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“Thank you for that,” she whispers. “Mark, I’m sorry for the way it ended—” “Stop.” I take her hand in mine and kiss her knuckles. “There’s nothing to apologize for, M. It was a long time ago.” She nods and bites her lip but then shakes her head and presses on. “No, I need to say this. It’s important to me.” She squares her shoulders and clears her throat and I just lean back on my hands and listen. “I know it’s been a long time, but we never talked after that day, M. I didn’t want to break it off. I knew that that’s what I was doing, but it killed me. I’d been in dance class one day, and I wasn’t concentrating, and the teacher called me out on it. She knew I was daydreaming, and explained that I needed to get my head in the game.” She frowns and shifts like she can’t get comfortable, then shrugs. “I just knew that we were so young, and that if dance was what I wanted, I had to go for it.” “I get it, Mer.” I push a piece of hair that’s fallen out of her bun behind her ear. “We were young. Chances are we would have broken up eventually. It hurt like crazy at the time, but hindsight is 20/20, right?” She nods and releases her legs, crossing them in front of her. “Tell me about New York,” I say unexpectedly, surprising us both, but I realize, I want to know everything about our time apart. Every detail. “Start at the beginning and tell me everything.” “Really? You want to know?” “Absolutely.” I let her hand go and take a sip of my water as I watch her gather her thoughts. “I didn’t want to get on that plane,” she begins softly, her eyes off in the distance, watching the lights of the boats on the water. I can’t look away from her. Fuck, I’m still pulled to her in a way I’ve never been able to explain. It was there when I was seventeen damn years old, and it’s just as strong now. “It was torture, knowing I was leaving you. The first week was scary and so much harder than I ever thought it would be.” She swallows and glances at me, then back at the boats, like she’s nervous, so I scoot next to her and link her fingers with mine. “I found an apartment and started dancing right away. From day one, it was twelve to fourteen hour days, dancing pretty much nonstop. I met Jax that first week too.” She smiles as she thinks back on that time. “He was a couple years older, but also new to the area, so we bonded. He has quite the story to tell.” She frowns suddenly and then turns those baby blues up to mine. “Maybe someday he’ll tell you about it. Anyway, we worked pretty much all the time. Classes went late into the evening, so sometimes we’d just sleep there at the studio and then get up in the morning and start all over again.” Holy shit. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I had no idea it was all-encompassing. Is this what she tried to tell me that day on her porch? “I thought my body was conditioned for it, but I hurt everywhere for a year solid. My feet, my joints, my mind. I was constantly exhausted. The auditions were nerve-wracking. I ended up in some small parts in shows. I did the Grammys and Tonys and began to make a name for myself in the community.” She smiles proudly and I squeeze her hand.

“I’m so proud of you, M.” “Thank you. It was a lot of work. Physical and mental. So much fucking competition. And oh my God, the things girls will do for parts! They’ll sleep with anyone!” I immediately tense up and she laughs. “No, M, not me. But I admit, as I got older and the younger ones would come along, sniffing around a director or producer, my back immediately came up and I was like, ‘Oh no you don’t. You’re not going to sleep your way into my part.’” “How did you end up touring?” I ask. “You knew about that?” “I paid attention,” I reply. “Jax. He’s an awesome choreographer. The best there is. He choreographed shows for Justin, Beyonce and Pink. And then one day, Starla called.” She smiles, lost in thought. Starla is a megastar, and I know that Mer toured with her for quite some time. “Starla wanted Jax to choreograph her Belladonna tour, and he insisted that she hire us both, since we usually work together, especially when it comes to couples choreography, and she agreed. We had that gig for about four years.” She grins and takes a sip of water. “We traveled the world, M. I didn’t see much of it, because we worked so much, but it was fun to perform in front of all of those people every night. And Starla is just spectacular. What a performer. She works just as hard, if not harder than the rest of us.” “You became friends.” “We did.” She nods and shivers. I check my watch and realize that we’ve already been here for a couple hours. I grab a blanket for each of us, wrap one around Mer and then one around myself and sit, ready to listen to more. “And then Mom got sick.” Her voice turns softer and more distant, and she’s still watching the water like she’s watching it all play out like a movie. “I knew I had to come home. At first she didn’t want me to. She insisted that she was okay, and honestly if she’d still had Dad or Tiff here, I probably wouldn’t have come home when I did, but she had no one, M.” I nod and rub her back soothingly, letting her talk. “I was close to retirement age anyway.” “You were twenty-seven.” My voice sounds exasperated to my own ears. “Most dancers peak at twenty-five.” She shrugs, as if it is what it is. “Touring life gets old after a while, and Mom needed me.” “Why did Jax come with you?” “He’s older than me, and we’d been together since week one.” She bites her lip and watches me quietly for a moment. “Jax is the closest thing I’ve had to a sibling since Tiff died, M. We’d talked about opening a studio for a long time, and it felt like this was the time. And I’m glad we did. The studio is doing really well.” “One more thing that I’m proud of you for,” I reply and kiss her knuckles again. “Keep

going,” I say. “Well, that’s pretty much it. The CliffsNotes version, anyway.” “Will you go on tour again?” I hold my breath, waiting for her answer. Please say no. “No,” she shakes her head. “That time of my life is done. We have been asked to choreograph Starla’s routine for the VMA’s next month, so we’ll be in LA for a few days for that, but things like that will be hit and miss. Our business is here.” “Why does Jax call you all of the crazy nicknames?” I ask. “Oh.” She swallows and cringes. “Well, eating disorders are pretty common in the dance world. That’s no secret.” My hands fist in spite of myself and my whole body stills as I think of her hurting herself that way. “Don’t worry, I didn’t get caught in that trap. Well,” she cringes again and bites her lip. “There was one director who was just a hard ass. More so than anyone else. He told me I was too big in the boob area.” She rolls her eyes. “I can’t help that I have boobs. But I thought that if I went on a diet, I might loose some weight. Jax caught on and gave me a verbal tongue lashing.” “Good for him,” I murmur, pissed that anyone would even think that Meredith is fat. If anything, she’s always been too slender. “That director made snide comments about my chest almost every day. It was hell. But I was determined that he wasn’t going to make me quit. I worked my ass off on that job. Years later, he called and asked me to audition for another role, and I turned him down.” “I bet that felt good.” God, she’s so fucking amazing. She’s turned into such a strong, confident woman. “It was awesome to tell him to kiss my fat ass.” She giggles and leans her head on my shoulder. “So, ever since then, Jax calls me things like twinkie and cheesecake. It’s just a joke.” “He seems like a funny guy.” “One of the reasons we’re friends,” she says with a grin. “He makes me laugh. And he puts up with my moody shit. And there’s no chance in hell he’ll ever hit on me.” “And for that, he’s my new best friend as well.” She laughs and then grows quiet. The boats have slowed down and the crickets and frogs around us are talking. It’s late in the evening now, but I have no intention to leave any time soon. “And you? What are you doing with that impressive science degree of yours?” “How did you know I got a science degree?” “We still know a lot of the same people, you know.” I take a deep breath and nod. “I’m not doing a damn thing with it. I worked on fishing boats in Alaska for a while, and now I’m working construction.”

“Okay, that’s the extreme CliffsNotes version. Expand, please.” I sigh and push my hand through my messy hair. Fuck, I need a haircut. I always need a haircut. “My degree was in aerospace engineering.” “Holy shit,” she replies with wide eyes. “You’re a fucking rocket scientist?” “No, I’m not. Haven’t you been listening?” “That’s just semantics. You could be a rocket scientist. How did you manage to do that so quickly?” I shrug and watch an owl fly over the lake. “After you left, all I did was study. I worked my ass off to get through college as quickly as possible. I was consumed with formulas and algorithms and if I was exhausted from school and work, I couldn’t concentrate on missing you.” I cringe and look over to see her eyes fill with tears again. “It’s okay, M,” she whispers. “It’s the truth. I did the same with dance.” “So, I got my undergrad and master’s in five years and then decided I didn’t want to live in a lab. I went to Alaska with a buddy of mine from college one summer. He worked the boats to put himself through college. I liked the solitude of it. I made good money.” “Isn’t that dangerous?” Her eyes are wide as she watches me. “It can be.” I’m not about to tell her about the times that I was so scared my bowels wanted to give out on me. No need to burden her with that. “What brought you back to Seattle?” She lies on her side, her head supported on her elbow and watches me silently. “My brother got married to Natalie and it just seemed like there was a lot going on with my family that I’d be missing.” “Luke has a beautiful family,” she replies, that wistful tone back in her voice. “They’re amazing,” I reply softly and let my eyes travel over her beautiful face. “The Montgomerys have become part of our family too. So, I decided I’d been away from home long enough and came back a couple years ago, around the time Jules and Nate married. Jules’ oldest brother owns a construction company and I run one of his crews.” “I’m surprised.” My eyes find hers as I cock an eyebrow. “Why?” “You loved science.” “I loved you more,” I reply without thinking and then wish I could pull the words back and throw them in the water. Real smooth, Williams. She clenches her eyes closed and then sits up and gazes over at me. “Do you know, whenever I got nervous, whether it was in an audition, or right before a show… whatever,

it was your voice I heard? Breathe with me, M. I clung to that more times than I can tell you. You were with me, every day. Even when I tried to forget you.” “Were there other men?” I ask with a steel in my voice I can’t hide. “It’s been ten years. Are you going to tell me you never slept with anyone in ten years?” I blink at her and then look out at the water myself. “No, I can’t tell you that.” “I’m not going to give you a play by play, M, because I don’t want that from you either. It would fucking kill me.” Her voice is strong and sure when I turn my gaze back to hers. “But I’ll say this: you will never know how much I wished for you. Even though I knew it was selfish and wrong, I just wanted you.” I open my blanket and pull her against me, rest my lips on her forehead and relish how it feels to have her in my arms. She buries her face in my neck, the way she always did, and takes in a long, deep breath. “Do you still want me?” I ask, not sure if I really want to hear the answer. “Every. Day. It’s hard to forget someone who gave you so much to remember.” She burrows deeper, clinging to me. “What about you?” “There were days,” I begin softly and rub my nose against her soft hair, “that I would have exchanged a year of my life just to touch you one more time. You are my biggest what if, M.” We sit in silence, clinging to each other for a long time, breathing each other in and enjoying the night around us. “How is it possible that you still smell the same?” she finally asks brokenly. I smile against her temple and then kiss her there. “I thought the same exact thing when you hugged me at Addie’s funeral.” “Mark, where do we go from here?” I tip her chin back to look in her eyes. They’re full of unshed tears and confusion. Fuck, I’m confused too. “Do you want to start over? Get to know each other again?” I swallow hard and watch her bite that gorgeous lower lip. “We’re not the same people we were then, M.” “The chemistry is still here,” she replies dryly. I nod, but I can’t help but wonder, is it chemistry? Or is this just simply meant to be? “I would like that,” she replies. “I’d like that very much.” Her eyes fall to my lips, and I can’t stand it any more. Those lips would tempt a saint. I lower my head and brush my lips over hers softly. Once, twice, then nibble the corner of her mouth. She sighs and moans softly, cups my face in her small hands and kisses me back. God, she feels so fucking good pressed up against me, her nipples puckered and rubbing against my chest as she pushes against me, trying to get closer. She opens her mouth for me, and my tongue tangles with hers and suddenly we’re

kissing as if no time has passed at all. My hands remember where to hold her and her hands plunge into my hair and hold on tight, the way they always did. She sighs as my hands glide down her back to her hips and back up to her face as I pull back reluctantly. “God, I missed kissing you,” I murmur. She kisses my nose and then tips her forehead against mine. “It’s late enough that no one is out here to see us,” she says with a naughty smile. “Jesus, you’d tempt an angel into hell.” I growl and push my hands under her sweater, gliding them up and down her bare back, over the thin strap of her bra. “But I’ll be damned if the first time I make love with you again is on this fucking pier.” “When did you get such a potty mouth?” she asks with a laugh and kisses my cheek, still pushing her fingers through my hair. “Many years on a fishing boat with a bunch of men,” I reply with a chuckle. “Plus, now I spend a lot of time with the Montgomerys and they’re nothing but potty mouths.” “They seem like a great family.” I pull back to look into her eyes at the wistful tone of her voice. “We’re all getting together on Sunday. Come with me.” It’s not a fucking request. She blinks rapidly and shakes her head. “Um, we just—” “I want you there,” I whisper and drag my fingertips gently down her cheek. “Please.” “This is moving fast.” “We’re just making up for lost time, baby.” She wraps her arms around my neck and hugs me tight, buries her face in my neck and squeezes. “I’ll go.” I grin and hug her back. “Look.” She pulls back and follows my outstretched arm. “The sun’s coming up.” “Holy shit, we were out here that long?” “We had a lot of catching up to do,” I reply and lie back on the dock, cradling Mer on my chest. I wrap the blanket tightly around us and kiss her head as we watch the sky begin to wake up. “I should get home. Jax probably tried to call. I left my phone in the Jeep.” “You’re a grown woman and Jax can stay out of it,” I reply. “But you’ll need your sleep.” “Come home with me,” she says spontaneously. “No sex, I swear.” “Well, that’s no fun.” She laughs and pinches my arm. “Let’s take a nap and then I’ll cook you breakfast and we can go to a movie or something. Unless you had something else planned for your day off?”

I think of all the things I need to get done today, including the touch up work on my bathroom, and then shove it all aside. “I don’t have anything more important planned than that nap and catching a movie with you.” “Let’s go.” She stands and helps me fold the blankets. “How firm are you on the no sex part of this plan?” I ask her with hope in my eyes. “Meh.” She shrugs and tilts her hand back and forth, as if to say so-so. “So you’re saying there’s a chance,” I reply with the most charming smile I can muster. “I always loved that naughty smile of yours.” “Oh, baby, just wait until you see all the other naughty things I can do.”

Chapter Four ~Meredith~ I wake slowly and blink at the sunlight falling over my face. I’m warm. Too warm, but I realize it’s not just from the sunshine. There’s a very big, very warm man pressed up against my back, his arm wrapped around my waist, holding me tightly to him even in sleep. As warm as I am, there’s no way in hell I’m moving out of his arms. Last night rushes back to me, and all I can do is sigh. It’s as though a heavy burden has been lifted. We’ve put the past behind us and can look forward. He’s a rocket scientist. He’s lived in Alaska and had so many amazing experiences since I last saw him. He’s grown up. But so have I, and I can’t wait to start getting to know each other all over again. There were days I would have traded a year of my life to touch you again. My eyes fill with tears again, and I can’t help but turn to face him, waking him up. He inhales deeply, his eyes still closed, and kisses my forehead. Is he really here? His chin is covered in stubble, begging for my hands to rub over it. His lips are full and soft, and his blond hair is a riot of mess, even messier than normal. We’re both still fully dressed. Even as exhausted as we were, I didn’t trust myself to sleep in my skivvies with him. I’m finding it impossible to keep my hands off him. I’ve always been attracted to Mark, from the moment our eyes met across that science classroom all those years ago. But Mark as a grown man is a sight to fucking behold. I sweep my hand down his neck, over his shoulder and down his arm, pausing where his T-shirt ends over his biceps. Jesus, the man’s arms should come with a warning label. May cause panties to spontaneously combust. “Go back to sleep,” he whispers and kisses my forehead again. I lift my eyes to his to see his bright blue gaze peering down at me through heavy eyelids. “You have great arms.” He growls and quickly rolls on top of me, resting on his elbows at either side of my head, brushing my hair off my face with his fingertips lazily. He sweeps his nose against mine and kisses me softly, still not quite fully awake. “You’re gorgeous in the morning,” he says and nibbles his way down my jawline. I feel his dick grow hard against my core through his jeans and I can’t help but wiggle, just a bit,

trying to get closer. “And if you keep that up, we won’t leave this bed today.” “I want to cook you breakfast.” I glance over at my alarm clock. “Make that lunch. And I want to go to the movies.” “I want to strip you naked and kiss every inch of your incredible body.” My nipples pebble and I bite my lip as he pushes back to look down at me. “I want you, M.” “I know, and trust me, I want you too.” I bury my fingers through his hair and smile up at him softly. “Let’s just take today and play. I want to laugh with you today. We used to laugh all the time.” “That’s because you’re silly,” he says and kisses my palm twice before rolling us back to our sides. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say seriously. His eyes jerk back to mine, and I know that there is doubt there. I drag my fingertips down his rough cheek, over his bottom lip. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m all yours, M.” “Fuck yes, you are.” He kisses me with dominance, claiming me like he never did before, and it makes my body come alive against him, but he slowly backs away and glides his hand down my neck, to my breast, over my nipple and to my ribcage. “We’d better get out of this bed before I say fuck it and strip you naked, baby.” I smile wickedly and bite his chin gently. “Yes, sir.” He slaps my ass playfully as I roll away and step out of bed. I immediately stretch, like I do every morning, reaching my arms up to the sky, then bending to press my palms flat on the ground next to my feet. “Showing me your perfect ass isn’t helping, Mer.” I toss a smile over my shoulder and shake my head. “Do you only think of sex?” “No, sex is not all I think about.” That naughty smile spreads across his handsome face. “I also think about you naked.” “Come on, horn dog. I’ll make BLT’s.” “You eat bacon?” he asks in surprise as he pulls himself out of the bed. “Turkey bacon.” “What the fuck is turkey bacon?” He wrinkles his nose like I just told him it was tofu bacon. “It’s bacon made out of turkey.” “Then it’s not bacon.” He props his hands on his hips and I start to salivate. Jesus, Mary and Joseph the man fills out a pair of jeans nicely. “You’ll like it.” “Just call it a TLT,” he insists and follows me out to the kitchen. “A what?” I laugh. “A turkey, lettuce and tomato.”

“Whatever makes you feel better,” I reply and smile when I see Jax sitting in the kitchen sipping water and reading a fitness magazine. “Good morning.” “It’s afternoon. What time did you get home?” he asks and eyes Mark suspiciously. “Does she have a curfew?” Mark asks coldly, glaring at Jax. “No, but she does require respect, and keeping her out all night and then sleeping with her isn’t respecting her, dude.” “No one,” Mark replies with fire shooting from his eyes as he advances on Jax, pushing his face close to his, “respects Meredith more than I do. You don’t know our history.” “I know plenty,” Jax replies softly, never breaking eye contact with Mark. “And I know I’m watching you.” Surprisingly, Mark sticks his hand out to shake Jax’s. “Thank you for protecting her,” he says quietly. “I love her,” Jax replies honestly. Mark nods, glances at me and then leans in to whisper something to Jax that I can’t hear. “Fair enough,” Jax replies with a nod. “Uh, can we forgo the pissing contest, boys?” I ask dryly. “No need to worry, Jax. We got in early this morning.” I pin him with my best butt out, everything is fine glare and turn to the fridge to find what I need to make lunch. “We’re going to a movie later. Wanna go?” “I’d love to, lollypop, but I have a date.” He grins and throws his magazine on the countertop, then leans back and crosses his arms. “I haven’t got my Men’s Fitness in the mail yet,” Mark says and reaches for the magazine, but I put my hand up, halting all conversation. “Wait. Back up. A date with who?” “You don’t know him.” Jax shakes his head and starts to walk out of the kitchen, but I grip his T-shirt in my fist from behind, bringing him to a stop. “Wait. I need details. I can’t just let you go out with some guy off the street.” “I don’t think he’s homeless, Mer,” Jax replies sarcastically and Mark snickers. “You know what I mean.” “Leave it alone. If it turns into anything other than sex, I’ll tell you more.” I cross my arms over my chest and glare at my friend. We always talk about who we’re dating. “Use condoms.” “Always.” He winks and saunters out of the kitchen, then turns back abruptly. “Don’t forget, we have rehearsal for Starla’s piece Monday before class.” “I won’t forget,” I reply and wave him off. “What did you whisper to him?” “Guy stuff,” Mark replies and leans his hips against the granite countertop, watching

me slice a tomato. “You’re not going to tell me?” “Nope.” “Fine.” I roll my eyes and assemble our sandwiches. “Do you want some watermelon with yours?” “Sure.” We eat in silence, watching each other. When he swallows, his neck muscles flex, and I can’t help but want to lick him there. I’m so gonna lick him there. “What are you thinking?” he asks as he tilts his head to the side. “Nothing.” “You just blushed and blinked fast. You were thinking something.” I lick my lips and then just smile and shrug. “I was thinking about licking your neck.” He stops chewing and stares at me for a long minute, then swallows hard, like the food in his mouth is suddenly dry and tosses the rest of our lunch in the garbage. “We need to get out of here.” “Why?” “Because I’m two seconds away from carrying you back to your room and saying fuck the movie. Let’s go.” He holds his hand out for mine, and when our fingers lace, he leads me out of the apartment and down to his Jeep. “What movie do you want to see?” he asks as he drives into downtown Seattle and finds parking. “Hmm… something either funny or full of action.” “No chick flicks?” he asks in surprise. “No way. Nothing mushy.” “You’re my kind of girl.” “I’m so glad to hear that,” I reply with a laugh and follow Mark into the movie theater. He buys our tickets for something called Waterfall. “I’ve heard good things about this one! It’s the new action movie with Mark Wahlberg, right?” “Yep,” he confirms. “Luke produced it.” “He did? Holy shit, that’s cool.” Mark smiles proudly and waits in line with me for some popcorn. “Do you still mix M&M’s in your popcorn?” “Of course,” I reply.

We gather our snacks and choose seats toward the back of the theater. “So Luke’s been producing for a while,” I comment casually and pour my plain M&M’s into the bucket of popcorn. “You used to bring me M&M’s to school every single day.” Mark grins and steals one and pops it in his mouth. “I thought I was so clever, coming up with that play on our first initials.” “You were clever,” I insist. “I thought it was incredibly romantic.” “You were easy to please.” “I was sixteen.” I shrug. “Tell me about Luke.” “Yes, he’s been producing for a long time. He mostly recruits the lead actors and finds funding for the projects, so he can work mainly from home.” “That’s awesome.” I shove some popcorn in my mouth. “You’re such a lady,” he says with a laugh. “It’s popcorn,” I say, but it comes out sounding more like it’sh pocorn. “I saw Luke’s Nightwalker movies.” “Did you have his poster hanging on your wall too?” “No, I was too old for that, and I’d already slept with his brother,” I reply without thinking then gasp and stare at Mark in horror. “I’m sorry.” “No, I’m glad you didn’t have his poster on your wall, and that you’d already slept with me.” I laugh and shake my head. “I still have no filter around you. What is that all about?” “I like it that way.” He leans in just as the previews start. “We don’t have secrets, M.” I meet him halfway and press my lips to his, then sit back to enjoy the movie. *** “Sam’s gonna be here, isn’t she?” I can’t bring myself to open the Jeep door. Mark just parked in front of one of the biggest homes I’ve ever seen, in an exclusive neighborhood of North Seattle. I’m at Will Montgomery’s house. The football player. The super sexy and talented Will Montgomery. Holy fucking hell. “Yeah, she’s going to be here.” “She hates me.” “No, she doesn’t.” He cups my chin in his hand and makes me meet his gaze. “Sam’s mellowed a lot over the past few years. Besides, I don’t give a shit what Sam thinks. Remember?” I nod and look back to the house, swallow hard, and try to think up a viable excuse to

go home. “It’s gonna be fine, M.” I nod again. I can just nod. Why am I so fucking nervous? I’ve danced before audiences of thousands. Tens of thousands. The super rich and famous and everyone in between. But these people matter to Mark and in the past forty-eight hours, Mark has grown to matter more than anyone else ever has before. After the movie, we went back to my place and watched TV all evening. At around midnight, he kissed me thoroughly and then went home. He went home without making love to me. Because we’re getting to know each other again. I don’t want to screw this up with the people who mean the most to him. “Okay, your brain is moving way too fast, baby.” He jumps out of the Jeep, jogs around to my side, and pulls me into his strong embrace. “Take a deep breath, M.” “I’m breathing.” “No, you’re not. Just breathe. You’ll have fun. You’ve already met almost everyone here.” I nod and smile bravely. He’s right. This is no big deal. I’ll make conversation and the next few hours will pass quickly and then I’ll have Mark all to myself again. “Better?” “Yeah. Sorry.” He takes my hand and leads me around the side of the house to the back yard. The view of the Puget Sound is breathtaking. It’s a gorgeous spring day, warmer than usual for this time of year. Tables with umbrellas are scattered about the yard, and children are laughing and running around. “I thought you said this was a small family thing,” I whisper to Mark in a new panic. “It is.” He smiles apologetically. “This is all family.” My eyes widen at the number of people here. I recognize Jules holding Stella, gazing lovingly up at a tall, dark man wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. His right arm is covered in tattoos. Luke and Natalie are standing with them, laughing at something Jules is saying. “Hold on,” I say and tug Mark’s arm back. No one has seen us yet. “Before you start introducing me, point out who we’re looking at so I have my wits about me.” “Okay.” “I recognize Luke, Natalie and Jules. That must be Nate?” “Yes. Over there is Sam and Leo.” “Holy shit, the rags were right. Sam’s with Leo Nash.” “She is. He’s really cool. That redhead with them is Meg. She and Leo grew up

together and Meg is Will’s fiancée.” “I’ve seen her photo before,” I reply with a nod. “And I’ve met Leo before too.” “You have?” “Yeah, he and Starla are, um, friends.” I bite my lip, not wanting to tell him that Leo and Starla were much more than that way back when. “I think Sam mentioned that before. Small world. Okay, let’s see.” Mark scans the back yard. “Over there is Caleb and Brynna with Isaac and Stacy.” “Yep, I know them from class.” “That’s right. You know my parents.” He points to one of the tables where it looks like all of the parents have gathered. Some are holding babies. The women are talking and the guys are laughing. “There are also Gail and Steven Montgomery, and Brynna and Stacy’s parents.” “That’s right, Brynna and Stacy are cousins, right?” “Yep. And that’s Matt with his girlfriend, Nic.” “Lots of people.” “I think that’s it.” “Who’s the hot Italian guy?” I ask without thinking, earning a cocked brow from Mark. “That’s Dominic. He’s a half brother to the Montgomerys. I’ll tell you that story later. I’ll also be watching you around him. He’s the last single one among them.” “Hey, you’re here!” Jules jogs over to us and hugs us both. “I’m so glad you came,” she tells me. “Thanks for having me,” I reply. “Come on, I’m going to introduce you to everyone.” She smiles widely, looking beautiful in her red sundress and sandals. “Don’t you just love this weather?” “Yes, I’m so ready for summer,” I reply and smile as Jules introduces me to everyone in the back yard. When we make our way to Sam and Leo, I feel my heart rate pick up and the nerves go crazy in my stomach. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck. “Hey, Leo and Sam, this is Meredith. She’s here with Mark.” Sam’s face goes pale in shock. Her jaw drops and then she blinks and looks around for her brother. “Hi, Leo,” I say lamely. “Meredith.” He pulls me in for a hug and smiles happily. “It’s been a while. You must be the Meredith that teaches dance class for the girls.” “One and the same,” I confirm. “You two know each other?” Jules asks.

“Yes, I used to tour with Starla,” I reply. “The music community is a small one.” “Ah yes, the bimbo you banged years ago, right?” Sam asks with a smirk and rolls her eyes. “According to you, I banged everyone,” Leo replies with a smile. “I know for a fact you banged Starla.” “There’s no video proof,” Leo replies and Mark laughs next to me. Holy shit, these people are funny. At least, I hope they’re being funny. “That we know of,” Sam replies and watches me with narrowed eyes. Fuck. “How is Starla?” Leo asks. “She’s great. She’s getting married in Paris this fall and goes back on tour next year.” “Good for her. I’m glad to hear it.” Sam walks away and Leo pats my arm before following her. “It’s great to see you, Mer.” “You too,” I reply and nod, then feel myself blush under Jules’ stare. “What?” “You have gossip,” she accuses me. “Admit it.” I laugh and shake my head, finally feeling myself begin to relax. “I’ve signed nondisclosure agreements, Jules.” “Oh, honey,” she says as though I’m a child with so much to learn. “I’ll give you liquor. That’ll loosen those lips right up.” “I’ll have to remember not to bring Jax around. Pretty girls and liquor will make him spill his guts every time.” Jules leads me back to Natalie and Luke, who both hug me tightly. I’ve felt Mark’s eyes on me the whole time, and he smiles at me from Luke’s side. “Meredith has gossip. We need to take her with us on girls night out to liquor her up and make her spill the beans.” “I’m telling you,” I insist. “Jax is better at that than me.” “Is Jax your partner?” Natalie asks. “Yes, he’s been my dance partner for years and now we’re business partners.” “He’s hot,” Jules informs everyone. “I saw him at the recital.” “Is he now?” Nate asks calmly and kisses a sleeping Stella’s head. Holy hell, Nate is one fine specimen of man. He’s all dark and toned and… wow. “Something you need to tell me?” “Don’t get your panties in a twist, ace.” “No worries,” I assure him as well. “Jax is very gay.” “Oh my god,” Natalie exclaims. “We’re bringing you both out for girls night out.”

“We’d love that.” “Miss Mer!” Josie and Maddie both run over to me and throw themselves in my arms, hugging me tightly. “You’re here!” “I’m here,” I say and hug them back just as Sophie joins them. My arms are full of little girls. “This is our baby cousin Livie,” Maddie says, introducing a tiny little dark-haired girl who smiles up at me shyly. “I remember you from the recital. How old are you, Livie?” “She’s two,” Natalie says with a smile. “She’s beautiful.” Livie giggles and holds her arms up for me to lift her into my arms. I can’t resist her. “Hello, gorgeous girl. Don’t you have the prettiest hair?” “She has hair like her mama,” Luke says and kisses Natalie’s forehead. “Will you dance with us?” Maddie asks hopefully. “Dance!” Livie exclaims, making us laugh. “Maybe later, sweetie.” Someone has piped music outside, and Kelly Clarkson is currently singing through the speakers. “Yes!” Josie yells and the girls run away. Livie squirms in my arms, wanting to follow her cousins, so I set her on her feet and she toddles away. “At what age can we put her in class?” Natalie asks. “I recommend after three, after potty training.” “Hold a place open for us.” “There is always space for you guys,” I assure them and feel Mark slip his hand possessively on my lower back. I lean into him and sigh in contentment. Over the next few hours, I make the rounds with Mark around the party, speaking with Will and Meg and the other siblings. Jesus, the Montgomerys are gorgeous. Every single one of them. It’s a visual feast that I don’t mind in the least. Mark’s parents hug me warmly. I’ve never been welcomed so quickly by a group of people in my life. I walk over to a cooler by the back door and pull a fresh bottle of water from the ice and turn in time to run smack into Dominic. “Oh! Excuse me.” “My fault,” he assures me and grips my arms to make sure I don’t fall backward. “Sorry about that.” “I wasn’t watching where I was going. I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Meredith.” I hold my hand out to shake his, and he raises my hand to his lips, kisses it softly and then lets go. “I’m Dom. Welcome.” “Thank you.”

“Who are you here with?” he asks and turns to scan the yard. “Mark.” He turns back to me with a raised brow. “Really. Very interesting.” He takes my hand again kisses it, then winks before pulling away. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Meredith. Good luck.” He leaves me standing here, confused. What did he mean by interesting? Suddenly, I realize the condensation from the water bottle has dribbled down my shirt. I walk into the kitchen to dab at it with a towel, and just then, Sam walks into the kitchen behind me. When she sees me, she turns abruptly to leave, but I stop her. “Wait. Sam, can we talk?” She stops mid-stride and sighs deeply before turning back around and facing me. Her face is completely sober, but I can tell this is not the conversation she wants to have. “What’s up?” she asks. “I swear, Keaton eats more than I do,” Natalie says as she bustles into the kitchen and pulls a bottle out of the fridge, then turns to us and her eyes go wide. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” “You didn’t,” Sam replies. “What do you want, Meredith?” “First of all, I hope I didn’t cause any trouble by mentioning Starla earlier.” Sam laughs and shakes her head, surprising me. “Trust me. Starla is not an issue. I’ve known about her for a long time, and not that it’s any of your business, but Leo and I are just fine.” She begins to walk away, but I stop her again. “Well, I guess I want to clear the air. I know you’ve never liked me.” She holds her hand up for me to stop talking. “I didn’t know you. I was away at college when you dated my brother all those years ago. But I do know that you broke his heart.” “I don’t want you to hate me—” “I don’t hate you. I just don’t trust you.” Well, there you go. “Sam,” Natalie says softly. “You didn’t trust me either.” “I didn’t know you either, but you didn’t see Mark after she broke it off,” Sam reminds her, then glances back at me and pulls in a deep breath before letting it out slowly. “People grow up. They change. I know that.” She props her hands on her hips. “I love my brothers more than just about anything, so I’ll be watching, Meredith. I don’t hate you. I don’t even dislike you. I don’t trust you.” “I get it.” I nod and shrug. “What the hell is going on?” Mark asks from the doorway.

