Make Me Listen

Always, Book 3

Cherie M Hudson

Chapter 1

“Lots of people talk to animals. Not very many listen though. That’s the problem.”

~ Benjamin Hoff

CHASE

Caden O’Dae could bite me.

Not literally of course. The proximity of the annoying Australian’s mouth to any area of my body was an essential part of the problem I faced.

No, he could bite me because, no matter how hard he tried, I refused to fall for him. It was not happening. Didn’t matter how cute he was, with his blue eyes, sexy Aussie accent, ridiculously endearing passionate need to care for wounded animals, beard that made me want to…

Wait. What? Where was I going with this?

Ah, that’s right. Me not falling for Caden or his shtick.

For one, I didn’t do the romance thing any more. I’d learned my lesson last year and frankly, it was a lesson learned well.

For another, I’m defective, and defective people like me don’t make for good “romantic” entanglements, no matter what the movies tell you (learned in part from that lesson I already mentioned).

So, yeah, there we go. Didn’t matter what Caden O’Dae did, me and him were not going to be happening.

Once you’ve had your heart ripped out and stomped on, once you’ve had your defect thrown in your face as the reason for the decimation of your heart and any Happy Ever After you’d planned, you know it’s just better to be that girl. You know the one? The prickly, stand-offish, sarcastic girl who never dates and spends her time scoffing at the ridiculousness of the world. I’m that girl, with the added bonus of being defective.

The thing is, I’m okay with the defective bit. I was born that way.

I overheard my father call me that when I was twelve. I’m using the term heard in an ironic way, of course, given the reason I’m faulty. I have profound sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear and moderate conductive hearing loss in the other. Or to put it more simply, I’m completely deaf in one ear and can hardly hear with the other. The “officially” recognized term is Hard of Hearing.

I was born with the profoundly deaf ear, thanks to a serious case of being premature and Mom being rushed into an emergency C-section that almost went horribly wrong. The almost-but-not-quite-working ear came about thanks to some nasty, nasty reoccurring ear infections as a result of being premature. Essentially, my pressing need to get into this world earlier than planned kind of fucked me over somewhat. Go figure.

Sometimes I wear a hearing aid in the ear that almost works, but it irritates the hell out of me, and frankly, the second people see it pity fills their eyes. Have you ever been looked at with pity? Yeah. Not fun.

My hearing, or lack thereof, also means I tend to tilt my head a little to the left when people talk, so that I can pick up their voices, even as I watch their lips move. I also get annoyed when people don’t look directly at me when they’re speaking, which—what with the hypnotizing power of cells phones and the seeming inability of the average person to exist for more than five seconds without looking at one—happens more often than you realize. We really are, as a species, becoming enslaved by the ubiquitous devices.

I’m amazing at reading lips. Amazing. I can also sign, and do so whenever I want to swear or tell my sister something I’d rather not share with the world when we’re with company, but I don’t rely on it for communication. Because the moment someone realizes you’re deaf, they treat you differently.

That sucks.

It’s never stopped me or slowed me down, my defect. It’s never really bothered me. Sure, going to the movies is a pain (it’s just too damn loud for me, which is also ironic when you think about it), and getting treated like I’m sub-human and intellectually deficient, or fragile and helpless, has a way of bringing out the bitch in me if I’m not careful, but it’s never stopped me from living the life I want to.

Most times, I should point out, I’m not careful. That helps deal with the people who treat me like I’m less than them. Keeps them at arm’s length. Keeps them wondering. Keeps them on guard. When people are on guard enough they tend to eventually move away from you.

I’m good with that.

Essentially, I don’t do people. I don’t do relationships. I definitely don’t do romance. Not any more. There’s nothing romantic about someone whispering sweet nothings in your ear when you can’t hear them. They get antsy when you don’t whisper something back. (I’m not good with whispering. Unfortunately, it’s a volume thing I’ve never gotten the hang of.)

The few times I tried to do romance when I was a teenager ended with the intended recipient of my affections giving up and finding themselves a date with someone who didn’t have to wear a hearing aid in one ear; who didn’t ask them to repeat themselves when they whispered said sweet nothings in said ear. Who didn’t get irritated in crowds and parties, and snarky with people trying to communicate with her when she couldn’t decipher what they were saying.

The one time I got really serious about romance, the only time I sincerely believed the person I was with loved me for everything I was, including the faulty hearing, ended up with me sobbing ugly tears in my closet and dropping out of college.

Apparently, dating me is hard and, according to Professor Douchebag, an inconvenience. Have you ever been told you’re an inconvenience, not just by a stranger who doesn’t like how long you’re taking to order your coffee at Starbucks, but by someone who you’ve given your heart to? Have you been told an integral part of what makes you you is an inconvenience? It freaking rips your emotions to shreds and makes you feel like shit. As a result, I stopped dating.

No dating. No falling in love. No decimated heart. It was a win-win for everyone concerned, right? I just needed Caden O’Dae to get with the program and stop being so … so…

Damn it.

Why had I agreed to pick him up from the airport again? I knew what he was going to do—see me through the crowd, grin, wave, weave his way toward me with an emotion in his eyes I didn’t want to acknowledge, even as my tummy tightened at the sight of it.

Every time I’d collected him from LAX to date, my tummy told me my body liked the way he looked, and the way he looked at me. Every time, I told my tummy to tell my body to get a grip. Every time, my body refused to comply.

Stupid body. Hadn’t it learned its lesson with Professor Douchebag? Apparently, I was as defective in the head as I was in the ears.

I didn’t need an annoying Australian making my life complicated with his sexy accent and smiling eyes and relaxed laugh that vibrated through me regardless of how little I could actually hear it. I didn’t. I didn’t need anyone. Not in that way.

I had my family, who I love beyond words. My mom (she of the witty sarcasm and addiction to running marathons) and dad (he of the over-protective coddle-swaddling and zero tact), my big sister Amanda (The best sister ever, even if she does like Coldplay) and her husband Brendon (The Wonder from Down Under, with a heart as big as his biceps, which is saying something), and my nephew Tanner.

Tanner is my world. A fighter to the nth degree, at the age of three Tanner has already fought and beaten leukemia, learned to say g’day like the half-Aussie he is, and spent more time in hospital and tolerating doctors and needles than any adult should, let alone a child.

But apart from those people, and a friend or two here and there, I don’t do human interaction. It’s easier. Less frustrating. Less exasperating.

Less … painful.

Caden, however, has refused to read my fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone vibes.

Didn’t matter how many times I ignored him, or rolled my eyes at him or swore at him (signing, of course—I figured if I sign at him enough he’ll do what everyone who’s not my immediate family do when I’m signing and get all uncomfortable and weird and just go away), he seemed hell-bent on not taking the hint.

Didn’t matter that the one time we almost kissed, I damn near sprinted from the room and pretended I was asleep in Tanner’s bed. Seriously, the guy can’t take a hint.

If it wasn’t for the fact he’s so freaking smart, I’d think he was stupid. He’s definitely not stupid. Stubborn, yes. Obstinate, yes. But stupid? No. You can’t be top of your class at college and be stupid.

Caden O’Dae is far from stupid. Caden is…

Jesus, why am I talking about him so much? I don’t want to talk about him. I’ve said my piece. I was not—repeat not—falling for him, no matter what he did.

I’m not talking about him anymore.

For now, let’s concentrate on me. (Hey, what twenty-two-year-old doesn’t want to do that, right?)

I’m a college dropout, something my university-professor father is horrified about. By the way, Professor Douchebag is not my dad, I should make that clear. Professor Douchebag is the reason I’m a college dropout, but no one apart from he and I know that.

Of course, Dad thought I’d dropped out to irritate him and I happily let him go with that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my father. I really do. He’s just … a perfect example of academic pretentiousness wrapped up in over-protective righteousness with a safety-harness of elitism attached for good measure.

So I’m a college dropout who’s deaf in one ear, partially deaf in the other, who drives a metallic purple Volvo station wagon with a neon green Chinese luck dragon painted along each side. My hair changes color regularly (it’s currently an awesome aqua-blue) and until last week I wore it in dreadlocks. Now it’s short. Short and aqua-blue.

I’ve got a tattoo of Buddha eating pizza just above my right butt cheek, but don’t tell Dad. I’m pretty certain I’d get kicked out of the house if he knew.

