“I’m not ignoring you. I’m just not in the mood to talk to a jerk.” She pushed at the swing, focusing her attention on the spotted moon.

“I’m a jerk because I said something you didn’t want to hear?”

Tamar scoffed. “If you came out here to continue arguing, you can leave.”

He lifted both hands. “I’m just trying to figure out what makes me a jerk so I don’t make the mistake again.”

She placed one foot on the ground to slow down and turned to him with a frown. “You honestly have no idea what you did? Or are you trying to placate me?” Annoyed that he was just sitting there, Tamar pushed to her feet and walked a few feet away, wrapping her arms around herself.

“I made a guess but you got all snappy. Just trying to figure it out,” he reiterated casually as he pushed off the pole to follow her. “I don’t placate. We have a problem, we fix it. We’re not going to dance around each other and sugarcoat stuff. Say what you mean and mean what you say. So again, what’s the problem?”

Exasperated, Tamar threw a scowl at him over her shoulder. “Fine then.” She turned to face him. “My problem with you. Easy. You take on more than you should. You act like you can save the world and yet you’re drowning. You behave like you have the strength to do everything but you don’t. It pisses me off.” She swallowed hard, pressing her nails into her arms. “What good will all this be when you can no longer be there for Crystal… because you’ve worn yourself out trying to be Superman.” Blinking the tears away, she glared up at him. “How do you expect me to trust you when you can’t trust me?”

“Not more than I should. Maybe more than is comfortable, but not more than I should. She and my mom are my top priority. If making sure they’re taken care of means some extra work on my part then that’s what it’s gonna be. I can do this, Tamar. I’ve been doing it. I can and will be there for them until they don’t need me. There aren’t any other options. None of this is about not trusting you. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Tamar shifted uncomfortably, wanting desperately to argue with him. His words spilled over, allowing her no room to question or challenge him.

“Do I want to talk about all the details?” Dylan forged on. “No, but it’s not because I don’t trust you. It’s because if I want to focus on the situation at all, I want to spend the time working out some other options not talking about how ‘unfair’ it is that I go head to head with Nick because for now Crystal has to stay there.”

Tamar shook her head. “I can’t and won’t accept that. I’m sorry but I won’t.” She clenched her jaw. “On top of championing your sister and mother, you’d want to add my issues to your plate? And then you get upset when I want to figure it out myself?” She pushed out a shaky breath. “If you’d rather figure out this problem with your father and Crystal on your own, don’t bother standing up for me in school. It’s the same principle, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t take up every second of every day. I have more than enough time to be there for you.” The more Dylan talked, the more he felt like he was losing his logic. “No, it’s not the same principle. You keep trying to come back to that and I already told you where I stand when it comes to that. It hasn’t changed. I don’t want you exposed to the violence. Nobody’s going to hurt me on campus.”

She eyed his features shrouded in the dark and heaved a deep sigh. “Talking to you is like I’m talking to a brick wall. You’re stubborn and impossible.” She walked around him, starting up the path toward the house. There was nothing she could do to get him to hear her out and the realization alone was enough to break her heart. Tears stung her eyes but she was able to keep it down, walking slowly to regain her composure.

Dylan grabbed her hand to stop her progress. “Stop walking away from me, Tamar. If there’s a problem, we fix it,” he reminded her.

Annoyed, Tamar wrenched her hand from his hold. “Stop saying that like it’s true. What are we fixing? You’re calling the shots and you want me to say ‘yes sir’ because you’re right? No, I won’t do it because you’re not right. Not by a long shot.”

“Then tell me where I’m wrong. Don’t write me off and walk away. That tells me you don’t think it’s worth it, you’re done with me. And if that’s where you’re at with it then say it now.”

Frustration frothed inside her as she spun around and glared at him. “Done with you? Can’t you see me? Can’t you hear me?” Tamar rushed toward him, seizing him by his shirt. “Look at me clearly and say that again. Can’t you see me standing here, begging you to let me help? That I’m not just some girl that giggles at your lame jokes and make your blood boil with my kisses and my touch. That I’m someone who loves you and wants to be there for you in every way? That I’m wanting to ease your pain and really help you?” Tears blocked her vision of him and disgusted with herself more than him, Tamar shoved at his chest and started to turn away. Choking against the sobs that rose in her throat, she glared up at him. “I really don’t like you right now. Seriously, you’re not my favorite person at this moment.”

He was reaching for her, pulling her into him even as most of her words faded until only one phrase began to echo in his head. I’m someone who loves you. Nothing else she said penetrated and honestly, none of the rest of it mattered. Dylan struggled with the pure depth of that word yet embraced hearing it from her. He couldn’t manage more than a rough whisper. “Tell me again, pretty girl.”

Even though she didn’t want to be anywhere near him, Tamar couldn’t stop herself from melting in his arms. She scowled. “Tell you what, you overgrown bully? Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

“That you love me. Say it again.”

Her resolve crumbled and she turned her face into his chest. “Oh Dylan, I do. I really really love you.” Her heart was beating so fast, she could barely catch her breath. “I hurt every time you do this to me but I can’t turn away from you. Even when you do this to me, it only makes me want you more. Love you more.”