Chapter Five ~Mark~ I saw Mer walk through the back door a few minutes ago, and Sam followed her, and neither has emerged. I don’t have a good feeling about this. “Hey,” I say to Luke quietly. “I’ll be back.” He nods and I make a beeline for the open door, and just as I’m about to walk through, I hear Sam say, “I don’t trust you.” “What the hell is going on?” I demand. Natalie is holding a baby bottle in her hand, biting her lip. Sam’s hands are braced on her hips and Meredith is leaning her hands on the countertop, but she looks fine. She’s not crying or breathing heavily, and I send up a silent prayer of thanks. Sam can be ruthless. But Mer is holding her own. My strong girl. “I’m just clearing the air with Sam,” Mer says and smiles brightly. “No problem.” I glance at Sam who continues to watch Meredith before she turns to me and shrugs. “We’re fine, Mark.” “There’s no blood?” I ask, trying to lighten the mood. “Not yet,” Sam says and cocks a brow at me. “Geez, no need to be violent, slugger.” “We’ll see,” she replies and turns to leave. “I’m going to take this to Keaton,” Natalie says, but stops by Meredith on her way by. “I’m glad you’re here. Just give it time.” Mer smiles and nods and I immediately cross to her and tilt her chin up. “What happened?” “Nothing dramatic,” she replies. “She doesn’t dislike me. She doesn’t trust me, which I can work with.” “What does that mean?” “It means that it’s better than I thought.” She smiles and hugs me tightly, wrapping her arms around me and nuzzling her face against my chest. “I know Sam can be ruthless, so if she said anything to make you…” “Stop.” She lays her hand on my chest and looks up at me with those blue eyes, shining with unshed tears. “Do you know what I would give to be able to grill my sister’s

boyfriend? To make him squirm a little?” She shakes her head and bites her lip and I tighten my arms around her. “I can handle Sam.” “Okay.” I kiss her head and hug her close. “Do you want to leave?” “No, let’s go back out.” She smiles bravely and my heart melts a little more. She’s here because of me, because she knows it’s important to me. She leads me outside and we quickly join a conversation with Meg, Will, Matt and Nic. “Vegas,” Meg says. “What’s happening in Vegas?” I ask, keeping Mer’s hand in mine. Matt and Will both notice and exchange a glance. Yeah, I’ll be getting ribbed later. I don’t care. “We’re all going to Vegas,” Will says. “We’re just going to do a big group bachelor/bachelorette party.” “Fun,” I reply. “When?” “In a few weeks,” Meg says and smiles. “We’re making all the travel arrangements. All you guys have to do is show up.” “I like the sound of this trip,” Matt says. “How are the wedding plans coming?” Will groans, but Meg lights up, clearly excited to talk about wedding plans. “Great! Alecia is the best.” “Alecia is planning this one too?” I ask. That woman plans every event for this family. She might as well just marry someone and officially become part of the gang. “Yes, and she’s brilliant.” “When is the big day?” Meredith asks. “June 9th,” Meg replies. “That’s only about six weeks away,” Nic replies. “I’ll need you in the shop this week so we can look at cake ideas.” “Okay! Fun!” Meg agrees. “It took us a while to choose a date,” she tells Meredith. “It’s because she’s lazy,” Will informs us all with a smile. Meg slaps his arm and rolls her eyes. “I am not lazy.” “I can’t wait to marry you,” Will says and nuzzles Meg’s ear, making her laugh. “Let’s go right now.” “It’s Sunday,” Meg replies and pushes against Will’s chest. “Nothing is open right now.” “I’ll make some calls,” Will replies with a smug smile. “Miss Mer!” Josie interrupts, pulling on Meredith’s hand. “We love this song! Come dance with us. Please?”

Meredith laughs. “You like Starla, do you?” “Yes, please come dance.” “Okay.” She smiles up at me. “My dance card just filled up. I’ll be back.” “Have fun.” She lets Maddie take one hand and Josie take the other as they guide her to the open lawn area where the kids have been playing. She starts to move her body, showing the girls some new moves, laughing with them. Maddie concentrates, watching Mer with an intense look on her sweet face. “She’s great,” Nic comments and sips her water. “You brought a woman to a family function,” Will states soberly. I just nod and watch as Livie joins the others and Meredith lifts her in her arms and twirls her around, dancing effortlessly with the toddler. “He’s not even listening to us,” Matt comments. “I can hear you, asshole.” “She’s so good with the kids,” Isaac says as he and Caleb join us. I nod and shove my hands in my pockets as Mer glances up and winks at me, sending a punch right to my gut. “Brynna rarely drops the girls off with anyone,” Caleb says, “but she and Stacy have no qualms about leaving the girls with Meredith while they go get pedicures during dance class.” Sophie tries to turn and falls on her butt. Her little lip sticks out, but before she can start to cry, Mer squats next to her, Livie still in her arms, and calms her, then helps her back to her feet so she can continue dancing with the others. Christ, she’s magnificent. She kisses Liv’s cheek and then sets her on her feet so she can dance in that awkward way that toddlers do, and finishes the song with the others. “She’s clearly in the right job,” Matt says quietly. “Most of us can’t deal with two of them at once, and she has all of them around her effortlessly.” He points as baby Liam toddles over and grips her jeans, pulls himself up on his feet and bounces on his legs, dancing with the others. “Mark’s a goner,” Meg says. I glance over at her and grin. “I’m bringing her with me to Vegas.” I’m bringing her with me everywhere. If I’m invited, she’s invited. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” she replies and pats my arm. “I like her already.” I’m fucking in love with her again already. I’m never letting her go. Never again. She comes running back to us, out of breath and a wide smile on her beautiful face. “They would dance all day,” she says with a laugh. “Maddie’s amazing. If she wanted to, she could go pretty far in the dance world.” “She’s eight.” Caleb growls.

“Well, not today,” Mer agrees. “But someday.” “She asked me if we could sign her up for one on one classes with you,” Brynna says as she pats Michael on the back. “Isn’t she too young for that?” “Maybe a bit,” Mer says and purses her lips as she thinks it over. “You could add a second class a week for now. If she’s still interested when she hits about thirteen, I can take her on one on one and work with her.” Brynna nods thoughtfully and glances up at Caleb who’s just gone pale. “What do you think?” “I think I don’t want to even think about the day she turns thirteen.” “Oh! That reminds me, I have something for Mom. I brought her birthday gift along with us, but it’s in the car. Meredith, will you hold Michael for me?” “Oh, I…” Mer begins, but Brynna places the sleeping baby in Mer’s arms and hurries away. Mer looks at each of us with panicked eyes and then back down at the oblivious baby. “I’m not good with babies. Here, his dad should hold him.” “You’ll do fine,” Caleb says with an amused grin. “Here,” Stacy says and helps Meredith settle Michael on her shoulder. “There you go. He’s not going anywhere.” “You were just swarmed by children and looked just fine, sweetheart,” Will says. “I’m good with kids, but tiny babies scare the hell out of me. I’m afraid I’ll break them.” Meredith immediately sways back and forth, patting Michael’s diaper-covered butt and rests her cheek on his head. “Is this okay?” “Perfect,” I reply quietly. Her eyes find mine over the baby’s head and she smiles softly. “Wow,” someone—Meg?—says. I can’t look away from the gorgeous woman before me. My woman. Mine. She looks amazing wearing that baby. I can see her holding our baby. Grandbabies. Fuck, this is forever. She’s it for me. “I’m going to need someone to take that baby,” I say calmly. “Why?” Mer asks and frowns. “Am I doing it wrong?” “No, I need to get you out of here. Now.” “I got it!” Stacy takes Michael from Meredith and I immediately grip her hand in mine and tug her along behind me to the gate at the side of the house. “Goodbye everyone!” she calls with a laugh and waves. “I had a great time! Thanks for including me!” “Goodbye!” I can hear the guys laughing, and I don’t give a shit. I need her. I need to

claim her, to remind her that she’s mine. To lose myself in her for hours, rediscovering everything about her. “Mark?” she asks with another laugh. “Slow down, babe.” “No.” I yank the Jeep door open and wait for her to climb in but she stops in front of me and cups my face in her small hands. “Stop. What got into you?” “I can’t wait another minute.” Her eyes darken as she watches me. “I know it’s nuts and my brother will most likely never let me forget dragging you out of there like a caveman, but I can’t share you with them any longer. I need you naked and wet and moving beneath me for about the next two days.” Her eyes dilate and she licks her lips as she watches my mouth move. Her hands are braced on my biceps and I smile as I flex them on purpose, making her eyes widen and that pulse point in her throat thrum in anticipation. “Well, when you put it like that,” she says softly. “Are you taking me home?” “I’m taking you to my place,” I reply and tip my forehead down onto hers. “No interruptions. I’m going to make you scream and laugh and come undone, and I don’t want you worrying about who can hear us when I do.” “Fair enough,” she says. “Can we stop talking about it in Will’s driveway and just go do it now?” “That was the idea.”

Chapter Six ~Meredith~ “Where do you live?” I ask and nervously bounce my knee in a fast staccato. “About ten minutes from here,” he replies and takes my hand in his, pulling it to his lips to kiss my knuckles. “Too far.” I can’t stand it anymore. Telling me he needs me now flipped a switch inside me and I need to touch him. He stops at a red light and I slip out of my seatbelt and crawl over the center console, grip his face in my hands and kiss him. Demandingly. He growls and buries his fingers in my hair, holding me to him as he kisses me back with a hunger I’ve never seen from him before. Suddenly, a car honks behind us, alerting us of the green light. “Too fucking far,” I say and sit back in my seat. Mark keeps my hand gripped tightly in his as he maneuvers the Jeep through the neighborhood to his house and comes to a quick stop in the driveway. “Home sweet home,” he murmurs, jumps out of the Jeep and jogs around to my door to help me out. “I like your house.” It’s in an established neighborhood, on the bigger side, with a huge blooming cherry blossom tree in the front yard. “Thanks,” he replies and leads me through the front door. “I’ll give you the tour later.” He throws his keys on a nearby table, and turns to me, pins me against the closed door at my back and devours my mouth, kissing me hungrily. He cups my cheek with one hand and with the other, lifts my right leg up around his waist and grips my ass in his palm. “God, you feel good, M,” he murmurs against my lips. Suddenly he spins us around and pulls my top over my head just as I dive for the button on his jeans. We can’t get each other naked fast enough. We are a tangle of clothes and arms and laughter as we strip each other quickly and trip and stumble our way up a set of stairs and into his bedroom. He’s still in boxers when he tears my panties from my body. Fuck, his arms are flexing, the muscles jumping beneath his bronze skin and I’m about to come undone. I reach for his boxers, but he suddenly stops cold, grips my wrist to stop me from touching him. “Mark, hurry,” I begin, but he interrupts me. “Don’t talk.” “What?” His eyes are roaming up and down my naked body like he’s a starved man at an all you

can eat buffet. “Just the sound of your voice is going to make me come right now, M. Fuck me, you’re so…” He shakes his head as if he just can’t find the right word. “I thought you were going to fuck me,” I pout and then grin at him but his eyes meet mine and they are on fire. His face is tight, his jaw clenched as he closes the gap between us, lifts me easily in his arms and lays me on the bed. He kisses up my body, from my belly, between my breasts, up my neck and finally covers me completely and kisses me softly. “Trust me, I’m going to fuck you. I’m going to fuck you blind, but I’m not going to fuck you right now, baby.” He strokes my hair and nudges my nose with his. “I’ve waited such a long time for this moment. I’m going to make long, slow love to you. I’m going to explore every inch of this amazing body. I have to relearn you, M.” Tears prick my eyes at his sweet words. His fingers are infinitely gentle as they stroke down my cheek. My hands can’t stop roaming up and down his back, down his arms and then over his back again. His skin is warm and smooth and the muscles jump beneath my touch. “I love touching you,” I whisper. He grins and lowers his lips to my lips, then drags them down my jawline to my neck and begins a slow journey down my body. He doesn’t leave one inch untouched. He pauses at my breasts and pulls back to admire them, and I can’t help but giggle. “So you’re a boob man.” The naughty smile spreads over his lips and he leans in to circle his nose around one tight areola. “Your breasts filled out nicely.” “Told you,” I murmur and push my fingers through his hair. “Your body was always magnificent. You kept me in a perpetual state of horniness for a long time, but my God, Mer, seeing you as a woman, it’s just breathtaking.” “You’re getting laid, M. You don’t have to shower me with pretty words.” His eyes find mine and I know he’s not kidding. “I’ll give you all the pretty words I want to, and you should know that I mean every single one of them.” His hands glide down my stomach, over my hips and between my thighs, but he doesn’t touch me where my body is begging him to. My hips come up off the bed, begging for his attention. “Beautiful skin,” he continues and kisses the path his hands just took, down my belly to my hip. “What is this?” “A tattoo.” I grin down at him and laugh when his jaw drops. “You don’t like it?” His fingers dance over the ink. “It’s tiny.” I glance down where he’s looking and nod. It’s a simple eighth note, and in the middle of the circle part of the note is an M.

“I kept two things with me while I was dancing,” I begin and bite my lip. “Music…” I take a deep breath. Jesus, I’m laying myself bare here. “And.” “You.” His eyes connect with mine. “You’re unbelievable.” He brushes his thumb over the ink as he watches me quietly for a long moment, then places several kisses over my hip, nuzzles my small tattoo, and then travels farther down my thigh. “You’re killing me,” I tell him and wiggle my hips. “Settle in, baby, because you’re in for a long ride.” “Jesus Christ, what did you just do with your finger?” I boost myself up on my elbows and stare down at him as he kisses my knee. “Who says that was my finger?” I laugh and fall to my back and then moan when he reaches my foot and begins to rub it in strong circles. “Oh God.” “Your feet have taken a beating.” “Don’t look directly at them. You’ll run screaming.” He chuckles and kisses the top of my foot then moves to the other one and repeats the process. “I’m not going anywhere, baby.” He moves up my leg to make me writhe and moan as he pays extra attention behind my knee and just when I think he’s going to dive into the sweet spot, he avoids it completely, kisses up my hip, belly and teases the other breast. “Mark?” “Yes, love.” “Take your shorts off and let me have a turn.” “You got very bossy,” he murmurs and kisses my jaw. “I’m clearly not doing my job right if you’re still able to string words together.” “You’re doing fine.” “I’m going to do a lot better than fine, sweetheart.” His hand drifts down my belly and his fingers finally slide between my folds and into my wet core. “Holy fuck,” he whispers against my lips. “You’re so fucking wet, M.” “Need you,” I reply and gasp when his fingers move slowly in and out then up to circle my clit.

“Is this what you need?” I shake my head and lift my hips, pushing against his hand. Dear God, he’s good with his hands. “What do you need?” “You!” “I’m right here,” he replies. I can feel the bed shift as he shuffles out of his shorts then kneels between my thighs. “I’m going to eat this pussy before the night is out.” “Fuck,” I whisper. “No?” “Yes!” He chuckles and I hear the rip of a condom wrapper. “Look at me, M.” I open my eyes and look directly into his dark blue gaze. He takes one of my hands in his, links our fingers and holds our hands over my head while guiding himself to my entrance. His eyes never leave mine as he begins to push inside me. His fingers tighten on mine. I cup his face with my free hand, and I’ve never loved him more than I do in this moment. I love you. He pushes in all the way and stops, every muscle tight with the effort of holding still, panting, watching me. “So tight.” He kisses me softly and nibbles his way to the corner of my mouth. I hitch my thighs up higher around his hips and he growls. “You’re going to make me lose it.” I grin and rotate my hips, watching with fascination as he bites his lip. I love watching him struggle to keep his composure. “Mark,” I whisper and pull my fingertips down his face. “You feel so good.” He begins to move now, slowly at first and then faster, as though an outside force is pushing him on. He grabs my other hand in his and pins it above my head as our bodies take over, moving in perfect tandem. Fuck, he’s so big. I can’t help but grip him hard as he thrusts in and out until finally he swears a blue streak as I come apart beneath him, crying out as the orgasm consumes me. “That’s it, baby,” he says and watches with hungry eyes as I shiver beneath him. “Fuck yes.” He groans and comes hard, rocking his hips against mine as he empties himself inside me. He’s panting as he releases my hands and rests his forehead against mine. I can’t move my arms, so I leave them resting on the bed where he left them. “Do you know what I whispered to Jax yesterday?” he asks suddenly. “Uh, I wasn’t really thinking about Jax while you’re still inside me,” I reply and chuckle making him flinch as my pussy squeezes him with the movement.

“Smart ass,” he whispers and kisses me softly then brushes loose tendrils of hair off my cheeks. “I told him that I love you more than I can say.” I still and feel my eyes widen as I stare up at him. “You did?” He nods and continues to watch me soberly. He looks like he’s going to say something more, but before he can, I wrap my arms around him and bury my face in his neck and murmur, “I love you so much.” He rolls us so he’s beneath me and I push up onto my elbows so I can see his face while I continue. “But I never stopped, M. I gave you my heart all those years ago, and I never took it back.” “I’m not giving it back,” he replies. “Good.” “But I believe I made you a promise.” His face is completely serious as he stares up at me and I frown. “What?” “I promised,” he says and kisses my palm. “To fuck you.” My lips twitch as I try to stay serious and nod gravely. “You did.” “I’m a man of my word, you know.” “Yes, you do have that reputation.” He sits up and pulls me from the bed then tosses me over his shoulder and carries me into his master bathroom. It still smells of sawdust, and the new gleam of fresh countertops and tile makes me smile. “This is beautiful.” “I finished it this morning.” “Did you stay up all night doing this?” He nods as he sets me on the countertop and discards the condom. “You wanted to go to the movies yesterday,” he says. “You were supposed to do this instead?” “No, I was supposed to go to the movies with the woman I’m in love with.” He starts the shower and then returns to me. “I’m still on the pill, M. We don’t need the condoms.” He cringes and shakes his head, glances down and then meets my gaze. “I haven’t been a saint, Meredith. I’ve always, always used condoms, but I won’t take any chances with you. We’ll use them until I see a doctor this week.” The thought of him with other women makes me want to claw someone’s eyes out, but I take a deep breath and remind myself of what I told him the other night on the pier. It’s been ten years. I haven’t been a saint either.

“Okay,” I reply. “Starla required us to get check ups every year, and I haven’t had any partners since the last one. I’m good.” “You’re amazing and I don’t deserve you.” “This is probably true.” He laughs and wraps his arms around me, hugging me tight. His bare chest feels fantastic against my cheek and we stay like this for a long minute while we wait for the shower to heat up. When steam begins to fill the room, Mark helps me down and leads me into the gorgeous blue-tiled shower big enough to have a floor show in. “Did you plan to host parties in here?” “Just the two-person kind with you,” he replies and begins soaping me up with my brand of shower gel and a fresh shower puff. “You bought my shower gel? Pretty sure of yourself.” “Hopeful,” he says and draws circles over my belly and down over my bare pubis. I grab a washcloth and return the favor, loving the feel of his naked body beneath my hands. “Your body is incredible,” I murmur. “Glad you approve.” “I might never stop touching you.” “That’s the plan.” I grin up at him as he rinses us both off and suddenly his eyes turn hot again and he backs me up against the cool tile and kneels before me, lifts my left leg and throws it over his shoulder, opening me up to him. “I’m going to slip and fall.” I gasp. “I’ve got you,” he replies and watches my face as he slips his fingers through my lips. “God, Mer, you’re so fucking wet.” “You turn me on.” I grip his hair in my hands and hold on as he growls and leans in to tease my clit with his tongue and lips. He sinks two fingers inside me and wraps those lips around my clit and that’s all it takes, I come apart, crying out his name while leaning against the wall of the shower. He stands, flips the shower off and doesn’t even bother drying us off as he tugs me behind him back to the bed. “Um, Mark? I’m wet here.” “Fuck yes, you are,” he says and tosses me—tosses me!—onto the bed then spreads my legs wide and dives back in. “You taste so fucking good.” He’s lapping at my labia, licking every drop from me, then pushes his fingers back in and jerks them quickly, tipping me over another ledge into a mind-numbing orgasm. “Holy shit!” He licks and bites his way up my body, sheaths himself in a condom and plunges inside

me, fast and hard. “Fuck, Mer,” he growls and begins pounding in and out of me. The sounds coming out of him are primal and gritty and I love this side of him as much as the man who made sweet love to me not thirty minutes ago. Suddenly, he pulls out and flips me over, yanks my hips up and plunges back inside me from behind, smacks my ass and rides me in earnest. Holy fucking hell, it’s the hottest thing I’ve ever experienced. “Mark, oh my God!” “Mine,” he growls and leans in to press his lips to my ear. “You are mine.” I grip the sheets in my fists and hold on for this wild ride with this crazy, amazing man. “Say it,” he commands. “Yours,” I reply breathlessly. “Always.” “Fuck yes, always.” He grips my hips and pounds into me for several long minutes then stops, balls-deep, and shouts as he comes hard, sending me over with him. “Jesus Christ, I won’t survive you,” he says breathlessly as he falls beside me in a heap. “That one was all you, babe,” I reply and crawl onto his chest. “Wow. You’re definitely better than fine.” “You’re magnificent,” he whispers and kisses my forehead. “I love you, M.” “I love you too.” *** I wake alone. It’s dark, still the middle of the night, and the bed is cold where Mark was lying. Where did he go? I wrap the sheet around me and set out to find him. The house is still, but when I glance out the window, his Jeep is still in the driveway. I search the whole house and come up empty, but then see a glow coming from the back yard. I open the French door to the patio and step out into the mild night to find Mark sitting on a chaise lounge, watching the flames in a brick fireplace. “What are you doing?” I ask and cross to him. He’s shirtless, clad only in loose sweats that hang in that way that show off the V muscles in his hips. Delicious. And just like that, I’m wide awake and my body is humming in anticipation. “I didn’t want to wake you. I couldn’t sleep.” He holds his hand out for me then pulls me into his lap. I snuggle up against him and watch the fire. “Aren’t you cold?” “I’m good,” he replies and kisses my head.

“Why can’t you sleep?” He shrugs and I lean back to watch his face. “Mark?” “I just keep thinking that this is going to be a dream.” He chuckles ruefully and shakes his head. “I think I just lost my man card.” “I get it.” I wiggle out of his lap and shed the sheet, then tug his sweats down around his thighs, unleashing his thick erection before straddling him and sinking down onto him. “No condom.” He gasps and grips my hips as I rock back and forth slowly. “It’s fine,” I whisper and kiss him sweetly. “This is no dream, babe.” He closes his eyes and I lean my forehead on his as I ride him steadily. “This is you and me, M.” His mouth closes around my nipple and I throw my head back as the electricity zings down to my core, making me clench around him harder. He pushes a hand between us and circles my clit with his thumb, and I’m lost to him, biting my lip as I come around him. “Fuck,” he whispers and comes with me, then pulls me down to him, kissing me and holding me close. Finally, I rest my head on his chest, content to sit and watch the fire beside us. “It’s no dream. It’s better,” I say quietly. “So much better,” he agrees.

Chapter Seven “Okay girls! It’s our favorite time! Free dance!” Jax announces and the girls in class clap and jump up and down. This is our older class, over fourteen, so Jax chooses a brand new Pitbull song and the girls begin to dance about the floor. The part the girls love the most about this time of class is that Jax and I join them, dancing with them as if we were at a school dance. Jax grabs my hand and spins me into his arms, then boosts me up into a lift and back down into another spin, making everyone cheer. He’s such a show-off. When the song is over, the girls change their shoes and gather their book bags and jackets, waving goodbye as they leave. “That Melissa is good,” Jax mentions as he locks the glass door. “She’s really good,” I agree and drop down in the chair behind the desk. “You should work with her one-on-one.” “Me? I thought that was your area.” He leans his hip on the desk and guzzles a bottle of water. “She responds well to you, and she doesn’t have a crush on you, so it would work well.” “I’m hurt that she doesn’t have a crush on me.” He pretends to pout. “I must be losing my touch.” “You’re getting old,” I tease him and laugh when he flips me off. “I’ll talk to her mom next week.” “Her mom will jump all over it,” he says with a shake of his head. “Some of the moms get more excited about it than the dancers do.” “My mom always loved watching me dance.” The pain is swift and sharp, settling heavy in my heart. “She would be so fucking proud of you, shortcake,” he says and pulls me in for a hug. “She was always proud, and seeing you start this studio made her glow with it.” “I’m glad she got to see it,” I say and blink hard against the tears that always threaten when we start talking about my mom. “She enjoyed watching the little ones dance.” “She enjoyed watching you teach them,” he replies softly. I bite my lip and stare up at my friend for a long minute and then decide fuck it, and let the tears come. “I miss her. Why do people I love die?” “I’m sorry,” he says as he pulls me into his arms and rocks me back and forth.

“You can’t die on me,” I cry and bury my face in his chest. “I tried to shake you off years ago, but you wouldn’t leave, so you can’t die on me.” “Silly woman, thinking you could shake me off. I showed you.” He tips my face up and wipes my cheeks dry with his thumbs. “I’m not going anywhere.” “Okay.” I nod and take a deep calming breath. “Thank you for tolerating my hysteria.” “I’m used to it.” I glare and punch him in the arm. “Ow! I’m also used to the violence.” He rubs his arm and doesn’t look me in the eye when he says, “Going out with Mark again tonight?” “We had planned to.” I check my phone and smile when I see a text from him. What are you wearing? “So you won’t be home again tonight?” His face is neutral, but his voice sounds annoyed. “Are you keeping score? I doubt you’ve been home much more than I have since you’ve been seeing your new guy.” “I’m home more than you know,” he says. “Who is this guy, by the way?” He shrugs and takes another drink of water. “Why don’t you want to talk about him? We always talk about who we’re dating.” “Like you’ve been talking to me about Mr. Hot Tamale?” “That’s not fair. I haven’t seen you.” “That’s my point, Cherry Garcia.” “What do you have against Mark? He never did anything wrong in the first place.” “It feels like you’re moving fast. I heard you tell him that you love him over the phone yesterday. Are you sure he has good intentions? Maybe he’s got some vindictive plan to hurt you so he can get retribution for you dumping him back in the day.” “Uh, hello, drama queen.” I shake my head in exasperation. “No, I don’t think that.” “I’m just saying it’s a possibility.” “You don’t know him, Jax. He’s not like that.” “Okay, it’s your heart.” He shrugs and moves to walk away, but I stand and stop him. “I know it’s fast,” I admit and chew my lip as he stands and watches me with worried eyes. “You think I don’t know it? It’s scaring the shit out of me.” “If he’s pressuring you into something…” “Oh, get real.” I roll my eyes and shake my head. “No one pressures me into anything. You know that better than anyone. I don’t feel pressured, I feel… drawn to him. I can’t stop it. It’s stronger than it was when we were teenagers, and it’s not just the sex, although, hello, the man has sure as hell honed that skill, and he was good ten years ago.”

“Oh good. That’s exactly what I want to hear about, your sex life.” “Am I making a mistake? Am I letting myself fall back into love with him and setting myself up for heartbreak when it all falls apart?” “Why is it going to fall apart?” “Why wouldn’t it?” “Boy, we’re both pretty cynical, aren’t we?” He smirks and then runs his hand down my ponytail. “As long as you’re on the same page, don’t walk away from him. I watched you pine for him for years. If this is your time to be together, reach for it, Mer.” “Wow, that’s very romantic coming from you.” He laughs and backs away. “Or just fuck him until you have him out of your system and kick him to the curb, but I don’t see that happening this time.” Neither do I. “Either way, keep me posted.” His smile fades and he checks his phone. “I have to go.” “Don’t walk away, Jax. Something is off with you this week. Is it this Mr. Lovey Pants you’re seeing?” He busts out laughing and then pulls me into a big hug. “Mr. Lovey Pants?” “What’s going on?” He sighs and kisses my head then pulls away and sits on the desk, swinging his feet. “His name is Logan. I thought it would be a quick fuck, as usual, but it’s… not.” He shrugs as if he’s at a complete loss, and I take his hand in mine and squeeze. “What is it?” “Hell if I know. The sex is crazy. He’s thoughtful and nice and I stayed the night with him. Twice.” “Wow,” I reply with raised brows. “That’s very un-Jax.” “Yeah, you’re usually the only one I like to cuddle with.” He grins and tweaks my nose with his fingertip then his face sobers. “It’s been hard to slide into second place on your priority list.” I blink at him in surprise. “Do you think that’s what’s happened since I’ve been back with Mark? I’ve been sleeping with him less than a week.” “That is what’s happened, cheesecake. But it would have happened sooner or later, no matter who you’re seeing. I get it. It just doesn’t feel good.” “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I love you, Jax. You’re always going to be important to me, no matter what.” “I know. I’m stuck with you. It’s a burden I bear bravely.” I laugh and shake my head at him, but I can’t help but feel guilty. I haven’t spent any time with Jax outside of being at the studio, and we’re always working when we’re here. “Do you have plans with Logan tonight?”

“Yeah.” “Well I’ll tell you what. I’ll cancel with Mr. Hot Tamale and you’ll cancel with Mr. Lovey Pants and you and I will go get mani/pedi’s.” He looks surprised for a moment, then tosses his head back and forth like he’s contemplating my offer. “Hmm, hot sex or mani/pedi’s. That’s a toughie.” “If you’re good, we can go home and eat ice cream and watch Pretty Woman.” “I’m not that much of a girl,” he replies, offended. “We’ll watch Pitch Perfect.” “Not that much of a girl, huh.” He flips me off again and I laugh. “Go call Logan.” He hugs me and grins down at me. “Thank you.” “If you don’t beat me to the Blu-ray player, I’m putting in Pretty Woman.” “You’re a bitch.” “Absolutely.” He laughs and pulls his phone out of his pocket as he walks away. I lift my own phone and dial Mark’s number. “Hey, gorgeous,” he answers. “Well hello there,” I reply with a grin. “Hey, I have to cancel on you tonight.” “Cheating on me already?” he asks with a laugh. “Yes. I’m so relieved you understand.” “Wait. I don’t like this game anymore.” I chuckle and throw my sunglasses and scarf into my handbag. “Jax has some stuff going on, and he kind of misses me, so he and I are going to have GGN tonight.” “What is GGN?” “Gay Girl Night.” Mark laughs in earnest over the phone for several seconds before clearing his throat and saying, “What, exactly, does that involve?” “The spa, ice cream and chick flicks.” “Have fun,” he says quickly, as though he’s afraid I might invite him along. “Sorry for the short notice. Rain check?” “No problem. Why don’t I bring you coffee in the morning?” “Jax and I have an early rehearsal tomorrow. We’re gearing up for the LA trip. I have a break before the first class at about 9:30, but you’ll be at work by then.” “I’ll take a break. That’s one of the perks of being the boss.” I grin and feel my stomach tighten at the tone of his voice. “I’d like that.” “See you then, sweetheart.”