Currently, I’m working in a pet store that specializes in exotic animals, which isn’t anywhere near as exciting as it sounds. No matter what part of the world the animals come from, their poop still smells the same. Cleaning out the terrarium of an Australian bearded dragon is no different from cleaning out a terrarium of your common, garden variety Green Anole lizard, and no matter what the movies tell you, macaws from Rio are not anal-retentive germaphobes, but rather big-ass birds who drop their shit wherever they happen to be perched. Oh, and they don’t sound like Jesse Eisenberg.

Despite all that, I genuinely enjoy working there. My boss is more anti-social than I am (who knew that was even possible?), leaves me alone most of the time (win!) and the customers on the whole know what they want.

I’ve only ever had to put my bitch hat on twice since working there, once to stop a stupid parent buying her child a snake, a gift that would have inevitably resulted in the child, or the mother, in the morgue.

The second time I had to convince a father that the Sydney Funnel Web he’d illegally smuggled in from Australia did not make a “cool” present for his son’s graduation from elementary school.

Safety tip for future reference: Sydney Funnel Web spiders are the most deadly, venomous, dangerous spider on the planet. They are not like tarantulas. They are not suitable for young children as pets. Yes, they look cool, all shiny and black and hairy, but they can kill you. In fifteen minutes. Like most things from Down Under, America is not physically, medically, psychologically or emotionally prepared for them.

The same warning goes for that country’s Taipan snake, Eastern Brown snake, Red-bellied Black snake, and Caden O’Dae.

Shit. I didn’t mean to say that.

Back on track.

More about me (that’s what you’re here for, right?)…

So, college dropout with unconventional hair, awesomely talented artist doing little but doodling nowadays, second daughter to parents with parenting issues, totally dedicated and fabulous aunt, proud Volvo owner (FYI, I call my car the Speeding Dragon) and exotic pet shop worker. I’m a card-carrying geek who would run away with Loki at the drop of a hat. (Google him if you don’t know who I’m talking about. Tom Hiddleston … sigh) I still live at home (yeah, that one needs some attention), love movies but really don’t like going to the movies, generally want very little to do with most people, and have zero plans of ever being in a relationship that requires any kisses except the Hershey kind.

You still with me? You haven’t decided to dump me yet?

Okay, that’s good.

So Caden O’Dae, Brendon’s cousin, comes back and forth to San Diego as often as his studies will allow. Usually those visits are only short trips. I can deal with that. But this next trip he’s staying for three weeks.

Three weeks. How am I meant to deal with him being around for three weeks?

He was planning to spend those three weeks with Amanda and Brendon, true, but I doubt I could avoid him for the entire time. I also knew he was going to be bringing all manner of gifts for everyone, and try as hard as I might, standing in the Arrivals section of LAX waiting for him, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was bringing me.

The first time he came back, after Tanner’s successful bone marrow transplant, he’d presented me with a bright purple and green sock puppet dragon. He’d made it himself. He does this weird thing where he makes sock puppets. I will never tell him this because then he might get the stupid opinion I actually like him, but they are adorable. If his intended career as a veterinarian fails he could make a living selling sock puppets on Etsy. Not a good living, I’m sure. Not compared to what he could make as Dr. Caden O’Dae, Animal Doctor, but a living all the same.

The last time he visited, he gave me a Thor sock puppet. Except Thor wasn’t wielding his mighty hammer, but a can of Foster’s beer. And he was wearing board shorts covered in flowers.

“Cause he’s actually Australian,” he’d said as I stared at the puppet in my hand. “Not Asgardin.”

That was one of those moments where, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but laugh. Our eyes had met for a moment. My tummy did one of those unsettling tightening things. Thank God he said something low enough that I couldn’t quite make it out, something that was probably lovely and sweet, because it gave me a reason to get grumpy and stomp off.

(By the way, I’m sure most people think I’m a brat. Given how anti-social I am, I’m fine with that. I am guilty, however, of sometimes behaving less than exemplary to cover the fact I’m feeling awkward. I’m not a fan of feeling awkward. Who is?)

I didn’t see him for the rest of the time he was here.

I didn’t take him back to LAX, which was my normal routine. Instead I sat at home, glaring at the clock in my room when his plane was due for takeoff.

My phone pinged at me once five minutes after, but when I grabbed it out of my bag, my heart beating faster than it should, I discovered it was a text from Professor Douchebag.

The text—

No, let me start that again.

The professor.

Professor Douchebag was my Art History professor when I was still a college student. Insanely sexy and hugely popular, he had this amazing ability to make students feel like they were the most important thing in his world with just a look.

When I joined his class, he’d commented about my hair (purple at the time) and suggested my father—who he knew quite well—was probably not a fan. Straight away I’d felt like he understood me.

After just one month I lived for his lectures. Hurried to them, eager to see his face. To have him see me.

Those classes … oh wow. He’d hang on every word I said. He’d call on me to answer questions, ask my opinion on the topic at hand. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you’ve gone through the education system with teachers who handled your hearing impairment by either pretending you didn’t exist in their class, or shouting the most basic of questions at you just so you can feel like you’re included, to be treated like a normal student is huge. And I so desperately wanted to be treated like a normal student back then.

When I look back, that desperation really messed me up. But I was only eighteen. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Eighteen and angry with my father for making it obvious he was disappointed with me.

On some weird, subconscious level, I suspect the fact Professor Douchebag taught at the same collage as Dad was an added bonus.

Whatever the reasons, I fell hard. Took out my heart—that moronic organ I’d spent eighteen years guarding like it was the One Ring—and gave it to him.

He took it. And for ever so long I was happy. Why wouldn’t I be? He worshipped me. Adored me. Spent long hours exploring my body with his hands and lips and tongue. Made me feel normal. Like a real girl, not the defective one I’d grown up believing I was.

I should have wised up to the fact he didn’t consider my heart as precious as I did when it became clear we were never to be seen in public together in any capacity other than that of student/teacher.

But I was in awe of this intellectual, sexy, popular god with more than one New York Times Bestselling art book to his name. I was in love with him.

Love is stupid.

And it makes you blind, which is not ideal when you’re already damn near completely deaf. Functioning on three senses is tricky at best.

Ending it hurt more than it should have, for a variety of reasons. But the thing with Professor Douchebag? He figured out very quickly he’d got under my skin. And for every No, I’m over you text I sent in reply to his I need to see you now texts, there were shamefully just as many Okay, I’m coming ones.

Under my skin. Didn’t matter what I did to try and exorcise him, he was under there. And when we were alone together at his place, or in his car, or his office … when he was touching me, looking at me, listening to me … I forgot how the us that existed behind closed doors wasn’t the us I wanted beyond them.

So when I got the professor’s text asking me to come to his place, as I was sitting on my bed with the knowledge Caden O’Dae was once again gone from my life, I went.

Was it self-punishment for refusing to acknowledge that Caden O’Dae was the first guy to ever make me feel like my life was actually fine the way I was living it? I don’t know.

I still don’t.

Thankfully, I stopped myself from doing something completely stupid and drove away from Professor Douchebag’s place before I could get out of the car.

I went to a friend’s house and we got drunk on tequila, and watched Daredevil on Netflix, and while Charlie Cox beat up bad guys with brooding, angst-ridden intensity I was wondering if maybe this time, this time, Professor Douchebag was going to take me out for dinner in public, hold my hand in public, say he was wrong for breaking my heart. Apologize for hurting me…

And then it wasn’t the professor I was thinking about but Caden. Caden and sock puppets, and his laugh, his grin, his eyes. Caden and his ability to make me forget I was defective. His ability to make me realize when I did remember, that it was okay …

His ability to make me smile…

I passed out before the last episode of Season One began. My friend let me crash on the couch, which was a good thing. I couldn’t have faced whatever disappointment I’d find in Dad’s eyes if I went home, and if I’d gone to Amanda and Brendon’s I would have told my sister about everything and I wasn’t ready to deal with that either.

Being messed up about who you are and what you want is really messed up.

Caden and I hadn’t spoken or been in contact since the Thor sock-puppet incident. I’d seen what he was up to on Facebook, of course. And Instagram, where he posts pics of him and the animals he cares for at the RSPCA on the weekends (the RSPCA—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—is the Australian equivalent of the ASPCA). Facebook is mainly dedicated to his social life.

Most of his Facebook posts involve him and his university friends being twentysomething-year-old students doing the kind of things twentysomething-year-old students do. There are lots of images of him and his friends in crazy costumes no doubt for crazy college parties. Lately, there have been a few posts involving the celebrity veterinarian he’s interning for in Australia.

I’m not jealous. Honest. It means nothing to me that she’s tall, blonde and stunning, with teeth so white my brain hurts. It really doesn’t. But seriously, people were going to talk soon if he wasn’t careful. I mean she’s older than him for starters. And she tags him all the time. And you should see the way she leans into him in all the photos she has posted on—

“…incoming flight … delayed.”

