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Wicked White (Wicked White Series Book 1) by Michelle A. Valentine (13)

ACE

I readjust my arm and then trace my fingers along Iris’s skin as she sleeps. Now that I’m allowed, I can’t bring myself to stop touching her. I always feared that having the chance to share intimate moments like this with her would cause me to have an addiction, and I was right.

I sigh as I watch her in peaceful slumber. Yes, I’m afraid that it’s far too late for me to back out of this now. She’s already taken a piece of my heart, so I don’t know at this point if it was ever possible to stop this from happening.

It’s almost as if we were fated to be.

I place my lips softly against her forehead, and she stirs, moving slowly, stretching her muscles awake. “Good morning, beautiful.”

She snuggles into my side and pulls the blanket up around her shoulders. “Good morning.”

“Are you hungry?”

She nods and then giggles. “Yes, considering we skipped dinner last night and went straight for dessert . . . all night long.”

A grin spreads across my face as I remember back to exactly how many ways we had our dessert last night. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing this stunning creature moan my name in moments of unadulterated bliss.

A little growl rumbles low in her belly and I laugh. “Yes. I will most definitely have to remember to feed you from here on in.”

“If only we could live on the dessert alone, then we’d never have to leave this bed.” She sighs happily.

“That’d be nice,” I agree, and then her stomach rumbles again, causing me to sit up. “I’ll be right back.”

She frowns and touches my wrist. “Don’t take too long.”

I laugh and touch the tip of her nose with my index finger. She’s adorable when she pouts.

I whip into the kitchen and grab the pizza box out of the fridge. I go to the cabinet Iris got the plates from last night and get a clean one and begin loading it down with as many slices as it will hold.

After heating the food up in the microwave, I grab a can of soda from the fridge and rush back into the bedroom.

I sit on the edge of the bed and set the plate between us. “Sustenance.”

“Indeed.” Iris smiles at me, her green eyes dancing with amusement, and I know there’s something weighing on her mind. “Can I ask you something?”

I raise an eyebrow and eye her with mock suspicion. “I thought you said you Internet stalked me. What else could that inquisitive brain of yours want to know?”

She blushes. “I really am sorry about that. I just wanted to know you.”

“It’s okay, Iris, really. It’s fine. I would’ve probably done same thing if I were in your shoes. You didn’t know me from Adam, and I was acting like a crazy man—so hot and cold with you.”

She sighs. “Still, it was wrong, but I’m glad we’ve got everything out in the open now.”

“Me too,” I agree. “So what is it that you want to ask me about?”

“Well . . .” she begins, but hesitates. “Last night—the tattoo about Shakespeare and the quotes—how do you know all that stuff? Most guys can’t even name one classic play, let alone use Shakespearean quotes in just the right moments off the top of their heads.”

I take a drink of soda and then pass her the can, from which she eagerly drinks. “It started when I was about thirteen or so, I guess. My foster mom was a huge reader. She loved the classics, and her favorite was Shakespeare. She always told me a man who could quote the lines from one of the most romantic men of all time could woo the heart of any woman. So, being the loner I was, and desperate to find a girl who would love me someday, I did like I always do—I studied. The crazy thing is, I ended up loving it. The written word is a beautiful thing. It’s one of the things that initially inspired me to write songs.”

“So did it work?” she asks with a shy smile, and I tilt my head, causing her to elaborate. “The quoting?”

I grin at her wickedly and raise my eyebrows suggestively. “You tell me. You’re the only girl I’ve ever exposed that side of myself to.”

“I am?” she asks timidly.

I nod. “No one has ever inspired me to say them . . . that is, not until you. You, I could write songs about all day.”

She bites her bottom lip, and I love the look of adoration on her face as she stares at me. “I love that I inspire you. I hope I continue to do that.”

I reach over and cup her cheek in the palm of my hand. “Just by being, you’ll do that.”

After we finish our breakfast of leftovers, I reluctantly kiss her good-bye so I can go back to my own trailer to shower and change my clothes. While eating our pizza, we made plans to drive to Columbus to Mom’s house in order for me to retrieve my contract. Iris convinced me that Mr. Stern is a trustworthy man—one who is perfectly capable of letting me know what my options are.