“Bye.” I hang up just as Jax returns from our changing room. “Ready?” “Let’s go.” He holds the door open for me, locks it behind us and takes my hand as we walk down the street to the nail place. *** “Why don’t we do this more often?” Jax asks as we sit and wait for my nails to dry. Our feet and hands are soft and rested. Well, our hands are soft. Our feet will never be soft again. “I’m tipping our pedicurists extra. No one should have to ever touch our feet.” “Good call,” he says and sighs contentedly. “Do we have ice cream at home?” “Yes. I think that’s all we have in the freezer right now.” When my pink nails are all dry, we set off to the apartment, drop our bags inside the doorway and race to the Blu-Ray player. Jax beats me by two steps. “Ha! Pitch Perfect it is!” “Just don’t sing along this time. For someone with such great rhythm, you are completely tone-deaf, my friend.” “I am not.” “Starla paid you extra to make you stop singing. You do the math.” I settle on the couch, flopped back in the cushions, my feet on the coffee table and hands folded over my belly as Jax heads to the kitchen for our dinner. “Ice cream,” he says with a grin and joins me on the couch with two pints and two spoons. “Dinner of champions. Do you want Chubby Hubby or Chunky Monkey?” “Yes.” I reach for the tub closest to me, take the spoon offered and press play on the remote. “We’ll switch when we’re halfway through.” “Jesus, this is a lot of calories.” “Calories don’t count on GGN. Besides, we’re working our asses off, literally, on Starla’s routine. You’re kicking my ass with this one.” “It’s good, though. It’ll be the best routine at the VMA’s.” “Obviously,” I reply and roll my eyes. “You’re the best there is, Jax.” “This is why I love you. You feed my ego.” I kick him and take a big bite of Chunky Monkey. When both containers are empty, we lie in sugar comas and watch the movie, cuddled up on the couch. Jax’s body is hard. Broad. Lean. He’s a hottie. I hope Logan isn’t going to try to screw him over. I’d have to kill him. Just as the movie ends and the credits begin to roll, Jax’s phone rings. “Is that Mr. Lovey Pants?”

“Yeah.” He looks torn as he glances at me. “But it’s GGN.” “Answer it. I’ll call Mark and then we’ll snuggle up in my bed and sleep.” He grins and swipes his finger over the phone, answering, “Hey. Yeah, I’m still with Mer. We’ll be hanging out all night.” “Hi, Logan!” I call into the phone. Jax grins. “He says hi.” “I want to see a photo of you!” I yell. “Yeah, I’ll show her one when we get off the phone.” “You have photos and I haven’t seen them?” “Can I talk here?” I grin and walk into my room, giving Jax privacy as I call Mark. “What are you wearing?” he answers. “Just a smile, sexy man,” I reply and giggle. “Well put on some clothes. You’re hanging out with Jax, and even if he is gay, I’m not comfortable with you hanging out naked together.” “Well you’re no fun.” I giggle again and collapse back on the bed. “What are you doing?” “I’m painting the downstairs bathroom.” “So, you work construction all day and then go home and keep working?” “If you were here, I’d be working on something far more exciting.” “Yeah? What’s that?” “Well, it’s almost ten, so you’d be well on your way to your third orgasm by now.” “Damn Jax,” I murmur, making Mark laugh. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow night.” “Yay me!” “I thought this was super secret gay girl time. What are you up to?” I can hear clanking in the background, and I picture him pouring more paint into a plastic pan. “Jax got a call from the guy he’s seeing, so I decided to take advantage of it and call you. I kind of miss you.” “Kind of?” “Just a little bit.” He chuckles and then I can hear him swallowing something. “I can come over later.” “It’s okay.” I sigh. “Jax and I are going to snuggle up in my bed and go to sleep.” The line gets quiet and I think I’ve lost him there for a minute.

“M?” “You and Jax are going to snuggle up in your bed? All night?” “Um, yeah?” I phrase it as a question because I’m not entirely sure why he sounds suddenly jealous. “You’re sleeping in your bed with another man?” “With Jax,” I clarify. “Clothed. I was just kidding about the whole being naked thing. Sleeping. He snores. I’ll probably kick him out at some point.” “Now would be good.” I frown and bite my lip. “Jax and I have slept together—just slept—for ten years, M. It’s nothing new.” “It’s new to me.” He sighs and I can picture him rubbing his forehead in exasperation. “If it makes you this uncomfortable, we won’t.” “Why does my caveman come out full blast with you?” His voice is gritty and I grin. It’s sexy as hell. “I love you,” I whisper. “I will sleep alone tonight.” “This is my own issue, baby. Do what you’ve always done. I’m fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” “Are you sure?” “I want to say no. I want to say the only man who will ever share your bed again is me. But that’s irrational. If Jax was a woman, I wouldn’t care.” “Let’s snuggle,” Jax announces as he barges into my bedroom. “But I’m not staying. Logan says he’s staking a claim on sleeping privileges.” I blink at Jax, who is smiling smugly, as he climbs into my bed and opens his arms. “Come on. Bring Mark with you. It’ll be a Chunky Monkey sammich.” “What is he talking about?” Mark asks with a laugh. “Who is Logan?” “His boyfriend,” I reply and crawl under the covers to snuggle up to Jax. “And apparently, you and Logan just laid down the law that we can cuddle, but there will be no more sleeping together.” “I like Logan,” Mark replies. “I like Logan too,” Jax says. “Say goodnight, Meredith.” “Goodnight, Meredith,” Mark says with a laugh. “Goodnight, Meredith,” I reply and giggle again. “Love you, handsome.” “Love you too,” they both say at the same time. “I’ll see you tomorrow, baby.” Mark hangs up and I toss my phone to the foot of the bed. “So, if Logan is staking a claim on sleeping privileges, he’s definitely your boyfriend.”

“He wants to invite you and Mark out to dinner with us this weekend.” “Wow! Okay! How fun!” I grin and kiss Jax’s cheek. “We’ve never been on a double date before. Show me the picture.” He finds a photo on his phone and shows it to me. A smiling, brown-haired man is staring back at me. He has a scruffy face, but it suits him. His teeth are just a bit crooked on the bottom, and his eyes are green and kind. He’s wearing a red beanie and black thickrimmed glasses. “Hello, Mr. Hottie Lovey Pants.” “Right?” He takes the phone back and stares at Logan’s photo for a long minute before shutting it down and setting it aside. “He’s seriously hot.” “What does he do?” “He’s an architect.” His eyes light up with pride as he thinks about Logan. “You should see some of the buildings he’s designed.” “He and Mark will have something to talk about.” Jax nods and yawns. “I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.” “Why?” “Come on, Mer. You know my history with men. It’s not exactly what romance novels are made of.” “Me neither,” I reply with a shrug. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve that. You deserve to be happy with a hot guy who’s kind and loves you.” “No one said anything about love,” he replies quickly. “Whatever. You know what I mean.” He grows quiet, lost in his own thoughts and I leave him be, enjoying this quiet time with him. I admit, I’ve missed him too. I’ve spent every night this week with Mark, and while it’s been pure bliss every night, I can’t forget that my relationship with Jax is important too. “I think I’m just going to take things with Logan day by day and see what happens,” Jax finally murmurs. “I think that’s a good idea.” He nods. It’s hard for Jax to trust, so the fact that he’s willing to try with Logan means the man must be very special. “I’m sleepy,” I whisper. “I’ll go to bed.” He slips out from under me and kisses my cheek. “I love you, moon pie.” “I love you too, best friend.” *** “You’re trying to kill me.” My chest is heaving as I try to drag air into my lungs,

glaring up at Jax from the floor. I’m on my ass after falling during rehearsal. “You’re sloppy today,” he replies, his voice hard. “I am not. Starla can’t do moves like this, Jax. She’s a singer, not a dancer.” “She’ll do it.” “I’m telling you, she can’t. I haven’t landed that throw once and we’ve done it two dozen times.” “Let’s do it a dozen more.” “Fuck you. It’s not your ass that’s getting bruised.” I stand and plant my hands on my hips as I glare at him. This is why he’s the best. He’s so fucking stubborn, he’ll hammer this over and over again until I stick it, just the same way he’ll do with Starla. “You’re fine. Let’s do it again.” “I need a break.” I walk to the desk and guzzle some water as I check my phone. There’s a text from Mark. Can’t meet this morning. Trouble at job site. Will pick you up tonight. Great. I’m already in a pissy mood, and I was looking forward to seeing Mark. I saw him twenty-four hours ago, but I miss him. I’m pathetic. “Problem?” “Yeah, my ass hurts.” I scowl at Jax and type a message to Mark. No worries. See you later. “God you’re whiny today,” Jax says and resets the music. “Let’s do this.” We move through the routine again. It’s an excellent routine. Fun to dance, but when we get to the lift and the throw, I fall again. “Mother fucker!” I yell and pound the floor with my fist. “Okay, you’re overthinking it. Let’s run through it one more time without the lift and call it good.” I nod and take a deep breath, then dance the routine with Jax, satisfied that besides that evil lift, we’re ready for LA next week. When we’re done, there’s a knock on the glass door. I whip around, hopeful that it’s Mark, but it’s Nic, Matt Montgomery’s girlfriend, standing at the door with a wide smile. I jog over and open the door. “That was amazing,” she says and steps inside. “I was at a Starla concert a couple years ago and remember seeing you guys.” “Thanks,” I reply and glance down at the white box with red bow in her hands. “What can we do for you?” “Oh! Mark called me this morning and said that he was supposed to bring you coffee

but he can’t make it, so he asked if I’d bring you some cupcakes instead. I own Succulent Sweets, the bakery just a few blocks over.” “I’m in love with you,” Jax informs her and takes the box from her hands. “Of course, these will go straight to my hips.” “Whatever.” I wave him off and roll my eyes. “He never gains a pound. This is Jax, my partner.” “Nic,” she says and shakes his hand. “Jules was right. You are hot.” “I love Jules already,” Jax says with a wink and salivates over the cupcakes. “There are some with M&M’s on them!” “Yeah, Mark asked me to make those today’s special.” She rubs her hands on her thighs as if she’s nervous of what we’ll think of them. “Jax is going to be a great addition to girls night out,” Nic says with a laugh. “I have to get back to the shop. Oh! Mark included a card.” She pulls a white envelope out of her back pocket. “See you soon!” She waves and leaves and I open the card. MMiss you. Sorry I had to cancel. Love, M. “Oh my God, these are amazing.” Jax hands me a cupcake with M&M’s on the top. I sigh as I glance up at him. “Okay, I feel better.” “Cupcakes make you feel better?” “No, Mark makes me feel better.” “You are in trouble, sugar baby.” “You have no idea.”

Chapter Eight ~Mark~ “I’m going to put Keaton down for a nap,” Natalie says and kisses the baby’s head where he’s resting in my arms. “He’s fine here¸” I offer, enjoying the feel of the baby in my arms. He’s growing so fast. “He’ll sleep longer in his crib, and you guys can talk,” she replies easily and takes the baby from my arms. “Come on, Livie, we’ll put Keaton to bed and I’ll read you a story.” “Ferdinand!” Livie exclaims as she holds her mom’s finger and walks with her out of the room. “Liv’s on a Ferdinand kick,” Luke informs me. “I think Nat’s going to redecorate her room based on the book.” “That’s fascinating,” I reply, ribbing my brother. “What other tid-bits do you have to share?” “You’re an ass.” Luke laughs. “This is my life, man. Nap times and fictional bulls and the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.” “Nat’s great,” I reply seriously. “You couldn’t have done better than marrying her.” “You’re damn right. If she ever tries to leave me, I’m going with her. This life doesn’t work without her.” When his words sink in, I cover my mouth and try not to laugh too loudly, afraid of waking the baby. “’If she ever tries to leave me, I’m going with her.’ That’s awesome.” “And completely true.” Luke offers me some pineapple from a bowl, and I take a slice, the juice reminding me of Mer’s pussy. God, I fucking love her pussy. So sweet, so addictive. “How are things with Meredith?” he asks, as if he can read my mind. “Good.” I shrug like it’s no big deal. “What’s on your mind?” “Nothing.” He chews on a slice of pineapple. “You don’t show up at my house in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday for no reason.” I chew the pineapple slowly, trying to verbalize the words that keep floating around in the back of my head.

“Spill it, for fuck’s sake,” Luke says with exasperation. “Things with Mer are great…” “But?” “If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.” Luke grows quiet. I glance up to find him watching me thoughtfully with narrowed eyes. “Do you think it’s too good to be true?” “I think it’s happening fast, but I can’t seem to slow it down.” “You’ve been in love with her since you were sixteen, man.” “She’s not the same girl she was when she was sixteen, and I’m not the same either.” “So you’re getting to know each other, and learn what’s changed, but at the heart of it, you’re still fundamentally the same people. Trust yourself. Trust your girl.” Luke shrugs as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. “I’m not saying be stupid about it. Keep your eyes and ears open, but you’ve found each other again after more than ten years apart. If it’s what you want, enjoy it.” I nod thoughtfully and take another bite of the sweet fruit. “I know you’re right, but I can’t help but wonder when the other shoe is going to drop.” “Why does it have to?” “It doesn’t it’s just…” I push my hand through my hair and scrub my scalp with my fingertips. “What if something happens, like a job or something that takes her away again?” “You still think she’d choose dance over you.” Hearing Luke voice my deepest fear makes my mouth go dry. All I can do is jerk one shoulder up in a shrug. “Part of learning each other is also learning to trust each other. Only time will do that.” “I’m not a patient man.” “I don’t know, you’ve been more patient than I would have been.” Luke grins and leans on the counter. “Enjoy her. Bring her for dinner some time. I always liked her.” “I like her too,” Nat says as she joins us in the kitchen. “I got to page five in Ferdinand and Livie fell asleep too, so I get to have a grown up conversation now.” “How are you, beautiful girl?” I ask and kiss her cheek. Luke’s eyes narrow and I can’t help but sling my arm over her shoulders and grin smugly at him. “I’m good,” she says and hugs me around my waist. “She likes me more,” I inform Luke. “She tolerates you,” he says. “Like we all do.” “Pshaw. I’m everyone’s favorite.” I kiss Nat’s head and then back away when Luke growls.

Even I know where the line is. Natalie stands on her tiptoes and kisses Luke, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding on tight. When he comes up for air, she grins and says, “You’re the sexiest man I’ve ever seen.” “She’s just saying that.” Luke flips me off and kisses his wife, and I’m suddenly aware that with two sleeping kids, this is an opportunity for them to have some time for just them. “I’m gonna head out. Mer should be just about ready.” “Bring her for dinner next week. Monday?” Nat says. “She’ll be in LA early next week,” I reply and ignore the way my stomach clenches with nerves. “Then we have Vegas next weekend.” “Well then I’ll get to chat with her in Vegas.” “Sounds good. Bye guys.” They’re giggling before I even close the front door. They’ve been together for a few years now, and are as much in love today as they were the day they got married. My brother’s a lucky bastard. But so am I. I park on the street outside the studio and walk inside and the sight before me steals my breath. A popular Starla song is blaring on the speakers and Jax and Mer are dancing, perfectly synced with each other, looking into each other’s eyes. They didn’t hear me come in. I lean back on the desk and watch avidly as they sway and drift around the floor, watching themselves in the mirror. “Watch your arms!” Jax calls out, scrutinizing Meredith. Her arms look good to me. The song is haunting, about love gone horribly wrong, and the dance has been translated to reflect it, portraying abuse and betrayal. The choreography is flawless, and when Jax moves like he’s hitting Mer across the face, it looks almost real. My hands and jaw clench as they continue through the dance, and suddenly Jax lifts Mer up over his head and throws her, and she falls on her ass. “Son of a mother fucker!” she yells, surprising the hell out of me. “You’re not concentrating,” Jax says and stops the music. “We did this same move four years ago during the “Love’s Kiss” routine.” “Not with the combination that comes before it. I can’t get my bearings in time for you to throw me like that, Jax, and I’m telling you, Starla won’t either.” “What if we cut the half turn right before it?”

She leans her elbows on her knees and thinks it over for a minute. “Yeah, that could work.” “Again.” Jax holds his hand out for her and lifts her to her feet. The music begins from the top, and they begin the routine again. They are magnificent. The love and friendship they share shines through in their dance. They trust each other. Part of me is jealous that I’ll never have this connection with Meredith, and the other part of me is just so fucking proud of her and thankful that she’s found this with Jax. They approach the throw and change up the steps leading up to it, so when he throws her this time, she lands on her feet and they finish the routine flawlessly. “Yes!” she yells and runs into Jax’s arms, hugging him tight. “There we go,” he says and hugs her back. “God, you’re so good, cupcake.” I begin to applaud in earnest, smiling wide and they glance over in surprise. “Oh my God!” Mer runs to me and jumps in my arms, her arms and legs wrapped around me and kisses me hard. “I didn’t see you come in.” “You were busy,” I reply. “I landed the throw!” “I saw. It’s awesome.” “I can’t wait to show Starla. She’s going to go ape-shit,” she says excitedly and kisses me again then buries her face in my neck and takes a deep breath. “You smell good.” “You… don’t,” I reply with a chuckle. “I know. I’m going to go take a quick shower and then I’ll be ready.” I set her down and she jogs to the back of the building. “It’s a great routine, man,” I say to Jax. “Thank you. She’s a dream to work with.” Jax wipes his face and bare chest with a towel then loops it around his neck. “Gonna keep her out again all weekend?” I prop my hands on my hips and watch the man before me for a long moment. “Yes.” He nods once and begins to walk away, but I decide to confront this here and now. “What’s the problem?” I ask quietly. He stops in his tracks, his back to me and slowly turns to face me. “I don’t know you,” he begins and keeps his eyes trained on mine. I have to respect a man who maintains eye contact and isn’t afraid to stand his ground. “I don’t know what your intentions are. You say you love her. You spend every waking moment that you aren’t working together.” He frowns as though he’s searching for the words and I cross my arms over my chest, waiting. “She’s consumed by you right now and —”

“And you’re jealous?” “I’m concerned.” “About what, exactly?” “What are your intentions with her?” “I’m going to be with her until the day I die,” I say honestly without even thinking about it. He blinks, clearly surprised by my response and then sighs deeply. “I’m fucking jealous, yeah,” he says and wipes the towel over his hair. “Not because I want her the way you do, but because for a long time, it was just her and me, dealing with life and we were doing just fine. You need to know, man, I’m here for the long haul. Meredith is my only family, and I’m hers.” I nod, but he keeps talking. “Don’t misunderstand me. I have living relatives, but do you know what happens to a gay kid who loves to dance in the Deep South?” I raise a brow. “Enlighten me.” He swears under his breath and paces away then paces back. “They get the shit kicked out of them every fucking day. Their parents disown them and claim they’re a blasphemous abomination.” He laughs humorlessly and shakes his head. “Meredith is my sister. She’s my best friend. She’s the first person who has accepted and loved me just the way I am. She’s my confidant, and I trust her implicitly, and you need to know, I don’t trust many. And over the past ten years, I’ve been that for her too. She missed you every fucking day. Every time she got drunk, which I think was exactly four times, she did nothing but talk about you.” He points at me and I just don’t know what to say. “The guys who made their way into her pants were worthless assholes, and out of her life before the sheets cooled. It’s only been you for her, and I’ll be Goddamned if I’m going to stand by and watch you let her fall in love with you all over again unless you plan to also be around for the long haul because she doesn’t deserve anything less.” He’s panting now, his eyes feral with protective anger and frustration. I’ve respected few more than I respect him in this moment. “I don’t deserve her. I’m not good enough for her because no one will ever be,” I reply calmly. “But I missed her every fucking day too. I don’t know if I believe in soul mates, but she belongs with me. She belongs to me.” I shrug and hold my hands out as if in surrender. “I don’t know what else to say to you. I can tell you that I would take my own life before I’d ever deliberately hurt her.” There are tears in Jax’s eyes as he watches my face and finally he nods and scrubs his face with the ends of the towel. “Fine. I don’t have any reason not to believe you.” “I’ll never give you one.” “I smell so much better!” Mer exclaims and comes running out of the back, then stops and looks between us. “Am I interrupting?” “Nope, just more guy talk,” I reply and smile down at her as I tuck her against my side.

“What are you doing tonight?” Mer asks Jax. “Logan and I are going out to dinner,” he replies and checks the clock on the wall. “I’d better hit the shower myself.” “Why don’t we all go out together?” I ask. Jax’s head whips up in surprise. “If you don’t mind us crashing your dinner.” “Yes!” Meredith agrees and nods. “We talked about doing dinner this weekend anyway.” “Are you sure?” Jax asks. I nod and kiss Mer’s hair then smile at Jax. “I could use some guy time.” “Your girlfriend accused me of being a girl the other night. She almost made me watch Pretty Woman.” “No man should have to endure that,” I reply with a shudder. “I know, right? I’ll call Logan and take a quick shower.” “Cool.” He jogs away and Mer looks up at me, searching my face. “What just happened?” “I think I just bonded with your best friend.” “Really?” She grins widely, ridiculously pleased. “Yeah, we should hang out with Jax more often. He’s cool.” “Okay.” She frowns and searches my face again then shrugs and walks behind the desk to collect her handbag. “I haven’t met Logan yet. But he sounds really nice.” I circle the desk and pull her into my arms, burying my nose in her hair. “After dinner, I’m going to take you home.” “Oh?” “Yes. And then I’m going to strip you out of these clothes and fuck you until you can’t remember your own name.” I slide my hands down her back to her ass and tug her against me so she can feel my cock against her stomach. “Let’s skip dinner,” she mutters. “That’s too easy.” I grin and tuck her hair behind her ear. “But all during dinner, I’m going to remind you how much I want you.” “How?” “You’ll see.” I lower my lips to hers and sweep them across, gently, barely touching her skin, then nibble the corner of her mouth before sinking in and claiming her. She wraps her arms around me, anchoring herself to me and surrenders to me beautifully. Every time she does this, it makes me fall in love with her all over again. “Seriously?” Jax asks as he walks into the room, freshly showered and dressed in jeans

and a red button-down. “Are y’all going to do this all night?” “Maybe,” Mer replies and nuzzles my nose with her own before pulling away. “Are you and Logan gonna be mushy?” “You know how I feel about PDA,” Jax replies dryly. “How does Logan feel about it?” she asks. “Logan feels good about it.” We all spin in the direction of the voice coming from the front door. He must have just walked through. “We need to put a bell on that door,” Jax murmurs. “Hi!” Meredith immediately walks to him and gives him a hug. “I’m Meredith.” “I figured,” he replies and hugs her back then smiles down at her. “I’m Logan.” “I hope so,” she replies, then loops her arm through his and leads him over to Jax and me. “This is my boyfriend, Mark Williams. You’ve met Jax.” “Once or twice,” he agrees with a laugh as he shakes my hand. His grip is firm. As he pulls away, Mer steps back to my side and Logan takes Jax’s face in his hands and plants one right on him. “Oh my,” Mer murmurs. “Logan is fine with it,” Logan says again, his eyes locked on Jax’s, before turning back to us with a smile. “I’m also hungry. Where are we going?” “You’re adorable,” Mer says honestly as Jax watches Logan with lust-filled eyes. He’s clearly falling in love with the other man. “So are you,” he says with a wink. “Your man’s not bad either.” I feel my cheeks go red as all three of them watch me with sober faces and then burst out laughing at my expense. “Thanks, I think.” “Come on. Mexican food is calling our name.” Mer takes my hand and leads us all to the door. *** “So you both leave Monday morning?” Logan asks as we eat chips and salsa and wait for our meals to be served. “Yeah, really early,” Mer replies. “I’m glad it’s only a two hour flight.” “The VMA’s are next Sunday, right? How long are you staying?” Holy shit! Will they be gone almost a full week? “We have rehearsals until Wednesday, then we come home and they’ll rehearse each day before the performance,” Jax replies. “You’re not dancing in the actual show?” Logan asks. “No,” Mer replies. “We’ll teach Starla and her dance partner the routine and then

they’ll rehearse until the show on their own.” “So you’ll be home Wednesday?” I ask Mer softly. “Yeah, mid-afternoon.” “My whole family is taking a celebratory trip to Vegas on Friday for the weekend. I want to take you with me.” Her eyes grow big and then she bites her lip. “That’ll be fun,” Logan says. “What’s the occasion?” “My brother-in-law is getting married, so it’s a combined bachelor/bachelorette party.” My eyes haven’t left Mer’s yet. “You don’t want to go?” “I don’t want to leave Jax with all that work…” “Jax is coming too,” I reply. “He is?” Mer and Jax reply at the same time. “Sure. Just close the studio for the week. You’ll love the girls, man. They’re a riot, and they’re already excited to have girls night out with you.” “I am good with the ladies,” Jax agrees and nods with mock seriousness. “It’s a shame.” “It sounds like fun,” Mer says with a smile. “Can I trust you in Vegas?” Logan asks Jax. “Liquor and beautiful women and all that debauchery and shenanigans?” “I may come home married, but those are easily annulled. You know, it’s Vegas.” Logan leans in to whisper in Jax’s ear and Mer’s jaw drops when Jax’s cheeks flush and he clears his throat then coughs into his hand. “Point taken,” Jax says and rests his chin in his hand, unable to look anyone in the eye, but looking very smug. I lean over and whisper into Mer’s ear, “Go take your panties off.” She raises a brow but wipes her mouth with her napkin and excuses herself from the table. When she returns, she sends me a wicked smile and under the cover of the tablecloth passes her panties to me, which I immediately tuck into my pocket. “Good girl,” I murmur and kiss her hand. “So, Logan, Jax tells me you’re an architect,” Meredith says after our food arrives. “Yes, ma’am,” he replies. “Going on almost fifteen years now.” “Good for you,” she replies, and I can see that she’s trying to figure the age difference in her head. “Would I have seen any of your work in Seattle?” “Probably,” he says. “My firm has worked on several of the buildings downtown.” I offer Mer a bite of my carne asada and while she chews, I lean in and whisper, “I’m going to spend about an hour with my face planted between your legs tonight.”

She gasps and coughs, and I pass her a water glass. “Are you okay, baby?” She nods and swallows the water and then narrows her eyes at me. “I’m fine.” I chuckle and resume eating my meal, enjoying the way Mer’s cheeks have flushed and the pulse in her neck has sped up. She’s fucking turned on. Of course, that’s the point. “How long have you been dancing?” Logan asks Meredith. “Since I could walk,” she replies with a laugh. “I’ve always been in a dance class of some sort. I danced professionally for just under ten years.” “Good for you. I’d love to watch you and Jax dance sometime.” “Come to the studio tomorrow,” she replies. “We have rehearsal early in the morning.” “On a Saturday?” I ask with a frown. “You usually take weekends off.” “Not this weekend. We have to make sure the routine is perfect before we head to LA on Monday,” Jax replies. “You can come watch if you want,” he tells Logan. “I do,” Logan says. “Hopefully you won’t have to witness me land on my ass anymore,” Mer says and glares at Jax. “This one likes to throw me around.” She shifts her legs, uncrossing and recrossing them under the table, and the thought of her bare pussy under those jeans makes my cock throb. “Will you excuse us, please?” I stand, pulling Meredith with me. “I have to talk to Meredith about something.” I turn and lead her away from the table without waiting for an answer. We walk into a dark hallway that separates the restaurant and the bar and when we’re out of sight from nearby tables, I cage her in against the wall and press my thigh against her pussy, cup her face in my hands and kiss her hard and deep. No lead in. No softness, just hot kisses. She clamps her hands on my arms, holding on tight when I drag my nose down her jaw to her ear and growl. “I need to get you home and bury myself inside you for hours. The thought of how wet you are right now is making me crazy.” “Let’s go—” she begins but I interrupt her. “No. We’re going to spend some more time with Jax and Logan and make small talk and you’re going to know the whole time how fucking hard I am for you. Just you.” I kiss her again and boost her up on the wall with my thigh, making her moan softly. “You make me nuts.” “I’m feeling a little nutty right now myself,” she whispers and pushes her hands through my hair. “I like it.” “You’re going to fucking love it.”

Chapter Nine ~Meredith~ “Everything okay?” Jax asks when Mark and I return to the table. My pussy is throbbing in anticipation and my cheeks feel hot. It’s a wonder I don’t have I’M ABOUT TO GET LAID tattooed on my forehead. “Fine,” I reply and sit in my chair, then squirm a bit in my seat, trying to relieve the ache between my legs. Mark is trying to kill me. Death by horniness. Mark lays his hand on my thigh and it slowly drifts up to rest just below the juncture of my legs. I cover his hand with mine and squeeze out of pure self-preservation. His lips twitch when I glance up at him. “That was delicious,” I announce and push my plate away, ready to get the hell out of here. “You barely ate anything,” Jax says. “I’m full,” I insist. “Did you save room for dessert?” Logan asks and gazes at the dessert menu. “The churros with chocolate sauce sound good.” “Yes, let’s get dessert,” Mark agrees and squeezes my thigh. “We have time.” I’m going to torture him later. I’m going to suck his cock until he’s begging me to let him come and then I’m not going to. I’m going to keep him on the edge for as long as possible. I grin at my new plan and nod. I’ll play his game. I slide my hand under the tablecloth to rest over his hard erection and give it a little squeeze through his jeans. Mark’s face doesn’t change a bit, he just takes my hand in his and lifts it to his lips to kiss my knuckles then rests our hands on the table. Jax places our dessert order then jerks his head toward Logan in surprise when Logan also lifts his hand and kisses his knuckles. Logan’s face is calm and happy and he winks at me across the table before pinning Jax with a hot look. “Problem?” Jax blinks and glances down at their linked hands then returns his gaze to Logan. “No.” I smile widely at my friend as he stares back at me with a what in the hell am I supposed to do now look. Dessert is delivered quickly. The sugary pastry is delicious, especially when Mark

drenches it in the warm chocolate sauce and offers it to me then licks his fingers clean. I can’t wait to lick him clean. Finally the check comes but Logan is fast, snatching it up before anyone else can react. “Dude, that’s mine,” Mark says and reaches for his wallet. “No, I don’t believe it is,” Logan replies and drops his debit card in the plastic tray. “At least let me cover mine and Mer’s,” Mark tries again but Logan shakes his head no. “You can grab it next time,” he says. “Thank you,” I say and grin at the kind man. I’m pleased with this first meeting. Logan is smart and good-looking and clearly into my best friend. Jax chose well this time. I hope he doesn’t fuck it up. We all walk out into the cool spring evening and stand on the sidewalk for a moment, taking a deep breath, ready to part ways for the night. “Thanks again for dinner,” Mark says and shakes Logan’s hand, then Jax’s. “We’ll do it again soon.” “Absolutely. Nice to meet you,” Logan replies, then turns to me and hugs me tight. “Have fun,” he whispers. “Goodnight,” I say and grin at Jax. His eyes widen because he knows what’s coming, but he can’t stop me before I call out, “Use condoms! Be safe!” “Goodbye, Meredith Agatha,” Jax replies, making me gasp. “You promised never to tell anyone my middle name!” He grins as Logan takes his hand and begins to pull him away. “No I didn’t.” “Yes you did! We were drunk! We even took a shot to seal the deal.” “Shot deals don’t count, lemonhead. You know that.” He laughs loudly as Logan leads him away and I glare at his back, wondering how I can get vindication. “Let’s go home, baby,” Mark says and kisses my hand as he leads me to his Jeep. “He yelled out my middle name for everyone to hear.” “I heard. I was here. How did I never know your middle name?” “I never tell anyone.” “Except Jax,” he replies with a laugh. I love that the jealousy over Jax seems to be fading. “We were drunk one night and were trying to one-up each other on the embarrassing story scale, and I told him that in confidence. He wasn’t supposed to blab it. Now his boyfriend knows it too!” Mark laughs and shakes his head as he drives onto the freeway, headed north out of downtown Seattle. “I’m quite sure there are worse middle names out there.”