I blinked, frowning at the crowded airport around me. What was that announcement?

The noise of the place—an incomprehensible, muffled cacophony that grated on my senses and made my head buzz—seemed to swell around me. Because I was grumpy, I hadn’t bothered to charge the battery of my hearing aid, which meant it was just another thing I was carrying around that I didn’t need. I rarely wore it, because it irritated the hell out of me. Noises were either too loud when I wore it or too confusing, and the second people saw it they treated me differently.

So no hearing aid, just a lot of noise in my head.

And now an announcement I’m almost certain was about an incoming flight from Melbourne, but because I couldn’t hear it clearly I could have been completely wrong.

That happens. More than I like, unfortunately. There are ways around it, of course. Services provided for the “hearing impaired” (I don’t know why, but that term grates on me just as much as the noise of a crowd). All I needed to do was seek out one of those services and problem fixed. Or do something as simple as go check the arrivals board again.

I didn’t do either. Common sense and I weren’t on speaking terms at that point in time.

Instead, I held my ground, glared at the flow of tired-looking people ambling into the arrivals section, and waited until Caden came into my line of sight.

He didn’t.

Instead, someone else did. Someone I did not want to see.

“Shit,” I muttered, turning away.

But not before Professor Douchebag saw me. Not before he smiled at me.

Shit.

And as much as I hated the fact, my throat grew tight and my belly fluttered.

Shit. Again. Times three. God, where was Caden O’Dae when I needed him?

* * * *

CADEN

What was a good Aussie boy like me doing falling in love with a prickly, feisty, snarky American girl, you ask?

Good question.

The answer? Hmmm … not sure if there is a good answer. Just a brutally honest one. And in love—and war—brutal honesty is paramount.

The second I saw Chase Sinclair I fell in love with her.

I’m not embarrassed to admit it. Okay, I didn’t admit it to anyone but myself, and begrudgingly to start with. I wasn’t in the market for the love of my life, and if I had been, I’m one hundred percent certain I wouldn’t have been looking for an American girl who seemed convinced I was trying to kill her sick nephew with the sock puppet I’d made for him. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and the moment I laid eyes on Chase my heart wanted her. It was only later the logical problems of that love sank in. Things like her being in the Northern Hemisphere, and me being in the Southern Hemisphere. Things like me being twelve months away from finishing my doctorate at the top of my class in Veterinary Medicine at Melbourne University. Things like the fact I was an intern for Australia’s most distinguished and respected vet, with the offer of joining her practice when I finished my studies.

None of those logistic complications mattered when I first saw Chase. I fell in love with her instantly.

She, however, didn’t want a bar of me.

I was jet lagged when I first saw her. Jet lagged, sleep deprived and over-caffeinated. At the best of times I’m … how should I put this? Exuberant. I’ve been called a prat, a dickhead, accused of never taking anything seriously, dumped more than once for that very reason, labeled a joker and—in that weird way Australians appropriate American slang—a jackass. Jackarse just doesn’t have the right sound to it, I guess.

I’m probably all of these things, truth be told, but the one I’ll gladly own is the not-taking-things-seriously label. I don’t. Not really.

Unless it’s important, and when my cousin Brendon called and told me he had an eighteen-month-old son he’d only just found out about in America, and that son had leukemia and was likely to die if a suitable bone marrow match wasn’t found … yeah, that falls into things-that-need-to-be-taken-seriously.

I hopped on the first flight to the US.

Almost three hours after touching down in the country and walking into Tanner’s hospital room, I met Chase. For a second I kind of forgot why I was there. She took my breath away.

When she jumped up and snatched the sock puppet out of my hands, spraying it liberally with disinfectant before giving me permission to “give it to her nephew” I was gone. Just like that.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

All over, red rover.

It wasn’t the electric-blue dreadlocks, the eyebrow piercing, the Iron Man T-shirt that did nothing to hide the fact she had a bloody awesome body that would look even more awesome wrapped around mine. All those things—and more—sank into my consciousness later.

It was the protective way she guarded her nephew. The fiery, fierce instinct to look out for someone she loved. The unabashed accusation I was fucking things up and she was going to stop me from doing so.

And before you say, Really? That’s why fell in love with her? remember the reason I was in the States to begin with: my cousin had called and told me he had a sick kid. I could hear how fucked up he was about that—and Brendon Osmond didn’t do fucked up—and I knew I had to go be there for him, regardless of cost or uni lectures or assignments due. He was family; I loved him, and he needed me, whether he said so or not.

That was me. And I saw that part of me in Chase.

That’s why I fell in love with her.

I had a lot of contact with her during the next few months. I was in the States a lot, due to a bone marrow transfer that changed everyone’s world. But even if I didn’t need to keep coming back to San Diego for Tanner and Brendon, I couldn’t have stayed away.

A little bit about me before I continue, just so you get an idea of who I am. It’s probably good that you get some backstory, because I’m pretty certain you’re going to want to hit me at some point in this tale and tell me to wake up to myself.

I’m a fourth-year student at Melbourne University studying a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine, with the end goal of opening up my own clinic. As part of my degree, I’m currently working as an intern at Briny Phillips’ vet clinic. Briny Phillips is a celebrity vet with her own television show, and one of the best vets I’ve ever met. I’ve learned a lot from her, particularly how to deal with stressed pet owners. There’s an art to it, a fine line to walk. I haven’t always been able to walk that line, but I’m getting better at it, thanks to Briny.

I’m an only child, but not a spoilt one. My parents are divorced, not because they grew to despise each other, but because they were grown-up enough to recognize they just weren’t compatible, and when I was twelve they did something about it.

It was amicable. They didn’t rant and rave at each other. In fact, I never saw them get angry or slam doors and fight during the demise of their marriage. They were calm. Dad joked about it with a relaxed good nature I remember as a kid not understanding, but emulating.

If my parents were shouting at each other, if they weren’t getting angry with each other, it meant I shouldn’t either.

So as angry as I was—and I was angry—I joked. Laughed. Made fun at my own expense. Didn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers, including my own. When Dad left and never came back, I joked about the fact I needed to change my deodorant.

Laughing at life proved to be an effective way to deal with whatever life threw at me, and I’ve lived that way ever since. Getting ruffled, angry doesn’t achieve anything. I’ve had girlfriends in the past, hence being dumped for not taking things seriously, but none I’ve fallen in love with. Two had the audacity to tell me to get rid of my beard.

I love my beard. Don’t ever, ever, ever tell me to shave off my beard.

I play rugby union on weekends, despite the fact I’m built more like a tennis player.

I plan to one day own a rescue mutt of indecipherable parentage and call him Puss-Cat, just to mess with people’s heads.

Every uni break, I fly to San Diego. Originally, this had been to see my cousin, who is like a brother to me, and Tanner, to see how the champion kid was doing, to be a part of his life. Trust me, if you knew Tanner, you’d want to be a part of his life as well.

That’s about it. At least, that’s all that really matters.

Which brings us to Chase.

Chase has never asked me to shave off my beard. What she has done is told me she doesn’t like it, told me to get the damn thing away from her, used it as a way of throwing me to the floor in a wrestling match that somehow got completely out of hand, spread honey through it while I was dozing after one particularly brutal red-eye flight from Melbourne, and once, during a midnight movie marathon while we were babysitting Tanner, combed her fingers through it, her breath warm on my lips as she studied my face, confusion warring with desire in her eyes.

That was the night I realized Chase felt for me what I felt for her.

It was also the night I fully accepted she was going to fight it harder than she’d fought anything in her life. And Chase Sinclair is, if nothing else, a stubborn pain in the butt when it comes to backing down.

Chase holds the world at bay. At arm’s length. She’s had a lifetime of being treated differently because of her hearing, of being dismissed by people for being dumb or rude, of being cossetted by her father in a misguided attempt to protect her from whatever he thinks might bring her pain, and unfortunately, of being disconnected from normal life by something she has no control over. The first week after meeting her, I could see it bugged the hell out of her. I could also see she hid all her anger and dejection behind a wall of snark, unlike any I’d encountered.

And there was something else. Something I couldn’t quite figure out. Like a secret in her eyes, that were filled with a pain darker than any I’d experienced.

What I wanted to do more than anything else from that very first week, was to show her she didn’t need to be defensive with me. That I got her. That I would protect her from whatever crap the world threw at her.

Not exactly an easy goal to achieve.

