“The name’s Lauren,” she informed him. “I’m sure you never knew that.”

“Why, did I call you by something different?”

Harley hadn’t had the time or the inclination to call her by anything. He was too star-struck by her sister, once they became an item, and too busy flirting with all the other popular girls before that. Someone like Lauren, an honor student, a bookworm, held no attraction for him. She used to admire him from a distance, but ever since he’d gotten her sister in trouble, she’d been glad he’d passed over her.

“We never really knew each other,” she said, “which is why you’ll have to excuse me. I don’t feel comfortable having a strange man at the door.”

“We knew each other,” he said. “We just didn’t know each other well. I wasn’t allowed to come to the house, remember? And I’ve been called a lot of things, Lauren, but strange generally isn’t one of them.”

“That’s because there’s so many more applicable epithets to choose from,” she said, unable to resist.

Lauren expected her words to make him angry, but he simply cocked an eyebrow, then gave her that crooked smile of his. “Epithet?” he repeated. “Evidently all those hours you spent in the library did your vocabulary some good, though I doubt it did anything for your social life.” He looked her up and down. “And I bet your excitement factor hasn’t notched up any. Not with you going around spouting things like applicable epithets.”

“Maybe you should have spent a few more hours in the library. Maybe it would have done you some good.”

“You spent enough time there for both of us. Besides, you were always too busy hiding behind your glasses and reading a thick textbook to know what was going on around you, so how would you know what’s applicable to me and what isn’t, especially after ten years?”

“Some things don’t change,” she said. “And some things are more apparent than others.”

“Especially to the gifted Lauren Worthington, huh?”

He said her name in an uppity, nasal tone Lauren didn’t especially appreciate, but being from the wealthy Eastside, she’d heard it before. “You got my sister pregnant, remember? I know what kind of man you are.”

He laughed, the sound rumbling from somewhere deep in his chest. If Lauren had been anyone else, someone who didn’t know who or what he was, she would have smiled automatically, despite the animosity between them. He had that kind of charisma. She hated him, yet he appealed to her in a very basic way.

“Last I checked, it took two to make a baby,” he said. “But you must be like your father. He never saw things that way, either.”

“My father was trying to look out for his daughter. He was trying to get Audra out of the mess you got her into.”

This time Lauren’s barb hit a tender spot. She could tell by the way Harley’s eyes narrowed and all traces of the smile he wielded so well disappeared. “Stick to your books, Lauren. You don’t know anything about what happened,” he said. “But then someone as tightly wound as you wouldn’t. The closest you’ve probably ever come to love is the definition of it in some encyclopedia.”

Lauren felt her back stiffen. Just because he’d never found her attractive didn’t mean she hadn’t had other boyfriends. Those relationships had never evolved into anything serious, but her inability to commit didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of love. And, anyway, Lauren’s love life–or lack thereof–wasn’t the point here. Her nephew Brandon was all that mattered. She’d built her life around him, and she wasn’t about to lose him now.

“Who do you think has loved Brandon and cared for him all these years, practically raised him?” Certainly not her sister, who was never quite the same after her affair with Harley.

“Regardless of who’s raised him, his mother’s dead,” he said, “and I’m here now. I’ve come to collect what’s mine.”

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