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She buried her face in her hands, breathing heavily as tears ran down her cheeks. The words stuck in her throat, choking her. “I finally moved. I left. Just like the others. I left the bleeding man there to save my own skin.” Sobs tore from deep within her soul.

She’d deserved everything she’d gotten. All seven of those years. And she deserved whatever look of disgust Jinx was about to level her way.

“CHRIST, BABY, NO,” Jinx whispered, yanking her against him, crushing her in his hold.

For fuck’s sake, that story ripped his heart out, but what smashed it into a million pieces was the self-loathing. She truly believed she’d done something so heinous she deserved jail, loneliness, and a lifetime of never trusting her own instincts.

Jinx understood regret. He knew that feeling of guilt over something that wasn’t his fault. Many times, blame didn’t matter. The mind took it one way, no matter one’s involvement, and it could break a person. He hadn’t let it break him, and he wouldn’t let it break Harper either.

“I am so sorry that happened to you.” If he could go back in time, he’d break Aaron’s kneecaps to keep the fucker from ruining Harper’s life.

“I should have stayed in the car. I shouldn’t have gone into the store in the first place. If I’m really listing my shouldn’ts, I shouldn’t have dated him.”

Of course, she fucking blamed herself. “You were a kid. You were forced into being there. And you didn’t participate. Baby, you are not responsible for what happened that night. You are not responsible for Aaron or his actions. You didn’t do it.”

“I know.”

She heard the words, but believing them after she’d spent the past seven years telling herself otherwise would take much more than one conversation.

“You don’t know,” he said as he held her close. “But you will.”

She made a disbelieving noise. Her cheek pressed against his chest, and slowly, as though she feared he’d protest, her arms came around him. No way could she reach around his whole body as he could hers, but she held tight, and he fucking loved it.

She wasn’t as soft as the women he typically went for, but her toned physique mirrored her emotional strength. Jinx was in awe of her. His dick loved how she felt against him, stiffening even though the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“How the hell did you end up with a seven-year sentence?” he asked. Maybe if he focused on her prison time, he could get Jinx, Jr. to calm the fuck down.

“Aaron’s father is a big-time defense attorney. To win sympathy for his son, he painted me out to be pretty awful and very much on board with the robbery. I had a public defender who couldn’t have been much older than I was. We didn’t stand a chance against a shark like Aaron’s father.”

“Fuck, baby, I want to make them all pay.” And he would. It’d take some time to come up with a plan, but everyone who fucked her over would feel his fury.

Her hum of approval made him smile because she had no idea how damn serious he was. “It didn’t completely work. Aaron still ended up with ten years, but his father made it so he took me down with him.”

“Tell me about the letters?”

“Aaron sends me a few every year. It started on my birthday, the first year we were both in prison. I’ve never responded, but they kept coming. I think he’s fixated on returning to our relationship when he gets out as some crutch to get him through his sentence. Maybe he sees it as a way to erase these years.”

That asshole wasn’t allowed to erase what he’d done. He deserved to think of it every day for the rest of his miserable life. “Fuck him. That shit stops today.”

Do you trust me?

Christ, the words hung from his lips, nearly falling free. He wanted her trust and hear her give it to him, but she needed time. She didn’t need him forcing her through the process of healing, so he swallowed the words.

“I, uh… didn’t finish my ice cream.” She pointed to the half-full cup on the floor.

Her statement made him laugh, even though he saw it for what it was—deflection. She was finished talking and making herself vulnerable.

He’d give her the out.

For now.

“Well, we can’t have that.” He loosened his arms, and she drew away from him, but he cupped her face before she could reach for her dessert.

Her eyes widened as he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers in a chaste but lingering kiss. Sweetness hit his tongue, making him moan despite the tame kiss. She grabbed his biceps and gasped against his mouth. Instead of plunging his tongue in like he was dying to do, he moved his lips to her jaw then placed another kiss on the side of her neck.

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