The closest I’d ever come was during that midnight movie marathon in Brendon’s living room almost five months ago, as Simon Pegg dealt with his zombie stepfather Bill Nighy on screen.

I caught her laughing, really laughing. Before I could stop myself, I flicked her ear so she’d look at me, see my lips, and told her she had an awesome laugh.

She studied me, silent, and then brushed her fingers through my beard, drawing closer to me, so close my heart tried to smash its way out of my chest via my throat, and…

That’s when Tanner toddled out to us, in perfect three-year-old interception, and asked for a drink of water.

I’ve never seen a person move so fast as I saw Chase move that night. Up off the sofa and across to the door where her nephew stood, rubbing his eyes, his Transformer PJs as crumpled as his crazy blond Mohawk was messy. She scooped him up, snuggled him against her chest and told him she would get him a drink.

A quick glance over her shoulder told me she was unsettled. I didn’t realize how unsettled until she didn’t come back from Tanner’s room after putting him back to bed. I found her there thirty minutes later, asleep beside him, a frown on her face.

She didn’t talk to me the next morning. She kissed her sister on the cheek, muttered something about not being hungry and left before anyone could say a word.

Brendon had looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “What did you do?”

True to form, I answered him honestly. “Made her acknowledge she has a thing for me.”

That was my reason for this trip to San Diego. To make Chase acknowledge she liked me, and that we’d be good together.

Actually, it was more than just making her acknowledge she had a thing for me, as undeniable as I had for her. I was here to help her see that she didn’t have to face the world alone. That I was more than happy to face it with her. That I was willing. And able. And ready.

So when I entered the Arrivals hall of LAX, duffle bag slung over my shoulder, tired and dry-eyed from my thirteen hour flight but full of the upbeat optimism my family is known for, my heart thumping fast as it always did when I knew I was about to see her, and found a man cupping her face with his palm, a man standing so close to her I could barely make out any light or space between their hips, I kinda felt it in my gut.

Actually, kinda is an understatement.

I felt it alright.

Hard.

A visceral reaction to the sight of Chase interacting with a man clearly older than her, in a way that was clearly beyond platonic.

I stumbled to a halt, my grip on my bag’s strap loosening. My fingers didn’t seem to have any strength in them. Neither did my legs to move forward. It was taking all my brainpower to process what I was seeing, even as my brain fiercely rebelled against it. A few of my fellow arriving passengers bumped into me, my abrupt stop taking them by surprise as they hurried toward their waiting loved ones.

I didn’t mumble out an apology as they flicked me exasperated looks. All I could do was stand motionless and watch as Chase looked up at the older dude mauling her mouth with his thumb.

Alright, mauling might be a slight exaggeration, but fuck a duck, was he ever going to move his thumb away from her bottom lip? Was she ever going to make him?

I narrowed my eyes, watching them through the crowd. My fingers had found their strength again, now curling around the strap of my duffle bag with almost painful force. My pulse smashed in my throat and my ears, a pounding thud-thud thud-thud that drowned out the noise of LAX.

The dude lowered his head closer to Chase’s. I couldn’t miss how perfectly combed his dark hair was, nor how chiseled his jaw. His clean-shaven jaw. His chiseled, clean-shaven jaw with its square lines and cleft chin. Not a hint of a beard on that chin and jaw.

I didn’t miss the sprinkling of gray at his temples, nor the impressive width of his shoulders. Nor the clothes so artfully bohemian they must have cost more than my semester uni fees.

I saw his lips move as they drew closer to Chase’s. I saw him say something but couldn’t make out what. I saw him lower his hand from the side of her face, down the smooth column of her throat, until he was trailing his fingertip down her chest to the beginning of her cleavage.

My pulse turned to a cannon in my head.

And then I saw Chase flinch. A little. Barely noticeable, but as you may have figured out by now, when it came to Chase Sinclair, I was almost an expert.

She flinched, the slightest of frowns pulling at her straight eyebrows. The tiniest of frowns making the piercing in her right eyebrow dip.

She flinched and turned her head a fraction to the side.

I moved. Not a run, but a purposeful stride. She wasn’t happy about the situation, and I was going to bring it to an end.

I’m all about being protective. Brendon reckons that’s why I decided to become a vet: to protect those that need it most. I think it was because animals don’t complain like people do, but hey, maybe he’s got a point?

Grin in place, I reached Chase’s side just as Mr. Dude was about to do something to her ear with his lips.

Without hesitation—or contemplation, when it came down to it—I slid my hand over the small of Chase’s back, dumped my duffle bag at my feet and let out a very loud, very exhausted sigh. “Christ, that was a long flight,” I said, louder than even Chase needed me to be.

Loud enough Mr. Dude and his trendy clothes straightened away from her with a startled hiss, jerking his hand from her throat with the same abrupt speed.

Chase swung her stare at me and locked on my face. Her eyes widened. Her lips parted. “Caden?”

God, I loved the way she said my name. Even stunned, she made it sound like a promise of something she still refused to admit.

I smoothed my hand from her back, and with a quick glance at Mr. Dude—a glance that said I have no idea who you are but I’m already bored by you—signed Hello gorgeous. God, I’ve missed you to Chase.

Her eyes widened until she was gaping at me. She’d achieved maximum gape and she still looked amazing.

Gorgeous. She truly was gorgeous. I don’t know when she’d cut off her dreadlocks, but her new pixie-short hair only made her more so.

I like the new hair, I signed. It looks good on you.

She studied me, her expression unreadable. And then she lifted her hands in front of her chest. You learned to sign?

“Chase?”

At Mr. Dude’s confused utterance, both Chase and I swung to face him, me with a wide smile stretching my lips.

“Donald,” she said, that distinct inflection in her voice unique to people who’d grown up without the luxury of complete hearing. “This is—”

“What did he say to you?”

I couldn’t help but smile wider at the agitation in Mr. Dude’s voice. He couldn’t sign. Which meant no matter what he thought he felt for Chase, he wasn’t legit. He might think he was, but he wasn’t.

Nor could I help but feel a warm buzz of delight at the fact Chase didn’t move away from me when she turned to him, but instead touched my chest with her hand and drew closer to my body.

Mr. Dude puffed himself up as much as he could. He was as tall as me, and to be honest, probably a little more built. He slid his gaze over me, down to the thongs on my feet—Hey, I’m an Aussie on a long-haul international flight, what else would I be wearing on my feet?—and back up to my face.

“G’day.” I stuck out my right hand. “I’m Caden. Just flew in from Australia.”

His eyes slitted. He looked at my hand, and then back at Chase, touching her cheek with the tip of his index finger. To say I wanted to smack his hand away was an understatement. I bit the inside of my mouth instead, refusing to be ruffled.

“I’ll call you later, babe,” he said, the last word louder than all the others.

My gut clenched. Babe?

Chase nodded, a strange little up-and-down of her head I’d never seen her make before. “Okay,” she said, the single word almost a mumble.

With that, Donald the Dude gave me an oily smirk, ran another inspection over me—this one very clearly designed to make me feel insignificant—and then pivoted on his heel and took off through the thinning crowd.

I watched him walk away, my heart thumping a crazy beat in my throat. Of course he’d be one of those guys that didn’t wear socks. I was surprised he didn’t whip out a Trilby and plonk it on his head before draping a cashmere scarf around his neck.

You know what else would have looked good around his neck? My—

“When did you learn to sign?”

At Chase’s question, I turned a relaxed smile on her. Relaxed. Not Ruffled. “On the flight over.”

She rolled her eyes, stepping away from me a little. I wanted to snag her wrist and bring her back to my side. In fact, I didn’t just want to do that, the craving to do it was almost painful, a fierce tugging on something deep in my body. My soul? Was that possible?

“You still think you’re funny, I see?”

I preened. “Hell yeah.”

She opened her mouth, an acerbic gleam in her eyes, but closed it again when I held up my finger and shook my head.

Hell. Yeah. I signed, finishing with a flourish of my wrist my signing teacher had called a “quirky accent”.

Chase pulled a face, closed her fingers around my wrists and held my hands still, her stare fixed on my face. “Why?”

“Why did I learn to sign?”

She nodded.

I grinned. “So I could scare off creeps in international airports.”

I’d intended the smart-arsed remark to make her chuckle. Instead, the slight smile on her lips faded. She dropped my hands and stepped back from me. “Come on,” she said, her eyes sliding away from my face. “Let’s get going.”

As she turned I stopped her with a gentle grip on her wrist. This was seriously overstepping our unspoken interaction rules. As much as I hungered to hold her, touch her—and hungered isn’t hyperbole, trust me—the only time Chase and I touched without her initiating it was the night I flicked her ear during Shaun of the Dead.

