thrown down her backpack and put up her fists, knowing she was outmatched but not caring. Just as the ringleader shoved her, Remy had appeared—materializing out of nowhere, it seemed.
Even then he was tall, towering over her and the other kids. His dark eyes flashed with fire as he stepped between Zandra and her adversary.
“Aw, man, you gonna fight a girl? ” he demanded, his raspy voice filled with disgust. “What a punk.”
“I ain’t no punk,” the ringleader protested. His comrades had grown silent, watching the exchange from a safe distance.
“Then fight me, ” Remy challenged, leaning down until his nose nearly touched the boy’s. “Whatsa matter? You scared?”
“Nah, man,” the bully insisted, the denial contradicted by the tremor in his voice. “This ain’t none of your business.”
“It is now.”
The boy hesitated, casting a furtive glance to his friends for support.
They shuffled uncomfortably, regarding Remy with wide, fearful eyes. “Come on, man, let’s just go. It’s not worth it. He’s in the fifth grade!”
The ringleader frowned, torn with indecision. He was afraid to look cowardly in front of his friends, but even more afraid of getting beat up by an upperclassman.
Finally he relented, shoving his hands into his pockets and backing away with a mumbled, “She’s just a dumb girl anyway.”
“Who’re you calling dumb?” Zandra demanded, starting after him as he and his friends crossed the street. Halted by Remy’s hand on her arm, she yanked herself away and scowled up at him. “What’d you do that for? You don’t even know me!”
He seemed taken aback by her reaction. While he stood there gaping at her, Zandra snatched her backpack from the ground and stomped off.
He caught up to her. “You’re welcome,” he grumbled irritably.
Zandra whirled on him. “For what? I didn’t need your help.”
“Sure looked like it to me,” he retorted. “That fat kid woulda whipped your butt, little girl.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Nothing, except I didn’t wanna see you get blood on your pretty dress.”
Zandra instantly melted. Because even though she’d resented her mother for making her wear a dress to school, and even though she had a reputation as a tomboy to protect, she secretly enjoyed girly things. The frillier, the better.
“You think it’s pretty?”
“Sure.” Remy shrugged, as if it were of no consequence to him. “So are you.”
Watching the poignant childhood memory unfold across Zandra’s face, Remy drawled wryly, “Twenty-five years later, and you’re still an ingrate.”
Zandra stuck her tongue out at him, and he laughed.
Kissing her forehead, he tightened his arms around her and rested his chin on top of her head. “Just think. If I’d stayed after school with Roderick to help our teacher clean the classroom, I wouldn’t have been there to rescue you from those little punks.”
Zandra smiled. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Remy chuckled softly. “Ingrate, like I said.”
“Whatever.” She rubbed her cheek against his chest and sighed, enveloped in the cocoon of serenity he’d spun around them. “Have you had dinner yet?”
“Nah.” His voice was as lazy as she felt. “You?”
She yawned and shook her head. “Cora left something warming on the stove,” she murmured, referring to her personal chef.
“Are you inviting me to stay for dinner?”
“Mmm.” Zandra closed her eyes, her words slowing. “Just to prove...I’m not an ingrate.”
She felt Remy’s lips curve against her temple. “In that case...I’ll stay.”
“Mmmkay.” She shifted in his arms, burrowing closer as he leaned his head back against the sofa and let his eyes drift shut.
Within minutes, they were both asleep.
I t was the heat of Remy’s touch that awakened her.
Slowly opening her eyes, Zandra stared down at his large hand resting on her thigh, where the hem of her dress had risen sometime during their nap. The warmth of his