Liam could still feel Riley shaking. His instincts shouted to soothe and protect, and he was becoming very aware that the woman in his arms was a long damn way from the girl he remembered. He’d known that, objectively. But seeing with his eyes was a helluva lot different from feeling with his body. Now he knew just how well those exquisite curves of hers fit against all the hard lines of him. And damn him, he liked it.
She shoved again. Liam wasn’t sure her legs would hold her yet, but because he wasn’t positive she wouldn’t try to slug him again, he released her.
She stumbled, throwing up a hand in the universal stop gesture, even as he stepped forward, reaching out to steady her. Because, of course, she’d rather struggle than take help from him. And he’d earned that.
Liam curled his hands into fists to keep from touching her.
Riley let out a shaky breath and straightened. Whatever momentary softening had been brought on by fear was gone. “Jesus Christ, you about gave me a heart attack. What are you doing here?”
Clearly continuing to fuck things up with you.
He eyed her still clenched hands and tapped the tape clipped to his belt. “Measuring.”
“Mom’s decided she wants to rent out the apartment. She wanted me to look into doing some renovations up here.”
“She didn’t tell me.”
Liam found himself wanting to smooth away the furrow between her dark brows. Instead, he backed up a few paces to give them both some space and kicked back against the kitchen counter. “She only just decided at dinner. I ran out of projects at home, and I think she wants me out from underfoot. I’m making a floor plan.”
“At ten-thirty on a weeknight?” Riley demanded.
“It’s as good a time as any.”
“In the dark?”
“Most of the light bulbs are burned out. What are you still doing here? The pharmacy closed hours ago.”
“I’m working. Or I was, until you scared the bejeezus out of me.”
“What happened to Ruby?”
“Are you living under a rock? She’s out helping with Vivian Buckley’s wedding.”
Liam dimly remembered his friend Reuben Blanchard, who owned the local boxing gym, was standing up as best man in that wedding. He knelt to pick up the counting spatula Riley had dropped. “And you were planning on doing what with this?”
She scooped a hand through her dark brown hair and didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Intimidating the intruder.”
Liam lifted a brow. She scowled back at him, an expression he’d come to expect whenever he got within ten feet of her—which wasn’t often. It was a far cry from how she’d looked at him in high school.
“Good to know you still remember some of the self defense I taught you. That probably would’ve worked on somebody without combat training.” She could do with a refresher course, but now was absolutely not the time to bring that up.
Something flickered in her eyes before she held out her hand for the spatula. “Thankfully, I haven’t had cause to use it until tonight.”
“Glad to hear it.” He’d worried about that after he’d enlisted. Not that she’d have believed it, and not that she’d given him opportunity to say so in the last twelve years.
“I’ll go ahead and warn you, the police are on their way.”
“Sensible to have called them. Why didn’t you wait for them?”
“Good question.” This came from the open doorway.
Of course the responding officer would be Judd. Because the best friend who’d had Liam’s back since fifth grade was going to walk into this situation and know something was up. Shit.
Judd stepped inside, thumbs hooked in his utility belt. He nodded a greeting to Liam before pegging Riley with a gimlet stare. “I know Janette told you to stay put.”
“I thought it was just kids,” she protested.
“Was that before or after you called 911?”
Her shoulders stiffened. “If he had been a burglar, he could’ve trashed the place and been gone before you ever got here.”
“And you could’ve been hurt or worse,” Liam pointed out. “You know better.”
Her blue eyes narrowed to slits. “I’m not a child anymore, Liam, and you are not my keeper. Judd, I’m sorry to have wasted your time. As it’s not actually an emergency, I’m going home. It’s been an exceptionally long day. If there’s nothing further?”
“Just a warning. Next time you have to call on the police, wait for us to do our jobs instead of charging in blind. You might not be so lucky as to have one of the good guys on the other side of the door.”