But I couldn’t help myself. Not now. I’d just flown halfway around the world on the pretense of seeing Brendon and his family when what I was really here for was to make Chase see what I already knew—that she liked me. Like, liked me liked me—and the guarded sadness on her face before she’d turned away ripped at my heart.

She held my gaze now for a heartbeat before she let out a ragged sigh. “You can let go of me any time you like,” she said. “And I don’t need you to protect me against creeps in international airports. Or against anything else, for that matter.”

I shook my head. “Not until you tell me who Donald the Dude is.”

Her eyebrows shot up. She let out a wry snort—almost but not quite a laugh.

“Well?” I asked.

Until that point I can honestly say jealousy wasn’t something I felt often. In fact, I think the last time I was jealous about something was when my best friend at uni managed to drop the last can of Red Bull in the dispensing machine when we were both pulling a pre-exam all-nighter. Man, I’d really needed that hit of extra-leaded caffeine.

What was twisting and threading through me right now though left that feeling for dead. Cold and hot and tight all at once, it filled me with a dark sensation I didn’t like at all.

Chase studied my face, her gaze searching my eyes. I didn’t move. Nor did I drop her wrist.

“Chase,” I finally said, “you know why I’m really here. You do. And you know it has nothing to do with Brendon and Amanda and Tanner. So you’ve gotta tell me, who’s Donald the Dude?”

A shaky breath left her and, with an expression the very definition of ambiguous, she looked away. “Donald is—was—my Art History professor at college.”

My gut clenched. I knew where this was going and I liked it even less than the unexpected jealousy snaking through me. He was a snake. I could see that after barely a minute in his company. How could she even give him the time of day? Why?

She looked back at me, caught her bottom lip with her teeth, and shrugged. “Do I need to tell you any more?”

“You were seeing each other?”

God, how sour did that question taste in my mouth?

She finally laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “You could say that.”

I swallowed, controlling my rising agitation. “Is it over?”

“You could say that as well.”

“Doesn’t look over.”

She drew in another slow breath, her gaze moving to where Donald the Dude had moments ago been standing before her. Was she imagining him there again? And if so, why?

“Chase?” I prompted, keeping my voice loud enough for her to hear but calm enough not to make those around us curious. Chase doesn’t like attention. Which is ironic when you consider the way she looks and the car she drives.

With another wobbly breath, she returned her focus to my face and smiled. “Come on, O’Dae. Time to get you to San Diego.”

Chapter 2

“Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them.”

~ Unknown

CHASE

I could have solved my Caden O’Dae problem there and then. In the busy LAX terminal, with a muffled cacophony of noise in my head and my heart hammering in my throat and defective ears, I could have solved it once and for all.

Sure, we’re still seeing each other, I could have said. Yes, I still love him. He’s incredible.

I have no idea why I didn’t. The opportunity was there, and I didn’t take it.

Maybe it’s because my mom raised me not to be a liar. Maybe it’s because the idea of saying I loved Donald made me feel sick. What I felt for Donald—or should I say the effect Donald had on my ability to actually use my brain—was unsettling, but it wasn’t love. It had been, and much to my shame I’d thought more than once it was again, but thought is a misguided thing sometimes. It can be like planting a feather in the hopes of growing a chicken.

Instead, we walked to the Speeding Dragon side by side, neither of us speaking. Caden’s hand swung perilously close to mine. All I would have needed to do for our fingers to brush against each other was move the tiniest bit to the right. The muscles in my arms and legs actually began to do that very thing before I caught them. Forcing my hand to not draw closer to his was harder than it should have been.

The trouble was, even as I walked beside him, so very aware of him on levels I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge before, the sound of Donald calling me babe flayed at my sanity.

Babe. He’d only ever called me that when we were in bed. Or in his office, alone … and semi-naked. Or in the back seat of his Porsche. I’d always thought of it as a term of endearment, but after he’d ripped out my heart I’d recognized it for what it really was: a misogynistic form of sexual control, designed to make me feel special when I wasn’t.

So why was I affected so much by him saying the word now? What the hell was wrong with me? The Douchebag had torn out my heart. He was a prick. A deceptive bastard. He’d reduced me to the lowest I’d ever been, destroyed any sense of self-esteem. He’d made me question everything about who I believed I was.

He’d done all that and so much more. I hated him. And yet he’d once made me feel more special than anyone ever had. He’d made me feel cherished. He’d made me feel intelligent. He’d given me a sense of worth I’d never really felt before. Hell, Dad sure hadn’t made me feel like I was walking the right path in my life, but Donald had.

At the start, and despite how we’d ended, I’d still find myself thinking of him, of our conversations, when a particular movie came on HBO, or when an art gallery ran an exhibition by an artist we both admired.

Those things were hard to forget. Hard to dismiss. And here he was, calling me babe again?

The very fact my heart skipped a beat when he’d said he was just back from attending a Salvador Dali opening in New York only highlighted how significant he’d been in my life. We’d spent one entire lunch break in his office discussing Dali’s influence on the art world. A lunch break that had finished with him going down on me beneath his desk, his muffled voice listing Dali’s works between swipes of his tongue.

I’d tried to tell my skipping heart to remember that tongue of his had found someone else to swipe over a few short weeks after that lunch, but my heart hadn’t wanted to listen.

And now here he was calling me babe, and as much as I didn’t want to react, I had.

Christ, was I truly that broken?

Or was I just stupid?

Stomach clenching, chest tight, Caden silent at my side, we crossed the parking lot, heading for my Volvo. We were two steps away when Caden’s fingers threaded through mine, bringing me to a halt. I turned and looked up at him, a frown pulling at my eyebrows, my heart beating fast. Try as I might, it was impossible to deny how much I liked the feel of his hand holding mine. How safe and right and genuine it felt.

God, why hadn’t I told him Donald and I were still a thing back in the airport? It would have made this so much easier. I didn’t want to hurt him, but if we kept going the way we were, I would. How could I not? When I was so fucking weak? When at just a word, Donald had me so damn flustered and confused? Why hadn’t I—

Caden kissed me.

There was no warning, no smartass comment, no doofus grin. Nothing to prepare me for the unexpected sensation of his lips brushing mine. My body reacted instantly. It was as if I’d suddenly become a live wire of charged energy, thrumming with an elemental power I couldn’t fathom.

His lips lingered on mine for a sublime moment, just long enough for my parted lips to fit perfectly against his with an infinitesimal hint of pressure. A strange whimper vibrated at the back of my throat. I’m very attuned to vibrations, one of the perks of having a hearing problem. This vibration was new to me, however. As was the funny flip-flopping in my tummy. And the prickling sensation in the junction of my thighs.

Holy Christ, Caden O’Dae was kissing me.

And then he wasn’t.

Just like that, he lifted his head and his lips were no longer on mine. Another whimpering vibration tickled the back of my throat, this one born from dismay. Before I could register the sound I was making it was out there, for Caden and his perfectly working ears to hear.

He released my hand, and as with the loss of contact of his lips, a soft moan of disappointment escaped me. I frowned, channeling my confusion into a glare directed at him. “Why did you do that?”

He didn’t cup my face in his hand or smooth his palms up over my hips. He didn’t tug me to his body, or brush the back of his knuckles over my cheek. The movies had taught me that’s exactly what he was meant to do in a situation like this.

I’ve come to realize movies lie. A lot.

Instead of being incredibly romantic and predictable, he hitched his bag farther up his shoulder and grinned. “So you’d stop thinking about Donald the Dude.”

A lump didn’t just fill my throat, it damn near choked me. My mouth fell open. A wave of guilt rolled over me, as unsettling as my reaction to his kiss and equally as unnerving.

Guilt. Of all the emotions I’d experienced in my twenty-two years, guilt wasn’t really one of them. Snarky, sarcastic, almost-deaf girls have no use for guilt.

And yet, here I was, feeling it. I didn’t like it. Not at all.

Narrowing my eyes, I crossed my arms over my chest. “And it’s your opinion I should be thinking about you instead?”

His grin stretched wider. His hands and fingers moved in front of his chest. Hell. Yeah.

“Stop signing,” I snarled, snatching for his hands.

Caden was quicker. He snared my wrist and drew me closer to him, not close enough for our bodies to touch (I refused to acknowledge the hot disappointment bubbling inside me at the fact they didn’t), but close enough I could smell him: the unique, distinct, subtle scent of Caden O’Dae that I’d often find myself thinking about when he wasn’t in the country.

“Tell me why I’m here, Chase,” he said.

