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drdaddy by Sullivan, Piper (1)

Copyright 2017 by Piper Sullivan- All rights reserved.

 

 

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Dr. Daddy Next Door

 

A Single Dad & A Virgin Romance

 

 

 

By: Piper Sullivan

 

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

 

“I have always been a fan of silk ties and blindfolds,” Rosanna batted her eyelashes up at the object of her affection, smiling coquettishly when she raked a hand through his salt and pepper hair.

“I’m happy to show you the pleasures to be found without a few essential senses.” Dr. Hargrave removed the ever-present bowtie and corduroy blazer that made him look every inch the anthropology professor he was, and moved in closer.

Rosanna’s breath hitched. Her skin flushed and her pulse raced as he drew closer.

* * *

I leaned back in my oh-so-comfortable computer chair and blew out a long breath. The erotic romance I was writing was coming along nicely, and would be a good complement to my thesis. The examination of young women and sexuality when it came to older men was common throughout history and literature. It was, at least to me, the perfect project for my double masters in Modern Literature and Anthropology. I only hoped my professors thought so too.

With a crack of my knuckles and a jerk of my neck, I got back to work. I was at the good part, when the young and nubile Rosanna would slide her panties off and expose herself to the professor. That’s when I saw it, a small head topped with brown curls peeking inside my house. I grinned at her poor ninja skills, ducking down seconds after I’d already seen her, figuring she must belong to the new neighbors who moved in about a month ago. Between my final two graduate school courses and my job, correction my old job with television personality Dr. Todd, I’d been so buried in my own life that I hadn’t even met them yet.

The tiny brown head popped up again, in front of my picture window that overlooked the verdant backyard that I’d spent many hours tending in order to clear my head. To find inspiration. I waved and she ducked again, pulling an amused laugh from me.

Saving my document, I stood, stretching tense muscles before making my way to the door. The house was a white side-by-side duplex with blue trim. Though I hadn’t been inside since the firefighters moved out, I knew the other half of the building was the opposite of mine. The main rooms were switched, mine faced the backyard and theirs faced the street. I’d never been upstairs, but I figured that’s where two of the three bedrooms were located. I pulled open my door and stepped onto the shared porch, finding the little girl ducking behind the patio swing.

“Hey stranger, do you need some help?”

Big clear blue eyes the color of the sky peered up at me through a mess of curls. Finally, her head bobbed up and down, but that was it.

I dropped down onto the balls of my feet, ignoring the way my thighs screamed in protest. I’d skipped going to the gym lately because I was just too busy.

“I’m Rory and I live right here. What’s your name?”

“Sydney,” a soft voice said with hesitation.

“Nice to meet you Syd,” I held out my hand giving her a grownup shake that made her giggle. “Now, how can I help you?”

Those big blue eyes that made her look so vulnerable called out to me, but the way they darted off to the sides made me wary. Finally, she looked at me again, and I guess she decided she could trust me.

“My sitter didn’t show up.”

I blinked. This was out of my depth. What the hell did I know about little kids? Nothing, that’s what. The only little kid I knew was myself, and I had never really been a kid to be honest.

“Where are your parents?”

“My mommy is gone. My daddy is at work. He makes babies,” she offered proudly.

Instantly my heart went out to this adorable little girl with an ethereal beauty that would stun the world in a few years. Losing a parent was hard. I should know, I lost both of mine. That’s not true, exactly. I never knew my father because he’d left my mom long before I was born. But when I was fifteen I lost my mom. Literally. Came home from school two days before homecoming to find the entire apartment empty except for my room.

“I’m sorry about your mom kiddo. But why is your dad already gone if the sitter didn’t show up?” I stood up and tried to peek through the window above their closed door, but even with my own five-seven height, the window was too high. I tried the door knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She was locked out.

“Babies were coming and Amy said she was coming in five minutes,” she said with so much exasperation I had to bite back a smile. “It’s been longer than five minutes.”

“You’re probably bored and hungry, huh?”

Again, her head bobbed up and down as she inched closer to me, stealing inside my place before I changed my mind.

“I didn’t eat for a long time.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t try to cook on your own,” I told her and she gave me a perplexed frown.

“I’m too young to cook.” Her tone implied she thought I was an idiot, but her curious gaze held mine.

“I know.” She tried her best to climb up onto one of the counter stools, but she was just too tiny so I gave her a boost.

“Thanks,” she grinned, showing off a pretty smile full of baby teeth. “What are we having?”

Good question. I cooked for myself pretty regularly because it was cheaper and healthier and now that I didn’t have a job, health insurance had become a luxury. I scanned the fridge and found enough ingredients to make a meal. “How do you feel about spaghetti?”

“I love spaghetti!”

I wished something in my life gave me as much happiness and excitement as spaghetti gave Sydney. “Do you have a number for your dad?” She shook her head. “Can you tell me where he works?”

“He has a hospital for mommies and babies and he works at the big hospital too.”

Okay then. I just hoped that he didn’t freak out when he came home and found the little girl gone. I fixed spaghetti and listened while Sydney told me all about her daddy the Baby Doctor. She made him sound like a super hero, and I could admit to a healthy amount of curiosity about the man. Even though he had left his seven-year-old kid home alone. Sydney ate two servings of spaghetti, fruit and frozen yogurt before she passed out on the couch while I edited part of my thesis.

I must have fallen asleep at some point too because I woke up with a little girl sprawled across my chest, fifty pages of my thesis scattered on the floor and a god-awful pounding coming from somewhere. The door. Gingerly I moved Sydney off me and padded to the door, squinting up at five uniformed officers and—holy hotness batman—a dark angel masquerading as a fashion model. Black hair and silver-blue eyes were the highlights, but the sharp cheekbones and rugged jawbone that could chisel rock were all appealing too. His frown…not so much.

“Officers how can I help you?”

The one with the thick seventies porno moustache stepped forward. “We’re looking for a missing little girl,” he said and described the child sleeping on my sofa to a tee.

“Sydney? Yeah I’ve seen her, she was lurking on the back porch because her babysitter didn’t show.” I gave the sexy Baby Doctor a scathing glare. “And her father left her home alone. She was hungry, bored, alone and locked out,” I added.

Officer porno-stache pushed me aside and stormed in with the others. He grabbed Sydney, who woke with a shriek, while one of the other officers held me back. Because yeah, I was the threat.

“Why Rory? Wasn’t I good? I’ll be better I promise!”

“It’s okay Syd your dad is here,” I tried to soothe. “He was scared.”

She looked up at the man still wearing a scowl and even that made the irritating man look hot as hell. “I’m fine Daddy. Rory watched me.” She turned to me. “I was good wasn’t I?” At my nod, she ran to me and wrapped her little arms around my legs. “We’re friends now,” she said, to me or her father, I didn’t know.

“Try to get some sleep Syd,” I told her while her giant of a father continued to glare as though that alone could vaporize me.

“Night Rory.”

“Night,” he growled back, and not the sexy kind of growl either. The I’m pissed off and I want you to know it even though I’m still polite, kind of growl.

“Whatever,” I said and slammed the door in his face.

That would have had more impact if the stupid officers weren’t still inside my house.


 

“Daddy I think you hurt Rory’s feelings.” Sydney hopped up from her seat onto the counter, chin buried in her hands and frowned up at me.

“I doubt it honey. She’s probably just busy.” As long as she wasn’t around I didn’t give a damn where she was. That woman. Hell thinking about her now, days later, still pissed me off. What kind of adult kept someone else’s child without calling to let them know?

“Nuh-uh. I saw her peeking out the window when we left this morning. And she always leaves after we come inside.” She gave me her best admonishing look, dark brown brows dipped low in defiance. “Tell her you’re sorry.”

Ah hell. Days like this I felt much younger than my forty-two years. “Sydney, you scared the hell out of me!”

“And she saved me. Cooked me dinner and did my hair!” She looked so much like her mother with that ski-jump nose, wide mouth and freckles. “She was nice to me.”

Yeah, I could admit that was true. It had been kind of her to let Sydney in and cook for her while keeping her entertained. But dammit I hadn’t been that scared since her mother had woken up one day to a phone call that one of her friends was having yet another party. That day on the lake. She’d crawled out of bed, showered, dressed and left. All without a thought to our ten-month-old daughter.

A few months later she’d left for good. The last thing I needed was another immature and possibly dangerous woman in my life. “I’m glad she was nice to you, but I think she’s fine.”

“I like her and I don’t care if you don’t.” Arms crossed, she glared at me until I relented.

When had my little girl grown up so much? “You don’t even know her, how can you like her?” What kind of spell had the copper haired vixen cast over my child?

“She’s fun and she talks to me about girl stuff. Oh my god, Daddy you have to see how much nail polish she has! Her sofa is purple and her chair is dark green because she says colors make life more interesting. Her spaghetti is the best and she fixed my curls!”

“Is that all?” Apparently, Sydney was smitten with our neighbor.

“Rory planted all the pretty flowers in the yard herself!” And apparently the woman could do no wrong.

Sydney had become very bossy over the past couple of years, so I knew she would badger me until I made things right. “Okay fine. I’ll apologize.” Not that I had anything to apologize for, but living with a feisty little girl had taught me the importance of picking my battles.

“Yay! Go now Daddy! Then maybe we can do our nails together.” She pushed at my arm trying to force me out the door and right into the good graces of our new neighbor. “Go!”

I glanced at the clock above the stove and groaned. “No can do kiddo. I have a consultation in an hour.”

She groaned and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Is Amy coming?”

The sitter should have been here already, but it was clear that I needed to find someone more reliable than a nineteen-year-old with a ring through her lip.

“I hope so.”

She rolled her eyes again. “Better apologize to Rory soon,” she mumbled and hopped from the counter. “I’m going to read Daddy. Talk to her!”

I shook my head at how mature she sounded, already old enough to read for leisure. My little girl was growing up and her attachment to the neighbor proved she needed some female influence. With my parents on the other side of the country in New York and no serious relationship since Tracy, she was hungry for female attention. In the year since we moved to Portland there had been no females around to give it to her.

Two hours. That’s how long it took before I broke down and went in search of our long-legged neighbor. I found her on our shared back porch, sitting on the swing with those long, tanned legs pushing off the rail. Her legs were those of a runner, lean and toned, but smooth and feminine, especially in the blue-green dress she wore.

“Just the woman I was looking for.”

“You must have the wrong address.” Jade eyes looked up at me hesitantly. They were big and almond shaped, nearly dwarfing her face.

She was a smart ass. I hated that. “I’m quite sure I don’t.”

“Say what you have to say Sydney’s father.”

Ah shit. “I’m Kane Royal.” I extended my hand, ignoring the sting of connection when our palms touched.

“Rory, but you can call me Aurora.” She set a stack of paper and a red pen to the side. “What do you need, Doctor?”

If there was a hell I just earned myself a spot, because hearing her call me doctor in that thick, husky voice sent a jolt of lightning straight to my cock. “What are your plans this evening?”

“That’s none of your business.”

I mentally growled at her non-answer. “My babysitter hasn’t called and I really need to get to work.” I held my breath while her gaze raked me over so thoroughly I was pretty sure I would need a cold shower before leaving for the hospital. “Well?”

“Send Syd over.” That was it, just three little words and she turned back to her stack of papers. Dismissing me.

“I have a few rules to go over with you first.”

“For crying out loud, Doctor I’m trying to work here.” She gestured to her papers, green eyes big and wide.

“What are you working on?”

“My thesis.”

That didn’t make sense. “Really?”

“Yes, really. Do I look too dumb for a master’s degree?”

“Too young,” I clarified because I thought she might be flighty, but not necessarily dumb.

“Graduated high school early, skipped summers and here I am. Now what about these rules?”

“I think we should talk when you’re note quite so distracted.”

“Nope you’ve already stolen my concentration and now you have all of my attention. Use it.”

Did she have to make everything sound so dirty? I cleared my throat and tried to avoid looking down the dip in her dress that offered me a peek at royal blue lace.

“Bedtime is at nine. No soda or sugar after eight and-,”

“No smoking and no fun of any kind. No television, no nothing. That about it?”

Yeah. “No.”

“Right.” She stood and bent to gather her papers giving me a glorious view of her heart shaped ass, smooth tanned legs and just a hint of a shadow that told me she wore blue panties too. “No refined sugars. No R-rated entertainment and early to bed. Got it,” she said on a breathless smile as she turned back to me.

“Sounds good.”

“Good.” She walked towards me and the door but my brain had short-circuited and I didn’t move in time.

“Great.” Finally, I stepped aside and she laughed as she pushed the door open.

“Glad we’ve cleared that up.”

Yeah I was glad too, but instead of saying something and risk sounding like an idiot, I turned tail and fled into my house.

I wasn’t a coward, but I hadn’t been prepared for the way lust and need smacked me in the gut.

* * *

I knew this situation couldn’t stay the way it was without something giving. Over the past few days Rory had been happy to help out with Sydney when she could, and I appreciated it. More than I could possibly say. But the sight that greeted me when I arrived home earlier than expected was exactly why I needed to get a new sitter.

Pronto.

Sydney knelt in the grass beside Rory who looked like a wet dream in so tiny they barely counted denim shorts and a white tank that I was sure when she turned, would reveal voluptuous tits with nipples aching to be tasted. What made it worse was that Sydney wore a very similar outfit which fucked with my head in a big way. Both females were elbow deep in soil, talking and laughing quietly like they’d been doing this together for years. As much as I wanted that for my daughter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Rory was all wrong.

But she’s here, a voice whispered as though that were enough. Considering today was the last day of school, it just might be if I couldn’t find Amy or a suitable replacement. More suitable than the one currently shaking her delectable ass in my face.

“Daddy!” Sydney spotted me first, dropping her pink plastic garden tool and running full speed in my direction. “I’m helping Rory plant flowers,” she held up her hands wiggling her fingers so I could see all the dirt caked on them and under her nails. “She says its relaxing.”

Another thing I’ve had to deal with for the past week was Sydney quoting Rory when it came to everything from healthy eating, to reading and even beauty tips. Lately it was “Rory said this,” or “Rory said that.” It was enough to make a sane man crazy and I was on edge.

“How was your day honey?”

“Good. School is done and I’m ready for summer fun!” She punched the air, grinning up at me expectantly. “How was your day Daddy?”

I smiled because in some ways she was so grownup it killed me. “Good. Hectic. I delivered two babies and two sets of twins today.” I’d ran around the obstetrics department all damn day from one birthing room to the next before the ending the day in the OR to perform a C-section. “Want to talk about it over pizza?”

Her little head bobbed up and down, curls still wild, but looking more tamed with female influence in her life. “Can Rory come too? We’re doing our nails after we finish.”

I couldn’t look down into her smiling face, so full of excitement and hope and tell her no. What would I say? “Sorry sweetie you can’t spend time with Rory because Daddy wants to fuck her six ways to Sunday?” No. So I said what she expected.

“Sure.”

An hour later they both rushed into the house laughing and looking fresh from the shower with wet hair and clean skin. Rory carried a big bowl that probably held salad because the woman was always snacking on something raw and healthy. Ugh.

“Daddy we’re here!”

Like I could ignore them if I tried. “Hey sweetheart, you smell good.”

She pulled back from my hug and preened. “It’s peach. Rory says a girl needs to find her special scent.”

Of course she did. “Rory has lots of advice it seems,” I said to my daughter, but stared up at the cinnamon haired woman. I should have looked anywhere but at her. Did the damn woman never cover up? She wore a white t-shirt dress that hit her mid-thigh and jeweled sandals. She looked mouth-watering. Damn her.

“I was just trying to help,” she said pointedly and set the salad on the table without looking my way.

It was just as well. My attraction to her made me a surly son of a bitch I knew, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

“Right.”

Her gaze narrowed in my direction, but she wisely said nothing. Instead she took the slice of pizza Sydney offered along with some salad and ate quietly while Sydney talked her ear off about everything under the sun. To her credit, she listened and responded appropriately, answering questions and offering up suggestions when warranted.

“As soon as I finish school I hope to continue my research,” she said in such a matter of fact tone it startled me.

But equally surprising, Sydney wasn’t put off by the mature conversation. “What is ree-search?” She sounded the word out carefully, drawing a smile from Rory.

“It just means investigating information to find out what’s true and what isn’t.”

“Like a police officer?”

“Kind of yes, only I’ll be investigating people and their behavior instead of bad guys.”

“People like me?”

“In a way yes, but people older than you.”

Now she had my curiosity piqued. “What are you studying, aerobics? Art history?”

Her posture changed, stiffened and her guard went back up. Her green eyes were chilly, but she kept her smile in place, probably for Sydney’s sake. She pulled out her phone and glanced at the screen.

“It’s getting late Syd and I have an early meeting tomorrow.” She stood and squatted down so she was eye level with my daughter. “Thank you for helping me in the garden kiddo.”

“Thanks for my nails,” she replied and wiggled her fingers before hugging Rory tightly.

“Anytime. I’ll see you around,” she said and left without a backwards glance or another word to me.

Good riddance.

 

I love it when things go better than expected. Which honestly happened all the time since I was born a cynic. But the meeting with my thesis advisor went way better than I could hope for.

I was prepared for Dr. Higgins to tell me my erotic short story was crass and derivative, and suggest I drop the book altogether. Or at the very least, give me generic feedback since I was her last meeting of the day. On a Friday. Instead she praised my storytelling and told me she’d passed along the draft manuscript to several agents she knew.

At that, I squealed like a little girl and launched myself at my tweed-wearing thesis advisor. I hugged her and luckily, she didn’t call security. She hugged me back and told me to keep up the good work.

So yeah, I was flying high. Nothing could ruin my day, not even the snob next door with the gorgeous silver-blue eyes who somehow kept replacing the face of the hero in my book. I couldn’t worry about him, not when I might end up with a publishing deal for my thesis! That’s what I needed to focus on, my school and the next step in my career. Not his opinion of me.

So I cranked up the volume on my 90’s rap playlist and rapped along to Snoop as I mentally put together my celebration kit for tonight. Wine and cheesecake were as far as I got before traffic began to overwhelm me.

I ran a bath the minute I got home. My mood bittersweet, as this good news ached to be shared with someone. Like my Aunt Minnie, she would have gotten a kick out of me writing any kind of romance. But she died about three years ago, so it was just me. Though if I did get an actual publishing deal I would go to the cemetery and share the news with her. She had helped me as much as she could after my mom split, and encouraged me to go to college and find something I loved to do. So she really did deserve to celebrate with me.

Luckily the combination of a hot bath, lavender and wine relaxed me enough that I didn’t feel so sad anymore. Now I just felt wistful. Which meant it was time to dry off and get to work on that cheesecake and wine.

I took my treats out on the porch so I could enjoy the last rays of the sun as it sank behind the horizon. Living near the Willamette River meant when it was really quiet the cool rush of the water could be heard. Like now.

“Want some company?” The deep velvet voice of Kane surprised me, but his lack of condescension surprised me more.

“Where’s Syd?” I asked in lieu of an answer.

“At a sleepover. Apparently, Ashleigh is one of the popular girls,” he said with an affectionate smile and accompanying eye roll.

Good for her. I worried that she didn’t get enough time with children her own age because she was so mature. So logical, at times I forgot that I was the adult in the room. I didn’t turn around, just flicked my eyes in his direction. And I felt it.

That thing that was a low simmer between us since we first met. And I knew. I knew I should tell him that I did mind, and that he should turn his sexy ass around and go away. The way my body responded to his, combined with a second glass of wine was a surefire way to give up my virginity on a drunken one night stand. I gave him another glance, this time full-on, and sweet lord above, but the man was delicious. He would be worth the shame of sleeping with a man who looked down on me. Until I had to see him again. Everyday. Until one of us moved away. That alone was reason enough to say no.

But apparently I was all out of reason. Because when he moved to stand beside me, mere inches away, looking like a walking, talking orgasm, I sighed and said, “Sure. Have a seat.”

“You don’t have to sound so happy about it,” he responded and took the seat right next to me so that his legs pressed against mine. His body heat warming me against the evening chill. His scent left me more lightheaded than the wine.

“Don’t worry, I’m not that happy about it.”

He chuckled and I swear I squeezed my thighs for all they were worth to stop the wicked throbbing between my thighs. That deep rumble vibrated the whole glider, including the parts already throbbing. “I’m not so bad, am I?”

I gave him a get real look. “Maybe to everyone else you’re not.” To me he’d been nothing less than unbearable. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not one of those people who needs everyone to like me.”

“I don’t dislike you.”

“Now I can lead a truly happy life,” I responded dryly.

“I’ll give you half of my sandwich for some of your cheesecake.”

I arched a brow at him, my face filled with disbelief. “Bargaining for cheesecake? And here I thought they said doctor’s lead such glamorous lives.”

Kane reached across me for the wine bottle, brushing the length of an impressively sculpted arm across my breasts causing my nipples to bead. I sucked in a breath and he grinned, the arrogant prick.

“A good meal, a beautiful woman and cheesecake, what more could I possibly need?”

“Beats me,” I told him glibly rather than the truth. Which was that Kane only tolerated me because of my willingness to watch Syd when he needed me.

He pushed off the railing and the glider began to move slowly, gently. But it felt far too intimate for two people who were basically strangers. I couldn’t let myself sink into this cocoon of comfort. Which was just the reminder I needed to cool down my overheated body.

“So, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you around lately.”

“You’re welcome.”

He smiled at me, that come hither, bad boy smile that probably made women fall to their knees in front of him. He added a delicious chuckle that shot straight to my pussy and I knew I needed to get away from him.

“Come on, Rory. Don’t be that way.”

Oh he was good. “It’s no secret that you don’t like me despite how Syd feels. I just did us both a favor.” His gaze slipped from my eyes to my mouth and I knew what he was thinking because I’d been thinking the same damn thing since he stepped out here.

“I like you just fine, Rory.” He flashed that panty-dropping smile as one finger traced the curve of my ear all the way around my jawline and down to my collarbone. I tried not to react, but I a shiver escaped. “I just don’t want to.”

Ouch. I didn’t know if he was playing a game, or if that actually worked with other women, but it did jack shit for me. “Good, then we’re in agreement.” I popped up from my spot, leaving the cheesecake in favor of the wine. “Good night Kane.” I didn’t wait for him to say a thing, mostly because I didn’t expect him to.

“Rory.” When he spoke, his voice was deep and gravelly. Anguished and too damn close. “Rory,” he growled and reached for my arm turn me towards him.

“What!” We were face to face, so close we breathed each other in. His eyes shone dark grey, kind of like the color of the ocean and the sky in those moments before a thunderstorm. It felt that way too.

“This.” Strong hands cupped my face, tilted it back and to the side before his tongue swept over my lips and got straight down to business. His wasn’t like any kiss I’ve ever had. He wasn’t hesitant, but commanding as his tongue tangled with mine, tempting me to want more than this kiss that rocked me off my axis. The man could kiss like nobody’s business. I couldn’t think of anything other than the feel of his tongue against mine, the feel of his biceps moving and flexing underneath my fingers as I clung to him.

He gave my hair a little tug and deepened the kiss and I heard a low sexy moan. A second later I realized it was me moaning like it was my only job while Kane made love to my mouth, sending shockwaves of pleasure down my body. Feeling bold, I pulled his tongue further into my mouth, sucking it like I would suck something else if I was in the market for that. But I wasn’t. But I could be with a kiss like this to tempt me. His hands—oh so big and warm—gripped my ass and held me against his arousal. I pushed a little harder because he was impressive. Not that I had much to judge it against, just a couple bump and grind sessions in undergrad. But those times never left my panties wet or me clinging to a man like I needed him. I didn’t need anyone.

Not anyone.

I pulled back, panting and immediately regretful that I had. “You’re a good kisser.”

He grinned, eyes looking smoky and full of desire. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

I took a step back and my body cried out, and maybe called me a few names. “But I don’t make it a habit to kiss men who don’t like or respect me.” I stood tall and squared my shoulders, trying not to feel the sting of rejection and humiliation at his small nod of agreement. “Good night,” I told him and walked inside, keeping my back straight until I reached the bedroom and then I collapsed on the bed.

At least now I know where I stand.

* * *

“Whatcha doin’?” A tiny face with big blue eyes stared back way too close to my face.

“I’m relaxing.” I received some really good news today and I wanted to reward myself with a little bit of sun therapy.

“Why are you in a bikini?”

I smiled. “Because I want to soak up some sun.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head to the side, deep in thought and I wondered if this was something she’d ever experienced.

“Want to join me?” She nodded excitedly. “Go on and get a towel and a hat.” She scurried off to the house where I was sure her new sitter, Margaret, lay across the sofa asleep.

But it wasn’t my business. None of it was, so I kept my mouth shut. I did a good job of avoiding the Royals next door these days. Mostly because I spent all of my spare time in the library or the park, finishing my book and polishing my thesis. I would submit it in a few weeks, so everything needed to be as good as I could make it.

“How do I look?”

Syd trotted out with a beaming smile in her pink and white striped bikini with the attached skirt, pink sunglasses and an oversized straw hat. “You look cute as a button.”

“Thank you Rory. You look very pretty too.” She plopped down beside me. “So why are you smiling all the time today?”

“Because I finally got a job!” She was no Aunt Minnie, but at least Syd was happy for me if her choking hug was anything to go by. “Now I can relax a little.” And replenish my savings while I wait for the verdict on my thesis. It wasn’t a full-time job, just another medical research gig with another television station. But it paid well, and I’d only have to show up three days a week for a few hours each day. In the meantime, I figured I would use my fantasies to write another erotic romance. Maybe I would pull in enough cash to start paying back my student loans and eat dinner.

“Does that mean you’re going to leave me?”

“Nah it’s just a few hours a day for a few days a week, so we can still hang out.”

“Oh good, because I like you.”

“I like you too kiddo. Now come here so I can put some of this sun protector on you. Can’t have you looking old before your time.” She laughed and slid closer so I could lather her little arms and legs with coconut sun screen. We laid out under the sun for awhile and then I put up the umbrella and poured her some lemonade.

“This is delicious.”

“It’s my Aunt Minnie’s recipe. She used to make it for me every summer.”

“Can I meet her?”

“No sweetie, she died a few years ago.”

“So you’re all alone?” Leave it to a kid to get to the heart of the matter.

“I am. But don’t you worry about me Syd, I’m fine.” I knew how to make the best of things. I was a pro at it.

“You can have us!” She threw herself across my midsection in a hug that would have been crushing if she weighed more than fifty pounds. “Daddy and me can be your family.”

I knew at least one of the Royals would disagree. “You’re the sweetest Syd.”

“You’re the coolest,” she responded around a yawn and moments later she fell asleep right where she was, sprawled across me.

She was indeed a sweet kid, and some day if I was lucky enough to find a man to love and marry, I would be lucky to have a little girl like her. I doubted that would happen anytime soon though, especially while I nursed a wicked crush on the world’s least appropriate man.

But it would be over soon. I started work in three days, and that would be the extra distraction I needed to keep him out of my thoughts. And out of my dreams where he ravished me until I passed out.

Except I woke up from a short nap which featured a very naughty dream about the man currently scowling at me.

“Is everyone around here sleeping?”

“You’re not.” Did he have to be so damn good looking even when he was angry? “And how is this my problem?”

“That little girl glued to you is my daughter.”

“I’m aware. My arm isn’t wrapped around her for decoration Kane.”

“And there’s absolutely no way she could have gotten away without waking you up?”

“No.” I slid off the lounger without disturbing Syd and stood. He wasn’t the only one who could do pissed off. “And you actually need to talk to the woman you hired to watch her. Not me.”

“Yet she’s out here. With you.”

“You,” I stepped forward and jabbed a finger in his chest, “are welcome.”

“I don’t think so.” He grabbed my wrist to stop the poking, but I just used the other hand.

“Well I don’t really care what you think.” He grabbed both of my wrists so the only thing separating us were our hands. My chest heaved at how close we were, but I willed my body to stop betraying me.

“I think you do.”

“I have no control over what you think. Just know that I would never do anything to put Syd in danger. Anything.” I pushed his chest and walked around him, stomping across the yard to the safety of my apartment. “Stupid frustrating man thinks he can come in here barking at people.”

“I never once barked.”

He scared the crap out of me sneaking up behind me and I turned to glare at him. “Gee Kane just come on in,” I told him sarcastically.

“Thanks.” He closed the door behind him, leaning on it.

“Leave.”

“I don’t think I will.” He pushed off the wall and pressed my body against the counter, crowding me in. My heart raced and the rest of me trembled while his hands skated up and down my arms. “I think I’ll stay right here, like this.”

“Quit playing games.” I didn’t need him exploiting my desire for him for some twisted purpose. Trying to push at his chest was pointless, but I did it anyway and he smug bastard only grinned.

“I’m not playing.”

“Yes you are. We’ve already been here, done this. It’s time to move on.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about this since our last kiss.”

Okay I won’t. “I haven’t thought of you once until I found you scowling down at me a moment ago.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” he said, sounding all kinds of amused as he pressed his hips into mine, showing off that long, lean cock that I dreamt about. “You haven’t been able to think of anything but that kiss,” he whispered in my ear, hands gripping my hips possessively. “You’re wondering if I’ll kiss you like that everywhere.”

Dammit he was more than right. I hadn’t just wondered. I’d dreamed about it and I wrote about it. In vivid detail.

“I think you would, and I think it would be amazing,” I told him honestly. “Too bad we don’t like each other.” 

“Oh, I think we like each other just fine.” The wicked man licked the rim of my ear and nipped my lobe. “Look how well we’re getting along right now.”

His fingers skipped over my collarbone and down the center of my chest, so achingly slow, down between my breasts and over my stomach. His slow sensuous journey came to a stop at the waistband of my bikini, just inches from where I ached for him.

“That’s just my body. Hormones. No matter what my body wants, the rest of me knows better.” Though right now my body was trying like hell to override my good sense.

“You sure?” I nodded, hypnotized by his stormy gaze. “If you sure,” he said, just a wisp of air between our lips before he claimed mine in a fierce hungry kiss that took me by surprise. It was more than just a kiss, he owned my mouth, my body as I rubbed up against him like a cat in heat.

God, I ached for more. I wanted to beg him, for that hard length of cock I was pressed up against, using it as a scratching post right where I needed him. For his hand, that had been hovering inches from where I ached for him.

Finally his fingers slipped inside my bikini bottoms. With long slow strokes, he dipped inside of me and slipped nearly all the way out again, leaving me gasping into his kiss.

Then Kane stepped back. If his expression was anything to go by, he’d been as shocked by the intensity of the kiss as I was. He looked like someone had smacked him in the face with a wooden plank. But in an instant it was gone, his eyes shuttered despite the sexy smile curving his mouth.

“Nah, I don’t think you’re sure at all.”

Damn smug man. I would love to get him all riled up like this, just once, and walk away. “Maybe not, but I’ll have no problem finishing the job myself.”

He groaned, shifted the crotch of his pants and stalked out without another word.

Thank damn goodness.


 

People always wonder why I decided to skip the family business and go into medicine. They assume it was because of some higher calling bullshit, about my desire to help people. That was all well and good, but the truth is that I love puzzles, and medicine is the ultimate puzzle.  I chose fertility and obstetrics because it’s the ultimate medical mystery. I don’t bother correcting people when they make assumptions about me because it would kill my father’s political career if people knew I was the black sheep in my family.

Without politics, he might decide to start torturing me again about finding a political wife and running for office. No fucking thank you.

Now though, the hospital had called in favor and I had to oblige. When my partner Owen and I signed a contract with the hospital to use their facilities while ours were being built they had a few stipulations. One such stipulation was that I would use my minor celebrity status to help. It had been nearly a year and they hadn’t needed me.

Until now.

I sat in traffic a block away from the favor I would be doing for the next three months. At least. The owner of KJAX Television was golfing buddies with one of the hospital board members, which meant that when he said he needed a photogenic doctor for an on-air segment, one was offered up.

Three days a week I would tape a fifteen-minute segment. Like I had time for this shit in my life with a seven-year-old daughter going on twenty-three and a wild-haired neighbor who wouldn’t let me sleep in peace.

But here I was.

I walked through a cool dark hallway flanked by a woman all in black wearing a headset on one side, and another woman with a sleek looking bob on the other. The former introduced herself as Sylvia.

“First we’ll do wardrobe and then makeup. If all goes well we’ll have ten minutes to practice before taping starts.”

“Okay.” They lead me down several turns before I came face to face with a man who had a very tiny moustache.

“Oh honey you don’t need a thing! This is the absolute fucking best garment in the building.” He circled me, gaze touching over every part of my body. “He is perfect. I can do no more for him.”

“You didn’t do a damn thing,” I told him and he flashed a smile, winking at me before disappearing behind a rack of clothes.

“Bye handsome,” he called after me, but I was once again sandwiched between the women in black. They led me to makeup which, thankfully, took just a few minutes while I read over the notes that were shoved into my hands.

“Where did this research come from? I can’t just spout off facts that I can’t verify.”

“Don’t worry Dr. Royal we hired a new medical researcher as soon as we got word you were on board.”

Good, because I would keep my word, but I wouldn’t ruin my professional reputation for anyone. “Is he here?”

She is setting up near the stage where we’ll be filming your segment.” The one with the sleek bob was the only one who spoke so I nodded to her as they both guided me towards the stage. “Here we are. Your seat will be over there but here is the research assistant.”

Of course it was. Rory. I can’t escape the damn woman, and right now I needed her around about as much as I needed a bullet in the head. I thought proving that she wanted me as much as I wanted her would make me feel better, but my little game had backfired and now I wanted her more than ever. The little gasps and moans she made while I kissed her had driven me crazy. I could still hear them now, days later.

My two guards left us alone but Rory still hadn’t looked up. I could tell by the tense set of her shoulders that she knew it was me. Finally, she saved whatever she was working on and looked up at me.

“How may I help you Dr. Royal?”

“I want to see your sources,” I clipped out.

Wordlessly she handed me a green folder and turned back to her laptop, typing quickly and focused only on her work now. The way she ignored me, it impressed me as much as it pissed me off. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Women had never been a problem for me. I see one I want and I get her, simple as that. But Rory, she wanted me even if she didn’t want to want me. I knew how that felt.

“Thanks,” I finally bit out as I flipped through the research, more than a little impressed by how thorough she was with details. Reputable sources with peer reviewed studies too, she’d done a damn good job. Better than my own research assistant. I groaned as I remembered asking if her thesis was on aerobics.

“It’s my job,” she answered blandly, again without bothering to look up at me.

I wanted to say more, maybe apologize for being an ass and misjudging her, or maybe ask her to dinner. I didn’t know, and I never got the chance to find out because the sleek haired producer and the makeup girl crowded me with notes and brushes as the time to film drew near.

The segment went live, on a two-minute delay thanks to a mishap last year with an inebriated local chef. The time flew, and before I realized it my first segment was over.

I peered through the crowd in search of those cinnamon locks as producers, directors and other suits surrounded me. By the time they were all gone she was nowhere in sight.

You can run Rory, but you can’t hide.

* * *

She did a pretty good job of hiding from me, for a few days at least. At work she kept her distance, creeping up near the stage only after the lights had dimmed everywhere but on me. I always saw her though, her long lean silhouette was hard to miss, especially with the halo of curls. But also because I could feel her. For some reason my body was acutely aware of her presence. Here at the studio, even at home I could feel her presence through the walls and it pissed me off.

I was sick of pining after her, wanting her. Needing her and not having her drove me to take drastic measures. After filming the last segment of the week I took the rest of the day off, dismissing the sitter and spending time with Sydney. I indulged in her love of accessories before we hit the supermarket where I let her pick dinner.

“Are you sure you want chicken when it’s so hot?”

She thought about it for a second and put the package back, picking up beef instead. “Burgers then?”

I smiled even though I knew I was going to hell for this, but I was a desperate man. “Sure, we could grill them.”

Sydney nodded agreeably, picking up a few of her favorite things as we went up and down the aisles. Pickles, buns, watermelon, and a variety of ingredients I had no clue about. Syd and I hardly ever cooked together because we had a housekeeper who took care of meals. At least in food choices, Rory had been a good influence on her.

“Rory loves corn,” she added with a devilish grin.

“Too bad she isn’t eating with us.”

“She could,” my little girl insisted, bouncing up and down with three ears of corn. “If she’s home we can ask her.”

“I guess.”

She glared at me. “Be nicer to Rory. I like her and you do too.”

That pulled me up short. “What makes you say that?”

She shrugged and picked up cabbage and carrots while I frowned, wondering what in the hell she was up to.

“Margaret says you look at her like she’s cold ice cream on a summer day.” Sydney looked up at me with a grin. “That sounds like a good thing, so it means you like her.”

Son of a bitch. The one thing that biddy notices and it’s my miserable sex life. “Margaret needs to mind her own business.” And drink some coffee, but that was irrelevant. “What’s all this stuff for?”

“Rory taught me how to make cole slaw. If she says yes I can make it for her.”

I smiled at just how easy it had been to get Sidney to invite the sexy neighbor for dinner. I knew this made me a shitty dad, but I needed to be able to focus on my life, and I feared the only way that would happen would be to have her. Get her out of my system.

“Don’t get too far ahead of yourself honey. She might have plans.”

But as it turned out the heavens were on my side and Rory had no plans other than to unwind after a long week. And when she was pulled into our house by my little girl I knew, I knew the whole universe was on my side. It was the only explanation for the slinky coral dress she wore that hugged her curves, showing off her delectable breasts, round hips and a narrow waist I hoped to grip as I thrust into her tight heat.

“Ladies.”

“Dr. Royal.” Her words were crisp and her expression blank until she turned to Sydney. “I heard something about cole slaw?”

“Sit here and watch, okay?”

She nodded and gently guided Sydney through each step, never getting frustrated or short with her. Yeah, she was good with my kid and it was yet another thing I misjudged about her. But I planned to fix it.

Starting tonight.

I joined them in the kitchen, pulling two bottles from the fridge. “Here you go,” I set one bottle of craft beer in front of her, making sure our arms brushed. I didn’t miss the hitch in her voice as we touched.

“Thanks,” she mumbled and directed Sydney on the recipe.

“No problem Rory. I’m here to help.”

“Daddy Rory’s shoulders are sore, she said so.”

I made a note to let Sydney go nuts at the mall very soon for that one. “Oh yeah? I have been told I have healing hands.”

Mossy green eyes darkened as they settled on my mouth and she licked her lips. “Sure, heal me Doctor.

Damn the woman knew how to get to me without even trying. She thought that snarky little way she said “doctor” pissed me off, but it was the opposite. It turned me on.

“Gladly.” I stepped behind her and let my hands rest on her shoulders until she relaxed. Then I began to rub and knead her muscles until she was putty in my hands. Literally.

“God that feels good,” she moaned after a few long minutes and I froze. “Sorry but it really does.”

I leaned forward and whispered, “Now you know what my mouth and my hands can do. Don’t you want to know more?” She shivered and I felt a swell of male pride that I had total control of her body.

“N-no.”

“Liar.”

She shrugged off my touch. “Aren’t you manning the grill tonight? Syd and I will set the table.”

I laughed and took a step back, grabbed the seasoned meat and headed outside with a whistle. She was affected and if I wasn’t mistaken, her resolve was weakening as she reconsidered whether or not to let me take her to bed. She was the smart one, trying to pump the brakes on this before it even got started. We were neighbors and we now worked together, this could get messy. But we were both adults.

We could handle it.

I’d make sure of it.


 

Something weird was going on with Kane and I couldn’t decide if I loved it, or if it terrified me. The moment I’d walked into the house behind Syd he was giving me a sexy stare that hit all my lady parts with the force of a fist. Then there was the touching, all the sweet, torturous touching that had me quivering like an inexperienced fool. And the charm and flirting was too much for me to resist. I wasn’t sure I could resist much longer.

“Good night Rory! See you tomorrow.”

“Good night Syd, thanks for dinner. Your slaw was magnificent.” Though I walked her through it, her eagerness to please and her secret ingredient—cumin—made for a delicious smoky dish. “Dress to shop tomorrow,” I called after her as she ran up the stairs to her room. “See you.”

“Wait. I need to put Syd to bed but I want to talk to you.”

Damn why was that commanding alpha crap so damn appealing to my body? I quivered and shook like a hussy when he ordered me around, but another part of me rebelled.

“I want a lot of things too Kane.”

His gaze darkened and he used his body to press me into the wall dividing the kitchen and dining areas. “And I want to give them to you. So wait.”

I wasn’t good at being told what to do even when it was something I desperately wanted to do. So I decided this was going to be on my terms.

I stole inside his master bedroom on the bottom floor and removed my sweater and something else before leaving through the back door well before Kane returned.

Back at home, I opened another beer and sat on the sofa. I turned on some soft music and forced myself to relax. I was doing this tonight and it was a big deal, but it was my big deal. Should I tell him? I didn’t know what I would do but knew that tonight it was happening and with a man like Kane who undoubtedly knew how to please a woman. Hell, dreams of him had been pleasing me for weeks.

Soon enough a knock sounded on my back door. I opened the screen door. “Yes?”

“You left something,” he growled and held up the pink thong I’d left on his bed.

“Did I? I was wondering where that went.”

Kane pushed inside and shut the door behind him, kissing me until I couldn’t get any air into my lungs. Instinctively my legs went up and around his waist while he kissed me until I teetered on the brink of ecstasy. I never wanted the kiss to end but I noticed an embarrassing amount of juice sliding down my thighs and knew I wasn’t too far from the edge. He pulled back and stared. “Are you sure Rory?”

“Yes. Just tonight though.”

He looked like he wanted to argue but he didn’t.

“For now I agree,” he growled and stalked to the bedroom. I laid across the bed feeling like a goddess while his body covered mine and he kissed his way down my body. “Now I have to see if your pussy really is naked under here.”

I clenched at his words, wondering if he would like what he saw. Or would he be turned off? “You’re getting warmer.”

He flashed a sexy grin and pushed my dress up and over my head until I was bared to his gaze. His gaze was heavy as he took his time looking me over. One finger slid into my wet heat.

“No babe, you’re getting warmer.” Then his mouth was on my pussy and I thought I would die from how good it felt. No amount of books or porn could do this sensation justice. It was delicious and wicked and addictive.

My hips moved on their own, swirling and pumping against his mouth trying to get closer than we already were. “Kane, yes,” I moaned hazily as he sucked on my clit and I flew into a million little pieces, gripping his head close to where I dripped while grinding my hips into his face. “Sweet heaven above that was divine!” I laughed as his tongue slowed and kissed all around my throbbing core.

“Just as sweet all over,” he smiled and kissed his way up my body, spending long glorious minutes tonguing my tits, sucking my nipples until I cried out.

“Please Kane,” I begged not even caring how weak and desperate I sounded. In that moment I was weak and I was desperate for more of the feeling that rushed through me. It was pure bliss. Ultimate satisfaction. An out of body experience. It was nothing like the orgasms I gave myself. Nothing at all.

“Please what?” his mouth and his teeth teased me, nipping my lips, my jaw and my ear.

“Please, fuck me.” I wouldn’t fool myself into thinking we were doing any more than fucking. It was the only way this would work.

“Whatever the lady wants,” he joked.

“But you should know I’ve never done this before.” He gave me that look that men give women who say things like I’ve never done this before. That look that said, “Sure whatever you need to tell yourself.” But that wasn’t the case here. “I mean it Kane. Never. Done. This.” I motioned between our bodies. “Got it?”

I saw the moment he did get it because his eyes reflected shock, disbelief. Denial. “But how can that be?”

“Time was never right before. But my body wants yours. I’m trusting you to make this good.”

“It’ll be better than good,” he promised and cut off my next words with a kiss that mimicked the slow, agonizing entry as he pushed inside me. “Fuck,” he groaned and pushed through that final barrier, swallowing my cries and moving his hips in a slow satisfying move that quickly took me beyond pain and right into pleasure.

“Yes. I feel so full.”

He grinned down at me. “You’re good for my ego.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know you’re big.”

“Still like to hear it,” he told me and sank all the way in to the hilt. “Fuck you feel so good.”

He lifted my legs and the next time he thrust in I saw stars explode behind my eyes. “Yes, you too. I…you feel, oh fuck.” I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even really think. I could only feel the way he pressed against every nerve ending, shooting off random sensations across my body. “Kane,” I moaned.

His strokes came deeper and harder but he kept up a steady pace that kept me dangling, waiting for that final push into oblivion. Holding me close with his arms wrapped around the back of my head, our foreheads touched and he kissed me as good as he fucked me. But it was so slow, so intense that I felt a warm burning in my chest just moments before the dam broke and my orgasm washed away every other thought in my mind. He tore his mouth away and stared at me, dark and intense. “Rory.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

He growled, actually growled, in my ear and his hips sped up, pumping hard and fast, deep into me until he stilled, then vibrated as his own pleasure shook us both. “Fuck, Rory!” But his movements didn’t stop, they only slowed as one hand snaked between us and rubbed slow circles over my clit until another orgasm washed over me, left me wrung out.

“Damn,” I panted when I finally got air in my lungs. “Worth the wait,” I said to him in the dark room. Definitely worth the wait.

And definitely not over.

* * *

Having sex with Kane had been a mistake. A monumental one of my own making, which meant I had no one to blame but myself. Though I didn’t regret it because let’s face it, Kane was an amazing lover. I knew that even though I had nothing to compare it to because he’d been attentive, offering up drugging kisses that made my knees weak and my pussy drench with arousal. The man knew the terrain of a woman’s body and he’d wasted no time exploring very inch of mine.

So, like I said, a mistake.

Because even now with my body still sore in places it had never been sore before, I wanted more. More of him and more importantly, more of us together. It had been three agonizing days since that night of bliss and I still hummed with pleasure. Thoughts of him and all the things we hadn’t done yet plagued my mind. My dreams were filled with thoughts of him doing even more wicked things to my body which I happily returned. Shower time had gotten so distracting I had to make quick work of pleasing myself before all the hot water disappeared.

At work however, I remained completely professional, handing over research and answering his questions with no extraneous chitchat. We weren’t friends despite one night of intimacy, and I was pretty sure that he still held disdain for me. But people all around the world slept with people they didn’t like, didn’t love and sometimes didn’t respect. Why should I be any different?

I wasn’t, and I knew that, so I decided I would only remember the night of pleasure instead of the scowls he often tossed my way, or snide comments about my alleged aerobics thesis. So at home I ignored him the same way he avoided me.

I had plenty to worry about that had nothing to do with my gorgeous neighbor, so I focused on that, finishing up my thesis and submitting it to the committee. My book was officially done and submitted for critique as well. All I had to do was wait. For feedback, for rejection or for success beyond my wildest dreams.

In the meantime, I decided to get started on my next work of fiction. I had already decided that my night with Kane would serve as inspiration as I worked on my outline. Sydney found me relaxing out back with an ice-cold beer and my laptop.

“Hey Syd, how’s it going?”

She shrugged her bony shoulders on display in an adorable white dress covered in sunflowers. “Okay. Want to watch a movie with me?”

It was clear to me the little girl was starved for female attention and I knew exactly how that felt, to desperately want that one thing that would make you normal. A mom. She was funny and smart and gave the best cuddles so I had no problem spending time with her.

“Sure but only if you promise nothing scary.”

Sydney grinned showing off her gap-toothed grin. “I don’t like scary movies Rory. They give me bad dreams.”

“Me too kiddo.” I’d had my fair share of nightmares over the years, especially after trying to survive after my mom took off.

“You do?” I nodded and she looked in awe, as though she didn’t think adults had such concerns. “About what?”

“All kinds of stuff. Scary movies, failing classes. Getting fat.” She giggled and her eyes wandered to my screen.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m working on another book.”

“For kids?”

“Sorry this book is for big girls.” I saved my document and closed the laptop. “Come on let’s go pick out something super girly.” She took my hand and we crossed the yard, chatting about our favorite movies. Inside my apartment, we got settled with popcorn and peach juice, blankets at the ready and settled onto the sofa. “What did you pick out?”

She hit play and smiled. “It’s about beauty pageants!”

I grinned as Miss Congeniality began to play on the TV. “Isn’t this a little before your time?” Her only response was an exaggerated shrug so we settled in, laughing along to the antics of Sandra Bullock at her best.

It was nice, just relaxing in front of a movie with no drama. Being with Sydney was easy and that was exactly what I needed. Thirty minutes in a knock sounded at the door, and even if I didn’t know who it would be, my body knew it loud and clear.

“It’s probably Daddy,” she said sounding resigned.

I pulled open the door and sure enough there was Kane, looking like the sexy doctor he was. Black hair mussed like someone had been running their hands through it all night, silver-blue eyes sparkled mischievously. Faded jeans hug low on his hips and a royal blue t-shirt hugged his chest and biceps deliciously. “Yes?”

“I heard this is where the cool kids hang out.” He flashed a smile that was so close to the one he wore when he sank inside me that I had to white knuckle the door to keep from moaning aloud.

“We’re watching a chick flick,” I told him in hopes of discouraging whatever he was thinking.

“Great. I need to get in touch with my feminine side, isn’t that right Sydney?” He stretched a look over my shoulder, flashing his pearly whites at his daughter.

“You’re a boy, you don’t have a feminine side,” she said, feeling out the unfamiliar word on her tongue.

He gave a mock scowl. “Does this mean I can’t join you ladies?”

“I don’t mind Daddy!”

And what could I say after an enthusiastic declaration like that? Nothing, so I stepped back and opened the door to let him inside. “Go on, then.”

“You sure?”

I arched a brow at him. “Do you care?”

“Nope,” he said popping the word like a little boy.

I shook my head and took my seat beside Rory, hoping like hell Kane chose the seat beside his daughter. Of course that was hoping for a bit too much, and I found myself sandwiched between the Royals. It was bad enough that his fresh from the shower masculine scent wrapped around me and left me feeling hot and horny, but when he tugged on the blanket so he was covered too I knew I was in trouble.

Sandra Bullock’s antics took a backseat to the large warm hand that had settled on my thigh, slowly inching up. He didn’t go all the way up, thank goodness since Sydney sat snuggled up against my other side. But what a damn tease. He kept it up for almost an hour, driving me insane with lust. If his kid wasn’t sitting beside us I was pretty sure I’d hop in his lap and demand he finish me off. Instead I tried like hell to ignore him, to cheer Sandra on while she figured out who was the culprit. But the moment Syd’s head bobbed around and came to a stop on the cushion beside her, I knew he would put me out of my misery.

Or he would try.

I hoped.

Ten minutes into the sequel—thank you online streaming—his hand finished the journey, sliding up my thigh and slipping inside my panties. His fingers slid along the seam of my pussy, teasing and teasing before he finally slipped inside me. Slow and deep, his fingers explored and I couldn’t help gasping, because holy hell that felt amazing. Who knew such a small touch could cause such a big reaction?

“Stay quiet or I’ll stop,” he warned in my ear in a deep and gravelly voice tight with need.

How in the hell was anyone supposed to stay quiet when his fingers explored and played my body like a finely tuned instrument? I couldn’t. Maybe my body wasn’t experienced enough to withstand that kind of pleasure because soon he stopped, and I jumped out of my seat like it was on fire. My face, hell my entire body, was in need of a few gallons of ice cold water. Yep water, I needed the bathroom.

I had almost made it to the bathroom door when I felt a hand wrap around my arm. I sucked in a breath at the dark look in his eyes, so full of desire and heat that I was pretty sure my panties were soaked through. Then the wicked fucker did something I had not expected. He held up the two fingers that had been inside of me and shoved them in his mouth, sucking them clean with a sexy smirk. “Sydney leaves Friday morning to spend four days with my parents. I want you every one of those days, any way I can get you.”

I knew this wasn’t some big declaration of love and affection. Any way he could get me meant on my back, on my knees, in the shower or up against a wall. Not candlelight dinners and cuddling on the sofa. But I could handle it. Four days would give me plenty of material for my new book and it’ll give me ample time to get Kane Royal out of my system. For good.

“Okay.”

He closed the gap between us and kissed the hell out of me. His tongue fucked my mouth, that was the only way to describe it, leaving me shaken with lust and prepared to beg him to give me a taste right now. But before I could form a thought, he stepped back and walked down the hall, scooping Syd in his arms before leaving with a quiet click of the door.

And leaving me hot, bothered and completely unsatisfied.

Damn.


 

After saying goodbye to Sydney and my parents this morning I came straight to the studio for the Friday taping. Walking down the fluorescent lit concrete hallways behind the set, my eyes scanned every open doorway I passed, looking for Rory. She’d made herself pretty scarce after movie night and I was eager to see her again. Leaving her had been the right thing to do that night, with Sydney sleeping just feet away, but it had also been hard as hell. Sinking my fingers into her wet heat, tasting her on my hand and hearing those little breaths she made as she fought for silence, all of it played on a loop in my mind and left me hard. Aching.

I was following a step behind Sylvia while she rambled on about some new segment she wanted to try, when I spotted Rory. She was with a pudgy man I believed to be an executive producer, but I couldn’t focus on who he was or what they were talking about, not when she looked like a fucking wet dream in skin tight jeans that showed off every one of her curves. A feminine and flirty mint green top cupped her breasts, but otherwise it flowed around her, making her look sexy and touchable, and I really wanted to touch her. All over. Sexy copper waves fell around her shoulders as she shook her head and then laughed, loud and throaty. Even the pudgy producer was transfixed by her.

I couldn’t wait another minute. The moment she was alone I approached her. Even better, she didn’t see me coming as she went over her notes, highlighting certain portions and making notes.

“Hello, Rory.”

She looked up and for just a moment I caught a flash of happiness at seeing me, and desire. Just for one unsatisfying moment before she shuttered her emotions and greeted me with the same icy professionalism she had used since I started this gig.

“Dr. Royal, hello. I have some additional notes for you along with common questions.” She handed over the notes and waited a beat before turning away from me.

“Wait.” She turned, face blank as she waited. “Tonight?”

She nodded. “My place,” she answered and then walked away with a little extra swing in her hips.

I smiled, watching her until she was out of sight even though I knew she’d be by the set once the show started. But just like every other day the show filmed, Rory was gone before I could plow through the crowd that surrounded me when the director yelled ‘cut’.

But I smiled on my way to the parking lot, because tonight I would have plenty of time to explore her body, to teach her what it meant to fuck. First I would take my time, nice and slow like the first time, before I flipped her over and showed her how hot sex could be.

My dick grew hard in my pants just thinking about tonight but I had to get myself under control as my car came to a stop. If I could keep her out of my mind for the next ten minutes I could get what I needed—champagne and condoms—and get home.

Quickly.

After a quick shower, I grabbed the bag I picked up on the way home and went through the back door, knocking loud and insistently. I could admit I was eager to have her naked and writhing beneath me again, even if it was only to myself. After an interminable wait the lock slid and the door opened, revealing the sexiest goddamn thing I’d seen in a long time. Rory wearing nothing but a white lab coat that barely covered anything. All I could see was copper hair, cleavage and miles upon miles of smooth creamy legs.

“Holy fuck. I thought showing up with strawberries and champagne was impressive,” I told her holding up the bag for her to see. “But Rory you look good enough to eat.”

The sweet sound of her laughter hit me straight in my cock and sent fire shooting up and down my spine. “I am totally okay with that.” She stepped back and opened the door wider. “Come on in, Doctor.

I spun on her, using my height and weight advantage against her to press her body against the door. “You know how much I love to hear you say that?”

Her hips pressed forward and I knew by the pink that stained her cheeks that she felt how hard I was already. “I have an idea.” She hooked her fingers in my belt loops and pulled me even closer.

The bag fell from my hands, my fingers itched to touch her again, to see if she really was as soft as I remembered. Fuck yeah, silky smooth skin glided against my fingertips, touching her thighs, her hips before stripping that sexy as fuck white jacket off her body.

“As much as I appreciate the jacket, you naked is better than anything.”

Her breath hitched. “Good to know,” she said as her own hands slid under my t-shirt and slid up my body, caressing and squeezing before she raked her nails down my chest, my abs. “You’re so smooth, but so hard. So, so hard,” she said in a sexy strangled voice that told me I was getting to her.

She pushed my shirt over my head and tossed it on the floor, pressing her lips to my chest. I couldn’t take it. “Fuck, Rory.” I lifted her up and her arms and legs wrapped around me just how I wanted them to, only I needed to be as naked as her. “We can do the strawberries and champagne later. Right now I need you.”

“Yes,” she moaned in my ear before nipping the lobe. The sound and the feel made my cock jump and I laid her on the nearest flat surface, the black tile of the kitchen counter.

She gasped at the cool feel of it against her back, and I took the moment to wrap my mouth around a pretty pink nipple, letting her sexy sighs and gasps fuel my desire. My need. Back and forth I went, sucking and licking those gorgeous tits while she tugged my hair so fucking hard my eyes watered but I loved it.

“Kane,” she groaned and I made my way lower, kissing her ribcage and dipping my tongue into her navel before pressing open mouthed kisses to her hips.

“Is this what you want?” I asked and parted her folds with my tongue, darting in and out of her moisture while her hips moved uncontrollably. Knowing that it was me driving her out of her mind, making her delirious with desire, only made it all hotter.

“Yes,” she panted and I kept up a steady torture, ignoring the way my cock pressed against my zipper. “Fuck Kane, just like that!”

I didn’t know how much longer I could hold out with her juices dripping down my throat and that low warm whiskey voice washing over me. Pulling her clit in my mouth at the same time I slid two fingers inside her now dripping pussy, satisfaction washed over me when she spasmed around my fingers. I licked her long and slow until the last convulsion rocked her body.

“Fuck you taste delicious.”

“Better than champagne and strawberries?” she joked.

“I’ll do a taste test. Later.” I laughed at her shiver. “But now, I could use something a little more substantial.” She unfastened my pants and shoved them to the floor.

“Oh yeah, like what?” She had me in her hands, stroking with just enough pressure as her gaze stayed fixed on mine. Her heat sucked me in closer and closer to the damp vortex between her thighs and she pulled me in.

“Rory.”

“Like this?” she asked, and I flexed my hips, sinking in.

“Rory,” I groaned again as her heat enveloped me and I slid in all the way. “God, you feel so good.” She was so wet and slick, I felt my legs tremble and I held onto the counter to stay up.

“You feel even better,” she groaned, rolling her hips and squeezing my cock like a vise. “Kane, please.”

I knew what she wanted and I was too damn eager to give it to her, pumping my hips like a man on a mission as I chased down her pleasure and mine. She cried and moaned, mewled so loudly it strained the bounds of my control, ripped it to shreds as I drove deeper and faster like a wild man. Mad with lust and the desire to reach the ultimate pleasure. “Rory,” I growled a warning feeling my control close to snapping.

“Kane,” she said, breathless as her legs crossed behind me to change the angle so I could slide deeper, falling into that dark abyss. She convulsed and shuddered as her orgasm built, clutching me in a soft glove that felt like heaven. “I’m…oh!”

“I know,” I told her, sliding in faster and deeper while I rubbed quick circles on her clit. “Let go. Now.” Watching Rory come apart ranked up there with seeing the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower. She was a work of art, a sight to behold, as her skin flushed, her nipples pebbled and her lush mouth formed a sexy ‘o’ that had my mind conjuring up all kinds of other sexy images.

“Kane!”

Hearing her cry my name over and over like it was the refrain of her favorite song pushed me over the edge. “Oh, Rory,” I growled in her ear before stealing her mouth in a dirty kiss while I rode out my pleasure on her body. “Fuck.” Shivers made it impossible to move and I felt so wrung out, so satisfied I thought maybe the kitchen counter wasn’t so bad after all.

Then Rory laughed. “That was great and all, but right now I’m literally between a rock and a hard place.” She shook with laughter, squeezing me with her muscles.

“If you don’t stop that we’ll end up here all night.”

With the most serious expression I’d ever seen her wear, the little minx squeezed again.

* * *

“You didn’t have to bring food, you know.” Rory sat on the sofa, her legs stretched out across several cushions with her feet buried under my bare leg. She wore the white t-shirt I had on when I knocked a few hours ago, eyeing my bare chest as she ate duck with noodles from a paper carton.

“I know I didn’t have to, but it’s selfish on my part since you’ll need the fuel.”

One auburn brow arched in amusement. “Just me?”

I nodded. “You said earlier you wanted to try being on top.” My cock had instantly gone hard when she said that, only moments after I’d bent her over the sofa and fucked her until we were both cross-eyed and boneless. “I’m just doing my part.”

She laughed but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Look at you being all kinds of helpful. You’re a regular good Samaritan, aren’t you?”

I wanted to ask about the look in her eyes, but I knew she wouldn’t tell me so I shrugged. “Some might say so.”

With a laugh, she rolled her eyes and deftly picked up her noodles with chopsticks. “I appreciate it even though this isn’t about…that.”

I was sure my face showed the confusion I felt. “What?”

“Anything more than sex. I just want you to know that I get it. I’m new at this, but I know what it is. That’s all. Plus I love noodles. And duck,” she said and put more in her mouth.

I wanted to ask more questions but like she said, this was about sex. Not long dinners and interesting conversation. But still. “There’s no reason we can’t talk and get to know each other Rory. We are neighbors.”

She thought about it and then seemed to agree. “Why did you choose fertility and obstetrics?”

“I wanted to be a surgeon, but on my ER rotation I helped a woman through a tough delivery. She was so worried because she’d gone through a lot just to get pregnant. It kind of stuck with me, I guess.” Now was my chance to learn more about her. “How are you still a virgin?”

She flashed a bright, goofy smile. “I’m not. I lost it to a hot doctor.” I rolled my eyes and she laughed. “My mom split when I was fifteen so I had to take care of myself or end up in foster care until I was eighteen. Since I graduated when I was sixteen that would have put my plans on hold, so I got a job and stayed in the apartment, keeping my head down so the manager wouldn’t find out. I couldn’t risk getting distracted by boys or getting kicked out, so I didn’t date.”

“Wow. I’m sorry you had to go through that.” It made me feel like a jackass for some of the assumptions I’d made about her.

She shrugged like it was no big deal, but we both knew it was. “In college I was so much younger than everyone, always. I didn’t even get a real date until senior year. I was twenty, still too young to get into bars so even that relationship lasted about a month.”

“And after that?”

“Grad school and work kept me busy.” She looked at me head on, expecting pity, and ready to hate me for it but she didn’t find it.

“How did your wife die?”

I frowned. “She’s not dead.”

Green eyes went round in shock. “Oh, well, Syd said she was gone forever and I just assumed…” She went back to her food and then froze, turning her gaze back to me. “Please don’t tell me you’re still married to her?”

“You think I’d be here with you if I were?” She shook her head but her eyes swam with uncertainty. “She left. Her high school sweetheart, the man she’d always loved, divorced his wife and found her on Facebook. She said they were meant to be, so she left us and started a family with him. It took a year to find her in the wilds of Montana, but I did and served her with divorce papers. she gave up all rights to Syd.” I shrugged because to me it was old news. “We haven’t seen or heard from her since.”

“That bitch!”

I smiled at her quick defense of my little girl. “That’s how I felt for a long time, but I figured if she could leave so easily, we didn’t need her.”

“Screw her and screw women who leave their kids,” she said, stabbing the air with one of her chopsticks. “You’ve done a good job with her. She’s bright and sweet and kind.”

“Doesn’t hurt that she’s a big fan of yours.” Shit, the last thing I should be doing is mentioning my daughter during a dirty weekend. I didn’t want Rory getting the wrong idea about this thing between us, and maybe talking about my daughter would confuse things. “Someone else is a pretty big fan too,” I told her, feeling my body respond when her gaze landed on my cock.

“A very big fan, I’d say.” She put her food down and slid across the sofa and onto my lap. Yanking the shirt over her head so her breasts were right by my mouth, she grinned. “That’s good because I’m becoming a bit of a fan girl myself.”

She smiled and kissed me. And then she finally got the chance to be on top.


 

“I don’t think I can feel my legs,” I laughed so hard my whole body shook but I really couldn’t feel my legs after the things Kane had just done to my body.

“You should have thought of that before you joined me in the shower,” he said, lying beside me on the bed, both of us still wet. “At least we finally made it to a bed.”

I knew he’d say something about the fact that we spent the past three days having sex everywhere but the one place we were supposed to. It had been a calculated move on my part, an attempt to mitigate the fallout from this ill-advised fling.

Despite my words of bravado, I could already tell my feelings were getting wrapped up in this, and I couldn’t let that happen. This was just scratching an itch, nothing more. I knew that, I really did. Unfortunately, my body and my dreams did not. “Yeah,” I sighed, still fighting to catch my breath.

“This is a good bed. Firm with just enough bounce to be helpful and big enough to be adventurous.”

I smiled at the smile I heard in his voice. He had done a lot to me in this bed, hence the tingling numbness in my legs which he set about massaging and it felt so good I moaned. “You certainly were that.” He was a whole lot more than adventurous, and that meant getting rid his presence in here would be impossible.

“Hey, you okay?”

“You mean other than paralysis and complete satisfaction? Yep. Good.”

He pressed a kiss to the side of my breast and I suppressed a shiver. “When do you hear back about your thesis?”

“Soon. Could be tomorrow or next month.” I held my breath everyday waiting for a call or an email that never came. I knew it was a process, but other than a few minutes a day I didn’t focus on it because my nights with Kane had given me so much material for my newest novel. For now I could put my energy towards that while I waited to hear about my future.

A buzzing noise sounded in the distance and we both sat up and froze, listening for the source. “I think that’s my phone. Shit!” He stood and walked purposely from the room, giving me the perfect glimpse of his naked ass, so round and tan and muscular. He grumbled the whole way down the stairs to wherever his pants had been left. “It’s the hospital,” he called. “I have to go in.”

I hadn’t expected as much time as I’d gotten with him, yet I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get anymore. “Okay,” I called back, sliding his t-shirt over my naked body and meeting him downstairs. I had no idea what to say. What did you say to your long weekend fling before he left? “Have a nice life?”

“I’ll probably have a long night tonight, so.” He was at a loss as much as I was.

“We both knew you’d have to go some time.” That much was true, I was just the fool who thought it would be sometime tomorrow evening. “This was fun.”

He stepped into his jeans and smiled. “It was more than fun Rory, it was wicked and delicious. Incredible,” he told me and pressed a hot but soft kiss to my neck. “You have my shirt.”

I looked down like I didn’t realize it and grabbed the hem, pulling the shirt over my head and handing it to him. “So it is.”

Pride swelled in my chest at the way his gaze roamed over my body, lingering on the curve of my breast, the triangle between my legs. “Temptress,” he groaned and pulled me into his arms, kissing me with so much need it began to feel like a whole lot more than a four-night stand.

* * *

In the days and weeks following my weekend with Kane time seemed to fly by. The weather grew hotter as it tended to do during magnificent Portland summers, and I spent the mornings I didn’t have to work in the yard working on my novel. Or spending time with Sydney, who had proven to be a fun companion. I hadn’t seen or spent any time with Kane privately or otherwise since he was called away to the hospital, and when I did see him—at work or at home—I kept things professional and neighborly. From my perspective, he had forgotten all about the time we spent together, both in and out of bed, barely sparing me even a glance when he would retrieve Sydney from my place.

I shook it off as best I could and focused my energy elsewhere. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t know what I was doing when I’d agreed to his long weekend of nothing but sex, utterly satisfying and wicked sex, but sex all the same. What I hadn’t realized, had no way of realizing, was just how difficult it would be to separate my emotions from the act itself. The fact that I was hurt and disappointed told me I was more invested in him than I realized. Now I knew though, and I wouldn’t be making that mistake again. Not with Kane or anyone else.

* * *

Watching him smile into the camera from the sidelines was bittersweet, because I knew he would never lay that sexy smile on me again. Luckily the taping was over, so I gathered my laptop and notes and shoved it all into my bag as I made my way from the cool dark halls of the studio and out into the eighty-seven degree heat. I pulled off my jacket and gathered my hair off my neck as I slid into my car and cranked the air conditioning. “Time to go home,” I said and smiled to myself as the phone rang. “Hello?”

“Hello, Aurora Cochran? My name is Tessa Whidbey from Kismet Publishing and I received a copy of your manuscript from Wendy Higgins. Aurora we all loved it. You found a way to make the coed and the professor insanely hot and unique.”

What? “Um, thank you Ms. Whidbey.”

She laughed. “Call me Tessa,” she said and then launched into an offer for a three-book deal as I sat in my car, shocked and thrilled. “What do you think?”

“I think I’m in shock,” I answered truthfully. “But I am also very flattered and interested. Really interested,” I added to the sound of Tessa’s tinkling laughter. “Oh, and I’m half way through a second book.”

“Wow! That’s amazing Aurora. If you really are interested I’ll have my assistant call you to set up a meeting in our offices here in LA. Will that work for you?”

“Please call me Rory and yes, that will definitely work.” We made plans to get together at my earliest convenience before ending the call. I screamed in excitement inside the confines of my car. This was it, finally some small nudge into the future. “I need to celebrate.”

So I stopped at the market for some grill essentials—beer, burgers, potato salad—and went home for a solo celebration. But not before I called Dr. Higgins to thank her and share the good news.

It was nice to have someone to share the news with and it highlighted just how little effort I made to include other people in my life. Hell, my best friend was a seven-year-old girl and I’d only known her for a few months. I hadn’t bothered to form attachments at all since my mom left, which meant I was completely alone. But it was what I knew best, so I figured it was best not to dwell on it too much.

“Hey whatcha doin’?”

I looked down from my place at the grill in the far corner of my side of the yard, flipping my garlic chicken burgers to see Sydney looking adorable in her pink tank top and denim overalls. “I’m grilling, what are you doing?”

She gave an exaggerated shrug. “Nothing. Can I stay here?”

“Sure, but only if you promise to share a burger with me.” Her bright smile warmed me from the inside out as she pulled up a seat and watched my moves intently.

“Okay.”

Syd fell silent and I figured her little mind was working on something big. “Do you remember your mom?”

Ah, that’s what it was. It made sense because we both were motherless. “I remember some things, but I try not to think about it. What I remember most is her perfume and the careful way she always put on makeup, it always seemed so glamorous.” Even though it was always so she could go out to a party or a date. Someplace that didn’t include me.

She mulled that over before asking another question. “Do you think my mommy left because I was bad?”

Removing the burgers from the grill I went and took a seat beside her, gathering her into my arms. “I don’t think that’s it at all sweetie. Being a parent is hard and for some people it’s just too much. But you know it’s better to have one really great parent than one who doesn’t want to be around, right?”

She nodded against my chest, sniffling and squeezing me tight around the neck. “I’m hungry,” she said, the sadness temporarily forgotten.

We sat at the picnic table and ate mostly in silence, both of us deep in thought. All too soon Margaret called her inside for her bath, so she gave me a quick hug and shot inside like the bundle of energy she always was. I wished I still had that much energy as I cleaned up and went inside.

At some point, I’d put on my pajamas and fallen asleep while binge-watching old episodes of 30 Rock because when I woke up there was a pounding on my front door. Disoriented I looked around to make sure everything was fine before I stood, stretched and then shuffled towards the door.

“Yes?”

Margaret stood on the other side of the door looking flustered and confused, her silver bun hung off to the side in a messy heap. “The child! She’s having some sort of attack. Come on and help me out, quick girl, quick!”

As her words penetrated my sleep fogged brain I finally heard them. Syd was in trouble. My feet began to move, pushing past her until I found the little girl lying on the sofa with labored breathing. “What’s wrong sweetie?” She pointed to a plastic container filled with chocolate cookies and I frowned. “You have an allergy?” She nodded and my heart rate began to skyrocket as I struggled to think straight. I didn’t know much about allergies, but I thought we needed an ambulance and told Margaret as much. “Do you have one of those pen thingies?”

In lieu of an answer her breathing became shallow and her eyes rolled to the back of her head. I scooped her up and headed to my car before doubling back for my keys and purse. We needed to get to the hospital and I broke every speed and traffic law in the city to get her there before it was too late.


 

“Congratulations Mom and Dad,” I told the new parents who were each holding a crying bundle of baby girl. The night seemed like it would never end as I spent the past four hours elbow deep in pregnant women. I loved my job, I really did, but nights like this were hell. It was part of the deal my partner and I made with the hospital, but damn it left me exhausted.

My phone buzzed again for the twelfth time in the past hour and I groaned. I pulled it out to verify it was the same insistent caller. Rory. I didn’t get it, we’d been doing just fine ignoring each other for the past few weeks and now she was blowing up my phone and I couldn’t figure out why. So I picked it up and did nothing to hide my annoyance.

“What is it Rory?”

“Where have you been, and why the hell aren’t you answering your phone?”

I stared at the phone in disbelief. Why the hell was she sounding like a suspicious lover? “Where is this coming from Rory? I thought we had an understanding here.” I should have known taking a virgin to bed would bite me in the ass. “What we had was fun but-,”

“Oh my god are you kidding me right now? Ugh, you jackass! In case you give a damn, your daughter is in the ER. She had some type of allergic reaction.” With those damning words, she hung up before I could ask for details.

Sydney! I quickly removed my protective gear, washed my hands and ran down five flights of stairs and didn’t stop until I reached the ER. “Sydney Royal, where is she?” The nurse didn’t seem fazed by my harsh words, simply typed into the keyboard and pointed down the hall. Halfway down the packed corridor I found my little girl, pale and tiny in the oversized bed. “Hey sweetie, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine Daddy.” She accepted my hug, wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and squeezing tight. She pulled back and smiled. “Rory came to help ‘cause Margaret freaked out. She drove here like a racecar driver and said she would apologize when I was okay. I thought I was dead for sure Daddy but Rory saved me!” She seemed more excited about the trip to the hospital than what had put her here in the first place.

“That’s good sweetheart.” I felt like a jackass—again—for the way I treated Rory. Rubbing Sydney’s hair gently I scanned the room, noticing it was empty. “She left you alone?” My anger boiled right back up again.

Her smile dimmed at my harsh words. “No. She heard you yelling at the nurse and she gave me a kiss then left before you got here.”

Shit. I would just have to find a way to thank her properly when I got my daughter home. “I’ll thank her later.”

“But Daddy you can’t, she’s-,”

“Don’t worry about it Sydney, just lie back and take it easy. We’ll have you out of here soon enough.” Soon enough turned out to be two long hours to make sure all the inflammation had gone down and her breathing was completely normal. We made it home quickly thanks to the lack of late night traffic, but I still needed to find Margaret who had disappeared at some point without a word. Particularly words about why she’d given my daughter nuts.

And there was the fact that without Margaret I had no childcare for Sydney because asking Rory was probably out of the question given how I had reacted to her call.

* * *

She wasn’t at home. Again. For the past three days I had tried to stop by to thank Rory for her quick thinking and for helping Sydney. But she was never at around.

“Dammit.”

“She’s gone,” a familiar old voice sounded from behind me. I knew I was too preoccupied when an elderly woman could sneak up on me.

“Where have you been Margaret? Gone where?”

She shrugged her ample shoulders and patted her neat bun. “Don’t know. I stopped by two days ago to talk to you but you weren’t here and the teenager you hired wouldn’t let me see Sydney.” I couldn’t blame the girl after Margaret had all but abandoned her post. “I caught them around back in the yard, close together and whispering like always. She shoved a slip of paper into the girl’s hands, hugged her and walked back inside. I can’t be sure but she looked to be crying. Both of’em.”

Rory had run off and the only person she told was my seven-year-old daughter? That didn’t sound right. Or safe. Then again who else would she tell, Syd was the only person she gave a damn about.

“Thanks Margaret. Why did you stop by?”

She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “That excitement the other night was too much and I had a mild cardiac episode. I’m sorry Dr. Royal but I have to think about my health now.”

“Fine,” I bit out because losing the woman who often slept on the sofa leaving Sydney without supervision and who fed her the only thing she was allergic to, was no real lost. “Thank you for stopping by and please take care of yourself.” I was still a doctor after all, my bedside manners extended to all parts of my life. And cardiac issues were no joke. I saw Margaret out before I headed back inside my house.

There was a little girl upstairs who owed me an explanation. “Hey honey.”

“Hi Daddy.” Her inability to meet my gaze told me Margaret had told me the truth.

“You know where Rory is?” She only nodded with an exaggerated bob of her head. “Where?”

“It’s our secret and I don’t have to tell you.” I recognized that defiant tilt of her head because it was the same as Tracy’s.

“True but if Rory’s in trouble you have to tell me.”

“She’s not. She’s fine, she told me so herself.” Arms crossed in a challenge I didn’t have the energy to meet.

“When did she tell you?”

“Last night before bed. She called to tell me that she was coming back and not to worry.”

And that just deflated all the righteous anger from me. How could I stay angry at her when she was so careful with my daughter’s heart? More careful than her own mother had been. Hell, more careful than I’d been with Rory’s heart. Not that I had any delusions that she regarded me that way, especially after the way I spoke to her.

“That was nice of her.”

She nodded again. “Rory is very nice. I love her.” She beamed that mischievous little smile and I knew trouble was coming. “Do you love Rory Daddy?”

“I like Rory and I’m glad she’s good to you.” I didn’t love anyone but Sydney and my parents. Not since Tracy, and once she’d vacated our lives to start a new one, I vowed I wouldn’t go there again. Sydney and work were my priorities.

Messy brown hair framed a frowning face. “Why don’t you love Rory? Is it because her mommy left too?”

“Of course not! Rory is a friend honey, that’s all.”

“You kissed her and you look at her like this,” she made what I could only assume was moon eyes. She looked so ridiculous I had to laugh.

“I do?” She nodded. “Well she is very pretty.” I wasn’t ready to admit more. Mostly because there was no more to admit to, and anything else would only raise Syd’s hopes unfairly.

“You could love her if you just tried. She loves me Daddy and she looks after me. She cried in the hospital ‘cause she was scared.”

I sighed and wisely chose to remain silent. Sydney had grown very attached to Rory and I couldn’t let that happen only to have her heartbroken over another abandonment.


 

A week in Los Angeles had been exactly what I needed to clear my head and reset my brain. All the drama of getting Syd to the hospital terrified me and then the things Kane had said to me, as if I’d been sitting around pining for him. As if! I was relieved to receive the call from Tessa’s assistant the following morning, and I told him to get me there as soon as possible.

The flight was quick since I worked on my new novel the entire flight, and I spent most of the first day wandering around Hollywood and imagining it was home. On the second day, I spent hours going from building to building in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills in search of an agent. I knew I could probably read the contract and have a good enough understanding to sign it without worry, but an agent would get me the best possible deal. And they would make sure I didn’t get screwed when I finally signed the contract. I found an agent just before the close of business, and the next day Brian Murphy went with me to sign the contract and negotiate the advance I would get.

The advance check that would make me a professional writer would be cut soon and I could leave my job at the studio and write full time. It was a huge relief. But now that I was back in Portland, I couldn’t get away from the man who had a starring role in my dreams. And my second novel.

I spent the day unpacking and cleaning, turning the guest room downstairs into an office to accommodate my new profession. It’s not like I’ve ever had any guests stay the night. Now I could have a dedicated space for the books which Kismet was paying me a healthy chunk of change to write.

“Rory!”

I smiled at the sound of my favorite little girl. Her little hand smacked the back door until I opened it up. “Hey Syd, how’s it going?”

She flung her little body at me, wrapping her strong arms around my legs. “I missed you Rory. You were gone forever!” She pulled back and walked in, chattering a million miles a minute. “Daddy was upset that you were gone too.”

I doubted that but it was nice of her to say so. “What have you been up to?”

“I’m in between sitters. Again,” she said, totally exasperated.

“Jeez kid you go through sitters like underwear.” She frowned at my words and made a gagging sound.

“Where were you?”

“I was in Los Angeles. For work.”

Her eyes brightened. “Your big girl book?” I nodded and she flung herself at me again, filled with excited squeals and high-pitched questions. “Are they making it a movie?  Can I can see it? Who’s in it?”

“I don’t know about all that sweetie, but they are going to put it out so people can buy it in stores.”

“Cool. You’re famous.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Are you hungry?” I stopped at the store on my way home and bought fixings to make pizza.

“Yep. Can we make something?”

“Pizza? I got all the stuff to make it.”

She jumped up and ran to the bathroom to wash her hands. “All right! Can we invite Daddy, he’s been in his office all day.”

Hell no. “Sure,” I said anyway because I couldn’t say no to Sydney.

“Yay!” She darted out the front door screaming her head off to get her father’s attention.

I needed a moment to myself before I came face to face with Kane again. Not that I had any lingering feelings for him, not much anyway. Sure, he was still in my head and sometimes I thought he’d left a piece of himself in my body. Some nights I woke up in a sweat, panicking because the dreams felt so real. I could swear his body was wrapped around me and his deep voice whispered in my ear. When I woke up alone I felt nothing but disappointed.

I splashed cold water on my face, patted it dry and came back to find both Royals standing in my kitchen staring at me.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Kane said looking nervous and uncomfortable. “You’re finally back.”

“Yep. I am. How are you?”

“Fine,” he smiled. “Where were you?”

“Los Angeles.” God this was so painful I couldn’t stand it. “Why don’t you guys go watch TV while I get things going.”

“No I want to help,” Sydney chimed in. “Daddy does too. Don’t you, Daddy?” She glared at him in a much too mature way for her age.

“Uh, sure.” He looked nervous and I felt a small measure of satisfaction that he was uncomfortable too. “Hey Sydney, do you think you could give me and Rory a moment to talk?”

Big blue eyes bounced between us and her mouth split into a cheeky grin. “Okay! Can I watch Netflix?” she asked me.

“Sure. Nothing racy or-,”

She cut me off with a roll of her eyes, “Or too grown up, I know.”

We stared at each other for a long moment. It was awkward and quiet, and I hated it. “So, what did you want to talk about?”

He flashed that sexy little grin that made my heart flutter, but I tamped that down. He rubbed the back of his head nervously and a laugh escaped. “I owe you an apology.”

“No, you don’t,” I cut him off and started slicing the pepperoni. “And I don’t want it.” I’d thought long and hard about it in LA, and he had a right to wonder why I’d called so much that night. He was a jerk about it, but that’s how men were it seemed. “You want to help or join Sydney in the living room?”

“I could help,” he said and took several steps closer. “I’d like to help.”

“You would?”

He nodded and came closer until his body was scant inches from mine. “Yes. I can chop while I give you the thanks I owe you.” His hands went to my hips and pulled me closer. “You saved my daughter’s life Rory. That means the world to me.”

“You’re welcome and you know I love Sydney. I’ll always look out for her where I can.” Ignoring the pitter-patter of my heart I tried to take a step back but he held me tight. “Kane.”

“I’ve missed you.”

I wanted to believe that. I wanted to, but I didn’t. “No you didn’t. You feel gratitude for what I did, and you think offering yourself up to me is the way to thank me.” It would be nice if he meant it, and until this moment I hadn’t realized that I wanted him to mean it. Shit. This wasn’t good. I took a big step back. “You made your feelings very clear Kane and I’m okay with that. Don’t confuse me.”

“You think that’s what I’m doing?” I nodded and closed my eyes against the dark desire I saw in his gaze. His breath fanned my face and made it hard to breathe.

“I do.”

“Well I’m not trying to confuse you. I know I was a jerk to you that night, but I was exhausted and in a bad mood.” His lips landed just to the side of mine, brushing against the corner and I sucked in a breath. “But I realized that I missed you.”

“You did?”

He nodded, wearing that same sexy grin that he did in my dreams and then he kissed me.

* * *

“Daddy, Rory’s books are gonna be sold in stores!” Sydney excitedly spilled the beans at dinner. Only the adorable sight of her face smeared with pesto cooled my anger. For some reason, I didn’t want him to know.

“Oh yeah? What kind of books?”

“Grown up ones,” my pint-sized publicist answered.

His silver gaze landed on mine, full of questions. His mouth twisted to one side in amusement but my gaze strayed to his lips, particularly that plump bottom lip that knew how to make me moan.

“Grown up?”

I nodded slowly. “The first book was part of my thesis and my advisor was so impressed she sent it to a friend at a publishing house. I went down to Los Angeles to meet with her and sign the contract.”

“Congratulations. That is really cool Rory.”

“Thank you,” I blushed and pushed a few curls behind my ear.

“Romance?”

I nodded. “Of the erotic variety, yes.”

“That means grown up, Daddy,” Syd offered up helpfully.

“I know sweetheart,” he choked on his wine but smiled through it. “But thanks for letting me know.”

They were so cute together, and I realized just how easy it would be for me to fit right in. But I didn’t fit, because they weren’t my family. They were my neighbors and sometimes my friend. I needed to remember that. “Who wants dessert?”

“I do,” Sydney grinned and clapped excitedly.

“Sorry kiddo we need to get to bed. You’re going to your new sitter in the morning, remember?”

With a resigned sigh, she nodded and put her plate in the sink. “Okay fine. I don’t see why she can’t come to our house,” she grumbled.

“Because that’s not how she does business Sydney. Let’s go.”

She gave me a drive by hug and ran from the house. “Good night Rory.”

“Do you think I could get one of those?”

His deep voice was like a caress over my body and I felt myself weakening. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. You got all weird last time I called you, so I know where your head is at, and I’ve figured out that I’m not a casual sex type of girl.”

“You did it all right last time.”

“I know, but that was before. This is now.”

“So, you want me to take you on a date?” he asked as his hands slid up and down my bare arms.

“No. You’ve made it perfectly clear that you don’t want anything serious, and that’s okay. Really.”

“But I want you Rory.” He brushed a kiss to one corner of my mouth and then the other. “Naked and laid out for me.” He kissed my forehead. “For my touch,” he whispered and gently kissed my eyelids. “My taste.” His lips landed on mine with a ferocity I had never experienced before.

I clung to him while his mouth made love to mine, his tongue licked my lips and inside my mouth the same way he’d licked my intimate parts when we were together. A moan sounded in the room and I belatedly realized it was me. Shit. Stepping back, I put a hand to his chest.

“We can’t do this.”

“Why? We both seemed to be enjoying it.”

“You know I enjoyed it, but this can’t happen. I can’t sleep with you and be casual about it, and you know that.” The last thing I wanted was for Kane to think I was mooning over him. Even if I was.

“How about if I come over tomorrow and ask you on a proper date? No kisses and no sex until after the date.” He made it sound so reasonable.

“You think I’m the kind of girl to have sex on the first date?” I asked jokingly.

He shrugged. “A man will always hope to sleep with a beautiful woman. And since I’ve already had a taste of you, I’m yearning for more.”

His whispered words hit me and desire bounced between us. “Yearning?”

He nodded. “I wake up sometimes at night with the taste of you on my tongue,” he moved closer so I could feel his entire body. “I have to take myself in hand just to get back to sleep Rory.”

What was he saying? I couldn’t tell if this was part of his seduction game, or if he meant those words. Confusion filled my mind but my body called to him. Wanted him. Needed him. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that.” Where had that come from?

“Yeah?”

I nodded. “Yeah.” He pressed his cock into my hip so I could feel how hard he was and a moan escaped. “I would.”

“Then we have a lot to look forward to after our first date, right?”

Shit, that date thing again. “Fine, come around and ask and I’ll have an answer for you then.”

Kane flashed that sexy panty-melting grin, pressed a kiss to that spot behind my ear and then he left.

I knew I was in more trouble than I could handle, and I had no idea what the hell to do about it.


 

Rory was unlike any woman I’d ever dated. So figuring out what to do for our first date had me stumped. She wasn’t the sophisticated executive used to fine dining in five star restaurants, and more importantly, I didn’t think she expected it. Rory was young, alive and vibrant, so I opted for something more casual and hoped like hell she didn’t feel short changed.

I sure didn’t, not with her looking so sexy in a soft green and white striped dress that hit mid-thigh to show off her shapely legs and tiny strings in the back that teased my senses. The shoes—good god the shoes!—were every man’s dream. Some type of wedge heel that made her legs look even longer and shapelier but more importantly the billowy white ribbons that twirled around her ankle and calf, tied into a bow at her ankles. I was turned on and in no position to act on it. Yet.

“This is a great spot, almost like you used your whole ‘Master of the Universe’ thing to command it be vacant.” She laughed and pushed a few copper curls from her face against the gentle breeze.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “What about me says Master of the Universe? The fact that I can’t keep a sitter? Or that I barely have control of my daughter?”

She shrugged and waved a hand in my general direction. “You know, the whole gorgeous wealthy doctor who helps women fulfill their most deeply held wishes.” Rory examined me with her head cocked to the side and a dreamy expression on her face. “I get the appeal even if it is intimidating at times.”

“Intimidating?” I asked, incredulous.

She nodded and began to unpack the food we’d bought from a nearby barbecue stand, setting each container carefully on the blanket between us. “Sure. First, you’re a doctor which means you’re super smart and determined as hell. Then you were born wealthy which means you’re cultured and have connections normal people couldn’t even dream of having.”

“And…,” I encouraged, enjoying her honest assessment.

“And you’re damn gorgeous, which on its own is pretty intimidating, but when you add in the other factors, well it’s another hurdle.”

“A hurdle? You mean it’s not a good thing?”

“For most women it would be, I’m sure. But I’m still in school, well I was and I’m not broke, but definitely live paycheck to paycheck. If you were just gorgeous…but you’re not,” she said finally, a hint of resignation in her voice.

“But you’re here anyway.”

“I like you. I like looking at you, talking to you. Sleeping with you.”

Hearing her say how she felt, so simply, did something to me. I felt a warmth I didn’t want to identify spread from my chest to the rest of me. “Those all sound like good things to me.”

Her pink tongue peeked out and ran over her lips, but she couldn’t help the smile that came unbidden. “It is. And it isn’t.” A flash of sadness appeared on her face but she quickly masked it with another smile and picked up one of the ribs on the plate between us.

“You know, there really is no sexy or polite way to eat these things.”

Her barbecue sauce coated smile hit me in the chest again and I laughed. “It’s not the sauce or the lack of it that has anything to do with your appeal Rory. Trust me.”

She leaned forward. “Ooh, is this date-night-Kane? Because I like you flirty, much better than gruff and grumbling-neighbor-Kane.”

I frowned. Was that how she saw me, gruff and grumbling? Then I recalled how we first met, and I had to admit I was kind of an asshole. “I’m surprised you didn’t wash your hands of the Royals altogether after that first meeting.”

“Ha! Speak for yourself. Syd’s first meeting was completely adorable and I couldn’t wash my hands of her even if I wanted to.”

I was glad to hear that she felt as strongly for Sydney as my daughter did for her. But I wanted to know more. “And me?”

I had to stifle a groan at the way she licked the excess barbecue sauce from her finger. “Adorable is not the word I would use to describe you.”