“I’m quite sure there aren’t.” “What else did you tell him?” Mark asks and lays his hand on my thigh, waking my body up again. “I told him about that time I almost lit the chemistry lab on fire in high school.” Mark laughs and squeezes my thigh. “I thought we were all done for.” “I’m sorry you had me for a partner. I was hopeless. I never should have paid John Stevens to switch with me.” “What?” His head jerks around in surprise. “I paid John to switch lab partners with me so I could be yours. I had such a crush on you, but I couldn’t get your attention.” “You had my attention, I just didn’t think you were interested.” “Why did you think that?” “Because I’d asked you out for ice cream after school a couple of times but you turned me down.” “I had dance after school.” “I didn’t know that yet,” he reminds me then chuckles ruefully. “From the moment I saw you I knew there would never be anyone else for me. How much did you pay John?” “Fifty bucks.” I grin as I lean over and kiss Mark’s shoulder. “It was worth every penny.” He parks in his driveway. “Why don’t you ever park in your garage?” “I have too many tools and building supplies in there right now,” he says and pushes his fingers through my hair. “You are so beautiful, M.” I pull his hand to my mouth and plant kisses on his palm, then rest my cheek in it. “Thank you.” “Come on, I have stuff to show you.” “I thought you were gonna fuck me? I kind of had visions of us tearing each other’s clothes off and having sex against the front door.” Mark grins as he gets out of the Jeep and waits for me by the front porch. “That’s not a bad plan, but we’ll have to try that another time. I’m going to show you some of the projects I’ve finished around here over the past few days.” “But I’m horny,” I whine and stick my lower lip out. “Haven’t you figured it out?” he asks as he unlocks the door and leads me inside, then pulls me in his arms and tips his forehead against mine. “Anticipation is the best foreplay there is.” “I’m going to spontaneously combust,” I whisper, my eyes closing as he combs his fingers through my hair and nuzzles my nose with his, then glides his fingertips down my

cheeks to my neck. My nipples pebble and I clench his shirt in my fists. “I feel like you haven’t been inside me in weeks.” “It’s been hours, baby.” “Too long.” Suddenly he backs away and clears his throat, licks his lips and shakes his head. “Nice try. Follow me.” “I want to suck your cock,” I grumble and walk right into his back as he comes to an abrupt stop then spins and cradles my face in his hands, kisses me madly, his tongue colliding with mine and then shuts it down just as fast, panting and eyes on fire. “Enjoy this. Trust me.” And with that he turns away again and leads me through the living room, furnished sparsely with a simple loveseat and recliner, to the downstairs bathroom. “Wow, this is gorgeous.” The walls are painted a rich gray, set off by a fresh white pedestal sink and toilet. The mirror is framed in black, and the black shelves above the toilet are full of white towels, tissues and an old, broken clock. “Thank you.” “You did all of this the other night?” He nods, watching me with hot eyes. “What else have you done?” He takes my hand again and leads me down a hall, but before we reach another room, he cages me against the wall, pins both my hands above my head with one hand and with the other cups my sex through my jeans as he buries his face in my neck and nibbles, not quite gently but not hard enough to leave marks. “I’m going to make you scream later, Meredith. How do you feel about that?” “Can’t wait,” I whisper and feel him grin against my skin, which turns me on even more. Everything he does is so fucking sexy. “Good,” he says, plants one more kiss on my chin then releases my hands, links his fingers with mine and continues to lead me down the hallway. I’m going to fucking kill him. My body is humming in lust and anticipation. I need him inside me yesterday. He gestures for me to follow him into the spare bedroom, but my heart stops as my eyes take in the beautiful, bright room. The floors are gleaming blond hardwood, the walls mocha and the windows are wide and let in ample light. Lining three of the walls are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Speakers are mounted in two corners of the room, and a sound system is mounted near the doorway. “A library?” My eyes meet his. He’s watching me closely as he nods. “I’ve always

wanted a library.” “You have?” I nod and wander through the empty space, imagining hundreds of books filling the shelves and deep, soft furniture and throw rugs sprinkled around the space. “Aside from dancing, reading is my favorite thing.” “I’m surprised you find time to read,” he says and watches me wander the room. “I don’t often anymore. When we were touring, it was either find a corner to yourself and read or drive each other crazy. This would be the perfect room to escape to, curl up in a chair with a good book and waste an afternoon.” I stop in front of the windows and look out on the back yard, the fire pit and lounge where we made love in the middle of the night, the grassy lawn that’s just starting to turn deep green, and I know in my heart that this is where I want to be. After more than ten years of touring and working and not having a true home, I want this home with this man. “What are you thinking?” Mark asks as he slides up behind me and wraps his arms around me, kissing my cheek. “This is a beautiful home, M.” “Thank you. I hope someone will be happy here.” “What are you talking about?” I spin in his arms and frown up at him. “I’m going to finish remodeling it and sell it.” “You bought it to flip it?” I ask and gaze about the beautiful room. “Yes.” “But…” Why do I suddenly feel like all of my hopes and dreams were just snatched out from under me? “But what?” He grips my chin in his thumb and forefinger and catches my gaze in his. “I just thought you planned to live here.” “Do you want to live here?” “Pshaw,” I roll my eyes and pull out of his arms, trying with all my might to cover my disappointment. I’m being ridiculous! “We’re nowhere near ready to move in together.” “Then why do you look so sad?” He pushes his hands in his pockets and watches me quietly. “I’m not sad.” I walk toward the doorway, my shoes clicking loudly on the floor. “Show me the rest.” I turn and wait for him, one eyebrow raised, but he hasn’t moved. He’s still watching me silently until I feel my cheeks flush. “Talk to me, M.” “I just like your house, Mark. It’s just a house.”

A house that I’d started to think of as ours, which is completely ridiculous. He slowly walks to me and cups my cheek in his palm and kisses my forehead tenderly before taking my hand in his and leading me out of the room and up a back stairway that I didn’t know was here. “This house is bigger than it looks.” “It’s deep, so yeah, it’s bigger than it looks from the street,” he replies. “I’ve been remodeling it with a family in mind, hoping that it’ll attract a young family to buy it.” He guides me to a bedroom and walks through ahead of me. The room has been painted baby pink with white filmy curtains and gray carpeting. It’s clearly a little girl’s room. “This bedroom is attached to the other bedroom through a jack and jill bathroom.” He slides a door open, revealing a bathroom with fresh colorful tile and countertops, leading through the other side to another bedroom, the same size as the last. This one is painted blue with white curtains and the same gray carpet. “Very cute,” I say with a smile. Holy shit, I can imagine our kids in these bedrooms. What the fuck is wrong with me? He’s still watching me soberly, and I can see that he’s not buying my bright smile. “Are you going to tell me what the hell is wrong with you?” “Why would anything be wrong?” I shrug and turn my back on him to walk out into the hallway toward the other end of the house where the master suite is. Until I saw that library downstairs, this was my favorite room. The bed is big and comfortable, the carpet deep and soft under bare feet, and instead of regular windows, there is a wall of glass with a door that opens onto a small balcony. I can picture myself sitting on that balcony every Sunday morning for the rest of my life, drinking coffee while I listen to birds sing in the trees. Or rock my babies to sleep out here while I listen to crickets and watch the stars. And in every scenario, Mark is in the chair next to mine. I’m so jumping ahead of myself here. I didn’t really think about it too much before, but now that he’s said that he’s going to sell the house, it feels like I’ve lost something… important. “Okay,” Mark says abruptly and lifts me in his arms, then lies on the bed with me. “Something’s up. Speak.” “I’m fine.” “You’re sad, M. We went from hot horniness to sadness in the blink of an eye, and I want to know why.” I shrug and bite my lip, feeling ridiculous. “It’s stupid. Forget it. Let’s have sex.” I dive for his jeans but he rolls over me, pinning me beneath him. “No. This won’t work if we don’t talk, so talk.”

“You talk.” I pout. His lips twitch and his eyes light with humor, making me feel better. “Okay. I love you. Your turn.” “I love you too. Your turn.” “I want to know why you suddenly withdrew from me.” “I didn’t, I just…” “What?” He rests his lips on mine for a moment, kisses me softly and pulls up, stroking my cheeks with his thumbs. “I don’t want you to sell this house.” I bite my lip and cringe. “Why?” “I just don’t.” He growls and laughs as he leans his forehead on mine. “Am I going to have to torture the information out of you? I have ways of making you talk, you know.” “No you don’t. I’m a vault.” He cocks a brow in that arrogant way he does and his naughty smile spreads over his mouth and I know I’m in deep trouble. “Oh, sweetheart,” he murmurs, his lips tickling mine. “Challenge accepted.” He nibbles my lips and rips the buttons completely off my button-down shirt as he spreads it apart and buries his face in my cleavage. “That was a new shirt,” I inform him dryly. “I like it,” he replies, not deterred in the least. He pushes back on his knees, pulls me up to take my shirt and bra off, then covers me with his broad body again, kissing my shoulder and down to my breasts, pulling the nipples into his mouth. “Holy shit,” I whisper, burying my fingers in his hair then raking my nails down his back, gathering his shirt in my hands. “Take your shirt off.” He grips his shirt and tugs it over his head then throws it on the floor with my ruined clothes and returns to kissing down my torso to the waistband on my jeans. He rubs his nose on my skin along the top of the denim, sending goose bumps over my skin. “Mark,” I whisper and wiggle beneath him. “Yes, love,” he says. “I’m too turned on to go slow.” He pops the button on my jeans and watches my face as he slowly lowers the zipper, making me bite my lip and moan in frustration. “I’m frustrated too,” he says. “I can help with that.” I reach down for his jeans but he takes my hands and pins them to the bed at my hips.

“Not that.” I glare at him, not enjoying this game anymore. “I don’t want to tell you this, Mark. Just leave it be and fuck me.” His eyes flare in anger. “No. It’s a simple question.” “Not for me.” He peels my jeans down my hips and legs then tosses them over his shoulder. “Did you like it when I told you to take your panties off at the restaurant?” “Yeah, it was fun.” He kisses my belly, just below my belly button and takes a deep breath. “You smell like you need to be fucked.” His words make my entire body clench in anticipation. “I do.” “God, you’re so fucking sexy, Meredith.” He’s panting now, watching me with molten blue eyes. “I’ll never get enough of you.” He parts my thighs and gently spreads my lips with his thumbs. “Your pussy is amazing. Small and pink.” He nudges my clit with his nose, making me gasp. His tongue swirls around my opening before he sinks a finger inside. “Oh God.” “Why don’t you want me to sell this house, Meredith?” “I don’t know.” I bite my lip and then cry out when he backs away from me completely. “Hey!” “Anticipation,” he reminds me as he kisses my inner thigh. I glare down at him and he laughs, the jerk. “I’m so glad I’m entertaining you while I need you inside me,” I reply angrily. Suddenly, his face changes. He’s no longer amused. He’s… I don’t know. For the first time ever, I can’t fucking read him. “Mark?” He lays his forehead on my belly, grips my hips in his hands and holds on to me for a moment before looking up at me again with love and fear and… hope? I sit up, cup his face in my hands and kiss him passionately, breathing him in. God, he always smells so good. His arms wrap around my waist, lifting me against him. I wrap my legs around his hips and press my center against his denim-covered cock, kissing him with everything I have. I hate that I saw fear in his eyes. What could he possibly be afraid of? “I don’t want you to sell the house,” I whisper as I place soft kisses over his cheeks, “because I love this house. I could see us living here, having kids here. This is a family house, but the family I see in it is ours. That’s why I don’t want you to sell it.” I press my

face to his neck, unable to look him in the eye. “I didn’t want to say that because this is still so new, and kind of scary, but I couldn’t read you just now and I can’t stand that.” He’s hugging me fiercely. I expect him to make me look him in the face, but he doesn’t, which is very un-Mark. Instead, he cradles my head gently; brushes my hair with his fingers and rocks us soothingly. Finally, he lays me on my back, shucks out of his jeans and covers me completely, resting his pelvis against my own. His heavy cock pulses against my core, the tip tickling my clit and I can’t help but circle my hips in invitation. Mark’s eyes are intense, hot, and I can’t look away from them. Finally, he pulls his hips back and slides inside me, infinitely slowly and reverently, making tears form in my eyes. “Don’t cry, sweetheart.” “You feel so good,” I whisper roughly. He hasn’t said anything in response to me spilling my guts, which worries me. Maybe he’s not ready to hear about my clingy need to someday live with him? Maybe this is just sex for him and I’m jumping to conclusions? Maybe I’m an idiot. He begins to move, rhythmically making love to me. One large hand glides up my side to cup my breast, his thumb tweaks over my tender nipple, making me bite my lip. His lips turn up in a half smile as he watches my body’s reaction to his touch. “Do you have any idea,” he whispers and brushes his cheek against mine, barely touching me. His stubble tickles me, but makes my body clench even more. “Any idea how often I’ve wondered what it would sound like to hear those words come from you?” He shudders and closes his eyes and I brush my fingertips up and down his back. A light sheen of sweat covers his strong body as he begins to move, his pubis pumping against my clit, sending electricity zinging through my body, all the way to my fingertips. “Oh my God,” I whisper and close my eyes as he makes love to me, pounding into me while whispering words of love and forever and I can’t take it. It’s just too much. I erupt beneath him, crying out his name as I see stars explode around us. “That’s right, baby,” he whispers. He reaches over me and grips his headboard as he thrusts into me harder, his mouth forming an O as he comes hard, jerking over me and watching me with wonder. Finally, he scoops me into his arms and rolls us to the other side of the bed, cradling me in his arms. “I’ll keep the house and we’ll take it one day at a time. Is that okay?” “Yes. Thank you.” He kisses my forehead and suddenly grins. “I guess you’ll have to help me shop for furniture.” “I will?” He nods and gives me that naughty smile again. “Now that I’ve finally got you to admit

that you’ll want to live with me one day, you should have a say in how your house is furnished.” “It’s not my house,” I insist quickly with a shake of my head, pushing against his chest. He rolls his eyes and pulls me back in his arms effortlessly. “Will you make up your mind? It either is or it isn’t.” It so is. “It’s your house that I don’t want you to sell.” “We’ll work on it.”

Chapter Ten For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t want to go to work. I want to stay here, in my bed with my man still sleeping and wrapped around me and pull the covers over our heads and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t matter. But I have a plane to catch and I don’t think Jax ever came home last night. Good for Jax. My bag is packed and I’m ready to go, so I just lie here and watch Mark sleep for a while, enjoying the way his face is soft in sleep, the whiskers on his cheeks and how messy his hair is. Of course, his hair is always messy. He rolls onto his back and flings an arm over his head. I’m not stupid. Like I’m going to pass up this opportunity. I slide down his body and before my movement can wake him, I take his semi-hard cock on my hand and lick him from the root to the tip in one fluid motion then take him in my mouth, wrap my lips around him and pull up firmly. “Holy shit,” he mutters and sinks his hands in my hair. “Good morning.” “Good morning,” I reply with a smile and circle the head of his cock with the tip of my tongue. “You can go back to sleep. I’m just gonna play down here for a little while.” He chuckles and then groans when I cup his balls in my hand and massage them while sucking up and down on his now very firm dick. It’s so damn big, almost too big for my mouth, so I lick and kiss and even graze the tip of my teeth down the shaft. “Damn, you’re good at that, baby.” His voice is still thick with sleep, his body warm and completely at my mercy. Sexy as fuck. “I can feel your heartbeat right here,” I say and rub my fingertips over the thick vein on the under side of his dick. “It’s moving a little fast.” “I’m sure it is.” “Why is that?” I suck on the head and jerk him with my hand as I wait for his answer. “Because the sexiest woman alive is sucking me off,” he replies with a growl and pushes his hips off the bed. “Jesus fucking Christ, M, your lips should come with a warning label.” I laugh and lick down his shaft to his heavy balls and lick them both, then lick each one in turn while slipping my finger over that super sensitive spot right beneath them. “You’re going to make me fucking come.”

“I think that’s the point,” I say and smile smugly as his legs begin to move restlessly and his hands clench in the sheets at his hips. “Like this, do you?” “Just a bit,” he says through gritted teeth. I lick up the shaft and suck on the tip again, knowing he’s close as I pump my fist over him and feel his entire body clench. His balls tighten and lift and suddenly he’s coming in my mouth. I swallow quickly and watch his face as he pants and combs his fingers through my hair. “Best way to wake up ever,” he says and laughs as he collapses back on the bed. “That was fun,” I say and kiss my way up his body and lie on top of him. “Good morning, handsome.” He kisses my forehead and wraps those amazing arms around me, holding me tightly to his chest. “When do we have to leave?” he whispers. “In about thirty minutes,” I say. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” “I think that’s the fourth time you’ve asked me that since Friday night,” he says as his fingertips glide up and down my bare back. His heartbeat is beginning to return to normal beneath my cheek. “I know. I’d kind of like having you there.” “I have to work too. It’s only a few days.” He rolls us on our sides so he can see my face. “I’ll pick you up from the airport on Wednesday.” I nod and cup his face in my palm. “I’ll call you whenever I can.” “Do your work, enjoy Starla and Jax for a couple days, then come back home to me.” I smile widely and lean in to kiss him. I know he’s nervous about me leaving. I’ve felt it from him every time we’ve made love this weekend, in moments when I’ve caught him watching me quietly. I don’t know how to assure him that there is nothing to worry about. “Want me to bring you back something?” I grin and sit up, letting the sheet pool in my lap and scrub my hands over my face. “A T-shirt? Coffee mug? Post card?” “Just my woman, thanks,” he says as he climbs from the bed and walks naked to the bathroom. Good God it’s not a hardship to watch him walk away in the least. That ass is just… delicious. I could bounce a quarter off that ass. I blink when I hear the toilet flush and then feel my face heat when he walks back in the room. “What were you thinking?” “That I could bounce a quarter off your ass.” “I thought you liked my arms?” “Your ass isn’t half-bad either.” I shrug and climb from the bed, searching for my clothes, avoiding eye contact. For God’s sake, I had the man’s penis in my mouth ten

minutes ago, but telling him that I think he has a nice ass makes me shy? What the fuck? “Come here.” It’s not a request. I drop the shirt and leggings I plan to wear on the plane to the bed and cross to him. He loops his arms around me and hugs me tight, gently rocking back and forth and plants his lips on my head. He takes a deep breath when I press my palms to his back and hold on tight. “I like looking at you,” I whisper. “Good. I like looking at you too.” He chuckles and kisses my hair then rubs my back soothingly. “Is Jax here?” “I don’t know. I never heard him come home.” I cross to the bed and check my phone. “There aren’t any messages from him.” Mark and I have just finished pulling on our clothes when I hear the front door burst open. “My bags are ready!” Jax calls out on his way past my bedroom to his. “He’s home now,” I say and laugh as I jog out into the hallway. “Are you okay?” “Yeah. Logan and I… uh… overslept.” “Right.” “Shut up.” “I like him.” I lean my shoulder on his doorjam and cross my arms over my chest as he gathers his toiletries and throws them in a bag. “He’s nice. And he’s hot.” “I heard that!” Mark calls from my bedroom, making me laugh. “He’s not as hot as you!” I call back. “We’re gonna be late,” Jax mumbles and stops in the middle of the room, looking stressed and rushed, with his hair standing on end, stubble still on his cheeks and the clothes that I’m sure he was wearing yesterday. “No we’re not. You have time to at least change your clothes. You’re in a relationship with the man, Jax, no need to be doing the whole walk of shame thing.” “I’ll shower and change when we get to the hotel.” I roll my eyes and walk back to my room. “Thank God it’s only a two hour flight!” “I don’t smell!” I hear him loudly sniff his armpit and then mumble under his breath about finding a clean T-shirt. Mark is sitting on the edge of my bed checking his phone. He’s also wearing the same clothes from yesterday. “Looks like Jax isn’t the only one doing the walk of shame today,” I say with a chuckle. “You should just bring some extra things here for when you stay with me.” “You should just move in with me and we won’t have this issue,” he says, still staring down at his phone.

“I’ll make room for you in my closet,” I reply without acknowledging his suggestion because frankly, I don’t know how in the hell to respond to that. “I’ll make room for you in my closet,” he says, still typing furiously on his phone. “I’m ready!” Jax says as he hustles past my room, then backtracks and pokes his head around the doorjam. “Hello? Flight? LA? Job? Are you coming?” “Yes. Ready, babe?” “I’m ready.” The drive to the airport is quiet as all three of us are lost in our own thoughts. It’s early enough that traffic isn’t too thick yet and we make it to the airport with plenty of time. “You don’t have to pay to park, M. Just pull up at the drop off area.” “I’ll go in with you,” he says. “It’s a waste of money,” I insist, but he takes my hand in his and kisses my knuckles gently, making me go all gooey inside. “No it’s not. I’m not going to be able to touch you for more than forty-eight hours, Meredith. I’ll take every minute I can now.” “Damn, you have it bad, man,” Jax says with a laugh from the back seat earning a grin from Mark. “And you don’t?” Mark challenges him. Jax shrugs. “I said all my mushy stuff in private this morning.” “Aww, you’re mushy?” I squeal and bounce in my seat. “I’ve never seen you be mushy before.” “And you won’t see it now,” he replies dryly. Mark parks the Jeep and the guys pull our suitcases out of the back and pull them behind us as we walk into the terminal. We print our boarding passes, check our bags, and Jax shakes Mark’s hand. “Thanks for the ride, man. I’ll meet you at the gate, tootsie roll. I don’t want to witness any more of the mush.” He winks and walks away, leaving Mark and me alone. “I’ll text you when we get in.” “Good. I’ll worry.” He links our fingers on both hands and loops them around my back then leans in and kisses me, not giving a shit who might be watching. Finally he releases one of my hands and cups my neck, his thumb making little circles on my cheek as his lips nibble and make me forget where I am. With one kiss, he can completely disarm me. “Be safe,” he whispers against my lips. “You too,” I reply and brush my fingers through his hair. “I’ll see you soon.” He nods and frowns slightly, but then smiles widely, in that naughty way and winks down at me. “I love you, Meredith Agatha.”

“I love you too. But Jax is gonna die.” *** “Christ on a cracker, Jax, you’re trying to fucking kill me.” Starla growls before guzzling half a water bottle. I raise my brows at Jax and plant my hands on my hips. “I told you.” He glares at me and shakes his head. “Trust me, you’ll get it.” “Oh, I’ll get it alright,” she agrees. “But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a sadistic asshole.” “I’ve missed you,” I say and wrap my arms around Starla’s shoulders. “I love that you can tell Jax he’s an asshole.” “You tell me I’m an asshole all the time,” he reminds me. “I’ve missed you guys too. This routine is stellar. Seriously perfect for the song. Thank you for doing this.” “It’s all him.” I point to Jax and wink at him. “I’m just his puppet.” “You’re a gorgeous puppet,” she says. “I want you guys to come back to my place tonight for dinner and to chat. It’s been too long.” “I’m up for that,” I reply. “Thank you!” Jax nods and then turns at the sound of his name. Brian Kellogg, the dancer who will be dancing Jax’s part in the routine just came in from taking a phone call. “Let’s get back to it,” Starla says. *** “God, I’m exhausted,” Starla says and exhales deeply. We’re settled in her family room, sprawled over couches and chaise lounges, stuffed with fresh fish and salad. “You worked hard today, baby,” her fiancé, Rick, murmurs and kisses her temple. Rick is great. He’s not in the music business at all. He’s a racecar driver, of all things, and they met at a charity function about two years ago. He’s tall and thin and all tattooed up, even on his neck. He looks like he could be a rocker. “How do you know? You weren’t there.” “You always work hard.” “You guys are too cute,” I say and smile at them. “How are the wedding plans coming?” “I hired a girl,” Starla replies and rolls her blue eyes. Starla is stunning, with chinlength platinum blond hair, smooth white skin and her signature bright red lips. She’s in fantastic shape. She always danced just as hard as the rest of us. Starla isn’t just a singer, she’s one of the top entertainers in the world, and she works her ass off. “I like her ideas and she’s great about checking in with me on stuff, so it’s working for us.”

“Good.” “And you guys are coming,” she says while pointing at us. “We wouldn’t miss it,” Jax assures her. “How is Brian doing with the shows?” I ask and pick a hangnail on my right hand. “He’s fine. He’s a damn good dancer, but he’s no Jax.” “He’s a drama queen,” Rick says with a roll of the eyes. “Yeah, he is that,” Starla agrees. “But he’s hot and the audience loves him, so as long as he doesn’t piss me off too bad, I’ll keep him around. Until I can talk Jax into coming back, that is.” Jax laughs and shakes his head, but Starla isn’t laughing. She sits up straight and leans her elbows on her knees. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you guys about something.” Jax and I share a look and then watch her quietly. “Mer, I’m so sorry about your mama. I’m sorry I couldn’t come to the funeral. I was stuck in a blizzard in New York and couldn’t get a flight out.” “Oh, Star, it’s okay. Thank you for calling that day. I knew you were thinking of me.” She nods and then sighs. “Geez, why am I nervous?” “What’s up, little girl?” Jax asks. He always called her little girl because Starla is so petite. “I miss you guys. We toured together for so many years, you’re just a part of this whole family that we have going here. I want you to come back on tour with me next year, and choreograph the whole tour too.” “That would mean that I’d have to start working on that as soon as we get back to Seattle,” Jax says in surprise. Starla nods, watching us both. “We have a studio now, Star, with clients and kids who depend on us.” I’m shaking my head slowly as the possibilities run through my head. “You can hire people to take care of the studio while you’re gone,” she replies. Rick continues to watch us silently. “Think about it. I’ll give you both raises of course. And I’m now offering a benefits package too.” “You’re so generous,” Jax says dryly. “It’s tax deductible,” she says. Do I want to go back on tour? Never knowing what time zone I’m in, not to mention what city. The long hours on planes and buses. The grueling, constant rehearsal. Late nights. Weird sleep patterns. No Mark. No way.

I shake my head and look Starla in the eye as I answer her honestly. “Thank you for this opportunity, Star. I’m going to pass. I’ve only got a year or two left in me before I start getting injured from the rigorous routines, and honestly, I’m happy with my life in Seattle.” “You met someone,” Rick guesses. “I’ve reconnected with someone,” I reply. “And I love him. I’m done touring. But I love that you thought enough of me to ask me back.” “Keep in touch,” she says. “I’ll need regular updates on how it’s going with your man.” “I’ll do that.” “I’m going to pass too,” Jax says with a sigh. “I’m happy at the studio, and I have some choreography opportunities with the university dance team as well.” “You met someone too, you bitch!” Starla cries and throws a pillow at him. “He did,” I say and clap my hands. “And he’s hot.” “Why did you all have to leave me and find sexy people to have sex with and not want to come back with me?” She sticks out her lower lip in a pout before burying her face in another pillow. “Moo haff me.” “What was that?” I ask with a laugh. “You hate me.” “We love you.” I blow her a kiss and grin widely. “But I love Mark more.” “Well, then, let’s get all our gossiping in now while I have your undivided attention.” She clears her throat and begins telling us stories of the band and their sexcapades and which celebrity fell backstage at the Grammys. I settle back in the cushions and listen, laughing, and counting the hours until I can go home to Mark. *** “Hey,” I whisper as I borough down into the covers and cup the phone to my ear. “Hi, sweetheart. Why are you whispering?” “Because it’s late and I’m tired and it seems appropriate.” “How was your day?” His voice sounds tired. I wish he was here, cuddled up next to me where I could smell him and feel him. “Busy.” “Tell me.” “Well,” I begin and turn onto my back so I can stare at the ceiling. “We checked into the hotel, which you know because I texted you. After Jax showered and we both changed, we went directly to the studio and worked with Starla and Brian until about six this evening.” “Who’s Brian?” he asks and then I hear him chewing something crunchy.

“The male dancer. What are you eating?” “Popcorn.” “This late?” “I worked through dinner.” I can’t help but be sad at the thought of Mark working alone in his big house all evening, skipping dinner and eating only popcorn. “Do all women have the undeniable urge to take care of their men?” I ask aloud and bite the inside of my cheek. “What are you talking about?” “I suddenly wish I was there to make sure you didn’t forget to eat dinner.” “I wish you were here for far more interesting things than dinner,” he says with a dry voice, making me giggle. “What else happened today?” “Starla invited Jax and I back to her place for dinner with her and Rick, her fiancé.” “Was that fun?” More chewing, and now I’m suddenly craving popcorn. “Yes. They’re both really cool people, and she filled us in on all of the gossip we’ve been missing out on. She wants us to come to the wedding in Paris this fall.” “That’ll be fun for you guys.” I frown and look at the phone and then press it back to my ear. “It’ll be fun for all of us. She invited all four of us, silly.” “Wow. Okay. I’m glad you’re having a good time.” “It’s fun, but I’m ready to come home.” “So, what are you wearing?” “You always ask me that,” I reply. “What are you wearing?” “Well, I took my shirt off a while ago because I was getting too warm, so no shirt and jeans.” “Can you see the elastic of your underwear over the top of your jeans?” “A little bit, yeah.” “Holy fuck,” I whisper. “That’s so fucking hot.” “Seriously?” He laughs and crunches on more popcorn. “Why do women find that hot?” “Don’t misunderstand. It’s not hot on everyone. But it’s hot on guys like you, who have that sexy V in their hips and defined abs.” “It sounds like you’ve done a lot of research on this.” “Oh yeah, I’m an expert,” I reply and wish again that he were with me so I could drag

my fingertip down that sexy V. “Okay, now you tell me what you’re wearing.” “Nothing.” “Excuse me?” “I’ve gotten used to sleeping naked.” “Tell me you and Jax are not sharing a room.” “No.” “Send me some dirty pictures.” “No!” “Come on.” “Hell no.” I giggle uncontrollably, loving the playful side of Mark. “Just send me your boobs. You don’t have to include your face.” “Not on your life!” “Okay, I’ll take a pussy shot.” “You are so dirty.” I try to make my voice sound stern, but fail miserably. “Only when it comes to you, baby.” “I should hope so.” I sigh and feel my eyelids grow heavy. “I miss you already.” “I missed you before you boarded that fucking plane.” I grin. “Sweet talker.” “Get some sleep, baby. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” “We should wrap up by about five, so I’ll call you no later than five-thirty.” “Okay. Goodnight, M.” “Goodnight, M.” He ends the call and I switch my phone to camera mode, flip on the flash and take a selfie then text it to him. The sheet is tucked under my underarms and my hair is fanned out around me on the pillow. I don’t have any makeup on and I look exhausted. Several seconds later, he responds with a photo of himself, smiling softly at me through the lens. He’s written one line: Love you, beautiful.

Chapter Eleven ~Mark~ “I was surprised to hear from you today,” I say and take a bite of my cheeseburger. “I escaped the lab. I left Colin to fend for himself,” Lena replies and winks at me. “We haven’t seen you in a while.” I shrug and pop a greasy fry in my mouth. “I’ve been busy.” “Who is she?” She smiles knowingly and takes a bite of her grilled chicken sandwich. “Why did I get this? I should have got a burger.” My phone beeps with an incoming text on the table next to me. “Sorry, I have to check this.” This is Jax. I borrowed Mer’s phone. Here’s a photo of her working. The photo is stunning. Mer is standing behind Starla and both are looking in the mirror before them. Mer is talking and pointing to Starla’s stomach, clearly coaching the celebrity. God, I fucking miss her like crazy. I quickly type out a thank you and set my phone aside. “Meredith,” I finally answer Lena and smile widely. “The Meredith who broke your heart after high school?” she asks in surprise. “The one that broke your heart so badly that you wouldn’t give me the time of day?” I chuckle and shake my head at the beautiful brunette. Lena is curvy, with long dark hair and big blue eyes, and a killer rack. Not that I’d ever tell her that. Or her husband. “You only had eyes for Colin,” I remind her. “Maybe it was you who broke my heart.” “Whatever.” She sips her diet soda and glares at me. “Tell me everything.” “Yes, the same Meredith from high school. We’ve reconnected with each other.” I sit and tell her everything, from the minute I saw her at Addie’s funeral to our conversation last night. “I’ve been nervous about this trip.” “You don’t seriously think she’d leave you again for a dance job?” “I don’t think so,” I concede and cringe when I think of the way I broke out into a cold sweat when Mer told me that she and Jax were going to LA for this job. “Building trust in a new relationship is a process,” she says and checks her own phone when it buzzes. “My turn to be rude. Colin’s calling. Hey, babe.” I pull the photo back up of Mer and Starla and smile at my girl. God, she’s so gorgeous.

