A couple rose from a table in a corner not far from the bar heading for the door, and Keeley zipped forward to snag it, Delaney trailing behind. “This is the best table. It’s far enough from the band that we can talk without yelling and it’s an excellent spot to people watch.” They settled into their seats on the same side of the table, their backs to the wall, Delaney hooking her purse on the back of her chair. She eyed the band as Keeley’s head swiveled, eyes gleaming. “Look at all these people checking each other out. I love the human mating ritual. In fact, if I weren’t dating Oliver, I’d consider partaking in the ritual myself. There are a couple of really cute guys here.”

“You said Ollie was all surface charm without any depth and you were thinking of breaking up with him.”

Keeley nodded with a sigh. “It’s time and we both know it. But as that unhappy event has yet to happen, I can’t do anything other than look.” She tapped her lip with a fingertip. “You, on the other hand, have been out of the dating circuit for far too long. Now that Walker’s home and since I haven’t seen him in forever, I need to get a look at him. I want to judge if he’s worthy of you saving yourself for him all these years.”

It was stupid that even hearing his name made her heart skip a beat. “I have not been saving myself for Walker.”

“I’m not talking about ‘saved yourself’ in the abstaining from sex kind of way, more in the avoiding emotional investment way. You haven’t been open to a real relationship with anyone else because you’re still hung up on your high-school-early-college crush.” Keeley shrugged. “Now that he’s back, it’s a good time to figure out your feelings for him.”

Had she saved herself for Walker? Delaney shifted uncomfortably, because pining after the guy who’d made it clear he didn’t want her was pathetic in the worst way. She didn’t want to be pathetic, she thought glumly.

Musical tones drifted over the conversation as the band tuned their instruments. “Hey,” she said as a thought occurred. “You’re forgetting Josh. We went together for almost year.”

Keeley had the ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ look down pat. “Josh was so unimportant it took you a whole minute to even remember you’d dated him. He was safe because he wasn’t looking for serious either. That is, until he met your friend Annie and fell flat on his face in love. In fact, you introduced them and hosted their engagement party.”

“They are a cute couple. I couldn’t be happier for them.”

“You just proved my point. You weren’t emotionally invested in Josh. You don’t commit emotionally because you’re still in love with someone else.”

The server came to the table and Delaney breathed a relieved sigh. Anything that distracted Keeley from her pitiful and depressing love life was welcome. Since one drink was her limit, she’d make it a good one. “Strawberry margarita for me.”

“I’ll have a margarita as well, but make mine a classic,” Keeley said. “And we’d like a big serving of the loaded nachos. Don’t skimp on the guacamole and add extra cheese, with two plates. Thank you.” Keeley gave the server her sunny smile as Delaney groaned.

“How could you? You know I have no willpower when it comes to Easy Money’s loaded nachos, with not skimpy guacamole and extra cheese.”

“Girls’ night out, remember? We’re here to enjoy ourselves. Plus, you burn off the calories working on the farm. I, on the other hand, will have to put in an extra hour torturing myself at the gym. But the nachos will be worth it.”

Delaney sat back, feeling herself relaxing. It was hard not to have fun when she was with Keeley, and tonight had the added benefit of distracting her from James’s death. Keeley launched into a description of the end-of-year event her school put on, with glowing reviews of how well her students had done. “As you know, this kind of thing can be difficult, especially for kids who have autism or anxiety issues.”

“You’re so good with them, though. And it’s nice hearing how much progress these kids make in your class.”

“Thanks, friend. Now I just need my principal to agree with your assessment when he she does my end-of-year evaluation.”

“You’ll do fine, because you’re awesome. In fact –”

The outer door opening snagged Delaney’s attention. Walker stepped into the bar and completely derailed her train of thought. She’d managed to avoid him for the better part of a week, but now her heart tripped, her breath hitched in her throat, and her mind went blank. When her brain synapses started firing again, all she could think was to ask herself why she couldn’t have a reaction like that to someone nice and uncomplicated like Rafael Santana. It was her bad luck that Walker McGrath was the single human on the planet who set off this internal chain reaction she feared at some point would lead to personal annihilation.

“‘In fact’ what?” Then Keeley let out a long, multi-toned ‘ooohhh’.

Walker stopped inside the door and despite probably thirty people in the bar, his gaze immediately collided with hers. Every cell in Delaney’s body stilled, as if waiting to engage with his. That’s how it had always felt to her, like she was only truly alive when she was with him. Jeez, she was pathetic. Long haired and bearded, there was an untamed edge to him that hit all her buttons and made her feel every one of the long months of sexual abstinence. In denim jeans faded at the seams, and with a black shirt under a battered leather jacket, he’d fit in just fine at a biker bar.

Delaney forced herself to look away and break the connection and found Keeley furiously fanning herself with her napkin. “Okay, not questioning it any longer. Now I get it. Walker is so hot he’ll set off the fire alarms.” The fanning increased in velocity. “God, I love his hair, all long and dark and combed back from his forehead. He looks like Jason Mamoa, right down to those gorgeous shoulders. Every single woman in this room will want a taste of that kind of hot. And Delaney? If he keeps looking at you like that you’re going to burn to a crisp.”

“Enough, Keeley.” Delaney resisted the urge to do like Keeley and fan herself with her napkin. She was grateful for the distraction when the server set frothy drinks in front of them with the plate of nachos piled with shredded chicken, black beans, olives, pico de gallo, and loads of cheese. On top were giant scoops of guac and sour cream. Keeley immediately used a chip to scoop up a heaping bite, closing her eyes as she chewed. “Mmm, delicious. Almost as delicious as Walker McGrath.”

“Not helping, Keel.”