“Now you have to tell me the word you would use.”

She finished nibbling on her fry as a slow jazzy blues tune began to play on stage behind us, a sultry voice singing about her long-lost love. “Intense.”

I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. But so far, Rory hadn’t shown herself to be anything but straightforward. “Okay.”

She laughed and placed a hand on my thigh. “It’s a good thing. You’re intense about everything, how you love Syd, your work. Making me feel good.”

And bad. I thought of the way I treated her when she called to let me know Syd was in the hospital. “I like making you feel good.”

“You’re very good at it,” she answered with a shiver as though she was having the same thought I was at the moment.

“Those noises you make only make me want to hear them again and again. Louder and louder.”

Rory shivered again at my words, and I could admit a deep feeling of male pride at her response. “See? Intense.”

Another sexy blues song started and I stood, brushing bits of grass from my shorts and held out a hand to her. “Let’s dance.”

She blinked in surprise, big almond shaped green eyes wide and darkening with desire by the moment. “Okay,” she answered, her voice thick as I helped her up and pulled her close so our bodies were flush, hands cupped against my chest as we began to sway to the music. “Of course you dance too.”

“My dad always said the man who can dance will always get the girl.” I pulled her closer and dipped her over my forearm, using the position to brush my lips along the column of her throat.

“It is kind of sexy. And a little romantic too.” She was breathless.

“Oh yeah?” I spun her a little, feeling a sense of calm as her laughter washed over me. How could this woman make me feel so right? So settled. So at home. Pulling her closer, she wrapped both arms around my neck and pulled me down until our lips collided for a soft kiss.

Her mouth was sweet like the raspberry tea she drank and tangy from the barbecue sauce, and I couldn’t get enough of her. Her tongue teased mine, she nibbled my bottom lip until I groaned. Stealing the last of my resolve, she sucked on my tongue and I dipped her low, taking over the kiss until I devoured her so fully she trembled beneath me. When I pulled back she gave me a hazy grin.

“Hell yeah.”

“Too bad this is just our first date.”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “More incentive for a second I’d say.”

Damn I love this girl. The thought came out of nowhere and I pushed it the hell down into the space filled with things I refused to think about.

Ever.

* * *

I swear the universe was conspiring against me ever making love to Rory again. Days after the best date I had ever been on, we had our second date at a romantic French restaurant, complete with copious amounts of red wine for Rory and plenty of foie gras for both of us. We flirted and our conversation was laced with sexual innuendo while her foot made the occasional graze of my cock. We were both lubed up and ready to go by the time we left the restaurant. In the car, my hand slid up her thigh, growing hotter by the moment, and then I had two fingers buried deep inside her pulsing wet pussy. She’d been on the brink of what I had planned as orgasm number one of many when the call had come in that one of my patients had gone into labor eight weeks early.

Like the gentleman I was, I gave her that orgasm before dropping her off at home and heading to the hospital.

There were no plans for a third date today, but it was early evening as I drove home from the hospital. It was supposed to be a short day on account of my time filming the medical segment, but one of my problem patients had made a stink and insisted I be called in to deal with what she insisted was premature labor. It had turned out to be nothing more than gas.  But now I was finally home and eager to see the women in my life.

A frown crossed my face as I entered my dark and silent house. The new sitter was nowhere in sight and neither was Sydney, so I doubled back to knock on Rory’s front door. No answer. Rushing through the house I came to a stop on the top step of the back porch as I took in the sight before me. My little girl splashing happily in an inflatable pool wearing a purple bathing suit I had never seen, and Rory lying on a towel covered lounge chair wearing the tiniest orange bikini I had ever seen. A large brimmed hat shielded her face and shoulders but I couldn’t turn my eyes away from long smooth legs, round breasts spilling over the top with beautifully hard nipples on display. Fuck she was stunning.

“Daddy! Look at what Rory got for me!” Sydney fell in the small pool several times in her haste to get out, before finally finding purchase on the grass and barreling at me at full speed. “I got a pool!”

“I see that. I hope you thanked Rory properly?” If not I would do it myself. Later.

“I said thank you and I gave her two hugs and five kisses.”

“Five whole kisses?” She gave an exaggerated nod and wrapped her wet body around me. “Think you have one more for me?”

After smacking a wet kiss on my cheek, she wriggled out of my arms and ran back to splash in the pool. Seeing her so happy and full of life warmed my heart and I knew I owed much of it to the woman I couldn’t stop thinking about.

I stepped over to Rory, close enough that my body cast a shadow over hers, forcing her to look up. “That bikini should be illegal,” I growled.

Her lips curled up into a coquettish smile. “Would you like me to remove it, Dr. Royal?”

Fuck why did she have to say it like that, with her voice low and sexy? “If I say yes…?”

“I’ll find a way.”

Damn and I knew she would. The woman was insatiable and I felt more than a little responsible as her first and only lover. “Where’s the sitter?”

She shrugged. “Something about Harry Styles concert tickets.”

Dammit! “How is it possible for one person to have such bad luck with sitters?” I needed to find a permanent childcare solution because though summer was winding down, Sydney would still need part-time care when I was at the hospital.

“It’s a good thing you have such good luck with neighbors.”

“A damn good thing.” If she hadn’t been here would the sitter have left Sydney all alone? I couldn’t even stomach that thought. “How will I ever pay you back?”

“I’m sure I can think of something.” She lifted the hat so I could see the heat in her emerald gaze while she spoke to Sydney. “Ready to eat kiddo?”

“Yep!” She hopped out of the pool, much smoother this time, and wrapped a towel around herself, stopping in front of Rory to tuck it properly. “I get to make the salad!” She started running towards the house when Rory called out to her.

“Don’t forget to dry off so you don’t slip.”

“’Kay!”

“Is that safe?” I knew I could trust her with Sydney, but I couldn’t help but worry.

“Everything is set up and chopped in little bowls. All she has to do is mix it all.”

I grinned and pulled her up from the lounger. “So she feels like she did it all?”

“Very good, Doctor.” She walked past me making sure to brush her body against mine as she did. “You should get changed, we’re eating outside tonight.”

We. It had been a long time since there was a we beyond Sydney and I, but the word rolled from her tongue so naturally. “Do you need me to do anything?”

She turned at the top of the steps. “You’re in charge of the meat.”

I groaned and adjusted my cock in my pants at the way she licked her lips before disappearing inside her place. I stood out in the yard for far too long debating if I would go home and change or sneak inside Rory’s place for a quick taste of her.

My feet began to move and I slipped through the door and down the hall, stopping in the doorway as I took in the sight of Rory, naked and tan and lush. “Perfect timing.”

She turned and grinned, hands on her hips and she closed the distance between us. “For?”

“This,” I told her and spent the next few minutes licking and kissing every inch of her delectable body. She whimpered and moaned my name, the sexiest sounds that shot straight to my cock and I pulled back before we were too far gone to stop. “Let’s pick this up later.”

“Later,” she murmured, leaving me with the image of her hand playing with her wet pussy as I walked away.


 

I left the studio feeling lighter and freer than I had in a long time. I’d just worked my last shift at the studio because my very hefty advance check had recently cleared. Which meant I could focus all of my energy on writing. It felt incredible, but also kind of anticlimactic since I’d spent the past few years working my ass off to finish my degrees, and I felt like I was giving it up to pursue a side interest. It might be for forever, and it might not, and eventually I would be okay with that.

Yesterday Dr. Higgins and the committee had informed me that I officially held two degrees and my college career was complete. Yeah, I should be feeling damn good. I decided to treat myself by ordering—okay indulging—in my favorite, Baby Doll’s Pizza. I ordered pizza, a meatball sandwich, salad and beer before cranking up some nineties dance music and getting my dance party on. I was halfway through Fall Out Boy’s Dance, Dance when I spotted a pint-sized spy.

“Oh! Hey munchkin, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” she said looking more amused than apologetic. “Why are you dancing?”

“Because sweetheart,” I grabbed her by the hand and got her dancing with me, “I am now a professional writer and I passed all my classes so I have my degrees!” I was more excited than Syd, but she flashed a big smile and held my face in her little hands, smacking a kiss on both of my cheeks.

“Good job Rory.”

“Thanks kiddo.” Even though I only had a seven-year-old to share my news with, I still felt damn good. “Let’s dance!” My heart filled with love at the way she jumped in and shook her little booty right along with me, smiling and moving like she felt the words to her bones. Three songs later I was feeling breathless but unwilling to stop. Syd was still full of energy, which made me feel ancient.

Then I felt it. That tingle of awareness making the hairs on the back of neck stand on end, my whole body humming as I turned and found Kane staring at us with a goofy grin on his face.

“You’re staring.”

“You’re dancing.”

“We’re having a dance party Daddy!” Syd still moved around like this dance party was her favorite thing ever.

“You are? Any reason?”

“Several actually.” He was so accomplished that my news felt small by comparison, but I was still proud of myself so I shared it all with him. “So we’re dancing, at least until the food arrives.”

“Wow that’s great Rory. I’m-.” His words were cut off by the doorbell and the hipster delivery guy with my celebratory meal. Kane paid because he always did, and I followed him and the delicious cheesy, greasy scent to the kitchen.

“Time to wash up Syd.” Without a word, she took off down the hall. “Oh!” Kane pulled me into his arms and instantly my body softened against his, loving the way he felt with his body wrapped around mine.

“I’m happy for you Rory. Hell, I’m proud of you too.”

That’s when I knew. All the pounding in my chest, the dryness filling my mouth and the tears stinging the back of my eyes. His words touched me in a way they shouldn’t for someone I was casually dating. Sleeping with. I knew, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it or acknowledge it because I knew for him it wasn’t that way.

“Thank you Kane.” His lips fell on mine then, tender at first, but it quickly grew hungry and intense. Hot, as his tongue swept into my mouth, making me delirious with how much I wanted him. How much I loved him.

“Eww! You’re kissing! Gross!” Syd proceeded to make gagging noises until we pulled apart, stunned at how quickly the kiss had combusted.

“You won’t say that when you’re older,” I teased as Syd scrunched her nose in disgust. Kane gathered plates and napkins while I got drinks, juice for Syd and beer for us. “It’s been ages since I had this,” I groaned and took a big bite of cheesy deliciousness. “So good.”

“Mmm, so good,” Syd mimicked making us all laugh.

We ate in silence for a few minutes and I looked from Kane to his daughter and wondered how on earth I’d found such a wonderful family of my own. Okay well not my own, but for now it felt like it and that would have to be enough. For now.

“So what will you do now, spend your days writing?”

“That’s the plan. Book one will be out in the fall and I’m making good progress on book two.”

“We can hang out more! Yay!” Syd squirmed in her chair, losing a slice of pepperoni on the table in her excitement. Quickly her expression turned thoughtful. “Rory, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure honey, ask away.”

“Are you and Daddy in love?”

Kane choked on a big bite of pizza until his eyes watered. It wasn’t exactly the response I was looking for, but it was what I’d expected. The girl’s big eyes looked at me, waiting impatiently for an answer. I didn’t want to lie to her, or him, but I wasn’t totally ready to tell Kane what I’d figured out about my feelings.

“I do love your dad sweetie and I love you.”

She slid off the chair and flung herself into my arms, squeezing me tight. “I love you too Rory. You’re my favorite.”

My eyes stung at the heartfelt words from her. It had been so long since someone said them to me, if they ever said them. I can’t say I recalled hearing my mom telling me she loved me.

“Ditto, sweetheart.” I stole a quick glance over her head to her father and his shocked, horrified look told me everything I needed to know.

Tonight would probably be our last night together. I planned to make the most of it.

* * *

“She finally talked herself right to sleep.” Kane joined me in his room, which was a mirror image of mine, except dark green and deep gold accents decorated his instead of the vibrant colors in mine.

I smiled because we took dessert in front of the television and Syd talked so much I finally put on music for background noise. Not that it mattered to me since I could hardly focus on anything other than the terrified look on Kane’s face at his daughter’s question. Now though, my mind was clear. My heart was heavy, yet my body was ready. More than.

“I guess that means it’s my turn.” I decided to go for bold tonight. To take what I wanted and enjoy every moment with him until the sun came up.

He blew out a breath, and I knew he was readying himself for the big it’s not you, it’s me speech that I had no fucking desire to hear so I offered up a little distraction by removing my thin white t-shirt and dropping it to the floor. Along with my bra.

“Rory.” The way he said my name on a strangled groan was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Next went the button on my shorts before I lowered the zipper. “I don’t want to talk about it Kane. I know you don’t love me and I don’t expect you to, but give me tonight. Please.” I stood before him completely naked, totally exposed and waiting for him to accept or reject my offer. Me.

“Rory,” he said, his voice tortured, just before his mouth crashed down onto mine and I clung to him in a desperate need to imprint his taste on my mouth. My memory. His hands began a slow journey from my hair to my neck, sliding hungrily down my back to squeeze my ass, sending fire exploding from my core.

I fell under the spell of his kiss, like a drug,  it pulled me under and held me under his command. The onslaught of the kiss stirred a need, a kind of restlessness in me that I couldn’t control as my hands went to his body and frantically ripped off his shirt, his pants, kissing a fiery streak down his chest. If tonight was all I could have, I wanted it all. A groan escaped when my tongue dipped inside his belly button and I realized it was me, his musky masculine scent shot to my brain, fuelling my need to have all of him.

“Rory,” he groaned when I took him into my mouth, hand reaching out to tug on my hair. The pain made my eyes sting but the feel and taste of him on my tongue was different, earthy and warm and something uniquely Kane. The moment his hips began to move my body tightened and grew heavy with arousal. I knew if I slid my fingers between my own thighs they would be wet and sticky.

I moaned around his length, taking him as deep as I could until it pulled a groan from him and his hips began to move faster, thrusting in and out of my mouth as his hands cradled my face. I should have felt something other than aroused but my whole body zapped and zinged with burning arousal. Making him moan and curse turned me on. Big time. He called my name over and over but I was mesmerized by his taste, licking him from the bottom of his sack to the tip.

“Rory, enough!” He tugged my hair until I stood and his lips collided with mine again, turning so we fell on his big bed, his body cushioning mine. “I’ll come in your mouth later, right now I need to bury myself in you.”

I shivered at his harshly spoken words, crying out when his mouth wrapped around my nipple and sucked. He sucked and bit and I felt my body prepare for the impending orgasm. “Kane, please...”

He ignored my pleas, transferring his attention to my other breast and nipple before kissing and licking his way down my body. The man was on a mission to please me and I was all in, but I needed more than his wicked tongue, more than his talented fingers. “You’re so wet Rory.”

“I need you Kane. Please.” I was all out of pride, unable to hide just how badly I wanted him. Hell, I needed him and we both knew it.

“I love to hear you beg.” He flashed a heart melting smile and I had to close my eyes against the feelings that smile brought forth.

I kept them closed, unable to dare staring too deeply into those silver blue eyes as he sank slow and deep, invading my body with as much precision as he’d invaded my heart. Then he began moving, driving in and out of me like he was on a mission. It felt too good and I squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to shut out those emotions. I only wanted to feel the way he made my body feel. And it felt good. “Kane,” I moaned like it was the only word I knew.

“Rory, yes. Fuck yeah!” His hips moved faster and faster, plunging so deep I imagined, just for a second, we had become one.

I didn’t have anymore time to think fanciful thoughts like that because my orgasm barrelled out of me, sending me up into the atmosphere while Kane pounded harder and faster until his own orgasm exploded out of him on a roar. I couldn’t help but cry out on that last thrust that wrenched a few more shudders out of me. “Oh, god!”

“Rory, Rory, Rory,” he growled as his body continued to shake and vibrate before he collapsed onto me. “What’s wrong?” He looked so distraught, cupping my face lovingly as he brushed soft kisses against my lips.

“Nothing,” I told him as tears streamed down my face. They weren’t sad tears, though this moment did feel bittersweet. The tears were emotional from the intensity of our lovemaking, because though Kane would never admit it, that’s what had just happened. “That was just…intense.”

He smiled, not looking fully convinced, but perfectly happy to end this emotional point of the night as he removed his body from mine, leaving me instantly bereft. “It really was.” He smacked a kiss against my mouth and disappeared into the bathroom and moments later I heard the shower begin.

I was happy for the reprieve from the overwhelming emotions swamping me tonight and I fell asleep before he even returned to bed.

When I woke up next the sun cut through the curtains, slashing across my face. The house was silent, in fact the only sounds were the birds outside putting on a concert. I sat up, wondering if Kane had left sometime in the night, only to crash into his angry silver blue gaze.

“These were delivered this morning,” he held up two proofs of my first book. Tessa said they would arrive soon and I felt a smile tug at my lips but his scowl stopped me. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

I blinked in an effort to focus my eyes and brains on him to figure out what had him so bent out of shape. “What are you talking about?”

From the edge of the bed he pushed the proof closer so I could see, but what was I supposed to be looking at? “Now do you see? DO you fucking see Rory that this guy looks just like me? How could you?”

“How could I what Kane?” Anger and frustration seeped into my tone at his vague anger.

“This guy is basically me! I’m a doctor, Rory, a father. I can’t have my image on some…some-,”

“What the hell…? Tell me Kane, for once what you think.”

He sighed impatiently and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I didn’t mean anything by it except I can’t have people associating this,” he held up my proof with such contempt, “with me.”

This should make it easier, I kept telling myself that. His contempt and his anger should make it easier to say goodbye, but it only compounded my hurt because I knew what Kane was doing. Grasping at straws to find a legitimate reason to end things between us because I went and fell in love with him. Well I wouldn’t make it easy on him dammit.

“Just be honest Kane. You’re not all that upset about the cover. Which I had nothing to do with, not that you care. You’re freaked out because I’m in love with you, and now you’re looking for a way to end things.” I slipped from the bed, completely naked and unashamed since I couldn’t possibly get any more vulnerable or exposed. “Message received. Loud and clear. Feel free to leave whenever you want.” It took a few steps to close myself up in the bathroom, locking the door while I filled the bath with rose scented water.

There was no point holding my tears back, because if Kane hadn’t left yet then he deserved to hear them. These tears belonged to him, after all.


 

“Hey, I-,”

“Syd your father is here to pick you up!” Rory cut me off to summon my daughter to the door, not even giving me a chance to get out more than a swift greeting. She walked away leaving the door open just a crack and I got the message loud and clear.

Do not enter.

I shouldn’t be surprised since that’s how things had been between us lately. She was never rude or mean, just coolly civil. She didn’t act like a spurned lover, instead she acted like I didn’t exist. The only real clue I had about how she felt was the sadness in her eyes I caught glimpses of when I picked up Sydney each evening. Unbelievably she had offered to watch her until school started in a few weeks.

“Hi sweetheart, how are you?”

“I’m good Daddy.” She wrapped her arms and legs around me and turned to Rory. “Bye Rory, see you later!”

“Good night kiddo.” Her words were barely above a whisper and she closed the door without a word to me.

“Daddy I think Rory is sad.”

My daughter’s words caught me off guard and my hands stilled, sheets still clutched in them as I tucked her in bed. “Did she tell you she was sad?”

She shook her head, pigtails bouncing from side to side. “No but I can tell. Her smile is sad and so are her eyes.”

Yeah, I noticed too but it wasn’t really my place to say or do anything about it. I was, at least in part, the reason for her sadness and as much as I wanted to make it better I didn’t think I could. If she really was in love with me then she would have certain expectations that I wouldn’t be able to meet. She would want more time than I had to give, romance, marriage and maybe even children. I had a thriving practice and a rambunctious daughter to worry about and adding a woman to that permanently wasn’t on my agenda.

“Daddy we have to do something!”

“No Sydney, we don’t. If Rory wants to talk about it she will.”

“This is your fault Daddy, I know it is!” She folded her arms and turned away from me. “Good night.”

I pressed a kiss to the back of her head and quietly walked out of the room. There was nothing I could do to appease the women in my life, so I grabbed two beers and decided to sit under the nighttime sky to clear my head. I smiled as I stepped on the porch and found Rory there in yoga pants and an oversized cardigan.

“Hey.”

She said nothing and I thought she would ignore me until I heard the tinny sound of music from the buds in her ears. It was the perfect opportunity to take her in, to watch as her head bopped to a beat while her fingers flew over the keyboard. She was so deep in her work I don’t even think she realized I was there, watching her.

Some time after I opened the second beer, she pulled out her ear buds and stretched her neck and shoulders. “Hey,” I said again, casually.

She froze and turned to me, gaze blank as far as I could tell with only the moon and the stars for light. “Hey.” She quickly shut the laptop and picked it up along with a bottle of water and I knew she was escaping.

“Wait! Please.”

“What do you want Kane?”

“Can we talk?” I had no idea what I was saying but I couldn’t let her go without at least trying to make things better between us.

“We have nothing to talk about.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You can’t help how you feel, or don’t feel.”

My heart rebelled at the emphasis she put on her words but I ignored it. “It doesn’t mean I’m not sorry.”

“Well I don’t want or need you to be sorry Kane. Good night.” This time she went inside and slammed the door behind her, a clear signal that I wasn’t to bother her again.

* * *

I made a huge mistake. A giant one and it only took two weeks to realize it. Life without Rory was terrible. Dull and boring. Even Sydney had been pouting and whining about the time Rory spent away from home instead of with us and she placed the blame squarely in my lap. As she should.

I threw away something really fucking good all because I was scared. Terrified of letting myself fall in love again, only to toss away a woman who was sweet and kind and generous, almost to a fault. From the first day, she’d jumped in to help Sydney despite my gruff welcome and she was always there when my daughter needed her. More than her own mother had been. And I was a complete asshole to her.

I had no excuse beyond fear and cowardice and she knew it. Her last words haunted me everyday when I woke up each morning, at night while I tried to sleep and every damn moment in between. She was right, her book cover had given me the excuse I needed after her declaration of love to pull back. To pull away. And in the process, I hurt her and made her think I didn’t respect her work when I did. A hell of a lot.

Unlike Tracy, Rory was a hard worker with a determination to succeed in whatever she did. She made time for Sydney without complaint and she had given herself to me so fully and completely that it humbled me.

“Daddy are you even listening to me?” Sydney’s voice was filled with irritation at having to repeat herself.

“Sorry honey I zoned out.”

She sighed with all the angst of a teenage girl. “Just say you’re sorry. Rory will forgive you, she loves you.”

And just like that, I felt confidence surge and swell within me. “You are absolutely right little girl. You must be some kind of genius.”

Her eyes rolled skyward. “Daddy.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at her offended tone. “It’s true. You’re right, she will forgive me. I just have to make her want to forgive me.”

For the first time in days Sydney looked at me and smiled the way she used to, before I disappointed her. And myself. “I want Rory to be my new mommy.”

Of course she did. How I could look at their relationship and not see exactly what had been happening? I have no idea except that Rory had so completely transfixed me. She was all I could see. “I’m not sure if we’re there yet Sydney but I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will Daddy.”

I was glad to see one of us had faith in me. “Thanks sweetpea.”


 

It turns out that heartbreak is a good motivator. I woke up every morning at ten and by noon I’d eaten breakfast, worked out and showered so I could start writing. And boy did I write. Pages and pages of words for hours on end, I wrote until my shoulders ached and my back was sore. I took a break for lunch or to run errands but otherwise I spent the last days of summer holed up in my half of the house turning my notes into a novel. It was a damn good one if I did say so myself.

It helped to pour my feelings into someone else’s tumultuous love story that had a much different ending than my own. I liked that I could recreate my own doomed romance with Kane and rewrite the ending, giving Mia and Davis a drive -off-into-the-sunset style happy ending. At least I would once they got over one final hurdle. And I could do that if my phone stopped buzzing on the counter. Pushing back, I made my way into the kitchen and snatched the phone off the counter.

“Hello?”

“Rory girl where have you been, I’ve been trying to call you all day!” Tessa’s rushed and breathless words sent a shiver of unease down my spine.

“I was writing, what’s up? Is there something wrong? Oh please don’t tell me something is wrong.” I leaned against a stool, holding the counter with a death grip while I waited for yet another thing to go wrong in my life. “Tell me.”

Tessa tsked. “Oh, such a fatalist we are! Honey things are fucking fantastic! The advanced copies have gotten rave reviews, pre-orders are through the roof and they’re talking book tour for book two!”

I…couldn’t believe it. Surely I’d fallen and hit my head and this was all an elaborate dream, wasn’t it? “Are you sure?”

“I know you don’t know me that well Rory, but one of the things I never joke about is book sales. This is good news honey, be happy.”

“I am Tessa, more than happy. I think I’m in shock.”

She let out a loud laugh, gasping for breath. “Good. Excellent. That’s what I like to hear.” Her tone turned serious. “You didn’t hear this from me but the editor loves what you’ve done with book two so far. It’s better than the first so I hope you have more than three book inside that pretty little head of yours.”

“I do,” I answered automatically, still feeling that this wasn’t real life.

“Then you and I will have a long and fruitful relationship. I just wanted to deliver the good news personally. Get back to what you do best, tortured artist. Ta ta,” she said and disconnected the call before I could even get ‘goodbye’ past my lips.

After that call, I really wished I had someone to celebrate with but even Syd was out of the question. I couldn’t keep using the little girl to fulfill my emotional needs because it wasn’t fair to either of us. I would plan a girls’ night with her soon but today was for me.

Without any friends or a man of my own, dinner and dancing were out of the question because I hated going out alone, so I settled on a quick shopping trip. It still wasn’t the same, so I promised myself I would join a book club or a gym or something to meet some people. Now that my job required me to spend endless hours on my own I needed to make more of an effort to meet people. To get a life away from the Royal family.

After a quick stop at the market, I lugged my bags inside and locked the door before cranking my music. Today was a day to be happy and focus on all the good fortune I had, not on what I didn’t have.

And what I had was a lot. More than I ever had in my life before so I was determined to appreciate and celebrate every success.

Even if it killed me.

* * *

“We should go to the park today!” Syd rushed inside looking adorable in a denim overalls and a white tank that looked eerily similar to the ones I wore.

“Why the park when we have such an amazing backyard?”

“I want to play, and one of the moms stopped by and said they were having a birthday party today.”

I stifled a groan because I knew we would go. Just as I knew that mom had stopped by to make sure Kane knew there was a party, not his former lover and next door neighbor.

“Did she invite you Syd?”

She bobbed her head up and down in a way that had me thinking maybe the opposite was true. “She said we should swing by.”

“I’m pretty sure that was an invitation for you and your dad, sweetie. How about we go to a different park?”

“No I want to go to this one!”

“Fine.” It was the least I could do since I hadn’t spent as much time with her lately as I would have liked. “Let’s go then.”

“Yay! We’re gonna have so much fun Rory!”

We would not, at least I wouldn’t, but there was no need to share that with her. “Whatever you say kid.”

She ignored me, or didn’t hear me as she ran, skipped and jumped her way towards the park, chatting excitedly the entire way. Watching her twisted something in my chest and I stopped in my tracks as a thought occurred to me. One day, probably soon, I wouldn’t have this relationship with Sydney. Kane would find a woman he actually loved and she won’t want his ex hanging around all the time. I would lose her as surely as I’d lost her father.

I decided to shelve that thought for now but not before making a note to start looking for a new place. I would miss the yard I put so much of myself into, but my peace of mind had to matter more.

“Come on Rory, there they are!” She pointed towards the rainbow of balloons and the huge banner that read ‘Happy Birthday Tamsyn’. There was a bouncy house, piñata and a clown set up opposite the two grills manned by chefs in white coats, a face painting station and a buffet table. These people went all out for kids’ birthday parties.

I made the reluctant trek to towards the gathering, but I kept my distance while Sydney introduced herself around and charmed kids and adults alike. The women seemed nice enough, aside from the dirty looks occasionally shot my way. I was used to it especially from women born and raised on the right side of the tracks. It didn’t normally bother me but today my feelings were just below the surface and I didn’t like feeling inadequate. Especially by people whose opinions shouldn’t matter to me.

“Are you the nanny?”

I cut a glare at the neat blonde. “No. Family friend actually.”

Her brown gaze narrowed and raked over me, clearly finding me lacking. “What does that mean, exactly?”

I turned to give her the same assessing look before meeting her gaze. “Which word was unclear?”

She wanted to say more but she knew I wasn’t going to play her game so she pushed off the picnic table and walked away in a huff.

“Rory! Rory! It’s time to go!”

I glanced at the little whirlwind headed my way. “Do we have an appointment or do you have a hot date?”

She came to an abrupt stop and looked at her feet. “We just need to go. Please Rory.”

Something was up, but I was as eager to leave this Stepford nightmare as she was, so I took her hand and we made the slow walk home.

“Do you want to tell me what’s that was all about?”

“Are you still sad Rory?”

That was one heck of a subject change. “Who said I was sad?”

“You’re my friend, I can tell.”

Well now I couldn’t lie. “Yes I am but I’ll be fine. I promise.”

“Is it ‘cause of Daddy?”

Yes. “No sweetie, it’s because of me.” Because I have fatally bad taste in men, or maybe I’m just not cut out for relationships and connections. Ties to others. Maybe my mom left because she knew what I didn’t. That I would be better off on my own.

“You’re not gonna leave are you?”

“I’ll always be in your life Syd, if you want me to be.”

The little girl stopped and flicked one brown braid behind her shoulder as she glared up at me. “You’re leaving,” she accused.

“I never said that. But at some point I might have to move, or you and your dad might move.”

“Why?”

“Because sweetheart, eventually you’ll get a new mommy and maybe you guys will need a bigger place to live.” I hated the hurt and disappointment in her eyes but I couldn’t lie to this little girl. I couldn’t.

“No! I want you to be my mommy Rory.” She flung herself at me and held me tight. “I love you Rory.”

“I love you too kiddo and we’ll always be friends.”

“Promise?”

“Pinky promise,” I held up my pinky and she hooked hers around it.

“Okay let’s go!”

Jeez the girl’s brain moved fast, bouncing from one topic to another. “Why are you in such a hurry to get home?”

“Uncle Owen is taking me to a baseball game!”

I’d never met Kane’s best friend and business partner but I’d heard a lot about him. “That sounds like a good time.”

“Uh-huh. Uncle Owen always lets me get hot dogs and chips and soda and cinnamon buns!”

I laughed as we climbed the steps to our shared home. “That sounds like a tummy ache waiting to happen.”

She giggled sweetly and pushed open the front door. “Uncle Owen has a secret recipe.” She placed a finger in front of her lips, the universal sign for ‘shush’.

“Your secret is safe with me. Have fun sweetie.” I knelt down and wrapped her in a tight hug that felt too much like goodbye for my liking.

“I will. You too Rory,” she grinned, nearly falling over when the front door opened further to reveal a tall handsome blonde wearing an amused grin.

“Uncle Owen!”

He scooped her up and she dotted his face with kisses. “Hey baby girl. It’s good to see you too.” His voice held amusement and I could see his love for the fun-loving little girl.

“This is Rory. Rory this is Uncle Owen.”

I held out a hand, and his own much larger hand enveloped mine. “Nice to meet you Uncle Owen. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“All of it good, I hope?”

“Except for trafficking in junk food, yes.”

“Big mouth,” he said to a laughing Sydney. “Yeah well, we pig out together because this one eats like a girl.” He tickled her was she squirmed in his arms.

“I am a girl silly!”

It was nice to see Syd so loved, because I knew whether I was in her life or not, she would be more than okay.

“Well you two have fun. I’ll see you around Syd.”

“Bye Rory!”

The sounds of her laughter followed me inside quickly followed by a few sad tears streaking down my cheek. “Enough!” I couldn’t take this sadness anymore. It was time to put on my big girl panties and move past it. I couldn’t spend my life pining after Kane, or any man who didn’t want me. I couldn’t keep wishing for things that would never be, just as I couldn’t spend the rest of the day crying against my front door.

I squared my shoulders and pushed off the door, making my way to the kitchen for a nice cold cocktail. “What the hell?” My light in the kitchen was on and so was the oven. I opened it and gasped at the chicken surrounded by potatoes and vegetables in a roasting pan.

“I hope you brought your appetite Rory.”

I spun towards the voice, the very familiar voice that still sometimes invaded my dreams. “Kane. What are you doing in my house?”

“Making us dinner,” he said simply as though we hadn’t exchanged a single word in nearly a month.

“You do know that you have a kitchen on the other side of this wall, don’t you?”

He nodded and took another step closer. “Yes, but I couldn’t think of a way to get you to my place that didn’t include pretending Syd was hurt.”

Syd. I smiled at the fact that he’d finally come around to using her nickname. “Okay but that doesn’t tell me why you’re here. In my house. Cooking dinner.”

He took another step forward and another and another until he had me pressed against the sink and trapped between his arms. “I knew the only way you would talk to me was if I ambushed you.”

I ignored the way my heart pounded inside my chest, doing a little squeal and stomp that Kane held me so close again. I refused to let his earthy masculine scent, his boyish smile and those intense eyes that projected everything he was feeling and thinking, move me.

“What do we have to talk about?”

“Us.” Silver blue eyes looked so deep into my eyes I swear he could see my soul. “I’m so damn sorry Rory. You were right, about everything.”

Pushing the hope down deep, I put my hands on his chest. “Not that I don’t love hearing that, but I need specifics.”

“You were right that I wasn’t all that upset about the book cover. I was so fucking blind Rory and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.” His big hands cradled my face, tilting me up so I couldn’t look anywhere but into those summer storm eyes. “I didn’t want to fall in love Rory but you made it impossible from the first moment I saw you, glaring at me with disheveled hair and sleepy eyes. Every day in every way you snuck inside my heart and took it over.”

“Kane,” I put a hand to his jaw.

“No I need to say this Rory, you need to hear it. I love you. I mean it, I am so fucking in love with you and I’m a jackass for not realizing it sooner. I want us to have a life together, all three of us.”

I stood there staring up at him in shock. Completely stunned at the words that had flown from his lips with such heartfelt emotion. I couldn’t speak because I had no words. What does a girl say when she was on the brink of having everything she’d ever wanted in her life?

“I know I don’t deserve you and I know it will take time to show you that I really do love you, and I will. I’ll do anything, just name it. Or better yet, just give me time to show you. You loved me once and I think you can love me again.”

“Kane, I can’t love you again. And I don’t need you to prove anything to me.”

“You don’t?” He took a step back, not severing the connection but, almost.

“No. I never stopped loving you Kane, you’re in my heart and under my skin. You are a part of me.” I made up the step between us and wrapped my arms around his neck. “If you love me that’s all I need Kane. Your love is all I want.”

“You have it Rory. As much of my love as you can handle.”

“Then I have it all, Kane. I love you.”

He kissed me and it thrilled me as much as the first kiss, the first time we made love. I basked in the heat of his kiss, his love. “So, do you think we can have makeup sex before the timer beeps?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” I told him as I unhooked the overall shorts and let them fall to the floor, leaving me in a white tank and matching white thong and nothing more as I hopped on the table. “Better stay here and keep an eye on it.”

A heart stopping grin spread across his face. “I love the way you think, woman.”

“And I just love you.” And I would love him for as long as my heart beat.


 

Rory ~ One year later

“Mommy! Mommy, over here!” Syd jumped up and down waving her hands in the air so I could see her.

The plane ride from New York had felt never-ending but it all washed away at the sight of my two favorite people. Syd ran straight to me but her father, the love of my life, stood where he was, looking good enough to eat in worn jeans and a blue Oxford rolled at the elbows.

“How’s my girl?”

“Good. I missed you. I want to go on tour with you next time Mommy, okay?”

It never got old hearing her call me Mommy. I swear my heart did a somersault each and every time. “I missed you too. It looks like a lot has changed since I’ve been gone,” I told her indicating the new gap in her teeth.

“I look ugly and the tooth fairy didn’t come.”

“You look adorable Syd, never forget that. And I’m sure she’ll show up soon, you have to be patient because there are millions of teeth falling out everyday.” I hated that I missed it but I would make sure the tooth fairy left her something good.

“Okay,” she pouted and I hugged her again. “God I’ve missed you kiddo.”

“What about me? Did you miss me?”

I looked into stormy blue eyes and smiled as my heart fluttered like it did every time he looked at me with eyes so full of love. I still wonder how in the hell I got so lucky. “I really missed you babe.”

“Yeah? How much?”

I laughed as we made our way to the luggage carousel watching as he easily picked up my suitcase and we made our way out into the warm fall day. “Enough to give you the answer you want. If you still want it.” Six months ago Kane had asked me to marry him and I wanted to say yes, I really did. But I wanted us to live together first to make sure we both understood what we were getting into with a kid and my tendency to lose myself in work.

“I want it,” he answered quickly, voice deep and serious. “Do you?”

“I do.”

“Good,” he said and lifted my suitcase into the back of his new SUV.

“But Kane, there’s something I need to tell you.” It was the reason Bryan and Tessa had been okay with me taking a few days off from the tour to come home and be with my family.

He frowned, trapping my body with his. “What? Is it about why you’re home early?”

I nodded. “How did you know?”

“Tessa called and she sounded alarmed. Worried. What’s wrong, are you sick?”

“Yes, but not how you think.” His expression was grim and I cupped his jaw, scraping the pad of my thumb along his jawline. “I felt sick the past few days and then yesterday I fainted.” His jaw clenched and I kept rubbing soothing circles. “I went to the hospital fully prepared for them to tell me I’d caught a bug from the airplane or shaking hands or something. Instead he told me that I’m ten weeks pregnant.” I held my breath and waited for his response. I didn’t think Kane would be upset but we hadn’t really talked about expanding our family and definitely not so quickly.

“Is this good news Rory?”

“I think it is, do you?”

“Hell yeah. A wife and a new baby sounds pretty damn great to me.”

My body relaxed against his. “I love you Kane.”

“I sure as hell hope so since you’ve agreed to marry me.” He swooped in for a quick, hot kiss and pressed his hard body into mine. “This isn’t because of the baby, is it?”

“No. I know it’s better for you professionally for us to be married before the little one gets here and I think we’ve proved that our family fits.”

“I love you so damn much Rory,” he growled and held me tight. “Your book tour ends in five weeks. Let’s get married the weekend you return.”

My heart swelled at his excitement to make me his wife. This big strong handsome man was mine and so was the little girl impatiently tapping on the window. And soon we would add another member of our family to love.

“I can’t wait.”

“Me either but you deserve a real wedding.”

“A backyard wedding,” I countered.

“With caterers and a sexy white dress.”

“And a DJ not a band.”

He grinned, a twinkle in his eye. “Buffet style.”

I pressed a kiss to his jaw. “Now I really can’t wait to marry you.”

“Come on guys!” Sad was bored already.

We both laughed at her impatient tone, moving into our seats while Syd got settled behind us. “Do you want to tell her or should I,” he asked.

“Let’s tell her together,” I reached for his hand and he pressed kiss to mine.

“Hey Syd,” he called to her.

“Yes, Daddy?”

We looked at each other and smiled. “You’re going to be a big sister,” we said at the same time.

“Cool!”

Pretty damn cool, indeed.

* * *

THE END.

Dear Reader, hope you enjoyed Rory & Kane’s story. If you’d like another sexy glimpse into their world, I’ve included an extra scene which didn’t make it into the final cut at the end of this book. This scene takes place after Rory visits Keane one day at the hospital. This scene doesn't add anymore to the development of the story's arc, but it's certainly steamy!

Feel free to use the Table of Contents to help you find it.

***

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Chapter 1

Everything would be fine. At worst, she would end up laughing and assume he was pulling her leg or at best she would take the offer without another question.

Justin Dunne's workday was coming to an end. Any minute now his assistant Jennifer would be coming to let him know she’s heading home for the day. And when she did, he would conjure up the nerve to ask her what he had wanted to ask her all day. The worst part is that he didn’t have enough fingers or toes to count how many times he had to rephrase his question. He suddenly felt small in his large office, dreading what he was about to do. But what was the worst that could happen? If she said no, she would just leave and show up to work the next day like nothing happened. Maybe. She could also assume the worst and think this was his way of sexually harassing her.

But if she said yes, his plan would work perfectly.

Would this count as sexual harassment? He contemplated this as he sat at his desk drumming his fingers impatiently on its surface. Irritated he stood up and walked around his desk to sit on the edge, but no pose could erase the sense of doom that lingered on the border of his mind. He took a deep steadying breath and said, “Everything would be fine, just breath, ask her what you want and let the chips fall where they may.”

There was a slight knock on his door, and he quickly moved around to sit behind his desk again, trying his best to look at ease.

“Come in!” he called and cleared his throat. His tongue felt thick in his mouth.

With her purse in hand and her coat dangling over her arm, she walked into his office and smiled, and Justin stood up. It was not an out of the ordinary gesture, since he was taught etiquette by his mother from the day he was able to stand. You always stood up in the presence of a lady. But right now, he felt awkward to say the least.

"Mr. Dunne, I’m heading home now, is there anything else you need me to handle before I go?”

He nodded and reached for a pile of files, then motioned for her to sit, “Actually there is…” he started, but his courage hung on a thread over a gaping chasm waiting to swallow it whole.

“Of course,” she said, her smile fading ever so slightly.

He couldn’t blame her, of all the staff; she’s always the one who stayed behind to tie up his loose ends. Over time he had grown so used to it that he had taken her for granted. Sooner or later she was going to get fed up or find the love of her life who will insist she worked her nine to five day and focus on a relationship, or worse a family.

"How have you been?” he asked wanting to kick himself, he never asks her how she is, why start now?

Jennifer looked at him quizzically as she tilted her head, “Is there something wrong?”

Instead of sitting down, he rounded his desk and walked past her and headed for his personal mini-bar. Which, low and behold, thanks to Jennifer, was always stocked with drinks. If he wanted to he could live in his office and not have any reason to leave. He had a closet full of clean work clothes, a bathroom, a bar and a single phone call could have any meal of his choice brought to his office.

"Drink?" he asked, as he poured himself a glass of bourbon.

The bar was near a floor to ceiling window that gave him a magnificent view of the city when he looked out of it; just one of the perks of having a penthouse office. The view was breathtaking but the vertigo-inducing height didn’t help his trepidation right then.

Justin regarded her where she sat with her legs crossed causing her skirt to ride up slightly, it wasn’t not enough to be inappropriate, but enough to catch his eye and distract him without any intention. He was professional but he was not blind. Jennifer's hair was a rich chestnut tone, with lighter brown highlights throughout. She was of average height and even in heels, she was still quite a bit shorter than him. Being on the swimming team in high school and college had given her an athletic build, which emphasized a generous chest that her conservative work blouses did not hide.

* * *

Jennifer sat at the desk watching her boss's back as he poured himself a drink.

"No, I'm fine thank you, but what is this about sir?" she asked again. She was sure that she had done everything he expected to the book, and if she had missed anything at all, surely he would follow the proper procedure and let HR handle any enquiries. In fact, he had never appeared so casual and so completely strange all at once. Mr Dunne was always in control, the epitome of sheer class and caliber. Something serious must be on his mind. And she had a sinking feeling it somehow involved her. And that she might possibly find it unpleasant.

With his back turned against her, she took a moment to admire him; it was what every woman in the entire building did when he wasn’t watching. His jacket, vest and tie had been discarded on the leather sofa against the wall, and he had rolled his sleeves up. He had thick, sinewy forearms, which were certainly not built from hours of pencil pushing and corporate meetings. He worked out, once again, no secret. Come to think of it, she knew almost every detail of his life, from his favorite coffee to his preferred restaurant. She knew he had his own private gym and he had his own personal trainer. On that level, he was an open book. 

She worried her lip as he turned around, and feigned absolute patience as she waited for him to tell her what this was all about.

"You know about the deal with Pryor?" he said walking slowly past her as he rounded the desk. 

"He's the one you want to buy the property from in Midtown," she responded and re-crossed her legs.

"That's right. He's shown additional interest in becoming an investor with us."

"That's fantastic!”

She was excited for him, but not quite sure where the whole cloak and dagger routine was headed. If he wanted a scheduled meeting with Pryor or whatever else, he could easily have asked her to do it in the morning. It wasn't that she didn't take her work seriously but she had a life, and that was in her one bedroom apartment, with her cat Ratchet having a love affair with her favorite TV series. Her workday was over and she couldn't wait to go home and kick her shoes off. 

"It is. I'm having him over to my house for dinner to discuss the deal.” He paused, swirling the rich amber liquid around his glass.

She shifted in the chair and set her purse down, "Do you want me to schedule it? Get in contact with him? Send a car over?"

"No, none of that, I actually have a favor to ask you. You see Jennifer... there’s no easy way to say this…”

"What is it?" she asked, mulling over his very strange behavior.

"Well, I invited Mr Pryor for dinner on Friday, to talk about the deal and to introduce him to my fiancée."

He was engaged?! That morsel of information was a surprise. And somewhat deflating, though Jennifer cared not to examine that feeling right now. He never mentioned his fiancée in all her time working as his PA and now out of the blue, he was going to host a dinner and introduce her to a business partner. She clearly underestimated him; he wasn’t just a drab of a boss married to his work. He had a heart. She couldn’t wait to tell the others and watch their hopes and dreams shatter into a billion pieces.

She looked at him curiously and tilted her head, "I’m sorry Mr Dunn, but how does this involve me, do you need me to send a car for her?"

“That’s just the problem,” he said and tossed his drink back.

“I’m confused, you’re hosting a dinner and your fiancée will be attending, how is that a problem? And what is it that you need me to do exactly?”

"There is no fiancée," he said and dropped down on his chair, extending his hands behind his head, “There never was.”

Confused hardly covered it. He had no fiancée. This baffled the shit out of her, if he had no fiancée why then make arrangements like that?

"Then who is hosting the dinner with you? You want me to call Pyor and cancel it, or postpone at least?" she asked curiously.

"I’m hoping that it would not come to that, which is where you come in. What I want Jennifer, is for you to host the dinner with me."

Jennifer sat for a moment, searching his face for any mirth. There was none. If anything, the deadpan expression masking his face showed just how serious he was. His stormy blue eyes were filled with an electric charge capable of lighting up New York City.  Jennifer panicked, suddenly realizing he was serious. His usually impeccably styled black hair was tousled like he'd been stuck in the ventilation system.

"Excuse me?" she asked tentatively as she clutched her purse in her hands, certain that she had cracked her cellphone screen. But wanting to clarify what he was implying before she jumped to the obviously ridiculous conclusion her brain was insisting on.

He leaned forward, and steepled his fingers together, "I want to introduce you as my fiancée.”

If it wasn’t for the serious expression on his face, she would have burst out laughing. It was an absolute outrageous idea, one that was clearly not well thought through.

"With all due respect sir..." she started.

"I know it’s a tall order, but..."

Jennifer huffed, “No, a tall order is expecting a republican to marry a democrat, or sending an inexperienced journalist to a war-torn country. What you’re asking is completely absurd and inappropriate,” she ranted.

She was beyond counting her words and running them through a filter in her mind. What he was asking her was to lie and cheat.

"I know it's a lot to ask…" he started and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"It's not a lot, it's completely wild. It's crazy. You are asking me to lie, and no matter what the reason, it’s unjust and dishonorable,” she said angrily.

"I’m willing to pay you to pretend to be my fiancée for one night," he said without pausing for a breath.

He was simply relentless.

"That doesn't make it better. ‘Hey Jennifer, I need you to pretend to be my fiancée so this rich man can like me', was the absolute last thing I expected to be asked today!" she exclaimed.

Justin held back a laugh because she had deepened her voice mockingly to go with her imitation of him. Those hazel eyes sparked with fire and she was clearly upset.

"What kind of woman do you think I am?" she asked, a pink- tinted blush washing over her cheeks.

"You’re clearly misunderstanding the whole objective,” he said calmly.

"There are women out there, who are professionals at this kind of thing, women who you can pay to accompany…"

He cut in, "I'm not hiring a prostitute Jennifer. You think I didn't consider all of my options before coming to you? My intentions were not to embarrass you but I’m asking you a favor as your employer. I need your help. Please."

He was officially begging, something he never thought he would be reduce to.

"Don't you have an ex or a friend or someone else who could help you out?"

"None that wouldn't use something like this against me. They will all have their own agendas and I need this to be completely discreet.  We already work together and we are comfortable around each other, you know almost everything about me, and I wouldn't ask you if I thought you couldn't handle it."

He saw the cogs in her brain turning as she mulled over his proposal, and he mentally crossed his fingers, hoping that she would agree. He was expecting far more from her than any employer should, but he had his balls in a twist and if he didn’t show up with a fiancée, the deal would be grounded.

She sighed and rubbed her forehead as she stood up and paced the floor, “So what does it all entail?”

"You need to simply play the part of my fiancée for a while. We'll host a dinner and stay together until the deal with Pryor is signed, sealed and delivered,” he stated as he tucked his hands in his pockets.

"What do you mean by “a while”? A week, two, or three?”

"I can't say for sure... a few months at the very least until we can break-up and call off the engagement."

"Will you let me get back to you in the morning?" she asked wearily.

"Sure, take some time and sleep on it,” he said and walked over to her laying his hand gently on her arm, “I swear to you that this was a bitter pill for me to swallow, in asking you to do this, and if I had another way out, I would have taken it.”

“I have to get home,” she sighed and shrugged away from him, picked up her purse and marched out the door.

Justin dragged his hands through his hair and cursed under his breath. He hated what he had become, but Pryor surprised him with his terms, and by that time things were already too far along to turn back. He could only hope that Jennifer would agree to help him.

 

Chapter 2

 

By the time Jennifer’s alarm screeched, waking up the entire apartment block, she was still laying in bed staring at the ceiling. Sleep evaded her all night, as she tried to figure out what to do.  Worst of all was that she had always liked him; of course, she never showed it. Keeping her work and her personal relationships separate was a rule she lived by ever since she started climbing the corporate ladder. She made the mistake to fall for a senior member of a firm she worked for right out of college once before and it had cost her, not only her job, but her virtue. It took her a long time to finally forgive herself for being so naïve and stupid and she vowed never to fall in that trap again. And the fact that she secretly admired Justin was her own best kept secret. What woman wouldn’t hope for him to notice her?

Justin's target was Eugene Pryor who would only have to see them and buy their act for a night. While that was easy enough, the lack of evidence of them truly being together might make Pryor suspicious. If it was Justin's character he was trying to weigh, he would be looking out for articles about him in the news and tabloids. And if she was going to pretend to be his fiancée, it would mean that every person in the office would have to assume and believe they are together, when it’s all just a big lie. 

She could probably pull it off since she so often fantasized about it, but that was then and this is now. Reality stared her in the face like a big bad wolf waiting to devour her, all she needed was a cape and to change her name to Lil Red.

What about his parents, would they be part of the ruse too? And even worse, what about her parents?  She thought slightly panicked. She was going to have to either tell her mom and dad what’s really going on so that they didn’t get their hopes up, or pretend all the way.

Giving up on sleep, she got up and let in some bath water, maybe if she relaxed a little she could feel better about the decision she was about to make. She finally slid down into the warm water blocking out any sounds, if only she could get lost in the silence, but her mind was racing. Should she say yes?

She didn't know the answer to the question after her bath, after getting dressed, or after her coffee. She didn't know it after brushing her teeth and she still didn't know the answer when her phone buzzed suddenly, snapping her out of her reverie. She frowned, wondering who on earth would be contacting her that early. 

"Hello?"

"We're downstairs. Hurry down. I'll give you a ride." Justin hung up without allowing her to say anything else. She sighed. When he said he'd give her till that morning, he really meant that morning. She trudged down the stairs, her fingers trembling and her stomach felt like it was doing backflips on a trampoline. As she reached to open the door she paused, took a deep breath, and plastered on a fake smile. Outside, in front of her apartment was the hearse that will take her to her own personal funeral. Without a word, she slid into the Bentley beside her boss. He was pristinely dressed as usual, in his Armani suit and tie, and the car was filled with his masculine scent, a mixture of sandalwood and leather.  Whatever you do, do not breathe, she warned herself and parted her lips. If she breathed through her mouth, she had no need to inhale his scent and she could actually think clearly. She hoped.

"Morning," he said with a smile that reached his eyes and caught her off guard.

“Morning Mr Dunne,” she attempted with her professional voice.

“Did you have time to think about my proposal?”

He said it as if he had asked her to marry him, if only it was that, but it was nothing but a business deal, and she felt as if she was on auction.

"I did," she said. Looking at him from under her lashes, "But I didn’t expect you to arrive at my apartment, it could have waited till I was at work.”

He chuckled and tapped on the front seat for the driver to get going.

"Perhaps, but I figured the sooner I know your answer, the better," he said and sunk back into the comfort of the seat, not once taking his eyes off her.

"Did you ever once consider that I may be unavailable on account of having a partner?" she said blankly as she stared out the window at the passing scenery.

"If you were, which you’re not, I would have made alternative arrangements,” he said.

She whipped her head around to look at him, "How would you know I am not involved?” she said, crossing her arms. "Have you been spying on me?”

"I wouldn’t call it spying, but truly, you work till late every day, and you’re always the first one at the office, you have picture of your cat on your desk, if you were involved, I would love to meet the lucky man willing to put up with a workaholic. It’s called being observant.”

What an arrogant ass, she thought and rolled her eyes.

"This is a terrible idea," she said, diverting her gaze to the outside world again.

“Is that a yes?” he asked.

She didn’t respond; for a moment, she contemplated her options and weighed the pros and cons. Doing this will change the dynamic of their working relationship completely.

"Look I'm sorry," he started, "I'm sorry about the way I've gone about this thus far. I should have been more considerate as to how this will impact your life, but I need your help Jennifer. I'm a desperate man with a lot at stake."

"At any given time, there are tons of interns working in various departments at your company. You could have picked any one of them,” she rubbed her hand down over her face.

"No," he shook his head, "I wanted you, you are smart, you can think on your feet and I’m confident that you are the only one who would be able to deliver a believable performance. I'm not going to trust any old wet-behind-the-ears intern with my future.”

Many people were rich. Jennifer knew this. Justin Dunne was not rich. He was wealthy. His riches had levels. From liquid cash, to assets, property, companies, the list went on. Whereas some were born with silver spoons in their mouths, Justin's spoon had been solid gold and diamond encrusted. Having a man that rich and powerful at her mercy should have given her more perverse pleasure but it didn't. She felt almost sorry for him. He was reduced to desperate measures.

"There have to be rules," she said, leaning back into her seat.

"Of course there will be, I have an agreement drawn up, which we both will sign once we agree on the terms.”

He left no rocks unturned, she realized, but if she was going to do this, she was going to make sure her terms were also met.

"Firstly, I don't want your money, I’m not a prostitute. I’m already on your payroll, that’s enough as is," she started.

"Fair enough, but extra money will come in handy."

She ignored that statement and continued, "I won't have sex with you," she said. "We need to look like a couple in public but behind closed doors nothing happens.”

Justin laughed at that and she scowled, “I’m serious, I’m not a whore."

“I had no intentions of getting physical with you, so trust me, your virtue will remain intact.” That stung a bit, he didn’t have to act like she had the plague. Maybe he didn’t find her attractive?

"I don't want this to get in the way of our working relationship…”

"I am going to be having someone else do your duties while this is going on," he interrupted and held up his hand.

“Excuse me? Then what happens when this is all over?”

“You’ll pick up where you left off; I’ll get a temp to take over from you for the time being. I can’t have my fiancée working like a normal employee.”

"And when it's over I get my job back? If this arrangement is going to cost me my bread and butter, I refuse to accept."

"Like I said, your job is safe. You can start again as soon as this is over."

How would she ever face the other staff when she returned? Everyone would be under the impression that they were an item, and if she just waltzed in and took over again, it will raise a few brows. Or worse, they would think Justin dumped her and that’s why she was back at work. She mentally groaned at the potential pitying looks that would be coming her way. But that was a bridge she would cross when she got there. There was always the slightest chance that she could find another job and eventually leave for good.

"Do you have any rules?" she asked.

Justin shifted in his seat and turned to look at her. She was paler than usual, and his gut twisted slightly, but in the long run he knew it will all work out.

"A few, firstly we have to stay in the same house. Same house... not the same bed," he said, seeing her eyes widen. "It gives more credibility to the relationship."

"Makes sense, what else?"

"You can't be involved with anyone else romantically during the time that we are together, I'm sure you can imagine why," he said.

She nodded, “Obviously.”

"One more thing, you have to wear a ring."

She raised her brows and rolled her eyes, “Seriously I don’t think wearing a ring or not would make any difference.”

“Of course it would, what man in his right mind would have a fiancée who doesn’t wear a ring? It’s like a promise of commitment or whatever you want to call it. The first thing anyone looks at is the ring when you tell them you’re engaged.”

She was modest, and he liked that about her. In all the time he got to know her, working with her, she was never one for flashy outfits and daily trips to a hair salon or a spa. Unlike the women he had dated in the past, all of which were always out to wear the most expensive outfits, drive the flashiest cars and owned shoes that would make Prada look like an outback retail store.

"Well in that case I have no problem switching fingers,” she said as she pried her birthstone ring from her right ring finger and put it on her left. It was a cute little piece of jewelry, with a small stone stacked on a band that looked like twined silver, the stone could pass as a diamond to the naked eye, but it was not what he had in mind.

“No sweetheart, that won’t do,” he leaned over and instructed his driver to take a detour to Harry Winston’s. If he was going to make this work, it was going to have to include all the bells and whistles.

 

Chapter 3

 

Jennifer had never had any reason before to venture into Harry Winston. She knew that it was a jewelry shop but that was about it. And now she was standing, hand-in-hand with her boss looking at rings. He had looked over four, five, six karat stones asking her opinion on all of them. Only the commitment of her highest level acting skills had kept her from exclaiming loudly that he would be out of his mind to purchase one of those. It was a complete waste of money considering the fact that she’ll only wear it for a few months.

She tried her hardest to remain the calm and serene fiancée as they looked over rings that were more expensive than several years of her salary. She pulled out her best loving gazes and delighted faces in the shop, disguising her real feelings of utter shock.

After finally deciding on a ring that he wanted, and she simply agreeing with, they made their way out of the store. She felt fake, used and excited all at the same time. The kaleidoscope of emotions that flooded her was almost too much.

"Could you not have taken one of the less extravagant rings? Trying to impress people with material things is just a show boat.”

"Jennifer, please. The ring is nothing. I want to buy one. I’ll send for it to be collected as soon as it’s been resized and then we can make it official,” he said as he opened the door for her.

Jennifer slumped back in her seat and sighed. The words ‘make it official’ rang like loud church bells in her mind and she felt a headache slowly creeping up on her. When this is all over she’ll probably be tainted beyond repair, and if she does eventually meet someone, the lie will roll over and over and over. She would always be known as the one who was once engaged.  She rubbed the back of her neck and forced herself to calm down. She can do this, she told herself and from somewhere deep down she found the courage to raise her chin and take on the challenge.

"Just by the way… not to rain on your parade or anything, the ring is beautiful and you have great taste but I think a family heirloom engagement ring would impress your future wife a lot more, just saying."

"Oh really?" he asked, amused.

"It’s much more sentimental, so if you ever do decide to propose for real, consider that as a winner.”

"My mother would sooner eat herself than part with Gran’s old jewelry," he said lightly.

"Your parents are still happily married?" she asked curiously. She knew Justin well enough but he had never made any mention of his parents.

"Yes, they will want to talk to you by the way. My mother would never forgive me if she heard about this in the news before we told her."

Great! She thought as she mentally constructed a list of things to conclude to make this work.

1.Tell the parents

2.Tell the news

3.Tell the employees

4.Pretend ALL the time

5.Sign the deal

6.Break off the engagement

She was sure that the list was going to grow sooner or later, but for now, those were the points she collected.

"Are they going to get the public or private version of the story?" Jennifer asked.

"I don't know yet," he admitted. "Your parents will probably want to know as well. Do they live in the city?"

"No. I moved here on my own. My mother and stepfather live in North Carolina."

"I didn't know you were from the South."

Jennifer burst out laughing and shook her head, what they knew about each other was minimal, she knew how he liked his coffee, what color ties he preferred, how he liked his eggs and steak. But those were minor details anyone could pick up on in one day. There was a lot more they had to learn about each other in order to look like the ideal couple.

"If you want people to believe we are about to get married there's a number of questions about me you have to be able to answer. I can type them up and send them to you to read at your leisure," she said and shrugged.

Justin chuckled, "That won't be necessary. We have today and tomorrow to get to know each other better. I'm not completely clueless."

"Yeah?" Jennifer sat up. "What's my middle name?"

"Mae. What's mine?" he laughed.

"Franklin. When is my birthday?"

"November 18th. When is mine?"

"Close, it’s November 16th. Yours is December 31st.”

Surprised that he was one step ahead of her, she laughed, "Okay then, so how did we fall in love?"

He looked at her, and smirked, “In my office, you dropped a pencil and bent to pick it up, and I liked what I saw.”

This time Jennifer couldn’t help herself, the mental image of her bent over and him staring at her backside was almost too funny to even consider.

"God no, we’ll have to come up with something random and corny. I suppose while working together, we were simply on the same wavelength and it was only a matter of time before you realized you couldn’t live without me,” she said and smirked.

"Or…” he started, “Your coffee was too good to resist, and you won me over with a cup and a donut?”

“Lame,” she giggled. "Okay, we can come up with something later. Why is this first that anybody is going to hear of me?"

He looked thoughtful at that. "So how did you end up here in the city?" he asked.

"I needed a break from home life.  I was taking care of my father and going through the process of moving him into assisted living, and after that I figured it was time to start afresh."

"I’m sorry to hear that, it must have been hard to put him in a home,” he said and rested his hand on hers.

She didn’t pull away; his touch was gentle and he showed genuine sympathy. She looked down at their hands for a second then smiled softly.

"He has dementia. I go and see him every weekend I can, but most of the time he hardly knows who I am," she said.

"I'm sorry. I can't imagine how difficult that is for you," he said again.

"Don't worry about it," she said dismissively. "Where are we going?"

"I’m taking you home, so that you can settle in.”

“But I have work to finish and hand over to the temp,” she said nervously.

It was all happening too fast, first a yes, then a ring, now she’s moving in, all in one day.

“That’s all taken care of, we need to get the ball rolling, the dinner is Friday evening, and by then we need it all set up.”

"I don't have any of my things," she protested.

"Use the rest of the day to buy new things. Ryan will take you where you need to go."

"Don't be ridiculous. Just drop me off at home so I can pack."

"Jennifer, I'm offering. I'll cover the costs. Buy whatever you want."

"What's wrong with the clothes I wear?" she asked irritably.

Surely he wasn’t going to expect her to transform completely? she still had the right to cling to who she really was. Pretences aside, she was still Jennifer.

"Nothing…" he started.

"Then let me go home, I know where you live. I'll be there by this afternoon.”

"There is nothing in your house that you can't purchase something new of."

Seriously! Why was he so demanding and so impatient? It would take her an hour at most to pack, and at least that way she will have the last few minutes of her freedom without him hovering.

"I have to tell my landlord I am going to be away. I have to turn the refrigerator off. I have to organize for my mail to be delivered to a different address. I have things I need to take care of before moving anywhere, and don't tell me that you can hire people to do them for me."

Justin closed his eyes and sighed and Jennifer smiled inwardly. He was not going to run her life for her.

"Five o'clock. Be at my house by five o'clock," he said tersely. "We have a date."

* * *

Four-thirty, and Jennifer stood in front of the elevator in the upper-class apartment block. She had always known where Justin lived but she had never been here herself. She had packed modestly, figuring she would be able to go back to her apartment if she really needed to. Besides, Justin's offer to buy what she wanted was always an option. Since he was hell bent on turning her life upside down, maybe she should take advantage of some of his money after all.

She shook her head thinking about the argument they had had. She didn't want to take clothes from him; the ring was already too much. She didn't want him to turn her into the kind of Fifth Avenue princess that he would ideally be suited to. That was not part of the deal. Pressing the 'PH' button in the elevator gave her a slight rush. What did the penthouse apartment of a billionaire look like on the inside? What would Justin look like when he wasn’t dressed up in his suit and tie?

The elevator pinged as she reached the penthouse level and the door swooshed open, leading into a short corridor, with only one door ahead of her. She felt intimidated by the grandeur of it all. She raised her hand to knock, but it hit air as the door swung open.

“Your impeccable time management is commendable,” he said as he stepped aside for her to enter.

He was dressed in faded jeans and a black V-neck T, wearing no shoes. His hair was still wet, which meant he had time to shower. Jennifer took a steadying breath and inhaled his fresh scent as she passed him and her stomach flipped. Why did he have to be so good looking, why couldn’t he just have been an average guy that didn’t look like he belonged on some Men’s magazine cover, she thought as she placed her luggage on the floor.

Being that high in the air meant he had no use for curtains. That further meant that natural light suffused the open, comfortable space of his home. His furnishings were surprisingly light, from the pine laminate floors, to the white of the walls and the upholstery of various creams and off whites. The living space was so big the von Trapp family could have comfortably called it home. It was bigger than a bachelor would have any use for.

“Glad you made it on time, let me show you your room,” he said and picked up her suitcase.

She nearly freaked out when she noticed one of her bra’s hanging out on the side; it was a black lacy bra. One thing she was always pedantic about was wearing comfortable but classy underwear. Her mom always used to insist that a woman’s underwear was her pride.

“Uh… let me get that,” she said and reached for her suitcase, but Justin smirked and pulled it out of her reach.

“I’ve got it,” he said and turned left out of the living room into the corridor, “This is my room,” he said pointing to the door on the left, “This is my study, where you’ll find me most of the time when I’m home, and this,” he said, “is your room.”

Her room was a door down from his, which made her feel awkward but she tucked her emotions away. The room was beautiful, it looked like the rest of the place, perfect for a décor magazine, and in fact she’s almost sure she’s seen it before in a spread. The bed was queen sized, and the bedding was snow white, with embroidered leaves. She was almost too scared to sit on it in case she wrinkled it. At least the bedroom had curtains, which matched the linen. Other than a massive flat screen television that was mounted to the wall the walls were bare.

“This room is beautiful,” she said smiling as she ran her fingers along the smooth surface of the dressing table.

“Thank you,” he said and gestured to the door on the left, “That’s your bathroom, fully fitted with a bath and a shower.”

Jennifer glanced into the bathroom and it literally took her breath away. Gleaming granite tops lined the one side of the bathroom; in the middle was a Jacuzzi sized tub. The shower had no walls or glass; it was an open shower with a decorative tiled floor. Against the wall was an electronic panel where you could regulate the temperature and dispense soap, shampoo and conditioner. White towels were neatly stacked on an open shelf.

She stepped back into the room and smiled awkwardly, it felt as if her cheeks were jumping and she bit the inside of her lip. She had never ever been in such a grand place, not even when she stayed in the Hilton Hotel back when she visited Durban, in South Africa just after she finished college.

Justin looked at her curiously and then opened the closet door, “I’ve have taken the liberty of getting you an evening dress for dinner.”

Jennifer looked at the champagne colored dress. She looked at the tag and smiled, he had been smart enough not to leave the price on it, but he definitely knew her dress size. The name 'Elie Saab' didn't mean too much to her but she knew it meant the dress was foreign-made and expensive.

“You really didn’t have to go through all of this,” she said and closed the closet door, “I have clothes.”

“I know, but I thought I’d treat you to a new dress.”

Jennifer bit back a sneer. It’s already starting, Justin wasn’t happy with an average looking plane ol’Jane, and he was slowly going to try and transform her to fit into his glamorous life. It was something she was going to have to accept, and at least it would only be for a few months. Before she knew it, she would be back in her apartment with her cat Ratchet. At least she was able to get her neighbor to babysit Ratchet while she was pretending to be Miss Priss, and she had promised to visit him daily if possible.

“I’ll let you get ready,” he said and stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.

 

Click to read the rest of this story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Jason

Clink!

I glanced behind me at the finality of the sound as the security gate of Kenworth maximum security prison slid into place. After eight long years, with two years suspended service, I was finally on the other side. A little older, a little wiser, and a hell of a lot more jaded. If the judge had worried about the threat I had posed to society all those years ago, he had no idea what I was capable of now.

I was only twenty-two years old, a man or rather a boy, with future plans when I was tried and found guilty for my crime. My age hadn’t given me any reprieve. In fact, it had made me a walking target. It didn’t matter that I was in for involuntary manslaughter. My fellow inmates took one look at the baby face and scrawny frame and only saw fresh meat.

That first night had been hell. I barely made it out with my life.  A bruised liver, four cracked ribs, a myriad of cuts, and a broken jaw had put me in the infirmary for six weeks.

Battered and bruised, with my jaw wired shut, I lay there wishing someone would come finish the job. But to my dismay, no one came. The ribs healed, and the bruises faded; physically I recovered, but my soul was forever tainted and bruised.

The pretentious state doctor even had the gall to say, I wouldn’t have any lasting effects from the incident. But apparently, the four-inch scar that ran diagonally down over my right eye and down to the corner of my mouth, made me look less like a pampered princess and more like a hard-core criminal to be feared by my inmates. I had damn near lost my eyesight. If I hadn’t tripped over a crate and fallen backward, the blade would have sliced through more than just my brow and cheek. It would have taken my eye with it. It was that defining moment, as the bandages came off and the doctor smirked at me, as if I was a no-good piece of trash, that I realized I was truly on my own.

The assault continued, throughout most of my sentence, and although the incidents that followed weren’t even close to the extent of the first one, I feared for my life day in and day out. Closer to my release, Warden Saunders took pity on me and offered me six months of solitary confinement. I eagerly accepted.

I didn’t spend those six months in solitary confinement feeling sorry for myself, hell no! Instead, I focused on getting stronger, meaner and craftier. When I was locked in my cell, I spent every waking hour working out, using my own body-weight as resistance. I was only allowed outside for one hour a day, but I made the most of it, using the gym equipment, come rain or sunshine, mentally and physically preparing myself for the day I walked out of this god forsaken place.

At first, I could hardly do one rep without my arms quaking with the attempted effort, but it was the steely resolve within that enabled me to ignore the snickers and taunts from the guards, that kept me going. When my muscles screamed with fatigue and tears burned the back of my eyes, I forced myself to do ten more reps.

I ate every scrap of food I could get my hands on. It wasn’t difficult to put on weight in prison, the food mostly carbs and saturated fat. But, turning it into muscle took time and discipline. I had both.

When I wasn’t lifting weights, or doing endless squats, I was shadowboxing in my tiny four-foot by the six-foot cell, working on my technique and speed.

In solitary confinement, I could read as many books as I wanted. Although they limited my book choices, no martial arts or boxing how-to books, I found ways to get around it by reading biographies on Evander Holyfield, Royce Gracie, and Muhammad Ali. I was even able to get my hands-on books about Pilates and tai-chi and adapted their moves to create my own unique fighting style. I was determined to be ready when I was moved back into general population. I was relentless in my pursuit of strength, speed, and power, and for a good reason.

My skills were tested the first night back in my normal cell, and a few times after that. But this time I held my own. I had managed to put on twenty pounds of solid muscle but more importantly, I had improved my speed and my agility. I quickly made a name for myself as being dangerous and ruthless. That reputation had served me well.

Dwelling on the past wasn’t something I liked to do; it was the one closet full of skeletons I would rather keep locked up. I took one last look at the place that had been my own personal living hell. There was nothing else left for me there. Determined to close the door on Kenworth just like it had closed the doors on me, I turned my back and headed down the road toward the rundown bus shelter that sat across the street a few yards away from the prison. The vestibule had seen better days and reeked of stale cigarettes and urine. Not much different to prison. I chose to lean against the frame, figuring it was the least contaminated spot as I waited.

There was no bus schedule posted on the shelter, and I had no watch to tell me what time it was, but the bus ticket in my front left pocket read 8 pm. Besides the clothes on my back, a piece of paper with the name and phone number of my parole officer and an old wrinkled photograph were the only things I was taking with me upon my release.

The sun was beginning to set, and it would be dark soon. As if on cue, the lone streetlight flickered to life, emitting a dim glow. They had begun processing my release at 5 pm, and that had taken all of fifteen minutes. Assuming it had taken another fifteen minutes to walk through all the security checkpoints and the gate, I was in for a long wait. It wasn’t like I wasn’t good at that. These past eight years, I’d had a lot of time on my hands and patience became my best friend.  For many months, hell even the first couple of years, anger and hate fueled my determination. It lit a fire in my belly and kept me focused. I would lie in bed plotting my revenge on the people that had doubted my word, the court system that had failed me, and the people who had failed to protect my baby sister from that child predator.

Gladys Winston’s pinched face came to my mind, a withering old crone. The rage that I thought had long been suppressed threatened to boil to the surface at the thought of that old hag. I refused to think of her as family, despite her son Wallace Jr., having married our mother a few years after our father had died. I blamed her for ending up in prison in the first place. She just couldn’t believe that her one and only son could be such a monster. She had blatantly lied under oath to protect the sick bastard, claiming that I had violent tendencies even as a child. Fake tears had trickled down her cracked cheeks as she claimed to have desperately tried to persuade her precious son Wallace to send me to a home for wayward boys. To get me the help, I so desperately needed. But his kind heart wouldn’t allow him to give up on me. The lies just flowed freely from her thin, dry lips after that. She went on to claim that I had not had the best male role model growing up, implying that my biological father had been an alcoholic and that’s why he had died. The jury had eaten it up like sweetcakes at a fair.

It probably didn’t help my case when I had jumped up from the defense table and screamed that she was a lying cunt and that she was just as sick as her sick bastard of a son. It had taken the bailiff and two officers to restrain me. The judge finally had me removed from the courtroom. My state-appointed attorney never bothered to call me to the stand in my own defense. The jury had come back with a guilty verdict in less than thirty minutes. I had been sentenced and convicted of manslaughter and given fifteen years with the possibility for parole after serving seven.

None of that mattered now. I had served my time. I was a free man. I had done what needed to be done to make sure that my sister didn’t have to face that monster ever again. I only wished that I could have stopped him in time. But, she was safe from him now. He would never hurt her, or anyone else, ever again.

The thought of Jaime gave me peace. Three and a half years younger than me, she was a pesky teenager always committed to sticking her nose into my business. But, I would have walked through fire for her. And that I did. I pulled out the old wrinkled photo that I had carried with me everywhere for the last eight years. The colors were faded, and the edges were worn down from the constant wear and tear of keeping it tucked in my pocket. I always kept it on my person, not daring to leave it in my cell. I never trusted the other inmates, or even the officers, with that precious photo.  Wallace’s family had influence, even at Kentworth, and I wouldn’t put it past Gladys to have them destroy anything and everything I held dear.

I ran my thumb over Jaime’s sweet face, as I had so many times before.  The picture had been taken during happier times before my mom had remarried. It was a picture of me, Jaime, and her best friend Ally at Waukegan National Park. I had been twenty at the time. Jaime and Ally were both eighteen and in their last year of high school and practically like sisters.  Ally was full figured with curves in all the right places, and although I always caught myself staring at her, it was awkward considering she was the babysitter’s best friend.

I still remember the look on her face when I caught her watching me have sex with a girl. She’d been red-faced and embarrassed at being caught, but I could also tell she was aroused. She had tucked her bottom lip under her teeth and her eyes had been almost fully dilated. The pupils so large I could barely see the creamy jade of her piercing eyes. Her nipples had also been hard, stretching her already snug t-shirt tight across her chest.

My dick twitched at the thought of her in my arms. I knew I should have left her alone, but I just couldn’t help myself. She was just too tempting.

The sound of a car approaching drew me out of my reverie, and the memories of that day faded. I shifted uncomfortably against the vestibule as I tried to adjust my hard-on. The best I could do was put my hand in my pocket to hide it. I tucked the picture into the back pocket of my jeans as I waited for the car to pass by. No reason to linger over the past. I doubted Jaime and Ally were still friends after all these years and everything that had happened.

 

 


 Jason

 

The car came closer. It barely took a minute or two for the car to crest over the top of the hill. It was a small silver four-door Toyota Yaris. For some reason, I got nervous standing here, practically an open target, especially when it slowed down as it came towards the prison gate. I watched curiously as it got closer and the headlights no longer restricted my view of the driver, who looked like it may be a woman with long black hair and a cap tucked low over her eyes looking over towards the entrance. She was most likely a visitor, which I found odd since visiting hours ended at 3 pm.

Either way, it was none of my business. Shifting to the side, I tucked myself back into the bus shelter trying to make myself as small as possible, which was a little difficult, since I now topped 6’3” inches and 220 lbs. I heard the car engine purr as it moved forward. I squatted down pretending to be preoccupied with my shoes and waited for the car to pass.

But I would be so lucky; instead it rolled to a stop in front of the bus shelter. I chose to ignore the car and driver, but curiosity gnawed at my gut as I forced myself to keep my eyes down, willing her to just leave. A moment passed and then I heard the unmistakable squeak of the window rolling down. Shit.

“Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” The woman’s voice had a hint of laughter, a very distinct, very familiar sound.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I looked up. The brunette casually rested her chin on her arm as she smirked out the window at me. She had pushed the cap back on her head to reveal chocolate brown eyes that were currently full of mischief. Even if I didn't notice the twin dimples that came to life when she smiled, I would have recognized that cap anywhere. Not many people would dare to wear a faded Nebraska cap in Okee country. Especially one as worn and faded as this one, with the fish hook still stuck on the brow. I knew this because it was mine. It had been my favorite hat, a gift from my dad. I had worn it everywhere.

A grin split my face, as recognition hit me. Warmth spread through me for the first time in over eight years at the sight of my baby sister.  But she had lost that innocence she once owned, she had grown up, we both did.

“Jaime?”  I said as both shock and surprise catapulted my earlier mood out of orbit. She was the last person I would have ever expected.

She squealed in delight, barely remembering to put the car in park before she got out and launched herself into my arms. I caught her before she could knock us both to the ground and held her tight to me as I swung her around in a circle. She squeezed me tight, burying her face in my neck and I just held her against me, reveling in the fact that she was actually here. I hadn’t told anyone about my release, and I wasn’t sure if she would have wanted to know. When started my sentence, she came to visit me twice a week, that changed to once every other week, and after mom died, all visits stopped. I set her feet down on the ground.

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

I tried to remove her arms from around my neck, so I could step back and get a good look at her, but she held on tight.

Her shoulders were shaking, and at first, I thought it was from laughter, but then I felt the tears against my neck.

“Hey…” I said quietly, “What’s this all about?” I tried for nonchalance, but I couldn’t keep the concern from my voice.

She sniffled and sucked in a breath before pulling back looking up, her large brown eyes red and rimmed with more unshed tears, and filled with sorrow.

“I’m sorry, I told myself I wasn’t going to cry,” She said softly, “I just can’t believe you’re really here. I never thought this day would come.”

I gently wiped the tears away with the pads of my thumbs and then held her at arm’s length, just drinking in the sight of her. It felt so good to have a family again. Studying her, I could see that she had finally gotten some of dad’s height. When we were kids, she barely came up to my chest, but now her head skimmed the bottom of my chin. No small feat, considering I was a respectable 6’3”. Gone were the chubby cheeks of youth, her face had thinned out, and her cheekbones were defined but not in a gaunt way. I was happy to see that she was a healthy weight, hadn’t fallen into society’s norms of girls being wafer thin and sickly.

“How did you know I was getting released today?” I asked curiously.

A slight frown marred her pretty features and she pouted her lips, “Well, it’s not like I heard it from you big brother,” she said and playfully angry.

But as always, she was more bark than bite. I did feel a little bad for not having contacted her to let her know, but then again, in my defense I had no idea where she was.

“I’m sorry Jaime. I really am.” I hesitated, not sure what to say. “It’s just that we hadn’t had any contact after mom died, and I just kind of figured it didn’t matter. Besides, I wasn’t even sure if you were still living in town.”

“You thought it wouldn’t matter?” The expression on her face quickly changed. Playfulness was replaced by hurt, “Of course it mattered. You’re my brother.”

She looked away and sighed, “I’m sorry. I know things were…difficult and strained when mom died. I didn’t handle it very well.”

I put my hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look at me, “James,” I started using my old pet name for her, “I should be the one apologizing, not you. You were barely 19, and you were left alone to deal with her death and all the arrangements by yourself.”

Regret washed over me. I had missed so much in the years spent in jail that I never once thought about how much she would have to do all on her own. The only thing that mattered to me at the time was what I had saved her from. Never once giving thought to everything else she would have had to endure once the dust had settled.

A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, flashing one dimple, “It’s not your fault Jason. And besides, I got through it; at least it made me grow up faster. I had no choice really, I only had Ally, and I couldn’t depend on her forever.”

At the mention of Ally’s name, my mind drifted to earlier memories. Immediately, I could feel the blood rush below and my groin tighten uncomfortably. Now was NOT the time for this.

Abruptly changing the conversation back to my initial question, I asked, “But that still does not explain how you’re here, how did you find out I was being released early?” I tugged on a lock of hair affectionately, “Don’t get me wrong I’m glad you are I am just curious how you found out.”

“Oh, well, a little birdie in town told me.”

I could always tell when my sister was lying. She would never look me in the eye, her eyes darting anywhere but my face, while tucking her bottom lip under her teeth.

I chuckled and crossed my arms cocking a suspicious brow. She shuffled her feet, still refusing to make eye contact. But, I knew how to wait her out.

With a huff, she finally blurted it out, “Okay fine! I found out from the old bitch Gladys.”

Gladys. A name I had tried to burn from my memory. I could feel the familiar burn of rage simmering just below the surface of my skin. After all the pain and hurt her and her family had put us through, it killed me to hear that she had any part in my sister life or our blissful reunion.  Refusing to let it mar this occasion, I suppressed my anger and kept my tone blank,

“What do you mean you found out from her?”

“Well, I know she didn’t mean for me to find out, that much was clear.” Jaime began to pace back and forth, gesturing wildly with her hands.

“I had been in the county office, paying the back taxes on the house…”

My teeth inadvertently clenched and my jaw tightened at the mention of her having to handle back taxes, but I remained silent, allowing her to continue uninterrupted.

Eyeing me warily, she continued, “The clerk at the county took me around back to her desk to verify the amounts owed. So, I was half-hidden behind her cubicle wall when I heard her voice, you know, Gladys’s? She was obviously irritated about something because she wasn’t even trying to keep her voice down. I was trying my best to ignore her until I heard you name.”

I loved my sister, but she tended to be long-winded. I tried not to show my impatience as I willed her to get to the point.  She must have sensed my agitation because she rushed through the rest of her story.

“Anyways, she was talking with the Sheriff about your release. She was trying to get it denied and threatening the Sheriff’s job and throwing around her family name and so on.” Jaimie rambled on, getting all worked up again, hands waving around as she explained what happened, “So I stood up and made my presence known. Gladys immediately turned red and accused me of spying on her. I don’t know what came over me, but I was tired of being bullied by that woman and her family. So I blatantly told her that if she hadn’t wanted the whole world to know, she shouldn’t be shouting it from the rooftops, like a banshee.”

Jaime managed to look both proud and a little sheepish at the same time, “I may have also mentioned that she may have been able to buy the judge and jury of this little town, but that her influence stopped there.”

I hated that I hadn’t been there to protect her from Gladys’s sharp tongue, but I couldn’t help but admire the fierce young woman she had become. I smiled at her proudly as I put my arm around her.

“I’m proud of you. You’ve managed to rise above everything and thrive despite that family, and what they did to us.”

“Eh, I did what I had to,” she said and shrugged, “Come on, let’s get you home.”

As we pulled away from the desolate bus stop, I forced myself not to look back at the prison.  For the first time in years, I felt light. I felt hope.

 Ally

 

I finally managed to get a moment to just catch a breath, happy hour was over and most of the patrons were heading home. Te, and although the place was still reasonably packed with a few stumbling die-hards, who insisted on having just one more drink for the umpteenth time. My toes were numb from standing so long, and the fact that I was so distracted didn’t help at all. By now Jamie would be on her way back from prison, a bombshell she decided to drop on me just this morning and boy was I gobsmacked.  It’s been years since I last saw Jason, and to be honest I never thought I would see him again, but that never stopped me from reminiscing about him.

I pushed myself away from the wall and placed my hands on my hips, stretching and arching my back to get some relief from the stiffness. So my weight wasn’t really ideal, but then again I was never one to bother with diet plans and boot camps to become the perfect size six. As long as I didn’t cringe when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t care what people thought, besides if Kelly Clarkson can get someone like Brandon Blackstock to fall head over heels with her, there was hope for me right? I rolled my eyes to the heavens and blew a stray strand of hair that fell over my eyes out of the way. Who was I kidding, Jason branded me for life, after him, every date I went on ended up being a science experiment or a chemistry lesson, and the chemicals never mixed. Every relationship I ever attempted fizzled to nothing within the second week. I sunk down on plastic beer crate outside the door and leaned my head back against the wall, letting the memories swamp me.

***

I had been staying at Jaime’s house while her parents were out with friends that weekend and of course we had done exactly what most teenage girls with freedom would have done, smoke, drink and watch R-Rated movies for shits and giggles… I had conveniently forgotten to mention to my mom and dad that Jamie’s parents were out of town when I asked them to let me sleep over.

“Jamie, if we get caught we’re going to be in so much crap!” I said as Jamie snuck the bottle of whiskey from the drinking cabinet.

We were only fifteen and I guess it was the excitement of being so recklessly naughty that inspired the whole thing.

“They’re away for the weekend, relax!” she said.

“What about Jason?”

“He’s too preoccupied shagging Sonia’s brains out, he won’t even notice us,” she giggled and took a swig from the bottle. Of course she broke out in a fit of coughs, and then burst out laughing and handed it to me.

***

That was how that night started, and a night that would be tattooed into my mind forever. Unlike Jamie and I, who always stood on the side lines and sat at the furthest corner of the cafeteria in school, her brother Jason was the popular playboy every girl tried to dig their nails into. Jason had been eighteen then, a senior, and I was the nerdy, chubby fangirl who shamelessly swooned over my best friend’s brother. What made it even worse was, whenever he had taken a girl to his room, Jamie and I would sit and eavesdrop, and then mimic their moans and groans. But what started as a complete mockery eventually became the very thing my fantasies were based on. Not quite appropriate for a girl my age, but either way, I was fifteen going sixteen, hormones had taken my body hostage, and I was just an innocent bystander.

I remember it as if it was yesterday, I had gone upstairs to Jamie’s room to crawl into bed.  The world had started to spin out of control, Jamie was passed out like a sailor on the living room floor, and I simply needed to sleep.

I passed by Jason’s room, tempted to knock and make up some excuse to bother him if he was in there, but I resisted. He probably wasn’t even home anyways. He was always out on a date with a different girl. He didn’t have time to notice me.

Turning away from his door, I forced myself to walk the rest of the way to Jaime’s room and closed the door behind me. Leaning against the door, I expelled a small sigh. Why couldn’t I get over this crush? I didn’t quite understand why I reacted to him the way that I did.

Shaking my head, I pushed off the door and headed for my overnight bag. It was definitely time to get some sleep. I stripped out of my clothes, down to just my panties. Even though my breasts were quite large now, I hated sleeping in a bra. Since I hadn’t planned on leaving Jaime’s room again, I took my bra off and tossed it on the floor.

I dug around in my duffle until I found my favorite sleep shirt. It was an old Pink Floyd t-shirt that used to be my dad’s. I had found it in a box of clothes marked for the Goodwill and had taken it for my own. It used to be so big on me, hanging down to my knees like a dress. Over the years, I had finally started to grow into. It now hit me just above mid-thigh. Which wasn’t too bad. It still covered my ass.

Now my chest was another story. Ever since my breasts decided to double in size over the summer, the t-shirt could barely stretch across them. Already threadbare from the numerous washing over the years, the material was so taut it was almost see through. But again, I didn’t think anything of it because I wasn’t planning on seeing anyone but Jaime.

I went to go put my retainer in its case. But it wasn’t in my bag. After throwing everything out of it and checking every pocket, I remembered that I had left it in the bathroom. I stood there for a few minutes debating with myself whether to go and get it.

I couldn’t sleep in it, and I really didn’t want to just leave it lying around. That’s how I had broken the last one and my parents would kill me if I ruined another. They weren’t cheap. I had no choice. I would have to go grab it real quick.

I hesitated wondering if I should put my clothes back on but that seemed silly. So, I cracked Jaime’s door and stuck my head out. Her brother’s door was still closed, and everything was quiet. Taking a chance, I raced down the hall to the shared bathroom. I shut the door behind me and leaned against the sink to catch my breath.

I admit, I felt a little silly at my reaction. I placed my retainer in its case and then I splashed a little cold water on my face to calm down. As I turned to wipe my face on the hand towel hanging against the wall, I heard giggling coming from down the hall. Followed by a male voice whispering and another giggle. The giggle was definitely female, but it wasn’t Jaime. Jaime didn’t make high pitched squeals…ever. I knew instantly that the sounds were coming from behind Jason’s door.

I waited a few moments until I heard the sound of his radio turned down low in his bedroom.   Quietly, I opened the bathroom and peeked out. The coast was clear. I would still have to make my way past Jason’s door to get to Jaime’s, but knowing he had a girl with him. I knew he would be …preoccupied for a little while.

Tiptoeing into the hallway, I made my way as quietly as possible. I didn’t think they could hear me, not with the radio. But I didn’t want to take any chances.

As I approached his door, I saw that it was now slightly ajar and not as tightly shut as when I first passed. I could hear whispers and the unmistakable sounds of kissing. A pang of jealousy hit me. I wanted to be that girl. I wanted to know what it felt like to have his arms around me.

Jason never had any trouble getting girls to fall all over him, and it wasn’t any surprise. He was cut from years of playing sports. He was also quite charming and had the same twin dimples that Jaime had. It was an irresistible combination that even I couldn’t resist.

It’s not like I hadn’t been over when he’d taken a girl up in his room. Jaime and I would usually laugh and joke about it. That was back when we thought it was disgusting. But lately, I hadn’t found it disgusting. In fact, I had found it enticing. I wanted to know what it felt like. I wasn’t very experienced. Sure all of the guys in our class stared at my breasts and made crude jokes about them. But they still all preferred the stick-thin pretty girls. I was what you would call full-figured if you were being generous. Always had been. Though I would never admit it to anyone, not even Jaime, I was very self-conscious about the way I looked. My self-consciousness came across as shyness when around the opposite sex, so I’d never actually had a boyfriend yet.

Before I realized what I was doing, I was in front of his door and gently nudged it further open. Wide enough to see the mirror over his dresser. Which was positioned directly across from his bed. I had a direct view of Jason and the one and only Sonia.

