I’m not going to say I wasn’t mad when you left,
or that I don’t wish you had told me all of this at the time. But we can’t change the past. The only thing we can control is the present.”
“That’s true.” Ava proceeded with caution, but the flash of emotion behind her gaze gave her away. “I don’t blame you for hating me.”
“I don’t hate you.” Brennan’s hand was halfway over the small console separating them before he could register the movement,
but at the last second, he pulled back, letting his arm fall short over the molded leather. She’d been so startled by his touch just an hour ago, and with what he knew now, maybe contact was a bad idea.
But rather than flinch at the movement, Ava lifted a dark brow over her steady gaze, turning toward him in her seat. “You pretty much told me in no uncertain terms to get out of the bar last
night,” she argued, and wait . . . was that a smile edging up the corners of her mouth?
BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
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