"Fill her up."
Barely registering the words, Patrick O'Keefe stared with stunned disbelief at the woman in the car. His hands froze in the act of wiping them on a shop cloth, his greeting dying before crossing his lips. The gas pumps beside them faded away as did ten years of time and healing. He was the twenty year-old guy, staring at his seventeen year old girlfriend who'd disappeared into the night with nary a word nor explanation to him.
Verity Thompson. Alive and well and more beautiful than ever.
Long dormant fury fired to life. Just like that, she came home, appearing whole and perfectly adjusted... What the hell? Fill her up? Like hell!
He yanked open her car door.
"Get out," he growled.
Her eyes went wide and the smile that had been on her face faltered then disappeared. "Patrick..."
So, she knew who the hell he was. Good, because she had a hell of a lot of explaining to do. Not only had she been his girlfriend, but they'd intended to marry soon after she turned eighteen--he and Verity and his best friend Sim, who'd lived in the town where they'd all gone to school.
"Get. Out. Of the car," he ordered, wondering if his military training would need to come into play here. This woman wasn't going anywhere until he had some answers.
"Patrick, it's been ten years," she protested, reaching for the door handle to slam it shut again. His fingers tightened on the metal, holding it in place like a steel wedge.
She'd already unfastened her seatbelt when she'd pulled into the lot. Easily, he reached for her and hauled her out of the car. Sympathy was absent as he frog-marched her into the waiting area of the full-service station and garage then back to the office area. His brother and cousins, who were working on various projects, cleared out, giving him the room.
He yanked out his desk chair.
"Sit," he ordered then he released her and backed away. He leaned against the single door to the windowless room, making it clear she wasn't going anywhere until he was good and ready.
She stared at him, any humor she'd had when she'd pulled into the station gone. Her arms crossed her chest, and she stared at him fire in her dark brown eyes. They hadn't changed a bit. Big and brown and hinting of her Hispanic ancestry, as did her long nearly black hair and light olive toned skin. Her curves had developed since she'd left here, yet her body was now sleek without a hint of the tiny bit of baby fat she'd once retained.
As she scowled at him, her breasts heaved, and his cock went hard in his jeans. Refusing to give into that, he lifted an eyebrow and waited for her to comply with his demand.
"If you think you can drag me in here and start ordering me around, you have another thing coming," she exclaimed. "I'm not the little girl you used to push around--"
She broke off as he straightened and pushed away from the door. Eyes wide, she took a step back and tripped into the chair. He towered over her as she sprawled in it. Before she could arrange herself or leap out of it, he leaned over her, bracing his hands on the armrests and effectively caging her in. She stared up at him in wide-eyed fear.
"Push...you...around?" he growled. "Is that the lie you've been telling yourself all these years, honey? That I pushed you around? I forced you to run off in the night without a word to your parents--"
"I talked to them--"
"When?" he demanded. If she had, he didn't know about it. Of course, they'd blamed him for her departure and stopped speaking with him as soon as it had been clear he didn't know where their daughter had disappeared to, and as soon as they knew she wasn't with him.
"I wrote them a few months after I left."
And no one had told him. He'd been in the military then. He supposed they had the excuse that they couldn't reach him, you know, unless they'd tried. His family had always known where to find him.
His fury bubbled into rage.
He had a knife wound in his back from an attack by an al-Qaeda wannabe in Iraq. He'd been so distracted by worry about Verity that he hadn't detected the fourteen year old before the kid had plunged a blade into him. That had been just after she'd disappeared. The worst had gone through his mind--that she'd get caught up in prostitution like so many young runaways did, that she'd been kidnapped, that she'd gone for a walk and been attacked and killed by an animal or man, that she'd been forced into white slavery... Everyday a new and worse scenario had haunted him.
Apparently, none of them were true. Thank God. But the unnecessary mental anguish stabbed at his anger, making it worse.
Gathering herself, she shifted her expression into a defiant scowl. "Are you going to hold me here like a prisoner of war? Waterboard me if I don't give you the answers you want?"
"I have better methods," he replied.
A spark of lust flickered in her eyes just before she narrowed them. "You'd stoop to sexual assault?"
"Assault? Hardly, honey." Though...he could make her want it. He knew Verity's hot spots. He could have her writhing with desire. He could give her exactly what he wanted then leave her wondering what the hell had happened, just as she'd done to him.
She shoved at his chest, her small fingers ineffective against his muscles. "Let me up."
"When I'm ready."
Her lips pursed as she pressed them together. Oh, yes, here was the prissy Verity he missed. This was the look she'd always given him when she'd known she shouldn't do something but wanted to more than anything else.
"I'm not that girl anymore," she insisted. "I'm just here to see my parents."
"Do they know you're coming?" he asked. It would be just like them to keep this from him.
She started to shake her head then stopped sharply. "Yes."