I just couldn’t tear my eyes away. Had I been observant enough to know that the mirror also reflected the exact spot where I had been standing, I would have run for cover almost immediately. But I didn’t know that, and I just kept watching.

Jason took a breath from sucking on the blonde’s neck to yank her blouse open, buttons flying everywhere. The girl admonished him, but he ignored her. My entire body began to tingle and I felt hot as I continued to watch through the crack in his door.

She beckoned him forward slipping the remains of the shirt off her shoulders and tossing it to the floor. He stepped forward closing the distance between them. She went to say something smart, but he silenced her with his lips in a quick devastating kiss before he pushed her back against the bed until her knees hit the edge.

She fell back on the bed and he covered her body with his. His hands none too gentle has he grabbed her breasts through her lacy pink bra.  She squirmed under his attentions and drew her knees up.

She was wearing a mini skirt so I could see that she was only wearing the tiniest of thongs. Her small rounded cheeks exposed. She gave a startled yelp when his hands slid down to her bare ass, before he slapped one side firmly. Did he just spank her? I was so confused. I had seen sex on tv before, but never like this. But then he was soothing the tender red flesh with slow massaging circles.

She sat up long enough to release the clasp of her bra, sliding the straps seductively down her arms before tossing it to the side. She had small, perky breasts with tiny, tight pink nipples. He smiled as he leaned over her and took one tiny bud in his mouth.

I felt my own nipples harden in response. Rubbing against the soft fabric of my t-shirt. It was uncomfortable in a good way. I wondered what it would feel like have his mouth on my breasts. To feel his tongue and lips on my nipples. I could feel myself getting damp between my legs as I fantasized about being the girl in there with him. I shifted my legs uncomfortably, trying to ease the ache.

I let out a small whimper before I could help myself. Shocked, I clamped a hand over my mouth and that’s when he glanced in the mirror directly at me. My eyes locked with those drop dead gorgeous baby blues, and he smirked at me.

I had run for the bathroom, frantic and embarrassed for spying on him so openly, hoping that he would simply ignore it and carry on with life as if I didn’t exist. But I would be so lucky.

He had made his grand appearance behind me in the small, confined space. He asked me if I liked what I saw, and of course I was speechless, or rather brain dead. I stuttered like a fool and the way his lips turned up and his brows had cocked in amusement had me grasping for straws. There had been nothing, not a single excuse I could have thought of quick enough that would save me from utter embarrassment.

But that was where things got a little interesting. Whether the fact that I, or any other person for that matter, had watched him, had turned him on, or whether he had this secret love for preying on innocent young girls’ emotions was another story altogether. All I knew was that it was the night that would change my entire outlook on the male gender forever…

 

“So,” Jason said with a smirk, “You liked what you just saw?”

“I…uh, I didn’t see… much,” I lied.

“Liar, you saw everything, you were spying me and Sonia for almost five minutes,” he smirked.

“Well… yeah, but… I didn’t see…” I was in the hot seat, caught red handed and there was no way to get myself out of this one, “You could have closed your door!” I retorted instead.

“It’s my house; I can do what I want.” he chuckled and stepped closer, then sniffed the air, “Were you drinking?”

Great! I had told Jamie that we were going to get caught.

“Jamie… well we had some whiskey, just a little.”

Jason laughed, but his eyes were full of mischief, he came closer until I was caught between him and the towel rail.

“Have you ever been kissed?” he asked, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Of course…okay no, I haven’t,” I admitted nervously.

“Do you want to be kissed?”

“I-um-no,” I lied.

Jason clearly didn’t fall for it; instead he bent his head and pressed his lips against mine. I froze like a statue, too scared to breathe or move. The persistent movement of his tongue tracing the seam of my lips tore my defenses down and when I finally gave in, I kissed him back. The kiss was clumsy; I had no bloody clue what to do with my tongue, or how to angle my lips. My nose was in the way, but somehow the kiss evolved on its own. Then he stopped, looked at me with another smirk, turned around and sauntered back to his room. And Sonia.

As soon as his door slammed shut, I quickly ran back to Jaime’s room. I grabbed a hairbrush off her nightstand and pretended to be brushing my hair when she came in just after I did. I feigned being tired and climbed into the top bunk. She turned off the lights and soon I could hear the faint sounds of her snoring as she slept.

I lay in the top bunk, remembering the way Jason had looked when he had spanked Sonia. I pictured him in my head, only it was me he had been stroking. I licked my lips and rolled my tongue in my mouth, his flavor was still there. It felt alien and different, but intoxicating at the same time. I imagined Jason smiling down at me, touching and stroking me as he cradled me in his arms.

***

I let out a sigh and stood up shaking my head, the memories of Jason were always so vivid, if only I could erase them. Time to get back to the grindstone, I told myself as I shouldered the kitchen door open and went inside to help Mac with the last die hard patrons.

 

 

 


Ally

 

“Look out!”

Mac’s loud cry brought me back to the present, just in time for me to catch myself before I collided with the beer distributor guy and sent us both crashing to the floor. I felt the heat rush to my cheeks with embarrassment as I muttered my apologies. The guy just shook his head at me as he rolled the cart full of beer towards the back of the bar.

“Go deliver those drinks without spilling them and then come see me,” Mac ordered.

Despite her diminutive size, Mac made an imposing figure. With her no-nonsense attitude and her surprising ability to throw grown men out on their asses, she was a force to be reckoned with. She was the perfect person to run the bar.

I was a waitress here at Hannagan’s; I had been for about two years now. It used to be a run-down biker bar before Mac bought it. She cleared out the roughnecks, remodeled it, and built it back up from scratch and now it was a respectable establishment with patrons from all walks of life. She catered for everyone from the blue-collar crowd to the middle-class runts that are looked down upon by higher society. She managed to maintain an upscale atmosphere without the pretentiousness. Mac ran a tight ship and didn’t take any crap from anyone. It also helped that she served a hell of a good drink.

Not wanting to incur her wrath, I quickly delivered the tray of drinks to my two waiting tables, apologizing for the delay before I made my way back to the corner of the bar where Mac was waiting.

No one really knew how old she was. With short, fiery red hair and bright blue eyes, she looked far too young to be the owner of a bar. But she handled the place as well as any veteran. Right now, she was glaring at me with her hands on her hips.

Despite her gruff exterior, I knew she was concerned about me.

Throughout my shift at Hannagan’s, I had been distracted having spilled two trays of drinks, thankfully not on any customers, but I did break three of Mac’s nice German beer steins, which would undoubtedly have to be paid for out of my wages, but that was the least of my concern, the thunder cloud hovering above Mac was far more intimidating than a few dollars from my pocket.

“What’s up?” I asked, plastering a bright smile on my face.

I tried to go for the carefree and relaxed approach, but Mac was having none of that. She just crossed her arms and cocked a brow at me. I squirmed uncomfortably under her direct gaze. She reminded me of Sister Clarence in Catholic school who used to just peer at you over the top of her bifocals and purse her lips. She could intimidate you with just one gaze and cause you to confess to future sins you hadn’t committed yet.

“I’m sorry, I know I’ve been a little distracted,” I stammered.

Her response was to snort in a very unladylike manner, “A little distracted? That’s an understatement kid.”

She unfolded her arms and leaned forward a concerned look on her face, “I have never seen you this clumsy in all the time you have been here.”

“I know I’m sorry about the beer steins. I will pay you back for them,” I apologized.

She just shook her head, “I’m not worried about replacing the steins honey. I’m worried about you.”

The genuine concern on her face tugged at my heartstrings. Mac had been like a surrogate mother to me since mine wasn’t around. But, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth. How could I tell her I was distracted by the thoughts and memories of a man I haven’t seen for years? Someone I didn’t even really know.

“I’m fine. Really,” I assured her, fudging a little, I added, “I’ve just had a lot on my mind.”

That wasn’t a complete lie.

“Is it college, do you need money, do you need another loan for the rest of the semester?”

I shook my head, fighting back the tears.  I quickly looked away pretending to wipe an imaginary spot on the bar with my towel. Mac could be generous to a fault. I didn’t want to play on her kindness, but I did grasp at the outlet she provided.

“Yes,” I answered.

“How much do you need,” she asked before I could finish.

“No, no that’s not what I meant.” I quickly responded. “Yes, it is school. But no, it’s not about money.” Blowing out a sigh, I tried to play it off as the problem was with my grades. “I’ve just been struggling with a couple classes. I have a huge test in Supply Chain coming up and a paper due for my Business Ethics class.” That sounded reasonable right?  “I’ve had a couple low scores on my last quiz, so I really need to do well.” It was completely plausible. However, if anyone bothered to check, they would find that I carried a 4.0.

She scrutinized me for a minute longer and then nodded as if she understood.

“Well, if you need some extra time to study, I don’t mind rearranging your shifts a little.”

“Thanks, Mac. I really appreciate it, but I think I’ll be fine.”

 

Just then, the distributor came back over to have her sign for the invoices.  Grateful for the distraction, I took the opportunity to sidle away from the bar.

“Hey,” she called my attention.

I snapped back around, worried that she was going to drill me some more.

“Why don’t you go restock what he just brought in to the cooler,” she offered, “It’s almost closing time, I can finish up here.”

Expelling a breath of relief, I just nodded to her and, grabbing a coat off the hook, I stepped into the cooler. The jacket barely went around my ample chest, but it provided enough warmth against the chill. Spying the boxes of beer in the corner, I went about verifying the inventory and then unpacking the boxes into the designated carts. We used roller bins to restock the bar quickly during the rush. We could just come back here, grab a cart and roll it out to the bar. They held 100 bottles of beer, which would get us through the rush until we had time to restock the bar coolers. The work was easy and didn’t require any real thought, which was opposite of what I need.  With nothing to focus my attention on, my mind began to wander to Jamie and a certain dark-haired guy. I had thought about him only on occasion over the past few years, but today he consumed my mind.

Jaime and I had practically grown up like sisters, and now we lived together as roommates. We have always been inseparable when we were younger. I can hardly remember a time when one of us weren’t spending the night at the other’s house. We had been friends since elementary school. Jason was just a little over three years older than us and had always been more like an older brother to me.  For the longest time, I had pretty much ignored him. That’s what little girls did with older boys. They pinched them, kicked them, made fun of them, simply for the hell of it. It wasn’t until I was in my teens when I started developing stronger feelings for him.

I would catch myself looking for an excuse to talk to him, even if it was to annoy him like Jaime use to do, I practically did anything for the slightest attention from him. I never thought he noticed me, even when I began to fill out and change from a plump girl to a full breasted teenager, but all of that changed after our first kiss. After that we had moments, on and off, when Jason would sneak a caress or wink at me, and then just like that, cast me off to the side for another bimbo to raid his bed. But like any girl with a crush, I couldn’t stop feeling the way I did back then; always hopeful that someday he’ll come to his senses and see me, really see me. But the years went by and nothing happened, until the summer after Jamie and I graduated high school.

Even in the frigid cooler, I could feel the heat rising and my skin flush as I found myself recalling that night. Just another sleep over at Jaime’s. It was my eighteenth birthday two days before, and Jamie insisted that we make it a Birthday Celebration Week. She was adamant that I come straight over to her house after the birthday party my parents threw me, and spend the entire week with her. After all she reasoned, high school was over and who knows where we would both end up in the coming years.

***

I never could remember what really woke me up that morning, but I remembered looking at the clock, it was 3 am. I had gotten out of bed to get a glass of milk. But when I turned to leave the kitchen and found Jason leaning casually against the door jamb, it had felt as if my heart wanted to explode. I tried my best to stay calm and collected, regardless of the fact that he had been staring at me with those intense come-to-bed eyes…

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there…” I started and tried to pass him, but my words faded as he shifted to block my way.

I moved to the other side to get past only to have him shift again to block my escape. Nervous as hell; I folded my arms and looked at him trying my best to show some sort of irritation.

“Going somewhere?” he asked smirking at me.

“I…I was just getting a drink,” I stammered breathlessly.  I could feel my heart pounding in my chest under his penetrating gaze.

“I see that,” he said as he stepped forward raising his hand.

I had backed away then, not sure what his intentions were, while my insides were doing flip flops like popcorn in a hot pot. He had kept his eyes locked on mine and I had been frozen on the spot, rendered completely speechless. It was there and then that the simple kiss from two years ago, and all our subsequent mild flirtations, turned into something far more life changing.

Jason had taunted me for being shy, and I had protested, even though I knew that he was right. Even when my nipples had poked at my sleep shirt, and his eyes had been riveted on them, I was still in denial. I had told myself over and over in those five minutes that I could handle it. But when he pulled me closer, and his lips had captured mine, I lost all self-control and common sense. Where I suddenly had found the courage to take what I wanted, god alone knows. But I wasn’t going to let that moment pass me by. With a sense of boldness, I had never been aware of, I kissed him back. Just remembering his reaction caused a whirl of emotion to flood my insides.

Jason had wasted no time in divesting himself of his clothes. I had seen him shirtless, countless of times growing up. But not like this.

I watched with fascination, as he stripped down to his boxers. I caught a glimpse of his sheathed erection in his shorts before he bent over and slid those off. His cock was thick, with a plump head. It looked like it was angrily pulsing. My mouth watered just looking at it bobbing in my direction.

He had a condom in his hands. We had learned about sex-ed in school, so I knew how a condom was used, but I had never actually seen someone put one on. He tore the foil packet with his teeth before spitting out the wrapper. He gripped his thick member in one hand, while he swiftly and deftly unrolled the condom down his shaft.

“I’ve been waiting to do this for years, and now you’re finally legal.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“That night you spied on me and Sonia? I set the whole thing up so that you would see us.” He chuckled and backed me up against the kitchen table. Gripping the hem of my nightshirt around my thighs, he slowly glided it off my body, leaving a trail of heat where his hands touched my skin.

He was still for a moment, just staring at my breasts, my nipples stiffened under his intense scrutiny.

“Damn, your tits are amazing,” he finally moved, gripping both my breasts with his hands and squeezing. Then he wrapped his fingers around my nipples and pulled.

The only sound that came out of me was a moan of both pain and satisfaction. His pull on my nipples almost hurt, but I felt my clit jump in pleasure.

When he popped a nipple in his mouth and started suckling furiously, I just about lost my mind. The wet sounds he was making turning me on as much as the sensation of his tongue and teeth on me.

Jason lifted me onto the kitchen table and spreading my legs wide, he settled himself between them. His hand had traveled down to the space between my legs and massaged my clit in slow circles.

“I heard you tip-toe past my door that night.” He said as he tapped two fingers at my entrance. “I opened my door and turned the radio on. I knew you couldn’t help yourself, I knew you would look. I wanted you to see what you could have, what I could do for you.”

“How could you know I would watch you?” I asked.

“I knew you wanted me.” He replied confidently, and popped a nipple back into his mouth, lashing it with my tongue.

I squirmed in anticipation as he guided his cock to my core, still stroking me, faster. We both waited expectantly for him to plunge his dick into my waiting pussy. And he did. But he paused for maybe half a second before he ruthlessly thrust into me. I gasped and jerked back, my heart pounding relentlessly in my chest with the shock and pain of his invasion. But Jason gripped my hips tightly to him as he withdrew and pushed back in.

I could hear the slippery sounds as my wet entrance clamped down on his cock with each thrust. I wrapped my arms around Jason’s back to steady myself as he pumped relentlessly, my tits jiggling and shaking with each thrust, rubbing against the hard planes of his chest. My initial pain fading to a hot heat.

***

 

Right there in his parents’ kitchen, he fucked me senseless, not only once, but twice. On the counter, on the floor, it was unbelievable how we never got caught.

I could hardly contain myself the next morning, I wasn’t even able to face Jamie, much less Jason. I left the house early, hoping that some space would help me garner the courage to tell Jason how I really felt. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t just another potential docking station, but I never got that chance.

***

I leaned against the cooler door and latched it close; it’s been eight years already, and for a moment I wondered if Jason was ever going to be released on parole, or if he was going to spend his entire sentence in prison. Jamie never talked about what happened that day between her brother and her stepfather. And I didn’t ask. We had drifted apart for a time after that. My parents as usual wanted me to go to college, then Law School. It was their way of getting me away from the riff-raff crowd I should never have socialized with. Jamie and I only reconnected a few years later after her mother passed away and she found me on Facebook. I was there to help her through her grief and she was my pillar of strength after my parents practically disowned me.

It wasn’t until earlier this month that she mentioned Jason’s name for the first time in years; it was in passing when she told me that she was thinking of paying him a visit, it was a fleeting comment, but enough to trigger a cascade of memories for me.

A chill ran down my spine at the thought of Jason. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I just spent the last thirty minutes in the cooler, or that he had been convicted of manslaughter. It had everything to do with the unfinished business we had left behind and the uncertainty of it all.

 

 

 


Jason

 

The ride home had been exhausting but in the best way. Jaime and I had so much to catch up on. She filled me in on the last eight years, skimming over most of the bad stuff. I didn’t ask her about mom or her passing, and she didn’t volunteer to talk about what it had been like either. Instead, she amused me with her anecdotal tales of learning how to cook and clean. How she had accidentally put dish washing liquid in the washing machine and had bubbles coming out from under the laundry room door.

I still couldn’t get over the fact at how much she’d grown up since the last time I’d seen her. No longer was she the frightened gangly teen that I’d been forced to leave behind. In its place was a beautiful, intelligent, and confident young woman. My chest swelled with pride at the person she had become despite everything that had happened.

I was also grateful that she hadn’t been completely alone. I was both surprised and pleased to hear that Jaime and Ally had remained friends, or at least been there for each other during the loss of our mother. Jaime had briefly mentioned a period where they drifted apart, but when I pressed further she changed the subject. I was curious to know what had happened to Ally. Her parents never really liked us since they were upper class people, but unlike most spoiled brats, she was humble and shy in a cute way. I could only imagine the fallout when the headlines were out there and everyone in town realized that I was a murderer.

As we rode along the countryside, I couldn’t help but wonder what Ally would have had to say, knowing I was released.  The last time we spent together was on the kitchen floor, then all hell had broken loose. I had never mentioned anything to Jamie, and I doubted that Ally would have. Maybe it was for the best, I thought.

I started to recognize some of the landmarks, indicating we were getting closer to home. The reminiscing had been fun, but exhausting. Now, the mood seemed to peter out as we got closer to town. It went from jovial and carefree to somewhat somber and subdued as we pulled into the outskirts of town. The gravity of what had transpired so many years ago weighed me down and I could feel the sense of fear knocking at the fringes of my mind. We sat in silence the rest of the way as we made our way through town and into our neighborhood.

Thankfully, the drive had taken a little over three hours, so it was dusk by the time we pulled into the driveway. We lived on a relatively quiet street, but I didn’t relish a spectacle at my homecoming. Better to just make my way into the house quietly under the cover of night.

I stared up at the house that had once been my home, and would now be again. It still looked the same; a traditional two-story A-frame house with a detached garage and wraparound porch. The house needed some TLC, nothing a little fresh paint and a few replacement boards couldn’t fix. But Jaime had done a good job keeping it up. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the old porch swing still out front.

Someone, Jaime I assumed, had replaced the old rusted out chains with new ones and it also had brightly colored pillow cushions, albeit, a bit girly for my taste. Jaime and Ally had spent hours on that swing, giggling and talking about god knows what.

The smile faded when I thought about Ally, I had hoped that I would see her again, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious to Jamie, somehow I half expected her to be here too, but this wasn’t her home. She was probably married with children by now, living the life she was meant to have.

The only lights on, were the ones on the porch. The house reminded me of a crypt, where all the horrible memories of the past lay buried deep in the concrete foundation, never to be dug up again. From the outside, I could see the white flakes of paint peeling from the window frames, like large eyes that lost the ability to cry over the years.  This is what comes of reading Shakespeare when there’s nothing else to read in a prison, I thought to myself, making idle comparisons between living things and material structures.

“Welcome home, big brother,” Jaime spoke softly as we sat in the driveway.

I turned and gave her a ghost of a smile, “It’s good to be home.”

Taking a deep breath, I opened the car door and stepped outside. I didn’t have any bags to get out of the trunk, so I just shut the door behind me and walked slowly up the familiar steps. Jaime passed by me to unlock the door. Pushing the door open, she walked in and flipped on the hallway light. Pausing by the stairs, she watched me closely.

I stood on the threshold, not knowing what to expect or how I would feel taking my first steps back into this house after eight years. Bracing myself for the worst, I stepped into the familiar foyer and shut the door behind me. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I didn’t expect to feel this. No hints of anger or despair coursed through me, only relief, relief, and love and fond memories.

I could see Jaime gnawing on her lower lip, unsure of what to say or do. I expelled the breath. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding mine and smiled at her. She immediately relaxed too.

“Come on. I imagine you are starving for a good home cooked meal,” she said with a grin. “Why don’t you go get cleaned up while I get started.”

 

The idea sounded amazing and as if on cue my stomach rumbled. We both shared a chuckle. I started to walk towards the full bathroom at the back of the house and realized I had no clothes.

Reading my mind, Jaime said, “We kept all your old clothes. From the looks of it, most of them might be too small for you now, but I’m sure there is a pair of old sweats that you can sleep in. We’ll go get you some new clothes tomorrow.”

“I’m sure I can find something,” I said as I headed up the stairs.

I heard the door to the kitchen swing open and shut. Soon after the sounds of cupboards opening and closing and pots and pans banging filled the air. It was a little surreal being back home, but it didn’t hold all the ugliness that I thought it would. I think it helped that Jaime had made her own changes. Gone were the gaudy wallpaper, ostentatious furniture, and the formal pictures of the depicted happy family. Wallace had always been very keen on presenting the proper image of the perfect family. After all, the Winston’s had a reputation to uphold, and even though we weren’t true Winston’s as Gladys liked to remind us regularly, we still had a responsibility to act the part. No one had to know what went on behind closed doors.

Jaime had removed all hints of the Winston’s from our family home. She had painted the walls a pale blue that was calming and replaced all the pictures with fun family portraits of happier times; when our Dad was still alive. There were many from when we were kids and all the vacations we took when our dad was still around and more recent ones with her and her friends, including Ally. I paused at a graduation photo at the top of the stairs. It was one with Jamie and Ally; I could recognize those creamy jade eyes anywhere. They had pulled me in when she’d just been a teenager, and seeing her again sent molten heat straight through my heart and down to my groin.

Jaime and Ally were both grinning from ear-to-ear, diplomas in hand; arms around each other just like old times. Ally had always been a shapely girl growing up, and not even the generic graduation robe did anything to hide her ample curves. Memories of her on the kitchen counter with her legs wrapped around my waist flooded my memories. The way she swiveled her hips and arched her back each time I drove my cock… whoa!

Don’t go there. Not now.

I took a steadying breath and forced myself to look away from the photo and climb the rest of the stairs to my room, which were all the more uncomfortable now that I had a raging hard-on confined in the too-tight jeans I was wearing. I figured this was going to have to be a cold shower.

I turned left at the end of the hall and opened the door to my old room. It was like walking through a time warp. I could see that the room was cleaned regularly because there was no dust or the smell of stale air that you would expect. But otherwise, it looked like nothing had been touched since I left. Posters of hot chicks and sports team adorned the walls. My soccer and basketball medals still hung from the corner of my dresser mirror.

I felt tears sting the back of my eyes, and I quickly wiped them away with the back of my hand. There was no sense crying over time lost. I strode over to the dresser and threw open some drawers until I found a t-shirt and some loose drawstring pants that would work for tonight. Gathering the clothes in my arms, I walked out and closed the door. An enticing aroma was already starting to waft its way upstairs. My stomach growled reminding me that it had been hours since I’d last eaten. I would have plenty of time to think about my past and my future, but right now I just wanted a shower and full belly.

I flipped on the shower and stripped out of my clothes. Stepping under the spray, I let my head fall back as the searing heat poured over my head and my skin. My muscles were still a little stiff from the long car ride, so I went through a series of stretches to loosen them up under the steam.

I looked around for a bar of soap. Not finding any, I grabbed the bottle of body wash and squirted some into my hands. It smelled of lavender and honey, but I didn’t care. It just felt good to be clean. Lathering my body, I tried to scrub away any remnants of the Kenworth Prison. The scent of the body wash began to fill my nostrils, and I found myself drifting back to the picture of Ally on the wall, to that last night in the kitchen.

***

Her ass was plump and her breasts were more than I could hold in the palm of my hands, soft yet firm. She was in complete rapture as I fondled them, and allowed my thumbs to graze over her taut dark pink nipples. Some nights when I lay in my prison cell, those precious moments were the only thing that kept me clinging to hope funnily enough. It wasn’t like we were dating even. I was at the prime of my youth, flirting with girls and bedding cheerleaders. Even when I stole the virgin kiss from Ally when she was just going sixteen, I never once thought that she would be the one, and I hadn’t thought that when she was eighteen and legal and I had finally put my hands on her.

Then again, I wouldn’t have had the chance to consider that with everything that happened so fast. It was like someone decided to press the fast-forward button on my life.  But now that I was out of prison, she was the first woman that came to mind.

It had been a very long time since I’d felt the luscious curves of a woman and my body responded immediately, my dick hardened at the mere thought of her, naked and here in the shower with me. I could turn the water cold to try to douse the burning heat of desire coursing through my veins, but I knew that it would only be a temporary respite. What the hell? There were worse things in life than giving into the temptations swirling around in my mind.  I slid my hand down to and gripped the base of my cock as I began stroking it with long firm pulls while recalling images of Ally and my dick buried deep inside of her.  I wasn’t the same kid I’d been back then. I had been hardened by the system that failed me and the institution that had tried to end me. My fantasies weren’t about rose petals, moonlight kisses, and gentle lovemaking. No, I needed more than that for my release. I felt the tension build as I imagined having my hands on her, my teeth on her, taking her hard and fast with relentless thrusts, hearing her begging for more.

I leaned my head against the shower wall bracing myself as the force of the release almost took me to my knees. I continued to stroke my cock roughly, watching the last of my seed as it swirled down the drain. Finally, I dropped my hands to my sides, breathing heavily, completely spent.

Shutting the water off I stepped out of the shower and realized I had forgotten to grab a towel. Looking around the bathroom, all I could find was a damn washcloth. Remembering that my mom used to keep towels in the linen closet in her bedroom, I quickly snuck out hoping that Jamie was still downstairs and shoved the door to mother's room open, only it wasn’t her bedroom anymore.  Words escaped me as I came face to face with my muse. Green eyes widened in shock and possibly terror, looked straight at me, her lips parted as she sucked in a breath, clearly scared shitless. And then she threw a left hook and nearly took my jaw off in the process.

        “Fuck Ally!” I shouted in response and instantly put my hands up in defense, which only made the situation worse because what little flesh I was able to cover with the washcloth was now completely exposed.

“Ohmigod!” she shrieked before backing away in horror and shielding her eyes with flailing hands, looking like a two-armed octopus.

“Ally, it’s me, Jason!” I shouted at her, rubbing my jaw, not in the least bit concerned about my state of undress.

“I know who you are! Geezuz, cover yourself up for god sakes!” she cried out, shock giving way to what sounded like anger.

“That’s not what you said the last time we were together,” I smirked.

Her eyes flew open and then just like that she turned her head away and held up her hands again, “That was then and this is now, so cover up Jason,” she scolded.

I was a little taken aback by her tone. She was clearly pissed at me, or scared of me, or both, either way the cat was out of the bag. Jamie never told me she was going to be here, and there I was in the shower less than five minutes ago, rubbing one off to the very woman that stood before me now. What the actual fuck?

Hurt gave way to bitterness as I figured it was the scar over my eye that must have horrified her. But before I could convince her she didn’t have anything to fear, she darted for the door, and my sister came charging in with a rolling pin in her hand.

“What the hell!” I yelled throwing my hands up once again.

Now I had two crazy-eyed females shrieking and dancing around like ants on a hot plate, trying to cover their eyes.

With laughter in her voice, my sister grabbed Ally by the shoulders and comforted her. “Ally calm the fuck down, I don’t think he expected you to be here.”

Ally opened one of her eyes to look at Jaime. Jaime nodded in reassurance before she started giggling again. I stood there irritated and butt-naked as Jamie dissolved into bales of laughter at my expense.

“Hardee Har-Har,” I sneered, “Now that you’ve had a good laugh, Jaime can you please grab me a towel so I can salvage some of my dignity.”

With a snort, Jaime went over to the closet and threw me a towel. I snatched it from the air, exited the room and disappeared into the bathroom before slamming the door shut to the sound of another round of laughter. Not exactly the welcome I had expected. I dried off quickly and threw on the sweatpants and T-shirt before I made my way to the kitchen.


Jason

 

I could hear the two women whispering in the kitchen when I finally made my way downstairs, and I couldn’t help but listen as Ally and Jamie talked about me. Ally was upset because Jamie hadn’t told her that I was being released, or that I was actually coming here to stay. But this was me, not some stranger. I know we had a lot of unresolved issues, but that was so many years ago. And I hadn’t exactly expected her to run and jump into my waiting arms, but it gnawed at me that she felt threatened, or at least that’s what it sounded like. Did Ally also judge me for what I had done? Did Jamie ever bother to tell her best friend what really happened that night?

I looked longingly up the stairs, contemplating just heading back to my room and staying there until the dust settled. But I knew hiding was not the answer. It was time to face the music.

Jaime and Ally were standing at the kitchen island talking when I walked in.

“I switched shifts with Layla so I could have some time to study at the library, but I forgot that it closed early on Fridays,” Ally said changing the subject like a pro.

“Well, that explains why you were home early,” Jaime replied, glancing in my direction.

Ally was looking everywhere but at me, her arms crossed over her chest, and Jaime just stared at me, her eyes alight with humor. Unsure of what to do next, I cleared my throat and did an awkward hand wave to Ally.

“Uh…hi, Ally. It’s nice to see you again, I’m sorry I scared you,” I apologized hastily.

 

Turning to glare at my sister, I added, “Jaime didn’t tell me that you were staying here, in master bedroom, might I add.”

Jaime just shrugged her shoulders innocently.

A soft blush had risen on Ally’s cheeks, but her eyes still sparked with a degree of anger or rather disappointment when she looked at me and responded, “It's fine.”

That was it, nothing more. She turned her back, and began to set the table; basically, cutting me off from any further conversation.

I lowered my hand slowly and looked from her to my sister. Jaime just raised her eyebrows and shrugged as if to say, who knows?

“Shall we eat then? Dinner is ready.” Jaime said as she pushed back from the island. “I made your favorite; pot roast, caramelized carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread. There’s also strawberry shortcake for dessert.”

Well now, that was a blast from the past. The aroma already played ping pong with my senses, the thought of what I’ve missed out, food wise, while I was in prison sent a rumble through my stomach. I wondered if a person could really die from overeating in one meal. I aimed to try.

“Thanks, sis, you didn’t have to go to all this trouble, but I appreciate it,” I said sincerely. Still smarting from Ally’s coldness, I added.

“You’ve gone out of your way to make me feel so comfortable back in our old home.” Judging by the way, Ally’s shoulders stiffened, I could tell she heard my emphasis on Jaime’s individual effort to make me feel comfortable and it being our home. Petty yes, but I didn’t care.

It didn’t go unnoticed by Jaime either because she swatted me with a slotted spoon on her way to the table. Dinner was a quiet and somewhat awkward affair. Jaime tried to make conversation but neither Ally nor I was really willing to engage in small talk. After a few minutes of one-word responses she finally gave up, and we ate in strained silence.

I sat across from Ally, and Jaime sat to my right. Anytime I looked up for whatever reason, Ally quickly looked down at her plate, or off to the side appearing to be lost in thought. A few times I caught her staring at my face, presumably my scar. I just rolled my eyes and focused on my food. If she wanted to judge me based on how I looked, then fine! It was the best meal I’d had in years, literally. Ignoring the gnawing discomfort I was feeling with the discord between the two of us, I ate with more gusto than I had in a long time. After clearing two plates of food, I sat back stuffed.

“That’s was excellent Jaime. I think you would have given Nana Joyce a run for her money.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” she beamed. “I’m sure they didn’t have gourmet chefs in the pen…” her words trailed off awkwardly. Her eyes darting from mine to Ally’s and back again, “… well, I’m just glad you enjoyed it. I’ll get these dishes cleared.”

She stood up quickly following the uncomfortable silence, but I put a hand on hers to stop her, “Jaime, it’s okay,” I said reassuringly.  But I was looking into Ally’s eyes when I said, “It’s no secret that I was in jail.  We don’t have to dance around the subject.” I squeezed her hand in comfort as I looked at my sister again and then I turned my gaze back to Ally, “People are going to talk, draw their own conclusions, however wrong they may be. But we are going to get on with our lives, and they can think what they want.”

“But, Jason they don’t know that you…” she started.

 

“Jaime, I served my time,” I interrupted before she could say anything else. “It’s over and done with. We know the truth, and that’s enough for me. I just want to move on. Can you do that for me?”

She squeezed my hand back, “Yeah, I guess,” she said but there was a distinct hint of sadness in her tone. The last thing I wanted was for her to feel guilty for my crimes.

“We’ll get through this,” I said again.

“I know, I love you,” she said and offered a half smile. It was a glimmer of hope in a dark stormy ocean, but it was something.

“I love you too. Now, let me help you with these dishes.”

Jamie would have none of it. She shooed me away and told me to go on upstairs and get some rest. She had already put fresh sheets on the bed and set a new toothbrush out for me to use. She knew today had been a long emotional day for me. I hated to admit it, but I was exhausted. The southern manners that our parents had instilled in us warred with the exhaustion, but the exhaustion won fair and square.

I hugged her goodnight, gave a curt nod to Ally, and went up to my room. Grabbing my new toothbrush, I headed to the half bath to brush my teeth before crawling into my old bed. It was a little small for me now, only a full-size mattress, but I didn’t care. Anything beat the threadbare blankets and concrete bed with the half an inch mattress, that I had called home for the past eight years.

It couldn’t have taken me long to fall asleep, and for most part I was dead to the world until the nightmares started. They used to plague me every night in prison at the start of my sentence, but slowly over the years they faded, re-occurring once in awhile. It had been months since the last one, and it was always the same nightmare, with varied endings. It was like the replay of a horror film.  This time I wasn’t able to get to Jaime in time, an invisible wall kept me from pulling the bastard off of her.  The sick fuck just turned and grinned at me before he continued to assault my baby sister. I pounded and screamed and threw my body at the wall, desperate to get to her as she screamed and cried out for help.

I woke drenched in sweat with the covers tangled around me. Despite the sweat, goosebumps raised on my arms as chills wracked my body. This had been one of the bad ones. Rubbing my hands across my face, I threw off the covers and padded to bathroom to splash some cold water on my face. That was it for the night, I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep now. I glanced up in the mirror in front of me, and instead of the rugged hardened criminal, it was a younger version of myself staring back at me. In a matter of a night, everything had changed. One moment I had been playing football, attempted to attend classes, I had friends from here to Texas, and then just like that, in the blink of an eye I lost it all. Because of one sequence of events. I would never call, what I did, a mistake because it sure as hell was justice.  But that was my opinion, and no one else shared in that. I scooped some more water and splashed my face again before tugging the hand-towel off the rail and patting my face dry.

Not wanting to wake Jaime, I tiptoed downstairs and into the kitchen. It was time for the most epic chick move of all, comfort food. Ice cream and root beer, I had spotted the root beer earlier when I was in the kitchen just before Jamie had dished up dinner, and I knew for a fact that there was ice cream left after desert. I grabbed what I needed, quickly scooped a few large dollops of vanilla ice cream into the glass and topped it up with root beer. Ignoring the remnants of my nightmare, I took a big mouthful. The tang of the soda mixed with the sweetness of the ice cream was perfection. It tasted much better than I remembered. I moved to the table and sat down with my treat. I was just about to take another slurp when I heard the hinges of the kitchen door creaking. Looking up, I saw the silhouette of a short, fuller figure tiptoeing to the fridge. It had to be Ally. Jaimie was much taller and more slender. Plus, I would recognize that shape, even in the dark.

I sat there, with my spoon frozen in mid-air unsure of what to do. I could make a noise and let her know I was here, but I didn’t want to startle her and have her wake up the whole damn neighborhood.

I was about to clear my throat when the fridge opened and the light illuminated her enticing body. She was wearing a sleep shirt that ended just below her ass, which reminded me of old times, when she would sleep over. Desire made my mouth run dry. Wordlessly, I watched her get out a can of soda. When she moved to the freezer, I looked at her quizzically. Surely, she wasn’t making a root beer float too?

I watched her search the freezer for a few moments. She rose up on her toes to search the top shelf and I knew for a fact that her sleep shirt had ridden up and was most likely exposing her fine ass. But all I could see was the outline of her, and my imagination ran wild with its own imagery. Involuntarily, I cleared my throat as I continue to stare at her.

With a sharp intake of breath, she whirled around clutching the soda to her chest.

“Sorry Ally,” I said quickly before she could scream. “I swear I didn’t mean to scare you. I just didn’t know how to get your attention without startling you.”

“What are you doing sitting in the dark?” Eyeing me suspiciously, she walked over to the far wall and flipped on the middle switch. The dining room light flashed on, momentarily blinding me. The dots cleared from my vision, and I could finally see her in living color, not just a haunting image of her. But now she was hidden behind the island and all I could see what the top half of her.

I was sick of her attitude towards me. “I just wanted a root beer float,” I said pointing to the ice cream container and the empty can on the table next to me.

She opened her mouth to speak, but I stood up, scraping my chair back, and she froze. I just shook my head at her.

“I don’t know what your problem with me is, but don’t worry Princess, I’m no longer in the mood.” Grabbing my glass and spoon, I stalked over to the sink. Pouring the contents down the drain, I rinsed the glass and spoon and put them on the rack. Making sure to skirt around the opposite edge of the island, I ignored her completely as I headed out.

“Jason wait,” she called out. “I didn’t mean to…”

More hurt than angry I lashed out “Didn’t mean to what? Didn’t mean to treat me like the monster I am? Don’t bother denying it, I can see the way that you look at me.”

She just stood there, open mouthed, her eyes never leaving mine.

“Look, I never expected my homecoming to be easy, but I sure as hell didn’t expect to have this kind of animosity in my own home. Not from you of all people.”

I pushed through the kitchen door and stalked upstairs, not caring if I woke Jaime up.

 

 

 


Ally

    

Is that what he thought, did he really think I saw him as a monster?

Shame washed over me, as I watched the kitchen door swing close. How could I have been so cruel, and twice in one night? The first time, I admit he had caught me completely off guard. I had come home; completely oblivious to the fact that Jason was here too.

My mind had been so preoccupied that I hardly paid attention to the fact that while Jamie was downstairs, the shower was running. It never once dawned on me that it would be him of all people.  I certainly never expected him to stalk into the bedroom stark naked. Boy what a sight that had been!

I felt the familiar blush creep up my neck as I recalled the way the water had glistened over his taut, muscular body. He had seemed taller, but he had also packed on quite a bit more muscle. His shoulders were broad, leading down to thick pecs. His waist tapered in, highlighting a much defined six pack, with just a small trail of dark brown hair leading down past the sharp muscular cut at his hips that was probably the sexiest part of the male anatomy.

This wasn’t the body of a teenage boy anymore. This was the body of a man, a man who had lived hard and on the edge, if the scars on his torso were anything to go by. Instead of repulsing me, it had the complete opposite effect. In those few seconds that I was face to face with him, after my initial shock had faded, I had wanted to trace those scars with my fingertips, hell; I wanted to trace them with the tip of my tongue. And then of course, when he dropped the facecloth, I couldn’t help it; my gaze had immediately dropped following the small trail down to thick dark curls that surrounded his cock. By pure speculation and comparison with my attempts at moving on, he was the biggest one of them all.  By all, I mean the two men I attempted to date after Jason disappeared out of my life.

Even limp it had been an impressive display of manhood. A thick shaft hung down at least six inches before tapering into a large pink head. My mouth had gone dry, just looking at the thick veins that wrapped around his girth. Shocked at myself and my brazenness, I had quickly looked back up to his face and screamed, more from embarrassment than anything. But he didn’t know that.

Oh God! What if he thought I had screamed because I was scared of him or because of the scar on his face, which made him look ominous?

Truth be told, I hadn’t paid much attention to it. It didn’t detract from his looks. He had always been a handsome. The scar over his eye just gave an edge to his good looks. It made him seem dangerous, but in a very delicious sort of way.

There had to be a way to make this right. I couldn’t go to bed letting him believe that I thought he was a monster. I glanced up at the ceiling; it had barely been five minutes since he stormed upstairs. Surely, he wasn’t going to fall asleep that fast.

Resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I apologized, I made my way upstairs. As I reached his room, my nerves kicked in and I felt the knot tightening in my gut. I raised my hand hesitated momentarily, and then knocked gently on his door. The light was off, but I refused to be deterred.

“Jason?” I whispered knocking softly as I leaned with my ear against the door.

I was sure I heard movement inside, the rustle of sheets or something. I waited a minute but there was no answer, and the door didn’t open. A little bit miffed, I knocked on the door again, this time a little louder. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t going to wake Jaime and then whispered, “Jason, I know you are in there, I can hear you moving around.”

I listened intently to determine if he was making any attempt to open the door. I must have looked like a starfish as I had both hands and my ear plastered against the door. Just as I registered movement, the door opened and I fell into his bare, hard chest. He grabbed me roughly by the arms and steadied me against him. Inadvertently, my hands settled on the soft curls on his chest. For a moment, I lost myself in the depth of those deep blue eyes.

His face hardened, and he gently but firmly pushed me away from him and took a step back, crossing his arms over his chest. I looked up into his stern face, “Sor-sorry. I didn’t mean to...” I stammered, searching for words.

“Didn’t mean to what?” he interrupted.

I could do nothing but stare at him blankly, mouth slightly parted. Annoyed by my silence, he continued.

“What, cat got your tongue? Face to face with the monster, and now you’ve lost your courage.”

His face was masked with anger, but it was more than that. As I gaped at the angry man in front of me, I could see the underlying hurt in his eyes.

“No!” I finally managed to get out. “That’s not it at all,” I implored.

He turned his head, refusing to look at me. Without thinking, I stepped forward and placed a hand on his chest. “I came up here…” my words caught in my throat as he looked down at the hand on his chest derisively, and then pointedly looked at me again.

“I’m sorry,” I said removing my hand as if I touched a hot plate. I backed up a step to give him some room. “I came up here to apologize. I hadn’t meant to hurt your feelings earlier.” I hesitated looking for the right words to say, “It’s just that seeing you…it caught me off guard.”

I waited expectantly for him to say something. But he just stood there. He looked so indifferent. I didn’t recognize this cold man before me. We used to be able to laugh and joke. We had been close once, or at least I had thought we had been.

The silence stretched awkwardly between us. Finally, he arched an eyebrow and uncrossed his arms, giving a slight nod.

“Fine, are we done here?”

I jerked back as if I was punched in the gut at the sharpness of his words. I felt my fiery temper bubbling up to the surface, throwing my hands up in futility, “Fine, be an ass about it. Screw the apology.” I spun around to storm out of his room, but his fingers curled around my arm and he spun me back around to face him.

His face was mere inches from mine, his eyes cold and hard, and the warmth that used to live in those eyes, evaporated like rain drops on hot concrete. But honestly what did I expect, the same man that left here eight years ago, to just return as if nothing had happened?

“You don’t get to storm off in a huff, just because I don’t fall for your fake-ass apology, half-naked or not!”

He sneered as he looked me up and down in a manner that had the hair on the back of my neck standing up in warning, and in anticipation of what he’d do next. His eyes lingered on the too-short hemline of my sleep shirt that I realized barely covered the tops of my thighs, then traveled up to rest on my breasts. My nipples hardened under his direct gaze, and he smirked. I don’t know what had possessed me to confront him without throwing on my robe first. I felt vulnerable and aroused at the same time. And, I didn’t like it.

Yanking my arm from his grip, I wrapped my arms around myself, trying in vain to cover up. “You are…you are so…vile,” I spit out. “You disgust me.”

“There,” he said stabbing a finger at me. “Now that is something I actually believe,” he said shaking his head, “You stand there on your high horse, judging me for the way I look and where I’ve been, you who have known me better than anyone else other than Jaime. You have a lot of nerve.”

For a moment, I completely forgot the reason for my anger as I stood there, mouth open gaping like a fish. The preposterousness of his words was just so shocking; it left me speechless, but only for a moment.

I thumped my finger right back in his chest, pushing forward, forcing him back with the ferocity of my words, “Well isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, you hypocritical bastard!”

Now it was his turn to stand there gaping at me. I didn’t think that he had ever seen me get this mad before, but I wasn’t the shy teenager anymore. All the years of bullying and being teased for being fat, I finally learned to love myself and stand up for myself.

Gesturing towards his bare chest and my own state of dress, I scoffed at him, “I seem to recall a similar situation eight years ago.”

He raised his eyebrows but didn’t speak a word.

“Yeah,” I spat glaring, “Or are you pretending to forget that you kissed the fat girl. Well, I’m not the same chubby fan-girl I was back then.” Placing my hands on my hips, I continued to dress him down. “I cared what you thought of me then, but I don’t care what you think of me now. I was too much for you then, and I’d be too much for you now. So go fuck yourself.”

Turning around with a huff, ponytail swinging, I once again turned to leave. I made it to the door and began to pull it open when a strong arm shot out in front of me and closed it.

“Let me out,” I demanded through gritted teeth.

I felt his body press against mine as he placed his other arm on the door, effectively blocking me in. The heat of his chest seeped through the thin cotton of my t-shirt. His hard body pressed against my ass, making me very aware of what he was feeling. I had no choice but to turn around and face him.

“What?” I demanded with far more bravado than I felt. Turning around to face him I ground out, “Let me go!”

“Not until you hear what I have to say,” he said his blue eyes darkened with intensity. “I didn’t leave you alone because of your size; I left you alone because I was a jackass, who lived for the moment, and didn’t believe in strings. And you sweetheart, was the strings-attached-and-all kind of woman.”

“Well you were wrong,” I said flatly, but it wasn’t true. Back then it mattered, I wanted it all, but was willing to settle for less, and even the little I would have accepted was out of my reach.

“Was I? You wanted to be fucked the first time you spied on me, and when we finally did get all hanky-panky you wanted more,” he smirked.

“You flatter yourself, you were just a guy, and it didn’t matter to me as much as you may have thought.”

“Keep telling yourself that, and how about now, are you still the strings-attached type?” he whispered in a husky tone.

 

Even though my brain told me I shouldn’t want this, my body was already reacting to him. Just like it always had.

“I’m not any type…” I started.

“Everyone is a type, you’re just in denial, and right now your body is responding to my closeness.”

I turned my face away from his and mumbled, “You’re making assumptions.”

“Your body says otherwise,” he grinned as a stroked the side of my cheek with the back of his hand.

Heat flooded me, as my pulse picked up, and my breathing became quick and shallow. This close, face to face, his sex appeal was undeniable. He was looking at me with such possession in his eyes. Even the scar made him hot. My lips parted on their own volition, and he took full advantage. Without giving me a chance, his mouth covered mine aggressively. One hand cupped my chin gently while the other fisted in my hair, firmly locking me in place. I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. And right now, I didn’t want to. I matched him stroke for stroke as his mouth plundered mine and his tongue delved into the recesses of my mouth. Our tongues battled for dominance, teeth biting and nipping as our lips kissed and sucked. This wasn’t a kiss, this was war, bloodthirsty, brutal, and oh so arousing. I’d never been kissed like this before, but I had no fear. From somewhere deep down my inner minx reared its head, and I wanted more.

His one hand wandered from my chin to my hip and slid up my shirt to cup the underside of my breasts, and I gasped throwing my head back. Taking advantage of my exposed throat I felt his mouth and tongue on my throat, sucking, licking, tasting as his deft fingers teased and pinched my nipple into a taut hard bud.

He pressed his hips against mine, his erection pressing against the heat between my thighs that was already beginning to pool in my panties. This was getting out of hand and fast, but I didn’t know how to stop it. Strong hands slid to my waist and lifted me off the ground as if I were light as a feather. Instinctively, I wrapped my legs around his hips as his weight pressed me against the door. The tone in the room escalated to a feverish pitch as mouths, tongues, and hands collided. I gripped his shoulders as I clung to him.  He let go with one hand and reached between us, tugging my panties aside, and then I felt the tip of his cock press against my swollen entrance already damp with desire.

“Tell me to stop,” he groaned as he teased me.

“No…” My response was nothing but a murmur.

“Then I’m going to fuck you now baby. Hard.”

But still he waited, almost hesitating; I could feel his engorged fat head pressing against my clit. I whimpered with anticipation as he pushed in a bit further, wedging his thick tip right into the mouth of my entrance.

“Damn, you’re tight as fuck,” he grunted, as he buried his face in the crook of my neck.

I wrapped my arms around his neck as I felt him pushing deep into me with long hard strokes. His sheer size stretching me beyond anything I had experienced before. But instead of pain, I felt immense pleasure as I felt my walls clench his hard shaft.

This wasn’t the lovemaking fantasies I had envisioned as a teenager. This was carnal and savage, almost primal and it didn’t take long for my body to start tingling from the base of my skull down my spine to my toes. Each relentless thrust pushing me closer to the edge, and from the way Jason had dug his fingers into my ass cheeks, he wasn’t far from his release either. Whether it was the long dry spell of having no sex, or the fact that it was Jason, was yet to be determined. All I knew was that I was done for, and so was he. We both clung to each other as shockwaves of pleasure rippled through our bodies, as if our bodies served as conduits. As his breathing slowed and I finally felt my limbs relax, he released my legs slowly, and I slid down the length of him. He didn’t let me go straight away, his hands were resting on my hips and I was leaning with my forehead against his chest, unable to string together coherent thought.

That was until the sound of Jaime’s door broke the silence. Instinctively we both held our breaths, and waited. Jason held up a finger in front of his own mouth and I nodded. The rustling sound of dragging slippers passed Jason’s door, and then we heard the light thudding of footsteps going down the stairs. Only then did we both let out a sigh of relief.

Oddly the heightened sexual tension was replaced by an awkward silence, neither of us daring to say what was really on our minds.

I placed my hands on his chest and pushed gently, “I should go.”

He dropped his hands from where they rested on my waist but didn’t step back.  “Ally…” his expression troubled.

I held up one hand and just shook my head, I had to be realistic. He didn’t want strings, and he was practically sex starved. I was just an outlet. Don’t get me wrong, it was probably the best sex I’ve had in years, but it was just sex.

“Jason, I… I’m glad you’re back, but this can’t happen again.”

His face instantly dropped and a curtain of anger masked his earlier expression. He stepped back and deftly gestured towards the door, without any objection. I knew I should have said more, but somehow I didn’t think that anything I said at this point would change the way he felt about me.  I tiptoed down the hallway, but when I heard the toilet flush, I knew Jaime had come back upstairs. Hoping the sound of the water flushing masked my steps I ran down the hall as quickly disappeared into my room.

It was only a few seconds, but it felt like hours before I heard the sound of her door click. Climbing into bed, I pressed my fingers to my swollen lips. Running my tongue over my top lip, I could still taste the hint of root beer that had lingered on his tongue. I knew this could never happen again, and that it was the right thing to do. But how could something so wrong, feel so right?


Jason

 

After the incident last night with Ally and my sister’s untimely interruption, it had taken me several hours to fall back asleep. Even when I did manage to fall asleep it was restlessly. I spent all night tossing and turning, and when I finally woke up and rolled over to see the clock on my nightstand it was already after 10 am, I wasn’t all that surprised. I hadn’t meant to sleep that long, but I also hadn’t planned on a midnight rendezvous with Ally.

Nevertheless, I didn’t have time to dwell on the whole debacle. Even though I had been released, I was still required to report to a parole officer. My original sentence had been 15 years; however, I had the option of being paroled after eight for good behavior, so my time spent in solitary and staying out of trouble paid off. Once released, I would be on probation for a year. Any violation and I would be sent back to prison for the remainder of my sentence. I didn’t want that. I couldn’t go back there. I would do whatever it took to keep from going back there.

I grabbed a quick shower and then headed downstairs. I was surprised to find Jaime at the kitchen table, text books spread out and huddled over a legal pad. She looked up from her books and smiled sheepishly.

“I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to let you sleep in or not, but I figured you needed it.”

I just shrugged, “it's fine, I just have to call my parole officer by 11.”

She made a face at the mention of the parole officer but I just ignored it. Instead I focused on the books at the table. “What are studying?”

 

“I’ve got a chem lab quiz this afternoon. Just trying to make some quick notes I can study from. I should actually be heading out to meet up with my study group, but I wanted to see you before I left.”

My sister really made me proud, with everything she had to go through, she still found the drive to study. She wrote down couple more sentences and then began to pack up her books while I rummaged around in the fridge for stuff to make a sandwich. Pleased by the fact that the content in the fridge didn’t consist solely of diet food, I grinned, it was really good to be back home.

“I have classes all afternoon and then a shift at the bookstore so I won’t be home until 10. You’ll be okay by yourself right?” she asked her brow furrowing with concern.

I lifted my head up out of the fridge and just smiled as she came over.

“Yes, I think I can manage to occupy myself,” I said as I kissed her on the nose.

She crinkled her nose and rolled her eyes just like I thought she would.

“Fine, I won’t worry. See you later bro,” she hollered over her shoulder as she headed out the door.

I smiled to myself, enjoying the feeling of someone watching my back. It had been a long time since I had felt that. I quickly fixed two beefy sandwiches and poured a big glass of milk before grabbing the cordless phone. I was thankful that Jaime had kept the house phone, otherwise I would have had to find a payphone to make the call to my officer. I took the piece of paper out with his number and dialed. It rang three times before a woman’s voice answered.

“Malcolm Dunlevy’s office, how can I direct your call?”

“Um, yes hi, this is Jason Armstrong, I was told I needed to check in with Mr. Dunlevy within 24 hours of my release.”

I felt a little uneasy about how she might treat me but was pleasantly surprised when she maintained the polite and homey tone.

“Of course, one moment Mr. Armstrong and I will see if he is available.”

I was a bit taken back at being addressed as Mr. Armstrong. In prison I was referred to only as prisoner 57124, or monikers too vile to repeat. I was on hold for maybe 30 seconds before her voice came back on the line to let me know she was transferring me to him.

“Malcom Dunlevy,” answered a deep baritone voice.

“Yes sir, this is Jason Armstrong. I was released from Kenworth Prison yesterday and was told I needed to check in with you this morning.”

“Armstrong…. Armstrong…Arm,” he muttered more to himself. It sounded like he was shuffling papers on his desk looking for something. “Ah, yes here we are. Jason Armstrong. Voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 15 years, paroled after eight.”

It was ugly to hear him rattle off the details so casually and not sure how else to respond, I replied with another, “Yes sir.”

“According to your parole requirements you are to check in with me within 24 hours, which you’ve already done. You are to continue to check in with me twice a month for the duration of your probationary period which is 12 months.”

Most of what he was telling was not news to me. The day of my parole hearing, after it had been granted, the warden had gone over the details of my probation. But I let him list the details and acknowledged each one of them as he went.

 

“The final requirement is to be gainfully employed within two weeks’ time.”

This last one was news to me.

“Excuse me sir,” I interrupted. “Did you say two weeks’ time?

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Um, is that a new requirement, because the warden didn’t say anything to me about it after my parole hearing?”

I hated the uncertainty in my voice, but I had no idea how I was going to find a job in such a short amount of time. Not with my record and with Gladys Walters still a very prominent figure in the community even at her age.

“No, it’s a standard probationary requirement,” he answered curtly. “Is there a problem Mr. Armstrong?”

“No sir, it just caught me off guard. I am just not sure that I can find anyone in this town to hire me with my record sir.” I hated to admit it, but it was the truth, “It’s uh, complicated.”

His tone softened a bit, “I am aware of your situation and the prominence of the Walters family. I have spoken with several of the city councilors and they assured me that you wouldn’t receive any prejudice.”

I gave a derisive snort before I could stop myself. Quickly apologizing, “I’m sorry sir. I just hope you are right.”

“I’m confident there are people in this town who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

After a few more instructions, we agreed for me to contact him again in two weeks. I hung up, feeling far from confident. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, and by no means did I expect life outside prison to be a walk in the park, but two weeks was ridiculous. If anything, the department could have assigned me to some sort of community service. But since my instructions were loud and clear, I had no choice.  I was willing to do what it takes to stay out of prison and be there for Jamie.  If I was honest with myself, I didn’t want to leave Ally either, but I tucked that thought away as soon as it came up.

Just after midday, I got the newspaper, and worked my way down the list of possible vacancies advertised in the job section. To my dismay there were no real jobs that would suit me right away, most of them wanted credentials, experience, degrees, the list was simply endless. Considering my rep, I stood no chance to get a decent job.  My next step was to walk door to door hoping that somewhere, someone would offer me a chance at making something of my life. Luckily our town was relatively small, and the business district was only about a mile and a half away. I wish I could have had my parole officer’s optimism, I thought as I made my way there.

But once I started knocking on doors, reality set in. No one was interested in employing me. It was like a penguin caught in oil slick and then being held in captivity for years until it could be rehabilitated enough to be released back into the ocean. In the case of humans however, there was no such thing as a slow fade back into a world that you had no part of for most part of your adult life. While life inside the prison pretty much stagnated, life on the outside progressed at a much faster pace.

After being turned down by more than a dozen places, some of them even displaying Help Wanted signs in the window, I suspected that either the councilors had lied to Mr. Dunlevy or Gladys had gotten to them already. Some made the excuse that they already filled a position; while some blatantly admitted that having a staff member with a criminal record was bad for business. That much I could still handle, but then there were the ones who were downright assholes, not bothering to hide their hostility.

After being berated by an elderly lady at the fabric store and called a murderer to my face, I had all but accepted my fate and that I would be heading back to prison in next to no time. For a moment, I wondered if that wouldn’t be better, I would be no burden to Jaime, Ally wouldn’t have to put up with me again, and they could both carry on with life in the fast lane. I continued walking, not really paying attention to where I was headed. I eventually arrived at a bar on the outskirts of town called Hennigan’s. So much had changed over the years, new buildings had been erected, some of the older places I did recognize had been completely restored and revamped, and this bar was one of those. From what I could remember it was a downright shady bar, but standing in front of it, it looked like it had been completely transformed.

I had no idea what to expect when I first entered, but I was pleasantly surprised. The ambience was dark without being dingy; the mahogany wood of the bar was polished to sheen, so much so you could probably lick a spilled drink off the counter. And even at 4pm in the afternoon, the bar had a decent crowd. I hesitated at the door, not sure if I would end up running into one of the many enemies, known and unknown, who would want to have a piece of me. I scanned the crowd and then I casually headed up to the bar and ordered a whiskey on the rocks. I pulled a bowl of peanuts closer and grabbed a handful, anything to look preoccupied and not like some shady stranger about to start trouble. The bartender placed the glass in front of me and casually moved on to the next customer. She was a fetching woman in her late thirties or early forties by my guess. She didn’t take much care to get all dressed up and the minimal makeup showed that she wasn’t the type to hide behind a fake face. What you saw was what you got. Although she was a small woman, she looked like she could handle herself; she radiated an air of confidence that could quite easily intimidate. 

After a couple of drinks, I ordered an appetizer to soak up the alcohol I have been indulging in, then a second and a third.  I must have looked rather pathetic because by the third one, she came over and asked, “Okay, so who pissed in your cheerios?”

“What?” I looked up in surprise.

I guess I had been wallowing in my own self-pity, or she knew who I was and that was her point of entry.

“You’ve been sitting here for three hours, nursing my cheapest whisky, snacking on oily fries and looking like someone kicked your puppy. Spill it.”

I studied her briefly, there was a tenderness behind the cold exterior that reminded me of my own mother, or maybe the whiskey had softened me up and had broken down the walls I had erected around myself. I found myself confiding in her. I told her everything. About being paroled and trying to take care of my sister and how my parole officer had assured me that this town had forgiven me but the harsh reality was that the people here in Galena had the memory of an elephant, and the Walters name still had clout.

At the mention of Gladys Walters, her face hardened. I thought for sure I’d done it, and that she too was in the pocket of the Walters. She stared at me for a long minute, before asking pointedly, “You Joe Armstrong’s boy, aren’t you?”

That was not the question I had expected her to ask.

“Yeah, I am,” I answered hesitantly, unsure of where this was going. She gave me a long measuring glance.

“My father knew him before he passed. He was a good man.”

I didn’t quite know what to say, and just swirled the whiskey around in my glass. She uttered the words with such compassion that I felt my heart cramp in my chest.

It was the great mystery of life that always had my mind boggled. I often wondered exactly what it was that maps out the road ahead for an individual. Circumstance and disaster were the things that shaped the yellow brick road to Oz, it either throws a left turn or gives you up hill, and you have no choice but to follow it diligently and hope that you eventually get to the end.

“Are you an alcoholic?” she asked out of the blue.

“No.”

“You do drugs?”

“No,” I answered a bit offended, “I’ve never touched drugs and I don’t plan on either.”

“Good. You can start tomorrow night,” was all she said before walking away.

“Wait, what?” I said shocked.

She glanced back over her shoulder and said, “You heard me. Be here at 8pm.” And with that she walked into the back room as another bartender took over.


Ally

 

Yawning sleepily, I took another big sip of my grande Caramel Macchiato as I sat in the back booth at Java Jones. I had been coming here for the past few weeks straight, slipping out of the house at 6am to avoid Jason. Jamie had confronted me a few times, but I told her that I was just trying to get in some extra studying since I had papers to submit. I made up some excuse that I wasn’t coping too well with one or two courses, and had to put in extra effort if I was going to pass the mid-terms. In some way, there was some truth to the lie, studying part time and working was a little harder than being in college and running to classes all day.  Needless to say, my excuses, albeit valid, still weren’t enough to convince Jaime that everything was okay.

It didn’t help that two days after we’d had sex; Jason had showed up at Hennigan’s. I had been about to confront him and ask him what the hell he was doing there, when Mac came by and introduced him as the new bouncer.

And that right there just complicated everything. Jason was flung back into my life, like a comet out of orbit heading straight for impact. He was everywhere, in the house, at my work, in my head, and there was nowhere for me to hide. At home I pussy-footed around him, uttering an occasional hello or good night. Whenever a conversation started, I darted for my room, with the age-old “I have to study” spiel.  As for work, I did manage to get Mac to change my schedule Jason’s first week, but then she started giving me a hard time and questioning my motives. So, I had to go back to my normal working schedule since I couldn’t really give her a good reason for not wanting to work during happy hour when it was the busiest time. That, and I really needed the money. Tips at happy hour were the best, but that meant I had to spend close to six hours a day in Jason’s presence. Thankfully, when it was really busy I was distracted and hardly had time to think about him. But it was during those quiet times, when I could feel his eyes on me, that an undeniable flutter would swirl in the pit of my stomach. Of course, when it came to cashing up and so on, I had no choice but to be civil while he hovered around like a drone. We hardly spoke, but considering the tension, words weren’t exactly needed.

I hadn’t really had time to reconcile what had transpired between us and I had no idea know how I felt about it. Truth be told, I had tried everything to avoid thinking about it. Hoping that ignoring it completely would somehow make it all just go away. But deep down, I knew that it wouldn’t, and that I was nothing but a coward.

We were just getting ready for the heavy night rush, so I made a quick pit stop in the bathroom to freshen up, because I knew I wouldn’t have much time later. Layla, another waitress, was in the bathroom with me and we were bullshitting about work, college, and miscellaneous girl talk while we peed. We had worked together for two years and were pretty comfortable with each other. I was just finishing up when I heard her yell out.

“Oh, DAMN!”

“Is everything okay,” I asked concerned.

“I started my damn period,” she responded, agitation clear in her voice. “And, I don’t have anything with me. Do you have a tampon?”

Automatically, I began rummaging through my purse. I usually only kept them for when it was my time of the month, but I found a couple in the bottom of my purse. As I handed one to her under the stall, it hit me.  I shouldn’t still have these in my purse.

 

While I was doing some quick math, and running through my mental calendar, I heard Layla yell a quick thanks and head out the door. I was thankful for the momentary solitude as my panic began to rise. I had put the tampons in my purse two weeks ago in preparation for my cycle; however I had not had to use them yet. The last time I remember being on my period was during the pop quiz which was almost two months ago. Feeling claustrophobic in the stall, I stepped out and up to the sink and rested my hands on the counter. In the mirror, my face was ghostly pale and my eyes appeared large and glazed as I stared at my reflection. That couldn’t be right, could it? But as I ran back through the days, realization hit me like a tidal wave. My breathing became quick and shallow, as my pulse accelerated. I was late. I am never late. My period has been like clockwork since my first cycle at thirteen. I tried to convince myself that it was just the stress of finals, work, and the situation with Jason that was causing my body to not cooperate, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Even with the stress of my mother’s death, my body has still maintained its rigid schedule. There was no doubt in my mind that I was pregnant. I would still take a test, but in my heart I knew I didn’t need it.

Just then Mac burst through the door in a flurry, “Hey, Ally. What are you doing? Get your ass out here, we’re slammed!”

I splashed some water on my face before apologizing and scurrying out the door. She was right, we were slammed. I didn’t feel all that enthusiastic about work, but there was no way for me to get out of it.  All the tables were full; there was even a line outside the door. I was sure we were pushing the limit on capacity, and half expected the Fire Marshall to come in and shut us down.

 

For the first few hours, things were running smoothly, and once I settled into the evening, I welcomed the distraction. It wasn’t until around midnight when all hell broke loose. I had been serving a group of guys that had pulled two tables together. They appeared to be construction workers. For the most part they had been fairly reasonable to deal with. They ordered a ton of food and several pitchers of beer throughout the night.

It was only when they started ordering rounds of shots that they began to get disorderly. A couple of them tried to convince me to take shots with them, but not only was it against Mac’s policy for us to drink with our patrons; I also didn’t want to take any chances if I was pregnant. Plus, I was not in the habit of drinking with complete strangers. I was able to politely decline a few times, however on the third round of shots, one guy wouldn’t take no for an answer. He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me down onto his lap. I tried desperately to free myself, but my attempts were in vain.

I was getting ready to dump a pitcher of beer on his head, when a deep firm voice came up behind us.

“Let her go.”

I glanced up to see Jason’s big form towering over us. I had never been so relieved to have him here than in this moment. He didn’t yell at the guy. He didn’t have to. His tone left nothing to the imagination.  He was deadly calm, but deadly serious. The overzealous construction worker released and pushed me abruptly off his lap. I had to catch the edge of the table to keep from falling over. Jason glared at him as he reached out to steady me.

“Tab them out, all of them. They are leaving,” he instructed me with the same eerie calm in his voice.

“We ain't done yet,” the man responded belligerently.

Jason just ignored him and nodded for me to get the tab. I could see Mac watching us from the bar and I hurried over to the register and tabbed them all out.

I handed each one of them their tabs. Most of them begrudgingly pulled out their wallets and began to pay. However, when I came around to Mr. Handsy, he stubbornly refused.

“I SAID WE AIN’T DONE YET!” he shouted, slapping the bill folder out of my hands.

“Pay the lady. NOW,” Jason ordered.

He stood up from the table and for some stupid reason; I put myself in the middle.

Plastering a fake smile on my face I said, “Will that be cash or card?”

But the brute didn’t fall for it. Instead he shoved me out of the way for a second time, only harder and this time. I tripped and fell against the table sending pitchers crashing to the floor and shattering at my feet. Before I could gather myself, Jason had the guy by the scruff of the shirt and was nose to nose with him. He was pulled up so high his feet were barely touching the floor.

I rushed to Jason and laid a hand on his arm. I could practically feel the tension vibrating through him.

“Jason, let him go he’s not worth it.”

Jason didn’t budge. The look in his eyes was pure meanness. It even sent me reeling back.

“Please Jason, for me. Let him go. He’s not worth the trouble,” I implored, my eyes desperately trying to connect with his. I knew that if he got into any trouble, he would be sent back to prison immediately. Finally, I used the one card I knew he wouldn’t ignore.

 

“Think of Jaime. Don’t do this.”

His eyes cut over to mine and reluctantly Jason let the guy go and stepped back.

Begrudgingly the man reached for his pocket and Jason turned around to step out of the way, but instead of pulling out his wallet, the guy pulled out a knife.

“JASON!” I screamed but was too late.

The guy had already lunged forward to plunge the knife in Jason’s back. Faster than I could have thought possible, Jason sidestepped out of the way. The man’s momentum carried him forward past Jason. When he swung back around, Jason grabbed his arm and bent it, the wrist up at an impossible angle. You could hear the bones snap and the man dropped the knife, screaming in excruciating pain.

That should have been the end of it, but just as Jason released the man and backed up, his friends joined in. They ganged up on him, surrounding him and attacking in twos and threes. But Jason was like a feral animal that had been backed into a corner. He didn’t back down and attacked them with a savagery, uncaring that he was being punched and kicked by one as he deflected and attacked another. One of the men reached over and grabbed an empty beer bottle. When he prepared to swing it over the back of Jason’s head, I didn’t think, I just reacted.

In a high arc, I swung a serving tray as hard as I could at the man’s arm. But it wasn’t the tray that crashed into his arm; it was a baseball bat from elsewhere. Mac had stepped in, and she didn’t think twice.  It crashed into his forearm with a dull thud and he dropped to his knees holding his arm.

In the time it took Mac to down the guy, the rest of them were already running out of the bar and Jason had started shoving the injured towards the door.  The intensity of the situation hit me and I began to shake uncontrollably. My legs felt week and my lungs felt heavy, like I couldn’t get any air. A pair of slender yet sturdy arms guided me to the back office. It was Mac who helped me onto the couch. She thrust a tiny snifter of brandy in my face and told me to drink. I tried to ward it off at first because of the possible pregnancy, but she insisted. Deciding that going into shock would be worse; I threw back the dark liquid. The fiery liquid burned its way down my throat, and almost instantly the warmth that settled in my stomach eased the panic. The chill that had seeped into my bones slowly started to fade.

Mac sat perched on the edge of the worn maple desk while I pulled myself together. Once I managed to get my teeth to stop chattering and my hands to stop shaking, I asked her how Jason was. She said he appeared no worse for wear but she had sent him to hospital to get himself checked out. But she and I both knew that he wasn’t the type to voluntarily go to the hospital. Someone would have had to drag his unconscious body there before he would go on his own.

I wasn’t in any condition to drive and even though I was concerned for Jason, I wasn’t comfortable facing him right now. I had seen a side of him tonight that I had never witnessed. I knew he had been sent away for a long time, but nobody really talked about why. Other than the public knowledge that it was a charge of involuntary manslaughter for killing his step-father, I had no clue as to what provoked him or why he did it. Not even Jaime spoke of it.

Then it hit me. Was this the kind of man I wanted to be the father of my child? Even if I wasn’t pregnant, was this someone I wanted to live with in the same house with? Too tired to wrestle with the answers to my many questions, I sighed and lay back against the arm of the sofa. Mac tossed me a pillow and blanket and told me I could sleep in the office for the night. Taking her up on the offer, I curled up in a ball on the couch and in no time at all, fell into a deep sleep.

 


Jason

 

Even though Mac had insisted that I leave work and go to the hospital to get checked out, I refused to go. I didn’t tell her that, but I knew she didn’t believe me when I promised her I would. I had taken much more brutal beatings in prison than this bar fight. It was just a few bumps and bruises, nothing that wouldn’t heal. Thankfully the blade never got close to me.

I was more worried about Ally. When she started shaking and her eyes glazed over, I recognized the signs of shock. But I knew that I wasn’t the one to console her.  She had made that blatantly clear by avoiding me every chance she got. I couldn’t help but think that me working at the same place was looking for trouble. Had I known she also worked there when Mac offered me a job, I would have turned it down there and then. To find her working there was a surprise on my first day.  I could tell by the look on her face that she thought I had gotten the job to be near her.

Although, I yearned to talk to her about what happened between us, I respected her space. She still caught me staring at her every now and again at work, but I couldn’t help it. I was drawn to her; I had been since we were younger. She haunted my dreams at night and visited my thoughts during the day. And no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I couldn’t. I had no idea what to do, but I knew we couldn’t go on much longer living as strangers in the same house. I contemplated waiting for her outside, but when Mac came over to me after the fight, she assured me that she would take care of Ally.

On my way home, I had a lot of time to think about everything that had happened. It wasn’t about the fight. I was a bouncer. It went with the territory. Besides, it wasn’t the first brawl I’d been in and probably wouldn’t be the last. No, the thoughts that kept coming into my head were about the future. While in Kenworth, I lived in the moment, struggling to survive day by day, never thinking about anything else. The future didn’t matter, since I already appeased myself with the fact that I didn’t have one to look forward to. There were days where I half expected it to be my last.

I tried to not let the darkness in, but sometimes it would still found me. There had been many nights in prison, when I had been so overcome with grief, shame, and loneliness that I had prayed for it to end. But those prayers had gone unanswered. But last night, for the first time, I was thankful that I had survived.

I climbed the steps to our front porch, but instead of walking in I sat down on the old porch swing. Swaying slowly, I tried to think about what I wanted, where I saw myself in a few years from now, who I saw myself with and what I wanted out of life. Once the probationary period was up, I was free to leave the city. Hell, I could leave the state or even the country and start over.  I tried to imagine where I would go or what I would be doing. But whenever I thought about the future, all I could see was Ally’s face. I wanted the opportunity to make things right with her. I wanted a future with her, but my hopes for that had diminished to nothing but a puff of smoke swirling up into the atmosphere and slowly disappearing.

As I stood up to head in, a pair of headlights blinded me before turning into the drive. Once the white spots faded, I could see Jaime coming up the walk, but her smile faded instantly.

“Jason, oh my god. What happened?” she cried out and rushed up the steps immediately inspecting the bruises that marred my face.

“Easy, easy,” I said pulling her hands away from my face. The swelling was down, but it was still sensitive.

“What happened?” she asked again.

“There was an incident at the bar tonight.”

“An incident? This looks like a lot more than an incident Jason.”

“It looks worse than it feels,” I lied, but I didn’t want her to worry, “Look, I will tell you the details, but I don’t want to do it out here.”

Glancing around at the neighboring houses, I felt exposed. She nodded in agreement and led the way inside. I followed her into the kitchen, where she pulled out two glasses and proceeded to pour us both a generous helping of whiskey. I didn’t ask her when she had started drinking whiskey. I would save that question for another time.

“Okay, spill it,” she said as she eyed me curiously over the rim of her glass.

“It’s really nothing.” But she just raised an eyebrow at me. “Okay, so it was a little more than nothing. There were a few guys who had too much to drink and began harassing Ally,” I began. “Relax, she’s is fine.” I could tell she was about to lose her shit, so I quickly alleviated her fears. “She just got pushed into a table, but she is fine. She was in shock more than anything. Mac is having her stay with her tonight.”

“So what happened to you then?” she asked softly.

“It wasn’t a big deal; really, one of the guys got a little handsy with Ally.” I shrugged trying not to make too much of it. “I came over and politely asked the guy to let her go.”

“Politely huh?” she said.

“Yes, politely, anyways, I told her to tab them out. When it came time to pay, they didn’t want to leave and they needed a little encouragement.”

“Encouragement?”

“Look Jaime, I didn’t hit him first if that’s what you are concerned about. He pushed Ally into the table and I stepped in to make sure she was okay and that they were leaving. Then he came at me when my back was turned. It was self-defense, nothing more. Eventually, they left and that was it.”

She stared at me with a blank expression, but her eyes strained as if they were trying to detect a lie. I held myself under her direct gaze, refusing to look away.

“Okay, if that’s all you say it was. Then I believe you. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

I felt a little bit of guilt at not having told her the whole truth. I may have glossed over the details about the knife and may have left out a couple of guys, but she didn’t need to know the exact details; at least not tonight. The important thing was that Ally wasn’t hurt and my face would heal. That seemed to placate her for the time being. We chit chatted for a little bit longer, but between the shot of whiskey and coming down from the adrenaline rush from the fight, I was beat. Claiming exhaustion, I begged off to bed and headed upstairs. I didn’t even bother getting undressed. I just kicked off my shoes and flopped into bed fully clothed. In a matter of minutes, I was fast asleep.

Sometime in the night, I must have woken up and stripped because I woke in just boxers and a t-shirt with my clothes scattered all over the floor. I didn’t remember doing it, but I must have gotten hot or something. Still feeling a little rough from the night before, I took a long shower before heading down to the kitchen.

I found a sweet little note from Jaime on the refrigerator. She had made me some scones before she headed off to class. I had just finished off my second one, when the doorbell rang.

Who the hell could that be?

Whoever it was must have been really persistent, because I had barely made it to the door before they rang the doorbell again.

“What the hell do you...,” but the words caught in my throat. Standing before me were two county police officers. One of whom, I recognized as the officer who had arrested me for the murder of my step-father eight years ago. Ice cold fear, gripped my spine and sheen of clammy sweat broke out on my forehead.

“Mr. Armstrong?” the older one asked. Him I didn’t recognize. Either he was new to the force, or hadn’t been involved in my case.

“Yes,” I answered slowly. I hated cops. Especially the county cops because they had all been in the Walters back pocket. I had never shared with anyone the abuse I had suffered at the hands of the cops. No one would have believed me anyway. And even if they did, they would have believed that I deserved whatever treatment I got.

“We need you to come with us down to the station.” His voice was monotone and his expression blank, but warning bells were going off in my head. “We just want to ask you a few questions.”

Bullshit

“Why can’t you just ask me now?”

“Cut the crap Armstrong!” Officer Maynard piped up. He had always been an arrogant son of a bitch. “We know you kicked the crap out of some guys at Hennigan’s last night. And now they are pressing charges. It’s back to the big pen for you, my friend.”

“Cool it Maynard,” the older officer stepped in, thumping a hand to his chest. From the name on his badge, he was Officer Kristoff.

I looked at Officer Kristoff because he seemed the more level-headed of the two. “I don’t know what they told you, but they jumped me. They were harassing one of our waitresses, even pushed her, and then they jumped me.”

“Likely story,” Maynard scoffed, but Officer Kristoff cut him off with a glare.

“Mr. Armstrong, I’m sorry but you have to come to the station with us. Now you can come quietly under your own volition, or we can place you under arrest.”

I glanced from one cop to the other. Maynard was practically vibrating in his polished wingtips, itching to put me in handcuffs again. But I couldn’t give him the satisfaction. I thought of Jaime and how she would handle this. I owed it to her, to minimize the damage.

Nodding my ascent, Officer Kristoff backed off gesturing towards the car. Thankfully, they were in an unmarked car and not a police cruiser. I closed and locked the door behind me before climbing into the backseat. As we pulled out of the driveway, I glanced up at the house and prayed that this would not be the last time I saw it.

       

 

 

 


Ally

        I’m pregnant.

No matter how many times I said it, I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. It didn’t matter that I had pretty much already figured it out before the test confirmed it. It still caught me off guard, so much so that I hadn’t been able to hear a word during the lecture. Pre-midterm lectures were in full swing, and although I studied through correspondence, I did have the benefit of attending some lectures throughout the year, which all happened to fall in line with Jaime’s roster. I was thankful for her, she went to classes every day, and then I copied her notes. She also helped me out with topics that were unclear in the online material supplied.

“Hey. Earth to Ally.”

Jaime’s hand flashed in front of my face, close enough to make me flinch. I jerked back and then glared at her.

“There you are. What the hell is wrong with you? You haven’t picked up your pencil once, have you heard anything that’s been said?”

Heat rushed up to my cheeks, embarrassed that I had been caught so out of it. That, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to tell Ally that I was pregnant, and that her brother was the father; not to mention breaking the news to Jason.

“Sorry, my mind’s been all over the place today, I didn’t sleep that well,” I fibbed.

“I figured, Jason told me what happened, at least you weren’t hurt.”

“I guess.”

As we were packing our bags to leave, Jaime’s cell phone rang giving me a reprieve from her interrogation. But it was short lived. As we walked down the hall together I could tell something was drastically wrong based on her end of the conversation.

“Jason. Wait. What’s wrong?” Her face drained of all color and she put a hand to the wall for support. Large fat tears pooled and began dripping down her face. Alarmed, I tried to ask her what was wrong but she waved me off, continuing with her call. We were drawing attention to ourselves, so I ushered her into an empty classroom and shut the door for privacy. Switching from one foot to the other, I anxiously waited for the conversation to end so I could find out what was wrong. All I knew right now was that it involved Jason. And whatever it was, it was bad.

“Okay, okay I’ll be right there. Don’t worry. We’ll get this all straightened out.”

She shoved her phone in her pocket, her hands visibly shaking and then looked at me without really seeing me, obviously distraught. When she reached for her keys, I put a hand on her arm.

“Jaime, you are in no condition to drive at the moment. Take a minute to calm yourself. Tell me what happened.”

She shrugged off my hand, but she at least set her purse and keys on the table. Her voice edged with panic she relayed the phone call.

“Jason was arrested this morning. He was talking too fast for me to get all the details, but it had something to do with the brawl last night at the bar.” She eyed me suspiciously. “What exactly happened last night?” she demanded.

I quickly told her the details of the fight. Apparently, Jason had left out the part about the knife because her face blanched again when I mentioned it. But she remained quiet when I finished.

“Jason said it was self-defense. If the guy attacked him from behind with a knife, I don’t understand why they would arrest him. He is saying they could send him back to prison for the rest of his original sentence!”

I didn’t say anything, but my expression must have spoken volumes. Despite the guy attacking Jason first, and with a weapon, there were several times during the fight where I thought Jason could have resorted to less violence. Seeing him that way, and what he was capable of, had shown me a side to him that I didn’t want to see. Now that I knew I was carrying his child, I didn’t know if I wanted to get involved.

“What?” she asked.

I just shook my head. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing Ally. I’ve known you for more than half your life, and can read you like a book. Now tell me what that face was for!” she demanded.

Sighing deeply, I hesitated while I searched for the right words. She just simply stood there with her arms crossed waiting for me to continue.

“It’s true that he was attacked from behind with a knife last night. But, you weren’t there.”

“Go on,” she urged.

“He disarmed the guy in seconds, and it should have been over. But, he broke his wrist and then smashed his face into the table. That’s when his friends got involved. I know they attacked him as a group, so it wasn’t a fair fight.”

I hesitated, feeling a mixture of dread and guilt swirl around in the pit of my stomach. How did you tell your best friend that you were afraid of her brother?

“I don’t know. It was scary and not because he was outnumbered. I was more worried for the other guys. Jason was a completely different person.  He was cold and calculatingly brutal. He was savage and feral like a caged tiger that had just been let out.”

“So, WHAT? You’re saying he deserves to go to jail? That he’s some kind of monster?” she yelled back.

“No...no that’s not what I meant. It’s just…well maybe he needs some help, a support group of sorts to work through the anger,” I tried to reason. “I mean it’s not the first time he’s attacked someone and it got out of hand.”

I hadn’t meant to mention her step dad, but she had pushed.

“You have no idea what you’re fucking talking about Ally. Of all people, I would have thought you would have understood.”

Her face was a mask of agony and anger. I felt terrible and stepped towards her, but she held up her hand.

“I only know what I see, no one has ever bothered to tell me what really happened and why he is so angry,” I started, “I know prison can change a person, but Jason has a lot of rage that’s been bottled up for years, so please explain it to me so that I can understand,” I begged.

I could see her wrestling within herself, trying to gain control of her emotions.

“It’s true, Jason did kill my stepfather. But it wasn’t in cold blood. He was defending me.”

She took a deep breath and began to relay in detail the horrifying events that led up to the death of her stepfather and the traumatic events afterwards. I listened in shock and horror at the deplorable acts she had endured.

“You see, Wallace had taken a special interest in me about the time I turned fourteen. I didn’t think much of it at first. I mean it made me a little uncomfortable. But everyone was always talking about how he was such a wonderful man for taking Jason and I in as his own and how much his family had done for this town. I felt like I couldn’t complain. It started with little things he did at first. He would rest his hand on my thighs. Sometimes his hand would slip and he’d act embarrassed and apologize. Creepy things, but if I tried to say anything to Mom, she would tell me I was making things up and being ungrateful.”

At this point she had begun pacing the room, wringing her hands as she continued.

“Then one night, it escalated…”

I just stood there listing in horror as she told me what had happened that dreadful night, when Jason had taken matters in his own hands. I was shocked and angry, angry at Wallace for being a pig, angry at myself, angry at Ally for never having told me, or anyone else for that matter.  As she told me in detail what Wallace had done, and how Jason had found him with her and lost his mind, my heart melted. All this time he had to live with the fact that he had killed someone, someone who clearly deserved it.

Jason was angry, and rightfully so. And maybe the way that other jackass at the bar acted when he pulled me onto his lap had triggered Jason’s anger.

Tears were streaming down my face too now, how could I not have known? How could I have not been there for my best friend during the worst time in her life? She not only lost her brother, but her mother, and her innocence all in a very short time. I felt selfish. But most of all, I felt ashamed. I should have known better.

“Jaime, I’m so sorry,” my lips trembled as I spoke. “I know it’s hardly enough to make up for not being there for you, or judging Jason so harshly, but I am truly and terribly sorry.”

It literally felt as if my heart had been shredded into a million pieces, the immense emptiness and sorrow that ransacked my insides, were like a tornado leaving only destruction in its wake.

She gave me a wan smile and then we flung our arms around each other, holding each other as we both cried for what seemed like ages. Eventually, sniffling we both drew back, and I was the first to speak.

“Where is he being held?”

“He’s being held at the County precinct. I don’t even know if they will grant bail,” she replied, her lips still trembling with emotion.

“Well let’s go and find out. I was there that night, I can attest to the fact that he was attacked first.”

With no time to waste, we rushed to Jaime’s car, she was in no state to drive, so I drove and we made our way to the precinct, as fast as the speed limit would allow us. The whole way there, I couldn’t help but revisit the past. Now that I knew exactly what had happened, little things I never bothered to remember, surfaced. The times I used to stay over at Jaime’s place, and how she always insisted that I don’t leave her alone. The little things I never bothered to pay attention to, like when Wallace would casually smacked her bottom when we were in the kitchen and how she used to swat his hand away angrily. It all made sense now. And the more I thought about it, the worse I felt. I just hoped that it wasn’t too late to set things right.

 

 

 

Ally

 

On our way there I was hopeful that they would have to let him out on bail because I was a witness in his defense. However, my hopes were soon dashed the moment we walked in. The vile matriarch of the Walters family was already there making a huge stink. She was telling anyone who would listen that Jason should be remanded to the custody of the state penitentiary immediately.

She lost it even further when Jaime and I walked in. “What do you think you are doing here?” she demanded. “You can’t help your vile brother now. He’s proven to everyone what I already knew. He is a monster that deserves to be locked up.”

Before Jaime could respond, I stepped in front of her and I wasn’t going to lie, but getting in Mrs. Walter’s face felt pretty damn good.

“I was there last night, Gladys,” I said purposely using her first name instead of addressing her with respect, “Jason was acting in self-defense. Those men attacked him first, after they got handsy with me and he asked them politely to leave.”

“Lies, it’s all lies! You probably already spread your legs for him, you wanton trollop,” she responded with spittle flying.

A giggle burst forth, startling everyone watching the scene including myself. But I couldn’t help it. Who still uses the word wanton or trollop?

“My relationship with Jason is none of your goddamn business. And it still doesn’t change the fact that I was there and I know what I saw, along with dozens of other patrons, including Mac.”

Gladys opened her mouth to speak but one of the officers stepped in between us. From the name on the badge, this was Officer Kristoff.

 

“Ladies, nothing is going to be settled here by yelling.” Looking a little nonplussed, he turned to address Gladys. “Now, Mrs. Walters, I understand your personal feelings in this matter, however we cannot forego the law and Mr. Armstrong’s right to due process.”

I smirked smugly at her from behind his shoulder. But, he wasn’t done either.

“And you, young lady. I will take your witness statement but I will warn you that should it be found that you are providing a false statement to protect him, you will be subject to the consequences.”

Feeling defiant, I replied hotly, “I am not lying and I’d be willing to take a polygraph test regarding the validity of my statement.”

I could see the shock and surprise behind Gladys’s eyes, but she quickly contained herself. “It’s a case of he said, she said. Besides, where is this supposed weapon you both speak of? Nothing was found on any of the men involved. I bet you are just making that up.”

Before things could get further out of hand, the officer ordered us to apart. Gladys was escorted out and I was taken to a back room to give my statement. Jaime sat in the waiting room until it was over. By the time we were done at the station, it was time for me to go to work. I didn’t feel much like working that evening. Thankfully, business was slower on Sunday nights. Mac could tell something was up and finally cornered me in the stock room and after a moment of browbeating, I spilled everything.

She stood there and listened as I confided in her about all the events that had led up to today. Once, I opened my mouth it was like a floodgate. I told her about Jason and me, the pregnancy, the arrest, and Jason’s prior conviction, which funny enough she knew all about. When I mentioned Wallace’s name and what he had done to Jaime, Mac turned white as a sheet.

“Meet me at the precinct tomorrow at 9, we have a certain matter to settle,” she said icily.

“Uh… okay, but why?”

She didn’t say a word, simply shook her head and walked out. I sighed and rested my hand on my stomach. I didn’t look pregnant, but I knew that in no time, my belly would be showing and everyone would figure it out. I was going to have to tell Jason and Jaime sooner or later.

 

***

The next day, Jaime and I drove to the station. We were both anxious to know what Mac was planning, and by the time we got there, she was already waiting for us. The look on her face was one of pure determination.

We followed her up to the counter. She asked to speak with Officer Kristoff, that she had important evidence in the case against Jason Armstrong. An Officer Maynard happened to be walking by and snorted with derision.

“Don’t tell me we have another girlfriend, willing to testify on Jason’s behalf. That boy must sure get around a lot.”

Mac directed her steely gaze towards the arrogant officer, “I would be very careful what you say to me Brett.”

Jaime and I both looked at each other wide-eyed at the mention of his first name. The officer seemed taken aback too.

She didn’t let up, she steamrollered on, “I know all about you. We wouldn’t want the truth about the little mishap with Old Man River’s brand new tractor to come to light now would we? If I am not mistaken, there is no statute of limitation on theft and destruction of property in our lovely little town, is there?”

Officer Maynard didn’t bother to respond. He just turned and stomped off, but not before we could see the flush of red creep up his neck under his uniform. Mac turned back to the officer at the desk and repeated her request to see Officer Kristoff.