His voice wasn’t low enough for me to need to watch his lips move, but I watched them anyway. There was an emotion in his eyes I wasn’t prepared to deal with at the moment. His words, however, left me no other option.

Why was he here? To make me do that which I’d adamantly sworn to myself I wouldn’t.

“To be a pain in my ass?” I answered.

Yes, I was aware he still held my hand. Yes, I was aware I was doing nothing to remove it. Yes, I was very aware I was leaning closer to him, as if taunting him to kiss me again.

I wasn’t. I don’t think…

He laughed. As always, when he laughed I wanted to join in. As always, I countered that unnerving, unsettling reaction with a surly glare at him.

“Close,” he said, lips moving carefully around the word. Damn it, how the hell was he so good at making it so easy to understand him? “…but no cigar.”

“I know,” I shot back. “You’re here to make me want to smack you.”

My stomach was doing more of that weird flip-flopping. I knew what it meant but didn’t want to admit it. Damn it, he was making me enjoy myself with him. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t playing fair. That was—

“Smacking?” A devious light gleamed in his eyes, detonating a thoroughly filthy want in me I’d never experienced before. “That comes later. After you’ve accepted what I already know.”

“I am not going to fall in love with you, O’Dae.”

“Yes, you are.”

More flip-flopping in the tummy. More prickling in the spot between my thighs, the place my mom referred to as girly bits and that I called Temporarily Out of Business.

“Says who?” God, was I five?

And if I was, no five-year-old should feel so … so … goddamn it, so horny. The irritating pain in the ass was making me hot and horny and flustered and—

My phone vibrated to life in my back pocket, Pink’s ‘Walk of Shame’ playing loudly along with it.

I didn’t need to look at my cell to know who the caller was. I sure as hell wasn’t going to answer it though. Screw him.

Caden frowned, no doubt waiting for me to do just that though.

A second later Pink stopped singing. My heart hammered fast in my throat, anticipating what was going to happen next.

“Is everything…” Caden began, his frown deepening.

Pink started singing again.

Yanking my hand free of Caden’s, I shoved it into my pocket and pulled out my cell, fixing him with the fiercest glare I could as I raised it to the one ear that could actually receive sound. “What?” I snarled.

From the beginning of our “relationship”, Donald had this weird habit of calling me immediately after I didn’t answer his first call. When I asked him why he did so, he told me it was in case I hadn’t heard my phone ringing the first time.

I’d been foolish enough to think it sweet when I was under his sway. Now … now it just pissed me off.

“Dinner?” his voice came from the cell’s small speaker, faint but still there. “Tonight. My place.”

I would have been able to hear him better if I had my hearing aid in (my cell was compatible with the damn thing after all), but in all honesty, I don’t know if it would have made any difference to the way I reacted. A hot blade seemed to trace a path up the line of my spine. It was a jarring sensation, given that at the same time all the blood from my face seemed to drain down to my sex.

Before I thought about what I was doing—and when it came to Donald, that was my modus operandi—I pivoted on my heel and hunched my shoulders as I presented Caden the barrier of my back.

I could feel his eyes drilling into me. It competed with the self-disgust churning in my belly and the contempt twisting in my chest. And the wrong wrong wrong ache Donald always brought out in me.

“Why?” I asked, doing my version of a murmur (which is probably a little louder than most people’s).

“Why do we need to eat dinner?” Donald asked. The velvety smooth timbre of his voice did what it always did to me, which only tightened the contempt in my chest more. “Because we need sustenance for what comes after.”

An image flashed through my head of exactly what Donald was alluding we’d need sustenance for. In that image I was naked. Donald wasn’t. Even when we were together, Donald was rarely naked. It wasn’t until later, as the wounds on my heart and my psyche were finally beginning to heal, that I realized he kept himself semi-dressed for a fast getaway.

Truth be known, I’d probably realized it before then. People can be masochists sometimes. Or was it just me?

“I’m not having dinner with you, Don,” I answered. He hated when people called him Don. Almost as much as when they called him Donny. His preferred form of address was Professor Perry. He’d even asked me to call him that once while we were mid—

Jesus, why was I still talking to him now?

“Yes, you are, babe,” he countered, that smooth arrogance that had been my undoing from the beginning slipping through the phone. “You’ve missed me too much. And I’ve missed you. I’ve missed my Chase, missed my hunt.”

I closed my eyes. My head was roaring. My heart was thumping in my chest like a goddamn cannon.

And all the while I could feel Caden’s gaze on my back. Feel him standing there, watching. Waiting.

Waiting to take my hand again and look into my eyes and make me feel the way I’d promised myself I’d never feel again.

Fuck this.

“Let me chase you down, babe,” Donald crooned.

Once upon a time, when I’d been his star-struck student, in awe of his talent and intelligence and knowledge of art history, that cheesy pun on my name had rendered me weak at the knees and wet at the junction of my thighs. Now it turned the disquieting sensation blooming low in my belly to a churning, conflicted mess of contempt and wretched want.

Christ, how was I not over him already? After what he’d done to me?

“My place. Nine pm. Let me show you how much I’ve missed you.”

Another image flashed through my head. Donald’s head buried between my legs, his hands smoothing up my thighs…

“Let me show you how much I know I hurt you.” His voice dropped an octave, low enough I almost had trouble hearing him. Almost. “Let me show you I know I was wrong.”

I was wrong.

I squeezed my eyes shut. Damn it, why hadn’t he uttered that last line an octave lower?

Heat washed over me like a wave of fire ants, biting my skin. “Nine,” I said, hating the word as it scraped at my throat. Hating what it meant. “I’ll see you at nine. But only to talk.”

“Bring your toothbrush,” he said, smug triumph in his voice.

“We’re not having—”

He ended the call before I could tell him it wasn’t a booty call. A classic Donald Perry move: don’t let the person telling you something you didn’t want to hear finish saying that thing. I’d seen him do it to other professors at college, other students. He’d done it to me more than once since our relationship moved from together-in-secret to whatever you’d label the fucked-up mess it was now.

Opening my eyes, I stared at the neon green Chinese dragon on my car and tried to fathom what the fuck was wrong with me. I’d just agreed to walk back into Professor Douchebag’s house. I’d just agreed to put myself back in his sway. After everything he’d done to me, I’d just …

What. The. Fuck. Was wrong with me?

“So, the thing you’ve got with Donald the Dude isn’t really over then, eh?”

I turned at Caden’s calm observation, shoving my cell into my back pocket as I did so. Our eyes clashed for a split second before I looked away. I’d expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. There was no judgment in his expression, no censure, just regret.

What he was regretting, I don’t know. The fact he’d come all this way to convince me to fall in love with him and I’d just arranged a dinner date with my ex (huh, ex so doesn’t begin to cover it) right there in his presence? Or the fact even he could see I was being an idiotic imbecilic of epic proportions who seemed to want to be hurt all over again?

Let me show you I know I was wrong.

Donald’s words clawed at me and I let out a ragged sigh. “Please don’t try and think you get me, Caden.”

That sensation of sour guilt lashed at me again, but I shoved it away. At least, I did my best to shove it away. My best wasn’t that good, however, which pissed me off.

Stomping past Caden without another word, I yanked open the passenger door of the Speeding Dragon. “Well?” I said impatiently, hand shoved to my hip.

He studied me, his expression enigmatic, and then let out a chuckle I heard despite the distance between us. “I get you, Chase Sinclair,” he said as he made his way toward me and the open door. “When are you going to get you?”

Before I could tell him to bite me, he tossed his duffle bag into the backseat, dropped himself into the passenger seat, and grinned up at me. “Coming?”

Sometimes, Caden’s unwavering good humor drove me crazy. Right now was one of those moments.

Temples throbbing, I slammed the door shut with as much force as I could muster and continued my stomp around to the driver’s side. I refused to look at Caden as we exited the parking lot. In fact, I refused to acknowledge he was even there. I switched on the radio, gripped the steering wheel and pretended I was in the Speeding Dragon alone.

The ruse lasted all of fifteen minutes, when Caden flicked my ear.

I turned my head, ready to tell him to fuck off, but the words died on my lips. He was holding something up for me to see.

“I made this for you,” he said, lips twitching. On his hand sat a small bearded dragon lizard, made from wool. A knitted bearded dragon, no bigger than his palm.

I blinked.

His grin widened. “I thought I’d branch out from sock puppets.”

I blinked again, then jerked my eyes back to the busy LA-congested street in front of me. But not before I noticed the knitted lizard seemed to be wearing a Wonder Woman’s costume.

Jesus. How the hell was I going to survive the next three weeks?

