CHAPTER TEN

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    "What?" Ash questions, mirroring my shocked and horrified.

    "My colleague did a background check and that's how I found out."

    "So does that mean you're going to take it easy on him?" She asks, doubt written all over her face. I shake my head, looking at her incredulously.

    "Hell no. It means that I'm going to be ten times harder on him," I say firmly, knowing it's true. She nods, looking over at Max who looks confused.

    "We have a brother?" I look over at her, sighing.

    "Yes, Max. But we can't trust him," I explain. Her confusion doesn't sway.

    "Why not?"

    "He's just like our dad." Her face loses color before she recovers quickly.

    "Oh." Her words are soft and I reach out, grabbing her hand.

    "It's okay, Max. I won't let him hurt anyone anymore. He's going to be put on permanent timeout just like him." She just nods, pulling away from me to go sit down. I look back to Ash. "Ash, thank you again for watching her for me."

    Ash shrugs. "Of course. I love spending time with the little brat anyway." She looks at Max behind me. She seems to think for a moment, decide something, and then look back at me. "Ian, if you need me to keep her here while you figure things out, that's fine."

    I'm taken aback by this. I didn't want to be apart from Max for very long but then again, when I thought it over, it's what made the most sense. Max would be out of harm's way here at Ashley's. I look back at Max, watching her as she begins to play with Cherrie. Then I turn my attention back to Ashley.

    "Are you sure?"

    "For sure. We went shopping this morning to get her new clothes anyway. She can use those until this mess is done and over with." I can't help but smile at her. She really was the best aunt ever.

    "Okay." I get up, walking over to Max. "Hey, Max?" I call out to her and she looks up at me from her position on the floor in front of Cherrie.

    "I'm staying here again, aren't I?" I chuckle, kneeling down to her height.

    "You're always too smart for things like this." She looks back at Cherrie, a sad look on her face. "Hey, kiddo, it's only until I can figure all of this out. I don't want you to get hurt in the process. I would never forgive myself. You know I wouldn't leave you if it wasn't necessary. Plus, you're here with Ashley who'll take good care of you and you can probably even go pay Becca and Randy a visit at the ranch. I'm sure they'd love to see you." She smiles a small smile but it's all that I need to see. I open up my arms, asking for a hug which she accepts, diving onto me. I hug her tight.

    "I love you, Dad. Don't go getting hurt, okay?"

    "I love you too. And I promise I'll come back to take you home in one piece."

    I feel her smile against my cheek. Before I leave, we do our handshake. I didn't know when the next time I'd get to see her was. But I was at peace knowing she'd be safe with Ashley.

———

    When I reach the hotel, I head straight for the elevator. Maybe if it weren't for my tunnel vision, I would've recognized the car parked in the front of the parking lot. But I didn't.

    I head up the elevator, tapping my foot nervously. I had to get right to work. There was no wasting time.

    When it dings open, I make the walk I had made so many times to get to my hotel room. When I finally look up from the ground about three doors down from mine, I notice a familiar head of blond hair trying to look through my peek hole. Didn't she know it didn't work that way?

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