We only had to wait a few minutes before Kristoff came to the front. “Yes, ma’am, I understand you have information on the assault case against Jason Armstrong.”

“It’s more than that. I have proof that he was acting in self-defense,” she replied calmly.

“And you are?” the officer asked.

“My name is Mac. Mackenzie Roberts. I own the Hennigan’s bar where the assault took place and was working there the night of the incident.”

“I can take your statement, but understand there are six other witnesses who state Jason was the offending party.”

Mac reached into her bag and pulled out a disc. She handed it over to the officer. “Here is a copy of the surveillance footage from the cameras inside my bar. There are six separate cameras, with plenty of angles to show that not only was Jason not the aggressor, your complainant is lying. There was in fact a weapon that he used to attack Jason with from behind. I am sure he also failed to mention that prior to assaulting Jason, he also assaulted one of my waitresses,” she explained. She pointed toward me at that last statement.

“Let’s have a look then,” said the officer. We followed him back into an interviewing room where he cued up the disc. After only a moment, six different camera angles appeared on screen.

“If you fast forward to midnight, that is right before the altercation began,” Mac instructed.

Officer Kristoff did as he was told and then we all sat back in muted silence as we watched the events unfold. I heard Jaime gasp when I was thrown against the table and again when the man came at Jason with the knife.

The incident only took a matter of about 10-12 minutes in total, but that night it had felt like it had lasted forever. At the conclusion of the video, Officer Kristoff cleared his throat. Looking somewhat abashed, he turned to us and said, “It looks like an apology is in order. Based on the clear evidence of the tapes, I can see without a doubt that Jason was acting in self-defense. I will be requesting his immediate release.”

“I think it should also be known that at the time of the assault on Ally, she was with child. So, the man in the video should be charged not only with assault to her and Jason, but to her unborn child.”

A pin drop could be heard in the room as all eyes went to me. But Jaime’s were the only ones I connected with. I hadn’t wanted the news to be shared this way, but I understood why Mac did it. She was just trying to protect me.

“Is this true, Ally?” the officer asked me.

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Yes, sir,” I mumbled.

“We will need to get some more information from you in order to process the assault charge, but that can be done at a later date.”

He left us in front of the station, while he went to process the paperwork for Jason’s release and I could hardly look Jamie in the eye.

“Is it true?” Jaime asked me gently. “Is it Jason’s?”

I simply nodded, as I hugged my arms around my waist.

“Does he know?” she asked

I shook my head. “No, I just found out for sure yesterday morning. The only person I told was Mac, and she sort of bullied me into it.”

There wasn’t much to say after that. Jaime was going to stay at the station until Jason’s release, while Mac took me home.

Exhausted by the events of the day, I flopped down on the couch and quickly fell asleep

It wasn’t until I felt a pair of gentle hands brushing the hair back from my head that I finally woke up. It was still light outside but only just. I blinked the sleep from my eyes and realized that it was Jason who was tenderly stroking my hair. He was sitting on the ottoman across from me with a big grin on his face.

I sat up quickly and threw my arms around him in a fierce hug. He laughed as he hugged me back. Tears welled up in my eyes as he pressed his lips tenderly against mine.

“I’m so sorry Jason,” I sobbed.

“Shhh, shhh. None of that matters now,” he cajoled. “What matters is that you, Jaime, and Mac saved me. All charges were dropped and my probation hasn’t been violated. I’m a free man again.”

“Thank God. I was so scared for you,” I replied.

“I’d rather talk about something else,” he smiled while looking down at my stomach.

I blushed immediately. “Isn’t there something you need to tell me?”

I smiled shyly. “Err…yes. Um, well…” I stuttered but I couldn’t get the words out. Even though I knew the he already knew, I still couldn’t get it out.

“Ally, there’s nothing I would want more,” he assured me.

I looked up at him surprised. But all I could see was genuine love and excitement is his face.

“Really, you’re not mad? I wasn’t trying to trap you or force you into having a family. I swear.”

“Ally, don’t be ridiculous. I’ve had the hots for you since forever, now, it seems I’ve trapped you.”

“You mean…” I said with a trembling voice.

“I want us to be a family,” he whispered as he took both my hands in his, “I want to do this right. Time waits for no man. I know that better than anyone. Will you let me be there for the baby? And you? I promise I will do any and everything to make you both happy. You have my word.”

I looked at him with eyes wide and my heart literally drumming against my chest. A few weeks ago, he was nothing but a memory, and now suddenly he was sitting in front of me asking me to be with him.

“Yes, yes, I’d like that,” I whispered.

“Yes!”

It was Jaime who came bolting into the living room leaping onto Jason’s back, “I swear, if it took you two any longer to make-up, I would have done it for you!”

All the stress of the past few weeks, or rather years, had simply vanished in the blink of an eye, and we all broke out in laughter. Jaime was ecstatic to become an aunt, and Jason couldn’t stop pressing his ear to my stomach.

***

THE END

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Lucy

“What am I going to do?” Lucy asked in a voice high with desperation. She paced the small living room of the apartment she shared with her four-year-old son Jacob.

Call him,” her brother Chris advised softly from the other end of the phone receiver held to her ear. “You’ve kept this from him long enough. Do you have any idea how hard it was keeping it from Mom and Dad?” he demanded.

Lucy laughed hysterically. The mere thought of rich, famous Seth Landers finding out he has a secret son would make huge headlines and that was the main reason she’d kept it from him. She didn’t want her son exposed to that kind of life.

You never should have kept this from him,” Chris admonished and she rolled her eyes at the years’ old argument.

“I never should have told you,” she snapped and instantly felt guilty. It wasn’t Chris’s fault that she’d fallen for her brother’s gorgeous best friend from college. She’d met Seth a little over five years ago, while she, herself, was only a college sophomore.

Seth had come back to town to act as best man in Chris’s wedding and after one alcohol-hazed night, he’d left Erie, Pennsylvania, and Lucy in his rearview mirror. The town wasn’t affected as much as Lucy – she’d been pregnant with Seth’s child.

He’d gone on to sign with the St. Louis Cardinal’s professional baseball team and now had a recurring multi-million dollar contract. He loved his high-rolling, celebrity lifestyle and the spotlight it gave him. He’d gone on record numerous times saying how he wasn’t the type to settle down with just one woman and he adamantly claimed not to want children.

Lucy, a straight-A student who loved nothing but studying and collecting books, couldn’t stand the thought of her son being used as cannon fodder for some money-grubbing newspaper or tabloid trash. So, she’d kept Jacob’s existence a secret.

It had worked fine for four years now.

Chris inhaled deeply on the other end of the call. Having moved to San Francisco, California shortly after getting married, he kept in constant contact with his little sister. Ever since she’d gotten pregnant and refused to reveal the father, her parent’s had virtually disowned her. They’d died in a freak car accident a month before Jacob was born. Chris was the only family she had left.

You can’t do this alone, Luce,” her brother said. “You’re gonna need help.

“And you’re sure neither you nor Amber can come?” she asked again. He’d already told her they couldn’t get the time off of work, but it didn’t hurt to ask again.

I’m sorry, sweetpea, I wish we could, but Amber just got this big promotion and I need all the hours I can clock for the mortgage. I know it sounds like we’re brushing you off, but I promise you, I’m not. I can’t take any time off until next month and then God Himself won’t stop me, you just need to make it until then -” He trailed off.

“And it isn’t like I can get a babysitter,” Lucy admitted. “This is a 24/7 therapy treatment and they won’t let Jacob stay with me.” No matter how badly she didn’t want to call on Seth, she slowly realized she had no other choice.

So, bite the bullet and call him. If he’s an ass, then you let me know and I’ll beat him senseless,” Chris threatened. “But honestly, I can’t see him turning his back on his own flesh and blood.

Lucy caved at her brother’s trust and faith in his friend. Maybe she had been wrong about Seth, maybe she did owe it to him. Mind made up, she decided she’d call him and ask for help, but she refused to throw Jacob in the line of fire just yet. If Seth came and actually showed some interest in being with her son, then maybe she’d tell him. Only time would tell.


Seth

Seth Landers ran his fingers through his spiky, black hair and laughed at the naughty girl sitting next to him. She leaned against him, her breasts pressed as tightly against his bicep as possible and whispered really interesting things in his ear.

Or, at least what he managed to hear was naughty. The pounding bass pumping through the club’s speakers managed to drown out pretty much everything. Her makeup seemed exotic but he knew the flashing, fluorescent lights always camouflaged the smallest flaws. Even though she looked like Marilyn Monroe at the moment, she was probably more of a Molly Toothless in reality.

But hell, he didn’t care. His beer goggles were on tight and he was ready for whatever ride she provided. Even though it was nearing the later part of January, folks were already enjoying the Valentine’s Day theme. Red streamers hung from the ceiling, the warm air filtering from the vents making them wave and dance.

Every song related to love – or sex – in some form or fashion. In his opinion, Valentine’s Day was the single man’s Christmas. There were so many lonely women and so little time to satisfy them all. The holiday was nothing more than a bachelor’s paradise so he’d taken a head start this year and hit the clubs. Imagine his amazement when he realized that he wasn’t the only one who’d had the same idea.

Women crowded the club, their bodies on display for any onlooker. Desperation clung to them like cheap perfume. Seth counted himself lucky he’d found one that looked decent enough.

“C’mon baby,” she cooed, snapping his attention back to the here and now. She smiled and scooted across the seat to exit their booth, her hand grabbing his and urging him along behind her. “Let’s go someplace a little quieter.”

Seth nodded and tossed a few bills on the table to cover their drinks and followed her lead. Once on his feet, he slung his arm around her shoulders and laughed when they both weaved and wobbled their way to the door. Shoving through the blacked out door, he inhaled sharply when the cold Missouri air hit him square in the face. January in Saint Louis was the coldest time of the year.

Shaking his head to dispel the sudden onset of ringing in his ears, he frowned when it didn’t work.

The girl squinted down at his jacket pocket.

“I think your pocket’s ringing,” she slurred and then giggled for no apparent reason.

Seth pulled away from her and dug in his pocket until he found the offensive little device. Pulling it out, a familiar face from years ago flashed across his screen and he sobered in a hurry.

But before he could hit the send button to answer, the connection dropped. His eyes flicked to the signal strength on his screen and he noted he had full service. Had she lost connection?

The little screen went black as he stood there and let his thoughts run wild. He’d had it pretty bad for his best friend’s little sister ever since he first laid eyes on her.

Seth had rolled into town to act as best man for his bud’s wedding and this little slip of a college sophomore flat out stole his breath. 

He remembered that day as clear as if it were yesterday.

He’d pulled his rental car up in front of the Conlay’s modest brick home. A petite girl with a long, bouncy ponytail knelt in the front yard gathering the contents of a spilled bag. He’d rushed from his car to help her scoop the books and papers before the wind carried them away.

Contents safely returned to her backpack, they rose and the moment their eyes met, Seth’s heart lurched in excitement. 

He faced five-feet-seven-inches of the most adorable bookworm he’d ever met; her big, brown, doe-eyes nearly cut him off at the knees. He still remembered what she’d been wearing that day as well: a yellow sundress with a pair of those little white tennis shoes.

Shaking his head to clear the lustful fog settling over him, he swiped the screen to the right and held his hand up to his drunken date, motioning for her to be quiet. He then waited for Lucy to answer the call.

She picked up on the fourth ring.

Seth?” she whispered. “I’m sorry it’s so late, I didn’t mean to wake you.

“Nah, Luce,” he scoffed. “It’s good to hear from you. What’s it been – six years?” he asked and batted his hand when the drunken woman grabbed at his arm, her face scrunched in a jealous sneer.

More like five years, give or take a few months,” she answered drolly.

Seth laughed at her sassiness, his gut feeling a warmth that had nothing to do with alcohol.             

He’d instantly fell in lust with her the day they’d met, so when he had the chance to spend some one-on-one time with her after Chris’s wedding, he fulfilled his fantasies by giving her the night of her life. A small part of him hated leaving her behind the next morning, but she just wasn’t a good fit for the lifestyle he’d wanted.

She was the kind of woman a man settled down with, raised a family with and grew old with. Three things he didn’t want.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this little call?” he asked playfully and then scowled at himself. The alcohol was messing with his mojo.

I need your help,” Lucy admitted gently.

Sensing a chance to rekindle some romance, Seth shoved his date back inside the club and pushed the door shut behind her. Leaning against it, he put all his weight into keeping her inside while he made other plans.

“When and where darlin’?” he drawled. “Give me the details and I’ll be there,” he promised.

***

“Why can’t I go with you, Mommy?” Jacob asked in a low and frightened voice. “I don’t want to stay with a sitter, I want you,” he insisted and Lucy pressed her eyelids closed to avert the tears.

She’d had no idea how difficult it would be to look down into her baby’s big blue eyes and tell him that he had to stay with a stranger while Mommy went to the hospital to get better. The only time he’d been out of her sight was when she’d gone to work; barring that, the duo were never far from one another.

When she’d gotten the Librarian position at Erie’s public library, she’d found Jacob a day care just next door. That convenience allowed her to see him on days when the library sponsored children’s activities. She took solace in knowing he was just next door and she could pop over to see him anytime she’d wanted to.

He only had a few more months and then he’d be ready for kindergarten.  She wasn’t sure how either of them would handle that step, but she vowed to cross that bridge when the time came.

She set the shirt she’d been folding down on her bed and knelt before her son. Little tears escaped his eyes, snaking shiny, moist patches down over his baby cheeks. She took his glasses and dabbed at his eyes with a tissue.

“I know sweetie,” she cooed reassuringly. “I don’t like this either, but Mommy has to get better and the doctors need me to stay there while they give me medicine.” Shoving his little glasses back onto his freckle-smattered nose, she bent down and gave him a quick peck on his protruding lips.

“You get to stay right here at home and Mr. Seth is Uncle Chris’s best friend, so you’ll be just fine with him. I’ve made him a list of all your favorite foods and television shows -” Her voice trailed off when anxiety caused her chest wall to tighten to the point of hyperventilation. Taking a deep breath, she released it slowly and did her best to smile.

“Uncle Chris will call and check on you and you can come visit me, can you be a big boy for me?” Lucy asked with a pasted smile on her face.

Jacob tucked his chin and hugged the raggedy teddy bear a little tighter to his chest. He nodded gently and climbed up on the bed to watch her pack.

She’d just zipped the rolling suitcase closed when someone knocked on their door. Jacob jumped at the unexpected pounding and gripped his bear a little tighter.

Lucy inhaled deeply and steeled herself for the upcoming performance. She looked back down at her son and prayed Seth wouldn’t see himself in the boy’s eyes like she did. Her baby had taken after his father in every way but two: he had his mother’s bad eyesight and he was shy to the point of terror; which was in direct contrast to Seth’s confidence.

“You ready to meet Mr. Seth?” Lucy asked Jacob and held her hand out for him to take. He nodded once and slipped his small fingers through hers.

Seth

Seth popped a mint in his mouth and ran his hands through the thick black spikes on his head. After hanging up with Lucy, he’d gone straight home, tossed some clothes in a gym bag and hopped the next flight out. Upon arrival at Erie International Airport, he’d promptly rented a car – a 2017 candy apple red Ford Mustang GT – and hauled ass to her apartment complex.

It was the longest fifteen miles of his life. He glanced down at his watch and the indigo blue digits read 5:27 a.m. Damn, he’d made good time, he thought to himself.  After one last, deep, breath, he raised his hand and knocked twice.

However, he wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotions that assaulted him with she opened the door. Although a small woman to begin with, Lucy’s petite frame barely managed to hold her skin on her bones, her hollow cheekbones and drooping eyes betrayed her condition without her uttering a word. Fear tore through Seth on a level he’d never felt before.

“Seth,” Lucy greeted him softly. “Thank you for getting here so quickly. I’m sorry I bothered you with this, I just don’t have anyone else to turn to,” she apologized and moved aside to allow him room to pass.

Narrowing his eyes, Seth studied the gray pallor of her once vibrant skin, and pressed his lips firmly shut as he brushed past her into the small, yet cozy apartment. Mismatched furniture spread throughout the simple flow of rooms. He dropped his duffel bag on the butternut yellow sofa and let his eyes roam past the living room to the kitchen – slash – dining room beyond where a small dining table and four chairs sat in the far right corner.

It was clean to the point of immaculate and he remembered that Lucy had been a neat freak. To his right were two rooms – a bedroom on the right and a painfully small bathroom on the left. To his left was another bedroom, a bit larger than the other. 

Frowning, Seth realized he could fit her entire apartment in his bathroom alone. How had she ended up like this? A straight-A student with a promising future in Journalism, Lucy was the smartest person he’d ever met.

Turning back to face her, his eyes widened when they landed on a smaller person standing beside Lucy, his little fingers clinging tightly to her leg.

“And who is this big guy?” Seth asked gently, squatting so he was almost eye level with the child.              

“Are you really my Uncle Chris’s best friend?” the little boy demanded suddenly, his own blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. Using a small finger, he reached up and pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

Uncle Chris? Seth pondered. As revelation hit, his eyes went from the boy’s to Lucy’s and he raised his eyebrows in question. Lucy answered by slowly shaking her head and then smoothing her hand over the top of the little one’s spiky black hair.

“Jacob, this is Mr. Seth Landers,” she introduced gently. “Seth, this is my son, Jacob Conlay.”

“Seth Landers?” Jacob squealed in delight, his shyness all but disappearing in a blur of excitement Lucy rarely seen. “You’re the pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals,” the little boy shrieked. “Mommy, I know him,” he insisted gleefully and reached up to pull on her loose t-shirt. “This is Uncle Chris’s best friend?” he asked again as if he couldn’t wrap his little mind around the fact that his uncle was friends with a famous person.

Seth chuckled good-naturedly at the little boy and extended his hand.

“Nice to meet you, buddy, it’s always awesome to meet a fan,” he said, genuinely touched that his fan-following reached a younger audience as well as adults.

Lucy smiled as her shy little son came out from behind her and started talking baseball with Seth. She hadn’t known he would recognize Seth from the games he watched on television.

On more than one occasion, she caught Seth studying Jacob’s eyes and hair and hoped he didn’t put two-and-two together. She wasn’t ready to tell either of them just yet. She had to make sure they’d get along and only then Seth would have to show concrete interest in her baby before she shoved him in front of that particular bus.

“Jacob,” Lucy called her son. “Why don’t you go find your card collection for Mr. Seth while he and I have a little grown-up talk?”

Jacob nodded at his mother and then leaned closer to Seth’s ear.

“That means she doesn’t want me to hear what you talk about,” Jacob whispered conspiratorially and patted Seth on the shoulder in sympathy. “I hope you’re not in trouble,” he added and then raced off to his room, which Seth noticed was the one beside the minute bathroom.

Rising back to his feet, Seth turned inquisitive eyes on Lucy and smiled when he noticed she squirmed nervously.

“Looks like we have some catchin’ up to do,” Seth drawled and jammed his hands into his jean’s pockets.

Lucy nodded and pulled her open hoodie most snugly around her frail body.

“Would you like some coffee?” she asked. “I have two hours before I have to be at the clinic.”

“Coffee sounds good,” Seth agreed. For some reason, he suddenly wanted to pull her into his embrace and hold her and ‘never let her go’ echoed throughout his mind. He also wanted to go get a truckload of food and feed her until her skin was pink and healthy again.

“You can tell me just what exactly is goin’ on in the meantime,” he suggested and didn’t miss the way her shoulders instantly stiffened.

“Yes,” she agreed reluctantly. “I asked a big favor of you, I’ll explain.”

With a curt nod, she turned and headed into the little kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinet above the double sink. After loading the coffee maker, she turned back to Seth and motioned for him to sit with her at the dining table.

“As you can see, I’m not in the best health,” Lucy explained. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over two months ago.”

Seth’s heart lurched when Lucy said the word “cancer.” Like most people, when he thought about that fatal condition, fear seized him. Both his parents had died from different types of it, and he knew very well how it affected not just the patient, but their families as well.

“Why didn’t you ask a friend to help you?” Seth demanded when he realized she’d been dealing with the situation on her own all this time. “Why isn’t Chris or Amber here?”

Lucy sighed and dropped her head onto the tiny table. For a moment Seth thought she’d passed out, but before he could react, she sat back up and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her hoodie.

“I don’t have any friends,” she admitted. “Jacob is my life. Between work and my son, I don’t have time to mingle with the natives,” she snapped.

When Seth sat back in his chair and crossed his arms in defense, her angry expression fell.

“I’m sorry,” she quickly apologized. “I’m tired. I’m always so tired,” she confessed and sniffled. “Up until now, Chris has been flying in to sit with Jacob, but now that I need chemotherapy and radiation, I’ll need to stay around the clock at the hospital for a couple of weeks. Chris doesn’t have time off available and Amber just got a promotion, so she can’t leave work yet. But I promise you, just as soon as Chris is able, he’ll be here and you can go about your life.”

“Hey,” Seth barked in resentment and quickly placed his hand on her shoulder when she started to get up. “I’m not complaining. Chris is like a brother to me -” His voice trailed off when his next thought was that Lucy was anything but like a little sister. How did he explain his affection and tie to her? How could he without sounding like a player or perv?

“You and I shared a connection,” he insisted and was pleased with his choice of words. “We had a great time and I’d like to think we could consider ourselves friends at this point. When my friends need me, I’m there,” he insisted. He nodded to accentuate his pleasure with the speech.

Lucy sniffled again and mopped at the tear treks on her face; her long sleeves flapping with the motion. They were at least two inches too long for her and upon closer inspection; he realized all her clothes appeared at least two sizes too large for her.

“Thank you,” she murmured, snapping him out of his scrutinizing gaze. “You have no idea how hard it was to call you,” she admitted and Seth felt insulted for a brief moment. But he quickly reminded himself that he hadn’t so much as called or texted her since their one-night stand, so what reason would she have to turn to him?

“Don’t worry,” Seth patted her shoulder again. “Uncle Seth is here and I’ll take care of Jacob while you get yourself better.”

Lucy smiled and nodded before rising to go pour them both a cup of coffee. Watching her as she moved away from him, Seth couldn’t help but feel like he’d finally come home. All the money, flashy cars, mansion, loose girls; none of it made him feel as complete as being with Lucy in her shabby little apartment.

But just as quickly as those thoughts occurred, he banished them to the far recesses of his mind. After losing his parents, he’d vowed to never again love anyone. If he didn’t love anyone, he wouldn’t be hurt when he lost them. And Lucy now Lucy has the same disease that took his parents away from him.

He didn’t love Lucy, couldn’t love Lucy, or her son. He didn’t want that kind of life. Marriage was for poor, ordinary schmucks, not for superstars like him. And kids, the last thing he wanted was a little Seth Landers running around. Ah, hell no, he thought to himself. He was perfectly happy with his fast lifestyle; the love ‘em and leave ‘em method. He didn’t need anything or anyone else. 

“Yea, just keep tellin’ yourself that bud,” he murmured softly to himself.


Lucy

Lucy tried to pour two cups of coffee without spilling it all over the place. Her hands trembled so bad, she feared she’d drop the carafe.

So far, so good. She’d managed to stick to the basics. No extended excuses or explanations. She didn’t want to outright lie to him, but should he prove to be undependable or unsuitable for Jacob, she’d take this secret to the grave. She just hoped Chris came soon.

Taking a tray, she placed both cups on it, along with the sugar and cream bowls. She wasn’t sure if he’d eaten or not, so she grabbed a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the pantry. She headed back into the dining area with the loaded tray and jumped when Seth leapt from his seat to take it from her.

“Let me get that,” he murmured and Lucy thought she saw a faint blush creep up his neck. The action touched her deeply but she firmly reminded herself that he hadn’t wanted the kind of lifestyle she lived. No family for him.

“Thank you,” Lucy said and reclaimed her chair. Seth grabbed a cup and began sipping the black liquid straight. Cringing at the thought of that bitter, vile flavor, Lucy set to loading hers with sugar and cream. Taking a cookie, she nibbled at it and sipped at her delicious drink.

“So,” Seth broke the silence after a few awkward moments of sipping and nibbling. “What have they done so far in the form of treatment?” he asked. “You mentioned goin’ in for chemo and radiation.”

Lucy sat her cup back on the table and brushed some stray crumbs from her lap.

“After the mammogram detected the cyst, they surgically removed it and when the biopsy came back malignant, they went back in and removed all the surrounding tissue,” she explained. “It wouldn’t be enough to merely remove my breast, so the next step is chemo.” Her hand immediately went to her ponytail. She hated the thought of her thick hair falling out but given the choice between death or losing her hair, she’d be bald any day.

She’d already bought a wig in anticipation. Her doctor had assured her that they’d caught it early enough that she’d pull through, but warned that the chemo and radiation would drastically weaken her. She’d already lost close to forty pounds out of pure stress. She’d been warned that she’d lose much more before it all ended.

She released her ponytail and reclaimed her cup, using the warmth emanating from the ceramic receptacle as comfort. She hadn’t gone into much detail with Chris and she refused to with Seth. She’d already had a Last Will drawn up, declaring Chris and Amber as Jacob’s guardians.

“What are my marchin’ orders Commander?” Seth asked and Lucy laughed, allowing some of the tension to leave her body with the expression. His charisma was one of the things that had once attracted her to Seth. That, and his sheer sexiness.

She rose from the table and went to her bedroom to retrieve the folder she’d put together after getting off the phone with Seth last night. Walking back into the living room, she stopped when she saw that Jacob had found his baseball cards and were currently showing them to Seth. Her breath hitched when she watched her little boy crawl into Seth’s lap and settle himself before engaging in a conversation as old as time.

Heading over to them, she gently placed the folder on the table and froze when two identical sets of blue eyes rose to meet hers.

Lord help me, she thought to herself. I think I have a higher chance of surviving the cancer than this.

Nodding toward the folder, she filled Seth in on everything he needed to know in order to take care of Jacob. She hated leaving her son in the hands of a virtual stranger, but knew she had no choice. She rattled off Jacob’s food allergies, reiterated his bedtime – much to the little boy’s aggravation – and stressed that they were not, under any circumstances, to leave town, throw a party, make long distance phone calls or invite any girls over.

Jacob laughed, but she caught a gleam of resentment in Seth’s eyes. She’d evidently hit a nerve with him but ignored his reaction in lieu of pulling her son into her arms for one last cuddle.

“I love you, Little Bit,” she murmured and placed him back on his feet beside Seth’s chair. “Be good for Mr. Seth and he’ll bring you to see me soon.” Leaning down, she pressed a kiss to his forehead and ruffled his hair playfully.

“Do I get a kiss too?” Seth inquired and Lucy merely laughed and shook her head.

“No kisses for the babysitter,” she informed him with a smile. “Take care of my son,” she challenged gently. “This is a big job. I’ve never trusted anyone but my brother, his wife and daycare with him.”

Seth nodded, his face serious and solemn. 

“I swear on my pitchin’ arm that he is in good hands,” he boasted and pulled the child back into his lap, tickling his ribs gently.

Lucy smiled, retrieved her rolling suitcase and left the two of them alone, wrestling and laughing. She thanked God she left to the sounds of laughter and happiness instead of wails of fear and a child’s tantrum. 


Seth

Two days later…

 

“C’mon buddy, we have to get goin’ before we miss visitin’ hours,” Seth called from the kitchen where he was busy rinsing his coffee mug. He’d enjoyed two fun-filled days with a walking question-machine. He’d been asked everything from how he’d learned to throw a ball so fast, to where babies came from?

The first was easy to explain, the second; not so much. With a hasty “they come from Target,” he’d managed to appease the little guy’s curiosity long enough to get him interested in something else.

Both bathtime and bedtime had been tricky, but together they’d muddled through it. Seth hadn’t had much success getting the kid to brush his teeth, but hey, they were just baby teeth and he’d lose them anyway, so did it really matter in the long run?

They’d gorged on pizza, chips and cola to the point that Seth feared the kid would develop diabetes or high blood pressure, but at the end of the day – after bath time – he’d found great pleasure in relaxing on the worn sofa and watching cartoons with the little guy.

They’d also played so many games on the Wii that’d he soon found himself having more fun than he’d ever thought possible; especially considering he’d been the responsible one at the party. Jacob was the smartest, bravest and most interesting kid Seth had ever met.

He marveled at how Lucy had managed to raise such a perfect kid. He’d had so much fun, that he’d soon found himself wondering if he’d be a good father.

“I’m ready,” a small voice declared from the kitchen doorway. Seth turned and nearly doubled over in laughter.

“You sure you wanna wear that?” he asked after pulling himself together.

Jacob looked down at his blue sweat-suit, red cape and boots and then back at Seth.

“Why not?” Jacob challenged with a familiar gleam in his eye. Seth knew the look well; he’d used it often in his own youth. It hadn’t taken many instances to realize the method didn’t work for him, he decided to let the kid have this one.

“Looks good to me,” Seth agreed. “Grab your coat,” he insisted and grabbing the apartment keys Lucy left for him, they headed for the hospital.

Seth pulled his rental car into the hospital visitor’s parking lot and cursed his choice to go with the flashy sports car. Of course, he’d thought to impress his former lover with a hot car before he’d known the circumstances of her request for help. He tilted the rearview mirror and studied the kid in the back seat.

He’d had hell getting the booster seat strapped into the crowded area and knew Jacob wasn’t exactly comfortable as the seat raised him enough so that his head touched the headliner of the car.

“Sorry bud,” Seth murmured. “I guess I should have gotten a minivan huh?”

Jacob smiled and shoved his glasses back onto his nose. Seth had figured out the kid had the habit of doing that when he was nervous.

“Don’t worry,” Seth reassured Jacob and turned the car off. “I know your mom is excited to see you,” he said and got out of the car, heading around to the passenger side so he could get Jacob from the back.

“I know,” Jacob replied after he’d gotten out and reached for Seth’s hand. “I just hope she’s feeling better.”

Suddenly inspiration struck like a bolt of lightning. As they headed through the automatic double doors of the front entrance, Seth spotted the gift shop.

“How about we stop at the flower shop and get your mom some flowers?” Seth suggested and laughed when Jacob grinned up at him.              

They shopped long enough for Jacob to pick out some yellow daisies, which he claimed was his mom’s favorite flower and then they rode the elevator to the fifth floor. Seth made sure to keep a firm grip on Jacob’s tiny hand lest they get separated. He feared Lucy’s wrath should anything happen to her son while in his care.

Jacob, clad in his superman outfit, stepped off the elevator gripping the slender vase of flowers with both hands. Seth tucked his finger in the neckline of Jacob’s red cape and turned him toward the nurse’s station when his little red boots veered off to the left.

“We’re here to see Lucy Conlay,” Seth spoke softly to the young blonde-headed nurse when she smiled up at him.

“Visiting hours is for family only,” she announced and continued to smile up at him. “Are you family?” she asked and Seth didn’t miss the salacious gleam in her eyes. Realizing the pretty little thing was asking if he was Lucy’s boyfriend or husband, a cocky grin spread across his face and he leaned one arm on the waist high partition between them.

“I’m an old friend of the family,” he explained and then nodded down at the superhero-clad boy. “This is Ms. Conlay’s son, Jacob.”

The nurse, Samantha, her nametag read, stood and peered over the counter to inspect Jacob. The little boy tucked his chin and stepped closer to Seth, partially hiding himself behind Seth’s large leg.

“Are those flowers for your mommy?” Samantha asked and flashed a genuine smile at the child. “I bet she’ll love them,” she praised and turned back to Seth. “Ms. Conlay is in room 507, just down the hall on the right.” She pointed them in the direction.

“Thanks,” Seth drawled and pushed off the counter after shooting a wink at her.

“My shift’s over in ten minutes,” she called and Seth tossed her a flirty smile over his shoulder.

A major part of Seth wanted to dump Jacob off with Lucy for a few hours and take the hot little nurse for a ride in his rental car. Tall, curvy and busty, she had all the assets he appreciated in a woman. Glancing down at his watch, he realized he had enough time for a quickie.

“C’mon buddy,” he murmured to Jacob. They turned toward the door marked 507 and Seth reached down to push the handle. The large door slid open on a whoosh and he inhaled sharply when he saw Lucy’s frail form snuggled beneath a thin blanket atop the hospital bed.

A multitude of tubes ran from her little body to the machines sitting around the bed. She smiled through squinted eyes and raised a hand riddled with IV tubes. Apparently her eyes were sensitive to the harsh hospital lights because he noticed they were bloodshot and swollen from all the way across the room.

“There’s my baby boy,” she murmured. “I’ve missed you so much,” she added and tried to sit up. But no matter how much she struggled or wiggled, she didn’t have enough strength to move her body even a fraction of an inch.

It was in that moment that Seth truly realized just how bad Lucy’s health was. If she wasn’t strong enough to survive chemo or radiation, then she wasn’t strong enough to survive at all. He glanced down at the little boy he’d grown fond of and smiled when Jacob ran to his mother’s bedside, his outstretched arms offering her the flower arrangement.

“Look what we got Mommy.” He shoved them toward her and she scrambled to catch the vase before both flowers and water spilled on the bed.

“My favorite,” Lucy exclaimed and brought them to her nose. “They’re beautiful, thank you,” she beamed at her son and then turned an appreciative glance on Seth.

“I dressed myself, Mommy,” Jacob added, prompting her attention back to him and moved back to show off his attire. Lucy giggled when she took in the superman garb.

“I see that,” she responded. “You look like you’re ready to save the world.”

When the child started rambling about everything they’d done the past couple days, Seth stepped back toward the door and raised a hand to draw Lucy’s attention.

“I’m gonna step out for a few,” he murmured. “Let you two catch up, I’ll be back,” he added and hastily escaped when Jacob shrugged his shoulders and turned back to his mom.

He slumped back against the closed door and inhaled sharply. He didn’t understand the feelings running rampant in his gut. Never one to get caught up on just one woman, Lucy was taking up entirely too much of his attention for his liking. Both her and Jacob. It was time he sought some different company.

Shoving off the wall, he sauntered back down the hall, approaching the blonde at the nurse’s station. She looked up and then grinned.

“How ‘bout we go somewhere quieter?” Seth drawled and grinned at her in return.


Lucy

 

Lucy frowned when Seth hastily retreated. It wasn’t like she’d expected him to fawn all over her or anything, but she would’ve liked an update on what he and Jacob’s activities these past couple of days.

But from the look of her son’s choice of attire and his high spirits, she knew it couldn’t have been all that bad.              

“Come,” she invited and patted the bed. “Sit with Mommy and tell all about your time with Mr. Seth.” She scooted over, although it wasn’t really necessary.

The little boy clambered up onto the bed and snuggled down against her. Lucy knew he needed the nearness of her body after spending a couple days apart. They’d never spent the night apart and it almost killed her to have done it now. After her parents had disowned her, Chris had been all she had left.

When Jacob was born, she swore an oath before God. She’d never go anywhere her child couldn’t go and she’d never let him go an hour without knowing how much she loved him. He was her world and she knew she had to fight with every bit of strength she could muster if she wanted to stay alive long enough to see him reach adulthood.

Wrapping her arm around the little wiggle-worm, she pulled him as tight against her as possible and smiled as he chattered away about his time with “Uncle” Seth. Some details dismayed her, but in the end, she’d been impressed with the level of care Seth had managed to give Jacob. He’d gone above and beyond to make sure her son was comfortable, happy, safe and well cared for; even if that had included soda and potato chips.

“So, you like spending time with Uncle Seth?” Lucy prompted softly when Jacob had finally run out of things to tell her.

He nibbled on his lower lip for a few moments and then looked up at her, pure admiration shining in his bright, blue eyes.

“He’s a nice man, Mommy,” Jacob declared. “He’ll make a great daddy someday.”

Lucy’s breath hitched at her son’s decree. How a child so young could interpret so much was beyond her. Pride and fear warred for prevalence within her. She was proud of her baby for being so smart and intuitive, but feared what would happen if or when he learned the truth. At least she could take solace in the fact that he admired his biological father.


Seth

Seth drove to the nearest parking garage and paid for entry. He’d no more than driven to the topmost level when the smoking-hot blonde started palming him through his jeans. Of course, his body responded, his cock hardening immediately at her ministrations, but a small niggle in his gut kept rearing its ugly head.

For some reason, this would-be tryst just felt wrong, but merely on a mental level. Physically, his body was more than ready and willing to give the little gal the ride of her life.

The breath huffed from his chest when she launched herself from her seat to straddle him, her healthy rear crowding the steering wheel, which in turn, blew the Mustang’s horn. She merely giggled and leaned down to release the latch to recline his seat. When he lay flat, she crawled up and down his torso, rubbing her crotch seductively across his erection.

With surprisingly deft fingers, she released the buttons on his shirt and lowered her mouth to his beefy pecs. Throwing his head back, he groaned deeply in his throat and gave himself over to the tantalizing pleasure. But the moment he closed his eyes, it was Lucy’s face he saw. Her beautiful brown eyes smoldering with passion and it was her lush lips that nipped at his erect nipples.

He suddenly sat up, knocking the girl back into the steering wheel, again causing the horn to blare and the offensive sound to bounce loudly off the concrete columns surrounding them.

“What’s wrong?” she asked and wiggled her ass to fit more comfortably against him. Instead, he grabbed her around her small waist and hoisted her from him lap, replacing her in her own seat. Running his fingers through his hair in frustration, he hastily set about righting his shirt, groaning slightly when he noticed that she’d pulled one button loose in her haste to get him naked.

“Look, Sharon –” Seth said, turning to face her. His mind raced with a plausible explanation for why he’d reneged on something his body so desperately – and plainly - wanted.

“My name is Samantha,” she snapped angrily, insult marring her face.

Seth cringed and cursed himself for failing to pay better attention. He didn’t mean to be so callous. He was usually much smoother than this but all of a sudden he found that he really didn’t care if he’d angered her or not. It wasn’t like she was in love with him and he’d rejected her. 

“Samantha,” he corrected himself. “I can’t do this,” he explained. “I’m sorry. I’ll take you back.” He finished and readjusted his seat. Turning the key, he put the car in the reverse and exited the garage. He cursed himself all during the drive back. Was he insane? Sliding his eyes toward the seething nurse in the passenger seat, he couldn’t help but wonder why a woman of her caliber would be single at all.

She was gorgeous; tall, long legs and tits to die for. Why the hell would she be angling for a one-night stand? And how the hell could he throw away a perfectly good roll in the hay so easily?

Shaking his head to dispel the thoughts jumbling around, he pulled into the hospital employee parking lot and absently nodded his head in farewell. The woman lurched from his car and slammed the door forcefully. Bending down, she gave him the middle finger and turned to saunter off, her sneakers squeaking on the wet asphalt.

“Jeez,” he muttered and shifted gears to head back to the visitor’s parking area. It wouldn’t matter if he lived to be five hundred years old, he’d never understand women. Apparently the only talent he had when it came to the opposite sex was pushing that “O” button. He was great at making them squeal, but it appeared as though he needed some work in the whole platonic department.

His thoughts shifted to Lucy and Jacob. He’d spent the past two days with a little person and found he’d actually enjoyed himself. The kid was smart, resilient and even showed some talent with tossing the old baseball around.

Seth parked and locked the car and headed into the hospital. It almost mortified him to realize he looked forward to seeing both Lucy and the kid.


Lucy

 

Lucy heard her door whoosh open, but after being in the hospital for a while, she’d gotten used to the nurses, lab techs and others coming and going. They checked her vitals every four hours and her I.V. bag was changed every six. It was strange how being in a hospital was supposed to make a person feel better, when in fact, it made things much worse. She’d gotten absolutely no sleep, every bone in her body ached like the fires of hell was burning inside them and now Jacob had fallen asleep against her and she needed to pee.

Expecting to see a nurse, she uncovered herself and tucked the blanket underneath Jacob so he wouldn’t roll when she got off the bed and then she gingerly eased her feet onto the floor.

“Can you help me to the bathroom?” she called softly and inhaled sharply when Seth walked up. He offered her his hand and all she could do was shake her head in argument.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I thought you were a nurse, I can make it myself,” she explained and moved to push herself to stand. The physical therapist was riding her hard about continuing her daily exercises. But no matter how many times she walked the halls, she still felt weak. The chemo and radiation were sapping what little strength she had.

“Nonsense,” Seth argued and made a noise of disapproval when she stood and swayed on her feet. Reaching forward, he caught her by her upper arms and righted her. She froze and merely stared up into his eyes. Beautiful blue, crystalline eyes stared back at her and she didn’t miss the underlying hint of lust.

“C’mon,” he murmured. “I’ll help you to the bathroom. There’s handles you can hold on to in there. I’m sure you’re strong enough to manage, if not, I’ll go hunt down a nurse.” He slipped his arm around her waist and she felt him take the majority of her slight weight against him as he shuffled beside her.

“And how would you know what a hospital bathroom looks like?” she asked to advert some of the growing tension between them.

Seth chuckled at the drollness in her voice and smirked down at her.

“I’m a professional athlete,” he reminded her. “I’ve had my fair share of breaks, fractures and wounds. I even had to have surgery on my shoulder once,” he informed her. “They had to pin my bones after resetting them. I slid into home plate and met with the catcher’s cleat instead.”

Lucy winced when she thought about the pain he must have felt. She knew he had to love his job to endure such danger and risk of injury. But then she remembered the millions he made and figured it was an even trade-off.

They’d managed to make it to the bathroom and Seth paused, allowing her to push open the door and move across into the tiled room. She waved him away and pushed the door closed against his nose.

She managed to make it deeper into the small confines of the bathroom and work herself around to sit on the toilet. She cursed herself for not letting them put in a catheter when they’d first suggested it. No, she’d refused out of pure stubbornness and pride. She’d had no idea just how weak the treatments would make her.

Looking down at her hands, she wasn’t surprised to see them shaking. Reaching up, she wiped the slight sheen of sweat from her forehead. She contributed both to the level of exertion it had taken to get to the bathroom. Now, she faced the task of getting her bottoms and panties off and doing the actual deed.

“You alright?” Seth called from outside the closed door. “Do I need to get a nurse?” he added, his voice laced with a bit more panic. “Did you fall? Lucy, please answer me,” he asked. He didn’t wait for her to respond before the door swung open and he stood, framed in the doorway.

His dark hair was spiked and disheveled and his blue eyes were wide with worry. She couldn’t help but notice how his wide shoulders almost filled the entire empty space. His body was built more for football than baseball. She couldn’t stop the pool of lust that bloomed in her belly. Memories, long buried, rushed to life inside her and she was powerless to stop them. Sadly, she finally admitted to herself that it wasn’t lust she felt for Seth Landers; it was love.

She’d fallen in love with him the first time she’d met him. But being the shy, bookworm little sister she was, she couldn’t summon the courage to tell him. So when he offered her a night of passion, she’d surrendered to him everything she had.

She let her eyes roam from his feet upward to the rest of his body before they finally came to rest on his face. The light smattering of scruff only added to his overall appeal. Full, black eyebrows – matching his hair’s dark tone – framed his blue eyes and a strong nose, slightly crooked from a long ago break, led down to full, thoroughly kissable lips.

She blinked her eyes sheepishly and offered him a weak smile, thankful he couldn’t read her mind. She watched his shoulders relax once he realized she was alright and not sprawled unconscious on the floor. His apparent concern touched her deeply. But she couldn’t afford to think it was anything more than friendly care that prompted his uncontained panic.

She cringed at the thought of just how pitiful she looked; sitting atop the closed toilet seat, completely clothed, her face sweating and her hands shaking. Without saying a word, he squatted down in front of her and took her hands in his.

“You shouldn’t be doing this alone,” he scolded angrily and her heart sank. She missed her mom and dad so much. “Your family should be here. You deserve much more than suffering through this by yourself.”

She couldn’t help it; the tears formed and fell, leaving treks of moisture down her cheeks. All the years of pain, grief and guilt surged to the surface and she finally broke under the pressure. Once she started crying, she couldn’t stop. Great big, loud sobs of agony racked her weak body and suddenly she realized that both Seth and Jacob were holding her. Her baby running his hand up and down her prominently exposed backbone thanks to the harsh weight loss.

“It’s ok, Mommy,” Jacob whispered. “Uncle Seth and I will fix it,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Won’t we, Uncle Seth?”

“Damn straight, little buddy,” Seth agreed and Lucy shot him a disapproving glare over his choice of language. Momentarily at a disadvantage, she merely nodded her head and pulled her hand from Seth’s grip to embrace her son. She couldn’t leave him. No matter how bad the cancer got, no matter how badly it ravaged her body, she refused to give up. Her son needed her. Even if he seemed to be getting along with his father for the time being, there was no way she could know how their relationship would go if or when she told them.

They just may hate each other. Or worse, hate her.

The first step to fighting back was sucking it up; the pain, agony, desperation and weakness; it would all have to go. She couldn’t have her baby boy see her – the steadfast oak who’d always taken care of him, shielding him from every storm – fall apart from something he couldn’t even see.

Hugging her son a bit tighter against her side, she released him and raised her eyes to Seth.

“I can do this,” she stressed and inhaled deeply. “I have everyone I need.” She let the last part hang between them like a red flag. Seth’s eyes widened, but he merely gave a curt nod and opened his arms for Jacob.

“C’mon bud, Mom’s got this,” he murmured and led the little boy from the bathroom. “Call if you need anything,” he called over his shoulder. “Anything,” he repeated more sternly and Lucy didn’t miss his slight smirk.

“I think I can manage,” she quipped and pushed the door closed behind them.

It took a little time and more strength than she’d imagined, but she finally relieved her bladder, flushed the toilet and washed her hands. No sooner had she turned the water tap off than the door swung open and Seth stared at her in disapproval.

“You’re shaking all over and covered in sweat,” he observed. “You’re weak and shouldn’t be in here alone.”

Lucy waved her hand to dispel his nagging and moved toward him without taking her hands from the safety rails.

“I’m fine, just help me get back to bed, please,” she responded and smiled when he growled and took her arm. “I have a long way to go before I’m back to my old self, but I refuse to give up,” she admonished him. Pressing his lips tightly together, Seth merely nodded his head once and helped her back to her bed.


Seth

 

Seth glanced in his rearview mirror and studied the little boy napping in his booster seat. They’d stayed with Lucy until she fallen asleep – much to her dismay – Seth had suffered her wrath like a boss. Jacob wanted his mommy and dammit if Uncle Seth wouldn’t oblige him. From what he’d gathered, the kid had never been away from his mother for an extended period of time. Lucy’s brother and sister-in-law had sometimes babysat, but never overnight.

So far, mother and son had spent two nights apart. If staying up past the little guy’s bedtime allowed him some degree of comfort, then it was the least he could do.

After parking his rental, he made a mental note to get a bigger car as soon as possible and wrestled his big body across the folded front seat to extract the sleeping child from his harness of hell.

He impressed himself by making it all the way up the stairs, through the door and into Jacob’s bedroom before the boy even moved. Placing him gently on his Superman comforter, Seth set about removing the little red boots, cape and glasses. He figured letting him sleep in the blue sweat suit was harmless and tucked Jacob’s little legs under the covers.

Stepping back, he studied the sleeping child through the moonlight filtering in through his window. A paternal instinct he’d sworn he didn’t own rose to fill his chest. It both surprised and comforted him. He wouldn’t be able to play baseball forever, but he’d never given much thought to what he’d do once he retired.

Having a family certainly never entered his mind. He was still young, strong and too raring to go to think about settling down. But from the moment of Lucy’s phone call, something had shifted inside him. Sure, his first thought was of getting the gorgeous brown-eyed angel back between the sheets but the moment he’d laid eyes on her frail form and the shy, smaller, version of her, his thoughts had gone in a different direction.

“And thinkin’ is what gets you in trouble,” he mumbled to himself, and after giving Jacob one last glance over, turned to head toward the living room. A small framed picture sitting on Jacob’s dresser caught Seth’s eye and he picked it up for closer inspection.

It was a photo of Chris and Lucy, dated about seven months after Chris’s wedding. Amber stood in the background, bent over a cake and other women were lined up with plates in hand. Under closer scrutiny, Seth realized that Lucy was pregnant and the photo was taken during her baby shower.

Smiling at the glowing beauty Lucy was, he sat the picture back on the dresser and went on into the living room. Settling on the sofa, he grabbed the remote and began channel surfing for something good to watch. Even though it was a little after midnight, he wasn’t tired.

He awoke to the shrill ringing of his cell phone some time later. Realizing he’d fallen asleep, he fished around in his pocket and pulled the device out. A glance at the time showed it to be three-forty a.m. He recognized Chris’s number immediately and answered the call.

“Hey man, how’s it goin’?” Chris drawled. “Sorry it’s so late; I just couldn’t sleep and wanted to check on Lucy. I figured you could give me a better update than the nurses.”

“She’s hanging in there,” Seth explained and did his best to tramp down the sudden anger that rose at hearing his old friend’s voice. He should have been here with his sister, not some guy she’d met a long time ago. Jacob deserved to be with family and Lucy deserved familiar people to lean on. He’d seen her discomfort at needing help to the restroom. He hadn’t minded offering that help, but he could only imagine how she felt in being forced to take it.

“Ah, I hear it in your voice,” Chris observed. “You’re pissed. Look man, I’m sorry. Neither Amber nor I could get away. Believe me, I wouldn’t have suggested Lucy call you if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”

“Why doesn’t she have any female friends?” Seth demanded and had to remind himself to keep his voice down lest he wake Jacob up. “Why is she in this godforsaken town, with a son for fuck’s sake, all alone?”

“She wanted to raise her son alone,” Chris snapped. “She was afraid someone would figure out who his biological father is. She just wanted Jacob to have a normal life.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Seth argued. “Any man worth his salt would be lucky to have a kid like Jacob. The boy is smart, funny and talented as hell,” he stressed. “Tell me who this asshole is and I’ll have a talk with him.”

“It’s not that easy,” Chris said defensively.

“The hell it ain’t,” Seth argued more forcefully. “A man has the right to know if he has a kid, no matter who he is.” He frowned when he realized he’d sudden switched gears. First he was ready to rip the asshat apart and now he was defending this total stranger?

Yeah, well, you should talk to Lucy, I’m not going to chance my sister’s wrath,” Chris explained. “Besides, it’s her choice. Nobody forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

“True enough,” Seth relented and decided to let the subject drop for the time being. He and Chris fell into the friendly banter that only best friends would understand. After about an hour they said their goodbyes with Chris promising to check back soon.

Seth ended the call and felt a ball of disgust form in his stomach. Lucy – beautiful, kind, sweet and smart Lucy – was battling a disease that ravaged her body by the hour and she cared more for her son than herself.

It wasn’t the fact that she hadn’t told Jacob’s father about his son, it was the fact that she’d protected her son from a man who possibly didn’t want him.

“Uncle Seth?” a small voice called and Seth whirled to see the sleepy-eyed, hair-tousled little boy in question standing in the doorway to his room.

“Hey little man,” Seth cooed and glanced at his watch. Seeing that it was only five a.m., he knew it was still too early for the kid to be up. Something must have woken him. “What you doing up this early?” he asked and moved toward him to scoop the boy in his arms. “You should still be asleep.”

“I had a nightmare,” Jacob murmured and buried his face in the crook of Seth’s throat. An unfamiliar feeling coursed through Seth’s body. He’d never had anyone depend on him for anything. Sure, he fulfilled his contractual obligations to the Cardinals’ every year, but beyond that, his life was all about himself and no responsibilities.

Now, after all these years, he realized that it felt good to be needed for just who he was; not his talent on the diamond, not his experience with the ladies. Lucy and her son needed the man, the flesh and blood man Seth was and that meant the world to him.

Seth wrapped his arms a bit tighter around Jacob and headed back into the boy’s bedroom. Placing him gently on the bed, he stretched out beside him. Jacob’s little fingers clenched the front of Seth’s t-shirt and this caused him to smile.

It felt great to be needed. It was a feeling he could definitely get used to.

“How about I stay with you while you take a nap?” Seth murmured and turned onto his side, extracting Jacob’s fingers from his shirt and laying his arm across the boy’s stomach.

“You won’t leave me?” Jacob asked, his voice small and hesitant.

“Never,” Seth answered with a conviction he didn’t know resided within him.

Seth decided that – Jacob willing – he’d drop the boy off at daycare later this morning and go visit Lucy alone. He wanted to talk to her about Jacob’s father and his right to know he had a son. No, it wasn’t his business, but he was making it his. He’d grown really fond of the little boy and the thought of another man in his life made Seth jealous, but the kid deserved to know his biological father. 

It wasn’t that he questioned Lucy’s parenting abilities, quite the opposite. The woman was phenomenal as a mother. Her entire life revolved around her little boy and that, itself, was admirable.


Lucy

Lucy shuffled into her room, her I.V. stand in tow and barely made it to the bed before her knees gave out. She’d walked the entire hallway of the fifth floor three times and it had taken sheer will to make it. Her body resisted with every step. The aches, pains and weakness told her that she didn’t have the strength, she wouldn’t make it, and that she should just go back to bed and rest.

But she’d ignored the nagging voice and kept going. She kept images of her baby in the foremost of her mind and it had served as fuel for her trek. Now that she was back in the confines of her room, she shoved the metal rack to the bedside and all but fell face first onto the uncomfortable bed.

“Need some help?” a familiar male voice inquired from the open door.

Lucy closed her eyes and groaned. Thank God she’d actually donned a matching pajama set. Had she been clad in the ordinary hospital gown, her skinny white butt would have been shining like the full moon.

She wiggled around until she lay on her back and her frail legs dangled from the bedside. She offered Seth a timid smile and nodded once.

“Help me get my legs on the bed?” she asked. “I think I overdid my daily physical therapy,” she finished and sighed heavily.

Seth – the tall, muscular, healthy athlete – strode forward and cupped her diminished calves in his wide, capable hands. Gently he raised her legs and placed them on the bed and observed as she wiggled around and got as comfortable as possible.

“Where’s Jacob?” she asked once she noticed her baby’s absence.

“I dropped him off at daycare,” Seth explained. “I think he needed some playtime with kids his own age, he was starting to act like me,” he quipped and she inhaled sharply. “You know, scratching his ass and burping involuntarily,” Seth finished with a chuckle.

Lucy relaxed and for the hundredth time questioned her decision to keep such important news to herself. Jacob had never seemed to want a father figure, but now that Seth had come around it was like the man filled a gap neither she nor her son knew was missing.

Chris had nagged her, ever since she’d found out she was pregnant, to tell Seth the truth. Her brother was dead sure his friend would do the right thing. But fear kept her lips firmly shut and only the threat of never speaking to him again kept Chris from doing it himself.

Slightly nervous with it being just the two of them, Lucy reached down and tugged at the hem of her shirt, pulling it lower over her stomach. Barely twenty-six years old, she should’ve had a rocking body. But being pregnant and now having cancer had done terrible things to her.

“Why haven’t you told Jacob’s father about him?” Seth blurted and Lucy jerked so hard she nearly fell off the other side of the bed. “Both he and the boy deserve to know.”

“That’s personal,” Lucy answered and continued fidgeting with her clothes. Had Chris said something to Seth? Had he figured it out? She’d never been good at gauging other people. This conversation wasn’t one she was ready to have, so she turned to look up at Seth and smiled.

“If or when the time comes, I will,” she assured.

“When Jacob gets older and demands to know about his absent father?” Seth asked in a slightly raised voice. “Do you honestly think any man wouldn’t be proud to have such a wonderful son? The boy is a gift.”

Seth turned and grabbed the visitor’s chair from the corner and dragged it to Lucy’s bedside. Flopping down into it, he reached up and ran thick fingers through inky black spikes.

Even disheveled, Lucy found him gorgeous. Most women did, she reminded herself. She couldn’t subject Jacob to a father who wasn’t ready to be a father. Seth’s professional career was too important to him to settle down.

“It’s none of your business,” Lucy murmured softly. “If you’re tired of watching him, I’ll find someone else.”

“You have no one else,” Seth snapped and raised narrowed eyes at her. “You’ve pushed everyone away from fear they would spill your dirty little secret,” he accused. “I’m not tired of watching him, I love spending time with him. I just can’t help thinking about all the time his father has missed and you don’t have the right to keep him from the man who would love him.”

Lucy’s eyes narrowed in response and she felt the fires of hell blazing within her blood. How dare this man – this stranger – lecture her? Where had he been these past four years? Oh, that’s right; he’d been partying with every slut he could find. He’d been neck deep up his own ass. Maybe if he’d had a plexi-glass belly button he would’ve known. What would he have done had she told him? Possibly sent a monthly check and called it good?

“Excuse the hell out of me,” Lucy barked. “I have trust issues and with good reason. The only man I’ve ever allowed myself to be vulnerable with left me high and dry mere hours after he’d gotten what he wanted.”
“Is that what all this is about?” Seth demanded and surged to his feet. “You’re punishing this child because you and I had a one-night stand over five years ago?”

“I’m not punishing him,” she argued vehemently. “I’m protecting him.”

“From, what?” Seth demanded in exasperation. “Just what exactly are you protecting him from? Having friends, loved ones he can count on in his times of need, of letting himself care for someone who isn’t his mother?”

“I’m protecting him from the same man who threw me away without a thought,” she fired back and immediately wished the words back. But what was said couldn’t be unsaid just like what was done couldn’t be undone.              

There it was; no going back now. Blazing hot fear roared to life in her belly. What had she done? She’d been so careful all these years and now the secret she would’ve died to protect came rushing out, on a trail of red hot temper and the kicker was the fact that she’d told the one person she didn’t want to know.

Seth stopped pacing abruptly and just stood with his back to her. She cursed her temper but she mostly cursed her heart. She’d known, all those years ago, that she’d fallen in love with Seth and it was the kind of love that transcended time. The kind women read about in romance novels or watched on television. But being the shy, young and inexperienced girl that she was, she’d kept it to herself.

After all, how could such a hot guy with a bright future see anything in her? She was nothing more than a geeky librarian. He was the type of man to walk around with a supermodel on his arm. 

“Oh my God,” he whispered, jarring Lucy from her rampant thoughts and regrets. “It’s all been right before me the entire time. Why didn’t I figure it out sooner?” His breath hitched and it sounded like someone had punched him in the stomach. Lucy frowned and for a brief moment thought perhaps he was crying.

“Probably because you didn’t want to,” another male voice announced from the still-open door.

Lucy’s eyes widened when she saw her brother standing there, hands hidden in a bouquet of yellow daises. She hadn’t been expecting him so soon and was more than glad to see him. Glad wasn’t exactly the right word; she was relieved. Now she wouldn’t have to deal with this fallout all on her own.


Seth

Seth tried but failed to calm his racing heart. Thinking back to the framed picture in Jacob’s room he recounted the date. All the pieces started clicking into place. It didn’t take much imagination to see himself in Jacob’s eyes.

He had a son.

He had a smart, gifted and fine-looking son.

Inhaling deeply, he turned to first face Chris.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked hoarsely. He tried his best to keep from lashing out at his old friend. The man had plenty of time in which he could’ve told him. Hell, he could’ve told him last night.

Chris shrugged and moved into the room to place the vase of flowers on the table by Lucy’s bed. Seth noticed that they had little red sticks strategically placed throughout the flowers with little red hearts sitting atop the tips. It reminded him of how Valentine’s Day was nearing; in his haste to get to Lucy, he’d all but forgotten about Cupid, the ugly kid in a diaper carrying the bow and arrows of love.

Chris leaned down and kissed his sister on the forehead, offering her a smile before turning back to Seth.

“It wasn’t my place or my decision,” Chris explained simply. “But just so you know, I’ve been on her for years to tell you. I knew you’d do the right thing,” he clarified and closed the distance between them for a thorough man hug. “It’s good to see you.”

Seth thumped his buddy soundly on the back and turned his eyes back to the mother of his child. Malnourished, weak and body ravaged with an incurable illness, but still beautiful beyond measure. No matter how many women he’d had over the years, he’d never felt anything toward them; nothing that compared to the way he felt about Lucy. The revelation hit him like a lightning bolt.

Had he known they’d had a son, he would’ve dropped everything and ran to her. His big, cushy lifestyle be damned. He’d have given it all up in a New York minute and that thought alone shocked him to his core. When had he gotten so soft? When had he gone from partying all hours of the night to being a responsible adult? How the hell had it happened and when?

Regardless, his heart swelled in his chest and he knew. He’d lied to himself all his life. He did want a family, he did want children. He wanted it all and he wanted it with Lucy and Jacob.

But, in retrospect, had she told him back then, he probably would’ve insisted she had an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. He hadn’t been ready back then, but now he was and it was that knowledge alone that finally made him understand why she’d kept it from him. She’d been mature enough to do the right thing for both of them and even though it cost him and his son four years, it gave them a lifetime to make it up.

If she let him and ‘if’ was a big word. He hadn’t exactly proven to her that he was as changed as he realized he was. Sure, he’d dropped everything and flown into town the moment she called him. But he’d done it thinking they’d rekindle a little romance from years past. Yes, he’d taken care of Jacob for a couple days, but being a dad 24/7 was a different story. He knew he’d have to prove himself far more capable and somewhere deep down, a need to have her approval roared to life. 

If it came down to it, he would beg her to have him, flaws and all. And he would refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. Especially not after seeing the way she looked at him; more correctly, not after understanding the way she looked at him. 

Not for the first time since he’d been back in Pennsylvania, he saw the admiration and the love in her eyes and recognized it for what it was. How long had she felt that way for him?

“You should’ve told me,” Seth declared and moved to her side. Since Chris had lowered himself into the visitor’s chair, Seth sat on the edge of Lucy’s bed. Her feeble body didn’t occupy much room, but she moved her legs over anyway to allow him plenty of space.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked even though he knew the answer. He wanted to hear what she had to say.

“Are you kidding me?” Lucy snapped, her face flushing red. “Tell mister-big-league-baseball player; a new woman for every night of the week, that he had a son he repeatedly confirmed he didn’t want? How many times have you mentioned in an interview that a family and children wasn’t in your plans? You dare sit here and ask me why I didn’t tell you?” Her ragged breath rushed in and out and she reached up to place a hand over the center of her chest. He saw just how upset she was and it was that knowledge alone that convinced him to stop nagging her.

Although her words stung him like a stake through the heart, she was right. He was mad as hell at her, but he couldn’t blame her for her decision to keep Jacob safe from his father’s media-crazed life. Hell, even Seth feared what the paparazzi would print about him next. Could he really drag an innocent child into that kind of life?

“Are you going to take him away from me now that you know?” Lucy asked in a small voice.

Chris cursed, lunged to his feet and paced away from them to close the door.

“Of course he’s not,” Chris answered succinctly. “Tell her Seth; tell her you wouldn’t do that.”

Seth shook his head, tears forming in his eyes.

“No,” he admitted softly. “I’d never take that child away from his mother. I’d never take him away from you,” he murmured and reached down to take Lucy’s hand in his. “I’m here now and that’s all that counts.”

Chris reclaimed his seat and reached forward to pat Lucy gently on the arm.

“I’m here until the end of February and Amber will be in a few days before the fourteenth,” her brother informed her and Seth felt fear clench in his gut. Were they going to ask him to leave now that he wasn’t needed anymore?

“It’s my off season,” Seth interrupted, hoping to stave off any suggestions he pack up and head off. “I’d like to stay and get to know Jacob a little better.”

Lucy’s eyes went from Seth’s to her brother. She was silently asking him for his opinion and in the end; Chris must have conveyed something because she turned back to Seth and nodded curtly.

“Of course,” she agreed. “I just have one request,” she informed. “You don’t tell him. I made this mess, it’s mine to clean up,” she said.

“I’ll agree, on one stipulation,” Seth rebounded. “I’m here when you tell him,” he said. “I’ve left him high and dry for too long now, it’s time I make it up to him.”

Lucy didn’t respond, she just merely nodded.


Lucy

 

“What am I going to do?” Lucy asked in a voice high with desperation. She paced the small living room of the apartment she shared with her four-year-old son Jacob.

Call him,” her brother Chris advised softly from the other end of the phone receiver held to her ear. “You’ve kept this from him long enough. Do you have any idea how hard it was keeping it from Mom and Dad?” he demanded.

Lucy laughed hysterically. The mere thought of rich, famous Seth Landers finding out he has a secret son would make huge headlines and that was the main reason she’d kept it from him. She didn’t want her son exposed to that kind of life.

You never should have kept this from him,” Chris admonished and she rolled her eyes at the years’ old argument.

“I never should have told you,” she snapped and instantly felt guilty. It wasn’t Chris’s fault that she’d fallen for her brother’s gorgeous best friend from college. She’d met Seth a little over five years ago, while she, herself, was only a college sophomore.

Seth had come back to town to act as best man in Chris’s wedding and after one alcohol-hazed night, he’d left Erie, Pennsylvania, and Lucy in his rearview mirror. The town wasn’t affected as much as Lucy – she’d been pregnant with Seth’s child.

He’d gone on to sign with the St. Louis Cardinal’s professional baseball team and now had a reoccurring multi-million dollar contract. He loved his high-rolling, celebrity lifestyle and the spotlight it gave him. He’d gone on record numerous times saying how he wasn’t the type to settle down with just one woman and he adamantly claimed not to want children.

Lucy, a straight-A student who loved nothing but studying and collecting books, couldn’t stand the thought of her son being used as cannon fodder for some money-grubbing newspaper or tabloid trash. So, she’d kept Jacob’s existence a secret.

It had worked fine for four years now.

Chris inhaled deeply on the other end of the call. Having moved to San Francisco, California shortly after getting married, he kept in constant contact with his little sister. Ever since she’d gotten pregnant and refused to reveal the father, her parent’s had virtually disowned her. They’d died in a freak car accident a month before Jacob was born. Chris was the only family she had left.

You can’t do this alone, Luce,” her brother said. “You’re gonna need help.

“And you’re sure neither you nor Amber can come?” she asked again. He’d already told her they couldn’t get the time off of work, but it didn’t hurt to ask again.

I’m sorry, sweetpea, I wish we could, but Amber just got this big promotion and I need all the hours I can clock for the mortgage. I know it sounds like we’re brushing you off, but I promise you, I’m not. I can’t take any time off until next month and then God Himself won’t stop me, you just need to make it until then -” He trailed off.

“And it isn’t like I can get a babysitter,” Lucy admitted. “This is a 24/7 therapy treatment and they won’t let Jacob stay with me.” No matter how badly she didn’t want to call on Seth, she slowly realized she had no other choice.

So, bite the bullet and call him. If he’s an ass, then you let me know and I’ll beat him senseless,” Chris threatened. “But honestly, I can’t see him turning his back on his own flesh and blood.

Lucy caved at her brother’s trust and faith in his friend. Maybe she had been wrong about Seth, maybe she did owe it to him. Mind made up, she decided she’d call him and ask for help, but she refused to throw Jacob in the line of fire just yet. If Seth came and actually showed some interest in being with her son, then maybe she’d tell him. Only time would tell.


Seth

Seth Landers ran his fingers through his spiky, black hair and laughed at the naughty girl sitting next to him. She leaned against him, her breasts pressed as tightly against his bicep as possible and whispered really interesting things in his ear.

Or, at least what he managed to hear was naughty. The pounding bass pumping through the club’s speakers managed to drown out pretty much everything. Her makeup seemed exotic but he knew the flashing, fluorescent lights always camouflaged the smallest flaws. Even though she looked like Marilyn Monroe at the moment, she was probably more of a Molly Toothless in reality.

But hell, he didn’t care. His beer goggles were on tight and he was ready for whatever ride she provided. Even though it was nearing the later part of January, folks were already enjoying the Valentine’s Day theme. Red streamers hung from the ceiling, the warm air filtering from the vents making them wave and dance.

Every song related to love – or sex – in some form or fashion. In his opinion, Valentine’s Day was the single man’s Christmas. There were so many lonely women and so little time to satisfy them all. The holiday was nothing more than a bachelor’s paradise so he’d taken a head start this year and hit the clubs. Imagine his amazement when he realized that he wasn’t the only one who’d had the same idea.

Women crowded the club, their bodies on display for any onlooker. Desperation clung to them like cheap perfume. Seth counted himself lucky he’d found one that looked decent enough.

“C’mon baby,” she cooed, snapping his attention back to the here and now. She smiled and scooted across the seat to exit their booth, her hand grabbing his and urging him along behind her. “Let’s go someplace a little quieter.”

Seth nodded and tossed a few bills on the table to cover their drinks and followed her lead. Once on his feet, he slung his arm around her shoulders and laughed when they both weaved and wobbled their way to the door. Shoving through the blacked out door, he inhaled sharply when the cold Missouri air hit him square in the face. January in Saint Louis was the coldest time of the year.

Shaking his head to dispel the sudden onset of ringing in his ears, he frowned when it didn’t work.

The girl squinted down at his jacket pocket.

“I think your pocket’s ringing,” she slurred and then giggled for no apparent reason.

Seth pulled away from her and dug in his pocket until he found the offensive little device. Pulling it out, a familiar face from years ago flashed across his screen and he sobered in a hurry.

But before he could hit the send button to answer, the connection dropped. His eyes flicked to the signal strength on his screen and he noted he had full service. Had she lost connection?

The little screen went black as he stood there and let his thoughts run wild. He’d had it pretty bad for his best friend’s little sister ever since he first laid eyes on her.

Seth had rolled into town to act as best man for his bud’s wedding and this little slip of a college sophomore flat out stole his breath. 

He remembered that day as clear as if it were yesterday.

He’d pulled his rental car up in front of the Conlay’s modest brick home. A petite girl with a long, bouncy ponytail knelt in the front yard gathering the contents of a spilled bag. He’d rushed from his car to help her scoop the books and papers before the wind carried them away.

Contents safely returned to her backpack, they rose and the moment their eyes met, Seth’s heart lurched in excitement. 

He faced five-feet-seven-inches of the most adorable bookworm he’d ever met; her big, brown, doe-eyes nearly cut him off at the knees. He still remembered what she’d been wearing that day as well: a yellow sundress with a pair of those little white tennis shoes.

Shaking his head to clear the lustful fog settling over him, he swiped the screen to the right and held his hand up to his drunken date, motioning for her to be quiet. He then waited for Lucy to answer the call.

She picked up on the fourth ring.

Seth?” she whispered. “I’m sorry it’s so late, I didn’t mean to wake you.

“Nah, Luce,” he scoffed. “It’s good to hear from you. What’s it been – six years?” he asked and batted his hand when the drunken woman grabbed at his arm, her face scrunched in a jealous sneer.

More like five years, give or take a few months,” she answered drolly.

Seth laughed at her sassiness, his gut feeling a warmth that had nothing to do with alcohol.             

He’d instantly fell in lust with her the day they’d met, so when he had the chance to spend some one-on-one time with her after Chris’s wedding, he fulfilled his fantasies by giving her the night of her life. A small part of him hated leaving her behind the next morning, but she just wasn’t a good fit for the lifestyle he’d wanted.

She was the kind of woman a man settled down with, raised a family with and grew old with. Three things he didn’t want.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this little call?” he asked playfully and then scowled at himself. The alcohol was messing with his mojo.

I need your help,” Lucy admitted gently.

Sensing a chance to rekindle some romance, Seth shoved his date back inside the club and pushed the door shut behind her. Leaning against it, he put all his weight into keeping her inside while he made other plans.

“When and where darlin’?” he drawled. “Give me the details and I’ll be there,” he promised.

***

“Why can’t I go with you, Mommy?” Jacob asked in a low and frightened voice. “I don’t want to stay with a sitter, I want you,” he insisted and Lucy pressed her eyelids closed to avert the tears.

She’d had no idea how difficult it would be to look down into her baby’s big blue eyes and tell him that he had to stay with a stranger while Mommy went to the hospital to get better. The only time he’d been out of her sight was when she’d gone to work; barring that, the duo were never far from one another.

When she’d gotten the Librarian position at Erie’s public library, she’d found Jacob a day care just next door. That convenience allowed her to see him on days when the library sponsored children’s activities. She took solace in knowing he was just next door and she could pop over to see him anytime she’d wanted to.

He only had a few more months and then he’d be ready for kindergarten.  She wasn’t sure how either of them would handle that step, but she vowed to cross that bridge when the time came.

She set the shirt she’d been folding down on her bed and knelt before her son. Little tears escaped his eyes, snaking shiny, moist patches down over his baby cheeks. She took his glasses and dabbed at his eyes with a tissue.

“I know sweetie,” she cooed reassuringly. “I don’t like this either, but Mommy has to get better and the doctors need me to stay there while they give me medicine.” Shoving his little glasses back onto his freckle-smattered nose, she bent down and gave him a quick peck on his protruding lips.

“You get to stay right here at home and Mr. Seth is Uncle Chris’s best friend, so you’ll be just fine with him. I’ve made him a list of all your favorite foods and television shows -” Her voice trailed off when anxiety caused her chest wall to tighten to the point of hyperventilation. Taking a deep breath, she released it slowly and did her best to smile.

“Uncle Chris will call and check on you and you can come visit me, can you be a big boy for me?” Lucy asked with a pasted smile on her face.

Jacob tucked his chin and hugged the raggedy teddy bear a little tighter to his chest. He nodded gently and climbed up on the bed to watch her pack.

She’d just zipped the rolling suitcase closed when someone knocked on their door. Jacob jumped at the unexpected pounding and gripped his bear a little tighter.

Lucy inhaled deeply and steeled herself for the upcoming performance. She looked back down at her son and prayed Seth wouldn’t see himself in the boy’s eyes like she did. Her baby had taken after his father in every way but two: he had his mother’s bad eyesight and he was shy to the point of terror; which was in direct contrast to Seth’s confidence.

“You ready to meet Mr. Seth?” Lucy asked Jacob and held her hand out for him to take. He nodded once and slipped his small fingers through hers.

Seth

Seth popped a mint in his mouth and ran his hands through the thick black spikes on his head. After hanging up with Lucy, he’d gone straight home, tossed some clothes in a gym bag and hopped the next flight out. Upon arrival at Erie International Airport, he’d promptly rented a car – a 2017 candy apple red Ford Mustang GT – and hauled ass to her apartment complex.

It was the longest fifteen miles of his life. He glanced down at his watch and the indigo blue digits read 5:27 a.m. Damn, he’d made good time, he thought to himself.  After one last, deep, breath, he raised his hand and knocked twice.

However, he wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotions that assaulted him with she opened the door. Although a small woman to begin with, Lucy’s petite frame barely managed to hold her skin on her bones, her hollow cheek bones and drooping eyes betrayed her condition without her uttering a word. Fear tore through Seth on a level he’d never felt before.

“Seth,” Lucy greeted him softly. “Thank you for getting here so quickly. I’m sorry I bothered you with this, I just don’t have anyone else to turn to,” she apologized and moved aside to allow him room to pass.

Narrowing his eyes, Seth studied the gray pallor of her once vibrant skin, and pressed his lips firmly shut as he brushed past her into the small, yet cozy apartment. Mismatched furniture spread throughout the simple flow of rooms. He dropped his duffel bag on the butternut yellow sofa and let his eyes roam past the living room to the kitchen – slash – dining room beyond where a small dining table and four chairs sat in the far right corner.

It was clean to the point of immaculate and he remembered that Lucy had been a neat freak. To his right were two rooms – a bedroom on the right and a painfully small bathroom on the left. To his left was another bedroom, a bit larger than the other. 

Frowning, Seth realized he could fit her entire apartment in his bathroom alone. How had she ended up like this? A straight-A student with a promising future in Journalism, Lucy was the smartest person he’d ever met.

Turning back to face her, his eyes widened when they landed on a smaller person standing beside Lucy, his little fingers clinging tightly to her leg.

“And who is this big guy?” Seth asked gently, squatting so he was almost eye level with the child.              

“Are you really my Uncle Chris’s best friend?” the little boy demanded suddenly, his own blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. Using a small finger, he reached up and pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

Uncle Chris? Seth pondered. As revelation hit, his eyes went from the boy’s to Lucy’s and he raised his eyebrows in question. Lucy answered by slowly shaking her head and then smoothing her hand over the top of the little one’s spiky black hair.

“Jacob, this is Mr. Seth Landers,” she introduced gently. “Seth, this is my son, Jacob Conlay.”

“Seth Landers?” Jacob squealed in delight, his shyness all but disappearing in a blur of excitement Lucy rarely seen. “You’re the pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals,” the little boy shrieked. “Mommy, I know him,” he insisted gleefully and reached up to pull on her loose t-shirt. “This is Uncle Chris’s best friend?” he asked again as if he couldn’t wrap his little mind around the fact that his uncle was friends with a famous person.

Seth chuckled good-naturedly at the little boy and extended his hand.

“Nice to meet you, buddy, it’s always awesome to meet a fan,” he said, genuinely touched that his fan-following reached a younger audience as well as adults.

Lucy smiled as her shy little son came out from behind her and started talking baseball with Seth. She hadn’t known he would recognize Seth from the games he watched on television.

On more than one occasion, she caught Seth studying Jacob’s eyes and hair and hoped he didn’t put two-and-two together. She wasn’t ready to tell either of them just yet. She had to make sure they’d get along and only then Seth would have to show concrete interest in her baby before she shoved him in front of that particular bus.

“Jacob,” Lucy called her son. “Why don’t you go find your card collection for Mr. Seth while he and I have a little grown-up talk?”

Jacob nodded at his mother and then leaned closer to Seth’s ear.

“That means she doesn’t want me to hear what you talk about,” Jacob whispered conspiratorially and patted Seth on the shoulder in sympathy. “I hope you’re not in trouble,” he added and then raced off to his room, which Seth noticed was the one beside the minute bathroom.

Rising back to his feet, Seth turned inquisitive eyes on Lucy and smiled when he noticed she squirmed nervously.

“Looks like we have some catchin’ up to do,” Seth drawled and jammed his hands into his jean’s pockets.

Lucy nodded and pulled her open hoodie most snugly around her frail body.

“Would you like some coffee?” she asked. “I have two hours before I have to be at the clinic.”

“Coffee sounds good,” Seth agreed. For some reason, he suddenly wanted to pull her into his embrace and hold her and ‘never let her go’ echoed throughout his mind. He also wanted to go get a truckload of food and feed her until her skin was pink and healthy again.

“You can tell me just what exactly is goin’ on in the meantime,” he suggested and didn’t miss the way her shoulders instantly stiffened.

“Yes,” she agreed reluctantly. “I asked a big favor of you, I’ll explain.”

With a curt nod, she turned and headed into the little kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinet above the double sink. After loading the coffee maker, she turned back to Seth and motioned for him to sit with her at the dining table.

“As you can see, I’m not in the best health,” Lucy explained. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over two months ago.”

Seth’s heart lurched when Lucy said the word “cancer.” Like most people, when he thought about that fatal condition, fear seized him. Both his parents had died from different types of it, and he knew very well how it affected not just the patient, but their families as well.

“Why didn’t you ask a friend to help you?” Seth demanded when he realized she’d been dealing with the situation on her own all this time. “Why isn’t Chris or Amber here?”

Lucy sighed and dropped her head onto the tiny table. For a moment Seth thought she’d passed out, but before he could react, she sat back up and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her hoodie.

“I don’t have any friends,” she admitted. “Jacob is my life. Between work and my son, I don’t have time to mingle with the natives,” she snapped.

When Seth sat back in his chair and crossed his arms in defense, her angry expression fell.

“I’m sorry,” she quickly apologized. “I’m tired. I’m always so tired,” she confessed and sniffled. “Up until now, Chris has been flying in to sit with Jacob, but now that I need chemotherapy and radiation, I’ll need to stay around the clock at the hospital for a couple of weeks. Chris doesn’t have time off available and Amber just got a promotion, so she can’t leave work yet. But I promise you, just as soon as Chris is able, he’ll be here and you can go about your life.”

“Hey,” Seth barked in resentment and quickly placed his hand on her shoulder when she started to get up. “I’m not complaining. Chris is like a brother to me -” His voice trailed off when his next thought was that Lucy was anything but like a little sister. How did he explain his affection and tie to her? How could he without sounding like a player or perv?

“You and I shared a connection,” he insisted and was pleased with his choice of words. “We had a great time and I’d like to think we could consider ourselves friends at this point. When my friends need me, I’m there,” he insisted. He nodded to accentuate his pleasure with the speech.

Lucy sniffled again and mopped at the tear treks on her face; her long sleeves flapping with the motion. They were at least two inches too long for her and upon closer inspection; he realized all her clothes appeared at least two sizes too large for her.

“Thank you,” she murmured, snapping him out of his scrutinizing gaze. “You have no idea how hard it was to call you,” she admitted and Seth felt insulted for a brief moment. But he quickly reminded himself that he hadn’t so much as called or texted her since their one-night stand, so what reason would she have to turn to him?

“Don’t worry,” Seth patted her shoulder again. “Uncle Seth is here and I’ll take care of Jacob while you get yourself better.”

Lucy smiled and nodded before rising to go pour them both a cup of coffee. Watching her as she moved away from him, Seth couldn’t help but feel like he’d finally come home. All the money, flashy cars, mansion, loose girls; none of it made him feel as complete as being with Lucy in her shabby little apartment.

But just as quickly as those thoughts occurred, he banished them to the far recesses of his mind. After losing his parents, he’d vowed to never again love anyone. If he didn’t love anyone, he wouldn’t be hurt when he lost them. And Lucy now Lucy has the same disease that took his parents away from him.

He didn’t love Lucy, couldn’t love Lucy, or her son. He didn’t want that kind of life. Marriage was for poor, ordinary schmucks, not for superstars like him. And kids, the last thing he wanted was a little Seth Landers running around. Ah, hell no, he thought to himself. He was perfectly happy with his fast lifestyle; the love ‘em and leave ‘em method. He didn’t need anything or anyone else. 

“Yea, just keep tellin’ yourself that bud,” he murmured softly to himself.


Lucy

 

Lucy tried to pour two cups of coffee without spilling it all over the place. Her hands trembled so bad, she feared she’d drop the carafe.

So far, so good. She’d managed to stick to the basics. No extended excuses or explanations. She didn’t want to outright lie to him, but should he prove to be undependable or unsuitable for Jacob, she’d take this secret to the grave. She just hoped Chris came soon.

Taking a tray, she placed both cups on it, along with the sugar and cream bowls. She wasn’t sure if he’d eaten or not, so she grabbed a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the pantry. She headed back into the dining area with the loaded tray and jumped when Seth leapt from his seat to take it from her.

“Let me get that,” he murmured and Lucy thought she saw a faint blush creep up his neck. The action touched her deeply but she firmly reminded herself that he hadn’t wanted the kind of lifestyle she lived. No family for him.

“Thank you,” Lucy said and reclaimed her chair. Seth grabbed a cup and began sipping the black liquid straight. Cringing at the thought of that bitter, vile flavor, Lucy set to loading hers with sugar and cream. Taking a cookie, she nibbled at it and sipped at her delicious drink.

“So,” Seth broke the silence after a few awkward moments of sipping and nibbling. “What have they done so far in the form of treatment?” he asked. “You mentioned goin’ in for chemo and radiation.”

Lucy sat her cup back on the table and brushed some stray crumbs from her lap.

“After the mammogram detected the cyst, they surgically removed it and when the biopsy came back malignant, they went back in and removed all the surrounding tissue,” she explained. “It wouldn’t be enough to merely remove my breast, so the next step is chemo.” Her hand immediately went to her ponytail. She hated the thought of her thick hair falling out but given the choice between death or losing her hair, she’d be bald any day.

She’d already bought a wig in anticipation. Her doctor had assured her that they’d caught it early enough that she’d pull through, but warned that the chemo and radiation would drastically weaken her. She’d already lost close to forty pounds out of pure stress. She’d been warned that she’d lose much more before it all ended.

She released her ponytail and reclaimed her cup, using the warmth emanating from the ceramic receptacle as comfort. She hadn’t gone into much detail with Chris and she refused to with Seth. She’d already had a Last Will drawn up, declaring Chris and Amber as Jacob’s guardians.

“What are my marchin’ orders Commander?” Seth asked and Lucy laughed, allowing some of the tension to leave her body with the expression. His charisma was one of the things that had once attracted her to Seth. That, and his sheer sexiness.

She rose from the table and went to her bedroom to retrieve the folder she’d put together after getting off the phone with Seth last night. Walking back into the living room, she stopped when she saw that Jacob had found his baseball cards and were currently showing them to Seth. Her breath hitched when she watched her little boy crawl into Seth’s lap and settle himself before engaging in a conversation as old as time.

Heading over to them, she gently placed the folder on the table and froze when two identical sets of blue eyes rose to meet hers.

Lord help me, she thought to herself. I think I have a higher chance of surviving the cancer than this.

Nodding toward the folder, she filled Seth in on everything he needed to know in order to take care of Jacob. She hated leaving her son in the hands of a virtual stranger, but knew she had no choice. She rattled off Jacob’s food allergies, reiterated his bedtime – much to the little boy’s aggravation – and stressed that they were not, under any circumstances, to leave town, throw a party, make long distance phone calls or invite any girls over.

Jacob laughed, but she caught a gleam of resentment in Seth’s eyes. She’d evidently hit a nerve with him but ignored his reaction in lieu of pulling her son into her arms for one last cuddle.

“I love you, Little Bit,” she murmured and placed him back on his feet beside Seth’s chair. “Be good for Mr. Seth and he’ll bring you to see me soon.” Leaning down, she pressed a kiss to his forehead and ruffled his hair playfully.

“Do I get a kiss too?” Seth inquired and Lucy merely laughed and shook her head.

“No kisses for the babysitter,” she informed him with a smile. “Take care of my son,” she challenged gently. “This is a big job. I’ve never trusted anyone but my brother, his wife and daycare with him.”

Seth nodded, his face serious and solemn. 

“I swear on my pitchin’ arm that he is in good hands,” he boasted and pulled the child back into his lap, tickling his ribs gently.

Lucy smiled, retrieved her rolling suitcase and left the two of them alone, wrestling and laughing. She thanked God she left to the sounds of laughter and happiness instead of wails of fear and a child’s tantrum. 


Seth

 

Two days later…

 

“C’mon buddy, we have to get goin’ before we miss visitin’ hours,” Seth called from the kitchen where he was busy rinsing his coffee mug. He’d enjoyed two fun-filled days with a walking question-machine. He’d been asked everything from how he’d learned to throw a ball so fast, to where babies came from?

The first was easy to explain, the second; not so much. With a hasty “they come from Target,” he’d managed to appease the little guy’s curiosity long enough to get him interested in something else.

Both bath time and bed time had been tricky, but together they’d muddled through it. Seth hadn’t had much success getting the kid to brush his teeth, but hey, they were just baby teeth and he’d lose them anyway, so did it really matter in the long run?

They’d gorged on pizza, chips and cola to the point that Seth feared the kid would develop diabetes or high blood pressure, but at the end of the day – after bath time – he’d found great pleasure in relaxing on the worn sofa and watching cartoons with the little guy.

They’d also played so many games on the Wii that’d he soon found himself having more fun than he’d ever thought possible; especially considering he’d been the responsible one at the party. Jacob was the smartest, bravest and most interesting kid Seth had ever met.

He marveled at how Lucy had managed to raise such a perfect kid. He’d had so much fun, that he’d soon found himself wondering if he’d be a good father.

“I’m ready,” a small voice declared from the kitchen doorway. Seth turned and nearly doubled over in laughter.

“You sure you wanna wear that?” he asked after pulling himself together.

Jacob looked down at his blue sweat-suit, red cape and boots and then back at Seth.

“Why not?” Jacob challenged with a familiar gleam in his eye. Seth knew the look well; he’d used it often in his own youth. It hadn’t taken many instances to realize the method didn’t work for him, he decided to let the kid have this one.

“Looks good to me,” Seth agreed. “Grab your coat,” he insisted and grabbing the apartment keys Lucy left for him, they headed for the hospital.

Seth pulled his rental car into the hospital visitor’s parking lot and cursed his choice to go with the flashy sports car. Of course, he’d thought to impress his former lover with a hot car before he’d known the circumstances of her request for help. He tilted the rearview mirror and studied the kid in the back seat.

He’d had hell getting the booster seat strapped into the crowded area and knew Jacob wasn’t exactly comfortable as the seat raised him enough so that his head touched the headliner of the car.

“Sorry bud,” Seth murmured. “I guess I should have gotten a minivan huh?”

Jacob smiled and shoved his glasses back onto his nose. Seth had figured out the kid had the habit of doing that when he was nervous.

“Don’t worry,” Seth reassured Jacob and turned the car off. “I know your mom is excited to see you,” he said and got out of the car, heading around to the passenger side so he could get Jacob from the back.

“I know,” Jacob replied after he’d gotten out and reached for Seth’s hand. “I just hope she’s feeling better.”

Suddenly inspiration struck like a bolt of lightning. As they headed through the automatic double doors of the front entrance, Seth spotted the gift shop.

“How about we stop at the flower shop and get your mom some flowers?” Seth suggested and laughed when Jacob grinned up at him.              

They shopped long enough for Jacob to pick out some yellow daisies, which he claimed was his mom’s favorite flower and then they rode the elevator to the fifth floor. Seth made sure to keep a firm grip on Jacob’s tiny hand lest they get separated. He feared Lucy’s wrath should anything happen to her son while in his care.

Jacob, clad in his superman outfit, stepped off the elevator gripping the slender vase of flowers with both hands. Seth tucked his finger in the neckline of Jacob’s red cape and turned him toward the nurse’s station when his little red boots veered off to the left.

“We’re here to see Lucy Conlay,” Seth spoke softly to the young blonde-headed nurse when she smiled up at him.

“Visiting hours is for family only,” she announced and continued to smile up at him. “Are you family?” she asked and Seth didn’t miss the salacious gleam in her eyes. Realizing the pretty little thing was asking if he was Lucy’s boyfriend or husband, a cocky grin spread across his face and he leaned one arm on the waist high partition between them.

“I’m an old friend of the family,” he explained and then nodded down at the superhero-clad boy. “This is Ms. Conlay’s son, Jacob.”

The nurse, Samantha, her nametag read, stood and peered over the counter to inspect Jacob. The little boy tucked his chin and stepped closer to Seth, partially hiding himself behind Seth’s large leg.

“Are those flowers for your mommy?” Samantha asked and flashed a genuine smile at the child. “I bet she’ll love them,” she praised and turned back to Seth. “Ms. Conlay is in room 507, just down the hall on the right.” She pointed them in the direction.

“Thanks,” Seth drawled and pushed off the counter after shooting a wink at her.