I told Iris what it was like at Mom’s funeral and how reporters seemed to be everywhere I turned, cornering me and not allowing me to grieve the loss of the only mother I’d ever really known. Instead, the reporting leeches were interested only in getting the scoop on why I had walked off stage and if I had any plans to return to fulfill the rest of my tour.

I don’t understand why they even care. Honestly, I never got this much press before. Paparazzi were never an issue. I guess the world is just that intrigued by what would motivate a guy like me to walk away from everything he’d worked hard to get. Someone walking away from money and fame rarely ever happens.

When I make it back to Iris’s place, she opens the door and wraps me immediately in a warm embrace. “I missed you.”

I nuzzle into her neck and inhale the sweet floral scent of her body wash and perfume. “I’ve been gone less than an hour.”

She sighs against me. “I know. I can’t help it, though, I find you kind of addicting.”

My heart beats faster, loving that my crazy obsession with her is, well, a mutual thing.

I pull back and ask, “You ready to head out?”

She nods. “Let me grab the keys to the car first. I figure it might hide you better than that bike.”

My girl’s so smart. “Good thinking.”

She tosses me the keys and I catch them with ease. “You can drive. You know where we’re going.”

The drive to Columbus goes by rather quickly with Iris along for the ride. She brought along a few of her favorite CDs of musical soundtracks but can’t manage to get them to play, so we opt to sing together. I surprise her by actually knowing a few of the lyrics to the songs she sings.

“Did you study theater too?” She laughs, still amazed by my knowledge of the subject.

I shake my head. “No, but I did join the choir in high school. I took any opportunity I could to sing. It didn’t matter what it was, as long as it had soul behind the words, I loved it.”

Her green eyes widen and she stares at me from the passenger seat of the car with her mouth agape.

After a moment of her just looking at me like I’ve grown another head, I can’t help myself from asking, “What?”

She shakes her head like she’s waking herself from a daze. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said the very same thing. I actually drive Birdie nuts with my opinions of today’s music. It lacks soul.”

I smile, loving that we’ve found another thing we connect on. “That’s exactly what my problem is with all the shit music I’ve been turning out to the world as Wicked White. The lyrics don’t mean anything substantial. I hate that I don’t get to lend more than just my voice to a song. They tell me how to sing—even what kind of emotion I need to feel when I sing it. The songs—they’re just not me.”

Iris furrows her brow, her green eyes fixed on me. “Can’t you just demand to have input? I mean, it is your career.”

I sigh as I adjust my hands on the wheel. “Believe me, I’ve tried. Jane Ann, my manager, is intractable when it comes to making changes that can affect her bottom line. Fans are eating the crap up that the band has been putting out, so she has denied me at every turn when I suggest any kind of change.”

“I’m sorry, Ace. I can only imagine how tough that must’ve been for you.”

I reach over and take her hand in mine and bring her knuckles up to my lips. “Thank you. But it doesn’t matter anymore, seeing as how I never want to go back. Not to the way things were, anyhow.”

When we pull into my old neighborhood on the east side of Columbus, I keep my eyes peeled for any cameras, but to my surprise when Sarah’s old, white two-story comes into view, there’s not a single soul on the street.

Hopefully I’m no longer the hot story and they’ve moved on.

I park out by the curb and cut the engine. There’s a mountain of emotions building inside me as I sit here. On one hand I can’t wait to show Iris where I grew up, but on the other hand I know I’ll be gutted the moment I step through that door. When I buried Sarah, I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I stayed in the hotel and came by only to make sure the place was locked tight before I took off. I knew right after she died the wound to my heart was too fresh to handle coming into a house that reminds me so much of her, but I think with Iris by my side that I can handle it.

This isn’t exactly the best neighborhood, but shockingly, the house appears to be untouched.

“Hey,” Iris whispers softly and gives my hand a little squeeze. “You okay?”

It’s then I realize I haven’t said a word since I shut off the car, but simply sat here gazing at the house, building the courage to go inside.