He slipped his arms from around her to cup her face and tilt her head back. “It’s not to hurt you. It’s to protect you because I love you more than I ever let myself love anybody. That means something to me.”

Tamar’s face warmed at his confession, her entire body tingling. He loved her. She closed her eyes and leaned against him. “Can’t we compromise or something? Isn’t that what people who love each other do? Why can’t I protect the man I love just like you want to protect me?”

There was only one right answer but that didn’t make it any easier to give it. “I can give a few inches.”

She lifted her narrowed eyes to him. “As many inches as I’ll give you.”

“Don’t give too many inches then,” he teased.

Tamar only rolled her eyes and rested her head against his chest, fully spent.

“Is that an agreement?” He lowered his head to kiss the top of her head.

“I’ll need some convincing.” Her fingers trailed up to rest between her cheek and his chest.

“I think I can manage that but let’s get you back inside first.”

Sighing in protest, Tamar hooked an arm around his waist and let him lead her down the sidewalk toward the house. “We’ll figure it all out later. We don’t need to talk about it tonight.”

“You sure you wanna wait?” he asked wrapping his arm over her shoulders.

“There are other things to do besides talking.” Tamar smirked up at him, her heart skipping a beat at his handsome face under the moonlight. “I have the mind to take care of you and that’s what I’ll do. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“That so?” He stole a quick kiss. “Guess I’ll just have to go along with it then. I wouldn’t wanna ruin your plans.”

Tamar rolled her eyes as they walked up the stairs to the front door. “In a way, you almost did. It’s a good thing I’m a forgiving person.” She slipped away and scurried ahead of him to her bedroom. Thankfully, Crystal had returned to her room and the bowls were nowhere in sight. Walking to the bathroom, she pulled out a box from under the sink and walked back inside the room. Dylan was standing by the door and she smiled, patting the spot beside her on the bed. “Lie down.”

He sat down on the bed, carefully stretching out but eying the things she’d brought with her. “You said take care of me, not use me as practice for school work.”

She grinned mischievously and gestured to him. “Lie down.” Flipping the top of the case, she pulled out a clear vial. “Peppermint,” she said and pulled out another. “Or Rosemary?”

“Neither.” He caught the look on her face. “Peppermint. How would I explain walking around smelling like a flower?”

Tamar raised a brow, untwisting the bottle cap. “You’ll take a shower later. Besides, you’re sleeping with me, so only I’ll know you smell like a flower.” She eyed his shirt. “Take that off, please.”

“Bossy little thing. I kinda like it,” he admitted with a grin as he sat up and tugged his shirt over his head.

“Of course. . .” she paused to take a deep breath, holding back a cringe as she took in the dark spots marring his chiseled torso. Tamar bit her bottom lip, closing the vial. Her fingers moved to touch the splotched bruises scattered along his breastbone and she clucked her tongue. “Change of plans.” She stood and then hesitated, looking back down at him. Her eyes swept over his face and with a soft sigh, Tamar planted a kiss on his temple before turning away to the door. “I’ll get some ice for that.”

“I don’t need ice,” he argued half-heartedly, knowing she’d get some anyway. He wished he could’ve spared her from having to see the aftermath but all he could do was deal with it now.

Within a minute, she shuffled back into the room with an ice pack. Perching beside him, Tamar eyed his bare chest and shook her head solemnly, biting her tongue against what she really wanted to say. It wouldn’t help matters anyway. “This afternoon, I made pie and even lasagna to feed you. Then I was thinking we’d lay around and watch movies, and I’d give you a massage.” She tentatively pressed the ice pack on one of the bruises, her eyes steady on his face. “I’d planned to confess my feelings for you over ice-cream kisses and all, but this is okay too.” With her free hand, she held one of his up to her lips. “It’s bad timing but I love you, Dylan. And I’ll always be here for you.”

He sucked in a breath as the coldness penetrated his skin. “You gotta admit, this story will be more interesting for the kids.” His smile faded almost immediately once he looked into her eyes. “I love you too, pretty girl. Even if I don’t say it, it means somethin’ knowing I can count on you to be there.”

Her cheeks warmed at his husky confession and she laughed softly, lowering her gaze to his chest. It would take time before she’d get used to someone other than Bekah or her parents loving her. All the same, she was dancing for joy inside that Dylan cared so deeply for her. “In better circumstances, I’d compliment you on your physique. . . Hard work does pay off nicely, Sinatra.” She switched hands, moving the ice pack to another dark bruise.

“Hey, take it easy with that thing will you? And I don’t see why you can’t compliment me now. No need to hold back.”

Tamar laughed, easing the ice pack off his skin. “I already mentioned it. Don’t fish for compliments when you know already how attractive you are.”

“Never hurts to hear it again.” He settled into the bed, watching her through hooded eyes. “You’re really somethin’ else. You know that?”

Her fingers trailed along the length of his long torso, lips lifting in appreciation over his smooth, cool skin. “You like it,” she said, her voice low and teasing. Then her smile waned a little, gaze flickering to his. “Does it hurt a lot?”

“Nothing that won’t ease up in a few days. I’ll probably feel stiff. Need to work that out. You’re worryin’ again.”

<<Chapter 27 || Chapter 29>>