“My shift’s over in ten minutes,” she called and Seth tossed her a flirty smile over his shoulder.

A major part of Seth wanted to dump Jacob off with Lucy for a few hours and take the hot little nurse for a ride in his rental car. Tall, curvy and busty, she had all the assets he appreciated in a woman. Glancing down at his watch, he realized he had enough time for a quickie.

“C’mon buddy,” he murmured to Jacob. They turned toward the door marked 507 and Seth reached down to push the handle. The large door slid open on a whoosh and he inhaled sharply when he saw Lucy’s frail form snuggled beneath a thin blanket atop the hospital bed.

A multitude of tubes ran from her little body to the machines sitting around the bed. She smiled through squinted eyes and raised a hand riddled with IV tubes. Apparently her eyes were sensitive to the harsh hospital lights because he noticed they were blood shot and swollen from all the way across the room.

“There’s my baby boy,” she murmured. “I’ve missed you so much,” she added and tried to sit up. But no matter how much she struggled or wiggled, she didn’t have enough strength to move her body even a fraction of an inch.

It was in that moment that Seth truly realized just how bad Lucy’s health was. If she wasn’t strong enough to survive chemo or radiation, then she wasn’t strong enough to survive at all. He glanced down at the little boy he’d grown fond of and smiled when Jacob ran to his mother’s bedside, his outstretched arms offering her the flower arrangement.

“Look what we got Mommy.” He shoved them toward her and she scrambled to catch the vase before both flowers and water spilled on the bed.

“My favorite,” Lucy exclaimed and brought them to her nose. “They’re beautiful, thank you,” she beamed at her son and then turned an appreciative glance on Seth.

“I dressed myself, Mommy,” Jacob added, prompting her attention back to him and moved back to show off his attire. Lucy giggled when she took in the superman garb.

“I see that,” she responded. “You look like you’re ready to save the world.”

When the child started rambling about everything they’d done the past couple days, Seth stepped back toward the door and raised a hand to draw Lucy’s attention.

“I’m gonna step out for a few,” he murmured. “Let you two catch up, I’ll be back,” he added and hastily escaped when Jacob shrugged his shoulders and turned back to his mom.

He slumped back against the closed door and inhaled sharply. He didn’t understand the feelings running rampant in his gut. Never one to get caught up on just one woman, Lucy was taking up entirely too much of his attention for his liking. Both her and Jacob. It was time he sought some different company.

Shoving off the wall, he sauntered back down the hall, approaching the blonde at the nurse’s station. She looked up and then grinned.

“How ‘bout we go somewhere quieter?” Seth drawled and grinned at her in return.


Lucy

 

Lucy frowned when Seth hastily retreated. It wasn’t like she’d expected him to fawn all over her or anything, but she would’ve liked an update on what he and Jacob’s activities these past couple of days.

But from the look of her son’s choice of attire and his high spirits, she knew it couldn’t have been all that bad.              

“Come,” she invited and patted the bed. “Sit with Mommy and tell all about your time with Mr. Seth.” She scooted over, although it wasn’t really necessary.

The little boy clambered up onto the bed and snuggled down against her. Lucy knew he needed the nearness of her body after spending a couple days apart. They’d never spent the night apart and it almost killed her to have done it now. After her parents had disowned her, Chris had been all she had left.

When Jacob was born, she swore an oath before God. She’d never go anywhere her child couldn’t go and she’d never let him go an hour without knowing how much she loved him. He was her world and she knew she had to fight with every bit of strength she could muster if she wanted to stay alive long enough to see him reach adulthood.

Wrapping her arm around the little wiggle-worm, she pulled him as tight against her as possible and smiled as he chattered away about his time with “Uncle” Seth. Some details dismayed her, but in the end, she’d been impressed with the level of care Seth had managed to give Jacob. He’d gone above and beyond to make sure her son was comfortable, happy, safe and well cared for; even if that had included soda and potato chips.

“So, you like spending time with Uncle Seth?” Lucy prompted softly when Jacob had finally run out of things to tell her.

He nibbled on his lower lip for a few moments and then looked up at her, pure admiration shining in his bright, blue eyes.

“He’s a nice man, Mommy,” Jacob declared. “He’ll make a great daddy someday.”

Lucy’s breath hitched at her son’s decree. How a child so young could interpret so much was beyond her. Pride and fear warred for prevalence within her. She was proud of her baby for being so smart and intuitive, but feared what would happen if or when he learned the truth. At least she could take solace in the fact that he admired his biological father.


Seth

Seth drove to the nearest parking garage and paid for entry. He’d no more than driven to the topmost level when the smoking-hot blonde started palming him through his jeans. Of course, his body responded, his cock hardening immediately at her ministrations, but a small niggle in his gut kept rearing its ugly head.

For some reason, this would-be tryst just felt wrong, but merely on a mental level. Physically, his body was more than ready and willing to give the little gal the ride of her life.

The breath huffed from his chest when she launched herself from her seat to straddle him, her healthy rear crowding the steering wheel, which in turn, blew the Mustang’s horn. She merely giggled and leaned down to release the latch to recline his seat. When he lay flat, she crawled up and down his torso, rubbing her crotch seductively across his erection.

With surprisingly deft fingers, she released the buttons on his shirt and lowered her mouth to his beefy pecs. Throwing his head back, he groaned deeply in his throat and gave himself over to the tantalizing pleasure. But the moment he closed his eyes, it was Lucy’s face he saw. Her beautiful brown eyes smoldering with passion and it was her lush lips that nipped at his erect nipples.

He suddenly sat up, knocking the girl back into the steering wheel, again causing the horn to blare and the offensive sound to bounce loudly off the concrete columns surrounding them.

“What’s wrong?” she asked and wiggled her ass to fit more comfortably against him. Instead, he grabbed her around her small waist and hoisted her from him lap, replacing her in her own seat. Running his fingers through his hair in frustration, he hastily set about righting his shirt, groaning slightly when he noticed that she’d pulled one button loose in her haste to get him naked.

“Look, Sharon –” Seth said, turning to face her. His mind raced with a plausible explanation for why he’d reneged on something his body so desperately – and plainly - wanted.

“My name is Samantha,” she snapped angrily, insult marring her face.

Seth cringed and cursed himself for failing to pay better attention. He didn’t mean to be so callous. He was usually much smoother than this but all of a sudden he found that he really didn’t care if he’d angered her or not. It wasn’t like she was in love with him and he’d rejected her. 

“Samantha,” he corrected himself. “I can’t do this,” he explained. “I’m sorry. I’ll take you back.” He finished and readjusted his seat. Turning the key, he put the car in the reverse and exited the garage. He cursed himself all during the drive back. Was he insane? Sliding his eyes toward the seething nurse in the passenger seat, he couldn’t help but wonder why a woman of her caliber would be single at all.

She was gorgeous; tall, long legs and tits to die for. Why the hell would she be angling for a one-night stand? And how the hell could he throw away a perfectly good roll in the hay so easily?

Shaking his head to dispel the thoughts jumbling around, he pulled into the hospital employee parking lot and absently nodded his head in farewell. The woman lurched from his car and slammed the door forcefully. Bending down, she gave him the middle finger and turned to saunter off, her sneakers squeaking on the wet asphalt.

“Jeez,” he muttered and shifted gears to head back to the visitor’s parking area. It wouldn’t matter if he lived to be five hundred years old, he’d never understand women. Apparently the only talent he had when it came to the opposite sex was pushing that “O” button. He was great at making them squeal, but it appeared as though he needed some work in the whole platonic department.

His thoughts shifted to Lucy and Jacob. He’d spent the past two days with a little person and found he’d actually enjoyed himself. The kid was smart, resilient and even showed some talent with tossing the old baseball around.

Seth parked and locked the car and headed into the hospital. It almost mortified him to realize he looked forward to seeing both Lucy and the kid.


Lucy

Lucy heard her door whoosh open, but after being in the hospital for a while, she’d gotten used to the nurses, lab techs and others coming and going. They checked her vitals every four hours and her I.V. bag was changed every six. It was strange how being in a hospital was supposed to make a person feel better, when in fact, it made things much worse. She’d gotten absolutely no sleep, every bone in her body ached like the fires of hell was burning inside them and now Jacob had fallen asleep against her and she needed to pee.

Expecting to see a nurse, she uncovered herself and tucked the blanket underneath Jacob so he wouldn’t roll when she got off the bed and then she gingerly eased her feet onto the floor.

“Can you help me to the bathroom?” she called softly and inhaled sharply when Seth walked up. He offered her his hand and all she could do was shake her head in argument.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I thought you were a nurse, I can make it myself,” she explained and moved to push herself to stand. The physical therapist was riding her hard about continuing her daily exercises. But no matter how many times she walked the halls, she still felt weak. The chemo and radiation were sapping what little strength she had.

“Nonsense,” Seth argued and made a noise of disapproval when she stood and swayed on her feet. Reaching forward, he caught her by her upper arms and righted her. She froze and merely stared up into his eyes. Beautiful blue, crystalline eyes stared back at her and she didn’t miss the underlying hint of lust.

“C’mon,” he murmured. “I’ll help you to the bathroom. There’s handles you can hold on to in there. I’m sure you’re strong enough to manage, if not, I’ll go hunt down a nurse.” He slipped his arm around her waist and she felt him take the majority of her slight weight against him as he shuffled beside her.

“And how would you know what a hospital bathroom looks like?” she asked to advert some of the growing tension between them.

Seth chuckled at the drollness in her voice and smirked down at her.

“I’m a professional athlete,” he reminded her. “I’ve had my fair share of breaks, fractures and wounds. I even had to have surgery on my shoulder once,” he informed her. “They had to pin my bones after resetting them. I slid into home plate and met with the catcher’s cleat instead.”

Lucy winced when she thought about the pain he must have felt. She knew he had to love his job to endure such danger and risk of injury. But then she remembered the millions he made and figured it was an even trade-off.

They’d managed to make it to the bathroom and Seth paused, allowing her to push open the door and move across into the tiled room. She waved him away and pushed the door closed against his nose.

She managed to make it deeper into the small confines of the bathroom and work herself around to sit on the toilet. She cursed herself for not letting them put in a catheter when they’d first suggested it. No, she’d refused out of pure stubbornness and pride. She’d had no idea just how weak the treatments would make her.

Looking down at her hands, she wasn’t surprised to see them shaking. Reaching up, she wiped the slight sheen of sweat from her forehead. She contributed both to the level of exertion it had taken to get to the bathroom. Now, she faced the task of getting her bottoms and panties off and doing the actual deed.

“You alright?” Seth called from outside the closed door. “Do I need to get a nurse?” he added, his voice laced with a bit more panic. “Did you fall? Lucy, please answer me,” he asked. He didn’t wait for her to respond before the door swung open and he stood, framed in the doorway.

His dark hair was spiked and disheveled and his blue eyes were wide with worry. She couldn’t help but notice how his wide shoulders almost filled the entire empty space. His body was built more for football than baseball. She couldn’t stop the pool of lust that bloomed in her belly. Memories, long buried, rushed to life inside her and she was powerless to stop them. Sadly, she finally admitted to herself that it wasn’t lust she felt for Seth Landers; it was love.

She’d fallen in love with him the first time she’d met him. But being the shy, bookworm little sister she was, she couldn’t summon the courage to tell him. So when he offered her a night of passion, she’d surrendered to him everything she had.

She let her eyes roam from his feet upward to the rest of his body before they finally came to rest on his face. The light smattering of scruff only added to his overall appeal. Full, black eyebrows – matching his hair’s dark tone – framed his blue eyes and a strong nose, slightly crooked from a long ago break, led down to full, thoroughly kissable lips.

She blinked her eyes sheepishly and offered him a weak smile, thankful he couldn’t read her mind. She watched his shoulders relax once he realized she was alright and not sprawled unconscious on the floor. His apparent concern touched her deeply. But she couldn’t afford to think it was anything more than friendly care that prompted his uncontained panic.

She cringed at the thought of just how pitiful she looked; sitting atop the closed toilet seat, completely clothed, her face sweating and her hands shaking. Without saying a word, he squatted down in front of her and took her hands in his.

“You shouldn’t be doing this alone,” he scolded angrily and her heart sank. She missed her mom and dad so much. “Your family should be here. You deserve much more than suffering through this by yourself.”

She couldn’t help it; the tears formed and fell, leaving treks of moisture down her cheeks. All the years of pain, grief and guilt surged to the surface and she finally broke under the pressure. Once she started crying, she couldn’t stop. Great big, loud sobs of agony racked her weak body and suddenly she realized that both Seth and Jacob were holding her. Her baby running his hand up and down her prominently exposed backbone thanks to the harsh weight loss.

“It’s ok, Mommy,” Jacob whispered. “Uncle Seth and I will fix it,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Won’t we, Uncle Seth?”

“Damn straight, little buddy,” Seth agreed and Lucy shot him a disapproving glare over his choice of language. Momentarily at a disadvantage, she merely nodded her head and pulled her hand from Seth’s grip to embrace her son. She couldn’t leave him. No matter how bad the cancer got, no matter how badly it ravaged her body, she refused to give up. Her son needed her. Even if he seemed to be getting along with his father for the time being, there was no way she could know how their relationship would go if or when she told them.

They just may hate each other. Or worse, hate her.

The first step to fighting back was sucking it up; the pain, agony, desperation and weakness; it would all have to go. She couldn’t have her baby boy see her – the steadfast oak who’d always taken care of him, shielding him from every storm – fall apart from something he couldn’t even see.

Hugging her son a bit tighter against her side, she released him and raised her eyes to Seth.

“I can do this,” she stressed and inhaled deeply. “I have everyone I need.” She let the last part hang between them like a red flag. Seth’s eyes widened, but he merely gave a curt nod and opened his arms for Jacob.

“C’mon bud, Mom’s got this,” he murmured and led the little boy from the bathroom. “Call if you need anything,” he called over his shoulder. “Anything,” he repeated more sternly and Lucy didn’t miss his slight smirk.

“I think I can manage,” she quipped and pushed the door closed behind them.

It took a little time and more strength than she’d imagined, but she finally relieved her bladder, flushed the toilet and washed her hands. No sooner had she turned the water tap off than the door swung open and Seth stared at her in disapproval.

“You’re shaking all over and covered in sweat,” he observed. “You’re weak and shouldn’t be in here alone.”

Lucy waved her hand to dispel his nagging and moved toward him without taking her hands from the safety rails.

“I’m fine, just help me get back to bed, please,” she responded and smiled when he growled and took her arm. “I have a long way to go before I’m back to my old self, but I refuse to give up,” she admonished him. Pressing his lips tightly together, Seth merely nodded his head once and helped her back to her bed.


Seth

 

Seth glanced in his rearview mirror and studied the little boy napping in his booster seat. They’d stayed with Lucy until she fallen asleep – much to her dismay – Seth had suffered her wrath like a boss. Jacob wanted his mommy and dammit if Uncle Seth wouldn’t oblige him. From what he’d gathered, the kid had never been away from his mother for an extended period of time. Lucy’s brother and sister-in-law had sometimes babysat, but never overnight.

So far, mother and son had spent two nights apart. If staying up past the little guy’s bedtime allowed him some degree of comfort, then it was the least he could do.

After parking his rental, he made a mental note to get a bigger car as soon as possible and wrestled his big body across the folded front seat to extract the sleeping child from his harness of hell.

He impressed himself by making it all the way up the stairs, through the door and into Jacob’s bedroom before the boy even moved. Placing him gently on his Superman comforter, Seth set about removing the little red boots, cape and glasses. He figured letting him sleep in the blue sweat suit was harmless and tucked Jacob’s little legs under the covers.

Stepping back, he studied the sleeping child through the moonlight filtering in through his window. A paternal instinct he’d sworn he didn’t own rose to fill his chest. It both surprised and comforted him. He wouldn’t be able to play baseball forever, but he’d never given much thought to what he’d do once he retired.

Having a family certainly never entered his mind. He was still young, strong and too raring to go to think about settling down. But from the moment of Lucy’s phone call, something had shifted inside him. Sure, his first thought was of getting the gorgeous brown-eyed angel back between the sheets but the moment he’d laid eyes on her frail form and the shy, smaller, version of her, his thoughts had gone in a different direction.

“And thinkin’ is what gets you in trouble,” he mumbled to himself, and after giving Jacob one last glance over, turned to head toward the living room. A small framed picture sitting on Jacob’s dresser caught Seth’s eye and he picked it up for closer inspection.

It was a photo of Chris and Lucy, dated about seven months after Chris’s wedding. Amber stood in the background, bent over a cake and other women were lined up with plates in hand. Under closer scrutiny, Seth realized that Lucy was pregnant and the photo was taken during her baby shower.

Smiling at the glowing beauty Lucy was, he sat the picture back on the dresser and went on into the living room. Settling on the sofa, he grabbed the remote and began channel surfing for something good to watch. Even though it was a little after midnight, he wasn’t tired.

He awoke to the shrill ringing of his cell phone some time later. Realizing he’d fallen asleep, he fished around in his pocket and pulled the device out. A glance at the time showed it to be three-forty a.m. He recognized Chris’s number immediately and answered the call.

“Hey man, how’s it goin’?” Chris drawled. “Sorry it’s so late; I just couldn’t sleep and wanted to check on Lucy. I figured you could give me a better update than the nurses.”

“She’s hanging in there,” Seth explained and did his best to tramp down the sudden anger that rose at hearing his old friend’s voice. He should have been here with his sister, not some guy she’d met a long time ago. Jacob deserved to be with family and Lucy deserved familiar people to lean on. He’d seen her discomfort at needing help to the restroom. He hadn’t minded offering that help, but he could only imagine how she felt in being forced to take it.

“Ah, I hear it in your voice,” Chris observed. “You’re pissed. Look man, I’m sorry. Neither Amber nor I could get away. Believe me, I wouldn’t have suggested Lucy call you if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”

“Why doesn’t she have any female friends?” Seth demanded and had to remind himself to keep his voice down lest he wake Jacob up. “Why is she in this godforsaken town, with a son for fuck’s sake, all alone?”

“She wanted to raise her son alone,” Chris snapped. “She was afraid someone would figure out who his biological father is. She just wanted Jacob to have a normal life.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Seth argued. “Any man worth his salt would be lucky to have a kid like Jacob. The boy is smart, funny and talented as hell,” he stressed. “Tell me who this asshole is and I’ll have a talk with him.”

“It’s not that easy,” Chris said defensively.

“The hell it ain’t,” Seth argued more forcefully. “A man has the right to know if he has a kid, no matter who he is.” He frowned when he realized he’d sudden switched gears. First he was ready to rip the asshat apart and now he was defending this total stranger?

Yeah, well, you should talk to Lucy, I’m not going to chance my sister’s wrath,” Chris explained. “Besides, it’s her choice. Nobody forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

“True enough,” Seth relented and decided to let the subject drop for the time being. He and Chris fell into the friendly banter that only best friends would understand. After about an hour they said their goodbyes with Chris promising to check back soon.

Seth ended the call and felt a ball of disgust form in his stomach. Lucy – beautiful, kind, sweet and smart Lucy – was battling a disease that ravaged her body by the hour and she cared more for her son than herself.

It wasn’t the fact that she hadn’t told Jacob’s father about his son, it was the fact that she’d protected her son from a man who possibly didn’t want him.

“Uncle Seth?” a small voice called and Seth whirled to see the sleepy-eyed, hair-tousled little boy in question standing in the doorway to his room.

“Hey little man,” Seth cooed and glanced at his watch. Seeing that it was only five a.m., he knew it was still too early for the kid to be up. Something must have woken him. “What you doing up this early?” he asked and moved toward him to scoop the boy in his arms. “You should still be asleep.”

“I had a nightmare,” Jacob murmured and buried his face in the crook of Seth’s throat. An unfamiliar feeling coursed through Seth’s body. He’d never had anyone depend on him for anything. Sure, he fulfilled his contractual obligations to the Cardinals’ every year, but beyond that, his life was all about himself and no responsibilities.

Now, after all these years, he realized that it felt good to be needed for just who he was; not his talent on the diamond, not his experience with the ladies. Lucy and her son needed the man, the flesh and blood man Seth was and that meant the world to him.

Seth wrapped his arms a bit tighter around Jacob and headed back into the boy’s bedroom. Placing him gently on the bed, he stretched out beside him. Jacob’s little fingers clenched the front of Seth’s t-shirt and this caused him to smile.

It felt great to be needed. It was a feeling he could definitely get used to.

“How about I stay with you while you take a nap?” Seth murmured and turned onto his side, extracting Jacob’s fingers from his shirt and laying his arm across the boy’s stomach.

“You won’t leave me?” Jacob asked, his voice small and hesitant.

“Never,” Seth answered with a conviction he didn’t know resided within him.

Seth decided that – Jacob willing – he’d drop the boy off at daycare later this morning and go visit Lucy alone. He wanted to talk to her about Jacob’s father and his right to know he had a son. No, it wasn’t his business, but he was making it his. He’d grown really fond of the little boy and the thought of another man in his life made Seth jealous, but the kid deserved to know his biological father. 

It wasn’t that he questioned Lucy’s parenting abilities, quite the opposite. The woman was phenomenal as a mother. Her entire life revolved around her little boy and that, itself, was admirable.

 

 

 


Lucy

Lucy shuffled into her room, her I.V. stand in tow and barely made it to the bed before her knees gave out. She’d walked the entire hallway of the fifth floor three times and it had taken sheer will to make it. Her body resisted with every step. The aches, pains and weakness told her that she didn’t have the strength, she wouldn’t make it, and that she should just go back to bed and rest.

But she’d ignored the nagging voice and kept going. She kept images of her baby in the foremost of her mind and it had served as fuel for her trek. Now that she was back in the confines of her room, she shoved the metal rack to the bedside and all but fell face first onto the uncomfortable bed.

“Need some help?” a familiar male voice inquired from the open door.

Lucy closed her eyes and groaned. Thank God she’d actually donned a matching pajama set. Had she been clad in the ordinary hospital gown, her skinny white butt would have been shining like the full moon.

She wiggled around until she lay on her back and her frail legs dangled from the bedside. She offered Seth a timid smile and nodded once.

“Help me get my legs on the bed?” she asked. “I think I overdid my daily physical therapy,” she finished and sighed heavily.

Seth – the tall, muscular, healthy athlete – strode forward and cupped her diminished calves in his wide, capable hands. Gently he raised her legs and placed them on the bed and observed as she wiggled around and got as comfortable as possible.

“Where’s Jacob?” she asked once she noticed her baby’s absence.

“I dropped him off at daycare,” Seth explained. “I think he needed some playtime with kids his own age, he was starting to act like me,” he quipped and she inhaled sharply. “You know, scratching his ass and burping involuntarily,” Seth finished with a chuckle.

Lucy relaxed and for the hundredth time questioned her decision to keep such important news to herself. Jacob had never seemed to want a father figure, but now that Seth had come around it was like the man filled a gap neither she nor her son knew was missing.

Chris had nagged her, ever since she’d found out she was pregnant, to tell Seth the truth. Her brother was dead sure his friend would do the right thing. But fear kept her lips firmly shut and only the threat of never speaking to him again kept Chris from doing it himself.

Slightly nervous with it being just the two of them, Lucy reached down and tugged at the hem of her shirt, pulling it lower over her stomach. Barely twenty-six years old, she should’ve had a rocking body. But being pregnant and now having cancer had done terrible things to her.

“Why haven’t you told Jacob’s father about him?” Seth blurted and Lucy jerked so hard she nearly fell off the other side of the bed. “Both he and the boy deserve to know.”

“That’s personal,” Lucy answered and continued fidgeting with her clothes. Had Chris said something to Seth? Had he figured it out? She’d never been good at gauging other people. This conversation wasn’t one she was ready to have, so she turned to look up at Seth and smiled.

“If or when the time comes, I will,” she assured.

“When Jacob gets older and demands to know about his absent father?” Seth asked in a slightly raised voice. “Do you honestly think any man wouldn’t be proud to have such a wonderful son? The boy is a gift.”

Seth turned and grabbed the visitor’s chair from the corner and dragged it to Lucy’s bedside. Flopping down into it, he reached up and ran thick fingers through inky black spikes.

Even disheveled, Lucy found him gorgeous. Most women did, she reminded herself. She couldn’t subject Jacob to a father who wasn’t ready to be a father. Seth’s professional career was too important to him to settle down.

“It’s none of your business,” Lucy murmured softly. “If you’re tired of watching him, I’ll find someone else.”

“You have no one else,” Seth snapped and raised narrowed eyes at her. “You’ve pushed everyone away from fear they would spill your dirty little secret,” he accused. “I’m not tired of watching him, I love spending time with him. I just can’t help thinking about all the time his father has missed and you don’t have the right to keep him from the man who would love him.”

Lucy’s eyes narrowed in response and she felt the fires of hell blazing within her blood. How dare this man – this stranger – lecture her? Where had he been these past four years? Oh, that’s right; he’d been partying with every slut he could find. He’d been neck deep up his own ass. Maybe if he’d had a plexi-glass belly button he would’ve known. What would he have done had she told him? Possibly sent a monthly check and called it good?

“Excuse the hell out of me,” Lucy barked. “I have trust issues and with good reason. The only man I’ve ever allowed myself to be vulnerable with left me high and dry mere hours after he’d gotten what he wanted.”
“Is that what all this is about?” Seth demanded and surged to his feet. “You’re punishing this child because you and I had a one-night stand over five years ago?”

“I’m not punishing him,” she argued vehemently. “I’m protecting him.”

“From, what?” Seth demanded in exasperation. “Just what exactly are you protecting him from? Having friends, loved ones he can count on in his times of need, of letting himself care for someone who isn’t his mother?”

“I’m protecting him from the same man who threw me away without a thought,” she fired back and immediately wished the words back. But what was said couldn’t be unsaid just like what was done couldn’t be undone.              

There it was; no going back now. Blazing hot fear roared to life in her belly. What had she done? She’d been so careful all these years and now the secret she would’ve died to protect came rushing out, on a trail of red hot temper and the kicker was the fact that she’d told the one person she didn’t want to know.

Seth stopped pacing abruptly and just stood with his back to her. She cursed her temper but she mostly cursed her heart. She’d known, all those years ago, that she’d fallen in love with Seth and it was the kind of love that transcended time. The kind women read about in romance novels or watched on television. But being the shy, young and inexperienced girl that she was, she’d kept it to herself.

After all, how could such a hot guy with a bright future see anything in her? She was nothing more than a geeky librarian. He was the type of man to walk around with a supermodel on his arm. 

“Oh my God,” he whispered, jarring Lucy from her rampant thoughts and regrets. “It’s all been right before me the entire time. Why didn’t I figure it out sooner?” His breath hitched and it sounded like someone had punched him in the stomach. Lucy frowned and for a brief moment thought perhaps he was crying.

“Probably because you didn’t want to,” another male voice announced from the still-open door.

Lucy’s eyes widened when she saw her brother standing there, hands hidden in a bouquet of yellow daises. She hadn’t been expecting him so soon and was more than glad to see him. Glad wasn’t exactly the right word; she was relieved. Now she wouldn’t have to deal with this fallout all on her own.


Seth

Seth tried but failed to calm his racing heart. Thinking back to the framed picture in Jacob’s room he recounted the date. All the pieces started clicking into place. It didn’t take much imagination to see himself in Jacob’s eyes.

He had a son.

He had a smart, gifted and fine-looking son.

Inhaling deeply, he turned to first face Chris.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked hoarsely. He tried his best to keep from lashing out at his old friend. The man had plenty of time in which he could’ve told him. Hell, he could’ve told him last night.

Chris shrugged and moved into the room to place the vase of flowers on the table by Lucy’s bed. Seth noticed that they had little red sticks strategically placed throughout the flowers with little red hearts sitting atop the tips. It reminded him of how Valentine’s Day was nearing; in his haste to get to Lucy, he’d all but forgotten about Cupid, the ugly kid in a diaper carrying the bow and arrows of love.

Chris leaned down and kissed his sister on the forehead, offering her a smile before turning back to Seth.

“It wasn’t my place or my decision,” Chris explained simply. “But just so you know, I’ve been on her for years to tell you. I knew you’d do the right thing,” he clarified and closed the distance between them for a thorough man hug. “It’s good to see you.”

Seth thumped his buddy soundly on the back and turned his eyes back to the mother of his child. Malnourished, weak and body ravaged with an incurable illness, but still beautiful beyond measure. No matter how many women he’d had over the years, he’d never felt anything toward them; nothing that compared to the way he felt about Lucy. The revelation hit him like a lightning bolt.

Had he known they’d had a son, he would’ve dropped everything and ran to her. His big, cushy lifestyle be damned. He’d have given it all up in a New York minute and that thought alone shocked him to his core. When had he gotten so soft? When had he gone from partying all hours of the night to being a responsible adult? How the hell had it happened and when?

Regardless, his heart swelled in his chest and he knew. He’d lied to himself all his life. He did want a family, he did want children. He wanted it all and he wanted it with Lucy and Jacob.

But, in retrospect, had she told him back then, he probably would’ve insisted she had an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. He hadn’t been ready back then, but now he was and it was that knowledge alone that finally made him understand why she’d kept it from him. She’d been mature enough to do the right thing for both of them and even though it cost him and his son four years, it gave them a lifetime to make it up.

If she let him and ‘if’ was a big word. He hadn’t exactly proven to her that he was as changed as he realized he was. Sure, he’d dropped everything and flown into town the moment she called him. But he’d done it thinking they’d rekindle a little romance from years past. Yes, he’d taken care of Jacob for a couple days, but being a dad 24/7 was a different story. He knew he’d have to prove himself far more capable and somewhere deep down, a need to have her approval roared to life. 

If it came down to it, he would beg her to have him, flaws and all. And he would refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. Especially not after seeing the way she looked at him; more correctly, not after understanding the way she looked at him. 

Not for the first time since he’d been back in Pennsylvania, he saw the admiration and the love in her eyes and recognized it for what it was. How long had she felt that way for him?

“You should’ve told me,” Seth declared and moved to her side. Since Chris had lowered himself into the visitor’s chair, Seth sat on the edge of Lucy’s bed. Her feeble body didn’t occupy much room, but she moved her legs over anyway to allow him plenty of space.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked even though he knew the answer. He wanted to hear what she had to say.

“Are you kidding me?” Lucy snapped, her face flushing red. “Tell mister-big-league-baseball player; a new woman for every night of the week, that he had a son he repeatedly confirmed he didn’t want? How many times have you mentioned in an interview that a family and children wasn’t in your plans? You dare sit here and ask me why I didn’t tell you?” Her ragged breath rushed in and out and she reached up to place a hand over the center of her chest. He saw just how upset she was and it was that knowledge alone that convinced him to stop nagging her.

Although her words stung him like a stake through the heart, she was right. He was mad as hell at her, but he couldn’t blame her for her decision to keep Jacob safe from his father’s media-crazed life. Hell, even Seth feared what the paparazzi would print about him next. Could he really drag an innocent child into that kind of life?

“Are you going to take him away from me now that you know?” Lucy asked in a small voice.

Chris cursed, lunged to his feet and paced away from them to close the door.

“Of course he’s not,” Chris answered succinctly. “Tell her Seth; tell her you wouldn’t do that.”

Seth shook his head, tears forming in his eyes.

“No,” he admitted softly. “I’d never take that child away from his mother. I’d never take him away from you,” he murmured and reached down to take Lucy’s hand in his. “I’m here now and that’s all that counts.”

Chris reclaimed his seat and reached forward to pat Lucy gently on the arm.

“I’m here until the end of February and Amber will be in a few days before the fourteenth,” her brother informed her and Seth felt fear clench in his gut. Were they going to ask him to leave now that he wasn’t needed anymore?

“It’s my off season,” Seth interrupted, hoping to stave off any suggestions he pack up and head off. “I’d like to stay and get to know Jacob a little better.”

Lucy’s eyes went from Seth’s to her brother. She was silently asking him for his opinion and in the end; Chris must have conveyed something because she turned back to Seth and nodded curtly.

“Of course,” she agreed. “I just have one request,” she informed. “You don’t tell him. I made this mess, it’s mine to clean up,” she said.

“I’ll agree, on one stipulation,” Seth rebounded. “I’m here when you tell him,” he said. “I’ve left him high and dry for too long now, it’s time I make it up to him.”

Lucy didn’t respond, she just merely nodded.

 


Lucy

Almost three weeks later, February the twelfth, Lucy was released from the hospital. She smiled when the nurse pushed her wheelchair out to the pick-up area. There, standing against her mini-SUV, were her three favorite men.

Over the past few weeks Seth had doted on her like a puppy. He’d brought her flowers, red roses with little Valentine hearts dispersed between the blooms, a giant chocolate kiss and a teddy bear that said “Be Mine” with a mournful expression on his cute face. He’d sat and visited with her and then picked Jacob up from daycare and headed home. Chris had merely moved into the hospital room with her, refusing to leave her side for even an hour.

It hadn’t taken long for her to remember just how deeply her feelings for Seth went. She’d kept them on a tight leash for so long, it was difficult having him in her everyday life.

She wanted to reciprocate his affection, but upon hearing what the doctors said about her prognosis, she was glad she didn’t. They were optimistic that the chemo and radiation worked, but they couldn’t promise anything. A relapse was possible. She couldn’t afford to form any new connections. Her time on this earth was iffy at best.

Of course, Chris hadn’t made things any easier. He’d played his buddy up every chance he’d gotten. She knew what he was up to and a small part of her dared to dream of a life with Seth Landers. They’d get married and finally give Jacob the family he deserved; but another part of her rebelled at the mere idea of letting herself or her precious son care for the frivolous playboy.

Although Seth argued, Lucy had asked for paternity tests in order to prove her claim. She refused to have anyone accuse her of being a gold-digger. She knew Jacob was Seth’s son. Seth had been the only man she’d ever been with, but she’d kept that little gold nugget to herself.

“Ready to go home, Mommy?” Jacob asked, his chubby little face alight with happiness.

Lucy smiled in return and waited for the nurse to lock the wheelchair. Pushing herself to stand, she almost laughed when both Chris and Seth raced to offer her a hand. She waved them both away like buzzing gnats and bent to envelope her baby in a hug so fierce she even surprised herself. All the extra physical therapy was paying off and she had gotten some of her strength back.

“You bet I am,” she whispered in Jacob’s ear. “I’ve missed you so much.” She smiled when his little arms tightened around her neck and he buried his face in the hollow of her throat.

“I’ve missed you too,” Jacob responded and then stepped back and smiled up at Seth.

“But Uncle Seth has taken good care of me,” he announced proudly. “He even made me wash behind my ears.”

All three adults chuckled at the little one’s affirmation and Lucy rose, turning a smile on Seth. He stood proud, chest protruding like he’d pitched a perfect game and won the World Series. She had to admit that he’d certainly changed in the past couple weeks. He’d gone from playboy millionaire to daddy-slash-nanny.

Trusting him with her precious child was simply the most difficult thing she’d ever done. It had been a risk, but she was glad she’d taken it. On impulse, she turned and moved toward Seth, sliding her arms around his waist for a hug.

Her entire body hummed to life when he wrapped his large arms around her still small frame. She owed him much more than he owed her.

“Thank you,” she murmured against his chest. “Thank you for taking such good care of my baby.”

She inhaled sharply when Seth leaned down and nuzzled her ear with his lips.

Our baby,” he responded and she shivered when his warm breath brushed across her skin.

Chris cleared his throat, obviously recalling their attention back to the here and now. Lucy’s cheeks heated in a school-girl blush. She extracted herself from Seth’s tight grip and turned, motioning toward the car.

“You guys taking me home or what?” she quipped and winked at Jacob. The little boy squealed and climbed in the backseat, scooting over to allow room for her. Seth closed her door and then folded himself into the passenger seat while Chris took the wheel.

“Seatbelts,” Chris called and waited for everyone to comply before putting the car into gear. Her brother’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror and she didn’t miss the little wink he gave her. She smiled back and nodded, happy and in the same moment, sad beyond belief. She didn’t know how long she had to live and these men were going to be almost impossible to leave.

She made a mental note to speak with Chris about her Will and let her mind wander to all the things she needed to get done. After that, she started building her bucket list.


Seth

Now that Lucy was coming back home, Seth began making plans to get closer to her. He knew she felt their connection when she’d hugged him but convincing her that he could and would provide a good life for them as a family was going to be difficult. She hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him of their son, so he knew he had a lot to prove and he also knew that he was ready.

Chris pulled the car into Lucy’s parking space and killed the engine. Seth immediately got out and opened the door for Lucy. He smiled when her brown eyes widened in surprise. Score one for the Landers’ team, he mused to himself.

Chris extracted Jacob from his booster seat and the little tornado whirled around, pressing himself between Seth and Lucy.

“We have a surprise for you, Mommy,” Jacob declared and took her hand, pulling her toward the curb and the stairs leading to their apartment.

“You do?” Lucy asked in delight.

“Me and Uncle Seth did it,” Jacob boasted. “It was all his idea!”

Lucy looked at Seth and noticed the light blush creeping across his cheeks. She could only imagine what her creative four year old son and manly-man, Seth Landers had come up with to surprise her. She almost feared what it might be. But she allowed Jacob to slowly lead her up the stairs and once they reached their door, he stopped her and stood between herself and the door.

“You have to close your eyes,” the little boy announced.

Seth moved up behind her and pressed his chest to her back, placing his hands on her shoulders.

“I’ll cover Mommy’s eyes and lead her at the same time, that way she won’t fall,” Seth offered and moved his left hand up to gently cover the top half of her face. He wrapped his right arm around her tiny waist and pulled her even tighter against him. Lucy’s breath caught in her throat as his scent filled her nostrils. A pool of moisture bloomed in her core and she summoned every ounce of strength to quell the urge to turn in his arms and claim his lips as her own.

Her body had never reacted to another man the way it did with Seth and it both frustrated and thrilled her. But quickly on the tail of that thought came the reminder that she didn’t have long and couldn’t wrap Seth in a relationship that was doomed from the beginning. No matter how much she loved him, she wouldn’t condemn him to that kind of pain. Sure, she knew he wanted her, but she wasn’t sure how he felt about her.

She heard keys jingling and the sound of the door opening. Seth gingerly nudged her forward, helping her keep her balance and move forward at the same time. He reminded her of the threshold, told her when to pick her feet up and such until they were well into the living room. She inhaled deeply and her body melted like butter.

Home.

She was home and surrounded by the three most important people in her life. What more could a person ask for? If she died tonight, she’d die happy.

“Ready, Mommy?” Jacob asked, his voice coming from in front of her.

Afraid her voice would betray the touching sentimentality of her mood; she merely nodded her head and giggled when Seth struggled to keep his hand over her eyes.

“She’s trying to peek,” Seth accused and laughed, his chest vibrating against her back. It felt good to be in the comfort of his arms and she could almost allow herself to dream of a lifetime of embraces like this. If only she had the time and Seth loved her like she did him.

“Okay, Uncle Seth,” Jacob said in a serious voice. “She can look now.”

Seth tentatively removed his hand and she slowly opened her eyes. Her mouth gaped open when she took in the scene before her. New furniture and a multitude of flowers and Valentine paraphernalia filled her apartment. A new sofa sat against the wall, recliners built in on both ends and a comfy looking lounge chair sat in the corner heading toward the kitchen.

A brand new wooden dining table with four fancy chairs graced her small eating area and a tiny chandelier dangled above it, little diamonds hanging like unshed teardrops. New carpeting, in a beautiful butternut squash color, covered the floor and several side tables sat against the walls.

Tall, elaborate lamps, decked with ornate carvings of angels wrapping around the post sat in most all the corners of her living room and the shades had the small teardrop diamonds to match the chandelier.

“Want to see my room?” Jacob asked his voice high in delight and Lucy couldn’t help but emit a nervous laugh. Her emotions warred between furious that he’d dared refurnish her home – probably discarding her own possessions – without her knowledge or permission and delight that her home looked so comfy and polished. She’d always dreamed of new furniture, especially when it came to her and Jacob’s bedrooms.

She wanted the best for her son, but second-hand had been all she could ever afford.

Seth must have felt her body stiffen because he released her and moved around to stand in front of her. He took a few moments to study her reaction and then immediately began apologizing.

“I’m sorry,” he rushed out. “I can have it all taken back. I had all your old stuff put in storage. I just wanted to do something nice for you and Jacob. Please don’t be upset, I can fix this,” he rambled, running his fingers through his, now, disheveled hair.

Speechless beyond reason, Lucy reached out and placed her hand on Seth’s forearm, stopping him in his tracks. Worry marred his face like a mask.

“It’s alright,” Lucy admitted. “I’m still processing, don’t panic,” she confessed. “I’m just a little surprised, that’s all.”

“Seriously,” Seth took both her hands in his. “If you don’t like any of it, I’ll have it removed immediately. If you want something else, you name it and I’ll get it,” he offered.

“Maybe Mommy would like to sit down?” Chris looked down at Jacob and nodded toward the lounge chair. “She can always see your room after she rests a bit,” he advised when the little boy’s lower lip protruded slightly.

Lucy almost laughed at her son’s expression. Apparently he was very satisfied with his and Uncle Seth’s presentation and wanted her to take it all in – at once. She was tired but making her son happy was first on her to-do list. So, she shook her head and pulled her hands from Seth’s.

“Why don’t you show me your awesome room?” she asked, offering her son her hand. He grabbed her outstretched arm and tugged her toward his door, which she now noticed had his name painted on it in big bold letters. What she saw when she walked past the door flat stole her breath away.

The inside of his room looked like a baseball diamond had exploded. His plain little bed had been replaced by a large rectangular home plate with a wooden headboard. His comforter, pillows, sheets and floor rug were all baseball themed and a large poster adorned his far wall. She grinned as she took in the huge picture of Seth Landers in full-on pitching mode.

His color scheme was all St. Louis Cardinals.

“Look at this, Mommy,” Jacob urged and Lucy turned to take in his new chest-of-drawers. Among his normal contents, a few trophies now stood proudly among various little boy toys. Upon closer inspection, Lucy noticed they were actually Seth’s championship trophies; the newest one dated for the Cardinal’s 2011 World Series win. 

“Uncle Seth gave them to me,” Jacob bragged. “Aren’t they cool?”

“Very,” Lucy agreed and turned to see Seth standing in the open doorway. She cocked her head and gave him a smirk and he responded with a shoulder shrug. He knew he’d gone overboard, but in the end she couldn’t deny the man had good taste.

“Thank you,” she murmured. “All of this is great, but Seth you didn’t have to do this,” she said and approached him. “You don’t owe us anything.”

Seth looked down at his feet and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Inhaling deeply, he brought those beautiful blue eyes back to her and finally smiled.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he responded, his voice low and serious. “I owe you both everything.”

***

Seth waited with bated breath while Lucy walked the rest of her apartment. He knew he’d taken a huge risk by refurnishing her home. But he’d wanted to give her something – hell, anything – to account for all the time he’d missed. He couldn’t express how much he admired her.

She’d experienced being pregnant and childbirth on her own. Chris had told him of how her parents had disowned her upon finding out she was pregnant. He’d gotten so angry at the two people who should’ve have been there for her no matter what. But he now understood her reluctance to involve others in her life.

Chris and Amber were the only ones she really trusted and therefore, the only ones she interacted with.

Not to mention the fact that she’d raised one hell-of-an awesome four year old boy. Seth was proud to call Jacob his son and all that kept him from shouting it from the rooftop was his promise to let Lucy be the one to tell him. He just hoped she didn’t wait too long.

She praised the living room, Jacob’s room and the dining room and had been pretty excited to see new a new refrigerator, stove, microwave and dishwasher. She’d argued that it was the landlord’s responsibility to provide those, but Seth waved her protest away. He’d already spoken with the landlord and made sure Lucy’s rent was paid up for the next year. He secretly hoped that he’d make some progress with their relationship in that length of time and prove a proper home for their new family.

She’d noticed and only slightly commented on the Valentine’s decorations, but Seth saw the pleasure she tried to hide in her eyes and her smile.

But nothing compared to the delight in her eyes when she saw her own bedroom. She stood, frozen in the doorway and simply let her eyes roam the interior of the room. He’d bought her a California King, cherry wood canopy bed, complete with all that fancy, gauzy netting that wraps around the top and each post. It was the fanciest, most expensive one he could find and Jacob agreed that his mother would, indeed, love it.

He’d chosen a deep pink comforter and dozens of matching pillows. He’d never understood women and their desire for a multitude of pillows, but he was more than happy to oblige her. A soft, shaggy rug adorned the floor and a fancy nightstand sat beside the bed; both in various colors of pink. 

“It looks like a pink cloud,” Lucy admitted on a soft breath. “It’s so beautiful,” she finished and turned those doe eyes on Seth. “I love it.”

Seth felt the heat bloom across his face and wondered why the hell he was suddenly bashful. But, ultimately he remembered it was because Lucy was more important than any other woman he’d ever been with. He wanted more than just to be a great lover, he wanted to please her in ways that had nothing to do with sex.

“If ya’ll are done sight-seeing, I have dinner ready,” Chris called from the small kitchen. “What does a man have to do to get some food around here?” he added in a low mumble.

Lucy laughed at her brother’s impatient tone and moved to brush past Seth. He gave into the urge to grab her arm as she slid past and pulled her closer to his side. Leaning down so that he could whisper in her ear, he made the bold decision to lay it all out there.

“I’d love to test the comfort of that bed with you,” he rasped. “Just something for you to think about,” he finished and slowly opened his fingers, releasing her arm.


Lucy

 

The moment he severed their physical connection, Lucy’s skin erupted in goose pimples. She didn’t know whether it was his suggestion, her reaction to his suggestion or the fact that he’d virtually read her mind that disturbed her the most.

One look at the huge bed and all she could imagine was her and Seth, naked with limbs tangled in heated passion. Him breathing words of love and adoration and her caressing every square inch of his body.

Suddenly feeling bold, Lucy reached up and placed her hand on his chest over his heart. His eyes zeroed to hers.

“I’d like that,” she admitted and then hurried to the dining room before she could embarrass herself. Oh, she wanted him, she wanted him bad. But, her body was weak, they weren’t alone and she still questioned her bold move.

She wasn’t surprised to see new – matching – plates and silverware delicately placed around the table. Each place setting had one of those fancy napkin rings containing a real cotton towel. The placemats matched the little blue design on the plates and bowls and her inner girl squealed in glee.

“He really outdid himself,” Chris murmured, gesturing toward Seth who’d walked up beside her. “I honestly didn’t think the man had any taste at all, but looking at all this, I’m not afraid to admit I was wrong.” Her brother moved the elaborate centerpiece of daises and set a cardboard bucket of fried chicken in its place. Jacob, making multiple trips, followed with smaller containers of mashed potatoes, gravy, cole slaw and rolls.

Lucy’s eyebrows rose in question at their dinner choice and she couldn’t help but wonder just what Seth had been feeding her son in addition to the potato chips and cola. Chris caught her expression and smiled apologetically.

“Apparently Seth’s culinary skills only include ordering takeout and you know I don’t cook,” he explained and lifted the thin lid from the bucket. Her stomach rumbled in response to the delicious aroma of food. She’d been eating bland hospital food for weeks; perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to eat a little fast food – for now.

They all sat down, Chris loaded her plate first and then the boys filled their own. They dug in with a flourish and Lucy moaned as her taste buds exploded with each bite. It put the tasteless food she’d been eating to shame.

The boys settled into a witty banter and she couldn’t help but watch in fascination as Seth and Jacob teased each other mercilessly. She was shocked at how much her little boy had come out of his shell since Seth had been around. It warmed her heart to see the ease in which they got along during an everyday activity.

“Lucy, I was thinking about taking Jacob to a movie after dinner,” Chris offered as they cleared the table, carting the leftovers back into the kitchen. Lucy stood at the refrigerator door, polishing off her bottle of water. “That new cartoon is showing and it’ll give you some time to relax and settle in. I’m sure you’re tired,” he explained but slid a salacious grin at Seth. It didn’t take much imagination for her to realize that Seth had finagled a way for them to spend some ‘alone’ time together.

Her stomach hitched at the mere thought of being alone with the man, but at the same time, she felt excited.

“Please, Mommy?” Jacob tugged on her leg and smiled up at her. His blue eyes twinkled with such innocence. It was a smile she couldn’t say ‘no’ to.

“Alright,” she relented and reached down to tousle his dark hair.

“Perhaps Mommy would like to soak in a nice, hot bubble bath for a while?” Seth offered softly. “It’ll help you relax,” he added with a smirk.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Lucy agreed all too quickly and turned to flee through her bedroom into the safe confines of her private bathroom. She closed the door and leaned back against it with her chest heaving. But before she could so much as catch her breath, she took in the room before her.

Candles in all shades of red and pink were spread throughout the small room and bottles of scented bath stuff littered the side and back corner of her tub. On top of the toilet tank sat a huge vase of red roses              and a small white card sat beside it. Reaching for it, she took it in her hand and opened it.

“I hope this makes you feel as special are you truly are.” The words were scrawled in a chicken-scratchy style and it was simply signed, “S.”

Smiling like a teenager, she quickly stripped out of the pajama set and turned on the hot water tap. Slightly adjusting the cold to suit her comfort, she lowered herself into the filling tub and studied the selection of soaps, gels and creams.

“A girl could definitely get used to this,” she mumbled to herself and poured a dollop of jasmine scented gel under the running water. Once the tub was full, she turned both taps off and lowered herself down to the nose in the hot, bubbly water.

She needed to do some serious landscaping, but for now, she merely indulged in the hot, blissfully scented water. After being in the hospital for so long and only able to shower, she’d had no strength for shaving and refused to ask the nurses for help. So, once she soaked a little while, she’d take her razor and shave the cavewoman from her body.


Seth

 

Chris urged Jacob into wearing his thick coat and the two of them headed out. The little boy was so excited to be going to the theater that Seth couldn’t help but feel a surge of anger. He couldn’t imagine all the comforts Lucy and Jacob had done without all these years. All while he’d been living it up. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he sighed heavily and reminded himself that he couldn’t do anything about the past, but he could and he would make their future the best he could.

He’d move heaven and earth to make sure they were happy. He raced back into the kitchen and tossed all the dirty dishes into the new dishwasher. He grabbed the bottle of detergent and read the instructions before shrugging his shoulders and squeezing a hefty dollop into the designated cup.

He lifted the door, slid the latch to lock it and hit the ‘start’ button. The little machine roared to life in a whisper soft hum and Seth congratulated himself on a job well done. He gave the rest of the apartment one last glance-over and when he was satisfied that everything was still neat and tidy, he eased into the bedroom and began lighting candles.

He heard water lightly sloshing in the bathroom and smiled to himself, happy that Lucy was enjoying her bath. Looking down at himself, he realized he needed to tidy himself up as well.

He headed toward the little bathroom just to the left of Jacob’s bedroom and quickly undressed, tossing his clothes carelessly in the corner. He squeezed his large body into the crowded shower and bathed in record time. He wanted to be in bed, waiting, when Lucy emerged from the bathroom. The mere thought of her skin, moist, hot and pink from her soak, had him hurrying even faster.

He cringed when he got shampoo into his eyes and vigorously scrubbed his eyes until they didn’t burn any longer. He hit his elbow a couple of times and cursed the small confines of the shower, but put that out of his mind in lieu of a more important task.

He barely had time to dry off, toss the towel and race across the apartment, sliding between the covers before her bathroom door eased open and Lucy emerged with an oversized towel wrapped around her petite body. Seth inhaled sharply when he noticed just how much weight she’d lost.

“I must look hideous,” Lucy murmured self-consciously and ran her hands down over the towel, smoothing the overlapping cotton.

Seth rose on his left elbow and extended his right hand, beckoning her toward him with a deft crook of his fingers.

“You’re beautiful,” he hurried to encourage her. “You just need to let me spoil you with the best meals possible. That will help you get your strength back.” He smirked when she narrowed her dark, chocolate colored eyes at him.

“Fried chicken is neither a healthy nor proper meal,” she scolded him but smiled anyway.
“But I appreciate the thought and effort you put into it. Jacob really enjoyed himself tonight. Apparently you’ve taken great care of my son. Thank you.”

Our son,” Seth corrected her. “And it’s time I accept my responsibility. I want to take care of you both, if you’ll let me,” he murmured softly. “Now, come to bed and enjoy yourself tonight,” he invited and gave her a cocky grin.


Lucy

 

Inhaling deeply, Lucy reached up and tugged the towel free of her body. It fell heavily to the floor while she stood, feet firmly rooted to the new carpet. It’d been so long since she’d felt vulnerable and small. She’d been both mother and father to Jacob and in taking on both those roles, she’d felt larger than life. She was their sole support and every decision was hers, alone, to make. She found it difficult to allow someone else the chance to take the reins. It was why she’d had such a hard time with calling Seth to begin with. It was even harder to leave him alone with her – their – son.

She heard Seth’s quick intake of breath and raised her head to study his reaction. His eyes were on her small breasts and his lips were slightly parted. He looked like he’d had too many glasses of wine.

“Get in bed,” he ordered in a deep and husky voice. “I’ve waited far too long for this and I plan to remedy that right now.”

Lucy smiled and pulled back the comforter, blanket and sheets. She sighed in supreme contentment as she slid her freshly shaven legs between the linens, the silky soft material sliding across her skin like a knife through hot butter.

But if she thought the sheets felt good, they were nothing compared to the solid wall of muscle she suddenly found herself encompassed in. Seth had wrapped his arms around her small frame and pulled her to him as though he couldn’t stand another moment without feeling her body against his.

“You feel so right in my arms, your body crushed against mine,” he whispered in her ear and then nibbled lightly at her lobe which caused her entire body to shiver in pleasure. “I’d forgotten just how hot your body is,” he added and continued a trail of teeth, tongue and lips down the column of her throat before she turned her head and captured those lips in a soul-searing kiss.

His tongue brushed out, licking along her lips before demanding entrance into her mouth. She complied and suckled lightly at his probing tongue. He moaned low in his throat and shifted toward her, pulling her body beneath his. The solid weight of him settled warmly into her bones, giving her a sense of protection like she’d never felt before.

“Am I too heavy?” he rasped and Lucy shook her head as she looked up into his downturned face. He braced his weight on both arms and simply hovered above her, his eyes studying every naked fraction he could.

His eyes stared into hers a long moment and then suddenly he leaned down and began kissing her with an intensity she didn’t remember him having that first time they were together so many years ago.

“I love the contrast of my body against yours,” he praised and ran his whiskered jaw against the swell of her breast. “It’s like caressing a pillow; I can mold you to me. It proves how well we fit together.” He continued murmuring similar things all between nibbling and kissing her in all the right places.

When he’d teased her to the point of frustration, Lucy lifted her hips, rubbing her core against his erection. He stopped kissing the column of her throat and smiled down at her, his eyes smoldering with desire.

“Are you in a hurry?” he teased.

“I just want you,” she whispered in response. “We don’t know how long we have before Chris and Jacob are back and I don’t want them to catch us in such a compromising position,” she admitted sheepishly, hoping she didn’t upset him or turn him off.

Instead he nodded curtly in understanding.

“You’re probably right,” he admitted and slowly, yet painfully, slid his long shaft into her welcoming channel. He moaned low in his throat, Lucy joining him as all her nerve endings suddenly blazed to life inside her womb. Like an expert lover, Seth pulled out and slid himself back in, slowly torturing her in the process, until he’d seated himself fully inside her. She could tell he was afraid of hurting her so she wrapped her legs around his waist and locked her ankles. She intended to show him just how strong she was.

Was she making a mistake? Yes, more than likely a colossal one. Did she care? No, honestly she didn’t. It felt so right and if she had limited time on this earth, she’d start crossing things off her bucket list.

She lifted her hips every time he thrust and he ran a hand down to her hip, pulling her lower body tighter against his. His hand was so large, or her body was so small, that his hand almost reached around to her spine. He spread his hand against the small of her back and supported her in each lift she wanted.


Seth

 

He studied her face; her eyes closed in pleasure, her long brown hair spanned across the pink pillow. Her lush lips were parted and her breath rushed in and out in little moans and catches. He memorized everything about her; he wanted it all burned into his mind like a permanent tattoo.

He kept a steady pace, not even disappointed when he felt her inner walls tighten around him. He was on the brink of exploding but had been holding out in a desire to please her first. He couldn’t blow his load before she reached her climax. They didn’t have all the time in the world and he had to make this as good as possible.

He inhaled sharply when her fingertips dug into his biceps and she lifted her mouth toward his. He bent down to envelope those luscious lips in a searing kiss when he felt her release. A loud moan erupted from her open mouth and he bent to swallow her pleasure. She bucked against him for what felt like forever and when he felt like he’d wrung her orgasm for every little aftershock, he left himself go, bathing her womanly womb with his seed. His mind only briefly wondered about protection, but then he reminded himself that she’d just underwent several weeks of chemo and radiation. Her getting pregnant was a very unlikely event.

He waited for her breathing to regulate before carefully extracting himself from her body. He found himself surprised over how empty he felt outside of her. He wanted nothing more than to rejoin her and stay there for all eternity.

He bent down and pressed a soft kiss to her bony shoulder, slightly proud of himself when his lips found her skin soft and dewy.

“I’ll slip back to Jacob’s bathroom, shower and redress before they get home,” he whispered against her stomach, his tongue snaking out to dip into her navel. He smiled when she shivered and reached down to tangle her fingers in his disheveled hair. Her legs scissored, obviously needing the friction against her core and he knew that if he didn’t get his ass in gear, he’d be balls deep in her treasure trove all night long.

He rolled off the bed and gasped when her hand slapped him smartly on the ass cheek. He tossed a smirk over his shoulder and wagged a finger at her.

“Naughty girl,” he accused and hurried from her room. Leaving her gloriously naked, well loved, body sprawled across the pink silk sheets was the second hardest thing he’d ever done. Strange how the most difficult things he’d accomplished in his life both involved Lucy.

That alone should tell him just where he belonged and it wasn’t away from his newfound family.


Lucy

 

February 14th

Lucy smiled as Jacob squirmed while she dressed him for daycare. He’d had his Uncle Seth go out and buy cards for all the girls in his group and he bragged about how pretty they all were. She tried not to let the fact that he’d just noticed the beauty of the opposite sex bother her, but knew it was inevitable given his gender.

“Hurry, Mommy,” Jacob insisted. “I’m going to be late.”

“Yes, yes,” Lucy agreed. “We can’t keep the ladies waiting, now can we?”

Amber had arrived the previous day and she and Chris had spent the night in a hotel. Lucy knew they hated being apart and considering the nature of the holiday, they needed some alone time that her small apartment and number of guests wouldn’t allow. She was proud of her brother’s happiness and she loved Amber like a sister. They were both so good for each other. She just hated that they had to spend this Valentine’s Day watching over her.

Once she had Jacob properly dressed, he raced from his room and grabbed Seth’s hand.

“I’m ready,” he declared loudly. “Take me to the ladies Uncle Seth,” he added and pulled the man toward the door.

Seth chuckled but tossed a wink at Lucy.

“I’ll be back soon, Mommy, don’t do anything strenuous while I’m gone,” he announced and then warned. Lucy saluted him like a good soldier and went about straightening up the breakfast dishes and wondering when Jacob had learned the word “strenuous”.

She’d all but cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher and put the cold breakfast foods back in the refrigerator when she heard the front door open and close. She pulled the sink’s plug, drained the soapy water and then rinsed the sink out, waiting for Seth to peek in on her. But when he didn’t she went in search of him.

She halted short when she walked around the corner and found him in the middle of her living room, on one bended knee, an open jewelry box in his hand. She closed the distance between them and peered down into the red, velvet box. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the diamond engagement ring. Her face heated when she realized what he was in the throes of.

“Seth,” she started but he stopped her short by standing and grabbing her by the hands.

“Don’t,” he warned. “Just sit down and listen to me.”

Lucy nodded curtly and allowed him to lead her over to the sofa. He waited until she was firmly seated and then he, again, kneeled in front of her, offering her the open ring box.

“I know what the doctors have told you,” he admitted and paused when she inhaled sharply. “Chris told me,” he admitted much to her dismay. “But I also know that I can’t go another day without you knowing just how much I love you and Jacob. I want to marry you,” he insisted. “Today, if necessary, or the sooner the better. I want you to tell Jacob that he’s my son and I want to spend the rest of our lives together. Till death do us part,” he finished and sighed heavily.

“Lucy, will you marry me?” he asked softly. “Please, give me the chance to show you how much I’ve changed and how much I want a family with you. You’ve already given me a son, you’ll get better and maybe give me a daughter to spoil,” he rambled and she stopped him by placing her finger against his lips, successfully silencing him.

He complied but stayed where he was, his eyes searching hers for an answer. Her eyes went to his throat and she saw the way his pulse hammered in conjunction with his heartbeat. She knew she loved him and now she knew that he loved her. Her only dilemma was whether or not she should chance breaking his heart.

“I’ll never stop loving you,” he added. “I don’t care how long we have together. I’ll never stop. Even if you refuse, I’ll never leave your side, so you might as well just say ‘yes’ and put me out of my misery,” he rushed on.

“Okay,” she relented and almost squealed when he lunged to his feet and pulled her into the tightest embrace she’d ever felt. He squeezed so hard she feared he would break her ribs.

“But we have something to do first,” she whispered against his chest. Seth pulled back to look down questioningly into her eyes.

“When Jacob gets home this afternoon, we need to sit him down and tell him the truth,” she said. “I want him to know that I’m marrying his daddy.”

***

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 


Epilogue

May 14th, one year later

 

        Lucy sat in front of her antique dressing table and smiled at her reflection in the mirror. Running her fingers through the thick, brunette curls, she couldn’t help but smile as feelings of warmth and happiness gathered in her chest.

        Her life had been a whirlwind ever since Seth proposed on Valentine’s Day previously this year. Her healthy pink cheeks warmed to a deep blush when she thought back over the sweet words proclaiming his undying devotion, even though her illness gave no indication of being cured.

        He’d been ready and willing to be with her no matter what life had in store.

        She jumped when a small, black-haired tornado blew into her spacious bedroom and landed against her in a flurry of laughter.

        “What are you doing, Mommy?” Jacob inquired, peering up at her with a big smile on his face. “Everyone’s waiting for you downstairs.” He informed her with blue eyes widened in seriousness.

        Lucy smiled and ran her fingers through his spiky hair. He’d taken after his father in so many ways; she’d never realized just how many until they began spending so much time together. After she’d tearfully accepted Seth’s proposal, they’d sat down and told Jacob the truth. Much to her surprise, the little guy reacted ecstatically to the news of not only having a daddy, but also that daddy was Seth Landers – pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.

        She’d been thankful that he wasn’t old enough to be angry over her deception. The very next morning, Seth had packed them up and moved them to his gorgeous manor in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Boasting a healthy population of around thirty-seven thousand residents, it about a hundred miles southeast of St. Louis.

        He’d even gone so far as to get her a job at the local library and found her the best Oncologist money could buy. After weeks of being examined by teams of the world’s best doctors, she’d been successfully declared cancer free. Even her six-month checkup had suggested the illness was, indeed, gone. She was in remission and planned to stay that way.

        She’d managed to delay the wedding until she and Jacob had gotten settled in and that included having Jacob enrolled in Pre-K at a private school with an excellent instructional system that encourages purposeful learning centered on each child’s individual interests and talents.

        In the two months Jacob had been there, he’d grown and learned so much that Lucy sometimes caught herself searching for the timid little boy he’d once been. Seth had given so much to their son that it was getting harder and harder to say ‘no’ when they ganged up on her; especially when it came to the actual wedding.

        Together they’d finally managed to talk her into setting a date and she went for her parent’s wedding anniversary. Although they’d abandoned her when she’d needed them the most, she still loved them with all her heart. They’d had a happy marriage and she hoped the date would allow her and Seth the same.

        “I’ll be right there,” she whispered against Jacob’s cheek and then kissed him soundly, smiling when her action left a perfect pair of pink lips on his face. He giggled and twisted from his mother’s arms before she could wipe the lipstick prints away.

        He raced from the room as quickly as he’d entered and Lucy took a moment to study the room she’d called home for the past few months. Since she’d refused to move into Seth’s room and share his bed until they were properly wed, he’d had a spare bedroom suite furnished for her.

        He’d had the four-poster bed he’d bought for her moved in and practically bought out a small antique store when she’d gushed over a dressing table. She loved being spoiled and pampered but still hadn’t gotten used to it.

        Turning back to the mirror, she smoothed her curls once again and then rose to her feet, studying the way the cream-colored satin dress fell to cover her ankles. Much to Seth’s dismay, she’d decided to wear cream satin of modest design that she’d found at a second-hand store on Main Street.

        They’d practically argued for three days over the dress. Seth wanted to have Vera Wang design and make her a gown, but Lucy had respectfully argued that it was something she’d only wear once and there was no point in spending so much money on a dress she’d never wear again.

        In the end, she’d won the argument, but only because Seth wanted her to be the happiest bride in the world. He’d gone on to warn her that eventually she’d have to give in and allow him to spend some money on a new wardrobe for her. As a professional athlete, he’d be expected to make certain an appearance at certain public functions and as his wife; she had to look every bit the part.

        He’d hastened to point out that it wasn’t the clothes that made her beautiful, but the other way around. He wanted the world to see the beautiful woman on his arm and know she was his and his alone.

        They’d managed to keep the paparazzi and other gossip reporters out of their way for a good portion of the time, but it hadn’t taken long for the world to find out about Jacob’s existence. Much to Lucy’s surprise, most every report had been respectful to both her and Jacob. She’d feared the worse considering Seth’s bad boy reputation. But upon learning of his secret family, the world had grown to love Seth Landers even more. Of course, there had been the normal ‘rags-to-riches’ story about her and Jacob, but Lucy had managed to ignore them.

        She was happy.

        She was healthy.

        And at last, she had the family she’d only allowed herself to dream of. Now, her son had both parents and would have the best life either of them could afford.

        Inhaling deeply, Lucy lifted her bouquet of yellow daisies from the table and turned toward the open door where her brother Chris stood waiting.

        “How long have you been standing there?” Lucy asked.

        “Long enough to see that you’re happy,” Chris answered and offered her the crook of his arm. Since both their parents were gone, Chris was giving the bride away.

        “I still can’t believe all this is happening,” Lucy admitted and smoothed her hand over her stomach, smoothing invisible wrinkles in her nervousness.

        Chris smiled down at her, admiration for his baby sister shining brightly in his eyes.

        “Mom and Dad would be proud of you,” he whispered. “They would have eventually come around, you know that, right?”

        Lucy nodded and tried her best not to let the tears fall. She knew they loved her. Her only regret was that they’d never had the chance to meet their beautiful and brilliant grandson.

        “Let’s do this,” Lucy insisted, brushing negative memories of her parents aside. There was no room for sadness and regrets – not today. “Seth has a game to get to.”

***

        While Lucy was taking her time, Seth was busy pacing the parlor. He’d walked the area directly in front of the large fireplace a thousand times and counting. Fear that she’d change her mind had a strangle-hold on him and it was everything he could do to simply breathe.

        He’d managed to convince the woman he loved that she was going to live a long, healthy – cancer free – life in hopes that she’d relax and let herself live. For almost five years now she’d solely existed for Jacob – their son. After finding out she was pregnant with him, she completed her college courses and graduated, all while suffering morning sickness, labor, and numerous consecutive, sleepless nights with a crying baby and daycare. She’d done it all, by herself.

        The thought of her parents pushing her away still brought on a white-hot rush of rage. She’d done the work of both Mom and Dad with only her brother and sister-in-law for the occasional assist.

        Was he still angry with her for keeping Jacob’s existence from him? Yes, in short, he was. But with all things considering, she’d made the right decision. Up until recently, Seth hadn’t been ready for a family; but more importantly, he hadn’t been ready for the responsibilities that came with having other people depend on him as a man.

        “Daddy!” Jacob called as he jumped off the last step of the stairs. His little boy voice echoed throughout the spacious foyer. “Where are you?”

        “In here,” Seth called and braced himself for the little tyke. Although he’d gotten over his shyness, Jacob had found a whole new level of confidence that only few people had. It was like he’d lived his first four years in the dark, thriving without sunlight. The moment he’d learned he had both a mommy and a daddy; he’d squared those little shoulders and leapt into life with both feet.

        Seth couldn’t be more proud of his son. The little boy proved to be a natural in playing sports, especially baseball. Hell, the boy had a better pitching arm than his old man.

        Jacob came running across the parlor floor and practically threw himself into Seth’s arms. Catching him snuggly against his chest, Seth breathed in the scent of his son. It wouldn’t matter how old, Seth would never get tired of holding Jacob. He knew he’d never get back the time he’d lost, but he could more than make up for it by being there for the rest of his life.

        “What’s up?” Seth asked as he sat the boy back on his feet. “Where you been?”

        “I went looking for Mommy,” Jacob answered and smoothed the new wrinkles from his tuxedo. Lucy had insisted that the ceremony be low-key and simple. Seth had honored his promise to her but made a few small splurges that she didn’t know about. Jacob’s tux was just one of them.

        She’d acted only mildly surprised when Jacob had gotten dressed this morning, but only smiled at Seth. Since he’d escaped that incident with no repercussions, he hoped she would accept the other surprises with as much dignity and grace.

        Smiling down at his son, he reached down to ruffle his hair only to be stopped by an angry glare from his progeny.               

        “How much longer did she say she’d be?” Seth inquired. The spacious backyard was filled with the few guests he’d been allowed to invite: his manager, the team’s owner and a couple of his teammates that were good friends. He’d just felt bad that Lucy only had Chris and Amber to be there for her.

        “She said she was coming,” he informed and reached up to run his little finger around the inside of the collar. “Are these things always so itchy?” he asked and scrunched his little face.

        Seth chuckled.

        “You’ll get used to it buddy,” he advised and then noticed that Amber was standing in the open doorway.

        “She’s ready,” Amber announced and reached out for Jacob’s hand. “C’mon little bit, let’s go on outside and take our places.” Jacob grinned up at his daddy. “That means you too,” Amber advised Seth and then turned to lead Jacob out the back door.

        Seth turned to study his reflection in the mirror over the fireplace.

        “You are the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth,” he told himself with a slight smirk. “Get your ass out there and marry that woman before she changes her mind.” He straightened his tie and headed out to take his place on the altar. He couldn’t help recalling all the times he’d declared his disinterest in having a wife or children and now, with two simple little words, he would acquire both.

        Suddenly his face split into an ear-to-ear grin. Oh, how one slip of a girl and spirited four-year-old had rocked his world. He looked forward to many, many more.

***

        Country music band, Rascall Flatts’s ballad, God Blessed the Broken Road, floated out of the dozen or so speakers placed strategically around the half acre yard. Two rows of white chairs sat on either side of the makeshift aisle and it looked like a truckload of yellow daisies had exploded above the scene, beautifully showering everything in the area.

        Seth stood under the English Ivy decorated arch, dressed in an impeccable white tuxedo matching his son’s. The only difference was the blood red tie he’d donned in homage to his Cardinal Brothers.

        He kept his hands folded neatly in front of him, afraid that should he not keep a firm grip, everyone would see just how nervous he really was. Everyone that knew him would say that Seth Landers was not a man to worry about anything, especially when it came to women. In reality, internally, he was a wreck. He was about to make the most important play of his life and he wanted everything to be perfect.

        Lucy deserved the best and he aimed to be the one to give it to her. She’d been through so much, endured unfathomable pain and loneliness and he admired her with every fiber of his being. It wasn’t just the fact that she’d raised one helluva kid; it was that she’d both gone through and beaten the cancer. She’d fought tooth and nail for their son and he couldn’t have asked for a better woman to call his own. He looked forward to having many more children with her.

        The country song ended and a new one began, the signal that the bride was about to make her entrance.

        Blake Shelton’s smooth vocals floated from the speakers and the double patio doors swung outward, revealing Lucy on her brother’s arm.

        Seth inhaled sharply, almost as if someone had punched him in the gut. He’d been with many, many women over the years, but none of them even come close to comparing to the beauty heading down the aisle toward him.

        Jacob stood just in front of his father and turned to grin up at him.

        “She’s so pretty,” the little boy said. “Isn’t she?”

        “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” Seth agreed and reached down to pat his son on the shoulder.

        Lucy squeezed her brother’s bicep and inhaled deeply, letting her breath seep out slowly in some effort to calm her racing heart. Chris reached up and patted her tense hand and the warmth in his smile gave her some comfort.

        “I’ve fantasized about this moment since first laying eyes on that man,” Lucy admitted sheepishly. “I just can’t believe it’s all coming true.”

        “Don’t worry,” Chris soothed. “This will be over with before you know and you have him and your son for the rest of your lives. Just breathe,” he advised.

        Lucy nodded curtly and offered her older brother a smile. He was right. She and Seth had a long, hopefully happy, life ahead of them. They’d be able to raise their son together and that was what made her the happiest.

        She allowed her brother to lead her slowly down the aisle, her soft ballet slippers barely making a whisper as she walked on the white carpet that layered the path.

        They paused just before the minister and Chris nodded at Seth as he took his sister’s hand from his bent arm and offered it to his best friend.

        “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” the minister asked.

        “I do,” Chris answered and smiled.

        Seth nodded curtly at Chris and reached forth to accept Lucy’s small, feminine hand. He felt her fingers shaking and took comfort in the fact that he wasn’t the only one who was all nerves today.

        They turned toward the man who proceeded to walk them through a ritual as old as time. They each spoke when it was their turn and when the minister called for the groom to kiss his bride, Seth wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her tightly to his chest. Bending her backwards, he lowered his lips to hers and the small audience erupted in cat calls and applause.

        Everyone laughed and when he lifted her back to her feet, Jacob rushed to hug them both. Jacob bent down and scooped their son into his arm. He kept a firm grip on Lucy’s waist with his other. The knowledge that he held his family in his arms gave him more strength and power than he’d ever felt before.

        “We’re a family,” Jacob announced and wrapped his little arms around Seth’s neck. “We’re a whole family now,” he repeated proudly.

        “Not quite,” Lucy interrupted and Seth’s gaze zeroed to hers. The mere thought that something was wrong seized him like a heart attack. Had he forgotten something?

        “What do you mean, Mommy?” Jacob asked and frowned.

        Lucy looked up into Seth’s eyes and couldn’t stop the smile from taking over. She’d gotten some rather good news on her checkup yesterday and she’d been waiting for this moment to tell everyone. She’d been afraid that the chemo and radiation treatments had left her barren, but through some great miracle, she’d been given a new, wonderful gift.

        “We’ll have another member joining us in about seven months,” she announced and watched as Seth’s expressions morphed from confusion to comprehension to pure glee. He laughed and tilted his head.

        “Are you sure?” he asked.

        “Yes,” she answered. “I found out yesterday.”

        “Who is coming?” Jacob asked, looking from his mommy to his daddy with his own confused expression.

        Lucy reached up and pulled her son’s hand to her lips for a quick kiss.

        “Your new brother or sister,” she answered softly. “Mommy and Daddy are going to have a baby.”

        Jacob grinned and squirmed so much that Seth finally set him on his feet so that he could wrap his new wife in his arms.

        “I love you so much,” he murmured as he lowered his lips to hers. “Forever and always.”

        “I hope so,” Lucy challenged. “Keep that in mind when we have to buy a bigger house. I want a houseful of kids.”

        “Your wish is my command,” Seth promised. “Always and forever.”

***

The End

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Alana

A shiver shot through me as I walked through the deserted streets on campus towards my apartment in residence. This is absolute madness; I should have left the party a lot earlier, now I’m stuck all alone at 3 AM. I wasn’t even much of a party freak to be honest, but somehow I’m always invited. Of course it was as obvious as daylight that they all just invited me because of my status. You see, my dad is one of the wealthiest men in Boston, Fergus O’Devlin. And just because of that, people seem to think I’m equally well off. They aren’t too wrong about that though. Having a rich father comes with many perks. I’m one of few students with her own apartment, a gorgeous car, which I wish I had right now, and a wardrobe that would make Paris Hilton jealous. Naturally every guy on campus wants a piece of me, but I’m not like most girls. Frankly, unlike most of my peers, I want to stay a virgin until the day I get married, and being shy and conservative doesn’t help either. In today’s day and age, it’s almost impossible to stay innocent, but I’m all about impossibilities and proving society wrong.

I pursed my lips as I tried to stifle a yawn and tears blurred my vision. Just a few more blocks and I’ll be home, then I can crash and burn for the rest of the day. Classes would have to wait; there was no way I would even be remotely interested or awake enough to sit through Dr. Richardson’s 9 AM class. I was about to cross the street to my apartment, when I spotted a black SUV, one I haven’t seen before, but then again, I never really paid much attention, much less walk around campus during the early hours of the morning. I kept a watchful eye on the vehicle and decided to stay on this end of the street until I was well past it before crossing. As I approached the entrance to the residence, I glanced over my shoulder and let out a relieved sigh. I slipped in and hurried to my place. It was pretty much the entire ground floor, or rather two apartments my father had merged into one. The Dean was opposed to it at first, but when my father offered a sizable donation for the upgrade of their football locker rooms and fields, he didn’t think twice.

I dumped my handbag on the kitchen counter, kicked off my shoes and headed straight for my king-sized bed, flopping unceremoniously down on it with a loud satisfied groan.

“Home at last,” I mumbled to myself as I tucked my pillow under my head. The way I felt now, I knew it won’t be long before I dozed off.

I had just started to drift off when hushed voices filled the room.

“Quick, get her!”  Someone muttered in a hushed tone.

My body went numb with fear the moment I realized I wasn’t alone. But before I could move, two strong hands had me pinned face down on the mattress.

“No, let me go!” I screamed as he flipped me over on to my back.

I kicked with all my might, but I was no match for him. The masked villain had reached for something in his pocket, which I assumed would be a gun or a knife, so I bucked my hips wildly and tried to push him off. It was then that he hit me with such force it felt as if my head was being ripped off  my spine. I could taste blood in my mouth and I groaned in pain. Again, my attacker tugged and pulled me, and then there was a second one who grabbed my feet. The one closest to me smelled like old sweat and whiskey. He stuffed a foul-tasting rag into my mouth before pulling a black bag over my head while his partner tied my feet together. It sounded like cable ties being zipped and tightened far too harshly around my ankles, and then around my wrists. The plastic was literally cutting into my flesh. I tried to fight them but it was impossible, tied up and gagged there was no way I was going to get out of this. My brain was in shambles, I couldn’t form a single thought as panic shot through every part of me.

With my tongue, I forced the cloth out of my mouth and cried, “What do you want with me?”

“Shut up bitch before you wake up the entire fucking campus. One more peep from your sorry little mouth, and I’ll show you exactly what that mouth was meant for,” one attacker ground out.

Terrified, I shut my mouth and tried to stay calm, that’s what a person was supposed to do right? Not to panic, as if that was even possible.

Why me? I kept asking myself as he gathered me up and flung me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

“I can give you any amount, I swear, name the price…” I tried.

“Shut that fucking bitch up or I’ll gut her myself!” came a disembodied raucous voice of the other attacker sounded.

This can’t be happening, I told myself. It was like movie scene, something I never expected. I decided to stay quiet, but tried to listen for anything familiar, any voices or sounds. Maybe, just maybe, it was a bunch of college kids playing a prank, but there was nothing familiar about these men. The cool air hit my skin as they carried me out, and the next thing I know, I was being dumped ungraciously into a vehicle. The engine revved and the vehicle pulled away, causing me to tumble and crash against the side of the vehicle.

“Get a move on!”

A sob tore through my lungs, but I had this sinking suspicion that my tears would win me no favor. Whoever this was, they were out to either use me for ransom so that my dad can pay some ridiculous sum of money, or they were human traffickers, and I was going to be sold to some pathetic rich foreign bastard, to be his whore.

As we sped off, all hope to be found or saved diminished. It would be at least three hours before anyone discovered I was gone. That is if I was lucky enough for someone to come look for me. By then we could be halfway to the next state. The way my heart was beating felt as if it was going to crush right through my rib cage. I realised I was never going to see the light of day again, and I started to cry hysterically.

“Shut the hell up! Jesus you’re fucking annoying!” one of the hoodlums shouted.

“I don’t want to die!” I cried.

“Well then shut your trap and I might spare your fucking life,” he muttered.

Just then screeching tires, followed by a loud bang sounded. My whole body jerked and I crashed into the seat in front of me. My bones and muscles felt like they were being crushed. My lungs contracted with such force that it felt as if I was suffocating. If I wasn’t bound, my arms and legs would be flailing, but now I was at the mercy of gravity and velocity. As if the cloth over my face wasn’t enough, my world kept flickering from semi-darkness to complete darkness. The only sound that filled my ears was the crushing of metal and glass. Then suddenly, everything stopped and the strong smell of gasoline filled my nose. I frantically tried to move, but to no avail. Out of the blue, two strong hands gripped me under my arms and hoisted me up before tugging the bag off my head.

Oh my god, it was Irish! He worked for my father, it all made sense all of a sudden. He’s trying to play my dad and using me as bait! Frantically I tried to back away from him, hopping with my bound feet until I crashed to the ground.

“Easy Alana, your dad sent me, we don’t have much time,” he said calmly.

“What do you mean we…?”

He snapped the cable ties with a quick flick of his wrist and picked me up, cradling me in his arms, “I would love to explain it to you, but now is not the time,” he interrupted and stalked over to a BMW parked not far from the crash.

Around us the street was deserted, considering the accident I was surprised that no one came out to investigate. Other than the smashed-up SUV, there was no other vehicle involved. From what I could see, they must have swerved out of Irish’s way and hit the barrier on the side of the street.

“Where’s my dad?” I asked instead as he gently put me into the passenger seat.

“Are you hurt anywhere else besides your head?” he asked ignoring my question. But the way he carefully felt down my legs for any broken bones made me feel all warm and fuzzy, despite the circumstances we were facing.

“I-I don’t think so, just my head and my jaw,” I whispered.

“I’ll see to that cut as soon as we are out of harm’s way,” he reassured me and then walked to the wreckage. He pulled a gun out of his jacket. Two shots rang in the air as he pointed it to the injured men, shooting each one at point range in the head. Fear ricocheted through me again and I covered my head with my hands, smothering a scream.

When the driver’s door opened and closed next to me, I looked at Irish, “Who were those men?”

With one hand on the steering wheel, and the other resting casually on the center console as he half leaned to the side, he simply stared straight ahead. The way his brows were drawn together and his lips were set in a tight line, he looked dangerous to say the least. Clearly, he was not going to answer my questions right now.

I pulled the hem of my shirt up and tried to wipe the blood from my face.

“Here,” he said and handed me a handkerchief.

Talk about strange days and weird people, I thought as I patted the cut above my brow and wiped the blood from my face. He just killed two men in cold blood and then he hands me a handkerchief like a real gentleman.


Liam “Irish”

That was too fucking close for words; I should have been there much earlier.  I was pissed with myself for almost losing Alana to those fuckers, god knows what I would have done if that was the case. Fergus had trusted me with the safety of his daughter, and not even 12 hours later, she’s abducted.

I drove for about an hour before turning off onto a small dirt road. I stopped the car and got out to pull some branches and leaves across the open path to obscure it from passers-by. If I was going to protect Alana, I was on my own; I couldn’t trust anyone, not even my own men.  Fergus’ men were working on clearing his name, his best legal team was on this, but getting past the FBI was no easy task. Look, Fergus was no innocent bystander, he’s a king pin, but so far, he has avoided the Feds, and they haven’t been able to pin him to any of the underground crime syndicates.  Until now. The thing is, this current mess was not his doing at all.

A wickedly devised plan by one of the rival gangs had placed his name at the center of one of the biggest scandals to ever hit the city. His hands may be dirty with laundering real estate money, but he never gotten involved in the drug scene. That was one thing O’Devlin avoided at all costs, and now the FBI was hunting him down for just that. Someone who posed as O’Devlin imported illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals and now his name was more tainted than ever. Not even our FBI informant could get Fergus out of this one without being caught himself.

With Fergus in exile God knows where, I am the one to protect Alana, at least for now. Unfortunately for her, and with the current state of affairs, she would not be able to attend college and she would have to be in hiding too. Alana would serve as excellent bait for both the Feds and the Bronx Raiders to lure Fergus out of hiding.

We drove for another hour before pulling up to a cottage. The place stood dissolved into the shrubs and looked like an abandoned shack barely fit for human occupation. To most, it would be a discomforting and sinister place, but it was the only place I had to escape the rest of the world. Ivy and other creepers crawled over the house as if nature itself was trying to hide dark secrets that lay beyond the threshold of this place.

“Why did you bring me here?” she asked confused.

“Because this is the only place you are safe at.”

I had to keep it short at simple. Fergus had worked hard to keep his alter ego a secret from his daughter, and if I had to tell her who her father really was, I doubted that would go down well.

“Well I insist you take me to my father, I’m sure he won’t be impressed if you kept me here,” she muttered and shoved the door open.

I couldn’t help but let out a frustrated breath. She really had no idea what her father was involved in. I casually opened my door and got out, then leaned with my arms on the roof of the car and watched her limp a few feet down the dirt road.

“The moment you get to the open road, you’ll be roadkill sweetheart, those men who came after you are not likely to let you just slip out of their hands like that.”

She carried on walking and I counted down from ten.

“Have you ever heard of the Bronx Raiders?”

The mention of one of the most renowned gangs in Boston made her stop in her tracks. I casually dropped my arms to my sides and circled the car before leaning back against it.

“What are you trying to say Irish?”

I shrugged, “Those are the guys who abducted you tonight, they are out for blood,” I said plainly.

She huddled back until she was a few feet in front of me. She had the same challenging glare in her eyes that her father often wore. Only, her green eyes were more intense against her pale skin.

“Why my blood?” she asked.

“Long story short, they’re after your father, and you’re the only way they can get to him.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” she said raising her voice slightly.

“Mind your tongue.” I scolded and then nodded with my head for her to follow, “Let’s get inside first and I’ll give you the run down.”

“I’m not going into that place,” she protested.

“Then stay out here, but I promise you, it will be much safer in there than out here.”

Without a glance back at Alana, I grabbed my bag from the trunk and headed to the cabin. Home sweet home, at least that’s what I kept telling myself. It wasn’t much, a small cabin with a small nook as a kitchen. To the left was a full bed, and next to the bed, a small door that led to the bathroom. I haven’t been back here for a couple of months, and dust had settled on the furniture. Simple rustic chairs, a small table big enough for two people was about all I owned, aside from the few books I kept on a makeshift book shelf I put together with pallets.

I kept a watchful eye on her as she stood worrying her lips outside. With the weather turning, she wasn’t going to stay out there for long. Leaving her to her thoughts, I carried on stacking logs in the fireplace and getting the food ready for lunch. It had been a long night and an even longer morning. I still couldn’t believe that I lost her at that frat party she was at. One moment she was clinging to a pretty boy, and the next minute she was gone. My first fear was that she was somewhere in one of the bedrooms getting laid.

I crashed into every single room to stop her from wasting her time and pussy on some lame college boy. It was only after I turned the place upside down that I heard one of her friends bitch about the fact that she was such a spoil sport for leaving the party. Every second counted, and when I came up to her apartment and I saw those fuckers loading her into their SUV, I knew I had to act fast. Thankfully my attempt to thwart their attempts at kidnapping her paid off and didn’t wreck my car. They could have easily crashed into me instead of the barrier, but the driver reacted as I had hoped and swerved. That of course also had my blood running cold, doing what I did could have cost Alana her life too.

By the time the water was on the stove and I had some instant noodles with a dash of ketchup ready for lunch, I moved on to more important matters. I lifted the heavy bag filled with guns and ammo onto the table and carefully started to unpack the contents. I had to take stock of what I had on me. I was alone in this, and would need every bit of ammo I can lay my hands on. I had a Colt 1908 hand gun, which may just come in handy. I cocked it and checked the casing and barrel. I haven’t used it for a while, but it was still in good shape. A Colt M1911, which I always carried on my person, two AK-47 rifles and a collection of knives. Amongst all the guns, I had a few hand grenades and smoke bombs. Okay so maybe explaining the full weight of the situation to Alana at this point was not ideal, but sooner or later she had to learn that this life she expected to be all roses and sunshine is everything but. For a moment I was pretty pissed at Fergus for keeping this from her. I mean seriously, what the fuck did he think? If he really wanted to protect his daughter, he should have sent her away and given her a new identity when she was fucking two years old. Hell, he should’ve stopped fighting his ex-wife and let her take Alana.

“Selfish fucking bastard,” I muttered under my breath.

“Who’s a selfish bastard?”

Without looking up, I started stacking the ammunition back into the bag, “No one,” I muttered.

“Are those all yours?”

Her voice carried a tone of curiosity, which surprised me. I half expected her to tremble in fear, like a mouse caught in the trap. I was even more surprised when she walked up to the table and picked up the Colt.

“I’ve used one of these before,” she said quietly, “My dad taught me how to shoot.”

I’m not going to lie, but watching her hold that gun, running those pale slender fingertips over it as if she was stroking it, was a total fucking turn on. She studied it with such reverence that I could hardly focus on the task at hand. For the first time since I practically saved her life a few hours ago, I noticed her, really noticed her. She may be twenty, but she sure as hell didn’t look her age. She was gorgeous to say the least, her long red hair framed her delicately heart-shaped face, and willow green eyes caressed the weapon she held in her hands. Her body was petite but lush with curves in all the right places. The low-rise jeans she wore along with a sexy red vest hugged her figure scandalously. Her perky tits, the erect nipples poking against the ribbed fabric, were begging for attention.

Whoa! Easy there Irish! I scolded; this was no time to perve over a twenty-year-old, especially not Fergus’ daughter. That would be like a personal death wish and a signed funeral policy. Without another word, I reached over and gently took the gun from her.

“You might have to use it again soon, but not today,” I smirked.

She frowned and looked at me, “I will never shoot a man,” she said and put the gun down again.

She still didn’t grasp the full weight of the situation. I shook my head, zipped up the bag and padlocked it. Not for my own safety but for hers, because I was sure as hell not going to sit around while she helps herself to my stuff. Who knows what was going on in that pretty head?

She walked around to the stove and lifted the lid off the pot.

“What on earth is this?”

“Food, help yourself.”

“I’m not eating this; it looks like someone vomited into the pot.”

Oh dear god help me! This woman was going to drive me insane, “Then go hungry.”

“Do you actually live here?” she mumbled rubbing her hands up and down her arms.

