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And I can't shake the feeling I'm exactly where I belong.

We walk in silence for a while before Maverick takes it upon himself to break the ice.

"So, little songbird, tell me about yourself," Maverick says, his voice a low rumble.

I glance up at him shyly. "What do you want to know?"

His lips quirk up. "Everything."

A nervous flutter stirs in my belly at the intensity of his gaze. "Well, I'm nineteen, and I've been singing since I could talk. Music is my entire world. When I'm on stage, connecting with the audience, it's like nothing else exists."

I pause, surprised at how freely the words are flowing. There's something about Maverick that makes me want to open up, to bare the deepest parts of myself.

"Being a's who I am. All I've ever dreamed about is sharing my voice with the world. Writing songs that speak to people, that help them feel less alone. That's my purpose."

I trail off, suddenly self-conscious. Maverick is watching me closely, black eyes glinting.

"Don't stop," he murmurs. "It's captivating listening to you talk about your passion. You light up from the inside."

Heat rises in my cheeks at the compliment. I duck my head, hiding a smile. Maybe, just maybe, I've found someone who understands me. Who I can trust after all.

"What about you?" I ask, realizing I know next to nothing about the man assigned to protect me. "How did you become a bodyguard?"

Maverick hesitates, his jaw tightening. I sense I've hit on a sensitive topic.

"Let's just say I've got a very specific skillset," he finally says. "I spent years in special ops, taking on the most dangerous assignments. Seen things that would give most people nightmares."

His eyes cloud over, and he stares off into the distance. I shiver at the darkness in his tone, the violence simmering beneath the surface. This is a man intimately acquainted with death.

"When I got out, bodyguard work seemed the natural transition," he continues quietly. "I'm used to operating in the shadows, neutralizing threats before they materialize. Keeping high profile clients safe is what I was made for."

He levels his gaze at me, and I swallow hard. There's an undercurrent of leashed power radiating from him that makes my pulse skitter.

"I'll keep you safe, Willow. No matter what it takes."

His words resonate through me, equal parts reassuring and frightening. I know without a doubt Maverick will lay down his life for mine. And that absolute loyalty both thrills and terrifies me to my core.

I'm momentarily speechless, processing the grim reality behind Maverick's words. He notices my unease and clears his throat, changing the subject.

"So, tell me about this new album of yours. What's the inspiration behind it?"

I perk up, my passion for music rushing back.

"Well, it's a bit of a departure from my last one. I wanted to explore darker themes, channel my inner turmoil into the lyrics and melodies. There's heartbreak, anger, longing...I poured all my raw emotions into the songs."

I glance at him shyly. "I know. It's not very pop princess of me. But I needed the catharsis. Music is cheaper than therapy, right?"

Maverick smiles, the first unguarded expression I've seen from him.

"I think it's brave to put your true self out there like that. Takes guts to be that vulnerable."

His praise warms me. We chat enthusiastically about favorite artists and songs, discovering mutual loves for moody ballads and soaring anthems. As we near my apartment, I find myself wishing the walk could go on longer.

When we arrive at my door, Maverick turns to face me. The air between us seems to shimmer with possibility.

"Goodnight, Willow," he says softly.

"Goodnight, Maverick."

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