Her hair is up in a messy knot, as usual. She’s in a tight tank and yoga shorts. Her body makes me want to sit up and beg. Just as Lena is finishing up her conversation my phone rings. “Hey, baby, what are you wearing?” I grin, excited to hear Mer’s voice. “Uh, sorry, Hot Tamale, it’s just Jax. But I’m in shorts and a Nike tank top. How about you?” “Is she okay?” I ask as ice forms in my stomach. “Oh yeah, she’s still working.” “I’m stealing half your burger,” Lena announces and snatches my burger away. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jax says. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” “You didn’t. I’m having dinner with an old friend.” “Anyway, Mer’s still working, but she promised to call you no later than five-thirty, so I’m letting you know she’ll be a little late.” “Thanks for that, man. Everything going okay?” “You eat pickles on your burger?” Lena groans loudly. “Ew.” “Yeah, we’re good. We’ll be home tomorrow.” “Okay, great. I’ll see you then.” Jax clicks off. “She’s working.” “I heard.” Lena happily munches on my burger, now missing pickles, so I reach for her chicken burger. “Do you steal Colin’s food often?” “His tastes better than mine.” She shrugs and grins smugly. “When are you coming to work in the lab?” “I’m not.” “I don’t get it. You’re a brilliant scientist. I’ve never known anyone who can do what you do, or as quickly. Your brain never shuts down.” “So?” “So you’d rather waste all that brilliance on building houses? You could be doing so much more.” “There’s nothing wrong with my career,” I say and scowl down at the chicken. “This is disgusting.” “I know.” “I like my job, Lena. I’m glad you and Colin are happy in the lab. By the way, when are you going to start having babies?” “Not you too!” She groans and hangs her head in her hands. “Between you and my mother you’d think my vagina is shriveling up by the day.”

“I really don’t want to think about your vagina doing anything.” She giggles and wipes her mouth off with a napkin. “Colin appreciates that. No kids for a while yet.” I nod and eat the rest of my fries. “Are you thinking about kids?” I scoff at my friend. “I’m not even married.” She simply raises a brow and watches me quietly. “I’d marry her tomorrow and have a house full of kids with her if that’s what she wants.” “What if that’s not what she wants?” “One day at a time,” I mumble. “But I think she does. She’s mentioned that she can see us having a family one day. In the meantime, we’re good with taking things one day at a time. It’s early days yet.” “I’m happy for you.” She rests her chin in her hand and watches me with this goofy, dreamy look on her face. “It’s kind of romantic.” “God, you’re a girl.” “Hence the prior conversation about my vagina.” “There was no conversation. And stop saying vagina.” She laughs loudly then raises a brow when my phone pings again. Thought you’d like a video of Mer doing what she does. Jax. I tilt the phone so Lena can see and press play, and suddenly there’s Mer, counting the rhythm for Starla and calling out moves. Finally she stops her and dances it herself, telling her where she’s getting her feet wrong. The video stops right after Starla says, “Fucking A!” “She’s pretty,” Lena says with a smile. “And did you see what she can do with her leg? Holy shit.” “It doesn’t suck,” I agree and smile at my friend. “This was fun. I want to meet her soon.” “We’re heading to Vegas this weekend, but maybe next week?” We stand and throw our garbage away and step out onto the street. “Sounds good. I’ll make my nerdy husband poke his head out of the lab long enough to interact with real people.” “Tell him I said hi, and thanks for sharing his nerdy but gorgeous wife with me today.” I give her a quick hug and kiss her cheek, then watch to make sure she gets into her car safely and pulls away. Just as I sit in the driver’s seat of the Jeep, my phone rings.

“Hey.” “Who the fuck are you having dinner with?” Meredith demands. She’s panting and I can hear Jax in the background say, “Not cool, KitKat.” “I’m sorry, is this my loving girlfriend?” I raise a brow and push the key in the ignition but sit and wait for her reaction. I don’t think I should drive and have this conversation at the same time. “Oh, you remember you have a girlfriend? Great. Answer my question.” “I was having dinner with Lena.” “Why haven’t I ever heard her name before? I don’t believe this, Mark. I leave for a few days and you can’t keep it in your pants?” “That’s enough,” I bark and clench my fist around the steering wheel. She goes quiet but I can hear her breathing hard and I know it’s not from dancing. She’s fucking pissed. And so am I. “I don’t remember being on a leash, but I was having dinner with a very old friend, Meredith.” “Have you ever fucked her?” Her voice is small and quivering. I lean my head against my headrest and clench my eyes closed. “No. And the fact that those words would even come out of your mouth hurts, Mer. She’s a college friend. I worked in the same lab as her and her husband. Well, he was her boyfriend in college, but now they’re married.” She doesn’t reply but I can imagine her cheeks darkening in embarrassment, and I’d be lying if I said that her little fit of jealousy wasn’t a balm to my ego. I’ve done my best to keep myself busy since she’s been gone and remind myself that I trust her and she’ll be home soon. But apparently she doesn’t trust me. “I’ve made lots of friends over the years, most of whom you don’t know. Just like I don’t know all of your friends. Am I to assume that you’ve fucked every man you’ve met in the past ten years?” “Of course not,” she replies. “Is this where I say I’m sorry?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry. Jax told me not to jump to conclusions, but when he said he heard a woman’s voice in the background it pissed me off.” “Maybe it was my sister. Or one of the many Montgomery girls. Are you going to always be this jealous, M?” “No, it was just a knee-jerk reaction because I miss you and I want to be the one there with you. Also, the thought of her with her hands on you made me want to commit murder. The bloody, violent kind, not the poison your food kind.” “She did talk about her vagina,” I say and laugh when Mer growls. “Do you honestly

think that I’d screw up what we have the second you leave town for a quick lay?” “No.” “I love you so much it hurts to breathe, Meredith. You know me better than that.” “I know. Like I said, it was a knee-jerk reaction.” “I think we need to talk when you get home, sweetheart.” “I’m really sorry,” she says. “Why haven’t you ever talked about her before?” “Because I don’t see her often. She and her husband are workaholics.” “Oh.” “How was work?” I start the Jeep and pull into traffic now that the jealousy storm has passed. “Long day.” She sighs. “I miss you.” “I miss you too. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. You land at two, right?” “Yes, but you don’t have to pick us up. We can grab a cab.” “I’ll be there.” I sigh and push my hand through my hair wishing I could hug her and reassure her that everything is okay. “No more jumping to conclusions, okay?” “I’ll work on that,” she says. “Who knew I was this jealous?” “Not me. You never even got like this in high school.” “Weird,” she whispers. “The video Jax sent me was amazing.” “Thanks.” “Mer?” “Yeah?” “You okay?” “No. I feel like an idiot.” “You’re a pretty idiot.” She finally laughs and I smile in response. “Call me later when you’re ready for bed.” “What if I call you naked again?” “Will you send me pictures?” “No.” “I’ll talk you into it.” “Sure you will. I owe you big when I see you tomorrow.” “You don’t owe me anything, but we’ll be having that talk.” I pull into my driveway, surprised to see my sister sitting on my front porch. “Sam’s here. I’m gonna go see what she’s up to. Love you, baby.”

“I love you too.” I slam my door and pull my sunglasses off as Sam types furiously on her phone. “Good to see you finally showed up,” she says as she tucks her phone in her jeans and stands to hug me. “Did we have plans?” “No, I surprised you.” “You’re weird. You can’t be mad at me for not being here if you came over without calling.” I pull her hair and dodge a punch to the shoulder then lead her inside and back toward the kitchen. “What can I do for you?” “I just came over to see your adorable wittle face.” She pinches my cheek then laughs when I chase her with a damp sponge out of the sink. “Seriously, what’s up?” “I have issues.” “This is not a newsflash, sis.” “Bite me.” “Ew.” She crosses to the fridge and opens it wide, surveying the contents. “I’m hungry.” “There’s some left over pizza in there,” I reply and lean back on the counter, waiting for her to get to the point. “Where’s Leo?” “At the studio,” she says and sniffs at the loaded pizza. “Why do you eat mushrooms?” “Why is everyone questioning my choice of condiments today?” “Because you eat gross things.” “What is going on, Sam?” She takes a bite of the pizza, chews for a few seconds, then spits it out in the garbage. “How long have you had that in there?” “About a week,” I say with a smug grin. “Ew. You’re trying to kill me.” She glares at me as she guzzles some water and then opens a bag of Fritos and shoves a handful of the salty corn chips into her mouth as she hops up onto a stool at the breakfast bar. “Make yourself at home.” Sam has always cracked me up. She can be such a hard ass, but she can be a mother hen too, especially to Luke and me. “Talk about Meredith.” “What would you like to know?” “What’s going on with her?” “She’s my girlfriend, Sam. I think that was pretty obvious when you saw us at Will’s

house.” She nods and chews on more chips. “She looks good.” “Yeah, she does.” “She has balls.” I nod and grin at my sister. “She stood up to you.” “Like I said, she has balls.” She shrugs and sips some water. “I have trust issues, though.” “You have trust issues with everyone.” “That’s not true. I trust you. Leo. The family, even the crazy Montgomerys.” “Look, I know that you have your reservations, but I’m a grown man, Sam. I got this.” “She hurt you,” she whispers and stares down at her bag of chips. “You were a mess for years.” “I’m not a mess now.” “I don’t want that to happen again, Mark.” “I don’t want you to get hurt by your rock star boyfriend either, you know. What are we supposed to do? Stay single forever so no one gets hurt? Maybe it’ll work out.” She nods and then shrugs. “I wasn’t a bitch to her.” “I appreciate that. I’d also appreciate it if you continued not being a bitch to her, especially this weekend in Vegas.” “You’re bringing her?” “Yes.” She nods again and blinks, thinking it over. “Okay. It could be fun.” “You’ll probably like her.” “Let’s not go crazy now.” I laugh and snatch my bag of chips out of her hands before she eats the whole damn bag. “You talk a big game, but you’re just a big softie.” “I am not!” She gasps and glares at me. “How dare you call me that?” “Because you are. You just want us all to think you’re badass.” “I don’t have to sit here and take this from you.” “Blah blah blah…” I roll my eyes and pull her off the stool. “Come on, let’s watch a movie.” “Only if you order pizza.” Her phone rings and she answers. “Hi, Mom. Yep, I’m actually with him right now. Okay.” She hands the phone to me and cackles like a witch as she passes me in the hallway and drops into my recliner.

“Hi, Mom.” I’ve been on the phone more today than I have been in the last ten years combined. “Hi, darling. I’m having dinner here tomorrow and I want you to bring Meredith.” “On a Wednesday?” “You’re all going on your little adventure in Vegas this weekend,” she reminds me. “I want to see Meredith. Bring her over. Luke, Nat and the babies are coming along with Sam and Leo too.” “She gets home from LA tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll ask her when I pick her up from the airport.” Sam chooses a cheesy ’80s movie on the on-demand menu, making me roll my eyes. “Don’t ask. Just bring her. I mean it. I always loved that girl.” “Okay. Do you want to harass Sam now?” “Sure. Love you, sweet boy.” “Love you too, Mom.” I pass Sam her phone and steal the remote from her hands. “Mom! Mark just stole the remote and I had it first!” “Seriously? You’re tattling?” She sticks her tongue out at me and talks to Mom about dinner tomorrow while I give in and settle back to watch a bunch of kids in detention on a Saturday. At least the music’s good. “Molly Ringwald was kind of hot,” I say when Sam ends the call with Mom. “Judd Nelson was hot,” she says and kicks her feet up. “How late is Leo gonna be?” She shrugs and doesn’t meet my eyes. “Sam?” “He’s been working late a lot,” she says. “I don’t know when he’ll be done.” “Is everything okay there?” “Sure.” She offers me a fake smile but it falls from her face when I simply sit and watch her. “I think so. He’s been quiet this week, and busy so I haven’t had a chance to ask him what’s going on.” “He loves you.” “I know. I’m just worried about him.” “Keep me updated.” “Okay. Now shush. This is the part where Judd Nelson pushes his face into Molly’s crotch. It’s hilarious.”

“I didn’t realize it was porn.” “You’re gross.”

Chapter Twelve “Hey, man.” Logan claps me on the shoulder and shakes my hand. We’re standing in the airport, at the baggage claim carousel that has Mer’s flight number listed for pick up. They landed five minutes ago, and I can’t wait for her to get her sexy ass down here. “How’s it going?” “Good, thanks.” Logan nods and pushes his glasses up his nose. “I thought I was going to be late. Traffic was horrible.” “Came from work?” I gesture to his suit and tie. “Yeah. I took off early today and I’m taking the rest of the week off.” “Good for you. Do you have plans?” “Jax has been gone for a few days, and he’s leaving again on Friday for Vegas, so I thought I’d take some vacation time to hang with him.” He smiles shyly and loosens the top button of his dress shirt. “Actually, I was going to talk to you about this weekend. How do you feel about meeting us down there? Jax and the girls would love it.” Logan smiles softly. “I was going to ask you if it would be inappropriate if I surprised him. I was thinking about coming down Saturday afternoon, if that’s okay with you and your family.” I smile widely and shake my head. “If it were Mer, you couldn’t keep me away. Feel free to come down. I’ll give you my cell number and I’ll keep you updated on where we are on Saturday so you know where to find him.” “Thank you. Isn’t the news of Starla asking Jax and Mer to go back on tour crazy?” He shakes his head and grins, but my heart stops. Meredith didn’t mention this to me. She’s going back on tour? When? Is she planning to break things off again, or does she think we’ll do the longdistance thing while she’s gone for fucking months at a time? “They’re here!” I turn at the sound of Mer’s voice just in time to catch her mid-air. “Oh my God, I missed you so much.” She wraps herself around me and kisses me hard before burying her face in my neck, right where she needs to be. My hands are full of lush woman as her scent floats around me, and my nerves settle some. “Hi, baby. How was your flight?” “Too long.” I glance over in time to see Jax and Logan with their foreheads together and a soft smile passing between them. “I’m happy to see you,” I whisper and kiss her cheek just as the carousel begins to spin.

“Me too.” She kisses me again, her lips linger on mine for a long minute. “Here’s your bag, lollypop,” Jax says as I lower Mer to the floor. “And we were only gone for three days. Not three months.” But you’ll be gone for three months in the near future? “Bite me,” Mer says with a big smile. “It was a long three days,” Logan adds as he links his fingers with Jax’s and raises them to his lips. “Let’s go.” “Don’t wait up,” Jax says with a grin. “Not that you’ll be at home anyway.” “No,” I agree with a smile and take Mer’s bag, leading her toward the parking garage. “She won’t.” Jax winks at both of us and then the two of them set off in the other direction. “It’s so nice that Logan came to pick Jax up,” Mer says. “Mmm.” I don’t mention Logan surprising Jax in Vegas. It’ll be a surprise for both of them. “It was nice of you to pick me up too,” she says and kisses my shoulder. “Thank you.” “Anytime, baby.” I pay for our parking and toss her bag in the Jeep and soon we’re on the freeway, heading toward Mer’s apartment. “My mom is having dinner at her place tonight at around six. I believe she might have threatened to disown me if I didn’t bring you with me.” “I’m a mess,” Mer says and looks down at her yoga pants and loose T-shirt. “I’m dressed for a flight, not dinner with my boyfriend’s family.” “You always look beautiful, but we have time to swing by your place for a while.” “Okay.” She takes my hand in hers and holds it tightly, and just that small touch has my cock on full alert. “How is your week going?” “Not bad,” I reply. “Work is busy, as usual. I’ve done a little more work on your house.” “Your house,” she replies immediately, making me grin. She can pretend all she wants that the house isn’t hers, but since the other night, there’s no question in my mind. It’s Meredith’s house. And I’m going to live in it with her for the next sixty years. That is, if she doesn’t dump me on my ass to go back on tour with a pop star. Fuck me. “Our house?” I shoot her the smile that always makes her melt and she bites her lip. I’m going to bite that lip when I get her back to her apartment. “Your house,” she whispers. She’s not fooling anyone. “I’m going to take a shower,” she says when we get up to her apartment. “I have

airplane grossness all over me.” “I’ll help.” I pull her behind me to her bathroom and start the shower to let the water heat up, but instead of immediately ripping her clothes off her, I take my time. I pull her shirt and bra off and spend a few minutes kissing and nibbling her shoulders, around her breasts and down to her navel. She tugs my shirt over my head and gently sweeps her fingertips over my skin, sending goose bumps over me, making my cock even harder for her. Jesus, I’m fucking addicted to her. My lips trail down her stomach to her smooth pubic bone as I peel her leggings down her hips and thighs, and then hold her hand as she steps out of them. “Two nights without you is too long,” I murmur and kiss her inner thighs, cup her bare ass in my hands and squeeze as she plunges her fingers in my hair and holds on tight. “Definitely too long. You still have your pants on,” she says. “I don’t give a shit about my pants,” I reply and prop her leg over my shoulder, opening her up to me. I brush a fingertip gently over her swollen clit and through her pussy lips, making her gasp. “I do.” She’s panting now and has my hair clenched in a death grip. “I want you out of them.” “I will be,” I murmur and lean in to kiss her swollen flesh. “Fuck me, you smell like sex.” “Not yet,” she says and lets out a small chuckle. “But I’m hoping to very soon.” I look up into her ice blue eyes as I lick her from her wet opening to her clit and back down again, then sink in and go to town on her, making her cry out as her legs begin to shake. “I’m going to fall!” I shake my head no and brace her ass in my hands, not letting up until she comes long and loud on my mouth. Her juices are dripping down my chin. She’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted and the noises coming from her make my cock throb. I stand slowly, peppering kisses up her tight body, then quickly strip out of my jeans and boxer briefs and lead her into the shower. Mer immediately reaches for my wash-cloth and shower gel and busies herself washing me, dragging the soapy cloth over my body, around my pulsing, hard cock, slower than fuck just to make me crazy, I’m sure. When she’s finally done, I turn the tables on her, slowly washing every inch of her perfect skin. “If I say I’m sorry for torturing you, will you go faster?” she asks breathlessly. “No.” She chuckles and then moans when I drag her shower puff between her legs, washing her pussy.

“You’re extra dirty here.” “That’s your fault.” She gasps and grips my biceps to keep from losing her balance as I press just a little harder. “God, that feels good.” I kiss her cheek and down to her neck, biting softly but not hard enough to mark her. Her fingertips dig into my arms when I drag the soapy puff through her folds one last time before dropping it to the floor so I can rinse her off. “How is it possible that you feel more toned than you did just last week?” “I probably am,” she replies before kissing my chest. “The routine for Starla was more rigorous than anything I’ve done in the year I’ve been home. It toned me back up. Does it bother you?” “Nothing about you bothers me. I love it when you’re curvy and I love it when you’re leaner. Fuck, M, I’m addicted to you any way I can get you.” I turn off the water and dry us both off then lead her to her bed. “I thought we were going to talk,” she murmurs as I lower her to her bed and cover her body with mine. “Later.” I slide my hand over her breast and down her ribcage to her hip. “The thing you need to remember, sweetheart, is you’re mine. Only you.” I kiss her neck and collarbone. “This is the only body I fantasize about.” I leave open-mouthed kisses over her breasts, pull on her tight nipples, then leave a mark right over her heart, where no one but me can see it. Suddenly, she pushes on my shoulders, reversing our positions and braces herself on my chest. “That’s good to hear,” she says breathlessly as she raises up on her knees and lowers herself onto my cock. “Because I feel the same way. It’s only you, M.” She guides my hands over her breasts and down to her hips where I grip her tightly and lead her into a steady rhythm, watching with fascination as she rides me. She runs one tiny hand of hers down her stomach to her clit while the other hand cups her breast, pinching her nipple as she rides me with abandon. Just when I think she can’t get any more beautiful she completely beguiles me, throws me for a loop and knocks me off balance. She bites her lip and tips her head back as she increases her pace, her hips rolling over mine quickly now. My fingers dig into her hips, pulling her down onto me harder with every thrust. “Jesus Christ, M.” I groan. She opens her eyes and pins me with her gaze as she bears down, clenches around me harder than she ever has and comes hard, shivering and bucking against me. “Oh God!” “Holy fuck!” I cry and sit up straight, wrapping my arms around Mer’s waist and hold her close as I come with her. My cock explodes inside her as her pussy contracts around me, milking every last drop from me. “I think you missed me,” she whispers and lays her head on my chest. “I think you’re right.” I lie back and cuddle her against me. She was right, we do have

to talk, but it’ll wait. For now, I just want to hold her close and breathe her in and not worry about her being jealous or the possibility of her leaving me. “Sex with you is more exhausting than eight hours of dance with Jax,” she mumbles. I grin and kiss her hair softly. “And did I see you leave a love bite on my boob?” “You did.” “Aren’t we too old for that?” “No one can see it but me.” I tilt her head back so I can look in those baby blues. “I enjoy marking you.” “You are a caveman, you know that, right?” “With you, yes I am. And I won’t apologize for it.” “I wasn’t asking you to.” She wiggles closer to me and sighs contentedly. “Do we have time for a nap?” “Sure, baby.” “We’ll talk when we wake up?” “It’s a date.” I kiss her forehead and smile when she moans softly and I feel her body melt against me, limp in sleep. Before long I feel my own body relaxing and my eyes drift shut as Mer’s rhythmic breathing pulls me into sleep with her. *** “Shit, we’re going to be late!” I jerk awake to find Mer jumping out of the bed. “Wake up, Mark! We overslept. We have to be at your mom and dad’s in twenty minutes.” “Damn,” I mutter and scrub my hands over my face. “Well, at least we already showered.” “And got dirty again.” She laughs. “Can I persuade you to take another shower with me?” “No. Get dressed, horny man.” “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of us having loud, crazy sex in my head.” She laughs and throws my shirt at me. “You’re insatiable.” “With you, yes.” I tug on her waist, pulling her into my lap so I can kiss her neck. “I’ll never get enough of you.” “Well you’ll have to wait,” she whispers and kisses my cheek. “Because we’re going to be late.” She bounces out of my lap and finishes dressing. I don’t move, I just sit with my shirt in my hand and watch her pull on a long black skirt and black and white top, then step into

black sandals. She brushes her hair out and leaves it loose around her face, then applies the smallest amount of makeup, but it makes her eyes even bluer and her lips shine. “You’re not dressed.” She props her hands on her hips and watches me with amused eyes. “Mark?” “Yeah.” “You’re not dressed.” “You’re so fucking beautiful it hurts to breathe.” She blinks in surprise and crosses to me. “Are you okay?” I take her hands in mine and kiss her knuckles softly, then stand and hug her close. “So fucking beautiful,” I whisper and tilt her head back and place an easy kiss on her lips, before I pull away to dress. She looks shell-shocked as I quickly dress and lace up my shoes, then take her hand in mine and lead her to the car. “What was all that for?” she asks. “It wasn’t for anything. It’s how I feel.” I shrug and lace our fingers as I drive us to my mom and dad’s house. *** As we pull up to the house that I grew up in, Sam and Leo pull in behind us in Leo’s black Camero. “You’re late,” Sam says and glares at me. “What does that make you?” I ask and clap Leo on the shoulder as he laughs at Sam. “Fashionably late.” She offers Mer a real smile, and Mer returns it happily. “It’s good to see you, Sam.” “Don’t let Mark make you late for everything. It’s a bad habit of his.” Sam links her arm through Mer’s and leads her into the house with Leo and me bringing up the rear. “How did it go with Starla?” Meredith glances at Sam in surprise. “How did you know Jax and I were working with Starla?” “Mark told me,” Sam replies. “It was fun, but I’m happy to be home.” But for how long are you going to be home? “Hello, everyone!” Mom is holding a sleeping Keaton on her shoulder, swaying her hips back and forth, rocking him soothingly as Livie and Luke sit on the floor playing with a toy kitchen. “Hi, Mom,” I say and kiss her cheek, then gesture to Meredith. “You remember Mer.”

“Of course. Hello, darling. I’m so glad you came.” “Thank you for inviting me.” Mer grins and kisses Keaton’s head, then Mom’s cheek. “My turn,” Dad announces as he joins us from the kitchen. He collects hugs from Sam and me and then lifts Mer off her feet in a big bear hug. “It’s so good to see you, Meredith.” She grins and blinks back tears as he sets her on the ground, then moves on to shake Leo’s hand. “You okay?” I whisper down to her. She replies with a quick nod and a brave smile. “Hi, guys,” Nat says and waves from the dining table off the kitchen. She’s drinking a glass of wine and smiling happily. “You must be done breastfeeding,” Sam guesses and joins her. “Yes, ma’am. I figured it was for the best, especially with the Vegas trip this weekend.” Liv stands and walks over to the bookshelves by the television in the family room that opens up to the kitchen. “No, baby, you can’t have those,” Luke says and catches her before she can pull Mom’s glass bells off the shelf. “Mom, you have to babyproof this room. She’ll break these.” “She’s never paid any attention to them before. I guess it’s time to pack them away for a while,” Mom says and kisses Keaton’s cheek. I hold a chair out for Mer then sit next to her and pour her a glass of wine. My phone buzzes in my pocket, so I pull it out to find a text from Isaac. Take the rest of the week off. See you Friday at the airport. “Everything okay?” Mer asks as I set my phone on the table. “Yep. Isaac just gave me the rest of the week off.” “I like him so much,” Mer says with a grin. I can’t help myself, I lean in and kiss those lips before taking a sip of my wine. “Me too.” “Okay, men, I need you in the kitchen,” Dad announces as he starts pulling stuff out of the fridge. “That’s my cue,” I whisper and kiss Mer’s cheek before joining Dad and Luke in the kitchen. To my surprise, Leo joins us too and smirks when I raise a brow at him. “What? I can cook.” “Really?” “Yes, really.” “Want to wear one of Mom’s aprons?” Luke asks and then laughs when Leo flips him off. “Livie!” Nat jumps up and runs after her daughter who has gone straight for Mom’s bells again. “Okay, troublemaker,” I say and scoop Livie into my arms. “You’ve wrecked enough

havoc today. You can come cook with me.” “Unca Mawk,” she says and grins. “Cook wif you.” “That’s right.” I plant her on my hip and set about getting the rice ready and glance over to see Mer laughing with Nat, Sam and Mom. She fits perfect here. And then I remember Logan’s remark at the airport and all of the air leaves my lungs. Leo blows a raspberry on Liv’s cheek as he walks by, making her giggle and pulling me out of my depressing as fuck thoughts. “Daddy’s cookin’,” she says and points at Luke. “He thinks he is,” I reply and whisper in her ear, “but he’s not as good as Uncle Mark.” Liv giggles and Luke flips me off behind her back. “So, Nat,” I begin and watch Luke with a smug smile. “When are you going to run away with me?” I cross to where she’s sitting at the table and rest my hand on her shoulder. Mer’s pursing her lips, but her eyes are laughing at me. “I have to check my calendar,” she says and leans her face on my arm. “Dude, get your hands off my wife. You have your own girl.” “I don’t know,” Mer says, playing along. “I think they make a cute couple.” “You’re not supposed to encourage him,” Luke says, glaring at Mer. “You know you prefer me,” I continue. Livie is watching us avidly, turning her gaze from her mom at my side to her dad, who is now leaning on the kitchen counter glaring at me. “Mmm…” Natalie acts like she’s thinking it over, then shakes her head. “No, I’m still gonna stick with him.” She points to Luke and then pats my arm consolingly. “You have a better option over there anyway.” “I guess our love was never meant to be,” I say, my voice full of drama. “I guess not.” “You’re all sickening.” Sam rolls her eyes. “Seriously, run while you still can, Mer. They’re all a bunch of crazies.” “I think I’ll stay,” Mer says with a laugh. “I kind of like it.” Yes, for the love of all that’s holy, stay. “My kind of girl.” I kiss Mer’s cheek and lower Liv into her lap on my way back to the kitchen. I busy myself chopping vegetables for the salad, listening to the girls chatter and laugh. Luke and Leo are talking about a mutual friend in LA. Dad is seasoning the steaks for the grill. I glance over at Mer to find her watching me with sober eyes, her lips tight. What is she pissed about?

Before I can ask her, Mom stands, lowers Keaton into his portable crib and gestures to the girls. “I want to show you girls my garden.” “Will you guys listen for Keaton? We’ll take Liv with us,” Nat says. “Sure, baby. Enjoy.” Luke smiles at his beautiful wife as the girls file out the patio door to the back yard. Meredith won’t meet my eyes. What the fuck just happened?

Chapter Thirteen ~Meredith~ “My kind of girl.” Mark kisses my cheek and lowers Liv gently onto my lap before joining the others in the kitchen. Liv looks up at me with wide eyes. “Your name?” she asks with her sweet little voice. “Meredith,” I reply. “Meme,” she replies and smiles widely, then slaps her hands on the table and glances over at her mama. “Hi, Mama!” “Hi, baby,” Nat says and smiles at her daughter. “What are you packing for this weekend in Vegas?” Sam asks us. “Are we doing formal stuff?” I ask and brush my fingers through Liv’s fine brown hair. “Maybe. I don’t really know what the plan is,” Nat says with a shrug. “I’ll probably bring a cocktail dress and heels, just in case. I’m definitely taking my bathing suit so we can lounge by the pool.” “I hate you for just having a baby a few months ago and you already have your prebaby body back.” Sam glares at Natalie. “I’m telling you,” Nat says with a grin. “It’s the yoga.” “You do yoga?” I ask eagerly. “I’ve been trying to find a class since I moved back.” “I teach a class,” Nat says. “You should come.” “Awesome.” “Well, I’m not taking yoga,” Sam says. “You don’t need it,” Leo calls from the kitchen. Sam blows him a kiss. “Okay, so something nice and a bathing suit,” I say and mentally thumb through my closet. “I guess I’ll take some jeans and tops too.” “Yeah, bring a little of everything,” Sam says with a nod. “How are you doing, Meredith?” Lucy covers my hand with her own and offers me a kind smile. She was always so nice to me, and the feel of her hand on mine reminds me of my mom and I’m caught in the grip of grief so quickly, I didn’t see it coming. My chest aches with a longing I’ve become used to feeling, but I keep the tears at bay and offer Lucy a smile. “I’m doing well. The studio is doing great.” “It’s such a joy to be able the spend time with you again,” Lucy says and pats my hand

before turning her attention to Liv, who’s trying to squirm out of my lap so she can climb into Lucy’s. Before I can respond, I see the screen on Mark’s phone light up at my elbow. I glance down to see a message from someone named Tami. It’s been a while, sexy. Tonight work for you? Seriously? He has women still calling him for booty calls? I want to confront Mark right now, but now is not the time. We’re with his family, for crying out loud. It’ll have to wait for later. We need to have that talk anyway. Sam catches my eye and offers me a supportive smile. She obviously saw the text too. I just shrug, smile bravely and do my best not to stab Mark in the arm with the knife he’s currently using to chop the salad. Just as I lift my glass to take a sip of my wine, Mark’s screen lights up again, but this time it’s from someone named Marcy, and it’s a photo. Of her motherfucking tits. Are you fucking kidding me? “Man whore,” Sam mumbles and shakes her head. I don’t think I could confront him right now without killing him if I tried. My skin suddenly feels clammy and I’m seeing red. “I want to show you girls my garden.” “I could use some fresh air,” I respond immediately. Maybe I’ll be able to breathe through the fury so I can talk with Mark calmly. But just then, the screen comes to life again, the way they do when you haven’t checked the last message that came in, reminding you it’s there, and I get a second look at Marcy’s double-D’s. Lucy announces that we’re going outside just as Mark catches my eye. His brows rise in surprise when he sees my face, but I turn away, unable to look him in the eye. Luke agrees to listen for the baby as we shuffle outside. “I planted some new rose bushes,” Lucy begins as she leads us to the back corner of the large yard. I smile and nod and follow along, but don’t really hear what she’s talking about as she gives us the grand tour on the pretty light-lined paths that meander through the yard. “It doesn’t mean anything, you know,” Sam says quietly beside me. She and I slow down, falling behind Lucy and Nat, who continue to happily chat about Lucy’s plants. Nat is carrying Livie, who happily points to butterflies and birds flying nearby. “Doesn’t it?” “No.” She shakes her head and loops her arm through mine. “You have to know he wasn’t celibate for ten years.” I toss my head back and laugh. “Of course not. Have you seen him?”