“No, I hide here.”

She pulled a sideways pout and came to stand across from me again, “So where do I sleep?”

I nodded towards the bed.

“And where do you sleep?”

I smirked and pointed to the bed again.

“Are you serious? I am not sharing a bed with you!” she said in a high-pitched tone.

“Then you can take the floor.”

“Brute,” she muttered under her breath and stormed out of the cabin.

I watched her through the small window as she marched towards the car. She tugged on the door handle and then walked around to the driver’s side and tugged again, as if her first try wasn’t a clear sign that the fucking car was locked. I rolled my eyes, fished in my pocket for the keys and pressed the unlock button on the remote. The indicators flashed twice, and she glared towards the cabin sending daggers my way.

She would probably last the day sitting in the car. Sooner or later she will get thirsty and hungry and sleeping in the back seat will be a royal pain in Miss Priss’s arse. It’s just a matter of time. I’m here to protect her, and that’s that, I made no promises to Fergus to put his little princess up in a five-star hotel with servants falling over the feet at her every beck and call. God, I’m already irritated with her and it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours yet.


Alana’s

What an absolute moron, he was as thick as a plank if he thought I would be sharing his bed or his table. I’d rather sleep in the car if I had to. I looked up at the sky and shivered. There’s a bad storm brewing and I could only pray that there would be no lightning or thunder. A few drops of rain I could handle, but when the skies light up, I’m a complete mess. I hated thunder, even from a young age. It started shortly after I turned four, I think. My father had taken us camping in the mountains and two days into our camping trip, we were caught in quite a big storm. I was trapped in that small tent crying my eyes out while my father tried his best to contact emergency services. Help did get to us a few hours later, but it had been those few hours that instilled the fear I had for thunder and lightning today.

My stomach growled, and I realized that I haven’t had anything to eat since the party. As I sat in the passenger seat, I glanced around the car, surely there had to be a protein bar or something in here. I flipped open the glove compartment and dug through the stuff in there, nothing but a road map, a few random pieces of paper and a whack of receipts. I was rather amused by that though, Irish didn’t look to me like the type who would hang on to receipts. I pulled out a handful for a closer study; Walmart, gas stations, fast food, just general crap.

“Ooh what have we here,” I said to myself as I took a closer look at one of the receipts.

It was from a strip club and he ran up quite a bill that night. What a creep, I thought to myself. Typical brute who would spend his hard earned money on prostitutes just to get a kick out of life. But something in my stomach twisted as I flipped through receipt after receipt. He got around quite a lot, and I couldn’t understand what a handsome man like him would do at such scummy places. Wait, what?! Handsome?—where the hell did that come from? He wasn't handsome; he was my dad’s age for crying out loud. And he obviously had an unhealthily high sex drive. One receipt in particular stood out, I had heard the boys at college talk about this place—Fantasia. The club was renowned for its debauchery and secret gatherings where men and women alike got to live out their wildest fantasies and completely lose their inhibitions. I tapped my finger on my lips, for a moment wondering what Irish’s wildest fantasies could be. No, no, no, I’m not going there, that would just lead me down the yellow brick road to trouble. A sudden loud bang echoed through the skies and I jumped with a loud squeal. Great, now the thunder started and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere in a car. I glanced towards the cabin, no sign of Irish anywhere. I contemplated my next step, I could go back inside and accept the fact that I would sleep on the floor, although I really did not look forward to that, or I could wait it out in the car. But as the sound of rolling thunder drew closer, I made up my mind.  I was about to get out of the car when a brilliant shock of white light forked silently through the sky. I swore it made landfall just a few feet away from the car, and then there was that loud thunderous boom. I yelped and sunk back into the seat. I had to get back inside, no questions, and if I was going to make a run for it, I better do it now. I looked up at the sky; big drops had already started splattering to the ground like tiny little goons. I gripped the door handle, flung the car door open, and suddenly it was a downpour of rain as if someone had opened the sluices of a dam.  I shut the door and made a run for it, landing on the porch just as the next bolt of lightning flashed through the sky.  I barged into the cabin soaking wet, only to run into a steal wall of flesh. Irish’s hands gripped my shoulders firmly, and that’s when I noticed he was butt naked. I shielded my eyes and jumped away from him as if his touch burned me.

“What the hell! Do you always run around naked?” I blurted out and turned my back on him.

“All the time,” he said in that flat, I-don’t-care voice.

“Just get dressed will you?” I muttered.

I heard him shuffle about behind me. I couldn’t wipe the image of him from my mind. He was built like Thor. Yeah okay that’s pretty cheesy, but it was the truth. Other than the obvious fact that he was really muscular, his right pec was covered in one of those tribal tattoos and ran down the length of his arm and on the other side a dragon curled its way around from his hip up to his side, disappearing around his back. I probably shouldn’t have looked or paid any attention but his cock was big and semi erect. For a second I wondered if he was busy rubbing one out when I came in… oh god another one of thoughts I shouldn’t entertain. What the hell was wrong with me? Okay so I may be innocent at most, but I wasn’t an idiot, being in college, you can’t help but being exposed to certain things that would make any normal person blush, and this was no way for a lady to behave.

“Done. Happy?”

I turned around only to find a towel flung in my face, “Hey!”

“You better get dry or you’ll end up with pneumonia. Then you need to eat.”

I glared at him and then looked around the cabin, “And what do you suggest I wear?”

He stopped what he was doing and then scratched the back of his head. I raised a brow, “You didn’t quite have that on your itinerary, did you?”

“Well excuse me lass, but I was kind of caught up saving your pretty little arse and your wardrobe wasn’t a priority,” he bit out and then dug in his bag and pulled out a T-shirt, “Here, you can wear this while your clothes dry out.”

A T-shirt twice my size would at least serve well as a night dress, I thought as I glanced around. 

“You have to turn around,” I said.

“What?”

“I need to get dressed, turn around.”

Irish rolled his eyes and turned around, resting his hands on his hips. I stripped down to my underwear and piled my wet clothes on the chair. I was drenched right down to my bra and panties, so they would have to go as well. Feeling a little awkward I took them off and then pulled the T-shirt over my head. It smelled like Irish, and again I felt that small flutter in the pit of my stomach.

A while later, my clothes were hanging in front of the fire, and I was snuggled up in a fleece blanket, forcing down the horrible concoction Irish made me eat and wallowing in self-pity. In a matter of 24 hours I have been through hell and back. I still had no clue why though, why would anyone want to get to my father through me, what did my dad do to deserve this? I swallowed back the tears that threatened to spill and hugged my knees. This had to be a horrible mistake.

“So are you going to tell me what’s going on at all?” I mumbled without looking at him.

He simply sat on the stool and stared into the fire, twisting a mug of coffee in his hand. He clearly had a lot on his mind, but I deserve to know the truth. Why was I being hunted down like an animal, and what did any of this have to do with my dad? But more pressingly, who exactly was Irish? I have only ever seen him at my dad’s office on occasion when I went home for spring break or over Christmas. He used to always wear a suit. Naturally I figured he had been one of the corporates who worked for my dad, but after this morning’s events, I knew he wasn’t even close to being a pencil pusher.

“Are you just going to sit there and contemplate life or are you going to tell me what’s going on?” I muttered.

“Alana…” he started and pinched the bridge of his nose, “It’s very complicated. Your father asked me to look out for you, and right now, that’s what I’m doing.”

“So that’s it? My father told you to look out for me and I just have to accept that?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Bullshit!” I tossed the blanket aside then walked over to where he sat and slapped the coffee out of his hand. For the first time in my life, I was angry. This wasn’t like me at all, but I’ve been through too much to just accept my predicament and wait it out, “I was nearly killed, and now you’re refusing to tell me why!”

The chair scraped back and toppled over as Irish stood towering over me. A muscle jumped in his jaw, and his gun-metal blue eyes bore into mine. His lips moved as if he wanted to say something, but instead he pursed his lips and grabbed me by my arm. For a moment I thought he was about to go all Neanderthal on me and throw me over his shoulder, but instead he dragged me over to the table and sat me down.

“I need you listen to me, and listen very carefully. This life you’ve been living is nothing but a figment of your imagination. Your father is in a lot of trouble right now and he had to leave the country. Until this mess is sorted out, we will stay here. Understood?”

I frowned at him, none of this made any sense, what trouble could my father possibly be in? “What trouble is he in?”

“It involves the FBI and a bunch of shit, I’m not willing to get into right now. All you need to know is he asked me to protect you, so I would appreciate it if you could respect that.”

I raised a brow and regarded him, “You go around shooting men in cold blood without blinking and he trusts you to take care of me?”

“Christ! You’re fucking impossible. That was me protecting you. Those men were going to kill you and the fewer of them walking around the better.”

I sighed and buried my face in my hands. The reality of the situation was still so farfetched I didn’t know if I was coming or going.

“Okay, so run this by me again, some bad guys are out there hunting me down to get to my dad. You’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen and in the mean-time I have to just stay put and forget about my life?”

“Yes.”

It was a simple definitive answer, but I didn’t like it one bit.

“So what am I supposed to do with my time?” I asked dropping my hands down on the table.

Irish looked at me with his brows drawn together, then walked over to a small wooden cupboard against the wall and pulled out a small box. When he placed it in front of me I looked up at him confused.

“A deck of cards?”

He nodded, “Play patience or something, but just keep yourself busy.”

I rolled my eyes, picked up the deck and tilted it so that the cards all fell into the palm of my hand, “I have a better idea.”

I squeezed the ends of the cards together and flicked it. All the cards went flying across the table, some landing on the floor, “You can keep yourself busy and clean up this mess.”

He moved so fast I barely had time to register what was happening. He flipped me over his lap and his hand came down on my bare ass.

“Ow! I’m not ten years old!”

“You’re behaving like a fucking child so I’ll spank you like a fucking child,” he ground out and WHACK! Another hand landed on my bare bottom.

It was stinging like hell and I tried to twist out of his grip crying in protest. But what was even worse was the fact that I was butt naked underneath the T-shirt. My cheeks felt hotter than a casting iron and I desperately tried to reach behind me to pull the T-shirt down and cover my girly bits. Two more thwacks and he abruptly let me go, causing me to stumble backward and flop down on the floor, I immediately scrambled to get the fleece blanket and covered my legs as I crawled into the corner next to the fire place, tears stinging my hot cheeks.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I whimpered.

“Then stop acting like a child,” he muttered under his breath.

I stayed curled up in the corner as I tried to regain some dignity. He was right; I was acting like a child, throwing tantrums like a teenager which was not like me at all. Instead of being thankful that he saved me, I was retaliating. I suddenly felt lost and afraid. Everything I knew had been a lie, my entire life was a faux. My magic carpet was gone, my Genie AKA Daddy was gone, and I would most likely not have a penny in my bank account now that he’s, who the hell knows where. I carefully reached up and touched the cut above my brow that by now was covered with a crust of dried blood. I had been so stubborn having to stay in this place that I hadn’t even thought about the accident and the cuts and bruises I sustained.

“It’s a scratch. I have a first aid kit in the bathroom.”

There’s a bathroom? I wanted to chirp, but decided against it, who knows what he’ll pull off next. Instead of a spanking he might tie me up and gag me to keep my trap shut. I got up and quietly made my way to the bathroom. I had a few cuts and bruises on my arms but nothing serious. I used the gauze and water to clean off the crusty dried blood and then used some antiseptic ointment before sticking a small Band-Aid across the cut. Looking at myself in the mirror I realized just how ghastly I looked. My hair was mucky, and I had dirt smeared all over my face, I was desperate for a shower. I latched the bathroom door and turned on the water. Just my luck, but not unsurprisingly, it didn’t get hot at all. I huffed and stripped out of the T-shirt. I’ll be quick, I told myself. In and out that’s all I needed to do. I stepped in under the cold water and goose bumps broke out all over my skin. Geezus it was freezing! My teeth clattered, and I quickly used the bar of soap and washed myself down. At least Irish had shampoo, not that it would do my hair any good. I looked at the label and pulled a face. Apple and Cinnamon fragrance no-name brand shampoo. But I washed my hair, anyway. I was done in less than five minutes give or take and reached for the tower hanging on the hook behind the door.

“Oh my god!” I cried out. The towel was damp!

“Alana?” Irish called from the other side of the door, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s horrible!” I shouted back.

I saw the door handle jiggle, and I called out, “Don’t you dare open that door or I’ll stab you with a toothbrush!”

“What the fuck’s going on?” he asked again.

“The bloody towel is damp, that’s just gross!”

“Seriously, of all the things you could complain about, it’s a damp towel?”

I didn’t bother answering him. I patted myself dry with the drier parts of the towel and pulled the T-shirt on again. I looked around and realized that there was no hairbrush and only one toothbrush, and there was no way I was going to share that. Instead I took the toothpaste on my finger and finger-brushed my teeth.

When I exited the bathroom Irish was standing with his hands on his hips.

“I think we should start over,” he said quietly.

I bit my lip and hugged my arms around myself, “I guess.”

“Tomorrow I’ll go out and get a few supplies, so make a list of everything you’re going to need for at least a week.”

“Oh thank god this is only going to last a week,” I exhaled.

“No, that’s not what I said. We’ll be on the move, so for now just the necessities, food, snacks, toiletries and yeah, well that’s about it.”

It was one of those awkward moments where there was a hidden apology somewhere in a completely irrelevant conversation.

“I’ll make a list,” I said, instead of making this more difficult.


Liam “Irish”

This was fucked up, I couldn’t possibly be attracted Alana, not to mention Fergus’ daughter. And the fact that she was only twenty was another cause for concern. So fine, she’s legal with all the bells and whistles and she’s probably been around the block a few times at college, but I’m forty-fucking-two for god sakes.

I just couldn’t stand being in that confined space with her any more than she could tolerate me, but in my case, it was for a completely different reason. Seeing her standing there, wearing my T-shirt with those perky tits poking against the white fabric and knowing she didn’t have a stitch on under there was fucking with my brain. All I could think of was that tight firm arse of hers under my palm and the way she squirmed each time I smacked her bare bottom. It would have taken nothing for me to touch her pussy and feel her up. As it was it had taken me more control than I thought I could conjure up to let her go after giving her, her first real hiding.

Frustrated with myself I tossed her a small notebook and a pen and stalked out of the cabin. I needed fresh air, and the rain was no deterrent for me, it was like a much needed cold shower. Dragging my hands through my hair as I paced up and down next to the cabin, away from the window, I tried to just focus on shit. I promised Fergus I will keep his daughter safe, not that I would fuck her brains out. I had to keep my focus, or this shit was going to go pear very fast.

“You can do this Irish,” I said out loud to myself, “Just look at her as if she’s your own daughter.” You don’t have a fucking daughter you fool!

“Effing shit!” I cried out and rubbed my hands down over my soaked face. I had to get a grip and fast, not only was she a temptation she was a bloody distraction. The sooner we get Fergus’ name cleared the quicker I can get her out of my hair. Better yet, tomorrow when I head to town, I’m going to find someone to fuck and get my mind off this little temptress.

After a while I headed back inside to find Alana sitting at the small table making her list.

“Do you want something to drink?” I asked as I walked over to the camper cooling box.

“Do you have anything other than coffee and water?” she asked.

“I have beer and whiskey,” I offered.

“I’ll have a whiskey,” she said, “Not that I’m a big fan but I need something stronger than coffee.”

“Aren’t you to young?” I asked curiously.

“I’m twenty-one and legal thank you very much,” she piped up and shoved the list towards me; I glanced at it briefly and then poured her a drink.

“Do you have Cola?”

“No.”

“So how am I going to drink this?”

“How else do you drink whiskey?”

She did that eye roll again, and said, “Well then bottom’s up!”

That eye roll of hers was starting to grow on me and fuck, it was sexy. I raised my glass and then tossed back the drink.  Alana of course did not expect it to have such a kick, and after she took her first gulp she choked and coughed uncontrollably. I laughed and poured myself another.

“Easy there princess, this stuff puts hair on your chest.”

“Oh my god, you could have warned me!”

I laughed and topped her glass up, “Now take it easy, take a little sip and let it lay on your tongue for a bit, then swallow. Once you get used to it, it’s actually quite pleasant.”

She eyed me warily and then took a small sip. Her lips pouted slightly as she swished the amber liquid around in her mouth before swallowing it. Now if that was her swallowing my cum… Jesus Irish! I cursed mentally, you have to fucking stop!

“That wasn’t too bad,” she said softly and took another sip and another. Soon she was telling me all about college and the frat parties, and how she found the boys her age to be far too immature and shallow for her to bother with.

“So that’s the story of my life!” she slurred and flopped down on the bed, “Oops!” she mumbled and tried to pull the T-shirt down to cover herself up.

“I think you’ve had a little too much,” I said and took her glass from her.

“Oh come on, you’re such a sour puss, one more, then I promise to go to bed,” she begged.

“I don’t think so.”

I placed the glasses in the sink and then screwed the bottle top back on.

“Ugh, for once in my life, I don’t feel like being the little good girl everyone expects, and now you go and spoil it!”

This time she stood up and walked over to where I stood, those sultry eyes and plump lips of hers pouted up at me as she dragged her nails down over my bare chest. Note to self, keep your fucking clothes on. I grabbed her wrist and held her at arm’s length, “C’mon, time for bed.”

“Or what, you’re going to give me another spanking,” she teased rubbing her arse cheeks.

“Alana…” I warned and guided her to the bed, “Get some rest.”

“Are you gay or what?” she piped up.

“No, but you’re plastered and before anything happens that you would surely regret, I insist you sleep it off.”

She took a deep breath and then flopped back on the bed, stretching her arms above her head. This time there was no way I could look away. Those beautiful ivory legs stretched all the way up to her hips, and her pussy had a slight dusk of red hair very neatly trimmed. I swallowed and tried to divert my thoughts, but it was useless. It was only when I noticed that she was hardly moving that I realized she had actually passed out. Thank fuck for that, I thought as I reached for the blanket. I gently lifted her legs, avoided staring at her pussy, and moved her on to the bed and then covered her with the blanket. There, temptation gone—NOT.

I needed an effing miracle to keep my pecker under control around this one; I thought and went to sit at the fireplace away from her. But all I kept thinking about is burying my cock deep in her and fucking her until she couldn’t walk straight.

“Fergus, you fucking bastard, what the fuck where ya thinking?” I said out loud.

“Daddy…”

I jumped up, expecting Alana to be up and at it again, but she was talking in her sleep and I sat back down. Why the fuck did Fergus not send her off with her aunt, at least that way she would be out of harm’s way and I wouldn’t be in this fucking fix.

I must have fallen asleep at some point, I sat up and stretched my legs, sleeping on this chair was way too uncomfortable. I eyed the bed where Alana was still fast asleep and tucked under the blanket, then eyed the floor.

“Fuck it, I need my sleep.”

I got up and walked over to where she lay, I grabbed two pillows and stacked them next to her then I settled in next to the pillows. At least if she wakes up she can rest assured that I had her virtue in mind before taking up bed space. A few minutes later I was still wide awake, and the only thing on my mind was the red head with her legs wrapped around my neck and my tongue buried in her pussy.

I’m not sure when I finally dosed off, but when I woke up, I had red hear stuck to my stubble and an arm and a leg draped over my torso. The pillows I had stacked between us last night were strewn on the floor. I tried not to move and disrupt sleeping beauty here, but I had to get out from under her before she woke up. Or before she moved her leg and dragged it over my boner.  I gently hooked her hair with my finger and pulled it out of my face, and then I slowly took her wrist and lifted her arm. She groaned and moved and I froze, barely taking a breath. Easy Irish, you can do this, I told myself and then moved her arm again, gently placing it on her hip. But when I slowly shifted away from her, she mumbled something inaudible followed by a squeal.

“Irish! What the hell… oh my god… did we… did you…”

I jumped out of bed and grabbed for the pillow holding it in front of me to hide my morning glory, “Hell no, fuck, I swear I was only sleeping!”

“Here in bed?” she asked with eyes wide open.

“Yes dammit, the chair was uncomfortable, I stacked pillows between us,” I uttered.

“So why are they not here anymore?” she asked accusingly.

“How the hell would I know?”

She groaned and grabbed her head, “Oh god it’s too early for this, I need coffee.”

“Well help yourself darlin’, I’m going to grab a shower and head on to town.”

I didn’t bother waiting for her response, simply tossed the pillow at her and stalked into the bathroom. It was insane, even the cold shower couldn’t tame the beast. My balls were aching and my cock was still rock hard, if I didn’t do something to remedy the situation now, I was going to be in a lot of shit later.  My skin prickled under the cold water as I thought of Alana, she was indeed a temptation I did not expect. Just thinking of her body under my control sent my hormones into overdrive.

I wrapped my fist around my aching cock and slowly slid it up and down from the tip to the base, images of Alana in the throes of passion, her mouth wrapped around my dick, my cock buried deep in that sweet pussy of hers. I kept trying to divert my thoughts to exclude Alana, and focus more on my physical release, but it was futile. I simply could not get her out of my mind.  The fact that I had seen her naked from the waist down already gave me a sneak preview of what she looked like and imagining me thrusting into that soft pink pussy was driving me insane. Now! I groaned inwardly as I pump my cock faster, slapping against my balls and then finally, my balls tightened and my cock erupted, spilling cum against the shower wall. This time I groaned audibly as I pressed my head against the shower wall while I finished myself off, savouring the moment as my release left my limbs numb and relaxed.  Hopefully this would solve the immediate issue I was facing, for the time being at least.

When I came out, she sat with her head resting on the table, “Oh my god, I’m never having whiskey again, that stuff is poison.”

“Yeah well your condition is self-inflicted. Listen, I won’t be long, an hour max,” I said as I grabbed my keys. While I unlocked my guns so that I can at least have some form of protection, I continued, “If I’m not back by 9am, you need to get out of here, a few miles south from here, past the oak tree is a hidden underground bunker. Go there and wait until someone comes for you.”

Her jaw dropped as she looked at me, “Why wouldn’t you be back?”

“I will be back, but I’m taking precautions.”

“Okay but what if you’re not back by then and I’m stuck in some bunker, who will know where to find me?”

“I have connections, and they know the drill,” I said, “Just promise me you’ll make tracks if I’m not back by nine.”

I tucked my gun into the back of my pants, and then took out the Colt Alana was familiar with, “Here, keep this on you at all times, and do not hesitate to shoot,” with that, I dumped my bag back in the closet and walked to the door.

“Irish…” she said, and I turned around, “Please come back.”

My heart felt like a fist was wrapped around it, squeezing the air out of my lungs. She looked at me with such desperation that I almost opted to stay, but she needed stuff and I was going to at least help her out with that. This also gave me the time to try to find out where the Bronx Raiders were, and see if McLeary has managed to get any heat on them, or find out who exactly framed Fergus.

I took my baseball cap off the hook next to the door and tugged it on to my head. In my line of work, being a hitman for a cartel, I knew better than to make empty promises.


Somewhere in an abandoned warehouse…

Blood splattered across the floor as another fist hit Sully’s face. His eyes were swollen shut and blood dripped from his nose and mouth. No matter how much they tortured him, he refused to hand Irish or the girl over to Shamrock.

“I can make this easy for you, you tell me where Irish is hiding the girl and I’ll spare your pathetic life,” Shamrock said flatly.

Sully struggled to lift his chin from his chest and peered at his nemesis through slits, “Fuck off,” and then spat blood all over Shamrock’s shoes. Dealt another blow and another blow, he knew he wasn’t going to last long. Irish was his brother in arms, and his mentor, and nothing anyone did or said would make him turn on his own.

“You’re an effing dick, I don’t see any of your mates coming to your rescue, they’ve left you out to dry,” Shamrock ground out.

Shamrock ran his hands over the cold scalpel and sighed theatrically. And then he nodded at Vince, his henchman. This was it, Sully thought and prepared himself for the worse. He had made peace with death when he first joined the Labyrinths Cartel, they all did. A sworn oath of blood to their brothers was far more valuable than life itself. He had nothing left to lose, they had already killed his wife.

Orchestral music filled the abandoned warehouse, the acoustics causing it to echo in the empty space. Then Shamrock moved over to where he was tied up to the chair and dragged the blunt side of the scalpel across his neck.

“I’m going to ask you one last time Sully, where is Irish?”

“I’m not tellin ya anythin’ you can suck my cock for all that I care,” he gargled.

Without a word, Shamrock pressed the cold blade against the top of his ear and sliced right through, cutting the shell of Sully’s ear clean off. Sully cried out in pain, huffed and cussed as he shook in the chair. The pain was excruciating.

“Boss,” one of Shamrocks’ men interrupted.

“What?”

“The lad at the grocery store called, he spotted Irish there this morning so Irish must still be in town.”

Sully cursed inwardly and gritted his teeth, what the fuck would Irish still be doing here in Boston? He should have been long gone by now.

“Are you sure?” Shamrock asked.

“Aye, he swore on his life,” the boy confirmed.

“Well then I’m sure we will find him sooner or later.”

Shamrock handed the scalpel to his henchman Vince and muttered a blank, “Finish him,” before pulling his leather gloves off and getting into the car parked a few feet away.

The torture was finally over, and he would finally meet his maker and be with his wife, he thought peacefully. Even before the bullet penetrated his skull he already breathed out his last breath.


Liam “Irish”

I entered the Saint Lorde’s Catholic Church through the rear entrance and scanned the hall for anything suspicious. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, to my left I saw Father Callaghan and nodded at him. We both entered the confession booth at the same time, and I knelt down and waited for the door to slide open.

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been two weeks since my last confession,” I whispered.

“Why have you taken so long to confess your sins my son?”

“I’ve been working very hard.”

Callaghan slid a small piece of paper under the frame that separated the two booths and I opened it up, it read—The Shamrock is feeling lucky.

I cursed inwardly and crumpled up the piece of paper. This was not good news, I needed to get out of here, get to Alana and hit the road. Hanging around was no longer an option.

“I killed two men in cold blood,” I said.

“Alright, say five Our Fathers for your penance.”

“Thank you, Father.”

With that, I waited for him to exit first, no tap followed and I knew I was safe. Without looking anyone directly in the eyes, I headed into the back of the church, grabbed a nun’s robe and cape and put it on. It was a wee bit short, but for the time being it would cover me, mostly. I exited the same way I came. Time was of the essence now. If Shamrock, the head of the Bronx Raiders, was still in town, it meant that they had eyes all over. Retracing my steps, mentally I recalled where I had been in the last two hours. But nothing suspicious stood out. I glanced towards where my car was parked and then looked up and down the street. I didn’t notice anyone lurking around, but I knew using the car would be too risky.  Instead I scanned the street for another car. Luckily, I spotted a cab  and I flagged it down. The cab pulled up, and I slipped into the back seat. Immediately I pulled out my gun and held it against the driver’s head.

“Do exactly as I say, and no one has to die today,” I whispered through gritted teeth.

The cab driver froze and held up his hands.

“Keep dem hands on the wheel and head down 3rd, then take a left on Saxton Avenue. Once there, I’m going to drop you and take your cab.”

The driver nodded nervously and drove down 3rd while I sat back, keeping my head low and the gun pointed at the back of the driver’s seat.

“Don’t think of trying anything clever, I’ve killed for less,” I told the driver.

“Please sir, if you could just…”

“Shut the fuck up, just get to Saxton and I’ll let you go,” I promised.

We drove for 5 min then he turned into Saxton Avenue. I instructed him to turn into the next alley. The moment the cab came to a stop, I nudged the gun against the man’s head and said, “Now you stay dead quiet, any sudden moves will cost you more than just your cab.”

I got out and dragged the fearful man out of the cab then pushed him up against the wall. I held up a picture of his wife and kids, which I plucked from a string hanging on the rear-view mirror.

“See this, I know where you live. If you breathe a word to anyone, I’ll cut them up and feed them to the fucking dogs,” I growled.

The man nodded frantically, his eyes wide and full of tears. I pulled him by his shirt and shoved him in between the two dumpsters and hijacked the cab. It was already 8:42 AM, I had less than 15 minutes to get back to the cabin for Alana, and get back on the road before Shamrock and his men find us. The moment the cab driver gets to the police, it’s only a matter of minutes before Shamrock and his goons track this cab.

I couldn’t exceed the speed limit either, the last thing I needed now was to get pulled over for a traffic violation that would only fuck things up even more.

Soon enough I pulled up to the cabin, 9:10 am. I rushed up the stairs only to find Alana with the pistol pointed straight at me. Without thinking twice, I launched myself at her, carefully disarming her. She couldn’t follow a simple instruction to leave the cabin, was the first thing that crossed my mind.

“What the fuck Alana!” I shouted and unloaded the gun then flicked the safety back on, “Why are you still here, I gave you strict instructions.”

“I-I… I didn’t know if I should wait-oh my god, I almost shot you!” she heaved hysterically.

“Calm the fuck down,” I said and impulsively pulled her into my arms. On the one hand, I was pissed that she even considered taking the Bronx Raiders on, on the other hand I was relieved that I didn’t still have to waste time trekking to the bunker to find her before we could hit the road.

I pushed her away and held her at arm’s length, “Look at me, we have to get going. We can’t stay here any longer. I need you to pack what you can but pack lightly; you can use the backpack, we’ll stop at the next town and get the necessities,” I instructed and continued without a pause, “Are you okay on a bike?”

What the hell was I on about? Who cares if she was okay with a bike, but she nodded. Her eyes still wide with shock.

“Good, now hurry and pack what you can, I’ll get the bike.”


Irish

In less than twenty minutes we were back on the road, I gave Alana one of my jackets to keep her shielded against the elements. We had no time to waste; I need to get to the next state if I was going to keep ahead of Shamrock.

Alana’s arms were wound tightly around my waist, and her head ducked low behind me; I couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in her mind. A carefree existence suddenly ripped away from her and now she was on the run, with a man who couldn’t keep his shit together.  I rode like a demon on a mission, about two hours out, we pulled up to a gas station to fill up and to get a bite to eat. Since leaving the cabin there had been no time for conversation. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue what to say to her.

“I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she mumbled as she hugged the leather jacket around her.

“I’ll go with you,” I said as I pushed the bike in next to the building, obscuring it from the road.

“You’re not going in with me.”

“No, I’m not going in with you, I just need to make sure it’s all safe.”

“Ugh, they have no idea where we went, I’ll be fine.”

Needless to say, I went with her, and stood outside until she came back out.

“We can grab a quick bite to eat, then we need to head out,” I said as we made our way back towards the bike.

“Sure,” she muttered.

“Alana, are you okay?” I asked.

“Just peachy,” she said. Yeah it was a dumb question, she wasn’t okay. And I had to understand the fact that she was dealing with a shit load at the moment. Strangely enough, I wasn’t feeling the intense attraction from earlier in the morning. Call it trepidation, or maybe it was the fact that I helped myself in the shower. Right now she was just a frightened little bird who I need to protect.

The convenience store’s door chime jingled as we entered. “Grab a few things, when we get to the next state we’ll have a proper meal.”

Alana nodded and made her way through to the fridges at the back of the store while I grabbed a few chocolate bars and snacks. The teller was a fat greasy bastard who vegetated behind the television screen and hardly took note of us. 

“Excuse me, where are your road maps?” I asked.

He looked at me and then pointed to the shelf behind him, “Well can I get one?”

With a sigh that would kill all surrounding vegetation, he stood up and waddled to the shelf, took one of the maps and dropped it carelessly on the counter. Service in some of these places was shocking, I thought as I piled the rest of the stuff on the counter.  While I waited for Alana, I took the time to page through a newspaper, hoping to see some good news on Fergus, but there was nothing yet. He was still on the most wanted list. The sound of a V8 engine drew my attention, and when I looked out the faded dirty windows, I noticed two of Shamrock’s guys.

“Fuck,” I cursed under my breath, as I ducked behind the counter and crouched my way to where Alana was still making up her mind on what to drink, “Do whatever I say, and do not try anything stupid.”

“Hey! Are you going to pay for this stuff?” the teller asked when he stood up.

I pulled out my gun and pointed it straight at him, “If you want to fucking live, you’ll do exactly as I say. Those two men out there…” I started, “Don’t look at them, just do what I say.”

He nodded, eyes wide and fearful, “If they ask you, if you saw us, you just say no. Play it cool and you’ll live to see another day, if you utter one word to them I swear I’ll shoot you myself.”

“Is it them?” Alana asked in a panic as I pulled her around to the back of the store and next to the fire exit.

“Yes, and we need to move fast. They don’t know we’re here yet.”

“But what if they see us?” she asked nervously.

“They won’t,” I said far more confidently than I felt.

The door jingled again, and I shoved her in behind a stack of boxes, and held my finger up over my mouth, “Don’t move,” I mouthed.

I peeked towards the counter. One bald guy was stacking his arms full of snacks while the other one leaned against the counter. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but at least it looked like the cashier was keeping as cool as he could. I watched for about two minutes, when the one against the counter reached into his breast pocket. He pulled out a gun and put it on the counter. Chubby cheeks stepped back and held up his hands, his eyes darting from the man to the door where I stood. Fuck! I should have shot him myself, I thought. Footsteps drew closer, and I shoved myself into the corner with Alana, cupping my hand over her mouth. The darkness lent some protection, but if those goons came any closer, someone was going to get hurt.

The footsteps stopped just next to the door, when I heard chubby cheeks speak up, “The couple you’re looking for left about thirty minutes ago, I swear,” he called, “The guy and a girl with red hair.”

The footsteps moved away from the door and I let out a sigh of relief, hoping they would buy the story. Then a single shot rang out. Alana gasped and I tightened my hand over her mouth. They had shot the teller in cold blood, now it was only a matter of time before they found us.  But much to my surprise, I heard the screeching of tires as they sped off.

“Oh my god, they shot that guy?!” Alana cried out hysterically the moment I let her go.

“Wait here,” I ordered as I ducked low and crawled out of the storage room, I kept low as I made my way to the counter. The teller was shot point blank in the head and his brains were splattered all over the cigarette shelf behind him. Looking up I noticed the security light blinking, which means he had reached for the panic button giving me probably about ten minutes to get out of here. I rushed around the counter careful not to touch anything and found the video surveillance. I used the hem of my shirt to push the eject button and then grabbed the disk. We had no time to waste.  I went back to the storage room and plucked Alana up by her arm, instead of using the front door, we went out the back.

“Is he dead?” Alana asked.

“Yes.”

“Should we not call the police?”

“Trust me sweetheart, they’re already on the way, and if they find us, we’ll be behind bars in no time.”

“But we can’t just leave him like that?” she continued.

I know she was scared and confused, but I needed her to get a grip and fast. The sooner she realized that life isn’t a box of chocolates and a bed of roses, the better. I grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her lightly, “Alana, listen to me. The cops, the FBI and the whole fucking country is going to hunt you down. Simply because you’re Fergus’ daughter. Now I’m going to be as blunt as I can be. You’re a fugitive, and that’s that. Get on the fucking bike,” I ground out and handed her the helmet.

I started the bike and waited for her to get on, but she just stood frozen.

“Alana! Get on the god damn bike.”

Realization swept over her and she launched herself on to the back of the bike and we sped off. 


Alana

This cannot possibly be happening! I’m supposed to be in college, go to class, and hang out with my friends. Instead I’m a fugitive who just witnessed a cold-blooded murder. Something had to give; somehow this had to be a monumental mistake. I had to get hold of my dad and find out exactly what was going on.  It was already dark when Irish pulled up to a store somewhere in Ludlow. We had travelled across the state line into Pennsylvania.

“Where are you going?” I asked nervously as he pulled the bike off into an alley.

“Wait here,” he simply said.

I was a nervous wreck, and even though I was wearing a thick leather jacket, it felt as if my bones were frozen icicles. Not because it was cold, but because I was stiff as hell and scared as shit. I walked to the end of the alley, trying to see if I could spot Irish, but he had disappeared. What if he left me behind? I wondered as I chewed my thumb nail, something I always did when I was nervous. Pacing back and forth I started to work myself up, wondering what would happen if I did go to the police. I mean seriously I don’t have a criminal record, what could they possibly have against me? Across the road, I spotted a phone booth. It stood out like a winning lottery ticket, and just as I aimed to head towards it, Irish reappeared, carrying camping gear.

“What’s that for?” I asked confused.

“We’re going camping,” he said and secured the tent on the back of the bike.

“Are we not going to stay here?”  I asked nervously.

“No, it’s too risky,” he said flatly.

“But where are we going to…”

“I don’t know, we’ll find a spot, get on the bike.”

“Irish, why don’t we just call the cops, they don’t have anything against me, so maybe they can, I don’t know… help?” I said exasperatedly.

Irish leaned on the bike and dropped his head, “Alana, your dad is a part of the Irish mafia, and he’s a wanted man…”

“What?!” I asked in shock.

“There are things you don’t know about your dad, about his entire enterprise, I’m not just some white collar who sits behind a desk all day, I think you already know that,” he started.

This was too much; it felt as if my head was spinning. Bending over I put my hands on my knees and shook my head, “Why didn’t he ever tell me?” I muttered.

“Well hopefully you’ll get to ask him yourself soon.”

Irish placed his hand on the back of my neck, and crouched down beside me, “Alana, I’m a hitman and I know that you have no reason to trust me, but I made a promise to Fergus to keep you alive, and if that’s all I end up doing, then that’s enough. Now we cannot hang around here. By now I’m sure the FBI had started their man hunt, we cannot book into hotels.”

I was crying, not hysterically, just weeping. My entire life had been a complete lie. All this time, my dad was in the mafia and I didn’t even know that.  Exasperated, I stood up and reached for the helmet. I had switched into autopilot mode, put the helmet on, get on the bike, run, trust Irish, and that was it. There was no time to reminisce about what could have or should have happened. I was on the run with a hitman. My dad’s most trusted, I don’t even know what to call him… friend, or colleague. By now I was sure that my poster was up on store windows right next to his, and I’ve most certainly been suspended from college. My life as I knew it was over.

We drove for another twenty minutes or so before he turned off onto to a dirt road, more like a hiking trail really, and I had no idea where we were. The ride was bumpy and my butt was hurting already. I was literally counting down the seconds hoping he would stop soon so that I could stretch my legs and clear the fog in my brain. I kept recalling memories of my dad, trying to see how I could have missed so much. Surely at some point in my life I should have realized that my father wasn’t just any dad. But he had kept me at arm’s length, shoving me into boarding schools. Not that I complained, the boarding schools were pretty awesome. Only the best for his little girl, if only I knew then that the money used was tainted. I had so many questions with so little answers.

Irish eventually pulled to a stop in the middle of nowhere, I had underestimated the darkness here in the woods, especially when Irish turned off the engine. He was the first to get off, taking the camping gear with him. He handed me a flashlight and dropped the gear at the base of a large tree.

“Stay put, I need to hide the bike,” he said as he started chopping at small branches hanging low over the ground.

I felt disorientated and scared, if we weren’t going to be caught by the Bronx Raiders, or the FBI, we sure as hell would probably be attacked by a wild animal.

Soon enough Irish had the camping gear up on his back and we were making our way through the dense undergrowth of the forest. With nothing but our flashlights to guide the way, it was tricky getting through the thicket of trees, but eventually Irish stopped and looked around.

“This will do for now,” he said and dropped the camping gear on the ground.

A cold shiver ran down my spine and I cursed under my breath.

“We’ll be back on the road by dawn, we need to cross the border into Mexico, then we should be reasonably safe, I have a few connections there.”

“Mexico, are you serious?” I asked disbelievingly.

“If you want to stay alive then yes, from there we’ll try to get to Brazil.”

Irish started to set up the two man tent, and I stood around feeling sorry for myself. I could already see myself living in one of those over populated towns, making ends meet by selling second hand clothes or even worse myself just to get by.

A little while later we were huddled around a small campfire, and other than the flames that looked so inviting and warm, the darkness that surrounded us was ominous and depressing. It’s been years since I went camping, I think I was about ten the last time. I liked it then, but this time around it wasn’t a recreational camping trip.

“So tell me about my dad,” I whispered as I stared blankly into the fire.

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything?”

Irish sighed and tossed a small stick into the fire, “I’ve known your dad for a long time, he’s a good man, don’t ever question that, he only wanted the best for you.”

I sighed, Irish wasn’t helping. I loved my dad, but now, not knowing who or what he was, left me scared and confused.

“There are ways to get the best for your child, without wheeling and dealing. Look where that’s gotten him, and me…” I drifted off and swallowed at the lump in my throat.

“I know, it’s not an ideal situation. Look, whatever your dad is being accused of is a setup. A few days ago there was a shipment that arrived at port. It was a big drug bust, and whoever was involved implicated your dad. And I’ve worked with your dad, if there is one thing he never got involved in, it was narcotics.”

I studied Irish and worried my lip, “So what was he involved in?”

“Money laundering, real estate and so on, he evaded tax but they couldn’t ever prove any of it. Shamrock’s been after your dad for years, and now that he’s devised the perfect plan to persecute him, he has your dad by the balls.”

“Who’s Shamrock?”

“Your dad’s nemesis. They weren’t always enemies, but after your mother died things went sour between them.”

What did my mom have to do with any of this? More secrets and more lies, I wasn’t sure if I could ever recover from all of this.

“What did he have to do with my mom?” I asked curiously.

Irish grew quiet and reached into one of the backpacks and pulled out a packet of crisps and offered me some, but I declined and hugged my arms tighter around me.

“Shamrock used to be your dad’s right-hand man, but with your dad away working so often, and your mother being lonely, the two of them had an affair. Your dad was heartbroken when he found out.  He loved your mother more than anything. So, when he told her to choose between him or Shamrock, your mother wasn’t able to choose, one morning, she overdosed…”

“My dad said she died of a heart attack,” I blurted out.

“That’s true, but it was a drug induced heart attack,” Irish muttered, “She couldn’t choose, so she committed suicide.”

Bile pushed up in my throat and I tried to keep myself calm, everything, my whole life was one big lie. I always thought my mother died of natural causes, that was what my dad always told me. He never once mentioned an affair, or insinuated that she didn’t want to live. A strangled cry escaped my throat as I stood up. I was surprised that I still had any tears left to cry. One blow after the other, my world was crashing down.  I fled into the small tent and fell on top one of the sleeping bags. I didn’t hear Irish enter either, only when he rested his hand on the small of my back where I lay with my head buried in my arms did I realize he was here with me.

I shot up and sat on my knees looking straight at him with tears streaming down my face, “Why did he hide all of this from me?” I cried out angrily.

“He wanted to protect you.”

I went through the motions, from sadness to anger to disappointment and back to being sad, and as I balled my fists and pounded them against Irish’s chest. He just took it in stride.

“This isn’t what I wanted out of life! I wanted a normal life, go to college, become an accountant, do something extraordinary, but now it’s all lost!”

“I know lass, I know,” he soothed.

He didn’t stop my assault, only turned his face out of the way as he let me blow off steam. Eventually I slumped against him, burying my face in the crook of his neck. From the first day, Irish had been open and honest with me. Now, he was the one who decided to tell me the truth. My dad couldn’t even bring himself to do that. I felt robbed and deceived by my own blood.

Irish embraced me and hugged me close against him. His skin was warm in comparison to my own, and it felt somewhat comforting, having someone who would simply just hold me.  With tear streaked cheeks I nestled closer against him, I could feel his breath in my hair and his hand sliding up my back until it rested between my shoulder blades.

“Irish,” I whispered, and then he pulled back a little, lifting my chin.

“I won’t let anyone hurt you lass,” he said with such compassion that made my insides melt.

“Hold me,” I said and then his lips brushed mine.

My mind was a mess, and here I was literally throwing myself at him, a distraction. That’s all it was, I needed a distraction, I told myself, as I willingly parted my lips for him. His rough beard scraped against my smooth skin and I heard him groan. He wanted me, and I liked it. For once I just didn’t want to think about the fact that I was a fugitive, or that my dad lied to me all these years. For once I didn’t want to be the prude virgin. What good would that do anyways? I would never again have a normal life, marry the man of my dreams or have a beautiful home with a white picket fence. This was all I had, this moment in time.  I tentatively slipped my tongue into his mouth, testing the waters, and again he groaned, fisting my hair in his hand, while his other hand was slowly sliding down my side. His thumb grazed the side of my breast and a shiver of anticipation shot through me.

“Irish…” I whispered.

“Alana, are you sure?” he asked as he pressed his forehead against mine.

“You only live once,” I mumbled and kissed him again.

This time he lowered me to the sleeping bag and covered me with his body, I could feel his erection pushing against the apex of my thighs, and my own sex throbbed with need. Between the exhilarating feeling of desire and confusion, I had to admit one thing. I’ve never had sex, and if he found out, he would probably not touch me.

“Have you ever had sex before?” he asked as if he was able to read my mind.

“Yes,” I lied, “Once.”

He edged himself on to his elbow and studied me, “Once?”

I nodded and bit my lip, “At the party,” I lied again.

“Are you sure about that?” he asked raising a brow.

“Are you going to have sex with me or not?”

I wanted something to remember if shit went pear in the next few days, I couldn’t die a virgin.  Irish may be much older than me, but he didn’t look it. He was a strong man who could give a twenty-one-year old a run for his money. Handsome with a mop of blonde hair that made him look younger too.

Irish studied me and a wicked smile played on his lips, “So if I touch you like this, you wouldn’t lose your mind and cum straight away?” he whispered as he moved one hand to flick my stiff nipple though the thin cotton of my vest.  A tendril of excitement shot through me like a cord that was linked to every erogenous zone in my body. He kept teasing my nipple until he finally slid his hand under my top to cup my right beast.

“Ooh, well, you know, first time sex experiences aren’t as great as everyone says,” I muttered as my lids dragged open and closed.

“So, what was it, shag, bang thank you ma’am?” he asked.

I nodded. I wasn’t born under a rock, I often heard the girls at college talk about their sexual encounters, some more exciting than others, but so often they complained about the fact that the guy had no clue what he was doing. It was a matter of diving in, hump a lot and wham, done and dusted. But somehow I didn’t think Irish would be the type to just leave me unfinished.

“Do you trust me?” he asked as he looked at me.

“Do I have any reason not to trust you?” I challenged.

He smirked and shook his head, “No,” he simply answered.

 “Then I trust you,” I said.

Irish pushed himself up on to his knees and reached over his head to pull his shirt off, my heart was doing somersaults in my chest. This time in the dim glow of the light that hung above us in the tent, I could take the time to admire the work of art that covered his chest. There was something about tattoos that totally got my heart racing. And on Irish it was an explosive combination.

His eyes roamed over my body from my lips down over my chest to my legs, it felt as if he was touching me although he wasn’t. The way he looked at me with such desire caused my body to break out in goose bumps.

“Take off your clothes,” he said, and I obeyed.

I sat up and slowly pulled my vest off, the cool night air assaulted my skin and my nipples hardened even more, at first I kept my arms crossed over my chest, but he gently pried them away.

“Don’t be shy lass, we’re both adults,” he whispered.

I recalled the receipts I found in the glove compartment on the first day, and for a second I hesitated, “How many women have you had sex with?”

“Too many to remember and even fewer I want to remember,” he said and reached for the front clasp of my bra, “You’re having second thoughts?”

“No, I just want to know,” I said embarrassed.

His lips curled into a smile and he stood up in a crouched position to take off his boots and his jeans, he was completely naked underneath and a breath caught in my throat.

“Your turn,’” he coaxed.

I bit my lip and I could feel the heat rush to my cheeks. I’ve seen him naked in all his glory but I’m sure his penis wasn’t as big as it was tonight.

“C-can I touch you?” I asked and swallowed at the dryness in my throat.

“Sweetheart you can do whatever you want.”

There was something wild about him that made me tremble with excitement, with shaking fingers I reached out and ran the tips of my fingers down his abs to the slight strip of hair above his penis. I licked my lips and reached for his member, touching the mushroomed tip with my index finger, there was a drop of liquid on the tip, sticky and smooth. I held my breath, and he too inhaled sharply.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath as I wrapped my small hand around his very large stiff erection.

I was beside myself, it was like velvet steel and my brain could not string together a single thought.

“You’re killing me lass,” he muttered as he wrapped his hand around mine, “Stroke it, like this,” he said and moved my hand up and down his length.

“I’ve never touched a guy’s penis before,” I breathed.

He groaned and pushed me down onto my back, “It’s not a penis love, it’s a cock,”

I swallowed, “It sounds crude,” I said softly.

He smirked and then ran his hand down over my stomach to my sex, “Penis is a medical term, cock and pussy is downright sexual,” he said and slid one finger down between my folds, “And your pussy feels like butter, soft and slippery, Jesus you’re wet,” he muttered under his breath.

I moaned as he ran his finger down my pussy and into me. His finger was calloused and rough, and it felt too big to enter me. And just thinking of him having sex with me suddenly made me panic. He’ll most certainly shred me to bits if he had to make love to me now. No, no, this isn’t love making, this was pure unadulterated sex. My way to escape I told myself. Just because a man wants to fuck me, doesn’t mean he’s in love with me.

“Alana,” he whispered in my ear, and I felt a shiver run down my spine, “The things I want to do to you right now is driving me insane.”

What did that even mean? Take a leap; you only live once, the little devil on my shoulder whispered. No, he’ll ruin you for life, the angel said. You’ll be fine, I promise, the devil whispered again. I was having a full-on conversation with my alter egos and all I wanted was for the voices to shut up. I should tell him I haven’t had sex before, but before I could bring myself to speak; he flicked his thumb over my clitoris.

“Oh my god!” I cried out and bucked my hips.

“That’s it baby, just let it go,” he whispered, and he sounded very much like the little fiend who sat on my shoulder.

“I-I haven’t… oh my god!” I couldn’t even speak without gasping and moaning. It felt too good. The way he teased my flesh and caused my entire body to soar was impossible to ignore.

Then he did the most unexpected thing, he gripped my wrists and pinned them above me, using just one strong hand to keep them in place, I lay stretched out and exposed to him. I couldn’t quite see his face in the darkness, but I could see the smile that played on his lips. Behind him the flicker of the campfire danced against the tent.

“I don’t want to hurt you, so be honest with me, have you ever had sex before?” he asked. It was almost as if he wanted to give me a last chance to save my virginity.

I hesitated, and his gripped my wrists tighter. I could feel his cock press against the inside of my thigh. You only live once, that little voice sang in my head and I breathed, “I don’t want to die not knowing what it feels like,” I admitted in a shaky voice.

“You will not be dying yet sweetheart,” with that he covered my lips with his, the kiss was not endearing it was devouring.  He reached for his backpack and pulled out an obvious square packet, ripped at it with his teeth and with one hand slipped the condom on.  And when he moved into place, the tip of his cock pressed into me, slowly at first, forcing its way into me, he was larger than expected and I anticipated it to be painful but instead it was more euphoric than anything else I’ve ever experienced. He kicked his hips forward and thrusted deep into me. I cried out from a mixture of pain and pleasure as he entered me, again and again, his hips moving at a slow even pace. With his one hand around my wrists he levered himself up with the other. His muscles bulged as he carried his own weight, looking into my eyes with each stroke.

I was rendered speechless, with nothing but moans and whimpers escaping me, I closed my eyes, just letting the sensations wash over me.

“Look at me,” he grunted, “I want to see you cum.”

I forced my eyes open and his face was so close, so very close. I bent my knees and hooked one leg around his for support; I wanted him to go faster, harder. I’ve never felt such an exhilarating feeling of pleasure in my life.

“Tell me you want me to fuck you harder,” he breathed.

“Harder…” I whispered.

“Ask me to fuck you harder, I want to hear you say it,” he ground out.

“F-Fuck me harder,” I said barely audible.

“Again,” he grunted.

“Fuck me harder,” I said a little louder this time, and at the same time I felt my body tingle, “Oh god, yes, please… Irish, fuck me harder.”

Possessed by my inner minx obviously, I let go of my inhibitions and called out his name, begging him for more. I didn’t want him to stop, I want it to continue until this bad dream was completely over.  But that was just my brain clinging to a farfetched hope of redemption.  My body did the complete opposite. With each thrust of his cock deep into my pussy, hitting the bundle of nerves just below my cervix the tingle that started at the base of my spine ran up and down like a live electric current. The muscles in my legs started to spasm and so did my stomach; I couldn’t keep it together even if I wanted to, and from the sound of Irish’s groans, neither could he. He pulled out almost completely, let go of my wrists and plastered his other hand down on the ground next to me, half elevated he dipped his hips and drove deep and hard into me, and that’s when my world spun out of control.

“Ah fuck!” Irish called out as his hips jerked once, twice and then slammed deep into me and went still. I could feel his cock pulsing and throbbing against my walls, followed by a warm sensation flooding my pussy. He emptied himself completely before he pulled out and rolled on to his back. 

“Jesus,” he muttered under his breath as he brought his hands to his face, and I laid there awkwardly wondering what to do next. The experience was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced, but I didn’t quite know what happens next.

“Irish?” I whispered as I turned on to my side.

Irish groaned and turned his head to look at me, then turned on his side and brushed strands of hair from my face, tucking it behind my ear, “Did I hurt you?”

“N-no, you didn’t,” I smiled softly at him.

“Your dad is going to kill me,” he said and then sat up pulling his pants on again as if nothing just happened.

I reached for my clothes and started to get dressed, “Well my dad isn’t here, is he?”

“Alana, I don’t want you to think I just used you, trust me, but I’m so much older than you, and I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

So that’s it, he’s older than me, fucks me and then cops out? I tried suppressing the feeling of hurt that threatened to surface, and took a deep steady breath, “I’m not a kid Irish, I know exactly how men are and what they want. At the end I guess it’s my choice who I have sex with.”

I will not cry, I will not feel a thing. It was sex, and that was it, I told myself as I got dressed, barely sparing Irish a glance. With my back against him I asked, “So how old is much older?”

“Forty-two,” he said.

WTF, I thought he was in his thirties, “Oh, well if it helps you don’t look forty,” I mumbled and then crawled out of the tent.  Irish never followed.


Irish

What the fuck just happened? I thought to myself as I flopped back down on the sleeping bag, wearing only my jeans. I just fucked Fergus’ daughter, who I might add, is only twenty years old, I’m fucking twice her age. Hell, I could be her dad for god sakes!  Talk about a bloody lack in judgement. The worst is I would do it again and again. Having had her now, I realized that my desire for her is far from being satisfied.  She haunted my mind all the fucking time and nothing I did or try could make it go away. Earlier when we were nearly caught by the Bronx Raiders, I was terrified that I would lose her before I even got a chance to get to know her. Fergus did a good thing not getting her too involved with his life before now; otherwise every fucking prick on the staff would have wanted a piece of her.  I stretched my hands back behind my head and stared up at the green canvas top above me.  I could still feel my dick twitching in my pants, ready to go at it again and again. Her tight pussy was right outside this tent, but I’ve complicated shit enough to know better. Frustrated with myself I sat up and rubbed my hand over my face. My beard had grown and right now, I’m sure I looked my age despite what she said.

Through the opening in the tent I watched her; she was sitting by the fire, holding a stick in the coals. She didn’t look twenty, maybe twenty five. She was mature for her age, with curves in all the right places. Her red hair pinned on top of her head, reminded me of Celtic goddess, pure and untainted, until now anyway. Now she was brandished by me and I wasn’t proud of myself at all.

Somewhere between the Cabin and the Campsite I had fallen for her, and it was probably the worst mistake I could have made. All my life, I never once bothered to find love, to me it was just another way to add shackles and imprison a man. Women wanted dedication; they wanted you to sacrifice everything in the name of love. And after what had happened to Brianna, Fergus’ wife and Alana’s mother, I would never have considered putting my heart on the line like that. For me, going to night clubs and sex clubs was enough. Satisfy my body and mind and leave my heart out of it, but now I wasn’t so sure about that anymore. If anything had to happen to Alana, I would only have myself to blame.

I wondered what was going through her mind this very minute. She had been a virgin, and I was sure that she hadn’t planned on losing her virginity to a criminal, but yet she begged me to fuck her. She wanted me as much as I wanted her as much as I still wanted her. 

A short while later, Alana came back into the tent, her skin glowed from the heat of the camp fire but her eyes were cold and distant.

“Everything okay?” I asked as I shifted up for her to lie down.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she said in a slightly pitched tone.

She lay down with her back against me, and for a second I wanted to pull her into my arms, but maybe this was a better idea. If I show her any form of endearment, she might take it up wrong, but if I can get her to dislike me, we won’t have any of this happen again.

“Irish,” she whispered, her back still against me.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you,” she sighed.

Confused I perched myself up on my elbow and studied her, “Thank you for what?”

She turned and looked at me and hooked her one arm behind her head, while she rested her other arm on her stomach, “Well if we end up dying, at least I would know what sex is like,” she said staring straight up.

“Alana, there’s much more to discover, and I am sure once this is all over, you’ll be discovering all these things with a guy your age.”

She huffed, “Guys my age, couldn’t possibly know what a woman wants.”

“And I did?” I asked raising a brow.

She didn’t answer me, simply turned back on her side, and whispered a quiet goodnight.

Before dawn I was up and getting ready to move, I let Alana lay in a bit; as I was sure she had as rough a night sleeping as I had. By the time I cleared the campfire and covered it with sand and leaves, she was awake. She stretched as she crawled out of the tent and my cock responded instantly.

“Good morning,” she said and smiled then walked up to me and planted a kiss on my cheek.

“Um-morning, sleep well?”

“Yeah, so what’s next?”

I could still feel her lips linger on my cheek and a rolled my shoulders, “Well I’m going to take down the tent, and then we’re going to head south-west to Mexico, We’re about three days away.  If we leave now, we can get to Nashville by 7pm and stay the night. I have a connection there, so we won’t need to sleep under the stars again.

“Are we going to travel all the way to Mexico on a motorcycle?” she asked as she twisted her hair up into a bun on her head.

“Don’t know yet, will see what opportunities we are presented with.”

She shrugged and picked up a bottle of water then rinsed her mouth and spat the water out to the side, she was acting rather odd this morning, but I suppose she had enough time to think things over. Maybe last night was a good thing after all. She seemed a lot more accepting of her current predicament.

 

Federal Plaza—FBI Office—New York

“McCleary!”  Agent Vincent called across the room.

“Yes sir?”

“So, I believe Irish was last seen with O’Devlin’s daughter, have you been able to confirm where they are headed?”

McCleary rubbed the back of his neck and then pulled out a manila file, “We suspect they are going south towards Mexico sir,” he said praying that Irish would get there long before the FBI did.

“I want people on the ground, everywhere. I want every border post covered, do you hear me?”

“Yes sir,” McCleary said and sat down behind his desk.

He had been an informant for the Labyrinths’ Cartel for over a decade. Fergus took good care of him, his wife Emily and their family, and now with the heat on Fergus O’Devlin, McCleary was starting to feel the flames licking at his ass. He had to somehow get a message to Irish without anyone sniffing him out.

He grabbed his badge, checked out his firearm and headed to his unmarked car parked undercover at the New York FBI field office.  He knew his days were numbered, if the FBI didn’t catch on to his involvement with the mob, then the Bronx Raiders would. He had already spotted some of them in the city in fact; every dodgy character was a potential Raider who was out for blood. He had the evidence he needed to prove Fergus’ innocence in the drug bust, but there was no way he could get it to the necessary people without being suspected himself.  As it stood, he was one hundred percent convinced that Agent Vincent was involved with the Raiders. He always seemed to know where Shamrock was, and never made any attempt to arrest him. There was always some excuse.

 The clicking sound of footsteps echoed in the underground parking lot, he never noticed anyone else entering this level, which was mostly reserved for FBI vehicles. He stopped and ducked behind a concrete pillar, pacing his breathing.  With his heart beating frantically in his throat he unlatched his 9mm and in the other hand he took out his private phone and sent a text to his contact in Nashville—The Cavalier is on stage. Then without waiting he took out the sim card, swallowed it and crushed the phone under his shoe.

Just then shots rang, two bullets missed him by mere inches above his head against the pillar. McCleary dropped and rolled for cover behind a white sedan.  He knew he wasn’t going to make it out alive, and he was damned if he was going to be taken away and tortured for information. Lying flat on his back he looked under the cars, trying to detect any movement. The footsteps drew closer, almost calculatingly slow.

“I’m sorry Emily,” he whispered and then pulled the trigger.


Alana

We had been on the road for almost 8 hours straight, stopping only for gas and for me to stretch my legs. I wasn’t used to the discomfort of a motorcycle and the off-road detours we took to avoid tolls and road blocks made it even worse. But we finally made it to Nashville. The trip had given me enough time to try to gather my thoughts. I still hated my dad for hiding his secret life from me, but there was no more need to cry over it. The only thing for me to do now was to survive, and if I had to do this running for the rest of my life, then so be it. Irish mentioned at one of our stops that we needed to get to someone named Goose. The only person he apparently trusted, other than my father.  As we weaved through the streets of Nashville, I took the time to reflect on a lot of things, one of them being Irish. The more time I spent with him the more infatuated I was becoming. Every time he looked at me I could feel my body responding and all I could think of was how he, well, how he fucked me.  And sitting on the back of a droning motorcycle, I can guarantee you that nothing stayed dry.

Finally, we pulled up to a house that looked completely out of character with the rest of the surrounding houses. Grass and weeds had overgrown the garden, and the building itself looked derelict. It was more like a shack on its foundations. The paint had faded over the years, and the gutters were overgrown with misdirected weeds. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it to be a haunted house.

“Is this where Goose lives?” I asked.

“Yeah, come around the back,” Irish said and led the way.

He had once again parked the motorcycle out of view, and this time covered it with a withered tarp he found piled up in the corner near the refuse bins.

Since leaving the cottage, I haven’t yet had a chance to bathe or change clothes, I smelled like burnt wood, but even that could not dispel Irish’s scent that kept filing my nostrils every time I took a breath

“Do you think he’ll let me take a shower?” I asked nervously.

Irish chuckled, “Yeah, I think he’ll be okay with that.”

Irish knocked twice, paused, knocked twice again, paused again, and then rapped a few times. It was like a secret Morse code. The door swung open and a very scrawny, squint-eyed man stood before us, if he had one tooth in his mouth, it would have been too many.

“Irish ya ol’ basta’d!” the man said and flung his arms around Irish’s neck, “Ya takin ya wee time gettin’ ere ey boi!”

“Goose, fuck, am I glad to see you!” Irish exclaimed and patted his friend on his shoulder before turning to me. “This here is Fergus’ lass, Alana.”

The strange little man with the heavy accent came up to me and looked at me through narrowed slits, then pulled his glasses that were on top of his head down, “Well aint ya a wee sight for sore eyes lass! Com’n in, I bet ya’r tired after ya’r long ride from no’ere!”

“Hello,” I said tentatively as I shifted past the odd character giving him a slight smile. I am sure my dad would never have associated himself with the likes of Goose, but then I didn’t expect him to be part of the mafia either. 

Goose and Irish caught up on good and bad times, talking away, while I sat counting my fingers and my toes. Half of the time I couldn’t even make out what Goose was saying with his heavy accent, but it was obvious that he knew my dad very well. From what I gathered, Goose was the go-to-man when anyone needed fake identities and passports, which was clearly why we were here. In a few days, we’ll be crossing the border to Mexico, from there to Brazil, the future looked grim but I couldn’t think of that right now.  I had to focus on staying alive, figuring out where my dad was and have a goddamn shower!

I let out an exasperated sigh and stood up, setting my glass down on the rickety table, “Excuse me Goose, but do you perhaps have a shower I can use?”

“Aye! Lass, me noggin is playin’ up yer, Irish will show ya where it is,” Goose said and my insides flipped. Irish was going to show me the shower after what we did the night before? 

“Yeah,” Irish said and his lips twisted into that same wicked grin, “Come on, it’s upstairs.”

I followed Irish up the stairs to the second level, half surprised that the stairs didn’t give way. With every step my insides twisted with a sense of excitement, which I obviously suppressed rather than act on. I had to keep it together.

“Goose has clothes that should fit you…”

“Oh no, no, no, I am not wearing…”

“Alana, he’s a good guy, trust me, and the clothes I’m talking about is from his days as a tailor, he used to be a proud man until he lost his son, give the guy a break.”

I sighed, maybe I was being too judgemental, and if Goose was going to help us get across the border I could at least show some appreciation. I followed Irish further to the bathroom, and surprisingly enough it wasn’t as dilapidated as I expected. It was somewhat worn but presentable enough.  The enamel was chipped off the hand basin, and water leaked from the base of the faucet. The mirror had black patches of decay that showed years of moisture damage, but still useful.

I glanced around and saw a bath with brown stains at the bottom which I opted to pass and went straight to the shower.

“I’ll get the clothes,” Irish said, and before I could tell him to leave it at the door, he was gone.

I let out a sigh and leaned with my hands on the basin, tears pricked my eyelids. Exhaustion had suddenly washed over me like a heavy layer of wax, dragging me down into oblivion. My butt ached in places I did not know existed; my back was hurting, even my shoulders felt like I had done at least three days of weights without stopping for a break. I looked up in the mirror and shook my head. How the hell did I end up here?

“I thought you’d be in the shower by now.”

I gasped and spun around, pressing my hand against my chest, “God do you have to sneak up on me like that?”

Irish laughed, “I did no such thing lass, and you were miles away there for a second.”

I shook my head and closed my eyes, “I’m just tired, it’s been an eventful few days.”

Irish placed my clothes on the small compactum standing against the wall and then pulled me into his arms. Why was he so goddamn nice? I thought as I rested my cheek against his chest. Why could I not have met him at a normal bar as a normal guy who worked a 9 to 5 job? Overwhelmed by my emotions I fought against the tears that suddenly felt like they were just too many to hold back.

Irish pressed his lips against my hair and I could feel his arms tighten around me, “We’ll get through this, I swear to you. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

I sniffed, and clutched at his shirt, “I have no idea what’s going to happen to me Irish; I’m a fucking lost lamb in the wilderness with a bunch of wild dogs after me.”

Overnight I’ve gone from twenty to thirty. College was no longer a favourite pastime, I suddenly felt years beyond my age. I couldn’t even remember what it felt like going to the movies with my friends, or hanging out around the cafeteria at break.  It was almost as if that entire part of me was one big silver screen movie and reality had suddenly dawned.

Irish cupped my face with his hands and he looked into my eyes. With his thumbs, he swept the tears from my cheeks, “I’m in that wilderness with you, trust me, we’ll get through this and when we do, you’ll be back at college doing what you love.”

College… what if I didn’t want to go back to college, what if I just wanted you in my life, I thought, but instead I nodded and turned out of his embrace.

“I’ll be right down,” I whispered and cleared my throat.

The soft click of the door behind me was like a switch, and I sank down against the wall sobbing silently. Things would never be the same, never.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish

A man had to appreciate Goose’s sense of humor, and although I never mentioned anything other than the fact that I was protecting Alana, Goose had given us our new identities as Mr and Mrs Muller. I was an insurance salesman, and Alana was a preschool teacher. Of course we had to change our identities too. To me a change was as good as a holiday. I was used to these temporary identity switches while working for Fergus. Changing my hair color and getting a new fashion style was nothing, but I suspected that for Alana the change would be a lot more emotional.

I flipped through the channels as I sat on the double bed in a motel room in Austin where we decided to check in for the night. There had been no sign of Shamrock’s men, and as far as I knew Goose’s boys were watching out for us, but that still didn’t mean we were in the clear. Fergus had made no further attempt to contact me and right now I was actually fucking pissed off with him. He didn’t deserve Alana as a daughter, and knowing that he was out there living the life, while we’re on the run was grating on me.

The bathroom door opened, and I turned to see what Alana had done to alter her image, but what I saw was completely unexpected and my brain seized to function as all my blood rushed to my cock. She was beautiful as a red head, but fuck me, with her hair pitch black and her brows tinted dark she looked like a gothic queen. I stood up and looked at her, unable to form a single word.

“So? Do I look like Mrs Sophia Muller?” she asked and shrugged.

Her hair was still damp but against her pale skin she looked like a sinister marvel waiting to take a man prisoner.  The tight figure hugging red dress she wore made me want to lock her away for good.

“Uh… you look different,” I safely said, “Did Goose give you that dress?”

She sighed and shrugged, “He has an interesting taste in women’s clothing.”

“Oh right, well I think you should change.”

She frowned at me and placed her hands on her hips, kicking her hip out to the side, “Change? What the hell for?”

“Well, you can’t go out looking like that. I mean you’ll draw attention to yourself.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head, “No I won’t, this is how women dress Irish, maybe you should take some time and look around you, instead of hanging out in whorehouses.”

Oh! That was a low blow, I had no idea what had gotten into her, but with each passing day she was becoming more rebellious.  I regarded her and noticed a callousness in her eyes I hadn’t seen there before. I knew that all this shit she had to go through had a lot to do with it, but I liked the old Alana, and right now, she was hidden under Mrs Muller’s thick skin.

“Suit yourself, I’m just saying, we’re trying to lie low, and drawing any attention could cause us a lot of shit.”

“No one is looking for Mr or Mrs. Muller, Irish, and frankly I’m tired of feeling like a deer in headlights, I want to go out and have dinner and just be fucking normal for once!” she ground out.

“Maybe not, but that does not make us invisible. Jesus Alana, can you for once just listen to me? Once your dad’s out of the hot water and you can go back to your old life, you can start where you left off and being dead is not going to help that!”

Alana spun around and marched back into the bathroom, “Fuck my dad and fuck the mafia and fuck my old life!” she shouted and slammed the door.

I stormed in after her and as she spun around to look at me, there was a fire in her eyes, an unmistakable fire of lust and desire.

I inhaled sharply and walked over to her, crushing my lips against hers. Since the night in the tent all I could think of was fucking her again, and right now I couldn’t hold back. I wanted her, and she wanted me. She reached up and gripped the back of my head, pulling my head down, slanting her lips against mine, she opened them allowing me to taste her fresh minty breath.

“Fuck Alana,” I uttered between kisses before roughly hoisting her up on to the counter top, ignoring her soft gasp as one of her shoes fell to the floor. She kicked off the other one, and I stepped in between her parted thighs forcing the scandalous red dress to rid up higher.

“I can’t get you out of my fucking mind,” I muttered as I bent my head down and placed open mouthed kisses all along her neck.

Her head lolled back as I nipped her soft skin, and she whispered, “I don’t want you to get me out of your mind.”

Holy fuck, I was in so much fucking trouble, even if Fergus swore death upon me I would not let him stop me from claiming this woman, I didn’t care if he tortured me to death.

I slid my hands up along her thighs and pushed her dress further up and as she buried her face in my neck she bit down hard. It was fucking hot, the little minx has awakened and somewhere between the innocent young Alana O’Devlin and Mrs Sophia Muller, she had discovered another side to her ability to drive me completely fucking mad.

I gripped the back of her head and bunched her hair in my hands, yanking her head back, “A girl that bites would have to be taught a lesson,” I murmured as I traced my fingers along the inside of her thigh.

“Then teach me,” she breathed. 

God, she was completely irresistible, and with her head still tilted back, I dipped my head down and kissed her throat. The dress was stretchy enough for me to pull her neckline down over her breasts, and as her tits spilled over the top of her bra, I sucked one nipple into my mouth and then the other, alternating between the two mounds of pleasure. Alana’s moans filled the bathroom and echoed off the walls, but I couldn’t give a fuck. 

I dropped to my knees before her and pushed her legs wider apart. Eye level with her pussy clad only in a triangular piece of flimsy lace, I inhaled sharply. The G-string she was wearing cut right between her pussy lips and all I could think of was tugging that piece of material against her clit, just to drive her wild. I hooked my finger into the crotch of her panties and twisted it, the thin band cut into her lips and pulled roughly against her clit.

“Oh my god!” she cried out as her ass slid towards the edge.

“Do you like that Mrs Muller?” I teased and tugged again.

“I… yes,” she stammered.

“How about this?” I asked as I slapped her cunt with three fingers, not roughly just enough to sting.

She squirmed, trying to close her legs but with me between her I kept her legs apart, “That ain’t happening lass, I want you to experience it all.”

Her chest was heaving and her tits were dangling like ripe apples from a tree while I sat between her legs inhaling her musky scent.  I deliberately pushed my nose right into her panties and inhaled, letting out a deep satisfying groan and Alana gasped.

“I’m going to eat you and tongue fuck you until you forget your real name,” I ground out as I pulled out my knife from my back pocket.

Her eyes grew wide and almost fearful as I raised it to her dress where her breasts were exposed and as I slowly dragged the tip down over her stomach to her pussy, I hooked the G-string and snapped the flimsy garment.

“Oh my god Irish,” she managed to muster as she let out a sigh of relief.

“You need to learn to trust me darlin,” I said and then used my thumbs to spread her pussy open. Pretty pink and tight, I thought as my mouth watered to taste her.

“Are you going to… I mean, is it safe?”

Her innocence was even more of a turn on, and as I blew a breath over her clit and her legs spasamed, I looked up at her, “You’ll never be safe around me.”

Before she could say another word, I closed my lips over her clit and sucked it into my mouth, flicking it with my tongue. Alana’s breaths grew faster and her moans louder as I tongue fucked her.  She let go of the counter and grabbed the back of my neck as she hooked her heels on my shoulders for support. I had no desire to wait, and as I shoved my tongue deep into her pussy and swirled it around, her body trembled. But even as her first orgasm assaulted her, I did not let up.  I continued, driving my tongue into her and then dragging it up along her slit. I teased her clit, bit her pussy lips, slapped her ass and did the most delicious things to the most delicious woman.  After her third orgasm, I finally let up and she sagged numbly to the floor, trying to stand. I flipped her over and shoved my pants down.

“Now I’m going to fuck you baby,” I whispered and Alana’s eyes met mine in the bathroom mirror.

 

 

 

Alana

Irish was a master at whatever he was doing, but when he did that thing with his tongue when he shoved it deep into me and then dragged it out was enough to drive me insane. Now he had me bent over like one of his whores in the bathroom. The only thing is, I wanted to be his whore. Sick I know, but that’s how he made me feel, he makes me feel dirty and good all in the same time. As he stood behind me, unbuckling his pants, I could see my breasts pressed down against the counter top with him towering over me.

I wanted to pleasure him, just like he had pleasured me, with my mouth, but Irish was already getting ready to fuck me, it was now or never. Pushing the heels of my palms against the basin I pushed him back away from me.

“My turn,” I mouthed as I dropped to my knees before him.

“Holy fuck…” he breathed as he gripped the base of his cock, pointing it straight at my mouth.

I had no clue if I was about to dismember him or make him cum, I was going purely on exposed porn experience from college, by no means did I have any idea how to give a blow job, but if it was anything like sucking on an ice pop or lollipop, then it couldn’t be that hard.

I wrapped my hand around his cock, just above where his hand was and guided the head into my mouth. It tasted odd, but nice, a slightly salty flavor as the first drop of his pre-cum touched my tongue. God, I hope I don’t gag! I thought for a second and then slowly took him deeper into my mouth. He was moving his hips, but only slightly, as if being careful. But if I was going to do this I was going to go all out. So I reached behind him and pulled his butt closer letting his cock slide deeper into my mouth, until I felt my gag reflex and then I pulled out, again and again I repeated this. Twirling my tongue around the tip of his cock and dragging it up along the base. Irish’s hands were on either side of my head as he started to pump his cock into my mouth, each time brining me to the brink of suffocation only to let me go.  Between my moans and his groans, I couldn’t tell who was having more fun anymore. As degrading as this may have seemed, I loved the power sucking a man’s cock gave me, not just any man. Irish, he was the only one I wanted to have control over me, and who I would want to control.

Irish cussed and ground his hips forward, and I could feel his body growing taught, his balls hit my chin over and over and sucking sounds filled the bathroom, and then Irish pulled out. It was unexpected, and I almost leaped forward to take him into my mouth again, but instead he gripped my hair, pulled my head back and pumped his cock with his fist until ropes of creamy cum shot out all over my breasts and neck.  It was shamelessly sinful.

The rest of the night, we did everything we could possibly do under the sun, and every second spent with him, I learned more about myself. I wanted to be with Irish, suddenly finding my dad, didn’t matter anymore, nor did the fact that we were fugitives.

“What if we can’t find my dad?” I asked in the quiet of the room after yet another session of wild sex.

“He’ll find you,” Irish whispered and kissed the top of my head, “And then he’ll cut off my balls.”

I laughed but Irish didn’t, he was dead serious, “I won’t let him do that to you,” I said tracing patterns over his bare chest.

“Trust me lass, your dad will do just what he wants if he feels it is in your best interest. When we find him or when he finds us, we’ll have to put all of this behind us.”

Suddenly it felt as if the Bronx Raiders were a better prospect than running into my dad, and I hated that I felt this way, but it was the truth. This was his fault after all. He caused this shit, and now I’m in love with a hitman and there’s nothing I could do about it.

 


Irish

We had finally made it to El Paso, bordering Mexico, and we were practically a mile from crossing the border.  Once in Mexico we would travel to Brazil where Fergus would be waiting for us. Alana did not know this, but I had known all along. I felt like a dog for not telling her where her dad was, but I couldn’t. If she got into the wrong hands, they would have pulled that information from her without even trying. 

“So from here we’ll travel to Brazil?” she asked curiously as she clutched my hand.

I nodded and smiled down at her, “That’s the plan.”

“Then what?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet, we’ll just have to play it by ear.”

She bit her bottom lip and glanced around, and I pulled her tightly against my side, “You need to relax, if you look nervous they will suspect something.”

She took a deep breath and plastered on a smile, and I winked at her, “That’s my girl.”

We carried on into the building at the Immigration Check point and I took out our passports. I had to give it to Goose, he was a master at fake ID’s and before we knew it we were cleared for entry into Mexico. Now I could finally breathe.

But my relief was short lived. As we exited the building to the bus terminals, a man walked up to us and addressed us as Mr and Mrs. Muller. No one was supposed to know about us.

“What do you want?” I asked frowning and Alana clung to my side.

The tall lank Mexican shrugged and then gestured towards the Limo parked on the opposite side of the street. This cannot be good, I thought as I looked towards the car with the tinted windows. Running now would put Alana’s life in more danger, and it would alert the authorities. We simply had no choice but to follow the instructions of the Mexican who met us.

“Is it Shamrock?” Alana asked nervously.

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s just run,” she urged me on, but I patted her hand and continued straight ahead.

The Mexican came running past us and then stopped at the Limo and opened the back door for us to get in.

This was it, today we were both going to meet our maker, and I would have failed Alana. I looked down at her and she met my eyes with her big green ones. Between the two of us, we made peace with what happens next. She gave my hand a gentle squeeze, and I smiled at her.

“It was a good ride while it lasted lass,” I whispered and then I slipped into the car with her following closely.

“Fergus?!” I exclaimed

“Dad!?” Alana said in shock, “What, I mean why are you… I thought… FBI.”

She made no sense, and I gently touched her hand.

“Irish, you’re a man of your word, I knew you would keep my daughter safe,” Fergus said in his monotone voice, “I was counting down the days to see you Alana, I really thought that Shamrock would get his grubby hands on you.”

I looked at Alana where she sat with her mouth gaping.

“I told you I’ll keep her safe Fergus,” I said and cleared my throat. If he got to know what I got up to with his little princess, I could kiss my Irish arse goodbye.

Fergus moved closer and leaned over to take Alana’s hand, “If there’s one thing I will regret for the rest of my life, is keeping you in the dark.  I just didn’t want you exposed to the dangers of being in my line of business…” he started.

“What? You kept it from me, my whole life, and when the shit hits the fan, suddenly I have to just except it?” she blurted out and I cringed.

One thing about Fergus, no-one spoke to him with disrespect, “Alana,” I warned and looked at her.

“What? So now I must just roll over and pretend that none of this mattered?”

“Alana,” Fergus started, “I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I wanted you to know that I only did this to protect you, and in doing that, I put your life in great danger. If it wasn’t for Irish…”

“Leave Irish out of this daddy dearest, this is about betrayal, and you betrayed me.”

Fergus pulled and rubbed his forehead, “I know, and there’s nothing I can do or say that will justify my actions. Right now, I can only ask you to forgive me.”

“Never!” Alana cried and reached for the door, but I pulled her back.

“Hang on, just hear your father out,” I pleaded.

“Irish, it’s fine; I expected this to happen. But the thing is, I can’t protect her anymore. McCleary was found dead in the parking garage at the New York FBI office and Sully was taken out by Shamrock. There is no way to clear my name even if I could. Without their testimonies and the proof, which McCleary had with him, I’m a sitting duck.”

I frowned and looked at Fergus, “What are you trying to say?”

“I’m done, the FBI has already dispatched a team to come and take me, and to be honest I’m tired of running.”

“But Fergus, you can’t just give up!”

Fergus shook his head and then looked at Alana, “She cares for you Irish, and you care for her, I could see it the moment you walked through customs. Goose also told me how taken she was with you.”

“Wait, a minute…” I tried to interrupt, but Fergus held up his hand.

“You’re the only one I can trust to make sure she’s out of danger. I’ve transferred the last of my funds into an off-shore account for Alana. You need to take it and move on as Mr and Mrs Muller. You have no choice.”

I was shocked to the core, Fergus was actually handing his daughter to me, just like that? Shocked I shook my head, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I started and then I looked at Alana and my heart cramped in my chest. How could I just turn away from her now?

“Dad?” she whispered, “Where are you going to go?”

He smiled at her and took her hand in his, “I’m not running this time,” he said and closed his eyes, “You two best be on your way before the suits get here. Keep her safe Irish, make her happy.”

I nodded and then reached for Alana’s hand, “Come, we have to move.”

She pulled her hand out and flung her arms around her dad’s neck, “Dad please! You can’t just give up!” she cried.

“Alana, sweetheart…” I begged, “We don’t have much time.”

Her dad pried her hands loose and nodded, “Be happy love, someday we’ll meet again.”

***

Irish tugged me by my hand, practically dragging me out of my dad’s arms. Although I hated him for keeping his life a secret, he was still my dad. And seeing him so down and out broke my heart.

Tugged along by Irish’s fast pace, I kept looking back to where the Limo still stood, half expecting to see a SWAT team storming his car, but nothing like that happened.

“Alana!” Irish shouted and shook me by my shoulders, “I need you to stay with me. I swear to you, your dad will be back one day. Right now, we need to think about us.”

Us? Did Irish just say us? I blinked a few times and looked up at him, “By us, you mean you and me?”

He smirked as he pulled me into one of the phone booths, and then rested his forehead against mine, “We are Mr and Mrs Muller, might as well embrace it.”

A bubble of laughter pushed up from within me, and regardless of the circumstances, there was still a silver lining around the storm of my life, and having Irish by my side to brave the storm, I really didn’t need anything else.

***

THE END

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Chapter 1

 

Louis lazily leaned against the door jamb as the tall promiscuous blonde left with her shoes in her hand. She was just one of many who passed through this door in the past few months.

“Louis,” his father said tautly, “you need a wife.”

Scusami?” he asked and turned to his father, “you can’t be serious.”

“I am dead serious. I will not allow you to bring these whores into my home. These debauched ways of yours is bringing shame to our family name.”

“It’s the twenty first century, and it’s called entertainment. I have no need or desire to find myself bound to one woman for the rest of my life,” Louis stated and closed the front door.

“This is not a request, and if you do not find a wife, I will find one for you,” his father stated matter-of-factly.

Unbelievable, if it wasn’t enough that his father called the shots for everything related to the family business.  He was now calling the shots on his life. But he knew better than to go against his father’s wishes.  Stefano Angelino was one of the most feared Dons in Italian circles and he did not make idle threats. When he gave an order everyone jumped, and if they didn’t, they simply disappeared. And being his father’s right hand man and advisor didn’t exclude him from this harsh reality.

He threw his hands in the air and shook his head, “Bene! I’ll find a wife if that pleases you,” he exclaimed.

There was a calculated silence as Stefano stood studying his son’s reaction. He may be considered an old fool where his children were concerned but he wasn’t born yesterday. He knew when he was being played, and right now Louis was simply in agreement for the sake of it. If he had to leave it up to his son to pick his own wife, who knows what wet rat he’ll drag into this house. With money at his every beck and call he could pay a woman to pretend to be his wife.

“I will pick your wife for you,” he said determined and by the look on Louis’ face, the curveball undeniably caught his son off guard.

“Is forcing me to marry not enough, now you wish to pick my bride?” Louis rambled off angrily. “If mother was alive she would not have allowed this at all.”

“You will have respect for the dead Louis,” he said and glared at his son, “Gino Benedetti and his family will be visiting us from America and you will ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, capisci?”

He could see the cogs turning in his son’s head. The moment when it dawned on Louis that having Gino’s daughter as his daughter-in-law presented the opportunity to have a greater foothold in New York was perfect.

“You are marrying me off to Belinda? She’s a terrible match father; she’s a shy faded grey mouse.”

Stefano laughed and shook his head, “You haven’t seen her in almost ten years. How can you know what she is like now? You’ll ask for her hand in marriage, and that’s the end of it.”

Louis stared after his father in disbelief, this cannot possibly be happening? Belinda of all people is to become his wife. He walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a whiskey, his brain kicking into gear.

I will ask for her hand in marriage father, but you can only lead a horse to the water, he thought wickedly and tossed the amber liquid down his throat.


Chapter 2

 

Belinda tuned out her friend Natalie’s constant nagging about weight loss, Banting this, and Banting that, she was Italian for god sakes and had no time for fad diets. Italians lived to eat, it was their culture, hence the fact that she loved her job as the head chef and manageress at her father’s restaurant. She may have spent all her teenage years in New York, but she still kept her Italian heritage. She looked at the stock list again and then handed it to her friend.

“This should be enough to last you for the next two weeks. And before you know it, I’ll be back,” she said sounding almost too positive. She hated having to leave the restaurant in someone else’s care. Even if Natalie was her most trusted friend and the best sous chef she ever had the pleasure to work with, she hated shifting her responsibilities unto others.

“I’ll be fine Bee, I promise and so will the restaurant. You won’t have a thing to worry about,” her friend reassured her.

“I know. It’s just that two weeks is such a long time to be away from El Pescore. I still think I can convince my father to let me stay behind,” she said tapping her index finger on her lips.

“You haven’t had a vacation in over three years, and you love Italy, so now is your chance. Just go and come back in one piece,” Natalie said and tugged the stock list out of Belinda’s hand. “And if you happen to find a hot Italian hunk, get his number.”

Natalie laughed and took off her apron, hanging it on the hook, “Trust me, if I can help it, I’ll avoid them all. Italian men are arrogant and ostentatious, especially the newer generation. To them status is more important than common decency.”

She knew all too well how Italian men operated. Her father was a typical example. Since she can remember, her mother had to always do as she was told. And even though her mother hardly ever complained, she knew that, that was not the life she would want for herself.

If she ever did marry, it would be to a gentle soul who gave as much as he took. She would marry a man with a heart of gold and a love for food, one who would love her with her extra padding and all.

“Belinda, the shuttle is here,” her father called from the office.

“Coming papa,” she responded and hugged Natalie, “If you need anything, just email me, I’ll be online.”

“Stop fussing so much, we’ll be fine and I promise you, El Pescore will still be standing when you get back.”

She glanced around the kitchen one last time and then took her purse and headed out to the shuttle. Maybe this holiday was just I need, she the shuttle pulled away. She was going to enjoy herself and come back refreshed and ready to take the bull by the horns.


Chapter 3

 

It’s been awhile since she last visited Palermo, but even after all these years nothing much had changed. There were still many thriving marketplaces in nearly every corner and small apartments were stacked high above the streets giving their occupants a bird’s eye view of the hustle and bustle below.

They exited Palermo, leaving behind the crowded streets and made their way along the winding road through the vineyards towards Villa Valentina Paci. She couldn’t help but notice her father’s mood deteriorate the closer they got to their destination, it was as if he was drawn into himself more now than ever before.

“Everything okay papa?” she asked placing her hand on his.

“Of course tesoro, why do you ask?” he said and smiled.

“You just seem quiet, that’s all.”

“It’s been a long trip, I’m just tired,” he said and squeezed her hand.

It was a valid reason but she couldn’t help but concern herself over his well being.

As they approached the gate to the Villa, she noticed the two armed men on either side of the entrance as the gate automatically opened. Their presence sent a cold shiver down her spine. Why on earth would Mr. Angelino have armed guards? She wondered briefly. They finally pulled up to the front of the magnificent Sicilian styled house with its rustic yet modern appearance. And although they were well off, and lived in a luxurious house in the suburbs in NY, this place was far grander than the house they owned.

It wasn’t long before two men exited the house. The older one of the two, presumably her father’s old friend Stefano, was the first to rush down the stairs to greet them.

Vicchio amico, I’m glad you finally came to visit. It’s been too long,” he greeted and kissed her father on his cheeks, “This must be your be your lovely daughter.”

“Stefano, old friend, it has been long,” her father greeted in return and then stepped back, “Belinda, this is Stefano Angelo, and is his son Louis.”

Belinda smiled, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said softly trying not to pay too much attention to Louis. She had to mentally force herself not to look at him in an attempt to calm her frantic heart.

Natalie was right, Italian men were hunks, and this one was no exception. He had this air of grandeur that made the sun look like a fading lamp in the fog. Dressed in a suit, with his hair impeccably styled, he looked like he stepped out of a fashion magazine.  And if his mere presence wasn’t enough, he took her hand in his, which sent a spark of desire shooting through her body.

Bella,” he said and then brought her hand to his lips, “what a pleasure to finally meet you again. I’ve heard so much about you.”

She was quite surprised by his remark and the fact that she was being discussed at all, since she had no real memory of meeting him when she was younger.

 “I trust it was all positive?” she said smiling and withdrew her hand.

“Nothing negative can be said about such a beautiful creature,” he remarked and stepped aside as his father led them into the house.

Not only was he good looking but he could charm a bird out of a tree, she thought feeling his eyes burn into her back. She couldn’t wait to tell Natalie about Prince Charming. It’ll give her a good laugh.

One of the servants of the house came and collected their luggage and the four of them made their way through the house to the terrace. The house was even more beautiful on the inside, and its casual layouts evoked an Old World charm. The interior decorator clearly had an inherent eye for design and the incredibly refined mosaics that adorned the walls simply captivated her.

 


Chapter 4

 

Louis studied his unsuspecting soon-to-be-bride as she scrutinized the food and he couldn’t help but smile. She was literally picking at every morsel of food analyzing the textures and the tastes, most likely looking for cooking flaws.

“Is the food to your liking?” he asked her and immediately drew her attention.

