A moment later I feel his hands around my waist and his mouth against my ear. “Right here.”

I spin around and look at him in disbelief. “I thought you wouldn’t be back until tomorrow?”

“I busted my ass to get everything done and left Lovedale this afternoon so we could be together for the countdown. I didn’t want anyone else kissing you at midnight.”

I know how that translates. He doesn’t want Ben to kiss me, but what Lachlan doesn’t realize is that there would’ve been no New Year’s kiss for me if it didn’t come from him.

“Five. Four. Three. Two. One!”

He takes my face in his hands and kisses me hard as “Auld Lang Syne” plays loudly. When he lets me go, he pulls back so he can see my eyes.

We drive to the apartment and I sit in the car while Laurelyn goes inside to pack a bag. While I’m waiting for her to return, a cab stops at the curb and Ben gets out. He stumbles as he makes his way to the building. He appears drunk. I want to go up to the apartment as I watch him, but I don’t because Laurelyn should be on her way down any second. And I’m sure I won’t get along with drunk Ben any better than I do with sober Ben.

She doesn’t come down but I wait a little longer and then something doesn’t feel right. To hell with this. I want to know what’s taking her so long, so I get out and stalk toward the building. I press the buzzer and get no answer, so I press it again and then hear Laurelyn’s voice.

“I’m almost finished. Be right down.” I hear Ben shout something in the background, but I can’t make out what it is.

I hear the latch on the door release and I don’t wait for the elevator. I take the stairs two at a time until I reach the third-floor apartment. I pound on the door and as soon as Laurelyn opens it, I can see she’s been crying. I glance at him and then back to her. “What did he do to you?”

“Nothing.” She won’t look at me and it’s because something happened. And it’s something that’s going to piss me off.

“Tell me what the hell he did to you, Laurelyn!”

She picks up her bag. “Can we just go, please?”

I don’t feel like going. He did something to her and I’m going to find out what. I step inside the apartment toward Ben. “What the hell did you do?”

Laurelyn steps in front of me, between Ben and me. She can see where this is going. She puts her hands on my chest and shakes her head while she pleads, “Please don’t, Lachlan. He’s my best friend’s brother. I don’t want this to become a problem between me and Addison.”

I reach for her bag on the floor as I glare at Ben. I’m going to find out what you did.

We leave the apartment and I say nothing until we’re in my car and I can’t stand it any longer. I have to know. “Tell me, Laurelyn.”

Her head is lowered and she’s staring at her hands in her lap. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I’m not moving this car until you tell me what he did.”

It’s dark, but the spill from the streetlights shines on her face and I see that she’s crying. “I really just want to get out of here.”

She’s not going to tell me anything while we’re here. She knows I’ll go up there and beat the shit out of him if he hurt her. I start the car and pull away. When we’re on the highway, I reach for her hand and bring it to my lips.

She sighs deeply. “He came into my room and saw me packing. He knew I was going to stay with you, so he asked me not to leave. When I told him I was going with you, he grabbed me and started kissing me. I pushed him away and he told me I was nothing more than a whore to you.”

There’s only one word to describe the feeling raging inside me: fury.

I’m glad she didn’t tell me while we were there because I would have flown into a blind rage. I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t going to turn around and go back to kick his ass. “You’re not staying with him anymore.”

“No, you don’t. I’ll get you your own apartment.”

She’s shaking her head. “No, Lachlan. I can’t let you do that.”

“Then the only other option is for you to stay with me at the vineyard because you’re not going back to stay with him.” I’m watching the road, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling her watch me in the dark. “Packing every few days is getting old anyway, right? And you never have all the things you need.”

“Won’t you have to go out of town sometimes? Where will I stay when you’re gone?”

“You can stay at the vineyard without me. Mrs. Porcelli would probably like the company and Daniel can drive you if you need to go anywhere. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll come with me on some of my trips.”

Is she considering it? “Baby, I don’t want you there with him anymore,” I add.