I nod and give her a small smile. “I’m fine, just a little sad, I guess.”

“I understand. At first, being at home without Gran, it was rough. In a weird way, throwing myself into going through her things made me feel closer to her. It reminded me of all the good times I shared with her. It’s going to be hard when you first go in there, but I’m here for you, and I promise, it’ll be okay.”

I lean over and cup her face, bringing it to mine so I can kiss her lips. We both shut our eyes, trusting in one another, knowing we’re here for each other even when it seems that we are lone souls in this world. It’s nice to not feel so alone anymore.

“You’re amazing, you know that?” I tell her.

She blushes. “I think you’re pretty great too.”

After a few more stolen kisses, I take a deep breath. “I think it’s time we go inside before I end up taking you right here in the car. I’m sure the neighbors would enjoy the show, but, well, you know how I feel about sharing you.”

Iris laughs and my heart warms. Her laughter is one of the best sounds in the world and is quickly becoming one of my favorite things.

“We better go then.” She gives me a wry grin.

We walk hand in hand up the sidewalk. I fish out the keys, and when we step up onto the small concrete porch, I unlock the door.

Even though Sarah was only my foster mother, she treated me like I was her real flesh and blood. When I turned eighteen and she no longer got paid to keep me, she never once made a move to kick me out. Instead, she encouraged me to stay and go on to college once I graduated high school. Even when I did leave to attend Ohio State, she kept my bedroom exactly the same, like a real mother would do for her son. That’s how I knew she really loved me. I mean, I thought she did prior to that because she showed it in every one of her actions toward me, but that proved it. Before her, I’d never lived with someone who wasn’t always anxious to get rid of me.

I flip the lights on when we enter the small living room. Sarah always kept the curtains drawn shut, said the light affected the television and irritated her when she tried to watch her daytime soaps.

The rest of the house is just as she left it: magazines on the coffee table, her nearly empty coffee mug from what I’m sure was her fifth cup that day, and of course her small library filled with classic books next to her television.

Iris steps in and immediately focuses her attention on the small bookcase near the front door that houses all of Mom’s favorite photos. “Is this you?”

I come up behind her and wrap my arms around her waist and rest my chin on her shoulder. My eyes zero in on the picture of me in junior high with slicked-back hair she’s pointing to. “Yep, that’s me.”

She laughs. “Are you wearing a tuxedo in your school picture?”

I laugh as I recall the day clearly. “Yes. I was an usher in Mom’s cousin’s wedding and I fell in love with the tux. I was nearly fourteen and had never worn anything so fancy and didn’t want to take it off, so Mom paid a couple extra days rental so I could have my school picture taken in it the following Monday after the wedding.”

She leans back into me and I burrow my nose into her hair and inhale her scent again. That’s becoming one of my most favorite scents.

“You were too cute,” she says and then twists so she can gaze up at me. “Will you show me your room?”

I nod and pull on her hand to follow me. The old stairs creak under our feet as we climb to the second level. When we reach the top, I pull her down the hall to my old bedroom. Before I take her in, I yank her against me and back her into the closed door and crush my lips to hers, causing her to groan.

I pull back to gaze upon her face, trying to halt myself from becoming too excited.

She’s grinning. “Are you always so anxious when you bring girls to your bedroom?”

I lean my forehead against hers. “I’ve never brought a girl here before. I just wanted to kiss you one last time before you go in and see my room.”

She cocks her head. “Why?”

This time it’s me who blushes. “I’m afraid when you go in there you might question my manliness.”

She laughs and shimmies her hips against mine, and her grin widens as she feels my semierect cock pushing against her through my jeans. “Trust me. You’re plenty man enough.” Iris pauses for a beat and finds the knob behind her and twists. “Let’s see what you’re so afraid of me seeing.”

Without another word she flings open the door and steps through its threshold backward. I hold my breath as she spins on her heel and takes in the sight of my sanctuary.

“Wow . . .” she says with a breathy voice. “You weren’t kidding when you said you were a Shakespeare addict.”