"Don't lie to me, Verity." He lifted a hand and stroked his finger along her cheek. Her teeth sank into her bottom lip before she closed her eyes and shied away. A flash of tenderness soothed a bit of his anger. There'd been arousal and desire in her gaze before she'd hidden it from him. "Don't lie," he repeated. "That was always something good we had between us. The truth. And the truth was that you wanted me and Sim. We were going to be a family. And you ran. And I want answers."
"It was ten years ago," she insisted.
"And I'm the man you left behind to deal with the pieces of what we were going to have. Why did you go?"
She sighed but she still didn't look at him. He grasped her chin and forced her gaze in his direction. "Open your eyes and tell me why."
Defiant anger greeted him. "I just want gas in my car and to be on my way."
His fingers tightened, but he didn't say a word.
"I'm pressing charges," she insisted.
Right. "I care."
"I was scared. Okay? I was fucking scared. I didn't want to get caught in the Daly cycle and be a woman who was good for nothing but having sex with her multiple husbands and popping out babies. I wanted more to life than that."
"Is that really what you think of the women here? Of your mother? Of my mother?"
"Your mother was married to one man."
Patrick's disbelief overwhelmed him. This was what Verity had thought--what she still seemed to think? Most people in Daly practiced menage. There weren't enough women so the men shared. Boys were brought up knowing that was the Daly Way. Usually a couple men had one woman. Sometimes more than a couple men.
"And you think your mother was nothing more than a whore."
"Don't call her that!"
He raised an eyebrow, not caring that she was as infuriated as a wet cat. "That's what you said... 'Good for nothing more than having sex'. Right?"
"That's just like you to take what I say out of context."
"Is it?" he asked. "As I recall, I was nothing but good to you. I promised you everything."
"But a life," she retorted. "Keeping your house and waiting around while you gallivanted around the world, charging into danger, isn't my idea of a life. I wanted more."
"I would have let you have more--"
"Let?" she screeched, and he could see this conversation was about to spiral out of control. Ten years of festering wounds were about to explode.
"It's just an expression, honey," he replied, purposely egging her on with a condescending tone. "But do tell. What life was it that I denied you?"
With a glare, she pressed her lips together and looked away.
"Oh don't shut up now," he told her. "I'd really like to know more about what an awful person I am--what a terrible person Sim is. You want me to call him?"
"Sim is here?" she asked quietly.
"It's home. He moved back." They'd both been in the Navy when she'd run. Patrick had come home five years ago to take over his parents' business, O'Toole's Gas and Repair. Sim had discharged a couple years earlier after an IED had destroyed the hearing in one of his ears. Luckily, Sim had been spared other physical trauma, unlike Patrick's brother who still lived with the extensive scarring wrought by a suicide bomber. And he'd been a civilian, not a soldier like Patrick and Sim.
"I just want to go to my parents," she replied, denying any desire to see Sim.
"You sure? He's right across the street at the house I built next door to the family home." Oh, she'd see Sim. Right now, Patrick was taunting her, releasing some of his impotent tension, but he knew this wasn't ending before Verity served her time with the two of them.
He grinned at the thought. Served her time... A lifetime sentence was obviously out of the question, but Verity owed them some answers. And he owed it to her to show her exactly what she'd run out on.
It stung that she'd imply he and Sim would have denied her a life. What the hell? The women around here were talented, strong females who were far more than concubines to their husbands. They'd be deeply insulted by Verity's implication.
"Since your parents aren't expecting you, you can see them later."
"What?" she exclaimed.
"You're coming with me."
Pulling her from the chair, he yanked her close to his body. Immediately, her sweet curves pressed to him like a pliant mold, learning his planes.
"Let me go," she demanded.
He coerced her across the room to the door, finding it rather ironic that she fought to get away when all she'd wanted before was to get out the door.
"Jamie," he called as he left. "There's something wrong with Verity's car. It needs a full check. You might need to take it apart for a deep down inspection."
"Don't listen to him!"
Patrick clapped his hand over her mouth.
"Keys are in the ignition. Verity definitely needs a valve cleaning. You should get it up in the air."
"I see," Jamie replied, his hand to the side of his face as he regarded them. Though he'd found the woman of his dreams who loved him scars and all, he wasn't yet fully confident with his looks. "Nice to see you again, Verity. I'll get your car fixed up."
She screeched behind Patrick's hand, but he was already turning them toward the door. Immediately, once outside, he slung her up over his shoulder and marched for his house.
"Let me down! Patrick, God damn it! You can't do this. Put me down." She smacked at him and kicked her feet until he fastened an iron-like arm around her legs. He wasn't letting her down until he was good and ready. Her fists pummeled his back. Giving up on convincing him, she screamed. "Help! Help me!"
To his amusement, a few of the cowboys from the outlying ranches were just exiting Leena's Diner as he crossed the street. They knew him--everyone in Daly knew him--and instead of rushing to Verity's aid, they stood in the middle of the street hooting and hollering at Patrick's outrageous caveman tactics, which he had to admit was way outside his usual laidback norm, but Verity had always pushed him.