“Oh it is, you must have a very skilled chef,” she said smiling, and although he could see the slight blush in her cheeks, she kept her poise.

“I believe you are a master chef back in America,” he stated and took a sip of his wine.

“Hardly a master, but I know my way around the kitchen and I know what people like to eat,” she said confidently.

She isn’t exactly my type, he thought as he studied her. She was on the shorter side, and curvy, a complete contrast to the women that normally shared his bed. He also preferred blondes; she had long black curly hair that fell loosely over her shoulders and down her back. She was a little too average for his liking, but even so, she was not unsightly. He could definitely work with this and once she was his wife, he would ensure that she was treated to a makeover.

He heard her clear her throat and realized she was staring at him. Caught red handed he lifted his glass to his lips and kept eye contact with her over the brim of the glass until she averted her gaze. Shy that was nothing short of adorable, he thought and smiled.

“Louis, why don’t you go show Belinda the winery, I’m sure she would love to see it?” his father suggested. And so it starts the game of ultimate seduction. He still had no idea why his father insisted on taking her as his bride. But going against his father’s wishes was not a chance he was willing to take. Besides, if he grew tired of her nothing would stop him of having a string of very willing mistresses.

He stood up and walked around the table then held out his hand for her, “Would you like to see the winery, signora?” he asked.

Instead of taking his hand she shifted her chair back and got up then kissed her father on his forehead and whispered something in his ear. She was rather mysterious. Just when he thought she was a shy and insecure mouse, who would easily be swayed, she acted the complete opposite, strong willed and determined.

“I’ve always been intrigued by wineries,” she said as they walked down the pebbled path.

“It is an art to create the perfect wine. It has been the essence and life source of our family for decades and is one of the most well-known brands in Italy. It started with my great grandfather who planted the first vineyard and it simply grew from there.”

She was intrigued by the whole process, and although she did have some knowledge of how wine was made, she didn’t know the details of how red wine was made differently from white wine. He explained to her that red wine is made from the pulp by fermenting the grapes with their skins, while white wine is made by fermenting the juices. He showed her the fermentation process and then took her through to where the grapes were being foot trodden, and for a moment she wanted to kick her shoes off and join the workers.

They spent most of the afternoon in the cellar where she got to taste some of the wines, and by nightfall, she felt all but normal. Her head was spinning a little and she felt braver than usual, even a little flirtatious.

“So, do you have a girlfriend?” she asked boldly as she wrapped her arms around one of the poles in the cellar. It was to have something to steady herself than anything else.

“That is a rather random question to ask a complete stranger,” he said laughing. And his laughter sent a shiver through her.

“It’s a normal question, I mean you have all this,” she started and gestured with her hand, “Not to mention the looks and the charm, surely you have a woman who shares your bed?”

Woah, that’s a little over the top Belinda, she scolded herself as he threw his head back laughing. But for the life of her, she could not control herself even if she wanted to.  It was as if all her thoughts were about to pour out of her mouth like water from a burst water pipe.

“No bella, I have no woman sharing my bed. Not yet anyway,” he teased standing far too close for comfort.

She inhaled deeply and then breathed out, blowing her hair away from her forehead. “I’m sorry, it was a little rude asking you such a private question. It must be the wine that is influencing my filters,” she apologized and moved away from him, half stumbling until she leaned against one of the wine barrels.

He moved closer as if she was his prey and as he reached out he ran his fingers up her bare arm, “It appears that the truth serum is working as expected,” he said huskily.

“I-I’m n-not much of a t-truth serum fan,” she stammered and slipped out from under his burning gaze and scooted along the wall. He was just far too intense.             

 


Chapter 5

 

There was something about her innocence that attracted him on a level he was not accustomed to. And for reasons beyond his understanding, he had to have a taste of this forbidden fruit.  He discarded the physical attraction and played it off as a ploy to seduce her into marrying him. This was all just business, and in his world, business always mixed with pleasure. So while he is on this mission to claim her hand in marriage, he may as well enjoy the ride.

He boxed her in between his arms and blocked her escape path, “You are not afraid of me, are you?” he asked tilting her chin up, forcing her to look into his eyes.

“N-no, I’m not,” she whispered nervously.

“Good,” he said as he lowered his lips to hers. He kissed the corners of her mouth gently at first and then he wrapped one arm around her waist, pulling her up against him.

Her breath mixed with the woody scent of matured wine filled his lungs as she let out a huff of air parting her lips involuntarily. That was all he needed, her approval. He slanted his lips against hers and swept his tongue along her bottom lip and into her mouth. At first take, it was as if her jaw was locked, but as his tongue kept teasing hers, she relaxed and she returned his kiss. He slipped his other hand under her long tresses of hair and cupped the back of her neck as he deepened the kiss, drawing out a soft moan from her. This was more potent than he expected he suddenly realized as his body responded to hers. Should he go all the way now, or slowly draw her into his world, hook line and sinker?

Unable to think straight with the urgency of his arousal soaring to new heights, he dropped his hands to her hips and effortlessly lifted her unto a barrel. But the moment he did this, she protested and tore her lips away.

“This isn’t right, I hardly know you,” she uttered breathlessly.

Bello, we are two adults, what are you worried about?” he asked, circling his thumbs on the inside of her knees where he stood between her legs.

“Louis, please let me go,” she pleaded but made no attempt to move.

“This is your no, when you really mean to say yes?” he asked teasingly as he tried to kiss her again, but she turned her head away.

“I-I’m not ready for this,” she said and pushed his hands away, “I’ve never…”

“Never, what?” he asked curiously as he tilted her chin up to look into her eyes, “Kissed in a winery?”

His arousal was painful and he was trying really hard to keep this as lighthearted as possible. Usually he had more control than this.

“Kissed? No, I mean… ugh,” she huffed and shoved him away from her then slid off the barrel, “I don’t make it a habit of having sex with men I hardly know,” she spat out and fixed her dress, “what would you think of me if I were to throw myself at you like a whore?”

This was the closest thing to a cold shower he could have asked for. Did she genuinely think that giving of herself will put her in the same class as a cheap whore? He cursed himself mentally but remained composed, and despite his raging desire he smiled and reached for her hand, then turned it over and kissed the inside of her wrist.

“I suppose we should start to work towards that second date then,” he said and then let go of her hand.

“Come, I’m sure everyone is wondering where we disappeared to.”

That was the quickest Samantha ever sobered up. One moment her head was spinning with wine and the next Louis was kissing her. And it was not just any kiss. It was the type of kiss that made your toes curl and your knees buckle. But everything was happening too soon. She came here thinking it would be a visit, hardly expecting to meet such a man like Louis. Not to mention one who would consider her worthy of his company.

Back home she was always the odd one out, with her friends landing all the hot guys. She was the designated driver who didn’t drink, didn’t fool around and made sure everyone got home safe and sound. She was also last on the picking list when it came to the men in her circles.

She followed Louis back to the Villa and tried to make sense of it all, but with him in front of her, larger than life, it was near impossible. The way his muscles flexed under his white dress shirt when he walked was simply hypnotizing, not to mention the way his back tapered down to his waist. He was the epitome of Anteros himself, the Italian god of love and passion. And she was in serious trouble.


Chapter 6

 

The week flew by and every day Belinda spent in Louis’ company she slowly warmed up to him. Some days they would casually spent time together; steal a chaste kiss or two. Other days, she would merely sit by and watch how he ran the business. On those days she saw a different side of him, one she wasn’t sure she liked. He was demanding, refusing to take no for an answer. Although she did not quite agree with his methods, she respected him. Besides, soon she will go back to New York, to her own restaurant doing what she loved.

She was seated on one of the sofas on the terrace waiting for Louis to fetch her and take her into town when her father came to sit beside her. Again she noticed the somber expression that made him look years his age.

“Papa, I’m worried about you, you don’t look well,” she said as she shifted closer resting her head on his shoulder.

“I’m perfectly fine, you fuss like your mother,” he said and took her hand in his.

Belinda laughed and kissed his cheek, “I am a chip off the old block. Someone must see to it that you are happy and healthy.”

“I’m a grown man,” he said and there was a brief silence, before he spoke again.

“Louis is a good man,” he started and she instantly knew where this was heading.

“He’s a fine man, just a pity he’s all the way out here.”

Her father turned to her and took both her hands in his, “Belinda, I’m not getting any younger; I wish that you will marry before my time passes on earth.”

Woah where did that come from, she wondered as she studied her father. He can’t possibly consider her marrying Louis.  Her life was in New York and even if Louis was marriage material, she would never give up El Pescore.

“Oh papa, that’s utter nonsense. You are still as strong as a stallion. And the day I marry and have children you will be there to witness it in the flesh,” she reassured him.

“You and Louis get on well,” he said and looked into the distance as if he had more to say.

What was the sudden interest in Louis, and why did she suddenly feel a heavy weight settle in the pit of her stomach? She glanced across the lawn to where Louis was pacing up and down talking on his cell. This is just a fling, nothing more, she told herself and smiled at her father.

“We get on well papa, he’s a good man, but I just don’t think marriage is in his immediate future.”

Her father was silent and the heavy weight that slowly settled in the pit of her stomach now consumed all her internal organs including her heart.

Papa is just showing concern and sharing his hopes, she convinced herself, but this gnawing voice in the back of her mind kept asking her, what was really going on. She looked up and noticed Louis crossing the lawn towards them and as he drew nearer her father got up and kissed her forehead.

“I must go meet with Stefano,” he said then nodded at Louis then headed back into the house.

She was still looking at her father when Louis came to sit next to her and wrapped his arm around her, kissing the nape of her neck, “You look troubled,” he said nuzzling her neck.

“Oh no I’m fine,” she said smiling, “it’s just papa, he seems very depressed lately.”

“I’m sure he will be fine,” Louis said and took her hand, “if you want, I can talk to him.”

She laughed softly and shook her head, “No that won’t be necessary, I’m sure he’s just home sick.”

“That might be it,” he said and pulled her to her feet. “So are you ready to go to town?”

Si, I’m ready!” she said laughing and just like that her mood shifted. Louis knew exactly how to make her feel better, and for a moment she wondered, what if…


Chapter 7

 

They spent most of the day in town, and Louis was not shy to flash his credit card either and he went out of his way to spoil her. Although she felt somewhat guilty, she simply convinced herself to enjoy it while it lasts. One more week and she will be back at the grindstone and this entire period of her life would be over.

“We’re just in time for dinner,” he said as they entered the house.

The rich aroma of sautéing onions, butter and roast beef filled the air and her stomach rumbled loud enough for her to hear it.

“Well my stomach has spoken, I’m starving,” she giggled and led the way to the dinner table, but her appetite soon faded when she detected the somber mood that hung heavily in the air. She glanced at her father, then at Stefano, but neither of the two said a word. When Louis entered, he also suddenly became withdrawn and quiet. Maybe she was just imagining things she thought and sat down when Louis pulled her chair out for her.

Stefano mumbled something in Italian under his breath, which she couldn’t quite hear, but whatever it was, it clearly annoyed Louis. Did his father not approve of the fact that he spent so much time with her, she wondered briefly. But as the whispers became more urgent the mood catapulted into a driven force of negativity.

“I did not raise a coward for a son,” Stefano piped up loudly.

“I told you I will get it done,” Louis responded, and shoved his plate away from him.

She looked towards her father where he sat with a serious expression that troubled his face and she could stand it no longer.

“Excuse me, but what’s going on?”

“We will talk after dinner,” Louis said in an icy tone.

“No! We will talk now. This cannot wait any longer,” his father demanded.

What on earth was going on here? Just a few minutes ago, this place was buzzing with excitement, now it felt like the grim reaper was about to collect his souls.

“Now is not the time,” Louis said through gritted teeth as he stood up and glared at his father.

“No other time is better.”

“Enough!” It was her father who spoke aloud finally.

“Belinda, you will marry Louis in a week’s time,” her father ordered.

She looked from one to the other, trying to determine if she heard correctly.

“Excuse me?” she asked in a shrill voice, “did I hear you correctly?”

“You heard me, in a week you will marry Louis,” her father said flatly.

She could not believe her ears, her own father literally just ordered her to marry Louis. This cannot be happening, she thought as she desperately grasped for a response in the recesses of her mind.

“Papa, I don’t even know him, how can you expect me to do such a thing?” she said in disbelief, but this time Stefano stood up.

“This is not a request, your parents promised you to my son when you were just a bambino, and the time has come for them to be true to their word,” he said flatly.

“What?!” both Belinda and Louis exclaimed at the same time.

She glared at her father and then at Stefano. How could her father have made such a promise on her behalf? And as the initial shock subsided, anger and rage replaced that empty space in her soul.

“You cannot make me marry a man I hardly know! What about love and commitment where does that fit into the picture…” she started but just then Louis placed his hand over hers.

She whipped her head around and glared at him, “And you! You knew all about this arrangement, didn’t you?” she retorted and laughed incredulously, “this was all just a game to you wasn’t it?”

“Belinda…” Louis said, but she wouldn’t let him talk.

“All this time, charming me, kissing me, taking me out shopping, it was all a ploy for you to get me to marry you, wasn’t it?”

Tears were pooling in her eyes, but they were not because of sadness, they were filled with bitterness and anger.

“That’s enough,” Stefano roared as he shoved his chair back across the floor, “You will marry my son and that is final.”

She glared at Stefano with utter hatred, wishing she could scratch his eyes out, but then she caught a glance of her father’s worried gaze. Louis had also stood up and was trying to drag her away from the dinner table, but she would have none of it and she tugged her arm free.

“You’re acting like a bunch of hooligans, my god, this is not the mafia, what is wrong with all of you?” she cried out, but the silence she was greeted with was so deafening you could hear a pin drop. She looked at her father, then at Stefano and lastly, at Louis. All three with their eyes cast down liked accused criminals. And then it hit her. Impossible, she thought, they can’t possibly be a part of the mafia.

“Oh god papa, tell me it isn’t true?” she pleaded as the room started to spin. “Please papa, don’t make me do this,” she begged and before she could utter another word, the room went completely black.

Louis caught Belinda just as she toppled over and without as much as a glance at the two older men he carried her upstairs to her room. This was a bad idea from the start and right now he hated himself. He gently laid her down on her bed and instructed one of the servants to keep an eye on her and then headed back downstairs.

Cosa stavi pensando!” he ground out as he confronted his father, “I told you I would handle this, I do not see the point of rushing such a decision.”

“The girl will be fine once she comes to terms with everything,” his father said callously.

“Why the sudden rush?” he demanded looking from his father to Gino.

“It is the only way we can strengthen our ties in the United States. With our families united, we’ll be the most prominent and the most influential family, a true force to be reckoned with,” his father stated.

“At the cost of your daughter’s happiness?” he bit out turning his attention to Gino.

“We have all had to sacrifice one thing or the other Louis; it’s a small price to pay.”

Unbelievable! He couldn’t comprehend how her father was capable of betraying his own daughter like that.

He looked at them for a moment then straightened up.

“From now on, you will both stay out of our affairs. To claim her hand in marriage would need a miracle, and I hope for your sakes that God will be kind enough to soften her heart, so I hope you visit confession before Sunday mass.”

Furious with his father, Gino and himself, he stormed out. He needed to figure out how he was going to fix this.

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter 8

 

The next day Belinda was packed and ready to leave. She wanted nothing to do with her father, and as far as the Angelinos were concerned, they could all burn in hell. She was not some possession to be put on auction for the next best bidder. She was a woman in her own right.

While standing at the window, waiting for a cab to arrive she replayed every single detail of the past week. What hurt even more than the betrayal of her father, was the fact that Louis had no affection towards her. All this time he simply baited her, just so that he could reel her in like a fish. She was nothing but a business deal.

There was a slight knock on the door, which she ignored, just like the knock from earlier that happened to be a servant bringing her breakfast, which had gone untouched. There was another knock, and when she didn’t answer the door opened slowly.

“Belinda, can we talk?”

Speak of the devil!  She thought as she glared at Louis, she had nothing to say to him other than the fact that she hated him.

“I was not aware of the arrangement between our parents, you have to believe me,” he said and came to stand next to her, “that was a surprise to me too.”

She tried to tune him out and shifted her weight leaning away from him. Even with his betrayal, her body still reacted to his closeness and her heart cramped painfully. Her attraction to him just made her hate him more.

“Say something,” he said quietly.

She could sense that his eyes were pinned on her but just then, and much to her relief, she saw the cab arriving.

“I have nothing to say to you Louis,” she said bitterly and gathered her luggage. But Louis was quick to stop her from taking another step and blocked her way.

“You’re not the only one who has been forced into doing things you don’t want to do. And I am just as caught up in this mess as you are.”

She glared at him and dropped her bags to the floor, “Let’s get one thing straight, NO one on this god forsaken earth is going to tell me how to live my life, least of all tell me who I will and will not marry. I am done with these games so I suggest you step aside.”

She was taken aback when Louis suddenly laughed incredulously.“I’m glad you find this so amusing.” she scowled.

The one moment Louis was laughing, and the next he had a deadpan look on his face with his lips tightly pursed. She could see the tiny muscle flex in his jaw, and when he stepped forward and stood so close she could feel his breath fan his face, she felt scared for the first time.

“You do not choose your family in the mafia, you’re born into it tesorina, and once you are a part of them, everything you own becomes theirs. Your business, your home even your bambinos and trust me there is no way out of it. So if you want the brutal truth, here it is. We are getting married, whether you like it or not.”

Impulsively Belinda raised her hand to slap him in the face, but he gripped her wrist firmly and tugged her against him and with his lips pressed against her hair, he whispered, “La calma è la virtù dei fortithe calm is the virtue of the strong.”

He left her with those words, which at that very moment meant absolutely nothing to her. When she looked back out the window, she saw the cab driving out of the gates.


Chapter 9

 

Belinda spent the next two days locked in her room, refusing to talk to her father or to Louis. Her life as she knew it was over. She was part of the mafia now, and organized crime was going to be a part of her future. She supposed she was always a part of it, just ignorant of her role. She was surprised that no-one came to put a tracking bracelet on her ankle to track her every move, since she should be considered a flight risk. If she had it her way, she would be sneaking out in the dead of night to flee this god forsaken fortress.

She took her out her laptop and rested it on her lap, and while she waited for it to start up, she couldn’t help but wonder if they were screening her calls and internet activity. If they were, then tuff luck, she thought as she logged into her E-mail account. She had nothing to hide, and she sure as hell would not let anyone intimidate her.

 The first email that loaded was from Natalie. She clicked on it hoping that hearing from her friend would improve her mood somewhat.

Hey Bee

When did we get a new accountant? Some guy rocked up at the restaurant saying that some Louis Angelino sent him. I don’t know what’s happening.

Cheers Nat

She took a few steady breaths to calm herself; Louis didn’t lie when he said that the mafia owns everything. She tucked her bottom lip under her teeth and hit reply.

Hey Nat

Long story, I’ll update you as soon as I can.

My stay here in Italy has been extended, but I’ll keep you posted.

Love Bee

She couldn’t really admit on e-mail that she was now a member of the mafia, forced to marry the Consigliere of the Angelino family and was being held hostage. What an utter mess, she thought as she shut her laptop. She really had no say in the matter, she had nowhere to run and knowing how the mafia operated, she had two choices. She could fight them, or accept her fate. But inevitably the mafia will win.

Louis stood in the study looking out the window, by now he was sure that Belinda had come to terms with her fate, much like he had to when he was only eighteen. Being forced to marry someone against her will, and the fact that his father omitted to tell him about the promise made when he was only six years old infuriated him. Needless to say, there was no denying the fact that he was attracted to Belinda, something he hardly expected to happen.

During the time he spent with her before the house of cards came tumbling down, he got to know a confident woman, one who challenged him like none of the others ever did.  And albeit he had prior notions to transform her into a supermodel to his liking, he ended up liking her just the way she was. The fact remained, they will be married and they will have to learn to live with each other, there was simply no other choice. He could only hope that she would learn to accept it, and maybe by some miracle, she might learn to love him despite his role in betraying her.

The driveway was starting to fill up with cars, family and friends from surrounding towns were all gathering to meet his fiancée thanks to his father and Gino. He rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes. He was going to have to talk to Belinda before they faced they music.

When he got to her door, he knocked but knowing that she would not answer, he pushed the door open slightly. She was standing in front of the full length mirror trying to put on her necklace.

“I suppose I have to play the role of the dutiful fiancée now,” she said blankly.

He didn’t reply, simply walked over to her and took the necklace from her, fastening the clasp.

“It doesn’t have to be all that unpleasant,” he said as he watched her in the reflection of the mirror, “we had real chemistry before all this happened, all is not lost.”

 “Unfortunately betrayal is the only truth between us. I can play the role Louis, but I cannot forget or forgive the betrayal,” she stated and turned to face him.

The truth was like a bitter wine that dried his throat and turned his stomach.  But here she stood before him and he couldn’t ignore the way his body responded to her closeness. The steeliness in her hazel eyes spoke volumes of confidence fueled by anger, she was a determined and strong woman who will not only fit into his life, but become his life. The realization struck him like a lightning bolt and he cupped her face.

Tesoro, this is not easy, but I will promise you this. I will be devoted to you always, I am a man of my word, and if it takes a lifetime to get you to forgive my betrayal, it’s a lifetime worth living,”

Belinda was stunned into silence at his words and even though she was opposed to this arrangement she could not deny the attraction she felt towards him. What if this turned out better than she expected? She thought searching his eyes. She licked her lips and saw his eyes drop to her mouth. Her body and heart was at war with her mind.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she said softly and stood on her toes to place a kiss on his cheek, then whispered; “liars make the best promises.”

 


Chapter 10

 

She turned to walk to the door, but Louis grabbed her by her arm and tugged her roughly against him. And when his lips met hers, an uncontrollable moan escaped her and she simply slumped against him in surrender. She may not agree with the ways of their families, but that didn’t mean she had to ignore the obvious sexual tension that had been escalating between them from day one. And if she was going to play the part of the Mafia Consigliere’s wife, she may as well have fun doing so. She returned his kiss with such zeal she could have easily convinced herself that this was something more than a physical desire between two consenting adults.

Louis groaned and cursed in Italian and walked her back until her legs hit the bed and she flopped down on it. The desire she saw in his eyes ignited the same desire in her. He tugged at his shirt buttons and in no time shrugged his shirt off, tossing it aside. She followed suit taking her dress off and lay before him. Only wearing her lingerie. 

Mozzagiato,” he said as he shoved his pants down over his hips while toeing his shoes off, “you are a goddess.”

“Keep up the flattery, and I might consider forgiving you,” she said wickedly and slid her hand around the back of his neck pulling him in for a kiss. His wedged his knee between her thighs and leaned over her supporting his weight with one arm, while he moved his other hand down to cup her breast.

“If flattery is all it takes, consider it done,” he teased and dropped a string of kisses from the corner of her mouth, along her jaw and to the nape of her neck. His fingers curled around the lace of her bra tugging the one cup down to expose her breast, and then he latched onto her aching tip, sucking and swirling it in his mouth.

Oh!” she cried out and threaded her fingers through his hair clinging unto his head. I’m in so much trouble, she thought and arched her back, pressing into him. Sleeping with the enemy had a whole new meaning all of a sudden.

Louis could hardly control himself as Belinda ground her body against his, she was so responsive, and the confidence that radiated from her was like a radioactive force consuming him. He moved his attention from her one breast to the other, biting her taut nipple through the lace of her bra eliciting a moan from her.

Ti desidero,” he whispered against her heated skin, “from the first day I saw you, mia dolce.”

“The feeling is mutual,” she said breathlessly.

He took his sweet time exploring every inch of her body, from her ample breasts to her curvy hips. And as he peeled her panties down her legs he knew he could no longer hold back.

Apri le gambe,” he demanded as he met her eyes, and she willingly spread herself open for him. God help me, he thought as he nipped nuzzled her neck sliding one hand down to cup her mound. She was soft and wet, her desire for him palpable, and as he rolled the pad of his middle finger over her clit she cried out dragging her nails across his skin.

He teased her a while longer, until her body was writhing beneath him and when he finally moved himself into position, she wrapped her legs around his, pulling him into her.

Cazzo!” he cried out as he drove his length into her wetness. Nothing could compare to what he was experiencing this very minute, and with each thrust into her, she met him. Stroke after stroke, her hips rose to meet his like an erotic dance between two lovers.

Between his grunts and groans he heard her moan his name, pleading with him not to stop. The way she vocalized her desires was a complete turn on, and he was edging dangerously close to his climax. As he reached down where their bodies met, he found her clit. All it took was a single touch to send her crashing over the edge and as her body shook and her nails dug into his skin, he surrendered and spilled himself into her. He lay on top of her for a few seconds before he rolled over unto his side, propping his head on his hand, admiring her where she lay still with her eyes closed. A smile tugged at the corner of her full lips, and he bent his head down and kissed her.

“Does this mean I am forgiven?” he whispered huskily and kissed her shoulder.

“No,” she said and scooted to the edge of the bed, “but maybe if you do this again tomorrow, I will reconsider.”

He chuckled and got off the bed reaching for his pants, then removed a small black box from the pocket.

“How about this?” he said and flipped open the lid exposing a diamond ring.

She smirked and reached for the ring then slid it on her ring finger, and without a word she gathered her dress and underwear and walked through to the bathroom closing the door behind her.

She was a complex creature, he thought with a grin as he too got dressed and headed downstairs.


Chapter 11

 

Belinda stood at the top of the stairs studying all the guests. She knew the organization was large but she couldn’t help but wonder how many of these people were unsuspecting pawns unaware of the fact that the Angelinos and Benedettis were a part of this criminal organization.

Within a matter of two weeks she went from an ordinary woman to one forced to embrace her place in the mafia. If she was going to survive this, she was going to have to be strong and make her mark in society.

She tilted her chin defiantly and mechanically put one foot in front of the other as she descended the stairs. Her eyes locked on Louis as he stood at the bottom of the staircase. As she reached him, her father appeared alongside Stefano but she simply nodded at them both.

It was Stefano who announced the engagement and the pretense of it all was sickening, but she remained composed nonetheless. She had a few tricks up her sleeve, and with her position in such a powerful family at the side of Don Angelino’s son, she was going to make this work to benefit her.

The evening soon drew to a close. Her father approached her on a few occasions but never quite spoke to her. At times her heart ached to reconcile with him, but she shut her emotions down. She was no longer going to be this timid soul who allowed others to walk right over her.

“Did you enjoy the evening?” Louis asked as he came to stand beside her after the last of the guests exited the house.

“It was pleasant,” she said and sighed softly.

“Yes it was,” he said and then took her hand in his, “you should to speak with your father.”

She rolled her eyes and withdrew her hand from his, “I have nothing to say to him.”

“Belinda, you can’t shut him out forever.”

“You want to bet on that?” she said bitterly, “In due time I might talk with him again, but right now, I want him to wallow in self-pity and reflect on his actions.”

He took her by her shoulders and tilted her chin up, “Life is too short to harbor hatred, and the woman I met two weeks ago would never have been so callous.”

“Well that woman died,” she said blankly.

She simply had no choice but to toughen up, the only way she knew how. She had to feel nothing, allow no sadness, hurt or love to cloud her judgement. If that meant shutting everyone in her life out and pretending to be a cruel hard woman, then so be it.

A commotion outside drew their attention and Louis was the first to go and investigate, with her following closely. A small crowd of guests who still remained outside were huddled together in a group near the fountain. She shoved her way through the crowd to see what was going on and when she saw her father lying on the ground her heart stopped.

“Papa!” she cried out and dropped to her knees next to him, “papa!”

Louis was beside her immediately feeling for a pulse and checking his breathing, “I think it’s a heart attack, I can’t find a pulse.”

“No!” she cried as horror gripped her heart, “Help him Louis!” she pleaded as tears streamed down her face. He immediately started CPR while Stephano called for an ambulance. Ten minutes later, her father was on his way to the hospital and Louis was driving like the devil himself following the ambulance.

At the hospital everyone gathered in the waiting room. Louis was seated next to Belinda trying to console her. He knew that if her father did not pull through she would blame herself for the rest of her life.

“Let’s go and get some coffee,” he said and took her hand.

“I don’t want coffee,” she mumbled.

“It will do you good, come,” he insisted.

This time she didn’t object when he pulled her to her feet, and led her to the cafeteria.  Seated across from her at one of the small tables, he studied her intently.

“You shouldn’t blame yourself, these things happen when we least expect it. For such a severe heart attack, he was probably sick for a long time.”

“I want Natalie to run El Pescore,” she said changing the subject completely.

“Belinda, business can be discussed at another time,” he said and took a sip of his coffee.

“No, it can’t. By Friday I’ll be Mrs. Angelino-Benedetti, I know you have already acquired a new accountant for the restaurant without consulting with me, so now is as good a time as ever.”

He cursed inwardly. His father had the very bad habit to stick his nose in everyone’s business.  He wasn’t even aware of this change at El Pescore. The agreement was that the restaurant will remain unchanged. There was something dubious going on, not that it was any different from any of the other business deals his father was involved in. But for the sake of peace he agreed with her and reassured her that Natalie will be the manager in her absence.

“Miss Benedetti?” a somber voice spoke next to them. It was the doctor and the expression on his face was grave.

“I’m sorry we did all we could, but the damage to his heart was too severe.”

Louis met her gaze and she hardly blinked. Simply closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then stood up and walked out of the cafeteria.


Chapter 12

 

A few weeks later Belinda sat in the confession booth at the Catholic Church and covered her head with her scarf. There were so many questions that remained unanswered and she needed a sign, any sign to tell her she was doing the right thing. The little door slid open and she sighed and kneeled.

“Bless me father for I have sinned, it’s been four years since my last confession.”

“Why has it been so long my child?” the priest asked.

“I don’t know, I guess life just happened,” she stated nervously.

“I see…so what would you like to confess today?”

“I’m not sure Father, it’s quite complicated,” she said suddenly having second thoughts about being here.

“Well, you do know that everything said here is completely confidential. So why don’t you start at the beginning,” he said in a modulated tone.

“I’m in a tricky situation; I have been forced to marry a man selected by my family.”

“Do you know this man?”

“Yes Father, I know him well,” she said not sure what else to say.

“How do you feel about the man?”

“I’m not sure, he’s a kind man at times, but he’s involved with…” she paused. Does she tell him about the fact that Louis is part of the mafia, and that she has no other option but to go through with this, or does she just ditch this whole confession and get on with life?

“What is he involved with?” the priest asked.

“I like him, I just don’t know if I am ready to marry him,” she said instead.

“But there is no love?”

“I don’t know, it’s all so very complicated,” she started.

“I understand, but you know that God can give you guidance in situations like this, and I’m here to assist.”

She was silent for a moment. This was a mistake, not even God can help her, she was stuck in a situation with no way out.

“I’m sorry Father, I just need a prayer.”

“Of course my child,” he said quietly and then followed with a short prayer for guidance.

“Thank you Father,” she said biting back the sudden wave of nausea that hit her.

“Go in peace.”

Belinda exited the booth and rushed to the nearest bathroom and dry-heaved over the toilet bowl. All this stress was starting to impact her health and if she didn’t get a grip on life, she was going to end up in some mental hospital for severe depression.

She made her way out of the church and walked two blocks down to a café to get some coffee. The smell of freshly ground coffee assaulted her senses immediately but instead of liking it as she usually did, her stomach turned again and another wave of nausea hit her. This was not stress she thought and mentally calculated when she had her last period as she rushed out of the café.  The tired spells, the nausea, everything pointed to one sure fact. She was pregnant!

As if her life wasn’t complicated already, this took the cake. With the certainty of expecting Louis’ child hanging heavily over her head, she slumped back against the concrete wall in the alley next to the café, and pressed her rosary against her lips. This cannot be happening, she kept telling herself as she fought the morning sickness. You asked for a sign, her thoughts echoed back at her.

“Impossible,” she whispered to herself, “how can this be happening?”

She made her way back to the Villa fighting back the tears that threatened to spill. She was going to have to raise her child in the mafia, exposing him or her to the dark world she now lives in against her will and how was Louis going to take the news?

“Bella, I was getting worried,” it was Louis voice that infiltrated her thoughts and her heart cramped painfully, “you’re so pale, are you feeling ill?” he asked worriedly.

“I-I’m fine,” she lied, plastering on a smile, “just tired, I think I need to go lay down.”

“Of course,” he said and immediately helped her to her room.

Her heart was racing and it felt as if something was squeezing the very air from her lungs as she walked up to her room. She had to tell him, but she didn’t know how or when. The words were on the tip of her tongue, when she felt her stomach cramp. Without a word she rushed into her room shutting the door in Louis face, and rushed to the bathroom. This was an utter disaster, she thought as she hunched over the toilet.

 


Chapter 13

 

Louis knew instantly that Belinda was not well, she was nervous and pale, and the way she bolted into her room had him worried. Concerned about her health he called their family doctor to see to her.

“Thank you for coming around Doctor, I’m quite concerned about my fiancé, she doesn’t seem well. It could very well just be stress, but I’d prefer if you could take a look,” he said as he walked alongside the doctor taking him upstairs.

“What are her symptoms?” the doctor asked.

“Tired, pale, overall she seems quite edgy. She recently lost her father as you know, and with the wedding drawing close, I think it might just be stress,” he said quietly as they stood outside the room.

“Well that could very well be the case, but I’ll take a look and run a few tests to make sure all is in order.”

Louis opened the door for the doctor and then waited outside. This entire arrangement was handled incorrectly from day one, he thought as he paced in front of the door. He couldn’t help but feel guilty for allowing his father to influence his choices like this. He should have refused the arrangement and taken the brunt of his father’s rage instead of being such a coward. Now the woman he has slowly started to fall in love with is ill, and it was his fault. From the shy timid creature she was when he first met her, she now displayed the characteristics of a true Donna, unmoved and poker faced. She even refused to attend her father’s funeral, who knows what was going on in her mind.

A little while later the doctor asked Louis to join him and he couldn’t help but feel the immense sense of sadness as he looked down at Belinda where she lay staring out the window, her skin pale against the dark hair that framed her face.

“How is she?” he asked tentatively, taking her hand in his, surprised that she didn’t pull away from him.

“She does show some signs of stress but it’s very normal when a woman’s body undergoes such extreme changes during pregnancy…” the doctor started.

Scusami, pregnant?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yes, that is correct. She’s about four weeks now,” the doctor said and turned his attention to Belinda, “Signora, you would need to visit my rooms as soon as you feel up to it so that we can make sure everything is in order, but your blood pressure seems fine.”

Louis stood in shock as he looked down at Belinda. This was the last thing he expected, he had assumed she was on birth control like most women should be in this day and age. How could she possibly be pregnant?

He walked the doctor to the door and let him find his own way out then came to sit beside her.

“Did you know you were pregnant?” he asked trying not to sound accusing.

“No, I didn’t,” she said without looking his way.

“Belinda, look at me. Were you not on birth control?” he asked trying to control his impatience.

She whipped her head around and glared at him, “No I was not. What seems to be the problem Louis, are you afraid that I might trick you into marrying me?” she bit out harshly. 

“You know it’s not like that,” he countered.

“Do you think this is what I wanted, a baby born into the mafia!?” she said raising her voice.

Calmati,” he said and took a deep breath, “I’m sorry for upsetting you. I just didn’t expect this,” he said quietly.

“Well neither did I, so here we are. Getting married in a few days, and I’m having your baby. Instant family isn’t that just brilliant,” she bit out sarcastically.

“Bella, please don’t stress yourself out, we can hold off with the wedding…”

“No, I will not walk down the aisle looking like a house or give anyone reason to think I am a promiscuous gold digger,” she said bitterly, “we will wed as planned.”

She had a point, everyone will think he is marrying her because she is with child, and the gossipmongers will have a field day. He just wished she could show more compassion, he wanted her the way she was when he first met her.

“As you will, mio cara, we will continue as planned.”

“I’m tired,” she said quietly turning her back on him.

“Get some rest, I’ll bring you some food later, and we can talk about the wedding then.”

He stood looking at her for a brief moment and then quietly left her to rest, closing the door behind him.

Although he didn’t expect this to happen he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride knowing he was going to be a father. Maybe in time she would grow to love him and they would become a true family.


Chapter 14

 

Four weeks later…

 

With the passing of her father, the wedding was postponed but finally the inevitable day had arrived. She stood looking at herself in the mirror, the wedding dress was even more beautiful than she expected. Thankfully there were no signs of pregnancy as yet. Although her breasts were tender, she had gotten over most of her morning sickness which was a relief. To her surprise, Louis went out of his way to give her whatever her heart desired to make this day as perfect as it could possibly be. He even got Natalie to attend the wedding so that she could be the maid of honor.

“You look amazing Bee,” Natalie said as she tucked some of the stray strands of hair back in place, “I still can’t believe this is all happening so fast.”

“It was love at first sight,” she said quietly and stepped off the pedestal.

“You’re so damn lucky.”

You have no idea, she thought.

A slight knock on the door drew her attention but before Natalie could inquire who it was, Louis stepped into the room.

“Hey! You’re not allowed to see the bride before the wedding!” she cried and tried to shove him back out the door.

“I have to see Belinda, it is of utmost importance.”

Belinda looked at him and noticed the serious look on his face, then nodded at Natalie, “It’s okay Nat, will you give us a moment?”

“Ugh, this is such bad luck,” her friend mumbled and walked out of the room.

Louis could hardly take his eyes of Belinda, she was the most beautiful bride he had ever seen, and although he would want nothing more but to have her promise her entire life to him, he had a pressing matter to discuss. And this could very well be the end of this fairytale wedding.

“I had some of my men investigate an issue that has been on my mind for some time now,” he started and walked to the window, “Remember when you mentioned the accountant?”

“Yes?” she said curiously.

“We’ll I never made that arrangement, my father did. So I had him investigated.” He turned to her and took both her hands in his.

“It is true that our parents promised us to each other when we were just children, but my father had ulterior motives. You see, El Pescore has been a front for my father, it was the only way he could invest his money in the United States…” Louis started to explain. He told her how he found out about his father’s business, and how he used El Pescore’s Italian food supplier as a front to legitimize the movement of money from Italy to America.

Belinda was shocked to the core. All this time her pride and joy was a sham. She slowly sat down on the bed with a hundred and one questions flooding her mind.

“I want you to listen to me. I have already moved my father’s assets away from your restaurant, and signed the business over into my name,” Louis said as he stood on his haunches in front of her, “but my father will soon find out, and when he does all hell will break lose. The only way I can secure your safety is if you were my wife.”

For a moment her mind went blank, but clarity soon descended on her and she looked at Louis with both determination and admiration. She knew that what he had done was dangerous but the fact that he did this for her must mean that he cared.

“Is El Pescore in danger of being closed down or destroyed?” she asked.

“No, with El Pescore no longer the front, it will be meaningless for him to pursue it and I will ensure that nothing happens to your restaurant or to your staff.”

“Good, then I will marry you,” she said quietly.

Louis stood up and dragged his hands through his hair, “That’s just it. I don’t want you to just marry me. I want you to want to marry me. I want our child to know that his parents care for each other.”

That took her for a loop, and she wasn’t quite sure she understood what he wanted. Over the past few weeks after her father’s death, Louis was compassionate and understanding and somewhere between, I hate you and I forgive you, she fell in love with him, not to mention that she now carried his child. But it was a realization she opted to bury forever. It took her weeks to come to terms with the fact her love for him would be unrequited.

“You want me to want to marry you?” she asked tilting her head.

Si, marriage without love is nothing but a business transaction,” he said and kissed the palm of her hand. “I want our child to have a happy home.”

When he did things like that she could not fault him. She wanted him and from his declaration he wanted her too. She sat for a moment and contemplated her future.

“Do you love me?” she asked.

“I didn’t believe this to be possible, but you’ve changed me somehow. And knowing that I might marry a woman who does not love me made me reconsider…” he started and then came to sit next to her, “I am in love with you, which is why I don’t want you to marry me if there is any doubt in your heart or mind.”

She could feel the tears prick her eyes and she quickly blinked them away. For weeks she tried to be strong, harden her heart and show everyone that she was a force to be reckoned with. A woman who refused to let circumstance and tragedy weaken her, but now she could barely keep it together.

“I am in love with you too,” she whispered.

Mio dolce amore, then we shall marry and take this world by storm. I will protect you and our child all of my days.”

Suddenly her walls crumbled down and a sob ripped through her chest. All her pent up emotions like a raging river, broke the walls that she fought so hard to keep erected.

“Once we are married, I will go with you to New York, and we will start afresh there,” he said as he cupped her face in his hands.

“What will happen when your father finds out about El Pescore?” she asked searching his eyes.

“Let me worry about that, mio caro, I’m his son, and you are now his daughter-in-law, he will find other ways to manage his business. I will help him set up a shelf company in the United States, one that will have no strings to El Pescore or the Benedetti’s,” he reassured her and then pressed his lips against her, kissing her softly.

***

After the wedding, they both left for New York to start their own family. Belinda accepted the fact that her life will never be the same, but with Louis by her side and their child on the way, she knew she could face any circumstance. After her father passed away, she assumed the position as the Donna Benedetti in the largest Mafia Family in the United States.

Louis earned his father’s respect, despite the fact that he created a shelf company for his family, withdrawing El Pescore as the front for the mafia.

 

****

 

THE END

 

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Chapter 1

Axel popped the clutch and revved the throttle on his 2016 Harley Davidson Softtail Deluxe. He’d only acquired her a few weeks ago and this was the first time he’d gotten to really ride her. Hard Candy custom Electric blue painted ghost dragons adorned the gas tank and fenders. With a High output twin cam 103B engine, chrome glittered everywhere the sun hit it.

Although he had more money than he could very possibly spend, he tended to stick with the things he liked, hence the HD bike. Sure there were more expensive, flashier rides out there, but this one sang to him from the moment he’d laid eyes on her.

The twin exhaust pipes roared in response to his demand for more speed and he couldn’t help but smile in pure sexual ecstasy. The wind rushing through his hair felt like velvety silk washing over him in cool waves. Of course with Air being his element, it caressed him like a lover in the throes of passion.

He leaned with the bike as man and machine raced around curve after curve on the old asphalt highway. On his way home after attending the mating ceremony of Prince Jaxen Monroe, leader of the Earth Elementals, his skin crawled in revulsion over the mere thought of taking a mate.

No matter how much the High Council demanded it of him, he flat out refused to be ordered or bullied into doing something he neither wanted nor needed. He’d reigned as ruler and Prince of the Air Elementals for neigh on four centuries now and the last thing he needed was some pampered female under foot.

Women required entirely too much attention for this liking. Sure, he took his pleasure when he wanted, but then he waved an adios and boogied for the hills. He hadn’t missed the shy glances the bride and groom passed back and forth; Axel knew they’d both accepted the orders out of duty, but neither of them had been pleased.

He let off the throttle as he neared the wrought-iron gate surrounding his estate and turned onto the paved driveway. He lifted a hand, with middle finger extended to the guard and shot the scowling man a cheeky grin as he eased through the now-open gates. He wasn’t a fool, he knew the majority of his subjects frowned on his rough demeanor, in all honesty, he didn’t give two shits what they thought of him, long as they followed orders and saw to their duties, they could dislike him all they wanted. He had made his Fraction’s people one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest with his expanding business holdings over the years. They now controlled the majority of the dragon-affiliated manufacturing industries generating billions of dollars in revenue each year. He had given them riches, he wasn’t obligated to coddle them too.

When he rounded the curve that led to the spacious garage, he frowned upon seeing a familiar stretch Humvee limo parked just outside.

“What the fuck are they doing here?” he mumbled to himself and parked his bike just beside the limo. He’d have Fredrick move it for him later. Right now he had some ass chewing to see to.

He entered the estate through the kitchen door, peeling off his black leather gloves as he moved stealthily through the dining room. He headed upstairs, directly to his office, where he knew his uninvited guests were waiting. Coming up on the open door, he smiled at his accurate prediction as he observed two Elders of the High Council sitting in the plush chairs before his fireplace.

Even though it was rather chilly in the large, open room, he neglected to summon Fredrick to light the flames. His butler knew better than to entertain unwanted guests and Axel’s moods nearly always meant no visitor was welcome.

He hated politics, especially Faction and Elemental politics. They bored him to tears.

“What the hell do you two want?” he demanded harshly and flopped into the leather desk chair situated behind his large, glass desk. Manners dictated that he show respect by bowing and offering them anything they required to be comfortable. He’d rather chew broken glass. In human form.

Elder Coffer, the youngest of the duo scoffed and turned to glare at Axel. The other man, Elder Jewel merely quirked the corner of his lip. Axel didn’t miss the small tendril of smoke that snaked from the Elder’s nostril, nor did he appreciate the sudden whoosh as the logs within the fireplace sudden ignited. He’d forgotten that Jewel was a fire dragon or the outburst would’ve been expected.

“So crude,” Coffer sneered. “It’s no wonder why you’ve never taken a mate. No woman within her right mind would be able to stand your disgusting personality or absolute lack of charm. You’re a disgrace to dragon-kind.”

“And so I’ll repeat myself out of courtesy,” Axel drawled and sprang to his feet to approach the two dragons. “But this time I’ll make sure you understand my hillbilly language.” He moved to stand before the roaring fire, placing his back to the flames, he let his inner dragon near the surface just enough so that his eyes flared with anger. He felt the heat move throughout his body, every molecule rushing straight toward his irises. He smirked with satisfaction when the two men inhaled collectively at his display.

Going one step further, he shucked his leather bomber jacket, revealing his multitude of tattoos peeking out from the areas his white tee-shirt didn’t manage to cover. He focused just enough energy and then diverted it to the tribal drawings on both biceps, the phoenix circling his neck and the thick, Texas Rattlesnake cuffing his right wrist. He felt the heat from all four spots and knew they raised from his skin as if they were living, breathing things.

Losing one’s temper in the presence of an Elder was an act punishable by death. But hell, Axel liked living on the edge, it was one attribute that made him one helluva leader among his kind. He showed no mercy; not even to those who had both the power and strength to obliterate him.

“What the fuck do you want?” he repeated, a bit more forcefully.

Jewel narrowed his eyes speculatively and then turned his attention to Coffer.

“I think it’s high time we teach this youngling some manners,” he mused and then slid his gaze back to Axel. “You, Prince Axel of the Air Elementals, are hereby betrothed to Michelle Bastrop, fellow Air dragon.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Axel demanded and clenched his fists to keep from grabbing the snotty Elder and wiping his pristine wood floors with the beast’s carcass. “It’s forbidden for the Elder’s to directly interfere in faction politics. It’s bad enough you bunch of assholes got together and decided the Four needed to take mates, now you’re going to choose mine for me?” he snarled.

Coffer stood, buttoned his formal dress jacket and straightened his tie with a mock smile spreading across his face.

“She is the only Air Elemental in existence,” he informed snidely. “And thank the Elements she was raised by the Fire Faction, at least she’ll have manners. Who knows, maybe the young thing will manage to teach you a thing or two.”

“Damned politicians,” Axel snarled as he watched to two men stroll from his office as if they were royalty instead of him. “Damn them to hell.”


Chapter 2

 

Michelle Bastrop sulked on the balcony of her London flat. Not even the beautiful view of the park below managed to cheer her up. She’d spent all two hundred years of her life fighting to be taken seriously when all her guardians wanted to do was shower her with attention and affection. They treated her like a princess and although she’d enjoyed the lavish care as a child, adolescent and young teenager, she tired of it long ago.

She understood she was the last surviving female Air Elemental dragon, but she didn’t understand why that made her so precious that she should be treated like a porcelain doll and never allowed to simply live. Like Rapunzel, she’d lived in her spacious, lavishly decorated flat and rarely ventured far beyond a five-mile radius.

Now, she just learned she was betrothed to the Air Prince and expected to pack everything she wanted before traveling to America where she’ll first meet him and then marry him. She’d never so much as had a boyfriend and here she was being thrust off on a man she’d heard horror stories about all her life.

Leader of her faction, Axel Ashwind was fierce, crude and had a damn-the-world attitude. How he’d managed to hold his title still surprised her. But according to the two Elders who’d just paid her a visit, the man more than held the power to keep his title and the whole of the Council was more than a little afraid of him.

Elder Caroleena had voiced her displeasure of the union but the other Elder, Seraphina had simply told Michelle that she’d do her duty to the faction and complete the mating ritual with no objection or she’d find herself exiled and sentenced to death.

“So either I marry a monster, or I die, boy what a choice,” Michelle murmured and closed her eyes as the tears formed. Quickly on the tail of such an unwanted emotional outburst, she summoned anger to fill the void fear left behind. She hadn’t endured years upon years of training to let some male version of a spoiled brat ruin her life.

She’d never balked at a challenge, she wasn’t about to start now.

She allowed herself a few hours of desperate self-pity but then set about packing. Of course, the only things she truly owned where her clothing and a few precious mementos that belonged to her parents. They weren’t much, just a few porcelain knick-knacks of her mother’s and an old smoking pipe and leather bound bible of her father’s. All her furniture and flat furnishings belonged to her Fire guardians, so they would remain in her beloved home.

When the Elders came back to collect her for her trip to the States, she took her suitcase and with her head held high, she left behind the only home she’d ever known.

She remained quiet and contemplative throughout the long flight. She let her mind wander and dream over what her new life would be like. Arranged matings were not unheard of and since she was the last remaining female, she knew her freedom was short lived. But she’d never dreamed she’d be shipped off to marry the Prince like some outdated mail-order bride.

She wasn’t exactly a pauper, her parents had left her a rather wealthy woman, but what she craved more than money was freedom. She wanted to be her own person, she wanted to explore the world. But in no more than twenty-four hours she’d find herself released from one master and pledged to another and Goddess help her then.

She finally fell asleep, only to be rudely awakened on their descent and landing. She was then chauffeured into a stretch limo where she watched the scenery pass her windows in a speed much like her life. The trees represented every adventure she’d yet to have, flying past without so much as a smell of their leaves or touch of the rough bark.

Michelle couldn’t help but gawk at her new home as the limo rolled through the gates of a massive estate. Built more like a castle with its turrets and widow’s walk, she could only appreciate what creative mind had decided to mix gothic with modern. It was built in the square-method with a gargoyle guarding each directional corner. Large, gaping maws opened wide to discourage any evil spirits, the large stone monsters stood as sentinels.

“It’s beautiful,” Michelle murmured.

“Quite so,” Elder Caroleena agreed. “Too bad the master doesn’t reflect the same attributes,” she added and then grew quite when Elder Seraphina shot her a disapproving glare.

“Stop it or you’ll have the girl ready to bolt,” Seraphina scolded and then turned shrewd eyes on Michelle. “Axel is a very handsome man and an even more majestic dragon, any woman in your shoes would find herself the luckiest woman in the world. You should do the same.”

Michelle dipped her chin and bit her bottom lip to keep from telling the Elder just what she could do with her opinion. She wasn’t worried about how handsome the Prince was or what his dragon form looked like. She valued heart, soul and kindness more than material attributes. From what she’d already heard, she knew she was out of luck in that department. Prince Axel wasn’t exactly favored among the Four and even less liked by the other dragons.

Michelle knew that all she had to do was make it through the mating ceremony and the joining and give the Prince an heir and her job was done. She would be left alone to enjoy her life.

Once the limo rolled to a stop in the circular drive before the front entrance, Michelle lagged behind the other woman, allowing them to get out first. She took a few moments to calm her racing heart and then took the driver’s pro-offered hand as she too exited. She’d no more than got clear of the vehicle when a tingling erupted along the base of her spine and she lifted her eyes to a window on the third floor.

She inhaled sharply when her eyes met the most intense blue eyes she’d ever seen. He stood framed in the double floor-length windows, his wide shoulders all but filling the opening. His hands were jammed into the pockets of black denim jeans. She gave him a small smile which he refused to return as he turned from the window, thoroughly dismissing her as if she were not his concern.

“Well,” Michelle murmured to herself, more than a little miffed the Prince had so callously neglected her. “Here goes nothing.”


Chapter 3

Axel’s heart had skipped a beat when his betrothed emerged from the limo. He’d inhaled sharply, his breath all but lodged in his throat as he took in the exquisite female standing in his front drive.

Her long auburn hair hung in loose waves, blanketing her shoulders in a pool of silk. She was small, about five-feet-seven and couldn’t weigh no more than a hundred-thirty pounds. She was small for a dragon and he worried that he’d crush the life from her the moment he took her to bed. He tilted his head and watched as she looked around her new home and something in his chest thumped hard.

Her porcelain skin shimmered in the sunlight and a gentle wind picked up the hem of her summer dress as it swept through. But when her gaze lifted to where he stood at the french doors of his bedroom, his heart stopped beating. Her eyes were the lightest, crystalline green he’d ever seen. They were like pools of water, deep and inviting.

He started when she smiled at him and quickly turned from the window. He stumbled to the small sofa just inside the doors and allowed himself to fall onto the downy surface. Not a stranger to the wiles of the fairer sex, Axel had never felt such a reaction to another woman before. It was like she’d siphoned all the strength and breath from his body in one small gesture. If all it took for her to bend him to her will was offer a smile, he was in way over his head.

“Well, I’m fucked,” he growled. Ever since learning of the Elders and their meddling, he wanted nothing to do with the woman they’d chosen. He vowed he’d never let himself grow soft toward any woman and yet with one quick study of his intended bride, he’d all but fallen prey to her easy charm and warm, inviting smile. Yea, he was fucked alright. He feared he was just about to kiss his obstinate ass goodbye.

“My Lord,” a meek voice called from his adjoining parlor room.

“In here Fredrick,” Axel called and waited for the small man to enter the spacious bedroom. “If you’re here to tell me that my new ball-and-chain has arrived, I’m already aware,” he grumbled. “Is her suite prepared?”

“Of course, Sir,” Fredrick nodded. “I had all her favorite things purchased according to the list Elder Caroleena provided. I hope she is able to feel comfortable.”

Axel snorted and went toward his closet to find some clean clothes. He had to formally meet her and invite her into his home.

“I hate playing the damned puppet, all these customs and shit are useless. We don’t live in the Stone Age anymore, why the hell can’t the Council evolve for fuck’s sake?” he grumbled as he shifted through the black tee-shirts and jeans. In the very back of the large walk-in, he found what he was searching for and sneered.

Cursing incessantly, he emerged with a black Armani suit. Fredrick clucked his tongue and rushed in to collect the other things needed.

He offered a sea-green tie, black silk socks and shiny black loafer to his master.

“Shall I fetch your father’s cuff-links?” the man asked. Axel snatched the accessories from his man and sneered, showing two large fangs.

“You may as well pimp me up all the way,” he complained. “I feel like a piece of goddamned meat. Dressing me up, parading me around like some fancy peacock,” he ranted. “What’s next?” He whirled on the squire with narrowed eyes. “They going to chain me to the bed until I knock her up?”

Fredrick suppressed the smile that threatened to form. He knew no good would come from patronizing his master. He’d been with Axel since the day the young Prince was born. Although he was nothing more than an Au Pair, Fredrick had raised the young dragon as if he were his own; never once forgetting his true place as butler, squire and all around servant.

He never complained, he never would. Bad-boy attitude aside, Axel had always treated him like a favored uncle. Sure, the Prince always managed to wear his rough exterior like second skin, Fredrick knew he harbored a heart of gold.

When Fredrick merely stared at Axel, waiting for him to continue his tirade, the Prince snuffed in exasperation and nodded briefly.

“How about the ones Mother gave him for their four-hundredth anniversary? You remember, the opal-eyed dragons?” Axel suggested and turned to study himself in the full-body mirror. He curled his lip in disgust but couldn’t help but admit he made the suit look damned good.

Fredrick fetched the small golden dragons and helped Axel insert them. He stood back and studied his prince with an admirable eye.

“Let’s rock this bitch,” Axel demanded.


Chapter 4

Michelle sat on the edge of the small sofa, her back ramrod straight and hands folded demurely in her lap. In addition to Elders Caroleena and Seraphina, two males also accompanied them. They’d been introduced as Elders Jewel and Coffer. From her study of dragon history, Michelle remembered there were twelve High Council members; three for each Faction.

Her late father had been one, a representative of Air. He and her mother had died when she was just an infant, so she’d never met them. Shortly after their demise, another stepped in to fill her father’s shoes on the Council and she’d been whisked away to be raised and protected by the Fire Faction. Known as the most reclusive of all the dragons, Fire would be able to provide her with the most safety.

“I see everyone has made themselves comfortable,” a rumbling male voice observed from the open sliding doors of the library. All eyes went to the very large man as he strolled in, with a smaller, older man on his heels.

Michelle rose immediately and gave a small, respectful courtesy. Her heart hammered in her chest but she managed to keep her face passive. When a pair of black, shiny loafers filled her range of view, she held her bow and waited for permission to rise.

“Quite submissive aren’t we?” he mused and extended his hand for her. “Please, do me the honor of gazing upon your beautiful face,” he mocked playfully; obviously throwing dirt on the manners and customs of their kind.

Ignoring his hand, Michelle rose to face him and tilted her head to study the looming figure. This time she studied further than just his mesmerizing eyes. He stood well over six-feet tall, broad shoulders encased perfectly in a custom suit. His jet black hair stood in sculptured spikes and dark eyebrows framed his exotic blue eyes. Yes, true to the Elder’s description, the man was beyond gorgeous. Full, sensual lips curled in his mocking smile and Michelle knew she was in trouble. Her body responded to him in a traitorous display of wanting.

Her eyes went to his still extended hand and twinkling cuff-links caught her attention. Golden dragons with opal eyes stared back at her. But it wasn’t the immaculate suit or fancy accessories that piqued her interest, it was the dark line of dirt nestled snugly under his fingernails. A few scuff marks marred the back of his hand and a few callouses lined his palm.

He wasn’t just some pampered prince, this man had much more to him that what met the eye.

Instead of giving in, Michelle merely quirked an eyebrow and turned to Elder Caroleena.

“May I retire to my room now?” she inquired sweetly, blatantly ignoring the sexy man facing her. Confidence and devil-may-care vibes oozed from him like a cheap cologne. She knew this was a man used to getting his way in everything. If she was going to spend the rest of her long existence with him, she wanted to make sure he knew exactly what his intended bride would and would not tolerate.

She slid her gaze back to Axel and almost laughed out loud at the sheer shock marring his face. Pleased that she’d pegged him right, his mouth gaped at her rudeness. A few moments of awkward silence passed before the small butler stepped forward and bowed formally.

“I’m Fredrick, My Lady,” he introduced himself. “I will escort you to your quarters if you would like.”

She gave the older man a genuine smile and extended her hand to him.

“That would be lovely,” she spoke softly. “Thank you so much for your kindness.”

Fredrick took her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. Michelle allowed the man to lead her from the room, leaving the open mouths and shocked people to sort things out without her.

***

Axel stared at the retreating figures and then turned a cheeky grin on the Elders surrounding him.

“Wow,” he marveled. “She’s got balls, I’ll say that. Maybe you stuffed shirts have good taste after all.” He waltzed over to the wet bar and poured himself two fingers of scotch. He tossed it back, reveling in the burn as the liquor made its way down his throat, before plopping heavily in his stomach. He relished the heat, savored the sensation.

“May I remind you Prince,” Coffer sneered. “She’s the only surviving female in your Faction, this isn’t a choice, it’s your duty.”

Axel chuckled and sat his tumbler on the wooden bar with a sharp thud. He spun to face the snarky man with an evil glint in his eye.

“May I remind you Council member kiss-my-ass,” he growled. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your demands. I don’t follow your rules, I make my own. Now get the hell out of my house,” he ordered with a snarl. “You’ll be summoned should I decide she’s worthy enough to mate.”

He watched with a massive amount of satisfaction as the four Elders filed from the room with looks of shock and disgust marring their features. In spite of the anger gnawing the pit of his stomach, he gave each one a broad grin and even winked at the two women.

Once alone, his eyes immediately went to the ceiling where he knew his intended was being settled.

“And now,” he mused. “I think my fiancée and I need to have a little chat.”

He shook his head in amusement over her spunky reaction to him. He’d never intended to formally accept her as his mate. He was very good at the “watch the right hand while the left was showing you the finger.” Having a woman forever underfoot would kill any man’s spirits, but instead of just having her for pretense only, she might prove to be quite interesting.

He exited the library and took his time in climbing the grand, winding staircase. He wanted to give her as much time to settle as possible and then he would barge in with metaphorical air horns blowing.

He knew he’d timed himself just right when he met Fredrick in the hallway leading to her rooms. The man had the audacity to blush and duck his head.

“Apologies My Lord,” the man murmured. “I didn’t mean to offend you by seeing the Mistress to her rooms.”

Axel waved the man’s apology away as if it were a gnat circling his face. He wasn’t angry with Fredrick for merely doing his job. However, if he wanted to be honest, a small bud of resentment had exploded at the ease in which the butler had taken the Lady’s request without waiting for Axel’s response.

But then again, Fredrick was merely following proper etiquette, something Axel had neither time nor inclination to bother with. Yes, Fredrick was more like a father to him, but he wouldn’t hold a grudge for the man seeing to his duties, even if they did conflict with his own childish antics.

“Did you get her settled?” Axel asked in a low, hushed tone lest she was resting. He didn’t give shit about disturbing her, he just wanted to make sure they were standing eye to eye when he did.

“Yes,” Fredrick answered.

“Very good,” Axel approved and then moved aside so that Fredrick could continue on his way. He wanted complete privacy with his new fiancée. He didn’t miss the way Fredrick lingered for a second too long, or the way he shuffled his feet nervously. But instead of disobeying, the elderly man simply shrugged his shoulders and sighed heavily before brushing past Axel and heading down stairs.

“Oh and Fredrick,” Axel called before the man could get out of earshot. “Pay no attention to the noise you are about to hear.” The Prince smirked at the shocked look on Fredrick’s face and chuckled to himself.

“Perhaps I shall go reflect in the chapel,” Fredrick murmured and changed directions instead of heading for the grand staircase. He headed for the rear stairs that led to the small rose garden behind the house. It sat nestled between the chapel and the estate, safe from prying eyes.

Axel smiled and turned his attention back to a proper greeting between himself and his soon-to-be-mate.

 

 

 


Chapter 5

Instead of knocking on her door and awaiting permission before entering her chambers, he simply turned the knob and shoved the door open, allowing it to bang against the inside wall with a resounding thud.

“Honey,” he called mockingly. “I thought you’d like the chance to talk privately.” He moved through the overly decorated sitting room and straight to the double sliding doors guarding the bedroom entrance.

He ground to a dead halt when he saw her sitting in the center of the large king-sized bed. Her auburn hair hung in loose waves and was only slightly mussed from where she’d lay on them. Her bright green eyes were widened in genuine shock. She wore nothing but a pair of small shorts and some sort of strappy shirt; no bra his eyes confirmed when they zeroed in on the twin buds pebbling just beneath the cotton fabric.

We he an even lesser man than he considered himself to be, he would’ve pounced on her right then and there; taking whatever pleasure he deemed suitable punishment for her flippant dismissal earlier.

Worries of rushing the mating ritual could easily be cast aside and damn any consequences that might arise.

However, it wasn’t common sense, or fear of what may happen that stopped him from taking her. It was another idea or the sort. With a hungry smack of his lips, he advanced on the bed and the shocked woman curled amongst it.

Her eyes took in his actions, but Michelle’s mind raced frantically wondering at his intentions. When one heavy knee landed on the pile of soft bed coverings, she inched backward onto her knees, her feet tucked underneath her in case she needed to bound from the bed and run for her life.

With both hands braced with palms flat, Axel lifted himself directly in front of where she poised. She inched backward a little more until the solid-wood backboard brought her to a cold-dead stop. An amused smile crossed his face and he covered the meager distance still separating them and braced his hands on either side of her head on the headboard. Lowering his face to where she stared up at him in pure panic, one corner of his mouth lifted in amusement and then he captured hers in a long overdue kiss.

At first she fought him by placing her palms against the walls of his chest and pushing with all her might, but after allowing him to assault her and finding pleasure in it, she parted her lips in invitation and welcomed him in.

After the numerous rumors she’d heard about him and then the brief meeting downstairs, she’d more than accepted the fact that she was marrying an overbearing monster who only cared about himself. But as she focused on the tenderness of his lips and the gentleness of his body pressing lightly against hers, she wondered if perhaps Axel wasn’t merely misunderstood.

As if sensing her traitorous thoughts, Axel broke their kiss and sat back on his haunches to merely study her.

He wanted her, he wanted to tame her but right now he’d merely settle for taking her. Of course he’d have to work around the mating ritual and that would put quite a damper on his creativity, but he hadn’t lived all these centuries without learning a trick or two...thousand.

His hands snaked out so fast her eyes barely registered the movement and she emitted a small squeal when he grabbed both her ankles and pulled her legs straight out in front of her. He pulled until the vee of her legs fitted against him like a puzzle piece and he tramped down the urge to moan as her womanly warmth enveloped him.

“What are you doing?” she demanded breathlessly.

“I have to have you,” he all but panted as he grabbed the waistband of her pants and yanked them free. He swallowed hard when he saw that she wore no underwear and then nodded as if he found the idea pleasing. Less to get in his way, he decided and dove face first into the Garden of Eden. His cock sprang to live when his light whiskers brushed the cleanly shaven flesh of her mound.

His tongue snaked out, flicking lightly against her and her back bowed as she bucked off the bed.

Michelle’s eyes rolled back in her head and her hands fisted in the silk sheets as he assaulted her in ways she’d never known possible. Being the only female of their Sect, she’d remained pure for her wedding day, but she had read on what to expect. This didn’t even reach the top ten things she’d looked forward to.

Just when she thought the heat in her core couldn’t get any hotter, a volcano erupted and her entire body rocked with enough force to level a high rise.

Axel sat back on his again and smiled at her as he wiped her wetness from his lips and chin.

“Welcome to your first orgasm,” he mused and leaned over her, pressing his lips to hers once again. She moaned when she tasted herself on him and before she knew what she was doing, her fingers went to his coal black hair and she fisted her hands tightly. He sucked in heavily and groaned.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his lips. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He grinned with his lips still resting against hers and chuckled lightly.

“That’s what I get when I try and tame a viper,” he mused. “I’m afraid this is about all we can do until after the official ceremony,” he informed her with regret lacing his voice.

Feeling brazen, Michelle snaked her hands down between them until she found his belt.

“Well, at least let me return the favor,” she suggested. “Although I will admit my skills are limited to non-practical application.”

Axel braced his hands on either side of her lithe body and pushed himself off her, allowing her better access. Hell, if she wanted to get her hands on him, who was he to argue?

Suddenly he heard a noise no human ear could have and his body went ramrod straight. He shoved away from her with a force so heavy, it rocked the bed so hard, the headboard shot straight through the drywall. He crawled away from her and raced to the large, french doors that opened onto a small balcony.

A low, menacing growl erupted from his throat and a light wisp of smoke escaped his nostrils.

“What the fuck?” he demanded and then whirled on her. “Get dressed,” he ordered, his voice leaving no room for argument. She scrambled from the bed, her hands frantically sweeping the floor in search of her discarded pants. When her fingers ran across the familiar material, she snatched them on and then stood to find herself face-to-face with a very angry Axel.

“If they manage to take you, I want to them to know beyond a shadow of doubt that you’re mine,” he rasped and then swooped down, his fangs puncturing the soft flesh of her neck. She inhaled first from the pin-prick of pain and then the flood of pleasure as it pooled in her groin again.

He shoved her away from him, a bit roughly and her eyes widened at the sight of blood dripping from his chin. Her hand went to the twin wounds he’d left, her skin still thrumming heavily from his assault.

“What did you do?” she asked, more out of curiosity than anger. He wiped the blood from his lips and then leaned down to press a lighter one across her lips.

“I made you mine,” he informed her softly. “With your blood flooding my veins, I’ll be able to find you no matter how far they take you. And...” he trailed off and anxiety seized her heart.

“And?” she prompted. What the hell had he done to her?

“No other can take you as mate now, you are mine,” he answered simply and gave her another quick peck on the cheek before turning to place his body between hers and the french doors.

Michelle jumped at the sound of glass breaking and chanced a peek around Axel’s body, eyes widening in horror as a handful of black-clad mercenaries converged on the couple. They were covered in head to toe black with even their faces hid by sleek black helmets.

Each one carried an identical curved sword and they moved to fan out around the room. Michelle reached forward and grabbed Axel’s shoulders. He quickly brushed her hands off and told her to get back before everything in the room went slamming against the intruders.

 

 


Chapter 6

Axel had managed to back Michelle into the closet and used his element to throw things at the thugs, anything he could find that would delay them long enough for him to shift.

He took his eyes off them long enough to throw his head back and welcome to sudden shift that wouldn’t take more than a few seconds. Being royalty, his blood was different than that of the normal dragon. He could shift anywhere, anytime with a mere thought. Others took a bit more, some had to call on their element, others had to have complete privacy and silence.

Not him, not Prince Axel. He pulled every ounce of air in the room into his body and his human physique merely exploded off him in a spray of human flesh and blood. His dragon body erupted into blue scales, his spiked tail hitting the floor with a heavy thud. He used the motion as a way to propel himself into the lap of his attackers. He swiped with talon-tipped claws, swiped his tail, tore flesh with his fangs, everything he could do in order to keep them away from Michelle.

She wasn’t formally his mate yet, but within the expanse of minutes he’d gone from vehemently denying any part of this forced union, to pledging his very life to protect a woman he literally just met. Their brief intimacy session had only fueled his fierce protectiveness. He hadn’t wanted her, but by God, she’d shown up on his doorstep and she was now his. No one took what belonged to him, not while he drew breath.

He’d neglected to notice that in the time it had taken him to shift and attack, he’d moved halfway across the room and lost sight of the one thing he’d die to protect. He heard Michelle scream and frantically searched for her. When he saw another man dragging her unconscious body toward the balcony, red coated his vision. He didn’t know the man very well, but he’d seen him at several Summit meetings and knew he was in the Air Faction.

It appeared as though the attack wasn’t directed at Michelle after all; it was, in fact, a coup to overthrow him. Throwing his enormous head back, he roared with all the rage coursing through his veins, flames shooting out and through the ceiling. He turned his attention back to the soldiers coming back at him and a snuffed lightly. Bring it on, he mused, bring all you’ve got.

 

 

 


Chapter 7

Michelle couldn’t say how long she’d been out of it but from the heaviness of her muscles, she decided it had to have been a few hours at least. Her last memory was of Axel in his majestic dragon form and the ferocity in which he tore through the men crowding her room.

Screams, both human and beast, rent the silence and Michelle had watched helplessly as a group of masked soldiers attacked her mate.

Mate.

Her eyes snapped open at the recollection of what he’d done to her in the moments before the onslaught. Her fingers went to her neck and gently probed the sticky, blood crusted skin. She didn’t know whether she was glad he’d had the foresight or angry because he’d known what was happening.

“He truly is a master strategist,” an unknown male voice mused from somewhere across the room. Michelle sat up and frowned at finding herself sprawled across yet another foreign bed in someone else’s home.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “What do you want?”

Connor Shadowson sneered and sauntered into the small guestroom of his country estate. Handsome in an unrefined, rugged way, Michelle could safely say she found nothing about him attractive or reassuring. She saw a malicious hatred simmering just beneath the surface of his magenta eyes and wanted nothing more than to curl in on herself.

He lowered himself to sit on the side of the bed and she found herself mirroring the same stance as she had last night with Axel. It was that fight or flight response and while experiencing with her mate had been a gross overreaction, she felt like this situation definitely called for it.

Noticing her movement, Connor chuckled malevolently and arched an eyebrow as his eyes swung to the window. Michelle hesitantly turned to see what he wanted her to look at, and inhaled sharply when she saw the iron bars covering her only chance for escape.

“You see, I was prepared for every occasion,” he bragged and then frowned. “Except one.” He flexed his hand and large talons slid through the tips of his fleshy fingertips and with a satisfied chuckle, he raked the bed comforter, rending it to shreds with a mere flick of his wrist. “I hadn’t thought Axel would have the audacity of claiming you before the ceremony. Just imagine how insulted and repulsed Elder Coffer is going to be when I tell him,” he mused and then lifted his hand, inspecting the yellow, cracked claws.

“The Elders are behind this?” Michelle demanded, forgetting all about the fact that she should be afraid. She never could think straight when her dragon anger rose. She’d fought all her life to control those emotions, buried so deeply within her psyche. But now, after learning the monster sitting idly beside her had conspired to not only betray his Prince but also kill him in cold blood, she didn’t want to stop the impending change.

The first sign of her shift came in the form of a strong wind, erupting out of the still, stagnant bedroom air. It whirled from corner to corner until a huge funnel twisted angrily in the center of the room. Her eyes ignited into dragon-vision, lights exploding like fireworks, each molecule allowing her to see even the smallest dust motes.

She rose from the bed, stretched languidly and headed straight for the center of the big vortex. It was time she took control of her own life and her first step was avenging her mate. She still didn’t know whether he lived or not, but this was the least she could do for him. He’d protected her by marking her, now she would repay the favor.

“Stop,” Connor demanded and lurched from his perch to grab her arm. But by the time he’d managed to so much as touch the skin on her forearm, she already had one foot inside the funnel and the skin-to-skin contact tore the skin from his arm like the peel of a banana. He screeched in a pitch too high for a man and cradled the arm against his chest.

Michelle flicked an unconcerned glance at his openly bleeding wound and smirked as the formerly healthy flesh shriveled and fell to the floor. She knew the wound would eventually take his arm lest he shift and heal it. It didn’t matter that they were of the same element. He’d touched her mid-shift while he remained in human form and that was enough to kill anyone.

Once her entire body was encapsulated within the twirling vortex, Michelle threw her head back and welcomed the change shimmering beneath the surface of her skin. Bones shifted, joints popped as they contorted and twisted. Turquoise blue/green scales erupted across her quivering flesh and her eyes burned internally as their true colors emerged. Normally a bright, beautiful green, they now looked more than a florescence reminiscent of a glo-stick.

She groaned when her jaws opened so far they popped unnaturally, her mouth elongating into a snout complete with twin rows of razor-sharp fangs.

Once her arms and legs were finished reforming, she stood on all fours and experimentally swept her massive tail back and forth, testing its strength. She was immediately overcome with an euphoric bliss and wondered why she didn’t let her true form out more often.

When she caught movement in her peripheral, she remembered her reason for shifting and stepped from the funnel, allowing it to shrink into a small tuft that then floated toward her, rushing in her open maw. The small rays of light entering the partially covered windows refracted off her shimmering scales and cast a disco-ball effect all throughout the room.

She hissed through her open mouth, her long tongue darting out like a snake. Snapping her jaws shut so forcefully a tuft of smoke came from her nostrils, she felt that familiar ball of flame burst in the back of her throat. She was fully prepared to kill him, to roast him like a suckling pig over an open spit. But just before she let the fire emerge, the bedroom door swung open so hard bits and pieces of wood and metal hinges burst through the air.

She turned narrowed eyes on the interloper stupid enough to confront an irate dragon and then she stilled, swallowing the ball of raging flames rolling in her mouth.

 

 

 


Chapter 8

Axel stood in the gaping hole the door left behind, his clothes in ragged tatters, his face, arms and hands completely saturated in blood. His chest - exposed from lack of a shirt - heaved up and down in a furious pace.

Her eyes were immediately drawn to the elaborate tattoos swirling across the smooth expanse of his skin. Tribals on either arm, what looked like a bird circling his neck and a snake winding around his wrist. She’d never seen anything so exotic. Growing up sheltered and pampered, anyone with body piercings or tattoos were considered too crass for her company.

But in seeing the magnificent ink marring her mate, she suddenly couldn’t wait to get one of her own.

When his flapping shirttail impeded his movement, he merely reached up and ripped the remnants from his torso, leaving her to purr in appreciation at the sight of his naked upper body. She’d yet to see him in his full glory and if this teaser was any indication of what else was hiding beneath his pesky clothes, then she couldn’t wait to tear the rest from him - with her teeth.

Her gaze finally worked its way from his glorious body to his glowing blue eyes. She inhaled sharply when she realized the heated teal was the exact color of his scales. Oh the Elder woman was right, he was simply magnificent in his dragon form, but in seeing him now, half-naked with his dragon shimmering beneath the surface, she couldn’t wait to get her hands on him.

It was then that she finally noticed that his eyes were locked on hers. She suddenly remembered she was in dragon form herself and wondered if the gaze he gave her was of appreciation as well. They shared a few moments of mutual heat and it was like time itself froze for only them.

They were the only ones in the room.

His eyes took in her impressive form and for a brief moment, a hint of lust flashed in his sky-blue orbs. He realized just how wrong he’d been in thinking she’d be a small dragon. She was the poster child for what’s on the outside doesn’t always match what’s on the inside.

His cock hardened at the mere thought of having the female beast beneath him, writhing and screaming his name over and over. More than anything though, he couldn’t wait to have her while they were both in dragon form. It wasn’t something normally done in this day and age, but he’d sell his soul for the chance.

He mouthed the word ‘later’ at her and then advanced on the figure writhing in pain at Michelle’s clawed feet.

Reaching down, he grabbed Connor by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet like a limp rag-doll. Tears stained the usurper’s face he sobbed uncontrollably at the pain.

“And you thought you’d be strong enough to claim my throne?” Axel mocked humorously. “You can’t even take on my mate, what made you think you could take me?” Axel extended one arm, allowing it to morph into his dragon’s form and then using his carved talons, he swept them viciously across Connor’s jugular and then dropped the man like he was garbage.

He turned back to Michelle and smiled before collapsing to the floor on his knees. She tilted her head and studied him as he shoulders began to shake. When he looked back at her, she sucked in a breath at seeing the tears in his eyes.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he panted and held his hands out helplessly before him. Both human again, he studied the weak, bloodied flesh and cursed himself mentally. He’d failed to protect her and that was something he wouldn’t stand for ever again. Her blood now ran through his veins and he couldn’t refuse to take her as a mate any longer.

Towering over him in her dragon form, he knew she could take care of herself and he wouldn’t have to worry about ever losing her again. Once they were formally mated, he’d always be able to find her and once they sealed the ceremony by sharing each other’s bodies, he would be in her mind as well.

In a bright flash of light, Michelle allowed her body to return to human and rushed forward to embrace Axel. She ran her shaking hands all over his body, checking to see how much of the blood was his.

“I’m so sorry,” he rasped and lowered his head to her shoulder, his mouth and nose nuzzled in the hollow of her neck. He inhaled her scent and didn’t catch the sob before it rolled from his chest. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

She shushed him with a few comforting words but knew deep down something had changed within him. He wasn’t the same arrogant, overbearing asshole she’d first met. She’d been able to do something no one ever thought possible and that was bring a dragon Prince to his knees.

“Let’s go home,” she murmured and helped him to his feet. “You know Elder Coffer was behind all this, don’t you?” she added as they stepped over bits and pieces of furniture littering the floor.

“Yes,” Axel conceded. “And I’ll make sure he pays dearly for it,” he promised, his voice low and deadly. Michelle knew the Elder was good as dead and she wondered just how he would accomplish that, but decided now was not the time to ask.

Sensing her anxiety, Axel pulled her body tighter to his side, his arm slung over her shoulder for more support than he’d liked.

“Don’t worry,” he consoled. “We need him for the mating ceremony and after our honeymoon, I’ll summon the other Elders and present the evidence to them. They won’t allow his behavior to continue. Once they dole out their punishment, I’ll make sure Elder Coffer never conspires against anyone else.”

 

 

 


Chapter 9

Like the ceremony he’d witnessed between Jaxen, the Earth elemental Prince, and his new-found mate Olivia, the service didn’t take long. Elder Coffer stood off to the side, a permanent frown etched into his face. Axel winked at him, a silent promise that the man’s days were numbered. The gesture had the desired effect as Coffer quickly vanished after the nuptials concluded.

Axel and Michelle loitered long enough for everyone present to offer their congratulations and then he hurried her off to his bedroom where he thoroughly intended to ravish her until she was so hoarse she couldn’t scream his name any more.

He carried her across the threshold and then dropped her unceremoniously on the bed, teasing a squeal of delight from her. They made short work of disrobing and crawled beneath the covers, prepared to languish affection on each other.

“You are so beautiful,” Axel whispered as he lay atop her, her legs spread wide to accommodate him. She ran her soft heel up and down his calf muscle while her fingers were busy doing erotic things to his mouth and lips. She would dip one deft digit into the wet cavity of his mouth, giggling when he nipped at the tender flesh and then pull it out to lightly trace his lips.

“I hated the idea of mating you,” she announced bluntly and laughed when his face contorted in shock. “No, I mean I’d heard so much about you that I was afraid our marriage would be long and loveless,” she rushed on to explain. “But now, I think I’m of a different mind.”

“Is that so?” he asked with a smirk. “Well, My Lady, allow me to start this union off on a high note,” he drawled and then thrust his hips, entering her in one hard, fluid motion. Knowing she was a virgin, he hadn’t wanted to hurt her and figured it was like ripping a Band-Aid off. The quicker the better. When she hissed in his ear and then bit his lobe rather forcefully, he wondered if maybe he’d made a mistake.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he murmured against her temple.

“You didn’t,” she reassured him. “I was more than prepared,” she added and then raised her hips to his in an effort to take all of him inside her. “Just fuck me,” she pleaded. “No customs, no hesitations, no worries, just make me yours,” she demanded.

Axel smiled and pulled out before ramming back in. He was more than happy to do it her way. He pumped his hips as fast as he could without completely losing his mind and wanted to purr with pride as she met him thrust for thrust. She raised her legs, wrapping her heels together across his back and pulled him harder and faster until his eyes crossed in pure bliss.

Michelle dug her nails into Axel’s delectable butt, pulling with every ounce of strength she possessed. It was as if she wanted to pull him completely inside of her where he belonged. Where they’d never be apart again. Goosebumps rained along her arms and legs when he pressed his lips to her throat and began nibbling. Her bodied readied itself for what was to come and a flood of heat washed through her vaginal walls.

Axel inhaled sharply.

“My God you’re so tight and wet,” he whispered in awe. “I can feel you milking me with every thrust.” He ended his revelation with fangs piercing the soft skin at her neck. She gasped at the pain from reopening the original wounds. But like with before, the discomfort soon disappeared, replaced by a mounting tension in her loins.

Her womb felt like a coil, wound so tight it couldn’t hold another twist. And just when she thought she was going to die the spring snapped with such a force her hips bucked wildly beneath him. She screamed his name over and over, his hips thrusting with each time, punctuating her pleas with those of his own.

Soon as some of the tension loosened in Michelle’s womb, a rush of heat flooded her and she knew it was Axel’s seed pouring into her.

“Bite me,” he begged. “Hurry!”

        Only too willing to please her new mate, she raised up and scored his skin with her own set of fangs. She clenched her teeth when Axel threw his head back and roared so forcefully the walls shook. He pumped his lower body harder and harder, the spurts of fluid never ceasing to stop as she drank from him.

She loved the thought of his life forces entering her in two separate places and wondered how long it took dragons to conceive. It was the one thing about sex she’d never really thought to study. Children were a rare commodity among their race and those lucky enough to finally reach that peak never wanted to share any details.

“Don’t worry Love,” he murmured once she’d released his neck. “We’ll have a houseful of dragon brats before you know it.”

She shoved him back enough so that she could see into his eyes.

“How did you know what I was thinking?” she asked.

“We’re one now,” he explained. “Your thoughts are my now as well. I can also see through your eyes as if I were inside you, but that is something that will take a little time to perfect.” He smiled. “All I’m seeing right now is a really bedraggled man who needs a shave staring back at me.”

She playfully slapped his chest and moaned when he moved off her. Laying on his back, he pulled her body up to his, her stomach nestled snugly into his side. She placed her cheek on his chest, just above where his heart beat and smiled in contentment.

After such a strange turn of events, she had to admit that her trip to America had totally been worth it.

“So,” he drawled lazily. “Where you getting that tattoo?”

***

THE END

 

Enjoyed this little paranormal number Dear Reader? Then perhaps you would enjoy reading the story of Wes, Leader of the Fire Elementals.

Scroll up to the Table of Contents and look for War Bride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May

A glance in the rearview leaves me sure no one is following me. Not that there’s anyone to follow me anyway. Out here, under the stifling Texas sun, I realize I’ve driven nearly six hundred miles and I’m tired.

The kind of tired that’s sinking right down deep into my bones. But that scared side of me tells me to keep running. I have to keep going. I haven’t gone far enough.

Pushing aside the troubling thoughts, I try to settle into happier times, happier memories. Out here, on an old dirt road that reminds me of home, I’ve seen a few gates between stretches of fenced land. The gates have huge wooden frames of old logs that are a throwback the time when Texas was truly wild. Hung from each wooden frame is a name; the name of the ranch proudly on display. One creeps up on me now: Mustang Ranch.

I slow down as I notice an odd-looking bit of paper clinging to the beam on the right side of the frame.

Help wanted.

It’s like every prayer I’ve ever said that’s gone unanswered has suddenly left me here, finally heard and saved.

Before I can change my mind, I pull in before the closed gate. I sit for a moment. Am I really doing this? Am I crazy? I can’t stop. I haven’t put enough distance between me and…

It’ll be fine.

With a deep breath, I calm myself and I get out of my old car. It’s on its last legs after the punishing drive we’ve just endured. The sky just seems to stretch on endlessly as I open the gate before heading back to my car to pull through. On the other side, I get back out and close the gate behind me. Might as well make a good first impression, right?

What was that old rule dad made sure I remembered? A closed gate must be closed behind oneself.

The drive is dirt and rough, potholes claim my tires and jolt the car. Along both sides, fences trap plots of land and pastures stretch as far as the eye can see. The sparse grasses and few trees offer spotty shade to majestic-looking horses of many colors that stand in groups of two and threes.

I drive slowly, but still, my tires kick up enough dust to announce my presence long before I ever even see the house.

When the house comes into view, I feel my jaw drop. It’s not an old ranch house; it’s an old ranch mansion. It’s like a cross between an old plantation mansion and a castle. My heart thunders in my chest as I pull up and park my car.

They’re looking for help, I remind myself. I know that Texas is a stand your ground state, but the sign said they’re looking for help. Besides, what self-respecting man would shoot an unarmed, obviously tired woman?

With slow steps, I walk up the sprawling porch, loving the white swinging loveseat and the several matching white wicker chairs. This place reminds me more of home than home did in its final glory days.

I step up to the door and gather my courage to knock. Before I can, the door swings open and I find myself under the intense brown stare of a man who’s taller than me by a foot and a half at least. He leans on the doorframe, his imposing form enough to make every drop of saliva dry up on my tongue.

His heavy brow, shiny black hair and tanned skin all make up an incredibly handsome face. His eyes are hooded, like he trusts no one and nothing, his jaw is wide and powerful and working like he’s clenching it and deciding whether or not to shoot me.

Maybe he should shoot me. Put me out of my misery.

Suddenly, he smiles and it’s like the sun parting heavy gray thunderclouds. “Ma’am,” he says, tipping his hat. “May I help you?”

At a loss for words, I turn and gesture back to the gate that’s easily several miles down the drive. “I’m May. You’re looking for help?” My voice sounds small and breathless, even to me and I see his eyes narrow a bit before someone behind him calls out something I don’t quite hear.

“A lady inquiring about the job,” he says over his shoulder and I hear laughter. My face flames red hot and I turn to walk away, an apology quick on my lips.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time--”

The words die as a strong hand curls around my arm just above my elbow and stops me dead in my tracks. I turn to face the man and notice there’s not even a hint of amusement in his face.

“Can you work hard, miss?” he asks, all seriousness that send my heart fluttering like a scrap of paper caught in the wind.

“I can,” I say, wondering why I can hardly draw a deep breath.

He looks me up and down, his hand falling away from me like he realized he’d been touching me for much longer than is proper. “You’re not suitable for a ranch hand, but I might have something else for you,” he says slowly, his eyes wandering across my face like he’s committing my features to memory – or like he recognizes me.


Clint

May isn’t what I’m looking for as far as help is concerned. I need men. Strong, hardworking, rough men willing to take on backbreaking labor, punishing hours, and fair pay. But May, she’s so pale and fragile looking I’m not sure she could handle the simplest task I’ve got here.

Still, something in her eyes begs me to let her stay. And she looks so tired I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let her go right now. There’s a strength to her, a quiet power that leads me to believe she’s stronger than I’m giving her credit for.

Her big blue eyes are as pale as the skies behind her, and there’s a light sprinkle of freckles across her nose. She’s so innocent looking I find myself needing to know how old she is.

“How old are you?”

She seems relieved, and I wonder what she expected me to say. “Twenty-four,” she says, her blue eyes solemn on me. Of age. I want to let out a breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding. As she brings her hands forward to clasp before the hips of her jeans, I debate. What could I have her do?

When she draws a deep breath, I notice the gentle thrust of her breasts under the thin material of her black shirt. I’m careful not to actually look, though, and keep my eyes locked on hers. Still, she’s a beautiful girl, and it’s hard to keep my attention off her charms.

“Come in,” I say, suddenly remembering my manners. “My name’s Clint. Clint Quentin.” I can find something for her. Even now, a plan, partially formed, nags at the back of my mind. As I step back and allow her in, I hear the guys stand up and begin moving.

We’ve got some horses we’ve got to get moving from beyond the pasture they’d escaped. It’ll take all night to ride out there and drive them back home, and I realize that May might help alleviate one problem I’ve got.

“Have you ever taken care of kids?” I ask as she moves through the house to the dining room where men are filing out toward the front door. Shane lowers his shoulder as he comes to pass me and I engage my core, ready and braced for impact. He doesn’t disappoint and the clash of our shoulders would have been enough to knock a smaller man to the ground.

After what he did, he should be glad it’s not my fist across his jaw again.

“I haven’t, but I imagine it’s common sense.” May is solemn as I guide her into the emptying dining room. Carson meets my gaze and looks away, an unsure glint in his blue eyes. His harshly tanned Texas skin is rough from a layer of grit and sun.

He takes his hat in his hands and May studies him as he nods to her with a thick air of politeness. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says to her, and she nods graciously as his eyes skip to me. As always, fixed with his icy stare, I’m a bit unsettled. “Should I saddle your horse, boss?”

“Yes,” I say, and he dips his head, “Buy me ten.”

He leaves as the last few guys file out of the room like sand whipped from the corner of a canyon by storm winds.

“Am I keeping you?” May asks, her wide blue eyes worried.

