If she took that much care with the cat’s bag, hers had to be as well organized.
She stood and smiled a little too intensely. She was plainly done talking about the bags. “I could totally dig into that dessert now. How about you?”
“You get the food, I’ll grab the forks.” He took two from the utensil drawer, then tipped his head toward the sliders that led off the small dining room next to the kitchen. “How about we eat outside?”
He flipped the light switch that turned on the strings of bulbs he’d woven through the two big oaks that flanked his patio. The gleam reflected off the small glass-topped table that sat in the center. Besides the matching chairs, the grill and the hammock farther back were the only things he had out there so far.
“Oh.” She breathed the word out as her eyes rounded. “That’s so pretty.”
“Thanks. I did it myself.” Just like the work inside and the rest of the landscaping. There was something really satisfying about getting your hands dirty.
“Exactly.” He nodded. “You want to eat out there?”
“I would love to.” She unlocked the slider and pulled it open, leaving it that way for him to follow. She put the food on the table, then did a three-sixty as she inspected his yard. “It’s kind of magical out here.”
She stretched her arms out, closed her eyes and spun slowly.
He just stood and watched, admiring how the soft lighting picked out the strands of honey in her hair and gilded her in the golden glow from the tips of her delicately pointed ears down to her pink-polished toes. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And if this was her reaction to a few strings of porch lights, she’d be a very easy woman to keep happy.
A sharp realization pierced him. He wanted to be the man—the only man—keeping her happy.
She opened her eyes and laughed. “Sorry, it’s a fae thing, I guess. I just had to take it all in.”
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “You’re beautiful, you know that?”
She licked her lips self-consciously. “Thanks.”
“You don’t like compliments.”
One shoulder went up. “No, I do, I’m just not used to them, I think.” Her face brightened, and she grinned. “Thank you. You’re kind of intimidating.”
He nodded slowly. “I get that. I’ve used that to my advantage many times in the past. Still do, really.” He leaned against the open sliding door. “Do you still think that now that you’ve gotten to know me a little?”
“Yes and no.” She swallowed. “You…sort of jumble me up inside.”
That stunned him. “In a good way, I hope.”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ve never spent time with a man like you.”
He peeled away from the door and walked closer. “What kind of man is that?”
She tipped her head back, the earnestness in her eyes almost undoing him. “Strong, but sweet. Dangerous and yet, somehow, funny. Handsome. Grounded.” Her hand came up to touch his arm, her fingertips gliding lightly over his skin and sending gentle bolts of power into his bones. “A protector.”
The word sliced through him, reminding him of the violent and unbalanced history between his people and hers. It renewed his doubt about her and he didn’t like that. He didn’t want to consider she might be using him. “You just think that because I was military and because of the way I look.”
“Maybe at first.” She shook her head, her fingers tracing the lines of the Ranger tattoo on his forearm. Whorls of energy spilled into his skin where her fingertips played. “But now I think that because you genuinely seem to care what happens to me.”
“I do.” It wasn’t a lie.
She turned away slightly, her arms wrapping her torso. “I haven’t had a lot of that in my life.”
The longing in her voice made him realize once and for all that he’d been wrong. This was not a woman out to use him. This was a woman looking for her place in the world, trying to make a connection, hoping to get as much back as she was putting in. All things he understood very well. “Why is that?”
After a deep breath, she stared at the pavers under her feet. “I ran away from home when I was a teenager. My parents—and my community—had expectations that I couldn’t live up to. I didn’t want to live up to them. They had my whole life planned out for me. I had no say. About my own life. So I did the only thing I could think of.”
“You ran.” The carefully packed bags made sense now. So did the fact that none of the stories of her past had included family. No doubt, she’d run before, probably several times, which meant she’d do it again if she felt that was her only option.
The thought of losing her now, when he’d just begun to understand her and care for her, made him ache in an unfamiliar way.
She nodded and looked over her shoulder at him. “I’m sure running seems like such a childish thing to do, but it made sense to me at the time.”
He put his arms around her and pulled her against his chest. Holding her felt good. They fit well together. “I’d never judge you for having a strong sense of self-preservation.”
With a soft sigh, she turned and leaned into him. “Thanks.”
He lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes. “Just please don’t run again. Not now.” That was as close as he could come to revealing how he’d begun to feel about her. More than that would leave him too vulnerable. Especially if she disappeared on him.