“I have. He’s not gross.” “No, he’s not.” I sigh and shove my hair behind my ears. “We need to talk.” “I think I might bust Leo’s balls if it were me. But then, I’m not a terribly jealous person, I would just want to mess with him a bit.” “I’m not typically jealous either, but seriously? That chick sent him a picture of her boobs.” Sam shudders and then laughs. “Girls strip their shirts off and shove their tits in Leo’s face. It’s delightful.” “Ugh.” I sigh and bite my lip. “Girls suck.” “Yes, they do. She probably doesn’t know he’s with you now.” “A lot of girls don’t care,” I remind her. “True. He’ll tell them. He’ll be embarrassed when he sees what you saw.” “I don’t want him to be embarrassed.” “What do you want?” she asks. “I don’t know.” I jerk one shoulder up in a shrug and then smile at her. “To unsee it. Thanks for talking me down from the ledge.” “You’re welcome. Now when you talk to him, you can do it in a productive way.” “I was daydreaming of stabbing him with that knife he was using,” I confess, making Sam laugh. “Well, I guess that means you love him, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t care who texted him.” “I love him,” I say. “But I’m still pissed.” She nods just as Lucy and Nat join us. “Your yard is beautiful, Lucy,” I say and smile. “Thank you, dear. I think dinner should be ready by now.” When we step inside, the house smells amazing. The guys are just setting steaming plates on the table and Luke is feeding Keaton a bottle. “He woke up?” Nat asks Luke. “Yeah, he’s hungry,” he replies with a grin. Seeing Mark’s handsome older brother with the baby is a sight to behold. There’s a reason that Luke graced magazine covers and teenagers’ walls for so long. The man is hot. “Are you okay?” Mark asks as he slips beside me and wraps his arm around my waist. I could lie. But I won’t. “No. You missed some texts.” I point to his phone and walk away from him, sit at the

table and decide to enjoy the rest of my evening with these nice people. Mark retrieves his phone as he sits next to me and checks the messages and then cringes and shakes his head in disgust. Dinner is a flurry of good food and even better conversation. I forget about those stupid women on Mark’s phone for a little while and enjoy the people around me. When we’ve finished eating, the girls jump up to clean while the guys take the babies into the family room. When the last dish is placed in the dishwasher and the kitchen is clean, we join the guys. “Can I hold him?” I ask Luke, who is holding a sleepy Keaton. “Of course you can,” he replies and gently passes the baby into my arms. “I’m getting braver with the little ones,” I say with a smile. “How do you hold them all the time and not worry about hurting them?” “They’re stronger than they look,” Neil replies and wraps his arm around Lucy’s shoulders, tugging her close to his side. No wonder the Williams men are affectionate. They’ve learned it from their father. “You won’t hurt them, sweet girl.” I brush my finger down Keaton’s nose and kiss his little round cheek. He makes little sucky motions with his lips. Suddenly, there’s a very foul smell coming from the little bundle of joy. “Um, I think he needs to be changed,” I say and glance around the room in a panic. “Come on.” Nat stands and motions for me to follow her. “I’ll help you.” “Oh God. I don’t want to break him,” I whisper and follow Nat down the hallway to a small nursery. “Lucy and Neil put in a nursery?” “They did. They love keeping the kids.” Nat helps me lay Keaton on the changing table and walks me through changing his very dirty diaper. “Dear God, Keaton!” I exclaim when I open the diaper. “What are they feeding you?” Nat laughs and hands me baby wipes. “I should be wearing a hazmat suit,” I mumble and clean the baby’s butt, powder it and under Nat’s supervision, wrap him back up again. “You’re a natural,” she says with a smile. “I might need therapy now.” When we return to the family room, everyone is laughing and watching us walk down the hallway. “What’s so funny?” I ask and settle back on the couch with the baby in my arms. “You are,” Mark replies and kisses my temple. “We could hear you through the baby monitor.” “Yeah, well, Keaton’s parents should reconsider his diet.” Keaton, wide awake now, is

chewing on his fist, watching me talk. He grins a wide, toothless grin, and I fall even more in love with him. “You’re too handsome to smell like that. Yes you are.” “Sam, tell Meredith the story of you and Leo babysitting Liv when she was a baby and you had to call Meg to come change her diaper for you.” Luke is laughing now, holding his stomach. “It was so classic.” “It was the first time we babysat her by ourselves,” Sam begins. “First and only time,” Mark adds, earning a glare from Sam. “And she filled her diaper. I had never changed a diaper before, and neither had Leo.” “I still say it’s unethical for a man to change a little girl’s diaper,” Leo says, holding his hands up in surrender. “It’s not appropriate.” I giggle and watch Sam and Leo take turns telling the story of waiting forever for Meg to show up and change the screaming baby’s diaper. They’re so great together, finishing each other’s sentences and looking at each other with so much love in their faces it’s blinding. “It worked out in the end,” Leo says as the story comes to a close. “That’s hilarious,” I reply and gaze down at the baby blowing bubbles in my arms. “We should go put the kids to bed,” Luke says and kisses Nat’s cheek. “I’m ready for some alone time with my wife.” “Ew,” Sam says and wrinkles her nose. “We don’t need that announcement.” Luke just smiles smugly and kisses his wife again, making Sam gag. “You guys are funny,” I say, not realizing I said it out loud until Sam laughs and shrugs. I lay Keaton in his car seat and step aside as Luke buckles him in and lifts him off the floor. Nat is carrying Liv and we all walk outside to say goodbye. “We should go too,” Mark says. “I have some work to do,” Sam says and smiles up at Leo. “Ready?” “I’m ready.” There are many hugs and promises of calling soon as we all climb into our vehicles and wave at Lucy and Neil before pulling away from the house. “I’d like to go home, please,” I say and stare out my window. “I was going to take you to my house.” “I’d rather just go home.” Mark sighs next to me and drags his hand down his face. Now that we’re alone, the anger is back. I’m tired and honestly, my feelings are hurt. And I don’t really care if that’s irrational. “Mer—” “We’ll talk when we get there, Mark.”

I close my eyes and settle back in the seat and let him drive to my apartment in silence. *** “I’m going to change,” I announce as soon as I get inside my apartment, but Mark stops me. “No. You’re going to sit and we’re going to talk.” I turn on him and cross my arms over my chest. “Really? This is the moment you’re going to choose to be bossy?” “Sit down, Meredith.” “Fuck you, Mark.” “Are we going to do this again? Do you honestly believe I’m fucking those women?” I pace away and fling my arms out at my sides. “No, I don’t believe that, Mark! That’s ridiculous.” “Then why are you so angry?” I stop and stare at him as if he’s just grown a second head. “Because,” I begin and take a deep breath, “two women obviously think they can text you, crook their finger, and you’ll come fuck them at a moment’s notice.” “But they can’t. You know that.” “I do. They don’t.” He frowns and scratches his fingers over his scalp in agitation. “So?” “We’ve been together long enough for you to let your fuck buddies know that you’re no longer available, Mark.” “I haven’t even thought about them since you and I have been together, Meredith. Why would it occur to me to text and tell them I’m in a relationship when you’re all I fucking think about?” I shake my head and pace away. “Look. Clearly you had a healthy sex life before I came back into your world. But I didn’t need it to blindside me while I was sitting at your mother’s dining room table. Your sister saw it. It was humiliating.” “Meredith, listen to yourself. You were at my mother’s table. None of those women ever met my family. I don’t give a flying fuck about those women and you know it. How many times do I have to tell you that I love you?” “I don’t question your love for me, damn it!” “I’ll make it clear to them and anyone else that contacts me that I’m happily unavailable, Meredith. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with this jealous streak you’ve developed in the past ten years.” I open my mouth to respond, but he holds up a hand, shutting me up.

“Lena,” he begins, “and I have been friends since our freshman year in college. She and Colin, her now husband, were the closest friends I had for a long time. They knew about you.” I cringe when he raises a brow. “For years we helped each other through classes and labs. I was the best man in their wedding, Mer. Lena is a very good friend, and she’s looking forward to meeting you.” “Okay.” “If you have a question, ask me. Want to go through my phone?” He tosses his phone at me, but I toss it right back. “I don’t care if you go through it. I haven’t done anything wrong.” I sigh and deflate onto the couch. “I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, Mark. I’m not accusing you of anything.” “But you don’t trust me.” “I don’t trust women.” My head jerks up as I stand again, passionate about making him understand. “I don’t trust women.” “Why?” “Because women can be catty, and many don’t seem to care if a man is taken. But the bottom line for me is this: those women shouldn’t be sending you messages like that. I know you didn’t do anything wrong, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.” “Well, then let’s move on to the next issue. When were you going to tell me that you’re going back on tour with Starla?” His hands are propped on his hips and he’s glaring at me accusingly. “I’m not.” “Don’t fucking lie to me.” His voice is low and rough and thoroughly pissed. “I’m not lying to you. She offered us our old jobs back.” I hold my breath as he closes his eyes on a long sigh. “But we turned her down.” No answer. “Mark?” Nothing. “Mark, we turned her down.” He clears his throat. “Go on.” “She said that she misses having us with her, and now that Mom’s gone and life has settled a bit, she was hoping we’d choreograph her next tour and go back out on the road with her next year. But you know what?” “What?” he whispers. I hate the slight tremble in his voice. I move to walk to him, but he holds a hand up, stopping me. “For about ten seconds, while she was stating her case, I thought it over. I thought

about the long days of travel, not knowing where I am, not having a real home. Not to mention, I’m not super young anymore and I could get hurt with as rigorous as Starla likes the routines to be.” I pace away and shove my hands through my hair. “And I told her, it’s just not for me anymore. I love my studio and my students, and I love you. I’m happy in Seattle. That world doesn’t fit me anymore.” “Are you sure?” he asks softly. “It was never going to be a yes, M. Even if I didn’t have you, which I’m so glad that I do, I still would have turned her down. That time in my life is done, and I like where my life is now.” “What did Jax say?” “He said no as well. For pretty much the same reasons.” “He’s in love with me too?” And there’s my funny man. I exhale deeply and smile at him. “Hopelessly, yes.” I laugh and hook my hair behind my ear. “I think he’s in love with Logan.” “Are you just now realizing that?” “It’s complicated with Jax.” “I can imagine.” “Did he tell you about his past?” Mark nods and shoves his hands in his pockets. “So, what we have here is a lack of trust on both parts,” he murmurs. He still isn’t pulling me into his arms. “You think I’ll fuck anyone who smiles my way…” “I never said that…” “And I’m still scared shitless that you’ll end up choosing dance over me and leave me high and dry.” He seriously thinks that? That I would do that again? I sigh and I’m suddenly exhausted. The long days of physical work and being put through the emotional wringer with Mark have caught up with me. I walk toward my bedroom. “You know what, I’m going to change out of these clothes, and I think I want to be alone tonight.” “No.” “What did you say?” I spin around to look at him. His hands are balled into fists at his sides and a muscle ticks in his jaw from clenching it so hard. “I said no. I just spent two nights without you, Meredith. I’m not doing it again.” “Well, I don’t want to sleep with you tonight.” God, I’m being a complete bitch! Stop it!

But I can’t. “I’ll sleep on the couch then,” he replies. “Do what you want.” I turn and walk to my room, slam the door and wonder what in the hell is wrong with me. I pull my phone out of my pocket and text Jax. I’m an idiot. Tell me to get over myself. I strip out of my clothes and climb into my bed, not paying attention to the tears rolling down my cheeks. Finally my phone beeps with an incoming text from Jax. Get over yourself. Why did I just say that? I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand and respond. Because I’m mad at Mark for something he didn’t really do. Girls texted him for booty calls today. He didn’t reply to them. But one sent her tits! I hit send and less than ten seconds later, my phone rings. “You didn’t have to call me.” “Do I need to come home?” Jax’s voice is full of worry and it makes me love him even more. “No. I’m being dumb. But I’m still mad at him.” “Not all men are cheating bastards like Scott was,” Jax reminds me. “Scott and I weren’t even officially a couple.” “No, but he still fucked anything that looked at him sideways while he was fucking you, and it screwed you up, tootsie roll. Mark isn’t Scott, and just because a couple trollops sent him messages today doesn’t mean he did anything wrong. So yeah, get over yourself.” “Damn. Tough love sucks ass.” Jax chuckles. “Did he leave?” “No, he…” The front door slams, making the tears come again. “Yeah. He just left.” “Sleep off your shitty mood and then go apologize. With a blow job.” “Thanks, Dr. Ruth.” “My pleasure. See you on Friday.” *** My head is pounding when I wake up. It’s not quite light out yet. Gray shadows are cast across the room as the first rays from the sun are just starting to surface. I climb out of bed and shuffle into the kitchen to take some painkillers, toss the left over water in the sink, and turn to go back to bed, but a dark figure on the couch catches

my eye. Mark. He didn’t leave. He’s stretched out on his back, a quilt I recognize from the night we sat on the pier draped over him. As I step closer, I can see he’s asleep. And suddenly, I just can’t stay away from him anymore. I climb on top of him, curling up in a ball on his chest and suddenly his arms come around me, holding me tightly. “I was such a bitch,” I whisper as the tears start again. “But I can’t apologize for my reaction, Mark, because you’re mine and those text messages just pissed me the fuck off.” “I got that,” he replies softly and kisses my head. “When I thought about it from your point of view, I got it. If the roles were reversed, I’d be in jail for assault.” “I’m not usually super jealous, but honestly, Mark, her tits?” “I know. I’m sorry about that too. I texted every woman in my phone last night, those I remember and those I don’t, and told them that I’m off the market for good and not to text me again.” “You did?” “Yes. My sister and mom weren’t impressed.” I chuckle and slap his arm without any real malice behind it. “I had a brief relationship with a guy a few years ago and when I say brief, that’s no lie. Super brief. Mostly because he didn’t think it was necessary to stop sleeping with everyone else he knew while he was sleeping with me.” “I’m not like that and you know it.” “I know. And I feel more than a little foolish this morning. If it helps, I cried myself to sleep last night.” “No that doesn’t help,” he says as he caresses my back and kisses my head. “I hate it when you cry.” “I hate it when I’m stupid.” “You’re not stupid. We’re learning each other again, remember?” “Yeah.” “I’m learning that you have a helluva possessive side.” “I do.” His hand travels down my back to cup my ass firmly. “I do too. There won’t be a repeat of last night, M. I promise. And this is the last time I’ll ever sleep on the couch. You can’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault.” I grin and kiss his chest. “I’ll try to rein in the jealous bitch.”

“Do that. You don’t have anyone to be jealous of, baby. You’re all I see. You know that.” I raise up to gaze into his face in the gray glow of the living room. He brushes his thumbs under my eyes, wiping the tears away. “You’re all I see,” he whispers. “About the other thing, Mark. I don’t ever want you to think that I would choose dance over you again. I wouldn’t. I said no because of you, because I couldn’t be away from you for so long. I made it clear that I’ve moved on from that life.” He kisses my cheek and pulls me back down against his chest. “I believe you,” he whispers. “And I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions of my own.”

Chapter Fourteen “Where are we going?” I ask and push my hair out of my face. Mark took the top off his Jeep, and we’re speeding down the freeway on this gorgeous spring day. The sky is bright blue, not a cloud in it, and the chill from early spring is finally being burned off by the sun. “We have work to do today.” “Um, no, we have the week off.” I glance over at Mark and feel the breath leave my lungs. Will I always lose my breath when I look at him? He’s wearing dark Oakley sunglasses. His blond hair is messy from the wind and my fingers. His white T-shirt molds against his chest and arm muscles like a dream and his forearms flex as he grips the steering wheel. I can’t even think about the way those faded blue jeans hug his ass and thighs without breaking out into a sweat. I could easily just sit here and watch him all day. “Mer?” “Yeah?” “You’re not listening to me.” “Sorry, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re over there looking like that.” He laughs and lifts my hand to his lips to kiss my knuckles. “You’re funny.” “You’re sexy.” He tosses me a hot look before pulling into a home improvement store, parks and cuts the engine. “What are we doing here?” “I want you to come help me figure out how to remodel your kitchen.” “I don’t have permission from my landlord to remodel my kitchen.” He tilts his head to the side and cocks a brow at me. “Don’t be difficult.” “Why do you need my help?” “Because, you’ll be living with it for a long time, so you should be the one to tell me what you like.” He climbs out of the Jeep, but all I can do is sit here and stare after him, not sure what to say. He opens my door and helps me out of the Jeep, takes my hand in his and leads me inside the cavernous store. It smells of sawdust and grass. “I don’t think girls are supposed to be in here,” I say and bite my lip. Mark laughs and props his sunglasses on his head.

“It’s an equal opportunity store, M.” “I’ll like anything you do to your kitchen, Mark. You don’t need me to tell you what to do.” He leads me back to the appliance and kitchen area, where they have kitchen displays set up so you can see what the appliances and countertops look like together. “Just humor me.” He kisses my temple before dropping my hand and gesturing to a kitchen nearby. “I’m going to leave the existing cabinets, but I was thinking about painting them.” I tilt my head and look about the space, thinking about the kitchen as it is now. “White would brighten it up a lot.” “Exactly.” He grins and nods. “I was also thinking about replacing the doors with some that have glass in them.” “No way.” I shake my head adamantly. “If they have glass fronts, you can see the mess inside. Maybe just some glass ones where the plates and bowls go. I like colorful dinnerware, so that would be pretty, but the rest shouldn’t have glass.” He’s nodding as I talk, thinking. “I can do that. Okay, white cabinets with just a couple glass-front doors. Now, let’s talk countertops. I want granite, but let’s look at colors.” He leads me to a wall covered in granite samples. “I’m going to make the island bigger to give us more work space.” “What about a small sink in the island?” I ask. “It would be handy to have a small sink to wash vegetables and stuff so I don’t have to constantly walk back and forth to the big sink.” “We can do that,” Mark says with a wide grin. “See? This isn’t so hard.” I bite my lip and look away. Holy shit, I’ve jumped right into the spirit of this. I need to rein it in just a smidge. “Since the cabinets will be white, how do you feel about a dark countertop?” He points to smooth, shiny black granite that has little silver flecks in it. “That’s pretty.” He moves behind me and wraps his arms around my waist, leaning in to whisper in my ear. “I can just picture you spread out on that black countertop, your white skin glowing with sweat as I eat you out and make you scream.” I gasp and then giggle breathlessly as I toss a smile over my shoulder at him. “You’re naughty today.” “I’m naughty every day, baby. You’d look hot against that black granite. If you prefer, I’ll bend you over it. I’m flexible like that.” “Well, when you put it like that, I think I love the black too.” He chuckles and kisses my cheek, then leads me away to choose a backsplash and hardware for the cupboard doors. “Okay, let’s talk appliances.”

“You’re replacing the appliances too?” “Yep. All new stuff. Of course, now that I think about it, it’ll be easier if you don’t move in with me until the kitchen is done. We can live at your place while I work on it.” “I don’t remember agreeing to move into your house.” “Our house.” “Your house.” Now it’s just fun to be stubborn and disagree with him. I’m totally moving in with him. I’m not sure when, but it’s going to happen. “You’ve become quite stubborn in your old age,” he says. “I’m going to talk you into it, you know.” “If you say so. What kind of stove do you want for your kitchen?” “Our kitchen needs a gas stove.” We wander through the appliances, looking at all the different stoves, refrigerators, and all of the other appliances a person could ever need. And many they won’t ever need, but are cool anyway. A beautiful wine cooler catches my eye. I squat next to it and check it out. White wine is my favorite, and I prefer it very cold. This would be awesome built into the bigger and better island Mark plans to build. “Do you like that?” he asks. “It’s nice. Would free up space in the fridge. Not that I drink a lot of wine.” He just nods and walks away, but I have a feeling this will end up in the new kitchen. “What do you think of a double oven?” he asks and points to two ovens mounted in a wall. “I barely cook with one oven,” I reply dryly. “Let’s not go too crazy. I do like that fridge with the French doors.” “Is that the one you want?” “It’s not my kitchen. But if it were me, I’d probably go with that one.” “Now you’re just mocking me,” he says with mock despair. “I kind of like this other fridge over here.” Before he can walk away, I grip his arm and pull him back to the other one. “If it were me, I’d go with this one.” “I have news for you, M.” He leans in with a half smile and presses his lips to my ear. “It’s always going to be you.” He winks and walks away and I’m left in a puddle of mush. God, he says the sweetest things at just the right time. I can’t even remember why I was so pissed last night. He’s mine. He stops at the end of the aisle and turns back to me with that naughty smile still in place. “Let’s pick out a dishwasher and we might as well grab a washer and dryer while we’re here.”

“You’re spoiling the house rotten.” I walk toward him and bite my lip when his eyes roam up and down my body, then smile when he reaches my face. You’re spoiling me rotten. “It’s for you,” he says simply with a shrug, as if men say things like that every day, threads his fingers through mine and leads me to finish choosing the appliances for our house. *** “I didn’t realize we’d be painting the cabinets today,” I say and load my brush with more white paint and spread it over the sanded wood. “You must have cleared this all out while I was gone.” “I did. I finished sanding them down the night before you got home.” I’m standing on the old Formica countertop, painting the tops of the cabinets bright white. We’ve been working on them all afternoon and are almost finished. Mark’s phone vibrates on the countertop by my feet and I glance down at it to see Lena’s name flashing with the incoming call. “Lena’s calling,” I say and hand Mark his phone. “Hello?” He winks at me and smiles when the other woman begins talking. “Wow, he’s willingly coming out? Sounds fun, but let me check with Mer.” He lowers the phone from his face. “Lena and Colin would like to take us out for dinner tonight. I’m warning you, Colin is pasty white, like Luke in Nightwalker. The man never goes outside.” I chuckle and finish painting my end of the cabinets. “Sounds good to me.” “We’re in,” he says into the phone. “Great. We’ll see you then.” He hangs up and helps me off the counter, lifting me into his arms. I plant my hands on his shoulders and kiss him quickly, then rub at a spot of paint on his cheek. “How much time do we have?” “About an hour.” “Good.” I help him gather our dirty brushes and clean up our mess then take his hand in mine and lead him to the stairs. “You need to finish what you started in that store today.” “What did I start?” “Horniness.” “Oh, I can definitely finish that, baby.” *** “So then, he told the professor to kiss his ass and flipped him off on the way out of the lab!” Lena exclaims, laughing hard. “You did?” I stare at Mark, who is blushing bright red. “Yeah. He pissed me off. I was right.” “You were right, but you also got yourself thrown out of that class and had to repeat it

the next semester.” Colin shakes his head and takes a drink of his beer. Colin is not pasty white. In fact, his skin is a dark, rich mocha and he has the kindest brown eyes I’ve ever seen. He’s very tall, at least six foot five, and lean. He shaves his head bald. Colin and Lena make a very unlikely couple, but they clearly couldn’t be more in love with each other. They’re also all incredibly smart. When they start talking about work, I can’t keep up. “English,” I beg and hit my forehead with the palm of my hand. “Speak English, not Super-Smart-Genius. I can’t understand you.” “It’s all boring anyway,” Mark says and pulls me against his side. “It does sound kind of sexy when you pull out the genius-speak,” I say and kiss his cheek. “Kind of like a foreign language.” “You like that do you?” He smiles that naughty smile. “I’ll tell you all kinds of things later.” “Awesome.” “Does my vast rocket science knowledge turn you on?” Colin asks Lena while wiggling his eyebrows. “Oh, yes, definitely.” She snorts and sips her sparkling water. He leans down to whisper in her ear and to my surprise, she blushes bright red. “Now that turns me on,” she says. “Why do I feel like we just witnessed something we shouldn’t have?” Mark asks with a frown. “Should we leave you alone?” “Nah, I just gave her something to think about for a while,” Colin replies and winks down at his wife. Lena clears her throat and sips her drink again. “I need more dirt on Mark’s college years,” I inform them. “Tell me everything.” “There isn’t any dirt,” Mark insists. “Come on. Frat parties? Girls lined up at his door? Spring Break trips to Daytona?” “Not really,” Colin replies. “He was too focused on graduating early. Which he did. A full year early.” “I’ve never known anyone to get both a bachelor’s and master’s in five years,” Lena says and shakes her head. “He was like a man possessed.” “I told you,” Mark says with a shrug. “If I worked my ass off, I wasn’t thinking about you.” The table grows quiet at that admission until Lena finally says, “We did have fun together. We worked hard, but vacation breaks were fun. Mark usually invited us to come stay with his parents and they were cool.” “His parents are the best,” I reply and hold Mark’s hand as he leans in to press his lips

to my hair. “You two are adorable,” Lena says as she leans on Colin’s arm and watches us with a soft smile. “So are you guys,” I reply. “This was fun.” “We’ll do it more often. Colin needs to learn to work less, especially now.” Lena grins at him then announces, “We’re going to have a baby.” “No way!” Mark exclaims. “You said you weren’t planning to for a while.” “I didn’t know I was pregnant when I saw you.” She shrugs and tosses her long dark hair over her shoulder. “I just found out this morning. Peed on a stick.” “That’s awesome,” I say and squeeze the other woman’s hand. “Let us know if you need anything.” “Our parents are going to freak and buy this kid way more than it’ll ever need, but I’ll keep you posted.” “I’m excited for you,” Mark says. “It’s about time.” “We might need you to remodel the bedroom we’ve been using for storage into a nursery suite,” Colin says. “I’m happy to. I’ll come look at it next week.” “He’s crazy good at the remodel thing,” I say, so proud of him. “We’ll invite you over to see the house. He’s made it incredible.” Lena’s eyebrows raise as she glances at Mark then back at me. “We’d love to see it.” “We picked out kitchen stuff today, so when it’s all done, we’ll have you over for dinner.” “Sounds like a date.” I glance up to see Mark staring down at me with deep blue eyes and a happy smile. “What?” “I just love you.” “I love you too.” “And now, ladies and gentleman, I’m going to escort my knocked-up wife home so I can do all the things I whispered in her ear earlier.” Colin claps his hands and leads us out into the mild evening air. “It’s been great to meet you, Meredith,” he says and kisses my cheek. “You too,” I say and am surprised to be swept up into a hug from Lena. “I’m glad he found you again,” she whispers in my ear. “I’ve never seen him this happy.” She pulls away and smiles at me before hugging Mark and walking away with her husband.

“What did she say?” Mark asks. “Just that she’s happy for us.” “Aside from my family, those are two of the best people I know.” He takes my hand in his but instead of leading me back to his Jeep, we set off in the opposite direction toward a nearby park. “I’m glad you finally met them.” “Me too. I’m also very glad that you’ve had them in your life all these years. They’re kind of your Jax.” He nods and purses his lips. “Yeah, I guess they are.” This park is in full spring bloom, a riot of color in pink, purple and red. Kids are running and playing, dogs on leashes are walking on the paved paths with their masters. There’s a fishing pond with benches on the shoreline. Mark leads me to one and sits down, then tumbles me onto his lap. “It’s beautiful out here,” I murmur and push my fingers through his hair. His arms are wrapped tightly around my middle, his face buried between my breasts as he hugs me close. “You feel good.” “You okay?” “Mm… just enjoying the way your boobs feel against my face. I need a moment of silence.” I chuckle and kiss the top of his head then pull back so I can look down at him. “There are children around.” “They can find their own boobs.” We laugh together for a long moment until I take a deep breath and tilt my forehead down on his. “Are you excited for Vegas?” “I am. It’ll be fun. There are some surprises planned.” “Tell me.” “I can’t. Then it won’t be a surprise.” “Spoil sport.” I kiss his forehead then stand and hold my hand out for him. “Come on. Let’s go pack for our trip.” “You do know we’re getting very dirty in Vegas, right?” “I was counting on it.”

Chapter Fifteen “I wanna double-down, bitches!” Meg exclaims and sips her drink. “No, you don’t,” Nate informs her with a shake of his head and stares at Will in exasperation. “Dude, control your woman.” “Yes, I do,” she insists. “I like the way it sounds when you say it. Double-down, bitches!” The dealer laughs and follows Meg’s instructions as I lean back against Mark’s hard chest and laugh my ass off. “It sounds like a sexual position,” Sam says and motions for the dealer to give her another card. “Ooooh,” Jules murmurs and glances up at her handsome husband. “Maybe we should try the double-down later.” “I believe we tried it this morning,” he says and kisses her head. “Seriously? I do not need to hear about you banging my sister,” Will says with a glare. We are at the Blackjack table with Nate, Jules, Sam, Meg and Will. The others are scattered through the casino, playing slots or sitting at the bar. “We have a baby,” Jules reminds her brother. “We clearly bang.” “Shut up.” “A lot,” she continues. “Stop talking, Jules.” “He’s really good at it.” Jules sips her drink smugly when Will glares at her, not bothering to continue to tell her to shut up. “Thank you, baby,” Nate says and kisses Jules’ cheek. Meg pouts when she loses her twenty dollars then swings around in the seat and wraps her arms around Will’s middle, pressing her cheek to his broad chest. “I lost my money.” “That’s what happens when you double-down when you have a total of six,” Nate informs her. “Have you ever played this game before?” “No.” “Oh my God!” We all whip around at the sound of Natalie’s exclamation to find her sitting at a slot machine, grinning and jumping up and down in her seat. Luke comes running up behind her from the bar. “What’s wrong?” he demands, his eyes worried. “Nothing! I just won like fifty thousand points!” She claps her hands, then grips Luke’s collar in her fists and kisses him soundly. “How much is that worth?” I call out. She studies the machine and tallies the math.

“Fifty bucks,” Mark whispers in my ear, chuckling. “Fifty dollars!” Natalie exclaims, as if it’s fifty million dollars. She looks so pleased with herself as Luke kisses her cheek and helps her cash it out. “Drinks on Natalie!” Jules says. “We’re drinking for free already,” Mark reminds her. “Drinks on Natalie later!” she says, then flags down a waitress to order another drink. Jax is at the bar with Stacy, Brynna and Nic, telling them all kinds of elaborate stories, I’m sure. They’re hanging on his every word. It doesn’t hurt that he’s hot as hell and funny too. And he’s a horrible flirt. “Jax is in his element,” I say to Mark and gesture to my friend as he’s making the girls laugh. “I knew they’d love him,” Mark says. “They can flirt with him without their men losing their shit.” “Isaac’s watching,” I whisper and point to the oldest Montgomery who is at a roulette table with Leo, Matt, Dom and Caleb. Isaac’s eyes are trained on his wife, who is laughing hysterically at something Jax just said. “They’ll all keep their eyes peeled. That’s what we do.” Mark shrugs and points to the blackjack table. “Do you want to play?” “Nah. I’m a horrible gambler.” “You don’t have a poker face.” Mark kisses my head. “And you look delicious in this little dress.” He gestures to my simple black tank dress that shows off my curves and legs. When I put it on before leaving the hotel room, it was with the intention of making Mark suffer for the night. “You don’t look too bad yourself,” I say and sip my sex on the beach. He’s in dark jeans and a tight American Fighter T-shirt that is just begging for me to rip it off his hard body. “Are you wearing panties under there?” he whispers in my ear. I shake my head no and grin to myself when he growls deep in his throat. “You’re killing me.” “I’m not doing anything.” “You two need to get a room,” Jules says as she wrinkles her nose. “What is it with the Williams men? You’re all so freaking mushy.” She points to where Luke and Natalie are snuggled up at the roulette table now, watching the guys play. “We’re romantic,” Mark corrects her. “It’s disgusting.” Leo saunters up behind Sam and rests his hand on her hip as he watches her play cards.

“You’re good at this, sunshine.” “Thanks. It’s just math.” “No it’s not,” Mark says. “If it was just math, everyone would win. It’s strategy.” Sam shrugs but smiles softly as Leo kisses her cheek. “My chick is hot and smart.” “There’s so few of us around,” Jules says with a sassy sigh. “I’m done doubling down,” Meg says and smiles up at Will. “What are we doing next?” “You and I have a date,” Will says and turns to the rest of us. “We’re going to peel away for the night, guys. I have some plans for Meg, so we’ll see you all tomorrow.” “I’ll be at the pool most of the afternoon,” Sam says. “Have fun tonight,” I say as they walk toward the bar to fill everyone else in. “What’s everyone else doing?” Mark asks. “We’re going to a Cirque du Soleil show with Nat and Luke,” Jules says. “Leo and I are meeting with some of the guys from his band who came over from LA to hang out tonight,” Sam says. “It’ll be good to see them.” “We saw them a month ago,” Leo reminds her with a grin. “You miss them too. You don’t fool me.” We all walk toward the bar, meeting the others from the roulette table. “A bunch of us are going to go up to the club here in the hotel for dinner and dancing,” Brynna says and lays her hand on Jax’s arm. “You have to come with us.” “Only if I can dance with you,” he says and winks at her. “Do I have to kill him?” Caleb asks Mark. “Nah, he’s cool.” Mark laughs when Jax glances at Caleb and looks him up and down. “You might not be safe from me,” Jax says. “By all means, dance with my wife,” Caleb replies and shakes his head. “You guys in?” “Sure,” I say and grin up at Mark. “I haven’t danced with you in years.” “I’m not very good.” “I’ll help. I do that for a living, you know.” “Sounds good. Let’s go.” We break into groups, Sam and Leo leaving to meet his band, Nat and Jules giggling as their men follow them out to catch their Cirque du Soleil show and the rest of us taking the escalators up to the fourth floor of the Cosmopolitan here in Vegas to wreck havoc on the dance club. We’ve been in Vegas for all of six hours, and I have never had so much fun. I have a feeling things are just getting started.