“Thank you,” I muttered, clenching the wheel. My knuckles ached. A hot, thick lump in my throat was doing everything it could to choke me.

Silence stretched for a moment before, out of the corner of my eye, the knitted reptile appeared on the Volvo’s dash.

I tried not to look but I couldn’t help myself. Yep. It was a Wonder Woman costume. A tiny Wonder Woman costume.

“Did you make the costume?” I asked. Damn it, wasn’t I trying to pretend he wasn’t there?

“I did.”

Playful pride danced in the answer. I could see the smile on his face without looking at him.

“I’ll make an excellent wife someday,” he said.

I rolled my eyes and grinned, despite myself. Damn him. Seriously, damn him. “God help anyone foolish enough to marry you,” I said, shaking my head and returning my attention to the road. I tried to muster up anger at him but it was frustratingly absent.

“I’m the full package,” he said loud enough for me to hear him without needing to follow the words on his lips with my eyes. “I can cook, make awesome sock puppets, knit, sew, and I don’t snore. Oh, and I have no issues whatsoever with animal feces, so when we get a dog I’ll pick up all its poop.”

I arched an eyebrow at him, even as a picture filled my head of him in Mom and Dad’s backyard playing with a puppy that looked suspiciously like the one Amanda had been forced to give away because of Tanner’s leukemia. “What’s this we business? I’ve told you before, you and I aren’t happening.”

He studied me from behind his black Ray-Bans. “You could do worse,” he replied.

I rolled my eyes and focused on the upcoming on-ramp to the 105. “Drop it, Caden.”

He did.

I don’t know why, but I wished he hadn’t. Was I just fishing for an excuse to pick a fight with him? To make him lose his temper? I could justify being grumpy with him if he’d snarled or snapped at me. What would an angry Caden O’Dae be like?

I didn’t know. Did anyone? Did the guy ever crack?

We merged onto the 405 South, the Speeding Dragon eating up the miles, getting closer to San Diego by the minute. When the traffic got bad, I cut across on the 710 to California’s famous Highway 1. It ran along the coast, and I figured we both could both do with the peaceful views to decompress from the airport incidences: Donald’s unexpected appearance, and Caden kissing me in the parking lot. Not exactly the most auspicious beginning to his three-week stay here.

It was a long while before he said anything to me again.

Not that he was silent for all those miles.

Caden sang along with whatever song came on the radio. When he didn’t know the lyrics, he made them up. He turned an Imagine Dragons song about everything being fantastic and turning to gold, into a song about having a cold.

I did my best not to react to him, but it was damn hard. His relaxed sense of humor was infectious, damn it.

The upside to his singing was I’d completely forgotten about my insane decision to agree to Donald’s dinner invitation. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about Donald. That fact had just registered as we neared the junction of Highway 1 and Interstate 5, when Caden suddenly lunged forward in his seat.

“Stop!” he shouted, his head snapping to the right.

I hit the brakes. I’d never heard such distress in Caden’s voice before. A choir of car horns sounded behind me, although by the time my faulty ears and startled brain registered it, the cars were blurring past me.

“What the hell?” I damn near shouted, as I pulled up onto the shoulder, pulse wild.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Caden shouted, before flinging off his seatbelt, shoving open the door and leaping from the passenger seat.

I sat and blinked at the empty seat, before the unmistakable sound of tires screeching and car horns blaring sank into my discombobulated brain.

I looked up. “Jesus!” Caden was hurrying across the road, arms held up and palms out toward the oncoming cars, his head swinging from them to something I couldn’t see and back again.

I scrambled from behind the wheel out into the dry Southern Californian heat. More car horns blasted the air. More tires screeched. Someone in one of the cars yelled something at Caden I’m glad my bad hearing didn’t allow me to make out.

“Yeah yeah,” he shouted back, not looking at them. He was slowing down, arms still held out in an attempt to divert cars traveling in excess of fifty miles an hour, his attention now completely focused on … what?

I fidgeted beside the Speeding Dragon’s tailgate, squinting into the sunlight. Caden was now almost squatting in the middle of one lane, one arm still up to ward off traffic, the other drawing closer to …

My heart smashed up into my throat. A dog. A big black dog lay on its side in the middle of the lane, its head raised toward Caden, its long tail thumping weakly onto the asphalt. Caden half squatted in the middle of the highway, one hand held up to divert cars, the other resting on the side of the dog, that had obviously been hit by a car, given the blood seeping onto the road.

Jesus.

For a second I didn’t know what to do. I was struck frozen. And then Caden swung his face to me and I sprang into action.

Fast.

* * * *

CADEN

No, I didn’t want Chase to come to me. The second she moved, terror gripped me. What if a car hit her? Fuck, I hadn’t been thinking. I’d seen the injured dog and I’d just reacted. I was such a fucking idiot. How the fuck could I protect her if she was running through speeding cars?

Keeping my palm gently on the dog’s side to track his shallow breaths, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the girl I was deeply and irretrievably in love with, as she risked her life to get to me. I wanted to yell at her to stop, to go back to the safety of the side of the freeway, but I knew she wouldn’t be able to hear me. All I could do was stand and make myself as visible as possible to the oncoming traffic and hope to fuck they saw me and hit the brakes. But if they swerved into the other lanes, Chase could be right in the way—

Fuck.

At my feet, the dog whined. The heat from the bitumen radiated up through the soles of my thongs, hot enough for the vet part of my brain to know the dog would not only be getting overheated, but that the blood flow to its skin would be increasing, putting a strain on its already stressed heart.

All those things passed through my brain as I frantically watched Chase run to where I stood.

All those things vanished as a bright red car sped into my line of sight, its tires screeching as Chase ran directly into its path.

“No!” I screamed, throwing myself toward her.

I still don’t know how the car missed her. She ran straight past me, grabbing at my wrist and dragging me back to the dog.

“Quick,” she yelled, not looking at me but behind me, as she waved at the oncoming cars. “Pick him up.”

I did as she ordered, fighting to contain the anger boiling up in me. As quickly as I was prepared to risk, without knowing how extensive the injuries were, I slid my arms under the dog and lifted him off the road. My brain registered the fact that he only had three legs; his left back leg was a deformed stump.

He yelped as I straightened completely, writhing in my arms as he tried to bite me. The word rabies slashed through my mind, a heartbeat before Chase’s hand found my forearm and her worried gaze found my eyes through my sunglasses.

“It’s okay,” she said, her hand moving from my arm to stroke the dog’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Caden’s got you.”

The dog whined again, and I felt its tail thump weakly against my hip.

“Let’s go,” I said, raising my voice so Chase could hear me more clearly over the sound of the car horns and tires.

She nodded, and then moved between me and the traffic, arms out, palms up. I followed, hurrying for the car, the dog whimpering in my arms. I wanted Chase off this maniacal stretch of road ASAP. I needed her safe so my heart and brain could actually start functioning properly again. If I didn’t love her so much I would have killed her. Didn’t she have any clue how dangerous her actions had been?

What had felt like a mere couple of yards when I’d been running to the dog, had now somehow stretched into miles and miles of never ending bitumen and speeding cars. Chase crooned to the dog, stroking its shoulder with one hand as she held up the other at the oncoming traffic.

By the time we made it to Chase’s Volvo, I was furious. I gently placed the dog on the ground on the other side of her car, in a miniscule strip of shade away from the madness of the freeway. I glared up at Chase. “What the hell were you thinking?”

She blanched. The second she did, something cold punched a hole in my chest.

“I was thinking,” she answered, her voice ripe with an emotion I couldn’t decipher, “I wanted to help you.”

“You could have gotten yourself killed,” I yelled back, making sure to emphasize the words and movement of my lips.

She narrowed her eyes and then signed at me, her movements sharp and jerky: You don’t have to fucking shout at me.

“Fucking hell, Chase,” I snapped, my voice was getting louder by the syllable. “You make it hard to keep you safe. You weren’t even looking at the cars! What if you didn’t hear the horns? What if you didn’t hear that red car’s horn?”

At the word hear she grew still. Her face shut down, devoid of emotion.

That cold sensation punched at my chest again, joined by a sickening knot in my gut.

“I don’t need to hear everything to understand what’s going on,” she snarled. “And clearly there are things I hear that are not really there. Like you getting me.”

Fuck. I’d fucked up.

“I don’t need your protection, O’Dae,” she went on. Pain warred with anger on her face. Pain and betrayal. “And I’m not your little girl to shelter from the world. I can take care of myself.”

