“That’s bullshit!” I screamed at him. “You had a choice, Painter. You were on parole, you knew they were out to get you, and you still turned and ran off with your club like a fucking coward when I told you I was pregnant. Do not tell me you didn’t have a choice. You always have a choice.”
Painter blinked rapidly, then stared straight ahead, hands gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turned white.
The words shocked me. Painter turned back to me, eyes burning with intensity.
“I was scared when you told me about Izzy,” he said. “You were scared, too—you told me you sat and cried on the floor in your bathroom when you found out, for fuck’s sake. You told me and I didn’t know what to say. I’d never wanted a kid, and then you were pissed and you left and I made my choice. I didn’t want to face that reality, so I rode with the club instead. I thought the run would clear my head, that we’d figure everything out when I got back. Instead they locked me up and I’ll have to live with that the rest of my life.”
“Painter . . .”
“I’m still scared sometimes when I look at her,” he continued, shaking his head slowly. “She’s this little tiny thing and there’s so many different ways we can break her, Mel. Even if we don’t, there’s a whole goddamned world out there just waiting to hurt her when she gets bigger. Mean girls and horny boys and school and the flu and that’s just the start. The best we can do is just push forward, one day at a time. I wasn’t with you then, but I’m with you now. I’m busting ass, building my career, earning money to support her—legal money, by the way—but you want me to go back in time and change history. I just can’t fucking do that, Melanie. Not even for you.”
Blinking, I stared at him, trying to process his words.
“You shouldn’t have left us,” I whispered.
Painter shook his head, reaching down to slam the SUV into gear, pulling out onto the street.
“Fuck, but you hold a grudge.”
“I did what I had to do, by myself. You disappeared. I never had that option, not even when things were at their worst.”
Painter slammed on the brake, the SUV skidding to the curb.
“What the hell?” I gasped, clutching the door.
He turned on me.
“You had options,” he said, his voice more intense than I’d ever heard it. “Just like I did. I already admitted it—I chose prison. You chose our child. You could’ve aborted her, but you didn’t. You took the hard road, and you raised a hell of a child along the way. I will never, ever forgive myself for leaving you alone, but I give thanks every fucking day that you were the strong one, Melanie. I can’t imagine life without Izzy. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank you for that.”
My breath came fast as we stared each other down. He was right. I’d been damned strong, and I’d been rewarded for that strength with an amazing, beautiful child who deserved the very best of everything in life.
“You’re welcome,” I managed to say, swallowing. Painter leaned over, catching the back of my head and pulling me in for a rough kiss. This wasn’t a seduction—not at all. He shoved his tongue in my mouth, and I felt every bit of his anger and frustration. I wanted to punch him and kiss him and fuck him until he admitted that . . . I didn’t know.
What did I want him to admit?
I heard the click of my seat belt, and then he caught me under the arms, jerking me across the center console. Then the steering wheel was in my back as the kiss deepened. Now it was my turn to get aggressive, grabbing his hair and jerking it back—partly to hurt him and partly so I could attack him with my tongue. The fire I’d felt at the bar was nothing compared to the burn coursing through me now. I wiggled, trying to find some way to get close enough to him for more contact, but it wasn’t possible.
Finally we broke apart, gasping, our foreheads resting against each other.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “Come home with me. We’re good together, Mel. You know we are.”
I thought about it. What would it hurt, just one night together? Whatever else had gone wrong between us, there’d never been anything wrong with our chemistry. He caught my hand, raising it to his lips to kiss my knuckles. A stray bit of light from the streetlamp caught on his ring—a Reaper.
My brain slowly reasserted control as I ran my thumb across it.
“This is why,” I said, wishing I could turn off reality and simply go with him. “They’ll always come first. You’re a good daddy to Iz, but your club is more important than anything else. I want better than that for myself, Painter. I deserve better. That’s why I can’t go home with you.”
With that, I pushed away from him, sliding back across the console awkwardly. He stared at me in the dark, the silence between us so heavy I felt like I was smothering.
Finally he spoke.
“What’s that supposed to be—some kind of fucking ultimatum?”
“No,” I said, feeling clearer than I had all night. “Not at all. I will never ask you to leave the Reapers for me, Painter. Just like I’ll never settle for a man who isn’t one hundred percent mine. We want different things. That’s why all of this is such a big waste of time.”
I don’t know what I’d expected him to say, but this wasn’t it.