Because she could definitely use a stronger drink.

TY FELT BAD about grilling Molly, but he’d needed to push her in order to gauge her honest reaction to Dumont and to the situation they all found themselves in. He’d also been assessing her for Hunter’s sake. Ty was looking out for his best friend who had strong feelings for this woman. Her mother was marrying into a snake pit and he wondered where Molly fit into the family.

Which brought him to another question. Where in the world had Lilly disappeared to in this monstrosity of a house? Ty couldn’t imagine what she was feeling now any more than he could envision growing up in a place like this. The house was a mansion, the grounds seemingly endless. He wondered if Lilly could separate the later years she spent here from her childhood and remember the place held good memories, too. Either way Ty was certain the absence of her mother and father made this visit extra difficult for her now.

After he checked the downstairs bathrooms, he climbed the long stairs in the foyer and began searching the empty rooms upstairs. There were bedrooms that looked as if they’d been closed off for years. He’d look in, find it empty and move on. At the end of the hall, there was a double door that must lead to the master bedroom suite and he started heading in that direction.

Although there was a crowd downstairs, the low hum of voices receded as he walked further away. As he came closer to the master suite, he realized there was another bedroom adjacent with a light shining from inside.

Bingo, he thought. He slowly opened the door and stepped inside.

LACEY SAT in the middle of her old twin bed, a stuffed animal she’d been forced to leave behind in her arms. She’d spent the time since she’d walked out of the party wandering the old rooms upstairs. Not much had changed, except for the master bedroom. That Marc had transformed into a bachelor’s room with dark colors and old wood furniture. She remembered her parents’ bleached-wood, light-blue-painted furniture and she immediately began to cry.

Not quiet tears but big, gulping uncontrollable sobs, caused in part by being in her own home, surrounded by strangers. It had been years since Lilly had fallen apart or even let herself become so immersed in memories that she cried. She couldn’t afford to be weak when she’d needed to be strong in order to keep going on. Forward. Living life no matter what stood in her way.

But the complete change of her parents’ room had thrown her badly and when she closed her eyes, the memories of all she’d lost flooded through her.

“Lilly?” Ty asked quietly. “I’ve been looking for you.”

She opened her eyes and met his somber gaze. “I got distracted,” she whispered, her fingers digging into the ratty fur of her old stuffed pet.

He strode forward and seated himself beside her. “Your old room?” he asked.

She nodded.

“It hasn’t changed,” he said, glancing around.

“I know. Either he didn’t have the money or…..I don’t know why.”

“Are those ladybugs on the walls?”

“Red, white and royal blue ladybugs,” she said proudly. “I chose the wallpaper with my mom.”

Lacey bit down on her lower lip. “She said bright colors would keep me cheerful all the time.”

He looked around some more. “Looks like a happy place to grow up. Was she right?”

“Until she and my father died.” Without warning, Lacey swung her feet off the bed and stood.

“Let’s get out of here, okay?”

“You’re the boss.” He rose, following her lead.

“Don’t lie. You don’t let anybody call the shots,” she said.

“Unless it’s you,” he muttered.

Or at least those were the words she thought she heard him say as she turned off the light, then shut the bedroom door behind her for the last time.

LACEY STOOD by Ty’s side as he gave the valet the ticket for his car. Instead of focusing on the night she’d had, she thought about Ty instead. The valet in a green jacket appeared, driving Ty’s nondescript American car. Not a sports car, not a truck, just a car. Ty tipped the other man and climbed inside. Lacey followed him in, settling into the passenger seat.

As he pulled down the long driveway, she took in the strength and air of authority he brought to everything he did. For the hundredth time, she admired his handsome bone structure and sexy mouth that held a tiny dimple on the right side when he smiled. Which wasn’t often enough, Lacey thought.

Ty was as complex as the things that surrounded him were simple. He was a deep man who kept his feelings inside but who gave of himself just by being there. He seemed to sense and show up when she needed him, and he knew when to give her space. Ten years apart and he knew her better than she even knew herself.

Lacey leaned her head back, feeling the tension seep out of her body the further from the house he drove. “I realized something tonight,” she said softly.

“What’s that?”

She took a breath and rolled her head toward him.

“It’s not a house that makes a home, it’s the people who live there. That big house was full of strangers and the living room wasn’t the same place where my parents and I spent Christmas by the fireplace. Without them there, the place is just an empty shell of something that once was.”

Her voice quivered but along with that realization came a sense of calming peace.

He glanced over for a brief second and treated her to an understanding smile. Whenever he looked at her like that, like she was the only person on earth who mattered, her pulse soared and shivers of awareness danced through her body.

“That’s a huge revelation,” he said, his voice gruff.

She nodded. “It let me leave that house behind because I know I’ll always have my parents with me. In here.” She placed her hand over her rapidly beating heart.

“I’m really glad you’re okay. I know it’s been a rough night.”

She laughed. “That’s putting it mildly.”

“So what now? Do you want to go back to my place?” he asked.

She shook her head. She’d much rather avoid being alone with him in the close confines of his apartment. The sexual tension was getting so thick she couldn’t stand it. “I’d rather drive around for a while if it’s okay with you.”

“My pleasure.”

She hit the power window button and let fresh air into the car. He did the same and soon they were driving fast, the breeze blowing around them and the radio cranked up loud. She let the cold air whip her hair onto her cheek, enjoying the rush of adrenaline flowing through her system. Half an hour passed in silence and when Ty ran out of back roads and highway exits, he headed for home.

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