We find two tables and push them together, then sit back and watch the few couples on the dance floor as we wait for our drinks. “Are we ordering food?” Matt asks and surveys the menu. “At least some appetizers to soak up all the alcohol you’re all consuming.” “Good idea,” Caleb says. “Let’s just order two of everything.” “Three orders of potato skins,” Stacy says. “This music is great, but the dancers are lame. Not fun to watch at all.” “Yeah,” Brynna agrees and winks at her. “It’s really boring.” “I think they’re hinting at something,” Dominic adds. “They’re so subtle.” “They need someone to show them how it’s done,” Nic says and smiles smugly at me. “You and Jax should go show off.” “Subtle as a heart attack,” Matt agrees and brushes his hand down the back of Nic’s head. “But beautiful.” “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga begins to play and Jax laughs as he looks over at me and raises a brow. “That feels a little too coincidental.” “Go have fun, baby,” Mark urges. “But watch yourself. That dress is short.” His eyes finish his sentence. And you’re not wearing underwear. “Go dance!” Brynna says and claps her hands. Jax takes my hand and leads me out onto the floor. “I’m in heels with no underwear, so no horizontal lifts, okay?” “Got it, marshmallow.” And off we go, Jax leading us around the floor. He spins me out and in and within five steps, it’s just me and Jax, feeling the music and dancing the way we always do. I love it when he improvises. He’s just genius, and he challenges me. He’s mindful of my heels, and does lift me, but keeps his arm on my thighs, holding my skirt down. When I land on my feet, he rolls his hips and backs away, singing to me, making me laugh. The girls at the table are cat calling, egging him on. Everyone in the room applauds when the song ends and we return to the table and collapse in our seats, drinking the water that was delivered while we were dancing. “You guys are fantastic,” Stacy says. “I never could move like that. My hips don’t do that.” “Your hips do just fine, baby,” Isaac says and winks at her, making her blush. “My turn!” Brynna exclaims and pulls Jax from his chair. “I want to dance.” “I had no idea she liked to dance so much,” Isaac says as he watches Brynna and Jax walk to the dance floor. “She always loved to dance in college,” Stacy says and laughs when Brynna starts to move her hips, mirroring Jax. “You should go out there and surprise her,” she says to

Caleb. “I’ll dance with her in a bit. She’s having fun with him.” “You’re not usually so willing to share,” Matt says mildly and sips his water. His hand has stayed on Nic’s neck the whole time they’ve been sitting here. “He’s no threat,” Caleb says with a grin. “You and I both know that.” “He’s charming, and the girls like him,” Dominic adds. “Plus, he’s fun,” I say and watch my friend with the pretty brunette. They’re laughing together as he shows her some more intricate steps. I uncross and recross my legs. Mark lays his hand high on my thigh. “Don’t do that,” he whispers in my ear. “No one can see anything,” I reply and turn back to watch the show on the floor. Mark loops his arm around me and gently caresses my shoulder, my neck, my naked back, thanks to this barely-there dress, with his fingertips. My breath catches and goose bumps break out on my skin when he drags his nails down my spine. “Look at me,” he whispers. His eyes are on fire as he stares down at me for a long minute, then he stands and without a word, tugs me to my feet and leads me past the dance floor and out the front door. Instead of walking toward the escalator, he turns the other way where the buffet is. It’s closed now, and the hallway is dark. He pulls me into a secluded doorway, away from anyone’s line of vision. “What’s wrong with you?” I ask with a laugh. He pins me against the wall and leans his forehead against mine. “Nothing at all is wrong,” he says and kisses my nose then drags those magical lips down my cheek to my ear. “You’ve been turning me on all night.” “I haven’t done anything.” I brace my hands on his shoulders as he kisses his way down my neck, making my center clench and immediately go damp. “You don’t have to do it on purpose. You breathe and I’m hard,” he says as his hands drift down my ribcage to my hips then slips one hand under my skirt and between my legs. “I’m going to taste you, right here.” “There are probably cameras here,” I say then gasp when he tweaks a hard nipple through my dress. “I don’t give a fuck.” He squats before me, pushes my dress up high on my thighs so only he can see what’s under it. “Fuck, you’re sexy.” I brace one hand on the wall to my left and push my fingers into his hair as he leans in and barely brushes the tip of his tongue over my already swollen clit. “Oh God, M.” “You’re already so wet.” His voice is hushed. His fingers glide through my lips then he pushes one finger inside me, he presses his thumb on my clit and I have to bite down on my lip to keep from crying out. He lifts my right leg over his shoulder, hiding me and his

face from any camera that might be pointed our way and wraps his lips around my clit, sucking hard. “Mark, holy shit.” “Mm,” he hums, pulls his finger out, then plunges his tongue inside me, kissing me in the most intimate way possible, making me see stars. He’s simply amazing. His hands are holding me firmly, making sure I don’t fall, as he laps at my core, sucking, licking and kissing me until I couldn’t even tell you my name. Even my fingertips are vibrating from the amazing sensations rolling through me and suddenly, my stomach clenches as I fist my hand in his hair and come hard against his mouth. His eyes are turned up to mine, watching me come undone, and when I’m done, he doesn’t stop. He continues to nibble and make love to my folds, then kisses my inner thighs, lowers my leg off his shoulder and stands, fists my hair in his hands and kisses me hard. I can taste myself on him and it turns me on even more. I wrap one leg around his waist and have half a mind to simply climb him when he lifts me against the wall, reaches between us to unzip his jeans, frees himself and pushes inside me in one swift thrust. “Jesus fucking Christ, Meredith,” he whispers against my neck. “I shouldn’t be doing this here, but you’d tempt the Pope himself.” He begins to fuck me fast and hard, and within five strokes, he stills and comes, his hips jerk against mine as he empties himself inside me, grinding against my clit and sending me into another amazing orgasm. “Are you fucking trying to kill me?” he murmurs as he slips out, tucks himself away and helps me right my dress. His semen rolls out of me and down my leg. “Well, that’s not obvious at all,” I say sarcastically. “Here.” He pulls his T-shirt off, and the white undershirt beneath it, squats again and uses his undershirt to clean me up as much as possible before tugging his T-shirt back on. “I hope that doesn’t end up on the internet,” I say playfully. Mark’s face goes white as he stares down at me. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think—” “I’m just kidding. It’s fine. I’m sure this happens all the time in Vegas.” He pushes his fingers through his hair and shakes his head. “I’ve never lost it like this with anyone. It’s you. You’ve put some kind of spell on me.” “Yes, I call it the sexy spell,” I reply and kiss his chin. “I’m going to cast it all night, so get ready.” “Come on, sassy witch.” He spanks my ass playfully as we walk back toward the door to the club. He tosses the ruined tank into a garbage can. “I can’t guarantee that I won’t do that again if you keep shaking your ass on the dance floor.” “Well, we’ll be disappearing a lot then because I plan to dance as much as possible.” “You are trying to kill me.” As we walk past the dance floor, Jax waves at me, grinning over Nic, Stacy and

Brynna’s heads as they all dance with him. “He stole all your women,” Mark says with a laugh as we sit at the table. My pussy is still throbbing from two orgasms and Mark’s big cock. I squirm in my seat as Dominic catches my gaze. He winks and shakes his head, takes a sip of his drink and checks his phone when it vibrates on the table at his elbow. It’s amazing how different Dominic looks from his brothers. He has the same blue eyes, but he’s so dark. Inky hair and olive skin. He’s big like them, though. Tall and broad and delicious. He’s quiet. I haven’t really had much of a chance to talk with him since that day at Will’s house. “Okay, who’s next? I want to dance. I think all of you should get off your asses and dance.” I point at all of the guys, making them smile. “I’ll dance with you,” Mark says. “Didn’t you just do that?” Isaac asks with a laugh. “I don’t call that dancing,” Mark replies with a smug smile and leads me out to the dance floor. The music is fast, but he pulls me into his arms and sways back and forth as if it’s a ballad. “This isn’t what I had in mind,” I murmur as I bury my face in his neck and hold on tight. “It’s what I had in my mind,” he says and kisses my hair. “I just want to stand here for a few minutes and enjoy the way you feel in my arms.” “Jules was right, you are mushy.” “I don’t care.” “I don’t either.” When the song is over, Caleb, Matt and Isaac walk onto the floor and claim their women, pulling them into their arms and spinning them around the floor. Jax grins and takes advantage of the break. He returns to the table, but as soon as he sits down, a woman approaches him and asks him to dance. He shakes his head, sending her away and begins chatting with Dominic. “I’m so glad you invited me to come here.” I grin up at Mark. “Me too.” “What are we doing tomorrow?” “You’re going to keep me permanently hard while you lay in a bathing suit by the pool,” he replies with a grin. “That sounds like fun. Will you put sunblock on me?” “Of course.” “Will you bring me fruity drinks with umbrellas in them?” “If you ask nicely.” “Will you keep your shirt off all day, also keeping me in a perpetual state of

horniness?” “If that’s what it takes, yes.” He laughs and tucks my hair behind my ear. “You make me laugh.” “I’m glad.” His face sobers as he drags his fingertips down my cheek. We’re still swaying back and forth, dancing to our own rhythm. “I crave you, you know.” “There’s no shame in that,” I reply as I smooth my finger over his lower lip. He puckers his lips and kisses me gently. “There are times I want you so badly my body feels like it’s on fire.” “It’s not just that. It’s everything. I crave everything about you. Your body, your laughter, the way you make me feel when I’m with you. You’re my drug, Meredith.” “I’m addicted in the same way, and I don’t plan to ever have to recover from you again, Mark.” He stills for a moment and pins me with his blue gaze, sending shivers down my spine, as if he’s reached in and touched my soul. “There’s no recovering from this.”

Chapter Sixteen “We’ve walked so much tonight, my feet are numb,” Stacy grumbles as we stand on the escalator leading up to the club in our hotel, the Cosmopolitan. “I think that’s from the liquor,” Nat replies. “These chandeliers are crazy,” Jules says and squints her eyes as she stares at the glittering glass surrounding us. “It really fucks with your head when you’ve had a lot to drink.” “I wonder if the bastards did that on purpose?” Sam wonders. “We’re definitely in the prettiest hotel on the strip,” Brynna says with a grin. “I’m surprised you talked Will into this place, Meg.” “I don’t think he cared where we stayed as long as it had a buffet and a bar,” Meg replies with a giggle and sips her pink drink. “The buffet here is killer. I think Will would have been happy sleeping with the crab legs.” “The man can eat,” Jules says with a sigh. “This fifteen minute break from Vegas shenanigans was not good. I’m feeling droopy.” We reach the top of the escalator and Sam steps between Jules and Nat, loops her arms through theirs and says, “Perk up, girls, the shenanigans are just beginning!” “These women are hilarious,” Jax murmurs to me and leads me into the club. “I haven’t been flirted with this much since we were at that club in New York after the New Year’s Eve show three years ago.” “That was a gay club,” I remind him with a roll of the eyes. “Needless to say, I didn’t see any action that night.” “Trust me, snickerdoodle, I saw enough action for both of us that night.” He wiggles his eyebrows suggestively as the girls around us burst out in laughter. “You’re disgusting.” “You’re hilarious,” Nic says as we commandeer two tables, pushing them together again. The same bartender from last night is behind the bar and rolls his eyes at us as we sit down. “I haven’t recovered from you guys from last night yet!” he yells to us. “You haven’t seen anything yet, sugar,” Stacy says with a wink. “We shook off our men and left our filters in Seattle.” “Great.” He laughs and shakes his head as he walks down the bar to help a customer. “I wonder if the guys are having fun?” Brynna asks and types away on her phone. “You better not be texting the enemy,” Jules says with a glare. “This is Meg’s bitchelorette party.”

“I’m just texting my mom to see how the kids are.” “Oh, good idea,” Nat says and begins typing on her phone too. “Okay, all the moms get their check ins with the babysitters now, because you won’t be sober enough for it in a little while,” Jax says and flags down a waitress. “What are the guys doing again?” I ask and raise a brow when Jax starts typing on his phone. “I didn’t realize you were a baby daddy.” “I’m not, smart ass. Logan hasn’t been answering his phone today.” “Trouble in paradise?” My grin fades when his worried, dark eyes meet mine. “I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably making up time at work from the days he took off this week with you.” He nods, but the frown on his face says he doesn’t buy it. “Remember? Not all guys are cheating bastards.” “I didn’t say I thought he was fucking cheating.” He scowls and slams back the shot of tequila the waitress just set before him. “But now I am.” “Trust me,” Stacy says and leans across both Brynna and Meg to lay her hand over Jax’s arm. “No one is going to cheat on a hot piece of ass like you.” “Oh God,” Nat says and begins giggling. “And so it begins.” “You think I’m a hot piece of ass?” Jax asks with a delighted smile. “Oh yeah,” Brynna says with a decisive nod as the others smile and agree. “I don’t.” I curl my lip and eye Jax then dissolve into giggles and admit, “Okay, yeah, you’re a hot piece of ass. But stop feeding his ego! We’ll never get his head through the door on the way out.” “That’s what he said,” Jax says, making us all laugh again. “I’m so glad we have a gay friend now,” Jules announces and raises her drink in a toast. “To Jax, the missing link in our circle!” “To Jax!” We all slam back another shot and clap, some of us dancing in our seats to the pulsing music around us. “Okay, no more alcohol for me,” Nic announces and orders a diet soda. “Why?” Meg pouts. “It’s my party. We have to get stupid drunk.” “Liquor and diabetes don’t mix well,” Nic says with a grimace. “But don’t worry. I can be stupid without it.” “Oh good,” Meg says and kisses Nic’s cheek. “I’m so glad you’re all here. I’m so glad I’m finally marrying that big, sweet football star.” “We are too. You waited long enough,” Nat says. “There’s always something that comes up. Football and family stuff and my promotion at the hospital.”

“We knew you’d get around to it,” Jules says. “God, these lemon drops are insanely delicious.” “You know what’s insanely delicious?” Sam asks. “What?” We all ask in unison then high five each other because, clearly, that was hilarious. “When Leo slaps my ass.” She bites on the straw of her vodka and cranberry juice. “I bet Leo is insane in bed,” Jules says with a sigh. “Jules!” Nat cries as we all giggle. “What? He’s one of the few around here that I’m not related to! Let me lust after him.” “That’s fair,” Brynna says. “We get to lust after five hot Montgomerys, two hot Williams and a McKenna. Jules can have Leo.” In our fuzzy alcohol minds, this sounds perfectly logical. “I want to know more about these apagasms I’ve heard so much about,” Nic says, leaning forward in excitement. “Spill it, McKenna.” “Wait, what’s an apagasm?” Jax asks. “Nate has an apa,” Meg informs him, as if these things happen every day. “A what-a?” I ask and Jules breaks out in laughter. “That’s what I said the first time I saw it!” “What is it?” I sip my sweet drink and lean in with Nic, ready to hear what this magical thing is. “He has his dick pierced,” Nat says, but cups her hand around her mouth and says it like it’s a big secret, but the dude sitting at the table next to us whips his head around when he hears her and then laughs. “Dude!” Jax exclaims and cups his hand protectively over his own junk. “It’s just… fantastic,” Jules says with a dreamy sigh. “I hate you,” Brynna says with a glare. “Are you saying Caleb is slacking in the sex department?” I ask. “Hell no. The man can make me come just by looking at me. And he does this sixtynine thing that I swear to Jesus is illegal in all fifty states.” She covers her heart with her hand and bites her lip as the waitress magically reappears with more drinks. God bless her. “Did having babies change stuff?” I ask. “Like, how it feels?” “For a little while, but it’s still good, and then your body figures it all out again and you get back to normal,” Natalie says. “I don’t want to hear about this part.” Jax cringes. “Sorry, girls, but your bits and pieces don’t interest me.”

“Oh!” A very drunk Meg jumps up and down in her seat. “I have a question for you.” She points her hand at Jax and then throws him a naughty grin. “Yes! We can ask boy sex questions,” Stacy agrees. Jax clears his throat and then sits back in his chair and offers all the girls a fake serious look. “Yes, I am at your service, ladies. The doctor is in.” “Me first,” Meg says. “What does an orgasm feel like?” Jax blinks rapidly and we all snicker at him. “What does it feel like for a girl?” he asks. “Tingly, melty, explosive, tingly goodness,” Nat says with a sigh. “Fuck, my husband’s good at the orgasms.” We all nod in agreement. It must be genetic because Mark’s fucking brilliant at them as well. I believe I’ve had about thirty-seven of them since we’ve been in Vegas. It’s like it’s his life’s mission to keep me permanently aroused. It’s awesome. “Wait,” Sam says and holds up a hand just as Jax begins to answer the question. “Let’s get more specific than that. Where does the orgasm start?” “Start?” Now Jax just looks confused. “Sugar, who gives a fuck where it starts? The end result is the most important part.” “God, I love the way he says sugar.” Stacy smiles dreamily at Jax. “I’m so glad you’re gay. I can flirt with you without my husband killing you.” “That’s convenient,” Jax sputters and then just covers his face with his hands and dissolves into laughter. “I love you ladies.” “What’s not to love?” Nic says with a wink. “So, talk more about the boy orgasm.” “Boys don’t have orgasms, sugar.” Jax winks back at her and we all laugh some more, pounding the table with our palms and high fiving Jax. “Well, obviously your balls tighten up,” Sam says while tapping her lips with her finger in thought. “Is that when it starts?” “I’ve never really thought about it.” He scratches his dark head and looks toward the ceiling, also thinking about it. “No, that’s just before you come, but it really starts in the spine. At least, for me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone.” “In your spine?” Meg exclaims with wide eyes. “What the fuck happens to your spine?” “It tingles.” “So, it’s tingly for you too,” Nat says, pleased that she was right. “Yeah, I guess so.” “And then your balls tighten?” Brynna asks and sips her drink. We’re all leaning in

now, watching Jax with wide eyes, as if he’s telling us the secrets of NASA and Area 51 all at the same time. “Yes. I think so.” “Does that feel weird?” Jules asks. “I mean, the skin gets all tight and stuff too. I would think it would hurt.” “It doesn’t hurt.” Now Jax is blushing and laughing, his arms are crossed over his chest. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to be telling you guys this stuff. It’s man stuff.” “But you’re our gay guy!” Brynna slams her hand on the table for emphasis. “You’re the only one we can ask!” “Ask your men,” he says rationally then slams back another shot. “If I ask Luke about orgasms, he just jumps right into giving them to me and then I forget what I was asking in the first place,” Nat says with a frown. “He makes me lose my words.” “I lose my words all the time!” Meg exclaims. “It’s the ’nesia.” “Orgasm ’nesia!” I high-five Jax and then giggle. “Mark is good at making me lose my words. He makes me lose everything.” “What do you mean?” Nic asks and just like that, all of the focus shifts to me. I blink at my new friends and try to find a way to clear my head enough to explain. “He makes me lose my clothes, my words, my heart.” “Awww!” Sam exclaims. “I mean, ew about the sex with my brother, but aww!” “He made me lose my virginity.” My mouth is running now and I’m ticking off each item with my fingers. I’m pretty sure I’m miscounting. “He was your first?” Nic asks. “Yeah.” I nod dreamily. “He was good even then. Of course, it took a while before I started having orgasms just because I was nervous and stuff, but holy shit the man has a cock on him!” “Oh my god, okay you can stop now,” Sam says and wrinkles her nose. “Ew.” “No, keep going,” Brynna says and claps her hands. “Are we talking meh or holy fucking shit?” “Holy fucking shit,” I reply with a wise nod. “Since he was my first, I didn’t know that wasn’t normal, but then I fucked a couple losers after him, and they were sooooo tiny.” I hold up my pinky finger to show them and they all laugh. “Okay, my turn to say ew,” Jax says with a shudder. “What are you packin’?” Stacy boldly asks. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m not even on a scale.” “Prove it.” Meg stands and circles the table, straddles Jax’s lap and dives for the button on his jeans.

“Uh, Meg, you’re a beautiful woman, but I’m gay and you’re getting married.” Jax’s face is almost panicked, making us all laugh. “Are you scared?” she asks him with narrowed eyes. “Yes.” He nods as he lifts her off his lap. “I just wanted to see it.” She pouts and plops down in her chair. “We need more drinks.” I signal for the waitress. “I want to text my man,” Nic says and begins typing on her phone. “No! We said we weren’t going to.” Stacy shakes her head adamantly then seems to rethink her stance. “Wait. I wonder if they miss us.” “Where are they again?” Jax asks. “Probably a strip club,” Meg pouts again. “No, I doubt that. I think they’re gambling.” Nat pats Meg’s shoulder and smiles widely. “Do you guys have any idea how many women are probably flirting with our men?” Sam asks suddenly. “They’re hot. And about half of them are famous. Oh God, what have we done?” “So, let’s remind them what they already have.” Brynna’s grin spreads and she stands quickly. “Everyone to the bathroom! You too, Jax.” “I’m not going in the ladies room,” Jax says. “No way.” “Jax! How can I take a photo of your dick for Logan from out here?” Jax chokes on his tequila and sputters, “I didn’t realize that was in the plans for this evening.” “When did you become such a prude?” I stand and drag Jax up with me. “This is a man who used to have a whole folder of dick shots in his phone.” “How the fuck do you know that?” “We know each other’s passcodes on our phones, Einstein.” “That’s not so we can snoop. That’s so we can destroy any evidence if the other is incapacitated.” “Oh, that’s a good idea! Here, Nat, here’s my passcode,” Jules says as she stumbles on her mile-high heels toward the restroom. “Save our table! We’ll be right back,” Sam calls to the bartender who waves us off as we stumble away and file into the bathroom. Thankfully, it’s empty. “Lock that door, Nic.” Meg grins and stares at all of us. “Okay, what are we doing?” “Boob shots,” Brynna says. “We’re going to send our guys photos of our boobs.” “Can we send them all your boobs?” Jules asks. “You have the best boobs.”

“No,” Bryn laughs as she strips out of her shirt. “They’ll know they’re not yours.” “Why do I have to be here for this?” Jax asks. “Because you’re taking the photos,” Sam says with a grin. “You’re the luckiest man in this hotel.” “And it’s completely lost on me. Okay.” He shrugs and takes a photo of our naked chests with each of our phones. “That’s all of you.” “Now you,” Nat says and tosses her long dark hair over her shoulder. “No way. No dick pics for Logan.” Jax shakes his head adamantly and then pins me in a stare. “No, Meredith.” “You do know her name!” Nic exclaims and then snorts. “Oh God, I’m not even drunk and I just snorted.” “Atta girl,” Meg says, pleased. “Okay, no dick pic,” I say and pat Jax’s shoulder. “But we have to send him something.” “Why? He’s not answering me.” “Is he mad?” Jules asks and blinks her eyes, alternating between looking at Jax through her left eye, then her right. “Fuck, you’re hotter through my left eye.” “What’s wrong with your right eye?” Nat asks. “It’s getting drunker than the other.” “Is he mad?” Brynna asks, concerned. “Did we make him mad? Is it because Meg crawled on your lap? She’ll ’pologize.” She turns to Meg and props her hands on her hips. “’Pologize to Logan.” “I’m sorry, Logan. It’s just, Jax is hot and he said his dick is really big, but you would already know that.” “Logan isn’t here.” Jax laughs out loud. “So he didn’t see Meg on my lap. I don’t know if he’s mad. I can’t reach him.” “Does he suck your dick?” Jules asks, peering at Jax through just her left eye. “Oh God. That’s too personal,” Nat says and shakes her head. “Do you suck Nate’s dick?” Jax asks. “Every chance I get.” Jax raises a brow and watches as Jules catches up. “Ha! I knew it!” “Okay, let’s focus.” I turn and look at all three of the Jaxes in front of me. That alcohol is kicking in nicely. Meg smirks at that and primps in the mirror. “Let’s just send him a cute photo of you,” I suggest and snatch his phone out of his

hand so I can take the picture. “Wait! Let’s all crowd around him,” Nic says and the girls all climb around him. Nat jumps up in his arms and before I know it, Jax is draped in women. “Ha! This is awesome.” I snap a few photos with everyone’s phones then we make our way back to our table and order a fresh round of drinks. “Okay, let’s send our pics to our men,” Sam says and pushes her face into her phone, concentrating. “How do you spell tits?” Jules asks. “’Nesia,” Meg reminds her. I bring up the text window for Mark and plug in the shot of my boobs and text under it: here’s your boob shot, perv. “How do you spell cock again?” Stacy asks the room at large. “As in, ‘I want your cock between my tits’?” Jax spits out the tequila he’d just swigged and chokes. “Jesus Christ, you’re all a bunch of dirty women.” “Oh, honey, you have no idea,” Sam says with a shake of the head. “Thankfully, our men like it.” With the text messages sent, we grin at each other and then explode into laughter. “That’s going to shock the fuck out of my husband,” Stacy says, wiping her eyes. “Okay, enough sitting around. Meg, I think you should sing,” Jules says. “There isn’t a band, Jules. The music is piped in.” “There’s a karaoke machine over there,” Brynna points to the corner of the room. “I bet Hottie McHotterson over there will turn it on.” “Who?” Nic asks. “The bartender.” “I got this.” I stand and plump up my breasts, as though I’m preparing for some kind of woman battle and saunter over to the bar, ready to flirt with McHotterson so he’ll let Meg sing.

Chapter Seventeen ~Mark~ “I fold.” Caleb throws his cards down in disgust and glares at Matt. “When did your luck get so fucking good?” “The day I met Nic,” he responds coolly and gathers the chips he just won. We’re in the high-roller area at the Aria, next door to where the girls are partying. None of us wanted to be too far from them. “God, you’re whipped,” Dom murmurs and bites on his cigar as he counts his chips. Will set us each up in here with twenty-five thousand dollars worth of chips and said good luck as we sat at two tables and got down to business three hours ago. Any money we’re lucky enough to walk out of here with will be donated to charity. “It’ll happen to you eventually, brother.” Matt claps Dom on the shoulder and laughs when Dom’s face tightens. “Trust me. Some chick is going to make you stupid.” “He doesn’t need a chick for that,” Will yells from the table next to ours then highfives Luke. Logan glances over at me and shakes his head with a rueful smile. He joined us about an hour ago after checking into the hotel. “When can we go collect our girls?” Luke asks. “Sick of us already?” Leo says and throws in some chips. “Natalie’s a helluva lot better looking than you.” “I won’t disagree there,” Leo says with a smile. “And you’ve got nothing on your sister.” “She’s a pain in the ass,” I murmur good-naturedly. “And you’re a fucking saint.” “I’m no saint.” He shakes his head. “And yes, she can be a pain in the ass, but she’s my pain in the ass.” “That’s so sweet,” Dom taunts him. “Watch out, you’re about to lose your man card.” Isaac smirks from next to Luke. “I think you pass your man card off to your wife when you get married. You’re still a man, but you’re her man.” “That’s too deep to think about when I’m drinking, bro,” Will responds and swigs his beer. “I’m not handing my man card off to anyone. Meg knows who the boss is.” All the guys burst out into laughter and shake their heads at Will as though he’s just a stupid, stupid man. “Sure she does,” Luke says with a grin. “She’s the boss.”

“Yeah.” Will sighs and then gets a goofy grin on his face. “She is.” “See, you don’t have that problem when both people in the relationship are men,” Logan says with a satisfied smile. “Not gonna happen, dude,” Caleb says with a shake of his head, making Logan laugh. “That won’t ever be an issue for me either,” Leo mutters with a scowl and tosses his cards on the table in disgust. “Won’t marry you, huh?” Caleb asks. “Nope.” “Have you asked her?” Logan asks soberly. The more I get to know Logan the more I like him. He doesn’t mince words. “I’ve mentioned it a few times, but she insists that she doesn’t ever want to get married, so no, I’ve never formally proposed.” He looks miserable. His jaw ticks as he grinds his teeth and his tattooed hands are flexed on the table. “Ask her,” Nate says soberly. “She’ll say no.” “Maybe not,” I reply and nod when he looks up at me in surprise. “She thinks you’ve been mad at her or something.” “She talked to you?” “She came to my place one night when you were working late.” “I’m not fucking mad at her.” He scowls and shakes his head, as if he’s confused. “I can’t think of anything but her.” “Ask her,” Luke says again and then to the dealer, “I’m in.” Suddenly, all of our phones begin to chime and vibrate at once. We all glance at each other then check our phones. It’s from Meredith, and it’s a picture of her gorgeous breasts. Jesus Christ, just a photo of her tits makes me hard. Here’s your boob pic, perv. I grin and then glance around at the others. Their jaws are all dropped, staring at their phones in fascination. “Did everyone get a tit pic?” I ask. The guys nod, but Logan laughs and shakes his head. “No, I got a photo of my man draped in all of your women.” He shows it to all of us, making us laugh. “I thought you said they’d be safe together,” I say to Matt who is grinning like a loon and staring down at his phone. “I said they’d be safe. I didn’t say they’d make wise choices.” He tucks his phone inside his pocket as we all begin to pack it in. “However, I think that’s a sign that they’ve been left to their own devices for long enough.” “I’m marrying these tits,” Will says in wonder as he continues to stare at his phone.

“Don’t let Meg hear you saying that,” Luke says with a laugh. “She’ll kick your ass.” “I’m marrying her,” he whispers and then grins, also like a loon. The Montgomerys are a bunch of fucking loons. We settle up with the dealers then head out. I’m ready to be with my girl. I couldn’t be happier that she’s having fun with the other girls, and it doesn’t surprise me. She’s funny as fuck and easy to love. She’s so fucking easy to love. “I have a feeling Jax might be pissed at me,” Logan confesses as we make our way through the casino toward the sky bridge back to the Cosmo. “Why?” I ask. “What the fuck did you do?” Will tosses over his shoulder to us. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” Logan says, “so I haven’t been answering my phone today.” “Is he blowing it up? I hate it when that happens,” Dom says. “No, he’s just called once and texted a few times, but I feel guilty for not responding.” “You could have just pretended like you were at home,” I say and eye the man next to me. “I’m a horrible liar.” “It’s a text. He can’t tell if you’re lying.” He shrugs a shoulder and purses his lips. “I just hope I didn’t waste a trip to Vegas.” “You’re fine.” I clap him on the shoulder and follow the guys into the club. We all stop short, in a line, and stare open-mouthed at the scene before us. Meg is belting out a Britney Spears song on a karaoke machine. Brynna is lying on the bar with a wedge of lime between her perky, plump breasts and Sam is throwing back a shot of tequila, then takes the lime out of Bryn’s breasts with her teeth. “Jesus, my woman is doing body shots with your wife,” Leo says to Caleb, his voice low and reverent. Caleb simply nods silently. Jax and Natalie are on the dance floor, dancing to the noises coming out of Meg. Luke is watching her and laughing his ass off. Jules and Mer are leaning back against the bar, their heads tipped back so the bartender can pour shots directly into their mouths. Stacy is sitting on some strange man’s lap and Nic is behind the bar, serving customers, throwing bottles in the air Cocktail-style. “Is this really happening?” Dom asks when he can catch his breath from laughing. “Why is my wife sitting in some motherfucker’s lap?” Isaac asks. We’ve all crossed our arms over our chests, watching like it’s a train wreck that we just can’t look away from.

