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By:Joan Swan

Josh pushed to his feet, and Grace fell back a step. She’d forgotten how tall he was. How imposing. She’d seen him in his navy whites a couple of times, but never in business casual. His muscled body filled out the button-down and the slacks like they’d been tailor-made for his body, and heat kindled low in her belly.

“Gracie,” he implored, “you’re talking to someone who knows you. Someone who knows that if you’re here, doing this, there’s something wrong.”

That was all it took, one perfectly placed cynical dig, and the sexual heat transitioned into anger. “You don’t know what I’m doing. You’re assuming.” She felt others’ attentions slide their way, and she forced her voice down. “There’s nothing wrong, and you sure as shit don’t have any right to pass judgment on my life. I’m perfectly fine. Good-bye, Josh.”

She turned, hands fisted, and moved quickly toward the black velvet curtain leading to dressing rooms at the back of the club. Her stomach hurt. Her brain spun. Her heart ached.

“Grace, wait.” He called behind her, half demand, half plea.

She cringed at the use of her real name but kept moving. Adrenaline surged, burning along her limbs. She ducked between the drapes and hurried down the walkway, her heels clicking loud on the concrete.

“Grace, stop.” His voice sounded right behind her at the same moment he grabbed her arm and spun her around. He gripped both arms and pushed her back against the wall.

After one long, stunned second, she shoved at his chest. “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re the last person I expected to manhandle me. Let. Go. Now.”

He instantly released her and stepped back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Scraping both hands through his hair, he paced. “I just don’t know what to think. I’m worried about you, Grace.”

“Stop calling me that. I don’t want people knowing my real name.”

He flung his arms out to the side and let them drop to his thighs. “If that doesn’t scream problem, nothing does.”

She crossed her arms, all the hurt and judgment from the past resurfacing like grease on water. “Why do you insist there has to be a problem when I’m telling you there’s not?”

“You’re working in a strip club, Grace. You’re dressed in…” He gestured toward her, then groaned out, “God. This isn’t right. This isn’t you.”

“You haven’t seen or spoken to me in a year. A lot has happened in that time. You have no right to decide what’s me and what’s not.”

“I’ve known you for seven years.” He was growing edgy, a little frantic. “You couldn’t have hidden this.”

She rolled her eyes at his absurdity. “My ex-husband still doesn’t know I got my bachelor’s degree while we were married. The truth is that we all become the people we need to be to get by, the same way you and Isaac became killers to survive as SEALs. I never held that against either of you, and I damn well deserve the same respect, regardless of what work I choose.”

“Whoa, whoa…” He put his hands up, his expression twisted in confusion. “Where in the hell is this coming from?”

“It’s coming from you, walking in here and passing judgment.” She twirled her finger in the air. “So just turn your sweet ass around and get the hell out.”

She turned and started walking again, fisting her hands, clenching her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut to force the new wetness back. Chanting let him go in her head when she ached to wrap her arms around him for a bear hug. Just to feel him close again.

“Okay, hold on.” His hand wrapped around her arm again, but gently. “Let’s back up. I didn’t mean to turn this into a fight.”

No, no, no. That soft, congenial voice tried to crawl into her heart. She couldn’t let that happen, because he’d just reject her again. Walk away again. Leave her alone again. It had taken her months to find solid ground after he’d moved to LA. And she was barely holding on to her crazy life now.

“Look,” she said, softening her voice and pressing her hands to his chest. His hard, warm chest. She drew a breath. “There is nothing for you to worry about. I truly love this job. I love the club, my boss, my coworkers. The work is fun, challenging, and rewarding. Even the customers appreciate what I do.”

“Yeah,” he huffed, disgusted. “I could see that.”

She threw her arms out to the side and stepped back. “I don’t need a fight tonight.”

He looked at the ceiling and rubbed a hand over his face with a troubled exhale. She might have toughened up and found her latent sexuality over the last year, but her heart was still as soft as it had always been, and it was killing her to see him so frustrated.