My breath left me in a whoosh. On the ground before me, the dog whined. “Chase,” I began, “I didn’t mean—”

“You’re not my father,” she said, contempt now in her voice. “Nor are you my boyfriend. You don’t have the right to yell at me and treat me like a helpless baby.” She scrunched up her face and shook her head. “My God. How could I have been so—”

The unmistakable sound of a police siren whooped into life behind the Volvo, drowning out the rest of her words. The dog whimpered, and writhed under my hands that were gently pressed to his ribcage.

Chase winced, swinging her glare from me.

Fuck, could I have fucked up any more? I turned my attention to the dog, my thoughts a wild mess. I needed to concentrate on the animal. I needed to make sure it he was okay.

I needed to calm down.

I was ruffled. No good came of being ruffled. None. I laughed at life. Didn’t take it seriously. That’s what I did.

But shit, was I angry.

It sounds weird, maybe even wrong, but I used the dog’s injuries as a means of meditation. Meditation is all about centering, and finding a peaceful calm within oneself. My cousin Brendon meditates daily. He sits on the beach at dawn, in the typical Buddha pose, and does nothing but focus on his breathing. He’s one of the most relaxed, positive people I know, regardless of the nightmare that might one day claim his son’s life.

I meditate daily, but in a completely different way. I meditate via my interaction with animals. There’s nothing as harrowing in my future as Brendon’s, but I was beginning to discover my plan to make Chase acknowledge she was in love with me wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped.

Especially as I had to open my stupid bloody mouth and shout—shout—at her. My mind was a hot mess.

Crouching at the dog’s side, I tuned out Chase and focused on the muscles and bones and form of the animal. He was a big dog, a mixed breed. Doberman, definitely, mixed with maybe Great Dane and a bit of German Shepherd. His front right shoulder was shattered. Under his fur—short, smooth and healthy, although long overdue for a wash—the bone structure of his right shoulder was almost as big a mess as my head, and I estimated at least three broken rib bones, maybe four. He had internal injuries that needed to be tended to ASAP. Surgery might save his life. Might. If time was on our side.

I drew a slow breath, noting the abrasions and wounds in his flesh. Moving my hand down to his rear leg, I gently moved it enough to ascertain the knee joint was dislocated.

“It’s going to be okay, mate,” I murmured, returning the dog’s leg to a position I knew would be less painful. He whimpered as I tenderly ran my fingers over the injury, his limpid brown eyes watching me with a trust so implicit I could hardly breathe for a second.

Animals do that to me: rock me to my core. I know almost everything there is to know about animals: their anatomy, their behavior, their psychology. I’ve studied them to a clinical level beyond what was expected in my degree. I’ve operated on them in my internship, reconstructed their insides, saved them from dying by car and cancer and carelessness. I’ve rehabilitated animals so callously mistreated by their owners I’ve contemplated taking the law into my own hands and showing them what it feels like to be kicked, starved, burned, tortured. I’ve made my life about animals, but they still surprise me with their trust.

An animal will trust you when it knows it can. That simple. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mixed-breed dog like my friend on the road before me, or an elephant caught in a poacher’s trap in South Africa, or a tiger caged by a cruel circus owner, an animal will trust you when it knows you are trustworthy. It may be only for a fleeting second, before the opportunity to flee presents itself, but in that fleeting second, you make a connection with that animal that will change you on a level I’ve yet to find a word to describe.

I wasn’t prepared for the sudden feel of a firm grip on my shoulder.

“Sir, step away from the animal, please.”

All the calm I’d found tending to the dog evaporated at the brusque tone of the police officer. The dog whimpered, twisting beneath my hands in an instinctive need to escape. I looked up straight into a pair of mirrored sunglasses, and saw myself and the dog in their reflection. Chase stood in my peripheral vision.

“Are you aware that it’s illegal to obstruct the flow of traffic?” the cop asked, his grip on my shoulder loosening. Loosening. Not releasing.

“Are you aware this dog would have died on the road if I hadn’t?” I answered. It wasn’t until later I accepted that antagonizing a California Highway Patrol Officer probably wasn’t a good idea. “If not from his injuries, then from having his internal organs crushed by the tires of another car running over him? Are you aware how painful it would be to have your intestines compressed like a balloon before rupturing in a spew of—”

“Caden.”

Chase’s admonishment stopped me before I could continue. Suffice to say, that was a good idea. By the look on the cop’s face, I was already in enough trouble to get me deported. Or imprisoned.

“What’s your name, sir?”

Still crouching beside the dog, I smoothed my hand over its neck. I needed to find my calm again. I’d destroyed any ground I’d made with Chase by shouting at her and being worried for her safety—something that clearly pissed her off—and now I was about to go ballistic on a cop more worried about traffic flow than an animal in pain. “Caden O’Dae,” I answered, hoping to hell my face didn’t show my impatience and irritation.

“Where are you from, Mr. O’Dae?”

Frustration flared through me. “Melbourne, Australia. Look, this dog needs urgent medical attention. Are you going to get it, or am I going to have to do it myself?”

The cop’s grip on my shoulder released. Yay.

He raised his hand to the mic attached to the front of his shirt and turned his head a little, mirrored lenses still trained on me. “Dispatch, this is Gibson. I’ve got a situation on southbound Highway 1 near Dana Point.”

Not yay. So not yay.

I shot Chase a quick look. She stood in the space between me and the cop, her teeth gnawing at her bottom lip, worry eating up her face. God, I hated seeing that. Hated it even more that I was responsible for it. I should have protected her better, regardless of what she’d said about not needing it. I should have made sure she was safe and out of any harm before running to the dog.

I’d been foolish, and she’d almost paid the cost.

It’s going to be okay, I signed. I don’t know why I did. I could have said the words aloud, but at this point, I was not in a … let’s go with stable headspace. But if I’m arrested, can you bring me a cake with a jar of Vegemite baked into the middle, please?

It took her a while to put together the letters I’d signed for Vegemite—there’s no American sign-language shortcut for the iconic Australian spread—but when she did, she did exactly as I hoped she would.

She rolled her eyes and let out a snort that was so close to a laugh it made my heart thump faster.

Dropping my attention to the dog, I stroked its neck gently. “It’s going to be okay, mate,” I reassured him. I wasn’t just talking about its injuries.

“Okay, Mr. O’Dae?”

I jerked my head up to discover the cop was now crouched opposite me, mirrored lenses gone. Compassion and concern filled his eyes.

“What do we need to do?”

I blinked at his question. Having already decided I was going to be arrested and thrown into a US prison, my mind was having difficulty dealing with this sudden shift.

He smiled. “Thought you were being arrested?”

I frowned.

His smile turned to a grin. She told me, he signed, nodding his head toward Chase.

A gust of air left me in what I hoped sounded like a laugh but was probably more a relieved gasp.

“You sign?”

“Deaf sister,” he answered. “It would come in handy when she’d bring boys home I didn’t like. I’d tell her exactly what I thought of them, and most of the time they were clueless about what I was saying.”

“Know how that works,” I said, remembering Donald the Dude’s reaction to my signing to Chase in the airport terminal. I did not like that guy. Have I mentioned that yet? But I wasn’t going to let Chase see that. Better to not let her know I was ruffled.

Rubbing at my face with one hand, I returned my attention to the dog and the police officer opposite me. “Okay, we need to get him to an emergency vet ASAP. Do you know of one?”

The cop stroked the dog and frowned. “The closest is in Laguna Niguel, back toward LA. From here, it’s safest to keep going south, then get on the 5 North.”

I nodded. “Let’s get him there, pronto. Do you mind if I sit in the back with him? That way I can monitor his breathing and heart rate. There’s not much more I can do in the car, but hopefully it’ll keep him less stressed at least.”

“Do I mind?” The cop shook his head. “Hell no. I was going to ask you to. Your girl okay with meeting us there?”

My girl.

I lifted my gaze to Chase, a disquieting sense of anticipation unfurling through me at her reaction to the cop’s mistaken term. She stood watching us from the Volvo’s tailgate, too far away for her to hear his question, and not at the right angle to see his lips.

“We have to get to a vet. Back toward LA,” I said, loud enough for my voice to travel to her over the busy freeway noise.

She nodded. “Figured as much.”

“You okay to follow us back? Meet me at the animal hospital?”

She arched an eyebrow. “I don’t know if I like you that much.”

The cop chuckled.

My chest tightened. She did like me that much. I just had to make her admit it.

Of course, almost getting her killed on the busy freeway and then shouting at her about her hearing probably wasn’t the best way to go about it.

Oh man, things were not going the way I’d hoped.

Fuck a bloody duck.