Delaney chanced a peek at Walker to find his gaze still locked on her. He took a step in her direction and her heart leapt at the thought he would join them, only to slow again when he seemed to exert a great effort to pull his attention away and turned toward the bar. Delaney took a hasty sip of her icy drink, hoping to cool her warm cheeks.

Walker crossed to the end of the bar on the opposite side of the room from her and Keeley. He passed crowded high-top tables and there was a ripple in his wake. People went quiet and ducked their heads, then began whispering after he passed. Rafe, who appeared engrossed in conversation with a curvy brunette wearing a tiny skirt and a low-cut halter top, gave him a nod, but other than that, not only did no one greet Walker, some who she knew damned well used to hang out with him averted their gazes and pretended not to notice him. A man sitting two stools down from the seat Walker took nudged the woman he was with and they moved further down the bar. A hot ball of anger swelled in her chest. If he noticed, Walker didn’t let on.

Delaney was suddenly furious. Many of the people in the bar had grown up with him, played Little League with him. They’d gone to the same schools. They knew he’d been wrongly convicted and spent over two years in state prison for a crime he hadn’t committed, and yet they were treating him like he carried the plague.

“Uh oh, I know that look,” Keeley muttered.

Shoving back her drink, Delaney rose to her feet, fury carrying her across the floor as she made a beeline to her target. Owen placed a glass of what looked like whiskey in front of Walker. He reached for the drink, movement checking when he caught sight of her.

He set his drink back down and swiveled toward her, and she stepped between his knees. He was seated, she wore heels, so they lined up perfectly mouth to mouth. She cupped his face in her hands, her fingers rubbing involuntarily against the texture of his beard while the dark scent of forest brought back memories of another time. His gaze, brilliantly green and aware, locked on hers, daring her to carry through on her intent.

“This doesn’t mean anything,” she murmured, her mouth millimeters from his. Ignoring the voice in her head telling her this could be the mother of all mistakes, she pressed her lips to his and did her damnedest to ignore the fireworks exploding in her brain. Big hands spanned her waist and gripped tighter while time spun out. Hot, dreamy, divine – kissing Walker was everything it had ever been, only more, now richer and darker. Finally, figuring she’d done her job and needing to preserve her sanity, she ended the kiss. There was a moment when their gazes caught and held and all sound around them seemed muffled. Raw emotion flashed across his face, and she thought he was trying to beat it beat back under control but was losing the battle. Gaze still snared in his, she cleared her throat and spoke loud enough everyone around them could hear. “Welcome home, Walker.”

His grin flashed and her knees went wobbly. God, she’d missed that smile, plus she realized she was an idiot. Getting this close to him wasn’t going to make feelings she’d tried to ignore for so long suddenly go away. The gleam in his sharp gaze told her he knew exactly why she’d kissed him. She would have stepped back but found the hand he’d planted on the bare skin of her back kept her from moving. “Not so fast, Laney. Next one’s for you and me. Up to you whether it means something.”

He took her under in a mouth open, tongues engaged, pull-everything-out-of-her kiss. A wolf whistle split the air, likely from Rafe. The first kiss had been a preview that fanned embers she should’ve known were still alive under the ashes. This one ignited a full-blown conflagration. Her hands moved through his hair to the back of his neck where she gripped corded muscle as she struggled to stay upright. Calloused fingers caressed the suddenly highly sensitized skin of her back. If she had to judge their relationship based on that kiss, she’d say they shared an explosive mutual attraction and if she wasn’t careful, they’d end up tangled in bed before the night was through. That was where this kind of kiss led. Which only told her how easily she could misjudge the man who was currently kissing her brainless. He’d made it clear that the past would remain firmly in the past. Fine with her, because no way in hell was she making that mistake again. Pulling together every ounce of self-preservation she possessed, she pushed back from him. He gave one last nip on her bottom lip and let her go.

Heat burning her cheeks, she spun on her heel and sailed back to the table, head held high.

Keeley let out a low whistle. “Holy shit, Delaney. That was intense. Now every woman in the room knows they’re out of luck with the hottest guy here because he’s taken.”

Delaney’s muscles slackened and she slumped in her seat. “That’s not why I kissed him. I wanted people to know that I, and by extension everyone at Cider Mill Farm, welcomes Walker’s return. That we trust him. He was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, for god’s sake. He was the victim of a huge injustice that cost him his freedom for over two years. People need to get a clue.”

“You’re right,” Keeley agreed. “No matter that he’s been cleared of all charges, some people still think of him as guilty.” Then her friend smirked. “But your way of showing your loyalty may have revealed more than you intended. Trust me on this, you also staked a claim.”

“Great.” Delaney frowned, then spoke the thoughts that had never been far from her mind for the past eight years. “It would help if we could find who actually assaulted Melanie that night.”

“We’ve been over that. So has the detective.” Keeley gave her a sharp look. “I know that face. What are you thinking?”

She shrugged. “I’m going to try and find her. Melanie,” she clarified. “We were friends, and I could tell she was holding something back at the trial. Then she disappeared. I think she was protecting someone. Or maybe she was pressured not to state what she knew.”

“The detective spent months trying to figure that out and didn’t come up with anything. What makes you think there’s more?”

“Just that feeling. Someone hurt her and that person has been free to live his life while Walker went to prison. It’s not right.”

“You’ve tried to find Melanie before and came up against a brick wall. What makes you think this time will be any different?”

“I don’t know that it will, but I need to try. She didn’t want to be found before.” Delaney shrugged. “Maybe things have changed for her.”

“Don’t do anything crazy, Delaney.”

“I won’t.” She tried to shake off the mood. “Let’s listen to the music.”

The band began its first set and Delaney made a conscious effort not to look at Walker. She knew why she’d kissed him, but why had he kissed her?