I lean against the doorjamb as she wanders into my room to inspect things more closely. All of my walls are exactly as I left them, covered in posters for plays William Shakespeare wrote. The nightstand beside my bed is still stacked with a pile of books, most of which matched Mom’s collection downstairs. I think she bought me copies because she got tired of me borrowing hers all the time.

My eyes follow Iris as she stops at what I like to call my reward wall. Mom was so proud of me every time I got recognition of some kind. It was hard to talk her out of displaying them all and persuade her to put up only the most important ones, like my high school diploma, along with my valedictorian letter and my bachelor’s degree from Ohio State.

“A degree in philosophy. Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Iris turns to me and quirks an eyebrow. “You’re kind of like a genius, huh?”

I laugh. “I don’t know about a genius . . . well educated, yes.”

She finishes inspecting my room and runs her fingers along my dresser before she flips through the stack of CDs sitting there. “How did you get into music?”

I walk over next to her and turn around to rest my hands behind me as I lean against the dresser. “Mom bought me an old guitar at a yard sale. I, of course, taught myself how to play and to read music, and while I’m definitely no Shakespeare, I’ve found I’m pretty good at writing lyrics.”

She wraps her hands around my waist. “A self-taught man . . . I like it.” Iris presses her lips to mine and then frowns. “So, after seeing all this . . . it doesn’t explain how you were able to fight so well. A guy like you, book smart, isn’t typically quick with his fists like you were with Jeremy that day.”

I frown. “Unfortunately, when you’re an unconventional man like me, it attracts the kinds of guys who like to assert their dominance over someone they perceive to be weak. It was unlucky for them that I knew how to fight. I wasn’t the mousy little nerd they expected when they messed with me. I had no problem fighting back, because using my fists to protect myself was the only thing I’d ever known. Of course, that was before Mom showed me there was another way to live without fighting constantly. I think for the longest time all the counselors had it in my file that I was a kicker.”

I chuckle at that last thought, but stop when Iris’s beautiful lips turn down into a deep frown. I pull on the hem of her shirt. Her eyes begin to fill with tears, and I slide my finger under her chin and tip it up so I can gaze into her eyes. “Hey, don’t be sad for me. I turned out okay.”

A tear slips down her cheek. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Was it horrible living with your real mother before you went into the foster system?”

I sigh. “It wasn’t pleasant, but at the time I didn’t know there was any other way to live, so I was unaware of exactly how bad it was. When the state came to take me away, I didn’t want to go with them. I fought every counselor, every foster family, teacher . . . anyone who I thought at the time was keeping me from being with my real mom. It wasn’t until Sarah came into my life that things got better and I wanted to change myself.”

“I used to feel that way about my mom too. It wasn’t until I found out she was dead that I really gave up hope of her ever wanting me back, because obviously, by then, that dream was dead just like she was. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like if I didn’t have Gran . . .” Iris shakes her head and then wraps her hands around my neck and twirls the hair at my nape around her fingers. “I’m glad you had Sarah. I would’ve loved to have met her.”

I hug her tighter against my chest. “She would’ve loved you.”

The mention of the word love causes her eyes to snap in my direction, and a strange intensity flows between us. It’s crazy to even entertain the idea of loving Iris so soon, but I know deep down that this is exactly what I’m feeling. It’s almost as if our story emulates some of the greatest love stories in history. The tales of two people who barely know one another, yet have such a strong connection that their passion is unfathomable to outsiders.

I just can’t bring myself to tell Iris that this is what I’m feeling just yet. If she finds out I love her so intensely this soon, it may scare her off.

With a regretful sigh, I pull back a bit. “I think it’s time we get that contract and head back before it starts to get late. It’s too risky to stay here much longer. Camera crews could be anywhere, and we don’t want to push our luck.”

She reluctantly nods and drops her hands from around my neck, seemingly deflated that I didn’t capitalize on the romantic moment we just shared. “You’re right.”

It kills me to disappoint her. I know we’re already in this deep together, and it probably wouldn’t totally shock her if I told her everything I’m feeling, but I just don’t want to continue moving our relationship so fast for fear it’ll stop at any moment.

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