“Addison will be upset with me if I move out.”

“I think she’d be more upset if something happened between you and her brother and it ruined your friendship,” I counter. “Besides, she stays with Zac most nights, doesn’t she?”

I bring her hand to my lips again and kiss it. “We’ll go back for your things in a day or two after I cool down. There’s no way I can be near that little fucker right now without killing him.”

Okay. It’s a done deal; Laurelyn is moving in with me for the next two and half months. This isn’t something I’ve done before. Hell, I’d never allowed any of my companions to visit one my houses or vineyards. I couldn’t chance the connection afterwards, but it doesn’t matter if Laurelyn makes the connection. She will be nine thousand miles away once we’re over so it doesn’t matter.

She’s being unusually quiet and I’m worried about the things spinning through her head. I hope she isn’t putting any merit into Ben telling her I think of her as my whore.

I give her hand a little squeeze where it rests on my thigh. “Ben is wrong. You’re not a whore to me.”

“How am I not? Didn’t I agree to a sexual relationship with a man I didn’t know in exchange for the time of my life? That’s as good as being paid for sex.”

“Laurelyn, we are two consenting adults. We have great sex, but I don’t pay you for it. We have a great time together because we’re friends. We enjoy spending time together and it has absolutely nothing to do with sex. Got it?”

She doesn’t sound convinced but the doubt Ben placed in her mind is fresh. She’ll need time to forget about his cruel words. For now, I choose to say nothing else about it and instead change the topic. “Yanks have New Year’s traditions, right?”

“Yes. There’s a southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and ham hocks on New Year’s Day. It’s supposed to bring you luck throughout the year.”

“Should I have Mrs. Porcelli cook that for you today?”

She’s laughing now. “No, I don’t eat ham hock, whatever that is, so that won’t be necessary.”

At some point in the drive, she becomes quiet and I think she has Ben’s accusation on her mind again until I realize her hand has relaxed. She’s fallen asleep. I pull into the garage and park, but take a moment to watch her sleeping. As I brush her hair from her face, she reminds me of a sleeping angel and I can’t understand how that bastard could hurt her by saying such horrible things.

I brush my fingers against her cheek. “Laurelyn, we’re home.” She stirs a little and I think about how that came out all wrong. “We’re at the vineyard.”

She doesn’t wake so I get out and go around to her side of the car. I scoop her out to carry her to bed. I take a few steps toward the door and she tries to focus on me with exhausted eyes. “What are you doing?”

“I haven’t been carried to bed since I was three.”

“Now you can say you haven’t been carried to bed since you were twenty-two.”

I place her on what I have come to think of as her side of the bed. She seems to have gone back to sleep already. I note the cocktail dress she’s wearing and I’m certain she doesn’t want to sleep in it, so I pull a T-shirt out of my drawers for her.

I slip off one of her shoes and she inhales heavily as I remove the second one. “Thank you, Lachlan.”

I place her shoes on the floor next to the footboard. “I don’t mind.”

Her eyes are closed as she says, “No, I don’t mean for carrying me to bed. I mean for everything. You treat me like I’m somebody instead of a nobody.”

She’s showing me a new side of herself. It’s childlike and damaged. I know in my gut that this moment has nothing to do with anything Ben said. She carries an old scar and it causes her deep pain.

I brush my fingers down her cheek. “You’re such a special person. You should always be treated like somebody.”

She reaches for my hand and holds it against her face, but doesn’t say anything. I want to tell her how her heart belongs to someone she’s yet to meet and she’ll be loved and adored by one bloody lucky man someday. She’ll have his babies just like she told me she wanted to do and he’ll love her in a way like she’s never known.

But I can’t tell her these things. And I don’t know why.

I open my eyes and I’m alone. Waking in Lachlan’s bed without him has become a routine morning for me since I haven’t been spending many nights at Ben’s. And then it hits me. I remember what happened with my host and why I won’t be staying with him anymore.