Trouble on Tap(8)

By: Avery Flynn



She grabbed the dog's collar before he could take off after the mean kitty. Handsome might only have three legs, but she still had serious cat ninja skills. The dog’s collar abraded her fingers as it twisted in attempt to break her grasp and give chase.

“Here, let me.” Mateo stepped forward and scooped up the dog. The movement brought all six-foot, four-inches of him fully into the light.

Her focus followed the dog’s course as Mateo lifted it. Past muscular thighs developed on the football field back in the day and honed to perfection in the Marine Corps, over the form-fitting jeans that hugged his narrow hips and perfect ass, and up the T-shirt covered abs that surely were just as delicious as her memory recalled. She closed her eyes, and in that heartbeat, his face flashed in her mind, the square chin, dimple dipping into his left cheek, the hazel eyes that went from hazy green to warm amber depending on his mood.

She’d spent most of the past few years surrounded by gorgeous men in the world, but none had met the Mateo ideal. Really, could anyone compare to a girl’s first love?

No.

The certainty of it whooshed through her and she opened her eyes, her gaze firmly on Mateo’s face. But it wasn’t his face anymore. At least not the one she remembered. Luciana hadn’t told her about the extent of his injuries and she hadn’t pushed for details—knowing he was alive and doing well was all her heart could take after his no-bullshit brush-off.

But now, she couldn’t look away. An angry two-inch-wide scar wound its way across the left side of his face, from his temple to his square jaw, like a crooked river of agony. Most of his left ear was gone and what remained looked as if it had been formed in clay by an angry toddler.

Olivia couldn’t stop the surprised gasp that escaped.

Mateo went perfectly still.

Shame set her face on fire. Of all the idiotic responses, she’d had to have the worst. If anyone knew what it was like to have people overreact to how someone looked, it was her. “I’m sorry…I…” She reached out for his hand, but he evaded her touch with the ease of a man always aware of his body in relation to others.

His hazel eyes turned the color of murky river water on a cold morning and a bitter smile twisted his lips.

“Not exactly what you remember, huh?” He turned to fully display the scarred left side of his face to her. “Look your fill. I don’t give a rat’s ass.”

She jerked her chin down so she couldn’t see his shredded face. An invisible fist squeezed the air from her lungs and twisted them into knots. The urge to turn and bolt rose up like an undeniable tidal wave pushing at her to just move already. The need to escape the gut-wrenching reality of his pain made her pulse frantic and kept her gaze locked on the porch’s floorboards. She’d spent most of her life as the object of rude stares and abject curiosity. How could she subject him to that cruel scrutiny?

She didn’t want to look. She wasn’t sure she could.

But this was Mateo, and he’d demanded it of her. She had to look, to bear witness. And she would.

Pushing past the whirlwind of emotion, she clamped her jaw tight and lifted her face to give him her full attention.

The right side of his face remained the same as it had been in high school, when she’d sighed after him while Luciana rolled her eyes. High cheekbones, sinfully long eyelashes, a strong jaw and hazel eyes. The Casanova of Salvation, they’d called him back then, and he’d more than earned the moniker.

Taking a deep breath, Olivia moved her gaze to the other half of his face. The left side was a map of devastation with his malformed ear, the tight skin of healed burn scars and the slight droop to his eye.

Seeing the scars, the thick red lines that marred his brown skin, hurt. Not because of the visual he presented, but because she hated that he’d had to go through whatever had done that to him.

Olivia fisted her hands, angered by her inability to offer anything but words to make it better, and took a step closer and reached out again. “Mateo, I—”

He shot her proffered hand a scathing look and edged back. “I don’t need your words or your fake pity. I need your damn car out of the road before someone ends up hurt or worse.” Contempt lay thick in his tone. “There are things more important in this world than how people look.”

She deserved that after her earlier reaction, but it didn’t mean she was giving up.

She swiped her keys off the entryway table. “Let me put on my boots and coat.”

In a heartbeat, his face transformed into one of patronizing concern. “There’s no need to worry your pretty little head about such mundane things as the lives of anyone who may be driving down that road in a rainstorm.” He snatched the keys from her grip, his warm fingers setting off an unsettling swirling sensation in her stomach. “I’ll leave the keys in your glove box; you can get them in the morning.”

With that, he pivoted and stormed off the porch. The squirming dog in his arms howled in protest as Mateo marched down the hill, surefooted and impervious to the pitch dark, the slippery mud, the punishing rain or the wounded woman left in his wake.

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