“Only a moment, miss,” I say, watching a bit of relief creep into her features. “I must ask you for a favor,” I say, and she nods.

“Anything.” The way she says it, breathless and unintentionally seductive takes me aback. Clamping down with steely control, I get back on track. I can’t be thinking about how long it’s been since I had a woman in my bed.

“My daughter, Grace, will be home from school this evening and I’ve got a long job ahead of me.” I hated to ask, but this is easier than calling on the babysitter. If only those damn mustangs hadn’t busted out. But I’d rather be there for the ride than let the guys handle it.

But I didn’t want to call the sitter. She just eyes me with disproval every second and tries too hard to make Grace be a proper little lady.

“How old is Grace?” May asks, and I wonder why that’s the first question.

“She’s five,” I say, hoping that this isn’t the detail that breaks her. Grace could use a real woman, someone soft-spoken like May to talk to her. Gertie isn’t the best adult woman figure to have on hand. She’s brash, loud mouthed, and insists that Grace be a little lady at all times and quiet. Things I’m not all that happy with. I’ve thought about finding a new sitter for a while, but I hadn’t actively been looking.

Maybe lady luck is smiling down on me today. Maybe May is the answer to a question I hadn’t known I had.

“Allergies?” May asks, and I shake my head. She looks up at me as if she doesn’t trust that I’m not holding something back. “Is there anything I need to know?” She asks, those serious blue eyes on mine.

Her full lips press together a bit and I can’t help but look at them. Before I can stop myself, I reach out and touch her lower lip with my thumb as if brushing away the stressed expression. It works. Her lips relax and she’s beautiful. My thumb travels toward the middle of her lower lip and there’s a sense of wonder in me that she’s softer than she looks somehow.

And she shivers.

Her lip is so soft, so kissable. My thumb leaves her chin to trace down her slim, pale throat, no longer even pretending at having a reason or right to be touching her. I look into those big, blue, trusting eyes and see she’s looking at my lips like she wants nothing more than for me to kiss her.

I snap out of it and my hand drops from her satin skin. Somehow, my voice sounds like nothing happened between us, but my throbbing cock begs to differ.

“I’ll be out of cell service,” I say without missing a beat. There’s disappointment in her big blue eyes and I suddenly wish I’d kissed her after all. But perhaps that would have left her disappointed for other reasons.

“But there are other emergency numbers you can call on the fridge.” I gesture past her toward the kitchen and the fridge. I’m sure she’ll explore when she’s ready. Her eyes follow my gesture before snapping back to my face like she’s trying to decode the sudden distance I’d put between us. I’ve been hurt before. It’s not like me to just put myself out there. There’s no way she’d take on someone with baggage like mine.

But fuck if I didn’t wish otherwise. “Other than that, I’ll set you up in the guest room and you’re free to make yourself at home.” The thought that she’ll be sleeping down the hall hits me like a tractor tire to the gut. I wish I’d thought that through. Hell, if I’d thought first, I’d have paid to have her stay in town… far away from me.

Her tongue darts out to trace her lower lip and I feel a sudden wash of desire rush over me. The soft sheen of dampness makes my heart start thumping. Damn. This girl is going to ruin me.

“Thank you,” she says softly.

Wrestling to keep my reactions to her in check, I lead her back toward the guest room. She follows and when I glance back, she’s looking at pictures along the walls, tears sparkling in her eyes.

Facing forward, I remind myself that it’s none of my business what she’s doing here. But I’d bet my bottom dollar she’s running from something… or someone.


May

Of everything I expected, I think that watching my boss’ child was near the end of the list. But then again, I’m not afraid of kids. It’s hard to screw up; make sure they eat and drink. Make sure they’re entertained. Get them to bed at a reasonable hour.

How hard can it really be?

I walk to the window of the room I’m going to be staying in. The half circle of guys are slouched in the saddle like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. I scan the group, looking for Clint. He’s shockingly good looking. And the way he looks at me, like he’s able to look past my skin, down deeper than bone to my deepest, darkest buried secret.

It’s indescribable.

As I watch, Clint walks over to a saddle horse that’s standing beside the man who’d asked him if he needed his horse saddled while Clint and I talked.

He takes the reins of the grey animal with the spotted backside and he plants a foot in a stirrup before hauling himself up. He throws a leg over the horse, who sidesteps as if in an attempt to escape. Clint’s hands on the reins steady the animal and I admire the way he leans forward a bit and pats the horse’s neck.

From here, I can see his lips move and I know he’s talking to the horse. Closing my eyes, I imagine how his voice might lower, that he’s saying something akin to it’s okay. Relax.

Sudden tears sting behind my eyelids and I blink. My eyes meet the dark gaze of Clint, who’s watching me even as I stand here, watching him. Everything in me screams to hide, but I stand, arrested by his stare as if he’d grabbed my arm again and held me at his mercy.

Even now the spot above my elbow tingles, as if he’s still holding onto me, refusing to let me go and walk out of his life.

I stare at him as the guys begin to ride off. He hangs back, flanked by the same man who’d saddled up his horse for him and bought him ten, whatever that means. The man looks in my direction, then at his boss, then at the ground like he’s intruding.

But all I can see is Clint. His eyes are narrowed a bit, as if he’s trying to figure me out. The whole time we’d talked I’d been terrified he knew or puzzling at the way he made my belly flip flop and my heart dance. Still - past all the thrill of him reacting to me like I’m a woman - with every passing second, I felt more secure that he didn’t remember.

But now, with the sensation he’s peering into the depths of my soul, I’m not so certain. Lifting my chin, I study him, thinking about how kind he’d been. He was everything I could have hoped for and more.

Suddenly, he faces the direction the guys had gone and in a fluid motion with his hips, he urged his horse on. As they galloped down the dirt road that I have to guess leads deeper into their land, I’m left picking up the shards of composure I still possess. I need to keep my distance. Clint is trouble with a capital T, I’m certain of it.

Sinking onto the bed, I stare at my lap. The painful memories of the last few weeks rise up and I feel the tears threatening. They’re always just there, behind my eyes, ready to pounce on every unguarded moment of thought.

A shower. That’ll help. I can wash away the grime of traveling and steam out the toxic thoughts. I’m on my feet quickly and I head toward my car. In the back, I grab my duffle and bring it into the room I have now. It feels weird, the thought that I might be able to unpack the bag. I might be able to stay more than a night.

Grabbing some questionably clean clothes, I begin to hope that there’s a washing machine close by. With the change of clothes in hand, I head across the hall and lock myself in the bathroom. The room is white, reasonably clean, and airy. A huge window open to rolling pastures and a few horses are the only peepers in sight.

I close the curtains anyway and stare at the faucet. It’s pretty standard, thankfully. I’m used to homes where only the person in residence knows how to make theirs work. Hell, the last hotel was stupid; the hot was labeled cold and the cold labeled hot.

I turn on the water and instantly feel better. I missed this bit of normalcy. It’s such a simple thing we take for granted. I undress with shaking fingers and climb under the hot spray. With the water rinses away the fears and a new hope begins to bubble up in me.

Maybe it will be different this time.

***

When I get out of the shower, I dress and start wandering the house. It’s a beautiful sprawling ranch house. I pass on peeking into bedrooms, but assume that there must be a separate place for most of the help to sleep, since there aren’t enough bedrooms to house them all, unless there are tons of bunks tucked away somewhere.

The dining room is warm partially due to the sunlight streaming in and partially due to the buttery accent wall that leaves me some hope that there’s a woman around. Then again, if there is, why does Clint need me to watch his daughter?

The kitchen is standard, though more modern than I expected. Clearly there are a lot of meals made here. The range is a six-burner gas-powered beast that belongs in a high end restaurant. The whole place is well kept, clean, and - as I open a cabinet - well stocked.

I could get used to this, I think. It’s beautiful, it feels like home, and right now, while it’s quiet, I’m feeling relaxed.

“Who are you?”

I spin, my heart slamming at the little voice. A girl stands behind me, her warm brown eyes accusing. Suddenly, I know why the mother isn’t around. I know who Clint created this child with. I know everything.


Clint

May’s stare shook me straight to the core. Never has anyone looked at me like that, with a mix of desperation, fear, and tenuous hope. There was something else there, some shrouded secret that’s haunting her.

But her secrets are her own. And so long as she can handle Grace, I think things will go fine. Grace isn’t a difficult girl. She’s grounded and outspoken, tempestuous, even. She speaks her mind, she’s quick witted, and is often the bane of her teachers. But she’s sweet under it all.

Perhaps I haven’t raised her right. I don’t force her into dresses. I don’t pigeonhole her into feminine roles. She’s been in the saddle since she could walk. She’s mucked out stalls, she’s able to feed horses, brand mustangs, and tell the men the best move with a new plucky stallion. And she’s still pint sized. But she spends more days with me than without, and I guess I rubbed off on her.

Which drives Gertie crazy, but I feel that May will have no problem with her.

“Boss?”

I glance over at Carson who’s staring ahead. Shane’s riding hell bent for lather where we’d agreed to set camp. As the sun settles toward the edge of the horizon, I feel the tension stirring up around the men.

No one needs to tell me, but I know that slowing us down was a bad move on my part. Still, this was an unexpected issue and they would have had to wait regardless. Either waiting for me to call Gertie or waiting for me to talk to the new girl.

Waiting either way.

Drawing my revolver from the holster, I lift the barrel and pull the trigger. The sound of it reverberates through my skull and under me, Thunder shies a bit. I hold him firm and study the faces that have turned to me.

I push on, seeing Shane ahead. His horse had startled with the gunshot, and I wait for him to regain control. He does quickly and hauls the animal around to head back to me.

As the guys form a ring around me, I ignore Shane and his refusal to actually move into line with the rest of the guys. “We’ll ride until twilight,” I say, and the men nod, while some mutter under their breaths.

I know it’s going to be a long ride, but there’s no reason to kill ourselves or risk a horse stepping into a prairie dog hole. The guys disperse and we all prepare ourselves for this ride. I shove May out of my mind, but something of her nags in the back of my skull.

We ride out, the guys whooping and hollering as they race each other in good fun. By my side, Carsen keeps close. He’s kind to the old nag he insists on taking out. There have been plenty of jokes about him riding the ancient mare, but he swears she’s the only horse that he trusts. I don’t give a fuck. So long as they can keep up, I don’t give a damn.

Dad always said the measure of a good animal is its willingness to follow a man, whether or not it’s into battle, or to the barn for dinner.

If only the old man wasn’t such a thorn in my side.

He’s got too many demands. For a man who hadn’t built his empire on his own, he’s sure hell bent on protecting it. Protecting it… from me.

Not that it needs to be protected from me. I’ve got my own empire. I’ve built my fortune. But it would be nice to finally claim my part of the family fortune. But that’s a pipe dream. Dad’s three requirements for me to take my place at the table are just too much.

I can see him in mind’s eye, his gray hair short and carefully kept. His rich brown eyes reflecting the honey colored lights in the study of the family’s mansion. The stubble he works so hard to keep close to the skin, everything of him reeks of privilege and cushy living. But make no mistake, he’s a shark and he’ll chum the water with you before you can so much as blink.

He’s never been particularly warm. Not to me, at least. Kate, my little sister, got much closer to him, perhaps because she’s the baby, or may there’s just something different about daughters. Her place at his right hand will be sealed once she’s back from college. Her list wasn’t nearly as stringent as my own.

Dad required three things of me: I had to prove I’m an asset. Done. I’ve made myself as a business man. I’ve got land, horses, and a net worth in the billions. I had to prove my manliness. Done. Many times over, done. Rough Texas living makes a man or breaks him. But the third thing… that’s the killer.

The third requirement is that I can be a family man. And being a father to Grace isn’t enough. No, I have to be a husband. After the messy business between me and Amanda… dad’s got no confidence in me, and I’m not all that confident in myself either.

Kate had it much easier. She had to finish college. And she’s well on her way to graduate early with an impressive degree in engineering. I love her dearly, but she’s always been too brainy for me. But she loves what she does, and it shows every time she opens her mouth. When someone asks her about school, her face lights up.

But I don’t blame dad for his lack of confidence in my ability to be a family man. The messy fall out of what happened between Amanda and I is proof he was right to be nervous.

Again, an idea nags, and I latch onto it.

What if… I asked May to marry me? Not for real, of course, just a sham to get dad to let me in, let me be a part of what I’m owed anyway?

Still, something whispers in me that I’m not being totally honest. There’s something about May. I want to be near her. I want her to keep looking up at me like she’s begging me to show her how a man like me would touch her.

And I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want to.


May

I stand before the girl, my mouth hanging open like I’m some special kind of idiot. She stares up at me, her eyes lit with a fire I can’t even begin to describe. It’s like she knows who I am, why I’m here, and how to destroy me.

“Your dad wanted me to watch you,” I say, and she blinks, as if this answer is a total surprise. She tilts her head to the side and her thick, dark hair shifts, revealing a length down her back with some curls near the end, like her heavy hair can’t quite hold the curls but clings to the few it can near the bottom.

I watch her little face scrunch up as if she’s internally poking holes in my story. “Where’s Gertie?” she asks, and I find myself at a loss.

“I’m not sure,” I say, deciding honesty is the best idea. She continues to stare me down, then lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“I don’t like Gertie. She always smacks my bottom when I’m not ladylike,” she says, her honesty melting my heart.

“That’s not very ladylike of her.”

Instantly the girl smiles and it feels like the sun is shining down on me. While I’m doing well, I decide to keep things rolling. “So, what do you usually do when you get home?” I ask, but she pushes toward me, thrusting her hand toward me.

“I’m Grace.”

I take her hand and shake it, surprised that her little fingers feel strong. “I’m May.”

“May flowers,” she giggles, and I smile at her sweet little face. She’s too stinkin’ cute. I want to pinch her chubby little pink cheek, but I’m not going to put hands on her. I know better. Besides, I remember how demoralizing that felt to have people touch me without my permission when I was little.

“Are you hungry, Grace?” I ask, and she nods. With quick hands, I find some foods that’ll go over well. Comfort food that I choose because she’s adjusting to something new; me. Mac and cheese and hot dogs. The kind of stuff I have fond memories of as a child.

“Want to help me?” I ask, looking over my shoulder at her. Her little face lights up and I pull a chair into the kitchen for her to stand on. Shoulder to shoulder we stand before the stove, opening a box of Mac and Cheese, dumping noodles into a pot of water, busy work. Simple work. Things that’ll help her feel independent while she’s safe from harm.

Things I wish I could have had when I was little.

“Do you have kids?” She asks me, her little face full of curiosity.

“I don’t.” I say, my tone bright as I tackle the hard question. I wanted kids. But that bastard… I clamp down and shut out the painful memories. I’m not ready to face them. Besides, little Grace doesn’t need to see me lose it.

“Are you married?” she asks, and I can’t help but be in awe of her. She’s so very mature. She speaks like an adult. Her mind is bright, curious, and she’s very quick to just talk rather than hang on propriety. It’s refreshing.

“I’m not.” I say, then turn her game on her. “How about you? Kids? A hubby I need to know about?”

Her face scrunches up and she laughs. “No!” We laugh together and I realize that this is the first real laugh I’ve had in longer than I can remember.

 

***

In bed, I listen to the house. It’s totally quiet. No traffic noises, no loud, party loving neighbors, nothing. Every once in a while the house settles on a sigh, like it too is winding down from the day.

Grace had fallen asleep on the couch, but I’d wandered quickly and found her room. One I knew where to take her, I’d carried her into her room and settled her in her pretty bedroom. The whole place had been decorated with horses right down to the blanket on her bed.

It had been a good night. I felt confident that she would make being here easy. And if this was the work Clint wanted from me, I’d be more than happy to stay on and work as long as he’d have me.

Outside, I hear what sounds like the slam of a car door and I bolt upright. My heart settles into my gut and I feel like throwing up as I sit straight, straining my ears to listen for anything that might be a sound.

He couldn’t be here.

There’s no way he followed me. I was so careful…

I creep out of bed and toward the living room. The curtains give me a view into the front of the place where my car sits, dejected and alone. The slam happens again and I realize the barn door is ajar. When it catches the wind, it bangs on itself. I can see a chain locking it closed, but the noise still makes my hands tremble like I’m going to barf.

I’d thought it was him.

I sink onto the couch, pressing the back of my hand to my mouth as if I can keep back the bile backing up my throat. Tears stream down my cheeks as I think about the fear, the absolute helplessness I feel. He has power over me and he’s not even fucking here! I got away from him and he’s still controlling me across a distance so great I can’t even imagine it.

My throat aches and I keep my volume to little sniffs as tears stream down my face. It’s just not fair. Life isn’t fair.

“Why are you crying?”

I jolt, startled and look into the worried brown eyes of Grace.


Clint

At twilight, I pull the guys in for another talk. They form a ring around me and I sense the discord. I want to smooth it over, but I know some things are simply broken and are not meant to be fixed. If they want to walk, they know where the door is. If they want to stay, they’ve got paychecks waiting.

“Okay,” I say as they settle in and listen to me. “We can camp or we can keep going. If we slow down and head out, we’ll be heading home toward dawn. Or we can camp and head out at dawn.”

Beside me, Carson takes on this role and offers a good suggestion. “If you want to keep going, we can stop for a meal, drink, and piss break. If you don’t we’ll have that break anyway.”

I nod, agreeing with him. The men mumble, and I tell them they can think it over, but the resounding responses are that we should break for chow and get back out.

“What about Bram and Scott?” It’s Shane’s voice ringing out.

I answer with my usual calculated wariness. “They’ll be happy to get home to their beds earlier rather than later, I’m sure,” I say, and there’s a ripple of agreement. Shane’s glare leaves me and he nods.

“Chow and then we ride!” He brings his horse around and I want to sock him right in the mouth. It’s not his god damned call. It’s mine. He’s hired help, not the boss. Not on my ranch.

But I let it go. This isn’t an argument I want. As men step out of saddles and stretch, the sounds of bones cracking and men groaning becomes louder than the chorus of crickets. It’s a welcome sound, but I maneuver Thunder around to do a quick parameter check.

We’re not safe from cougars and bears here, and I want to make sure they know we’re here and armed. The predators out here are smart, and a gun on your hip is often enough to keep all but the starving critters out of sight.

I circle, giving another thought to my plan. I’m not proud of it. Tricking dad isn’t my favorite idea, but maybe it’s time to fight dirty. After all, he is. The fortune my great grandfather passed down isn’t really his to guard like this. He’s a rotten bastard, and it pisses me off.

But it’s not about the money. It’s about getting the recognition I deserve. I’ve fucking worked hard to build myself for the ground up and all he did was impose more rules, more bars for me to meet before I’m good enough to call myself his son.

Once I’m sure the perimeter is safe, I head back to where the guys have lit up a fire and are cooking and setting coffee to percolate. Carson offers me a mug of coffee and I crack open the can of beans I’d brought and set it in the fire.

Within minutes it’s hot and I nudge it out and hold it with a leather glove I keep on hand for working. Carson is taking bites of some franks that are being passed around and cooked on skewers. I take one that’s offered to me and dip the molten dog into my beans.

As we all dig in, the night sky turns from twilight to billions of stars and a chilly night breeze that cuts to the bone.

***

 

Dawn brings sight of the herd we’re here to drive home and the collective sigh is much quieter than last night’s gusto. I’m just excited at the thought of getting home. Getting home.

I’ve got some explaining to do with Grace. And I’m curious to see how May is doing.

“Not much longer, Boss,” Carson says as we slow down and watch the guys heading into formation. As we begin to drive the horses back toward home, I sigh with relief. Not much longer.

 

***

As the last horse files into the pasture, I let loose a sigh of relief. We did it. No major calamities. Carsen and I head toward the barn, and he offers to take my horse so I can head into the house. I thank him and feel better the second my boots hit solid ground. I head to the house, looking toward May’s bedroom window.

I’m not certain why.

The front door is locked and I grab the key and let myself in. I catch her in the living room with a book in hand and suspiciously red eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in,” she says, and I shrug. I don’t care. She can lock the doors if she chooses. I make a mental note to make sure she knows where the twelve gauge is and how to use it. I doubt anything will ever happen, but I’d be more comfortable knowing that if something did happen she’d be okay.

“How was it?” I ask. It’s not the question I want to ask her. 

“Fine. You look tired,” she says, rising to her feet. “Would you like to get some rest? I could make you something to eat.” Her genuine concern warms my heart as she heads to my side. I stare into her pretty blue eyes wondering why she was crying. But as I watch, the misery leaves her expression and there’s a sweet joy there that I want to enjoy.

“I’m fine,” I say, needing to set her mind at ease. “Are you okay?”

She seems startled by my question, but her eyes dart to my lips. I stiffen as she sucks her lower lip between her teeth and nibbles it before letting it slide free so she can respond.

“Um… yeah.” She sounds hesitant, as if she wants to open up but knows better. But I don’t care anymore. All I want now is to touch her again, to feel her surprised intake of breath, her sweet shiver of pleasure…

But there are other things to think about. Like the fact that she hasn’t said a word about Grace. “How is Grace?” I ask, forcing my mind to stop all these crazy thoughts.

“She was fine when I sent her off to school,” May says, her expression softening. “She’s such a sweetheart.” Suddenly she takes on a more troubled expression. She bites down on that distracting lower lip and I sense she’s doing that to keep from speaking her mind.

“What are you keeping from me?” Anger surges up in me. This is my daughter. May better not be hiding something.

Her blue eyes meet mine as the words burst out of her. “Gertie hits her.”


May

I see the fury in his eyes and back off a step. Before he’d come home, I hadn’t really considered telling him. It’s not like spankings are a big deal. Or at least, I hadn’t thought so until Grace told me her father’s stance on capital punishment.

We’d had many deep talks and I found her a refreshing girl with a perspective on life that was much too old for her age.

“How do you know?” he says, his eyes so tired they’re fever bright. But the rage in them is unmistakable and I know I did the right thing by telling him.

“She told me that Gertie smacks her bottom when she’s not ladylike.” I sense he’s nearly shaking with anger, but it’s not terrifying. It’s not aimed at me, nor could I ever imagine him being upset at me. And even if he was, I realize, I can’t imagine being afraid of him. He’s not the kind of guy who’d hurt me.

And I realize something startling; I feel safe with him.

He stands up straight and I know he’s wrestling with his anger. “Thank you for telling me,” he says stiffly, and I nod.

“Go to bed,” I say gently as he stands before me, still internally fighting something I can only sense. “I’ve got things here.”

Finally, he nods and heads back toward the hall. I watch him go, hoping he didn’t notice the tears in my eyes when he’d come in. Despite the talks I’d shared with Grace and all the calming influence she’d had on me this morning while getting ready to go, I’d still found myself sinking back into that scary pit of despair once I was alone.

And even when I’d tried to distract myself, he’d still come creeping back to burrow under my skin and haunt the darkness in every blink.

Still, Clint is every bit as intense as he’d been from that first moment. And every bit as able to make my heart stumble in my chest. And able to make a curious warmth pool deep in my belly.

Then I hear him call my name from his room. With a sense of trepidation, I head back, hoping this isn’t about to get uncomfortable. At his door, I lift my knuckles to knock and he tells me to come in.

I do so and find him under the blankets. My cheeks sting red and I look toward the floor as he speaks. “Before I forget,” he says, sounding a bit drunk with exhaustion. “I need to ask you a huge favor.”

“Anything,” I say, my face flaming red hot. Please don’t ask me for something I can’t do. Please. Still, I can’t imagine anything I wouldn’t want to do with this man. Even the thought of him asking me to bed sends a warm tingling feeling through my pelvis.

“Can you pretend to be my fiancée?”

Jerking my head up, I meet his stare, shocked to my very toes. Never in a million years would I have expected anything like that. I feel my mouth drop open, but no words come out.

He stares at me like he’s expecting an answer now, but I can’t quite formulate anything.

“Why?” I ask, the word popping out like a cork from a bottle of bubbly.

“It’s a long story,” He says, “We’ll talk more when I get up.”

I nod and turn toward the door, but he stops me once more. “Thank you,” he says, and I look back at him, one hand on the door. He already looks like he’s sleeping, and there’s a peace to him that’s unexpected.

He’s so handsome. In sleep, there’s a boyishness to him that is gone in the harsh light of his wakeful self. I study him, thinking about his proposal.

I’d be safe if we went with a farce like this. But I’d be at his mercy. More at his mercy. And I don’t think I want to put myself in the mercy of any man, ever again. Not in a romantic sense. What would he expect of me with this farce? Nothing good, I’m sure. The kind of man who asks a woman to pretend to be in love with him is the kind that might do other evil, underhanded things.

Still, as I leave his room, I find myself curious. Everything I know of him says he’s not a cruel, underhanded man. But I also won’t lie to myself by pretending I know him.

It’s not like he can possibly be without prospects. He’s handsome. He’s successful. He’s got a kind heart, even if it might not look like it from the outside. He has to, or he wouldn’t have let me stay.

Then again, was it all just to get me in a position where I’d have to accept some hair brained plan to be his fake fiancée? Is he really not the man I’d thought him to be? Is my judge of character that messed up?

Then again, what kind of man asks something like that? And why?

Why does he need me to pretend to be his fiancée? And if it’s a good reason, will that be enough to sway my mind on it? Because there’s no reason I can think of that I’d be okay with it or willing to even play along. I’m not a liar. And it’s not fair of him to ask me to be.

With all these questions going through my mind, I head toward my room. My heart thunders in my chest as I think about what it would feel like to be Mrs. Quentin. Clearly, he doesn’t recognize me, but this is more than I’d ever dreamed of.

 I watch the hustle and bustle of the men as they lock up horses, clean up the yard, and head into a building that I’m fairly certain the farm hand house.

As I stand, I see someone glance my way and I duck back to the side. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t want anyone to figure out who I am.

That would be very, very bad.


Clint

I wake and hear the sweet sound of laughter from the living room. It’s such a good sound, I slip out the door quietly and peek into the kitchen. Grace is on a chair and May is behind her with her hands over Grace’s guiding them with a sharp knife right through an onion.

“I’m crying!” Grace says, her voice filled with amusement.

May laughs. “It’s so sad we’re torturing this onion.” She places her chin on Grace’s shoulder and I’m struck by how normal this looks, and how incredible it feels. They slice through the onion and I hear Grace sniff.

And I realize I’m not worried. I know May won’t let Grace get hurt. It’s evident in her posture, in the easy way Grace leans back into her, trusting her with every motion.

“Rinse it with cold water,” I say and two sets of eyes meet me. Grace’s brown eyes are excited and happy as she sees me. May’s eyes are wide, troubled, yet wildly beautiful.

“Daddy!” Grace launches herself at me and I open my arms to catch her. With my arms around her, the world is suddenly okay again. I missed her more than I could ever imagine missing anyone.

My eyes meet May’s and I see something there. Perhaps it’s disappointment. But why? Because I asked her to be my fake fiancée?

Maybe I should talk to her.

“We’re about done with dinner prep,” May says, returning to cutting onion as I set Grace on her feet.

“Are you going to help?” Grace asks me and I look at May, who is ignoring me. Still, I can see her pulse in her soft throat and it’s much too quick. Perhaps the little miss is excited at the thought? My cock stirs but I tamp down those thoughts.

Gathering my thoughts, I ask, “Sure. What can I do?” 

Grace lights up. But May shuts me down. “I think I’ve got this. Why don’t you two go catch up?” Grace nods, and I know she’s not sensing the tension mounting between May and I. But as my daughter takes my hand and leads me into the living room, I remember there’s something I wanted to talk to her about.

We sit on the couch and I start in quick. “Was Gertie hitting you?” I ask. Grace’s face falls a little and I hope that this betrayal of trust doesn’t come back on May.

“Yes,” Grace says, her face so very embarrassed I want to hug her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask gently. I don’t want her to think she’s in trouble, but I need to know why she didn’t trust me enough to come to me with this.

Her eyes find the floor and it’s all I can do not to tilt her chin up to look me in the eyes. “She tells me I’m not a lady.”

“Oh baby,” I say, gathering her into a hug. “You don’t have to be. You just have to be the best you you can be, okay?” I say, looking deep into her eyes as if I can convey the truth of my words.

“Promise?” she says, and I cross my finger over my heart.

She smiles and the cute expression lifts my heart. Everything in the world is better with her right here. And even the ugly moments manage to bring in good.

“Dinner,” May says, peeking her head in.

“Thank you,” I say as Grace bolts from my arms and into May’s grasp. I look at the two of them looking so much like a family it aches deep in the very depths of my soul. This is what I want for Grace. But it’s too much to ask of any woman. Even one as amazing as May.

 

***

“She’s asleep,” I say, a finger to my lips as I sneak out of Grace’s room and close the door behind me.

“She’s a light sleeper,” May says, a knowing look on her face. I nod in agreement and take her hand. Her skin is shockingly soft between my rough fingers as I lead her toward the front door. Still, it feels good to hold her like this. It feels right.

On the porch, we sit side by side on the swing. I notice the scent of her, sweet and floral. Her shining brown hair is bound up loosely, as if it wants nothing more than to escape. A few tendrils have and frame her face and cling to her neck in the fading heat of the Texas day.

“I need more time to think about it,” she says, and I nod. I didn’t expect a quick answer. It’s a huge favor.

“Did you have questions?” I ask, dreading the questions.

“Why?” she says, looking sideways at me as if she’s afraid to fully face me. I think a moment, trying to figure out the best way to tell her.

So I give her a short, sweet version. “My father and I don’t get along so well. He needs me to prove I’m a family man before he’ll really trust me.” It’s the reader’s digest version, but it’s not a lie. Her silence leaves me feeling like she’s thinking it over.

“But you are a family man,” she says finally, her voice filled with a sweet confusion. “You’re an amazing dad. All Grace does all day is sing your praises.”

“He means family man as in married man.” The words sting, even now, and I hate them as I spit them out like something bitter and vile I can expel.

She is quiet again and I look at her. There’s a far way look in her eyes as she stares toward her car.

“You don’t have to,” I say, needing her to know I’m not giving her an ultimatum. “You’re fully welcome to stay on as Grace’s caregiver for as long as you’re willing. She really likes you. And if you were to leave, I’d be in a bind.” As I think about it, the thought of her leaving fills me with something akin to fear.

Still, she’s silent, and we stare out at the stars side by side as a gentle night wind cools us.


May

He’s quiet beside me. But it’s not a scary silence. It’s not one I feel I have to fill. He’s made himself clear. But not in a threatening way. I don’t’ feel pressured or guilty. And he alleviated my fear that it might change my being here if I decide not to. But still… what if his parents recognize me?

“I’d still like time to think about it,” I say and he nods in agreement.

“Take all the time you need,” he says, and I feel a curious warmth pooling in my belly.

Here, under the stars with him, I feel… safe.

“There’s something else,” he says, and my heart begins to pound as I glance at him and see a new intensity behind those warm brown eyes.

“Yes?” I ask, feeling breathless. His eyes study my face as he speaks.

“I need to know you’re safe here while I’m gone. Do you know how to shoot?” he asks, and I shake my head no. My father thought a lady had no place holding a gun or doing man’s work. I was there to cook, clean, and be pretty.

“I’ll teach you tomorrow. The shotgun over the door is real, and it’s loaded. Don’t aim it at someone unless you plan to pull the trigger,” he says, his voice so serious a shiver runs down my spine.

My own demons rear up, but I push them back to ask, “Do you get much trouble out here?”

He shakes his head. “But it’s a good idea for you to be able to protect yourself and Grace.”

I nod, fully agreeing with him. It would be a good piece of mind to be able to handle a gun. Not that I think I could ever pull the trigger. Not even on…

“What are you thinking about right now?” he asks, and I realize tears are beginning to fill my eyes.

“No one important,” I say, and realize I’ve slipped up. I glance at him in horror that I’ve let slip that it’s someone, not something.

But he doesn’t push it. The feeling is there, though, that I can come to him, talk to him, confide in him. And it’s an amazing sensation. I hadn’t come here with the hope that I’d be able to trust a man ever again, much less so soon after arriving.

Something about Clint… maybe it’s our past, our history. Sure he’s not who I remember, but he’s just a more grown up version of who he had been.

“You know,” he says, not looking at me. I notice his face tighten up as he looks up at the stars. His jaw flexes like he’s clenching down against something unpleasant. “I feel like I’ve known you forever. Odd, huh?” he smiles at me, but his expression is strained. My pulse begins to thump softly against my collar bone and I struggle for words to say.

But no words come.

“I’m going to head to bed,” I say after a silence takes over us.

“Have a good night,” he says. As I rise and walk toward the door, his hand once more finds mine. And like the first time, it feels like I’ve touched an electric fence. A tingle and warmth that’s unexpected travels from his touch up my arm and straight to my heart as I look down at him.

“Thank you,” he says, his expression warm and his eyes filled with genuine gratitude. “For everything.”

I can only smile at him, feeling bad for the deceit I’m guilty of.

***

“Miss.”

I smile at the man who’d interrupted me that first day. Now that he’s just standing in the kitchen and I’m pouring a glass of orange juice after having just seen Grace off to school, I decide to introduce myself. He seems like he’s the second in command. I’m just guessing based on how he interacts with Clint and the men.

“I’m May,” I say, offering him my hand.

He takes it and lifts it to pantomime a kiss on the back of my knuckles. “It’s my pleasure,” he says, “I’m Carson.”

“The pleasure is mine,” I say as he releases my hand.

“Boss is a good man. You’re safe here,” he says, as if reading every bit of fear I’ve been clutching since I got here. “Trust him,” he says and I jolt in surprise.

“Why would you say that?” I ask, curious.

He eyes me as I pour him a glass of juice and offer it. I’d already included his breakfast in the head count for the morning since he and Clint had been talking when I got up.

“Thank you,” he says as he takes the glass. “I say it because you can trust him. Everything he does, he does for good reason, even if it’s hard to see what that reason is.”

“Even asking me to be his fake fiancée?” I mumble, mostly joking.

But Carson doesn’t blink an eye. “What his father is doing is wrong.” He shifts a bit in his seat. “And if you don’t mind me saying, that’s a big risk on his part. He wouldn’t put Gracie through something like that without good reason.”

My heart aches as I think about Grace. Of course she’d know. She’d have to. What if it got her hopes up? What if it hurt her? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

“Has he ever screwed up?” I ask, hoping against hope for an impossible answer. Carson, though, isn’t rising to the bait.

“Boss?” he asks, as if not sure what I mean. When I nod, he lets out a snort. “Hell yes.” He seems chagrined. “Pardon my language.”

“Please speak freely around me,” I reply. “I’m not a delicate flower. I prefer honesty and candor.”

“You and me both, miss.” He smiles at me, and I realize he’s also a handsome man, but his looks take a second place to Clint.

“So what is his father doing, exactly?” I ask, wondering if Clint gave me the full story. I can’t help but feel he might have left out an important detail or two.

“Well,” Carson says around a swallow of juice, “that’s not really for me to say, miss.”

“What’s not?” Clint asks, walking into the room as if he’s been here the whole time. I glance at Carson, feeling a stab of panic that he’ll out me for being rude and nosy. But he winks at me.

“Where you went, Boss.” Carson says, and Clint looks over his shoulder quizzically at us.

“Speak freely to May. I trust her and she needs to be in the loop with the goings on here.” Clint’s eyes meet mine and I feel an unexpected heat rising in my cheeks and sinking low in my belly.


Clint

“So, tell me about yourself, Carson,” May says and Carson shrugs.

“Not much to tell, Miss.”

“Don’t let him lie to you,” I say, looking over at Carson.

But he shrugs again. “Wouldn’t interest the lady,” he says, and I wonder why it feels like I missed something.

“I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t curious,” May says, keeping her eyes off me as she speaks.

“Perhaps another time, then,” Carson says respectfully.  He gets up and washes his glass as I study May. When he leaves, I sense she’s ready to talk to me.

“I’ll do it,” she says, still carefully avoiding my stare.

But I need to know something. “Do you really understand what you’re agreeing to?” I ask, stepping close to her. She looks up at me, and I can see the thud of her heart against her breast bone.

She nods, her pretty lower lip trembling a bit as she stares up at me. I grab her and pull her close. “I’ll have to touch you,” I say, knowing that my father will expect us to act like we’re in love. “They’ll expect us to look like we’re in love.” I find I like how she feels pressed up against me like this.

She nods, still mute.

“I’ll need to be close to you.” I touch her cheek with my free hand. Her eyes drift closed as if she’s really feeling me for the first time. I feel my body respond to her and I let it. As I expected, she jolts a bit as my hard cock presses into her belly.

Before she can tell me no, I press my lips to hers. She’s sweet and tart, like orange juice and maple syrup. Like sin and surrender. Like everything I’ve ever craved and have never tasted.

Her lips part and my tongue traces the pretty curve of her lower lip. She’s so delicious. So sweet and warm. I want more. More. All of her. Everything she’s willing to give.

My cock pulses and her arms slip around my shoulders.

Is this okay?” I murmur against her lips. In response, she shivers, her whole body responding to me. I grab her ass in both hands and she sucks in a deep breath as if shocked by my crass action. But she doesn’t say no. She doesn’t pull away. No, she melts into me.

Her lips press to mine, and I kiss her, my heart aching with the sweetness and innocence of her kiss.

And I realize that if I don’t back off, I’m going to take her right here on the kitchen table. And that wouldn’t be good. There’s always a chance someone will walk in. Unwillingly, I back off, holding her upright until she finds her balance.

Her blue eyes meet mine and I have to explain myself. “I’d hate for someone to walk in,” I say, and she nods.

“Was it too much, too far?” I ask, needing to hear her say it’s okay if only for the selfish reason that I want to kiss her again and need her permission.

She shakes her head, mute.

Her eyes are wide on mine, and I know there’s something else. So I wait until she’s ready to talk. There’s nothing to be gained by pushing her. I want her to know I’ll wait and listen until she’s ready to talk. I made myself clear that I want her to be honest, candid, and know she can trust me with anything.

“I don’t want to hurt Grace.” Her tiny voice is enough to tell me she’s afraid. I’m not sure of what; if she’s afraid of hurting Grace or my reaction to this revelation.

“I don’t either. I thought we’d tell them that it’s a secret so she doesn’t wind up hurt. It also explains her not knowing you for very long. We can say we’ve been seeing each other for a while and didn’t bring you into her life until it was serious.”

A small smile tugs the corners of her lips. “You’ve thought this through, haven’t you?” she says, her eyes dancing.

“I make Grace my number one priority,” I say, and she dips her head in what looks like respect. “Now,” I say and her head lifts so she can focus those beautiful eyes on me once more. “I said I’d teach you to shoot.”

She nods and I take the gun from over the front door and take her out. We’ve got a dedicated wall for practice. It’s into the side of a little mountain that’s all dirt. I show her how to load it and turn off the safety before showing her how to stand.

When she’s ready, I have her hold it and she pulls the trigger.

The paper target is instantly peppered with buckshot and she turns to me, her face lit up even as she lowers the barrel of the gun to the ground.

“Looks like you’re a natural,” I tell her and her eyes darken with something that looks like worry. Again, I get the feeling that something is bothering her. She turns and looks toward her car like there’s someone there.

“Now you know you can keep yourself safe,” It tell her. Once more, her eyes stray to her car and I wonder what she’s thinking. Who is chasing her? What is she running from? Or who is she running from?

The thought of any harm coming to her makes my guts twist and I see red. If anyone wants to hurt her, they’ll have to go through me.


May

I’m going to throw up. There’s no way I can do this. They’re going to know who I am, everything will go to hell…

“Are you okay?”

I turn to give Clint a winning smile. I’m not alright. I’m dressed in a dress that’s not me; it’s too formal, too revealing, too pretty. “I’m fine,” I lie, watching the dirt road give way to concrete. I felt safe there, at his house.

“They’ll love you,” he says, and suddenly it feels real. This is what a man would say to the love of his life when he took her to meet his parents.

His hand settles on my knee as I stare out the truck window. I can do this. It’s going to hurt, and I need to remind myself it’s not real. But I can do this. Besides, I’ve dreamed about this moment. The real moment, not the fake one. But Clint doesn’t know that.

He never needs to know that.

He’ll hate me when he finds out.

Dread knots in my guts, but the warmth of his hand on my knee sinks into my flesh and curiously seems to combat the ice lining my gut.

I can do this.

***

 

The familiar, ornate door opens and I realize Clint’s parents don’t look like they’ve aged a day. They give us hugs and usher us inside. The whole time I’m silently begging them not to remember me.

It’s been years.

The men drift off and I find myself left alone with Barbra. Babs, as I remember her. She takes my hand and examines the ring on my hand.

“It’s beautiful,” she says, looking up at me. “So how have you been, Sara?”

My heart sinks to my toes. “I go by May now,” I say, needing to weave some quick damage control.

“So I heard.” Her brown eyes are sharp as she studies me. “What are you doing, exactly?”

I struggle to breathe. “I’ve… always loved Clint,” I say, realizing it’s not a total lie. Even now, the words feel right as I say them. They feel real. And I know that my deception has ruined any chance of them ever coming to fruition.

Babs is quiet a minute, studying my face like she’s seeking answers to questions she hasn’t asked. “Perhaps he loved you as well,” she says gently and I feel tears stinging in my eyes.

“There, there,” She says, pulling me into a hug. “The heart wants what it wants. I’m not sure I approve of your method, but you’re here and that’s all there is to it.”

“Please don’t tell him,” I whisper, needing to know she’s in my corner.

She pulls back to look down at me as if I’ve missed a very vital detail. “Oh, darling, he’s going to find out.”

I shake my head, denying it, though I know she’s right. He’ll find out. I always knew he would. How do I come back from this? Can I fix it? Because even though the engagement is a sham, how is he going to react to the very real lie I’ve told him?

“But I won’t be the reason he finds out,” she says and I smile through my tears.

“Thank you,” I whisper as she wraps an arm around my shoulders and leads me toward the bathroom. When the door closes, she turns to me and cleans up my running mascara.

“Beautiful,” she says, beaming at me and I can’t help but laugh.

“I’m a mess,” I say, glancing at my reflection. It’s true. My nose and cheeks are red and my eyes are clearly watery. Babs takes my chin and turns my face so I’m looking at her.

“You look like a girl in love,” she says gently. “It’s not always ups. There are downs and how you get through those defines you; not your best moments.”

I pull her into a hug, realizing that she’s right. How Clint deals with finding out who I am will define him. And it’ll also be the reason I stay… or the reason I run away. Again.

“Let’s get out to dinner, shall we?” Babs says and I stop her.

The lie, the farce is too much. “Why is Flint doing this?” I need to know the reason why Clint needs to be married to take his place as his father’s son. I know Clint doesn’t need the money. He just wants to be recognized on his merits, which seem to outweigh the list his father requires.

“Clint’s father is…” Babs stares off into space as if seeking an answer, “he’s worried Clint never worked hard enough for things. Money is easy to come by. Even women are easy to come by,” she gives me an apologetic smile, but I know she’s referring to the kind of girls who flock to men with money. “But a wife? A family? He needs that balance to show he’s willing to work for something real.”


Clint

May is beautiful as she talks with my parents over dinner. I can hardly take my eyes off her. Even when Grace comes and asks to sit on her lap, she’s more than willing to stop everything and take my daughter on her knee like a mother.

It’s as if my life has suddenly become whole and I’m an idiot stumbling through the motions. Grace is happy with May. Mom and May are already thicker than thieves, and dad won’t stop congratulating me.

It’s fucking amazing.

And heartbreaking.

Grace looks at me from May’s lap, her face alight with joy. “May said I can have her cake!” May looks up at me, her eyes sparkling as she flashes me an apologetic smile.

I shrug, helpless. I don’t give a fuck about the cake. I care that this has suddenly become real. Someone is going to get hurt. But for now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy this night, enjoy my father’s approval, my mother’s love and joy, Grace’s energy, and those little smiles May keeps sending my way.

As if aware I’m thinking of her, May looks over at me again, an unmistakable warmth in her eyes. And I want to pull her aside and remind her this isn’t real. That she can’t get in too deep. Even though I’ve told my parents Grace doesn’t know about the engagement because we’re protecting her, everything feels too right to be an act. It’s messing with my head.

When we’re finally ready to leave, I hear May talking with my mother. “She’s such a light sleeper. I’ve been playing some music in her room, really low, at night. It seems to help keep her from bolting upright at every little gust of wind,” May says.

“I used to do that with Clint,” Mom says right back in that low voice, “he’d never have slept a wink if I didn’t.”

May smiles and gives Grace a huge hug. “Well,” she says to my daughter, “You be good, now.”

Grace is solemn as she looks up at May. “I will.”

But May grins, her playful face lighting up. “I know, I just had to remind you.” Just like that, Grace is hugging her tight and softly telling her she’ll miss her. Even now, with my dad bumping shoulders with me, I feel a tightness in my chest and an ache behind my eyes.

This ticking time bomb is going to blow up in my face. I shouldn’t have dragged May into this. I fucked up. Badly.

 

***

The whole drive home has been in silence. May is staring out her window, her pretty throat bared and creamy white in the dying daylight.

“They liked you,” I say.

She nods, but says nothing.

The lack of feedback is killing me. I need to get in her head. I need to know if she hates me. But she keeps her focus on something beyond her window and I seethe silently behind this wall she’s placed between us.

When I finally pull up before the house, she’s quick to escape the truck and head into the house. I follow, needing to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Did she break? Did she tell them? I can’t imagine she would have and it not be trotted out at dinner.

“May,” I say and she turns, her lips parting. And in her eyes, I see tears. “What’s wrong?” I ask; all anger dissipating.

“Your parents are amazing,” she whispers, her eyes tortured.

And I wrap her up in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, “we can stop this now.” I’m not going to hurt her, not going to hurt everyone for my selfish need for my father’s approval. I’ve gotten along just fine without it up until now.

But, with her in my arms, I realize I need something else. Taking her chin in my fingers, I kiss her lips. She melts, her tongue instantly seeking mine. There’s a new fire to her, a spice that destroys my will to stop.

With a growl, I begin to move her back through the house. Her hands find the hem of my shirt and she tugs it up. Our lips only part long enough for the shirt to pass before we’re kissing again. Behind her back, I work the zipper I’d helped her with earlier tonight. Then we’d been proper, distant, even.

Now we’re like two totally different people as I force the top of her strapless dress down. Leaving her lips, I press a kiss to the hollow at the base of her throat. I’ve never craved anything like I crave her right now, in this moment.

She whimpers as the dress flutters to the floor. It settles into a puddle of cotton at her feet and I’m quick to notice her lack of underwear.

I groan. She was naked under that dress all night…

I press my lips to the space between her beautiful breasts and she gasps. Her hands find my shoulders and she grips like she’ll fall if she doesn’t hold on for dear life.

“Clint,” she whimpers, but I’m busy kissing her pert, pink nipple. Turning her so the bed is behind her, I lower her back, needing to taste more of her. All of her. I need all of her.

Her hips buck up into me and she begins talking. “I’ve needed this for so long, I’ve wanted it...” she moans, her body reacting as my teeth scrape along the full curve of her breast. She’s delicious, a drug that’s taking hold as I taste her, sample her, enjoy her.

She’s mine.


May

I need to tell him that I’m a virgin, who I am, how I know him, how I wound up on his doorstep… but while he’s kissing me like this it’s impossible to focus on anything but the sensations exploding in me.

I didn’t think it would be like this; this all-consuming, impossibly sexy fire that’s eating every inch of me alive.

Clint’s lips find mine again and I kiss him like I’m dying, like I’m drowning and he’s breathing life into my very lungs. I want him. I need him.

His legs part mine and I open to him, realizing that I’m not only naked, but vulnerable and spread before him on his bed. I know how this ends and I don’t care. I’ll deal with consequences later.

I grab his belt and unbuckle it, loving the clink of the metal on metal as it comes free. I free the button next, then the zipper. He leaves me long enough to stand up and drop his pants. His boxers follow, and I see him for the first time.

And terror ignites in my blood. He’s much too big. There’s no way that will fit in here.

But he’s back on me in an instant and I’m lost to his kiss. Our tongues dance and I push him back a bit.

“I’m not on birth control,” I whisper, my voice sounding painfully shy.

But Clint growls at me as if he finds my caution so very sexy it’ll be his undoing. He reaches past me to the nightstand, then plants a kiss on my throat. I lose myself in the heat of his lips on the soft skin of my neck.

In a moment, he’s back on top of me and I feel my heart thrashing in my chest like a wounded animal. Wrapping my legs around his hips, I feel him slip a hand between us and he hesitates, the tip of him poised at the heart of me.

His eyes meet mine and I sense he’s giving me a chance to say no, to back out. Instead, I kiss him. As our tongues meet, I feel him press into me. Pain comes first, and I gasp. Breaking the kiss, I press my cheek to his, unsure what to do.

He’s slow; not forcing in, but not backing off, either.

“You’re so sexy,” he whispers, his stubble scraping my cheek. “I want you so bad, love. Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I whisper, the word more of a breath than an actual reply. He pushes in further and I feel my body yielding to him, opening for him, accommodating his girth and width. It’s an incredible sensation. I grip his shoulders, loving how his skin feels under my fingertips.

Finally, he pushes home and I feel an odd sensation of being whole. When he pulls back, I grip him and whimper. But he’s quick to push back in and the resulting burst of pleasure is almost too much to bear.

But he gives me a kiss and suddenly the word shifts and I’m on top. The feeling of him within me is enough to steal my breath, but I’m compelled to shift, to rock my hips forward. It almost feels as if he’ll split me, but there’s so much pleasure in it I can’t stop.

The little button of pleasure is grinding on him with every motion of my hips and I can’t stand it. His hands find my breasts and suddenly it’s like every nerve ending in my body is lighting up with pleasure.

It’s impossibly perfect, so incredibly amazing I feel my breath leaving in little gasps. Bracing my hands on his headboard, I feel myself galloping headlong toward orgasm. Never has it felt so good. This isn’t like touching myself, this is a whole new high of pleasure and I need more.

“Sweet May,” Clint says, his eyes on me as I ride him without shame. Our eyes lock and I see something, a flicker, something like recognition.

But it doesn’t stop me, no, it drives me right over the edge.

Pleasure shatters my vision as white blinds me. I hear myself mewling with pleasure, but it’s like the sound is coming from someone else. My body jolts and jerks like my muscles forgot how to work together and move, but the pleasure radiating out from my core is enough to take my breath away.

“Clint,” I whisper as if he can help me.

But he’s lost to his own pleasure. I feel it as he swells within me, every pulse of my pussy squeezes him tight, but he’s growing more than I imagined possible and it’s putting sweet and painful pleasure on that sensitive spot within me.

Sudden warmth fills me and I whimper with pleasure and collapse on his chest.

Moments later, I’m suddenly aware he’s stroking my hair. He reaches between us and does something, but it’s not invasive, and I relax, enjoying the warmth of him and the chill in the air.

As the pleasure fades, reality crashes back down on me.

I’ve made a huge mistake.


Clint

It’s amazing how clear everything is post orgasm. I’m aware that I’m screwing everything up. I want May. Really want her.

But then again, I know that asking her to take on my child and this rough life isn’t fair. But as she rests on my chest, her breathing slowly returning to normal, I’m struck by the fact that this feels right.

My fingers slip through the silk-like strands of her hair. She’s beautiful in every way, and I’m regretting asking her to do such a terrible thing. But the fact that she was willing to leaves me sure that she’s got some feelings for me.

She lifts her head and her eyes meet mine. There’s a seriousness to her and a deeply buried pain, and again, I get that odd, nagging feeling that there’s something else, something I’m missing.

Just like that, she looks away and all the warmth within me begins to fade. She grabs the sheet and pulls it around herself like she’s hiding. I touch her shoulder and she jolts before pulling from my grasp without looking at me.

The snub is clear, but I’m shocked. What did I do?

“I should go,” she whispers and I sit up as she perches on the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet around herself.

With my heart aching, I try to stop her. “Why?” I ask, needing to know why she’s doing this. But she refuses to look at me as she stands, carefully hiding behind the sheet.

I get up as well, ot as concerned as she is about hiding behind sheets or invisible walls. Taking her shoulders in my hands, I turn her to face me. But her face is lowered and her hair falls forward and hides her features from me.

Capturing her chin I lift her face. Tears shine bright in her eyes and I wonder what I’ve missed. Her blue eyes slash back and forth between mine and I struggle to find the words to ask the questions looming between us.

“Don’t,” she whispers, the single word as forceful as a sucker punch. The moisture that has gathered in her lashes sparkle as a lone tear slips down her cheek. My thumb instantly swipes it away and she blinks, her face an echo of pain that slices me deeply.

“What are you hiding?” I ask, needing to know the truth. “Whatever you’re running from, you’re safe,” I say, needing her to know what’s in my heart. I don’t care what is in her past. I care about her, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

But she shakes her head. Without another word she pulls from my grasp and leaves my room. And as I look after her, I feel more alone than I have in a very long time.

Maybe I’m cursed. Every woman that comes into my life leaves.

I return to my bed. At the foot of it, her dress still lies in a puddle of fabric. Feeling mocked, I pick it up and remember how she looked in it. How she smiled at me throughout dinner. How my parents loved her.

Damn it.

Falling back on my bed, I stare up at the ceiling, thinking about May’s big beautiful blue eyes. What the fuck did I do to screw this up? Folding my arms behind my head, I puzzle over things when a small sound grabs my attention.

It’s like the tiny mews of a lost kitten.

And it clicks; she’s crying.

Overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness, I struggle. Should I go comfort her? Or am I the source of her pain? Would I make matters worse?

Fuck.


May

I wake, feeling like garbage.

My phone screen is lit like I’ve got a message. Which is odd. No one has messaged or called me since I’d blocked him.

The text makes my heart sink right to my toes. It’s Katie.

Sara! I’m coming home. Visit meeee! <3

No, no, no, no… this can’t be happening.

I sit back down on the bed, feeling lightheaded and sick at heart. This is the end. It’s all over now. There’ll be no hiding who I am anymore.

Kate won’t be okay with this like Babs was. She’ll ask me what the fuck I’m doing, and she’ll be pissed I’m messing around with Clint.

Fuck.

I stare at the message until my eyes begin to blur. A knock at my door startles me and I look up. “Come in,” I say, totally focused on this new fire I need to douse.

The door opens and Clint stands in my doorway, totally imposing with his arms crossed and a defiant refusal to look at me.

“I’ve got some family coming into town,” he says, matter-of-factly, and I nod, wondering what this has to do with me. I expected today to be awkward, but he’s distant and aloof. Which is fine with me. That’s less messy. After the sudden break I’d had last night with the weight of all the lies and secrets stressing me out, I’m not surprised he’s avoiding me like the plague. Hell, I’d avoid me. I probably look totally unhinged.

Maybe I am.

Still, Clint is quiet as if I should be saying something.

“Are you asking me to keep up the lie?” I ask, feeling weary. This would be funny if I weren’t so very tired of all of it. I want to just come clean now, I want to unburden my soul to everyone and to hell with them and their judgments. I ran away once. I lived through Dillon. I can live through anything.

“Who are you running from?” he asks, and I shake my head. I’m only barely able to think of his name now. In the weeks that have followed, every day that has passed is another victory. He has no hold over me. I’m even to a point now where he doesn’t dominate my every waking moment.

I didn’t jerk awake this morning feeling like he was coming home drunk and angry again.

And I’m not about to open up about him, or let him rule my life whether in my head or outside of it. So I switch back to the conversation at hand.

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“What would you like to do?” he asks, and I struggle with the very real fear coursing through me.

But it’s time to come clean. About some things, at least. “I can’t fake it. Katie won’t be fooled.”

His whole posture changes from aloof to intense. It’s a subtle shift, but the whole mood of the room changes.

“How did you know…?” he asks, studying me carefully.

“Oh, come on, Clint. Do you really not remember?” I ask, standing up to him. He looks me up and down, and again I see that flash, that look in his eyes like he’s trying to place me. “You feel like you’ve known me forever because you have,” I say and he falters back a step.

There’s confusion in his handsome face, and I feel bad for him. “Babs remembered me. But she promised not to out me, and she still believes we’re really together, but Katie will be pissed when she finds out.”

“What…?” I know he’s struggling.

And I’m tired of the lie. “Maybe if you called me Sara?” I ask, wondering if that’ll jog his memory.

And there it is, the flash of recognition in his eyes as he suddenly sees me for who I am; the little sister’s friend who used to follow him around like a puppy dog. I was so damn in love with him forever ago. He’s the reason I came back to Texas. Because after Dillon kicked the shit out of me last time, I’d ran straight to Clint.

Because I know him. Because I trust him. Because it’s not the first time he’s saved me. But it’s not love I see in his eyes now. It’s not trust or joy that I’m here.

No, he’s furious.

“May is my middle name,” I say, needing to defend myself. I know it looks bad, but it’s not as evil as his expression seems to be making it out to be. I didn’t set out to just deceive him. I wanted to protect myself. I thought he’d recognize me. But I wasn’t sure I was safe. Dillon promised he’d always follow me, and that he’d find me. That I’d never escape him.

I’m sure it was all just to scare me. He wanted to use threats to keep me under his thumb. And it worked for a long time. But now, on the outside and a hell of a lot less scared, I see his bullshit for what it was; propaganda to keep me tied to him and terrified.

But now, with Clint eyeing me like I’m a lair, like I’m something he’d tracked in on his shoe, I feel my heart sink in my chest.

“Please don’t hate me,” I whisper, feeling so broken as he stands in the doorway of the room he’d so kindly given me when I needed it most. I knew it would come to this, but I’d wanted to live the lie a little longer.

I wanted to feel loved for just a little while longer.

I’m just a liar, a user, a human piece of garbage, just like Dillon had told me so many times before. He was right about everything. Maybe I would be better off dead. Maybe I am just a waste of oxygen.


Clint

Dear sweet May isn’t really May at all.

She’s Sara, that cute girl I had a crush on a lifetime ago. And even as I see her heart breaking in her eyes, I step back out of her room and close the door behind me.

She lied to me. I let her watch my daughter. I trusted her. I even gave her the space I knew she needed for her past. I didn’t pry, but I did need honesty.

With a war raging within me, I leave the house. I need space. I need a chance to blow off steam. I need to get away from her. Because even as I feel betrayed, I feel like kissing her, long and hard, deep and desperately until she submits to me again.

But I only barely remember her.

At the front door, I stop and turn back toward her room. But I stop again, something in me telling me to leave her alone, to not corner her right now. I might do or say something I’ll regret.

I’d rather think things through.

But I turn and head back toward her room again. I’m not going to be passive. I was passive last night. She could have told me any time what was going on. I asked. I gave her outs. I trusted her to talk to me about important things.

I trusted her.

I shouldn’t have.

Opening her door without knocking, I see her spin to face me, shock in her lovely blue eyes. “Clint,” She says, my name a sweet whisper on her kissable lips.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demand, my tone sharp as a razor.

Her lips part in shock and tears from in her eyes. But I’m not backing down now. She opened this Pandora’s box. She can damn well deal with the consequences.

Two tears roll slowly down her cheeks as she gapes at me, as if unsure how to respond to my anger. “I-” She says, her voice seeming choked by tears. Or fear. I’m scaring her. Good. Maybe she’ll know I’m not the kind of guy who lets liars get away with possibly endangering my daughter, my home, my life.

“I trusted you with Grace,” I say, advancing a step closer to her. But she doesn’t flinch back, she stands up straighter, her own anger lashing out.

“I’d never do anything to hurt her,” she hisses, anger shining in her features.

But I’m not convinced. “Really?” I say, crossing my arms. “So whoever you’re running from isn’t dangerous?”

And she snaps closed like a steel trap.

“I thought so,” I say, pushing it. “And what if I told you I loved you? That I wanted to make this real?” I gesture to the ring on the dresser. Her eyes dart to the ring and the tears come faster.

“I always loved you,” she whispers, her tone defiant even as her words indicate her shattering heart. “You just thought I was your little sister’s stupid friend.”

Wait, what?

She advances a step, poking a finger into my chest, her fury shining in her brilliant blue eyes. “I heard you tell them I was annoying. That you were glad for when I went home. You hated me.”

I’m stunned. She heard that, but she didn’t understand that I said that to protect myself. Because my buddies knew I liked her, and that that would mean torture for both of us. I was protecting her. But I was protecting myself more.

“I did say that,” I agree, and all her fire dies as she stares up at me. I wonder for a second if she expected me to lie. “But you’re wrong. I thought you were cute as hell. But I knew that you were Katie’s friend, that I could never have you. So I tried to put you out of my mind.”

Her eyes widen and all the fight seems to drain out of her.

“Did you tell my dad?” I ask, needing to know if she outed me. Though if she had, I assume Id know. I mean, dad would have brought it up, he’d have shunned me, he would have humiliated me.

She shakes her head. “What do I tell Katie?” she asks, and I shrug.

“The truth?” I say, wondering if it would be so bad.

But May closes right up. “She’d never forgive me.” Her shoulders slump and I want, more than anything, to pull her into a hug.

“So what?” If she wants something, she should step up. Her head lifts and she looks me in the eyes, her face questioning. “Isn’t it better to be honest? She’s going to find out. You said mom knew who you were, she won’t keep your secret forever you know.” The sudden panic in her features leaves me feeling a little bad for her. She really didn’t think this through.

She sinks back on the bed and I can’t help but think about how she’d looked last night, naked, riding me like a goddess out of my favorite fantasies. Damn it. No wonder I kept feeling like I knew her. That’s got to be why she felt like home. Why I’m so comfortable around her.

How didn’t I recognize her?

Because she grew up.

Her too huge eyes now fit her face. Her rounded face is more mature now, her cheekbones more defined. What was pretty then was beautiful now. She’s blossomed into a woman.

My cock is at attention again, but I know now is not the time.

“Can you give me some time?” she asks, and I nod.

“You’re going to have to face this sometime,” I tell her and she looks me dead in the eyes. There’s something in her expression that tells me she’s thinking of last night too.

Good. I want her to want me as much as I want her. I want to get through this. Together.


May

I need to get out of the house. The men are gone; I saw them ride out hours ago. Clint had studied my window, but I’d been back far enough so he couldn’t see me. With Grace at her grandparents’ house, I feel okay leaving.

And it dawns on me; I meant it when I said I’d never do anything to hurt her. I love her already.

I head to the barn. The lock is still on it, but the slack that allows the door to bang in the wind is enough for me to slip through. If I hold my breath, that is. Onside, the lights are up and I see a key hanging beside the door marked with black ink.

Spare.

Grabbing it, I use it to open the lock and the door swings open. When I turn, I see several horse heads peeking at me over stall doors and I walk around, petting faces and thinking about the animals.

Taking a saddle, I approach one of the stalls. The mare lifts her head and perks her ears. She’s got the calmest demeanor, and that’s all I need. Hanging the saddle over a sawhorse, I put the bridle hanging next to her stall on her. She accepts the bit without issue and I talk to her in a calming voice.

Taking her out of her stall, I snap her to the ring for saddling. When she’s all saddled up, the painful slamming of my heart becomes an easy beat. I can do this. I’ve got it. I’m capable. Taking her reins, I leave the barn and tie her to a post before slipping back in to lock the door again.

After a few moments of scrambling, I’m able to get in saddle. It feels like the ground is so very far away. This will clear my mind. I’ve always loved horses, and I regret not doing more with that love over the years.

Leading her back toward what looks like an established trail leading off into the desert, I suddenly feel free and happy. With a good horse under me obeying my every whim, I feel like I’m on top of the world.

Even the harsh sun feels good. It’s like I’ve been frozen to the bone for so long it’s good to just breathe and soak in the warmth. There’s a slight breeze that’s hot as can be, but it’s still heaven. There’s something so incredible about the landscape and the sensation of being out here.

Then, a wild band of mustangs spots us and they run in our direction before turning and racing into the wind like they know we’re not one of them.

But the mare I’m on takes after them like a shot. Suddenly, we’re racing over the ground and the world is flying by. There’s a flash of panic in me that I’m not in control for a moment, but it’s quickly replaced by sheer adrenaline. This is fun! We’re moving so fast it feels impossibly like flight.

Suddenly the ground is flying up at me and pain screams through every inch of me. Scrub bushes claw at me and the hot sandy dirt hardly cushions my fall. Helpless, I watch the mare I was riding race off.

Taking a moment to make sure nothing is broken, I feel along my legs, pat my ribs, feeling every point of pain to make sure it’s just an impact ache. Minor cuts and bruises, nothing feels broken.

I look over the horizon. The mare will come back, right?

With the hot desert sun beating down on me, I suddenly realize how stupid I’ve been. I told no one where I was going. I didn’t pack supplies. There’s no way anyone will find me.

And with the glaring sun overhead, I begin to plan. I need to get in the shade. I need to mark this spot so if anyone comes looking, they’ll find me. I spot a jutting rock and head toward it. It’s not far, and I’m quick to take off my over shirt. Scaling the rock, I hang the shirt on the highest point I can so it can be seen on all sides.

Sliding down on my bottom, I slip into the shade and instantly feel cooler.

But there’s a sinking sensation that has nothing to do with my motion. I’m out here, alone. Far enough from home there’s no way I can hike it. This might be it for me. Dillon couldn’t break me, no, I can do that shit all by myself.

I’m so stupid!

As I sink onto my bottom in the dirt, I feel hot tears sting my eyes. I should have left a note. I should have done something so people would know where I went. Plan! I need to plan. After dark, I could try hiking out. I could walk home.

It’ll take a long time, but it’s cooler at night.

Exhaustion fills me and I want nothing more than to just lie down and rest. With my back to the rock, I sit in the shade, my stomach sick and my heart heavy. I’m stronger than this. I’m not going to die out here in the desert. I’ve made it through so much, I can’t just give up now.

Clint’s face comes to mind and my soul aches. He’s going to blame himself. He’s going to think this is all his fault. I know he blames himself for Amanda. But Grace came out of that. A blessing out of misery. He hadn’t put the alcohol in her hand. He hadn’t told her to drive that night. She’d made her choices.

Just like I’d decided to ride out here, alone, without supplies or a backup plan.

I’m going to be the second woman in his life to pass away. And while I’m not on the same level as she was in his life, I feel like he’s going to start turning that grief inward.

Because I’m going to die out here.


Clint

“May?” The whole house seems empty, and I wonder where she might have gone. Her car is still out front. But again, that feeling that something is wrong settles in my gut.

“Boss?” Carson asks, and I shake my head.

“Something isn’t right,” I tell him and he dips his head. We both look at the front door as Shane walks in. There’s an odd look on his face. A look I know. I walk up and grab the front of his shirt before slamming him back against the door.

“What did you do to her?” I demand, seeing red. He’d fucking told Amanda to leave that night. He told her to go, to take her space. She died alone, injured and scared on the road that night. My fist balls up and I draw back, but he lifts his hands.

“Nothing! Lady is missing!” He brings his hands up to cover his face, but I let him go. Straightening my shirt, I turn to Carson.

“Get a search party together.”

“On it, boss.” Carsen says, hurrying out the door.

“Thunder is saddled, sir.” Shane’s looking at me with a mixture of anger, hate, and apologies. I nod and head toward the barn, my balled fists shaking with rage. At least, I tell myself it’s rage. I grab Thunder’s saddle and pull myself up.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Shane mount up. We say nothing, but I nod to him. His help will be appreciated. We head out, taking the only real path out of this place. It’s the most logical direction someone who doesn’t know this area would ride.

As we ride, I see Lady trotting back toward us, her saddle bare. And my blood runs cold.

Shane tosses me a glance and we both kick our horses.

***

The world flies by and I struggle to keep thoughts of losing May from my mind. I can’t lose her. I’ve lost so much. Sure, the past haunts me, but I feel I’ve found balance. The sorrow comes back in waves, but it’s less than it was. I’ll always miss Amanda. She was sweet, imperfect, and kind. She gave me the greatest gift I could have ever asked for, Grace.

The sun bears down on us with the smite of a god as we ride. We’re just looking, searching, hoping we find her. She’s out here, somewhere, possibly hurt. Or worse.

A toss from a horse can kill, or injure. What if she snapped her leg? Severed an artery? Snapped her neck? The list of what-ifs racing through my mind is impossibly long and every bit of me aches as I try to put the horror of the whole situation out of my mind. 

I didn’t tell her I wanted to work it out. I didn’t tell her how much she means to me. I didn’t ever tell her I wanted to make it real. What felt weird before seems less so now that I know I’ve known her for so very long. I’d been upset at myself for falling so impossibly fast. On some level I must have known who she was all along. That’s why she felt like home, why I felt like I’d known her forever. Because I had.

I don’t care what life has done to her since I saw her last. I know who she is, how pure and sweet, how loving and kind she is. She’d be a wonderful mother to Grace. She’d be an amazing wife. She’s an incredible woman.

And whatever is in her past is hers to fight. I’ll be there to support her, for her to lean on, but she doesn’t have to share with me. I’m happy being the man she leans on, comes to, and trusts. And with time, I’ll learn to trust her too. I don’t believe she lied to harm me, to hurt my feelings or to make me look like a fool. 

Shane cuts away from me and I look over, wondering if he found something. Still, something tells me to stay the course. It’s the same feeling that made me cut the day short, to come home, to check on May. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s god, maybe it’s a miracle, maybe it’s some invisible bond between our souls that keeps us coming back to one another.

She’s counting on me. She needs me. I can’t let her down.

The steady pulse of a chopper begins to register in my brain and I thank my lucky stars Carson got a group together so quickly. I’ll give huge donations to every organization involved in such a quick search and rescue.

It’s a hot day. I feel sweat dripping down my back and my eyes sting as salty dampness seeps into them. How long has she been out here? We were gone for hours. If she’s been lying in the sun somewhere, she’s going to be in trouble. Hell, she’s going to be in trouble anyway. The desert is unforgiving. She’s at risk for heatstroke, for…

I put the worry out of my mind. I need a clear head to keep an eye out for clues. And something catches my eyes. Buzzard Rock, straight ahead, looks like it’s got something on it. Something like cloth.

Letting out a whooping holler, I ride toward it at full speed, charging like I’m headed into battle. And I see her, motionless on the shade of the rock. Jumping out of the saddle, I drop to my knees and check for her pulse. Her heart is still beating strong, but she’s hot.

And those beautiful blue eyes flutter open and lock on me.

“Clint?” She whispers, before her arms come around my shoulders like I’m the only person in the world. “I knew you’d come…” she whispers as her whole body goes limp in my arms.

Shane is up on me in an instant. “Is she…?” he asks, and I shake my head.

“Passed out.” I nod to him and there’s just a flash between us. A comradery that whispers to the past, the friend I’d had for so long before he’d let me down and ruined my life.

From his belt, he pulls a flare and pops it off into the air.


May

“I’m fine,” I say, seeing the three guys hanging around the bed as the doctor echoes my words.

“You’re a lucky young lady,” The old doctor says, his bushy white eyebrows knitting together.

I know I am. And as Clint’s worried eyes meet mine, I’m doubly aware of just how lucky I am. The doctor packs up and leaves, and the other two guys, Carson and Shane, follow him out to his truck.

Leaving me alone with an intense looking Clint.

“I’m sorry,” I say, needing to put it out there.

But he’s at my side in an instant. “No, I’m sorry,” He says, looking me deep in the eyes as he takes my hand and presses my knuckles to his lips. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I want to work through this. I want you in my life, if you’ll have me. I love you, Sara May,” he says, his intense brown eyes on mine, “I always have.”

My heart beats like a drum in my chest as his words sink in. He’s always loved me. “I always loved you too,” I say, feeling shy. “Is the mare okay?” I ask, feeling terrible.

“Lady? She’s fine.” He seems perplexed that I’m asking.

“I feel terrible. I shouldn’t have put her at risk, or put myself at risk, or anything like that. I am so stupid.” The words flood out and I notice Clint is watching me carefully. “What?” I ask, and he shakes his head.

“You’re beautiful.”

I feel my eyebrows come together. Now doesn’t seem like the time for that. Shouldn’t he be mad at me for causing so much trouble, for risking his horse, for making a whole damn search party come out for me?

“I must have cost you a fortune,” I whisper, feeling humiliated. How will I ever pay him back for this? For any of it?

“You don’t owe me anything,” he says, his fingers warm in mine and his breath reassuring on my hand.

And the words have a ring of truth to them. His eyes are warm as he continues. “I was so scared I’d lost you. I’m just glad you’re home safe.”

Home safe.

Does he even know what he just said? Tears trickles down my cheeks as I draw in a ragged breath. Home. I haven’t had one of those in so long.

“Does it hurt?” he asks, and I glance at my sunburn.

“No, the stuff doc put on it helped a ton.” But I’m not totally ready to tell him why I’m such a damn mess. Then I look into his serious brown eyes once more. “I love you. I love Grace. And this feels like home. More like home than even home does.” The words flood out and with them comes an intense relief that leaves me shaken.

“I don’t know what I would have done without you. My ex was,” I suck in a shuddering breath and fight to get the words out around the tears. My voice lowers to a whisper. “He was a monster.”

And the apology follows. “I’m so sorry. He might have followed me. I was so scared, but as time went on, I realized he was too much of wimp to actually do something like chase me. He wanted me while it was convenient. When I became trouble, he just gave up. I’m sure he’s with some girl right now, treating her like he treated me.”

“Do I know him?” Clint sounds so quietly furious I feel a flutter of fear in my belly. Not fear for me, fear for Dillon.

“Dillon?” I ask, shaking my head. There’s no way he knows him. That relationship came after I ran so far from home. “But I don’t’ care about him. That’s over, it’s behind me. I feel like you’re my future,” I say, feeling the honesty of the words. It feels good to finally totally come clean to him. This was a long time coming.

And since telling him who I am wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been scared it would be, I’m certain this will be fine too. Clint is a good man. And I haven’t had too many of those in my life. But I’m ready to have one. For good, if he is willing.

“You know how to shoot,” Clint says seriously. “If you ever see that son of a bitch, you pull the trigger, understand?” He asks, and I nod. But he’s not done.

“It’s not just you that you have to protect here,” He says, his eyes slashing back and forth over mine. “Grace needs you. She looks up to you, she trusts you.”

“I’d never let anyone hurt her,” I murmur, watching his face. I’m doing my best to convey that I’m telling the truth. She means so much to me. “I’d die first,” I whisper, and his pupils dilate with shock. “I love her too,” I whisper. She’s such a strong girl, so beautiful and kind, compassionate and sweet despite the pain life has dealt her.

But one thing is still nagging at me. “How did you find me?” I ask, curious.

Clint’s features lighten a bit and there’s a bit of boyishness I saw in him that day he’d fallen asleep. “Because someone or something wants us to find each other. I think we were meant for more than we ever thought.” He seems thoughtful a moment, and I nod.

“I felt the same way. How did I choose this specific ranch to begin with? How as I on this road? I mean, the help wanted sign helped, but it’s so many coincidences in a row.” I trail off, wondering how everything managed to work out so perfectly.

Over Clint’s shoulder, I see a familiar face and I rise up to sit, despite the protest of the massive sunburn I’d sustained.

“Katie?” I ask, seeing her eyes are guarded. Behind her, I see Babs. My heart sinks like a stone. Katie knows. She’ll hate me forever now.


Clint

I glance back as Katie moves past me to gently hug May.

“Oh my gosh!” She says, my ever exuberant sister. “This is perfect!” She says, “My best friend and my brother getting married!” She squeals in joy and I see May’s shock. I glance back at my mother, who’s beaming at us.

“Where’s Grace?” I mouth and she motions over her shoulder. I gather that she’s with dad, and I nod.

“We’re only here for a minute,” Katie says, glancing at mom, who steps in to give me a hug, then to hug May. “But,” Katie says, her eyes sparkling as she looks at May, “You’ll have to tell me everything.”

Katie pulls me into a hug, growling in my ear that she’ll castrate me if I hurt May. “I love you too,” I say playfully and she gives me the look, the sister look that’s part amusement, part serious, but it’s all love.

They leave quickly with mom promising she’ll call, but telling me she’s keeping Grace another night. “So you two have a chance to…” Her gaze skips to May. “Recuperate.” Her eyes come back to mine and I want to shake my head at her. But her joy is unmistakable as she takes Katie’s hand and heads to the door.

I turn to May who seems stunned.

“I thought she’d hate me,” She whispers, tears streaming freely down her face. “But she will, when they find out…” she trails off, pain written in her features.

“I wanted to talk about that,” I say, my heart thundering in my chest. I’ve never been so sure of something in my life.

And as I pull out the ring, her eyes widen. “That’s not…” she says, her lovely blue eyes clouding over with confusion.

“I know. The other ring felt like it would forever symbolize the lie, the fake engagement. I wanted a fresh start.” I shift, getting on one knee as her face drops into an expression of shock and joy.

“The world seems to want us together,” I say, wishing I’d prepared an actual speech. But like everything else in my life that has to do with May, I feel like whatever happens will be perfect. “And I want you in my life. No,” I amend, “I need you in my life.”

She speaks up and I listen. “Someone or something wants us to find each other. We were meant for more than we ever even knew.”

“Exactly,” I say, glad she feels the same way, that I’m not just crazy. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe we both are. “Before, I felt crazy for having fallen in love with you so fast. But after I found out who you were, it made sense. I loved you because I always have. Since that time when you were on Katie’s bike and you fell.” Her face lights up and I know she remembers too.

“You skinned your knee and it kept bleeding and you were so scared. Do you remember what I told you?” I ask and she nods, her blue eyes on mine.

“You told me to hold onto you really tight, that I’d be okay.” She’s whispering, her gaze illuminated with the memory.

“And I told you that I’d always be there when you got hurt. That you could count on me to be there.” The memory leaves warmth spreading through every inch of me. And while it all makes perfect sense now, that we were always meant to be, that even then we loved each other, we had to part ways.

She had to chase her own demons. I had to love and lose Amanda to get Grace.  But there’s more I need to say. “Everything that has happened to us up until now was preparing us for each other,” I say, lifting the ring. “Will you marry me?”

She hesitates and my heart sinks. She eyes me, then the ring, before her lips part. “For real? Or just for show?” Her eyes light up with humor and I can’t help it. I kiss her.

“For real,” I murmur against her lips as we lazily pull apart.

“This has to be against the rules,” She says, planting a quick kiss on my lips before smiling, “You’re coercing me.”

Amused at her wit and teasing, I ask, “Is it working?”

“Maybe,” she says, opening her eyes to look into mine. “Kiss me again and I’ll tell you.”

I kiss her, this time our tongues meet and it feels like heaven. She melts into me like she belongs in my arms. She fits me perfectly, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here, with her. Forever.

But I end the kiss and pull back a bit. “You’re killing me,” I say, watching the way she shivers as my breath cools her damp lips.

“Oh, sorry,” she says, her face illuminated with joy and humor as she studies me once more. “Yes. Yes, please. I love you.” She leans in and I kiss her, finally feeling like everything is perfect.

“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” I whisper, needing her to know how I feel. I want to tell her everything in my heart, how lucky I am, that this is perfection. But she rises up a bit, her hand wrapping in a fist around the lapel of my shirt as she clings to me.

“Shut up and kiss me,” she says, pulling me closer.

***

THE END

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Chapter 1

 

The heat slams into me as I step down off the plane onto the private tarmac; oppressive and heavy. A far cry from the cool, crisp temperatures of the air-conditioned cabin of the corporate jet, the Washington humidity is relentless.  Beads of sweat immediately form on the nape of my neck, causing my hair to curl. Desperate to escape the brutal heat of the July sun, I hastily made my way to the waiting limo.

Sliding to the far side of the vehicle, I breathe a sigh of relief at once again being in the comforts of air conditioning. Pulling out my compact, I tried to comb my fingers through my hair willing it to straighten back out. With a sigh, I clamp the compact shut; resigned to the fact that the time spent meticulously straightening my naturally wavy locks, had been in vain. Thankfully, my father had deemed it pertinent that we arrive in D.C. a day early to prepare for the upcoming contract negotiations. I would have time tomorrow morning to re-tame the wild tendrils.

The car door opened once more, letting in another blast of heat as my father and his Vice President of Defense Operations, Alistair Todwick, joined me. As the CEO of Aughton Securities and a royal descendent, Michael Sheffield was an imposing figure. A career military man, he spent a decade in the Royal Welsh Regiment before building his defense firm from the ground up. He carried himself with a certain poise. His dark eyes; keen with intelligence and scrutiny, could command your attention from across the room.

Where my father was tall, dark, and formidable; Alistair Todwick was his polar opposite. With fair skin, blue eyes and light hair, Alistair literally paled in comparison to my father. Despite being of royal blood, my father came from humble beginnings. His great-grandmother had been the Countess of Essex and sixth in line to the throne, but she had fallen in love with a commoner. Bucking tradition, she had opted to marry her sheep farmer.

Giving up the life of luxury that the palace provided, she and her husband tended the sheep, worked the farm, and raised their family away from the spotlight. It was the kind of romance that fairytales were made of. They ended up having five children and 14 great-grandchildren, one of those being my father.

As a sheep farmer’s son, my father had worked his way through college mucking stalls, and working the family farm before setting out to build his dream. Aughton Securities was one of the most prominent defense firms in the U.K. and he also held a position as a member of the Welsh Parliament. He carried himself with an innate hardness and determination.

Whereas Alistair’s family had money, tons of it, and he grew up the pampered prep-school boy with a silver spoon. Attending Eton and later Cambridge, Alistair was brilliant, but he was weak and soft, and carried himself with an air of entitlement. I didn’t understand what my father saw in him, but father continued to praise his work and requested that he accompany us on this trip.

Alistair made every effort to look like the devoted employee in my father’s presence, but behind his back, he scoffed at having to take orders from a ‘hired hand.’ Alistair couldn’t get past the scandal of my father’s great-grandmother not marrying royalty. He could only dream of having the lineage that my father had. He felt that the success of the company was due to his endeavors and efforts rather than my father’s hard work. He also took his sense of entitlement too far, making inappropriate comments and requests to his staff, particularly to the females. He had very strong opinions about a woman’s place; their time better spent on their backs than in the office. Having been on the receiving end of his unwanted advances, I couldn’t stand to be in the same car with him let alone be spending an entire weekend working with him. He made my skin crawl.

Already having a natural disdain toward women, he took particular exception with me and my position as Chief Legal Counsel, despite my qualifications. I had worked my way up through the firm, never accepting a helping hand from my father. Not that it was offered. My father didn’t believe in handouts. No daughter of his was going to be given a free-ride, regardless of bloodline or royal heritage. Nor did I want one.

I was proud of my lineage, but I didn’t want any favors.  Technically, my father was the Viscount of Essex, which made me the Baroness of Essex but I never used the title. I wanted to earn my way, rather than have it be handed it to me because of a title. I started as a legal intern in the corporate office at Aughton Securities as I studied contract law at Oxford. Graduating in the top ten of my class, I was offered lucrative partnerships in prestigious law firms across the U.K. and abroad. Instead, I chose to stay and accept a junior associate position in my father’s company.

I still remember the gleam of pride in his eye when I formally announced that I would be following in his footsteps at the company. He had never once engaged me as to what path I should choose upon graduation. I was his only child, his baby, yet he stepped back and let me decide for myself. I respected him so much more for that. In the end, it was an easy decision for me. I wanted to continue the legacy of what he had built. But, I was determined to make a name for myself on my own merit, out from under the shadow of my father.

Over the years, I had worked my way up from junior associate to partner, and now to Chief Legal Counsel. Alistair resented my rise in the company, especially now that my title and position was above his own. Deciding that the only way to gain true control of the company was to be Michael’s son-in-law, Alistair launched a ridiculous campaign to court me. Recognizing him for the lecherous snake that he was, I quite publicly stymied his advances. Letting it be known in no uncertain terms that I was not, nor would I ever be, interested in any kind of involvement with him.

When his efforts to win control of the company through marriage failed, his animosity and cruelty only continued to grow. In the company of my father, he portrayed the perfect touch of admiration, respect, and willingness to collaborate. But behind closed doors and out of my father’s earshot, he looked for any opportunity to sabotage or belittle my accomplishments.

Scooting over to make room for them in the limo, I thought about how quiet things had been of late. It could only mean one thing. He was planning something, something big.

 


Chapter 2

 

The ride to the hotel was relatively uneventful. That is if you exclude Alistair’s repeated attempts to invade my personal space. Upon climbing into the limousine, rather than take a seat opposite me, he proceeded to slide all the way over to my side so we were touching. Bile rose in the back of my throat as he pressed his thigh firmly against mine. Aware of my discomfort he simply sneered, offering a trite apology.

“Pardon me, Angelique.” But he made no attempts to slide back over.

Refusing to be baited, I simply smiled and said, “Oh, it’s no problem Alistair. I’ll just move over to this side to make room for Father.” Before he could think of a retort, I quickly added, “I know you mentioned wanting to go back over the contract negotiation strategy for tomorrow, and this will give me the space to pull those documents.”

Consciously aware of the length of my skirt, I maneuvered over to the opposite bench seat, careful to keep my posterior away from Alistair’s lecherous gaze. Other than the slight clenching of his jaw, he gave away no indication of his feelings over being thwarted yet again.

Before he could have an opportunity to play musical chairs, I quickly hoisted my briefcase and laptop onto the seat next to me. Continuing the pretense of wanting to peruse the contracts, I pulled out several copies of the draft proposal.

“That’s an excellent idea,” my father said as he climbed in next to Alistair. “I want to make sure that we are well prepared for tomorrow. Ingenix is known for being shrewd negotiators, and I want to make sure that we are all on the same page.”

With one more measured look in my direction, Alistair redirected his gaze to my father. “Are you sure that you don’t want to consider other local companies for a contract of this size?” Alistair questioned. “Why insist upon an American based company when we could easily use Senturian Security or Fosseway?”

Alistair had made his feelings quite clear about the idea of branching out and working with a foreign company. His disdain for the United States, barely hidden beneath the surface. It all went back to his family and his family’s money. He was an elitist and felt that the West was far inferior to anything the U.K. or the rest of Europe could offer. But more importantly, his father Archibald Todwick sat on the Board of both of those security firms and would no doubt receive some kind of kickback for securing the multi-billion dollar contract with Aughton.

Unable to contain my misgivings and outright disdain for “good ole’ boys clubs” I quickly interjected. “Alistair we are well aware of your predilection for both Senturian and Fosseway. But personal feelings aside, we need to think about what is best for Aughton.”

I could see his temper rising. “Angelique, I am not sure what you are referring to, but I assure you I have only Aughton’s best interests at heart.” The tips of his ears turning red at my admonishment. “I am simply conveying a concern that we may be overlooking a more reasonable alternative than a relatively unknown company from the States.”

“And as Chief Legal Counsel for Aughton, I would be remiss in my duty if I overlooked the fact that your family is personally linked to both of those two companies. As much as I would love to support an employee relationship, I must be objective in providing my recommendations.”

Alistair huffed in anger, his mouth dropping open in shock of my open criticism. But, my father placed a hand up halting his response.

My father’s voice rang with authority, “Enough you two.” With a warning look at me he continued, “You both have made your views quite clear. However after careful consideration, I have made my decision to proceed with negotiations with Ingenix. And that is final.”

Realizing the reprimand had been directed at both of us, Alistair quickly backpedaled.

“Of course, Michael. I did not mean to imply that I did not support your decision. Shall we review some of the areas you deem most pertinent.”

Having dashed the squabble, for the remainder of the car ride we focused on ironing out the issues and key areas of the contract where we felt we were most vulnerable. By the time we pulled up to our hotel, everyone had relaxed and felt much more confident about our position going into tomorrow’s negotiations.

Scribbling the last few notes and amendments to the contract, I repacked the documents into my briefcase. Snapping it shut, I turned to my father and said, “I will type up the changes and will have them back to you later this evening; once I get settled into my suite.” 

“Won’t you be joining us for dinner,” my father asked. “I made reservations at Mastro’s. It is supposed to be the best in the city.”

Normally, I would love nothing more than to enjoy dinner with my father away from the office. But the idea of having to sit across from Alistair and listen to his constant drivel gave me a headache.

Smiling apologetically, I politely declined. “I’m sorry father, but I feel the jetlag is getting to me more than usual, and I want to make sure that I am sharp for tomorrow. You and Alistair enjoy your meal.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll get us checked in and you can go straight on up to your room.”

Stepping out of the limo first, I was keenly aware of the tension rolling off Alistair in waves when my father exited. Not relishing the thought of being in the limo alone with Alistair, I made for the door. But he was too quick. He shut the door before I could reach it. Holding on to the handle, he turned back to me.

“And just where do you think you’re going lil missy,” he sneered.

“Get out of my way, Alistair!”

Stroking a finger down my face with his other hand, he grabbed a lock of my hair and pulled sharply. I cried out in pain as sharp needles stabbed my scalp. Wrenching my head back so it was mere inches from his he snarled, “Don’t you ever try to embarrass me like that again!” His breathe was hot in my face. “You will do well to remember your place. You may carry his name, but you will never be in charge.” 

“Take your hands off me. Now.” I said with as much steel in my voice as I could muster. Truth be told, I was afraid of Alistair. He was becoming increasingly more desperate and volatile. Inside, I feared what he might do.

Thankfully, the door was wrenched from his grasp as the bellhop came to escort us to our rooms. Letting go of my hair, he forced a fake smile, extending his arm, “After you.”

Anxious to put some distance between us, I all but bolted from the car, forcing the bellhop to jog after me. I didn’t relax until I was in the safety of my hotel room and the chain was on the door. I had no doubts, this was going to be a very long trip.


Chapter 3

 

These security conventions were all the same, I thought to myself as I scanned the intimate gathering of private government contractors, politicians, high-ranking military officials and even a few foreign diplomats. All impeccably dressed and milling about, sipping on expensive champagne and snacking on professionally catered hors d’ouevres of oysters Rockefeller, Beluga caviar and mini salmon croquettes in the posh banquet hall of The Fairmont Hotel.

Tonight was just the standard casual meet and greet; a means to connect with potential clients. However, I was more interested in preparing for my meeting with Aughton Securities tomorrow, but I knew the importance of networking. Especially, since it did not come naturally to me.

Despite being the CEO of a multi-national security firm, and my military background, I still felt like an outsider. I couldn’t relate to these high-profile movers and shakers, nor did I want to. Having served 10 years in the Navy Seals running spec ops in remote jungles, deserts, and desolate mountain ranges of Afghanistan, I much preferred my solitude than to be in a room full of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Washington D.C. making small talk. After having spent the better part of an hour rubbing elbows with them, I was done. I didn’t have the patience to continue to try and make p