Riley shot a glance at Liam that clearly questioned whether he fit into that category. “Understood. Thanks for coming. Goodnight.” She strode by him with an aloof grace worthy of any silver screen diva and slammed the door behind her.
Judd raised a brow.
Liam shook his head. “Sweet. She used to be sweet.”
“She still is—to everybody else. What’s up with that? I thought you were supposed to be charming with the ladies.”
“Obviously not that one.” It was exactly his luck that the closest he’d managed to get to Riley Gower since he came home was by nearly scaring her to death. It made repaying his debt damned hard.
Judd radioed the all clear to dispatch. “What was that about you teaching her self defense?”
That was a secret he’d told no one, and Liam didn’t plan to start now. Not even with one of his oldest friends.
“There was a time once when she needed it.” A time when she’d needed a helluva lot more than that. “It was a long time ago.”
Judd waited with that expectant cop stare he was as likely to use on the job as over the poker table, but Liam didn’t volunteer anything else.
“I know something about putting your ass on the line for somebody who can’t defend themselves. It’s hard to let go of the sense of responsibility you feel for that person.”
Because that hit uncomfortably close to the truth, Liam shrugged. “As she said, I’m not her keeper.”
“You lookin’ to be?”
“No.” There were a whole lot of reasons Liam wasn’t fit to be anybody’s keeper. But he couldn’t deny that Riley fell under the heading of unfinished business. Business that had consumed far too many of his waking—and sleeping—thoughts since he’d walked back into her world. This apartment renovation right over her head might be just the opportunity he needed to get some much needed resolution.
“Uh huh.” One corner of Judd’s mouth quirked. “I’ve got eyes to see you noticing she’s not a kid and ears to hear around town that you haven’t said yes to any of the assorted offers of female companionship that have come your way the last six months.”
Liam wondered how long it would take him to be replaced as one of the hottest topics of local gossip. “I would have to be dead not to notice she grew up to have a rocking body, and why does my rejection of female companionship have to have anything to do with that?”
“Because you’re not dead, as you pointed out.”
“Man, you were at my welcome home party. My mother fully expects me to find some woman, settle down, and start giving her grandchildren. She gets a whiff of interest in anybody, she’ll start pushing china patterns or some shit. This town is too small and too damned nosy—as you’ve just illustrated—to be anything but very careful in choosing my companionship. I haven’t even settled on a permanent job yet. I’m sure as hell not in any position to start looking for a permanent woman. And even if I was, Riley Gower is not for me.”
So why the hell couldn’t he get her off his mind?
“Admittedly, she’s not one of the candidates in the pool Omar’s running up at Dinner Belles, but that’s just because nobody’s thought of it.”
“And they can just keep on not thinking of it. Everybody is doomed to disappointment if they expect me to provide fodder for the gossip mill. I am not that interesting.”
Judd laughed. “You keep telling yourself that, buddy boy.” His radio crackled to life. He answered the dispatcher and turned for the door. “Duty calls. See you in the ring Wednesday morning?”
“I’ll be there.” Liam bumped his fist, watched him go.
Free of interruptions, he finished up measurements for the floor plan, made notes about which were the load bearing walls, and locked up. He circled around front, but the pharmacy was dark other than the security lights. Looked like Riley actually had gone home.
Liam didn’t like the thought of her alone in the pharmacy this late at night. Defenseless. Or mostly. This was Wishful and the crime rate was low compared to the rest of the country. But she was still guardian of all kinds of controlled substances. What if somebody decided they wouldn’t take no for an answer? She’d had enough experience with that kind of victimization. The memory of that had him clenching his fists.
It had been twelve years since he’d walked away from his self-appointed duty as her protector. She’d shown absolutely no indication she wanted him to resume that role, but Liam couldn’t shrug off that sense of responsibility so easily. Knowing Riley wouldn’t thank him for his concern, Liam made a mental note to check with his mom to make sure she’d upgraded the alarm system before she sold the business. If she had, well, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure the system was still up to spec. And if she hadn’t, he’d take care of it.