“I remember Mom taking you in,” Ty said.

“We were so different I thought you’d kill me in my sleep,” Hunter said, his wry laughter interrupting Ty’s thoughts.

“You’re lucky I didn’t.” Ty grinned, the memory of Hunter’s first night in the Benson home still vivid.

“The kid in the home I was in before yours kicked my ass after his mother left me in his room. You just tossed me a pillow and warned me not to snore,” Hunter reminded him.

“You did it anyway.” Ty laughed.

Outwardly they couldn’t have been more different-Ty with his longer straggly dark hair and his mother’s olive skin, Hunter with his sandy hair and paler skin. But the two had bonded. They were similar enough for an unlikely alliance to form because like Hunter, Ty didn’t trust easily, either.

How could he when his father had set the pattern in a youth filled with broken promises? I’ll be at your game. I’ll pick you up from practice. If gambling and offtrack betting didn’t distract him first, Ty thought bitterly. His father was consistently unreliable. Ironically, knowing he couldn’t count on his old man hadn’t prepared Ty for the ultimate kick in the ass.

He’d just turned nine the week before when his father had promised he’d pick him up from basketball practice. Ty hadn’t been shocked when he’d been left standing out in the parking lot in the dead of winter. It wasn’t the first time. So he’d huddled against a lamppost, knowing his old man would show up eventually full of apologies and excuses. When he didn’t, Ty had finally dragged himself to the nearest business and called his mother who’d come immediately to pick him up. Together they’d discovered his father had taken off for good.

For the first time in his life, Joe Benson had left a note. He’d also left Ty cold, wary of trust and promises. Until Hunter had come into his home and then a short time later, Lilly.

Before he allowed himself to take that path, he turned to his friend. “So what’s got you traveling down memory lane tonight?” Ty asked, pouring the whiskey into a glass and sliding it over to his friend.

Hunter smiled grimly. “You should pour yourself one, too.”

Ty raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Hunter leaned closer and spoke low and deep. “It’s about Lilly.”

Just hearing her name caused overwhelming emotions to rush through Ty and his head pounded hard. Neither he nor Hunter had heard from Lilly again after the night she left for good.

“What’s going on?” he asked Hunter, needing answers.

Hunter drew a long breath before speaking. “Dumont’s planning to have Lilly declared legally dead and claim her trust fund as his own.”

Ty didn’t wait for the words to penetrate before reacting, slamming his fist onto the top of the bar. “Son of a bitch.”

All the old anger and resentment that Ty had spent years nurturing, then burying, welled up inside him once more. Dumont may have brought Lilly into Ty’s life but he’d also been the reason Ty had lost her for good. He’d never forgive the man for that or for the abuse he’d heaped onto Lilly in the years before they’d met.

As the reality of Hunter’s news set in, the past returned, surrounding Ty as if were happening today. The blood pounded in his head, his feelings raw. First Hunter had come into Ty’s home, somehow breaching the walls he’d erected since his father had walked out. Then Lilly had arrived and it was as if the small hole he’d made for Hunter had weakened his barriers and they’d come tumbling down. He’d paid for that over many long lonely years but he couldn’t regret meeting or caring about Lilly.

For a short time he’d learned to open his heart. Ty had gone from a loner to a guy surrounded by his best friend and his best girl-at least that’s how he’d thought of her at the time, although they’d never had the chance to really act on the feelings simmering below the surface. Maybe they’d been smart enough, even at their young age, to put the friendship first. Maybe time just hadn’t been on their side. Ty would never know. Because too soon a letter came, indicating her abusive uncle’s intent to have her returned to his custody, and the three friends had put their plan into motion.

“Hard to believe, Dumont has the balls after all these years, huh?” Hunter asked.

Ty glanced heavenward. “I wish we’d looked ahead and seen this one coming.”

Hunter rolled his eyes. “This from the man who insisted we never speak of the night again?”

“Shut up,” Ty muttered, hating when his own words came back to haunt him.

But his friend had a point. Like a fool, Ty had thought if he never spoke about Lilly again, he’d be able to get her out of his system. Believed he’d be able to forget her.

Cross my heart. Her softly spoken words returned to him now. The last time he’d seen her, she’d promised she’d never forget him. As hard as he tried, he hadn’t been able to block her out of his memory, either. No matter how painful he found it to think of what might have been, he’d thought of Lilly often. He still did.

From the minute he’d watched her plop his baseball cap on her head and walk off, Ty had wanted nothing more than to go with her. For days he’d struggled with the idea of taking off after her. But he’d stayed home because his mother needed him. Ty knew Flo couldn’t handle her son running off so soon after Lilly had disappeared and she deserved better than two heartbreaks so close together. Three if he counted Hunter being taken away from them as well. But Ty had missed Lilly every damn day since.

Years later, he’d given in to temptation. Ty had made some cop contacts in New York and with their help, he’d done some surface digging for Lacey Kinkaid, the name they’d chosen. From there, it had been surprisingly simple to discover that she was alive and well.

Ty hadn’t taken it any further. He hadn’t contacted her. She’d obviously moved forward with her life and he couldn’t see disturbing those ghosts. Ty himself had insisted on a clean break. And though he’d made that initial choice, she’d followed his instructions. She hadn’t contacted him, not after she’d turned twenty-one and had nothing to fear from her uncle. And not years later when she was an independent woman capable of making her own decisions.

On the nights when he second-guessed his decision, he told himself that his feelings for her had been nothing more than infatuation or puppy love, as the parents of the runaway teens that he tracked now often labeled their children’s hormonal emotions. He’d done some pretty fine convincing, too. She couldn’t be as pretty as he remembered. Her skin couldn’t be as soft. Her scent wouldn’t still wind its way into his heart. All those things must have been an illusion built on the things Lilly represented. The wealthy heiress whose guardian had turned her out of her home, denied her her fortune, and left her fragile and in need of someone strong to take care of her.

Ty had willingly stepped in and filled the role, but deep down, he knew that Lilly was tougher than he gave her credit for and didn’t need him as much as he’d wanted to be needed. She’d run away to the city and thrived there, proving she wasn’t the fragile princess he’d put up on a pedestal. And thank God she wasn’t, or else she wouldn’t have survived, while he’d been living pretty well off of money his mother never should have taken.

“I knew this wasn’t going to be easy on any of us,” Hunter said. “But you’re looking green. Are you okay?”

Ty cleared his throat. “I’m fine. How’d you find out about Dumont?” Ty asked.

“Indirectly through Molly Gifford.”

“The chick you knew in law school?”

Hunter nodded. “I ran into her at the courthouse today.”

“Has she agreed to date you yet?” Ty laughed, certain his friend had at least given it another try.

“No, but I’m making progress. Unfortunately the timing of her turnaround sucks. Her mother’s going to marry Dumont, which leaves her as my only link to information on the man.” He shifted in his seat, obviously uncomfortable in the role he’d have to take on.

“No shit? Molly’s mother is going to marry the bastard?”

Hunter’s reply was to finish his drink in one gulp.

“Then you are going to have to turn up the charm.”

“And she’s going to see right through me,” Hunter said and winked. But despite his cocky grin, he was obviously not pleased at the connection.

Ty poured his friend another shot. “But you’ll do it to help Lilly?”

Hunter inclined his head. “Do I have a choice? We’re tied together, the three of us. I helped her then and I’ll help her now.”

Because he cared about Lilly, too. In all the years of their friendship, they’d never spoken about Hunter’s

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