The air smells of sweet liquor and bad choices as the girls laugh and high-five each other. Mr. Grabby Motherfucker lays his hands on Stacy’s hips and she automatically moves them away. “Good girl,” Isaac mutters. “I’m going to kill him.” “This is fucking awesome,” Dom laughs. “So fucking awesome.” “My girl can sing,” Will says with a grin. “Dude, you’re fucking drunk,” Leo says with a smirk. “She’s horrible right now.” “Fuck you, she’s awesome,” Will insists. “Hey! Mr. Lovey Pants is here!” Meredith exclaims and points at Logan. “Jax! He’s here!” “Did she just call me ‘Mr. Lovey Pants’?” Logan asks incredulously. “Yeah, I think that’s what they call you when you’re not around,” I inform him soberly. “Well, I do have a lot of love in my pants,” Logan says smugly. “Dude, really?” Caleb snarls. “He’s going to fit in just fine,” Dom laughs and doubles over when Stacy waves at Isaac. “Baby! Hi! This is Stan.” We all walk forward to claim our girls. “All of the chairs were gone!” “I’m not Stan,” he says and winks at Stacy. “Who are you?” Isaac growls. “Ted.” “He looks like a Stan,” Stacy shrugs. “All of the chairs in the whole world were gone!” “If you don’t take your hands off my wife,” Isaac says coldly, “I’m going to fucking kill you. My brother is a cop and I’ll get away with it. I won’t tell you again.” Ted pales and swallows hard, then smiles at Stacy and boosts her out of his lap. “Nice to meet you, darlin’.” With that, he scurries away. “I missed you so much!” Mer exclaims and launches herself into my arms. “It’s been days and days since I saw you.” “I saw you about four hours ago, baby.” I laugh and kiss the top of her head, then tilt her chin up so I can kiss her soft lips. “Did you know Mr. Lovey Pants was coming?” “I did. It was a surprise.” “Awww,” she says and lays her head on my shoulder, watching her friend. “Look at them.” Logan and Jax are dancing, their foreheads pressed together as Meg and Will sing a horrible rendition of “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher.

Luke lifts Nat in his arms and kisses her long and slow, making Jules gag. “Stop it!” “No,” Luke says then goes in for more kisses. “Christ on a crutch, Williams, your room is right upstairs!” Nate wraps his arms around her, pulling her against him, but she continues to taunt Luke until finally Nate simply shuts her up by kissing her himself. “There’s a lot of kissing going on around here,” Brynna murmurs. “Let’s go upstairs,” Caleb says and takes her hand in his, leading her toward the door. “I’m getting orgasms!” Brynna calls and waves at all of us. “Can we do that sixty-nine thing you’re so good at?” “Me too!” Jules announces. “Well, apagasms.” “Julianne,” Nate murmurs in exasperation. “What? I am!” Sam and Leo are at the bar, Sam is in Leo’s lap, but they’re not talking to each other while Matt joins Nic behind the bar and eyes the apron tied around her waist. “We’re taking this with us,” he informs the bartender and leads Nic out of the club without a backward glance. “You can put Nat down, Luke,” I say to my brother, but he simply shakes his head and kisses her temple. “Nope. I’m taking her back to the room. Goodnight, everyone.” “They’re dropping like flies,” Meredith murmurs. “Did you know that when a guy has an orgasm it starts in his spine?” she says with wide eyes. “Uh, I’m a guy,” I say with a laugh. “I know, but I didn’t know that. Did you?” “I guess that’s one way to put it. I hadn’t ever really thought about it.” “Thank you!” Jax says as he and Logan join us. “These drunk as fuck women were asking me all kinds of questions about sex. Men don’t think about sex. We just have it.” “You were very informational, Doctor Dangerous,” Meredith slurs, making us laugh. “Were you now?” Logan asks him, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I want to hear all about this later.” Mer’s hands roam up and down my back as she snuggles close to me, resting her head on my chest. She turns her face to rub her nose against my sternum and glides those sexy as sin hands down over my ass. “I love your ass,” she says so only I can hear. She’s hot as fuck tonight in another short dress, but this one is looser than the one she tortured me in last night. It’s a red V-neck, showing off her amazing cleavage and hangs loosely from below her boobs to just above her knees.

“You sent me a boob shot,” I murmur back. “It was Brynna’s idea. We had to remind you guys what you already have so you wouldn’t fuck any of the whores that came onto you when you were away from us.” I laugh and push a loose tendril of her hair behind her ear. “Well, first of all, we weren’t going to forget what was waiting for us, and number two, we were too busy playing poker to fuck anyone who might have hit on us.” “Whores,” she mutters, as if she’s picturing the imaginary women in her head. “Whores!” Stacy agrees then turns to her husband. “Can we go fuck now?” “Don’t have to ask me twice. Peace out, guys.” Isaac immediately takes Stacy’s hand and leads her out of the club. “I’m going back to play poker,” Dom says and waves at us as he leaves. “I’m on a winning streak.” “We’re leaving too,” Jax says with a smile. “Thanks for keeping the secret. It was a great one.” “You’re welcome.” “See you tomorrow!” Mer calls after him. Sam and Leo are deep in conversation now. “Want another drink?” I ask my already drunk woman, with no intentions whatsoever of actually giving her any more alcohol. “Nope.” She grins widely and bites my chin. “What would you like to do, drunk girl?” “Strip you naked right here and take advantage of your hot body.” I stare down at her then bust up laughing. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” “Damn. You’re no fun.” She sticks her bottom lip out in a pout, and that’s it. It’s over. I’m done. I nod at Sam and drag Mer behind me to the elevator and punch the button to go up. “Are you gonna strip me down in the room?” she asks and buries her face in my neck. “God, you smell good. You’ve always smelled so good. I could just keep my face right here for, like, twenty years and be okay with that. As long as you’re naked.” “You’re killing me,” I mutter and bite my lip against the throb in my dick and the chills that Mer is sending through me as she nibbles on my neck. No way in fucking hell am I going to make it up to our room without making her come. The elevator finally arrives and is blissfully empty. “Thank Christ.” I push her up against the wall of the small car, push the button for our floor and then attack her. “You can’t know how fucking sexy you are.” “You’re the fucking sexy one,” she replies and yanks my shirt out of the waistband of my pants then plants those hands on my abs. “Jesus, Mark, your body is incredible.”

“You make me do shit that I would never do with anyone else. You make me forget myself.” I hitch her leg up around my waist and tug her thong to the side, giving my fingers access to her wet pussy. “Your pussy makes me crazy.” “I want your cock, Mark.” “In a minute,” I reply. “I want to make you come before we reach our floor.” “Oh God,” she groans as her hips circle and push against my fingers, finally crying out, biting my shoulder as she erupts on my hand. “Holy shit.” The doors open and I scoop her up and carry her to our suite. “I’m not even close to done with you.” “Thank God.”

Chapter Eighteen ~Meredith~ Am I going to throw up? I lie still and take stock of my stomach, head, body. All seem to be in working order. My stomach isn’t rolling, which is a good sign because with the amount of alcohol I consumed last night, I should be violently ill. I never drink like that. My mouth is as dry as can be, I’m sure I have dragon breath, and if I don’t pee right now, I’m pretty sure my bladder is going to explode. I roll out of bed and shuffle into the bathroom, take care of business, then splash water on my face and brush my teeth, scrubbing the foul remnants from last night out of my mouth. When I’m finished, I rub my eyes, then take a good look at myself in the mirror. Holy. Shit. Mascara is smeared down my cheeks¸ my blond hair is a messy tangle and I have hickeys on my breasts. I close my eyes and feel myself go wet when I remember how Mark worshiped my breasts last night, his words of appreciation for the boob pic I sent him, how they turn him on. Who knew a boob pic would have that reaction? I want to go wake him up with my mouth on his body, but he can’t see me like this so I start the shower and get in before it heats up, shocking my body awake. I wash my face and scrub my body then stand under the stream and wash my hair. Just as I’m finally feeling human again, the door to the shower opens and Mark steps in and silently wraps me in his strong arms, hugging me close. “Good morning,” I murmur against his chest. “’Mornin’,” he replies, his voice still rough from sleep. He’s warm and smooth and perfect for leaning on right now. “How are you feeling, baby?” “Better now that I’ve scrubbed every inch of me.” I grin up at him and feel my heart stumble when he returns my smile with sleepy blue eyes. “How about you?” “I woke up missing you.” He kisses my forehead and turns us so he’s in the water. “And I think I smell bad.” “We got very dirty last night.” I go to work washing him and watch my hands glide over his tight body, the muscles in his stomach, his amazing arms, his hips. “I see I put a few marks of my own on you last night,” I murmur when he turns and I see the nail marks on his back. “You were enthusiastic,” he says with a chuckle. “Back at you.”

“I’m always enthusiastic when it comes to you.” “Back at you again.” He spins back around and washes his hair, then leads us out of the shower and tenderly dries me off, his hands gentle and thorough, making my body come alive again. Instead of leading me back to the bed when we’re dry, he guides me to the vanity and turns on the blow dryer and dries my hair, strand-by-strand, brushing through it with his fingers, quietly watching his own hands in my blond strands. He’s quiet this morning, thoughtful, and he’s taking care of me. When my hair is dry, I turn the tables on him, blowing his hair dry. He watches me with amused eyes, his hands on my hips, until every hair on his handsome head is dry. “Meredith.” He takes the dryer from my hand and sets it on the counter, then circles his arms around my waist and tips his forehead down to rest on mine. “Yeah?” “I love you.” I grin and drag my fingertips down his face as he lays his lips on mine, gently sweeping them back and forth, nibbles the corner of my mouth, nuzzles my nose. My nipples pebble as his hands glide up to my ribcage, but he doesn’t move farther up to cup them. He continues to simply kiss me, our naked bodies aroused and pressed together, against the bathroom vanity. When he kisses my nose and forehead again, I drag my hands over his hips and am about to circle his hard, thick cock when he catches my wrists in his hands and holds me away. “I want to touch you,” I whisper. “Not yet.” He nuzzles my nose again, a small smile on his lips to soften the rejection. “I just want to kiss you.” “Really?” I cock a brow and glance down at his cock. “That’s not what it looks like.” Without another word, he turns and leads me back to the bedroom, lifts me onto the center of the bed and joins me. But instead of climbing on top of me and making love to me, he lies next to me, facing me, presses his hand to the small of my back and pulls me into him and claims my lips again with his, kissing me slowly. It’s lazy and gentle. Our legs tangle, I bury my fingers in his hair and hold on as he sweeps those amazing lips back and forth across mine, then slips his tongue in my mouth, as though I’m a delicacy he wants to nibble on. I love the different facets of this man. He can be crazy with lust, as he was last night, and make me feel like if he doesn’t fuck me immediately he’ll die. Or he can be like right now. Taking his time, seducing us both, basking in the love we feel for each other. His fingertips draw circles on my back, over my shoulder and down my ribs, and then follow the same path again, sending shivers through me. “Cold?” he whispers and tugs the covers over us, completely covering us, heads and all, without missing a beat. I drag my foot up and down his leg, loving the way the soft hair feels against the arch of my foot. His cock is pressed against my lower belly, pulsing with his need. I shift slowly, hitch my leg over his hip and tilt my hips, filling myself with

him, making us both gasp. He cradles my face in his hand, his mouth shaped like an O as I barely move but contract my muscles around him. “I love you too,” I whisper. Our gazes hold, and we are connected in every way, from head to toe as we make slow, quiet love. “So much more than I can ever say.” His hand glides down my neck, over my breast and side to anchor on my hip, guiding my small movements. The angle has the base of his cock pressed against my clit, and I bite my lip as I watch him, knowing I’m getting so close. “You’re so fucking tight, Mer. God, so wet.” He bites his lip too, but doesn’t look away from me. “Are you close?” “So close,” I whisper. “Oh God, Mark, I’m gonna—” “That’s right.” His hand tightens on my hip and that’s all it takes to urge me over the edge. It’s the quietest we’ve ever been, the sweetest lovemaking, so easy and lazy, but I have a feeling it’s the most meaningful it’s ever been. For both of us. He blinks slowly and follows me over the edge, trembling with his orgasm, but not making a sound as his body shivers, clenches, sweaty and tight. His hand slips around to cup my ass and his lips are on mine again, nibbling lazily. “Mine,” he whispers against my lips. *** “Nice of you to join us,” Luke says dryly as we make our way out onto the patio near the pool. The tables are shaded by wide, colorful umbrellas and brunch is being served. “They’re in love. Leave them alone,” Brynna says with a grin. “How is everyone feeling?” I ask as Mark holds my chair out for me and I pick up my menu. Jax leans over and kisses my cheek, then shoves his orange juice in my hand, which I thankfully consume in two gulps. The whole clan is wearing sunglasses, which makes me laugh. Except for Logan, who has his trademark thick-rimmed glasses perched on his handsome nose. He winks at me. “You’re not hung over?” Jules asks in surprise. “I was a little, but I’m fine now. Nothing a shower and brushing my teeth didn’t fix.” “And maybe a little sex,” Nic says with a wink. Matt kisses her temple and rubs his hand rhythmically up and down her back. “So what’s happening today?” Dom asks before stuffing a big hunk of waffle dripping with syrup into his mouth. “Lazy day,” Will says with a half smile. “I think we’re all recovering from last night.” “I have a meeting,” Leo says quietly. “What meeting?” Sam asks with a scowl. “The guys want to go over a few potential songs for the next album.” He shrugs like it’s no big deal, but Sam is clearly not happy.

“No,” she says and shakes her head adamantly. “No?” he echoes with a raised brow. “No. We’re here to celebrate with our family, not to work. You work enough when we’re home.” “It’s just for a few hours, Samantha.” We all share glances with each other, quiet as Leo and Sam glare at each other. Mark tenses beside me, so I take his hand in mine and squeeze it reassuringly. “What is your problem?” Sam finally demands. “What are you talking about?” He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs in exasperation. “You’re moody. You work all the time. You think I don’t feel you pulling away from me?” Her voice is edged with panic now, and Luke looks like he’s about to speak up when Leo’s hand drops and his head whips up to stare at her. “Are you kidding me? I think we need to have this conversation later, when we’re alone.” “No, we’re going to have it now. Right here.” She pulls her sunglasses off and throws them on the table. “If you’re trying to break it off, just fucking do it, Leo. This distance from you is killing me.” “I don’t want to fucking break up with you, Goddamn it!” “Then what’s wrong with you?” “I want to marry you!” We all sit in stunned silence, watching as Sam’s mouth gapes open in surprise. “You don’t want to get married, I get it.” Now he throws his glasses on the table, and the misery in his eyes brings tears to mine. “You’ve been saying for almost two years that you’re happy with the way things are, and we don’t need a piece of paper to let everyone know that we love each other. Fine.” He throws his hands in the air, then shakes his head. “I’ll take you any way I can get you, Samantha, and that’s the fucking truth. I love you, every damn day, I love you. I’m never going anywhere. You’re it for me. But I do want to get married.” “I don’t want babies,” she whispers, her lips barely moving. Leo laughs and shakes his head. “We’re still on the same page there, these baby making machines are filling this family full of kids just fine without us adding to it, and people get married without having kids every day. But I get it, sunshine. It’s not what you want.” “But it’s what you want.” He just nods and clenches his eyes shut. I glance up at Mark to see his eyes riveted on his sister and Leo. The girls around us are sniffling, trying to do so quietly, but doing a bad job of it and all of us are quiet as Sam and Leo have their moment.

“Then let’s do it.” “What?” Leo’s head whips up again. “Let’s get married. We’re in Vegas for Christ’s sake.” “This isn’t funny.” His voice is angry again. “I’m not trying to be funny.” She’s watching his face and a smile slowly spreads across her beautiful face. “Let’s get married, baby.” “Why? And if you say because I’m moody and you’re trying to placate me, the answer is fuck no. I already told you, this isn’t an ultimatum.” “Because I love you, every damn day.” She climbs into his lap and buries her face in his neck. “Because I want you to be happy, and because I’m just with you for your money.” That makes us all smile and Leo lets out a small laugh then holds onto her tightly, almost desperately. “Really?” She nods. “When?” “Today.” His jaw drops and he grips her shoulders to hold her away so he can see her face. “Today?” “Why not? We’re here. The people we love are here. Even the band is in town. We can do it tonight. Is this why you’ve been so moody? So distant?” She nuzzles his nose with hers and cups his face in her hands. “I always work a lot.” “Yes, but you’re not always a grouchy ass about it.” He sighs and tips his forehead to hers. “I guess it’s been on my mind a lot lately. It feels right to take this step with you.” “I’ve been scared that you wanted out, but didn’t know how to tell me.” “Never,” he says fiercely. “I don’t ever want to think about the possibility of not being with you. Nothing matters without you, sunshine.” “Honestly, I’ve just been so happy with the way things are, getting married really hasn’t been on my radar.” She grins widely and traces the tattoo on his upper chest with her fingertip. “But now that you mention it, I’m all for it. Let’s do it.” “Mom and Dad aren’t here,” Mark says immediately. “If this is what you want to do,” Luke begins and when I look over at him I’m stunned to see tears in his eyes, “I can have Mom and Dad here in about four hours. I’ll make the call.” “What do you say?” Sam asks, smiling at her man. “Will you marry me today?”

“This is so us,” he whispers with a shake of the head. “Don’t you want to do all that girly planning stuff?” “Nope.” She grins and kisses him hard on the lips. “I have my favorite shoes with me, my family is here, and I’m ready.” “Then let’s do it.” Leo turns to look at Luke. “Make those calls. I have some to make too.” “I’m on it.” Luke rises but instead of pulling out his phone, he walks around the table to kiss Sam’s head. “I love you.” “I love you too. Get Mom and Dad here so I can get married.” “Yes, ma’am.” “Wait, what about the kids? They’re with your mom and dad,” Natalie reminds her husband. “Mom and Dad will take them,” Caleb says immediately. “That won’t be a problem.” “Oh my God!” Jules exclaims. “We’re planning a wedding!” “For today!” Meg says and hugs Will. “I don’t feel hung over anymore.” “What do we do?” Stacy asks. “The first order of business is the food,” Will says, earning an eye-roll from Meg. “I’m already looking into it,” Matt says, his fingers flying over his phone. Dom is also fiddling with his phone. “I’ve got license info here, man,” Dom says to Matt. “Great. I’m looking at chapels. I’ve got two to call.” “Who knew that Matt and Dom would turn into wedding planners?” Natalie says with a wide smile. “We don’t need all that,” Leo says. “I’d be happy with a ride through the wedding drive-thru and Elvis.” “Oh, hello no.” Sam shakes her head and laughs. “I may not need all the fancy trimmings, but the guests should at least have chairs to sit in rather than follow us through a drive-thru.” “It’s too bad Alecia couldn’t come,” Jules says and shakes her head. “She’d have it all planned by now.” “I know, I invited her, but she had an event this weekend,” Meg says with a pout. Dom clears his throat, catching my attention. “I don’t think I’ve met Alecia,” I say and watch Dom’s face. He glances up at me, firms his lips and returns to this phone. “She plans all of our events. She’s brilliant,” Jules says. Dom’s jaw ticks. “You don’t like her?” I ask.

“I don’t know her well,” he responds, not looking at me. “Dom asked her out and she turned him down,” Will informs me. “Bruised his ego.” “Vaffanculo,” Dom mutters. “Did you just tell me to fuck off?” Will asks with a laugh. “Close enough,” Dom replies. “You speak Italian and you’re hot? How could she pass that up?” I ask sarcastically. “You think I’m hot, bella?” Dom asks with a slow smile. “Duh.” I roll my eyes as Mark growls next to me. “Have you seen you?” “Well, this is interesting,” Dom says. “Watch yourself.” Mark’s voice is low and hard. Dom shrugs and winks at me then turns back to his phone. “You’re awfully possessive,” Stacy says to Mark while nibbling on a strawberry. “Fuck yeah, I am,” he agrees. “Okay, Sam and Leo, you’re with me. We’re going to get your license.” Dom jumps up and walks away without looking at the rest of us. “Mom and Dad are on the way,” Luke announces as he returns. “Thank you.” Sam hugs her brother and then she and Leo follow Dom, leaving the rest of us to simply stare at each other. “Did that just happen?” Brynna asks. “My sister is getting married. Today.” Mark murmurs. “Never a dull moment around here,” Logan says cheerfully. “What do y’all do for an encore?” “Just wait until they get drunk,” Jax says with a shake of his head. “You haven’t seen anything yet.” “We need to get her flowers,” Nat says. “The chapels are full-service,” Matt replies, his nose still in his phone. “And I just reserved one online for this evening.” “What should we do in the meantime?” Isaac asks. “Get our girls recovered from last night so they can do it all over again tonight,” Nate replies with a grin. “I’m a mother,” Jules replies primly. “I can’t do it again tonight.” “Really?” Meg asks. “Oh God, I better go nap now,” Jules replies. “Wanna go nap, ace?” “If that’s code for sink inside you and lose my mind for a few hours, then yes, I do.”

“Thank God you can read my mind.”

Chapter Nineteen “You can’t wear leather pants to your own wedding,” Jules insists with her fists planted on her slim hips and a scowl on her gorgeous face. “I’m marrying a rock star, Jules,” Sam says with a laugh. “I think I could wear cut off shorts and a tank top and it would be okay. Besides, we’re in Vegas. The JP will just be thankful that I’m sober.” “You plan on being sober?” Stacy winks at Sam as she stares lovingly at the red stiletto Louboutins in Sam’s hands. “Absolutely. Jesus, you guys. I had no idea that he wanted to get married.” “Seriously?” I ask and grin when I see a text from Mark come across my phone. The girls are all in Meg and Will’s presidential suite on the top floor of the hotel. This place is bigger than my mother’s old house. The guys have made themselves scarce for the next two hours until the wedding because, like Natalie said, it may be unconventional, but it’s still bad luck for Leo to see his bride before the wedding. Jax and Logan chose to go with the guys because they’d both agreed they’d had enough estrogen for a while. Pussies. Is Sam nervous? I glance up at her and smile at the dreamy grin on her face. No, she’s excited. Leo? “We haven’t talked about it since the beginning of things,” she insists. “We agreed that marriage wasn’t for us and never brought it up again.” “Well, I guess he changed his mind,” Brynna says. “I love Leo, Sam. He’s so great.” “Women all over the world are going to be in mourning when this news hits,” Nic says with a shake of the head. “I’m not afraid to admit that I would have been one of them a few years ago.” Sam turns to her and chuckles. “And now?” “Now you’re my friends and I couldn’t be happier for you. You deserve your happily ever after with your rock star.” Nic hugs Sam close then pulls back with a gasp. “We need to find cake! Damn it, Sam! You can’t get married without cake!” “I’m sure we’ll find something,” Stacy assures her and then bounces on her toes. “Sam’s getting married!” “Where’s my baby?” Lucy demands as she comes into the suite with Neil right behind her. “Mom!” Sam runs to her mom and hugs her close, and I feel my heart catch, suddenly missing my mom something fierce. Leo can’t stop smiling. He looks like an idiot, Mark responds, making me laugh.

“I can’t believe you decided to get married today.” Lucy laughs as she pulls back to look Sam in the eye. “Are you sure?” “Never been more sure.” “I’m heading down to hang out with the guys and scare my soon to be son-in-law,” Neil says as he hugs his daughter. “But I wanted to come up and hug the bride first.” “I’m so happy you’re both here,” Sam replies with a grin. “I guess having Luke around for times like this doesn’t suck.” “The boy is resourceful,” Lucy agrees. “Okay, Neil, shoo. This is a woman-only zone.” “I’ll see you all soon.” He waves at all of us and heads out of the suite. Your dad is on his way to you. Lucy is with us. I send the text to Mark and watch quietly as all of these beautiful women fuss around Sam, laughing and hugging and sipping diet sodas. Lucy fits right in, her face aglow in happiness. These women, this family, is magical. They’ve circled around Sam as if they’re her sisters. What I wouldn’t give to be with my sister on her wedding day. I tuck the sad thought away for now, determined to be happy for Sam, to concentrate on her happiness today. Someday, she might be my sister-in-law. The thought stuns me and makes me giddy all at once. He’s here. Miss u. Mark’s text makes me grin and my heart light. You’ll see me soon. Love u. I tuck my phone away and laugh when Jules continues to glare at Sam’s black leather pants. “She’s not going to change her mind,” I say to Jules. “Black leather pants,” Jules says again, pointing at the offending clothing. “How can she get married in these?” “They’ll look hot on her.” I shrug. “The top is beautiful.” “You’re wearing black leather pants?” Lucy asks with wide, stunned eyes. “Yes. But look at the top!” Sam holds up a white tank top with a high neckline. It has large, white lace flowers and is cropped to hit her right above her pierced navel. “It’s white.” “And the sexiest red shoes I’ve ever seen,” Stacy adds. “Well,” Lucy says after a moment of consideration. “It’s Vegas, last minute, and you’ve always marched to the beat of your own drummer. I think it’s fantastic.” Sam sends Jules a smug grin. “See? It’s fantastic.” “It’s ridiculous.” Jules shakes her head and sighs in exasperation as the rest of us chuckle at her. “You should be wearing a beautiful dress.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Sam smiles and pulls Jules in for a big hug. “It doesn’t matter what I wear, Jules. I could be in ratty old pajamas and it wouldn’t matter. All that matters is that I’m marrying Leo. He’s the best part. Not what I wear.” “Except the shoes,” Stacy says fiercely. “The shoes are always the exception,” Sam says with a wink. “I’m so happy for you,” Jules says with a hoarse whisper. “We all know what you and Leo have gone through, and no one deserves to be together more than the two of you. Natalie will make lots of babies for you to spoil.” “Yeah, I will,” Nat agrees with a grin. “What are you doing about vows?” Meg asks. “Knowing Leo he’ll want something original.” “We already wrote them.” “You did?” I ask. “You’ve barely seen each other today.” “We did it in the cab on the way to get the license. He writes songs for a living. This was a breeze.” “I can’t wait to hear them,” Nic says with a sigh. “It’s all so romantic.” “When do you think you and Matt might get hitched?” Brynna asks. Nic looks surprised by the question, then just shrugs. “No idea. Eventually, I’m sure.” She bites her lip as if she’s thinking about it for the first time. “There’s no rush.” “Okay, ladies,” Sam announces and begins stripping out of her casual clothes. “I’m getting dressed and getting married.” “Want me to touch up your hair?” Stacy asks. “Yeah, can you make it all messy and cool like that night when Will proposed to Meg?” “Absolutely.” Sam, Brynna, Stacy and Nic all file into the bathroom to primp. The rest of us went to our respective rooms earlier to change into something nicer than jeans and tank tops, although I’m beginning to think it wasn’t necessary. Not if the bride’s wearing leather pants. Lucy sits beside me and takes my hand in hers companionably. “How are you, darling girl?” “I’m great. This weekend has been a blast.” “It sure sounds like it,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m glad. You all needed it. A little play time is good for the soul.” “It is.” I smile at the kind woman beside me. “Were you shocked when Luke called?” “Between you and me? No.” She cranes her neck to see into the bathroom. The noise is echoing in the vast space as the girls chirp and giggle.

“I’m surprised it took this long,” Meg adds as she falls into a deep-cushioned couch and sips her soda. “Sam’s stubborn,” Nat says. “I knew it would happen eventually, but I thought he’d have to work at it a little harder.” “I’m just thankful that Elvis isn’t officiating,” Jules says as she reapplies her lip gloss. “Are you almost done in there?” she calls into the bathroom. “Coming!” Stacy calls back. “Okay, who wants to place bets on who cries first during the ceremony?” Meg asks. “Neither are going to cry,” I reply with a smirk. “They’re both too badass for that.” “Have you ever heard the song “Sunshine”?” Meg asks. “Leo wrote that for her. They wrote those vows together. There will be waterworks.” “I’m not betting against that,” Nat replies. “Me neither,” Jules agrees. “He wrote “Sunshine for her”?” I ask with a sappy grin on my face as Meg nods. “That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.” “Still wanna bet?” “Hell no.” “We have to go!” Nat yells back to the bathroom. “I’m ready!” Sam comes walking down the hallway on her high red shoes, those black pants hugging her every curve and that white lacy tank is absolutely stunning, showing off her pierced navel. Her hair looks messy in a classy, rocker way and her blue eyes are shining above blood-red painted lips. “You’re magnificent,” I whisper and feel my eyes fill with tears. “Oh, Sam.” “Oh, my sweet girl,” Lucy sniffs as she stands to hug Sam. “You’re the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.” “Thanks, Mom.” “Come on,” Meg says with a sniff. “Let’s put my brother out of his misery and get you two hitched.” Sam smiles triumphantly. “Let’s do it.” *** This might be the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever seen. And it’s in Vegas. Amazing. This particular wedding chapel offers an outdoor garden option. It’s evening, just past sunset. We are sitting in ornate white iron chairs facing an arbor, covered in white twinkling lights.

“You’re gorgeous,” Mark whispers in my ear. “Wait till you see your sister,” I reply with a smile. “It’s a different kind of gorgeous,” he says and brushes his knuckle down my cheek. “You take my breath away, M.” I take his hand in mine and kiss his palm softly. We’re all here. All of the Montgomery siblings and their significant others. Nat and Luke, Mark and I. Jax and Logan. Even Leo’s band and their families are here, smiling and anxious to get this show started. Leo, dressed in black ripped jeans and a black button-down shirt rolled on his forearms, escorts Lucy down the aisle to her seat, kisses her cheek and joins the justice of the peace on the small stage. The song “Sunshine” begins to play, signaling that we should all stand and turn to watch Sam, dressed in her unconventional wedding attire, walk down the aisle with her dad. Neil is smiling at his daughter proudly, clasping her hand tightly in his own, and I can’t help but remember that my daddy will never walk me down the aisle. Mark won’t escort my mama to her seat. Tiff won’t stand by my side as I pledge myself to the man I love with my whole heart. Will they know anyway? Will they be with me? Can they see how happy he makes me? I inhale deeply as Mark wraps his arms around me from behind and kisses my head before whispering, “It’s okay, M. Just breathe through it.” How does he always know? I feel his chest move against my back in a long, deep breath and I do as he asks, taking a cleansing breath and refocusing on the here and now. Sam’s carrying a small bouquet of tiger lilies, her eyes are pinned to Leo’s. I glance over at the groom to find him watching his bride, his jaw dropped in awe and love and everything in me goes soft at the romantic moment. She passes her flowers to her mom when she hugs and kisses her before joining Leo on the small stage. He takes Sam’s hands in his and whispers something down at her that makes her cheeks blush and her smile widen. “Family and friends,” the tall man begins as we reclaim our seats. Mark wraps his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close to his side. “It’s my pleasure to officiate this special occasion. Samantha and Leo have asked that we make this quick, and I have to say, unconventional.” “Imagine that,” Will says with a chuckle. We all smile and nod. “This very special couple has decided to exchange rings as they recite their vows to each other. Samantha, please recite your vows to Leo.” Sam clears her throat and pulls a ring out of her bra, holding it up for all of us to see. “Best storage system ever,” Leo murmurs softly, making Sam laugh. She takes a deep breath, reaches for Leo’s hand and looks up into his eyes solemnly. “I promise you, Leo, until my very last breath, to fight for life, for joy, for us. To never

take your actions, words and kindness for granted, and to keep leaving you secret notes when we are away from each other.” Leo grins as Sam slips his ring on his finger and continues speaking. “I vow to grow with you and not apart, to make my accomplishments, ours, and your challenges, mine. I will always love you deeply and honestly, as your equal and your partner. I fiercely want to grow old with you; so we can sit on our front porch on a warm summer’s eve, so we can hold our frail hands together and laugh, so I can simply be with you, and know that I am home. I was born to tell you I love you, to be your wife, to be with you, forsaking all others, for the rest of my life.” I watch through tear-filled eyes as Leo swallows hard, takes a ring from his pocket and looks deeply into Sam’s eyes. “I promise you, Samantha, my sunshine, until my very last breath, to fight for life, for joy, for us. To never take your actions, words and kindness for granted, and to write you love songs as often as possible.” Sam bites her lip, trying to keep her tears at bay, and failing. “I vow to grow with you and not apart, to make my accomplishments, ours, and your challenges, mine. I will always love you deeply and honestly, as your equal and your partner. I fiercely want to grow old with you; so we can sit on our front porch on a warm summer’s eve, so I can hold you in my arms, so I can simply be with you, and know that I am home. I was born to tell you I love you, to be your husband, to be with you, forsaking all others, for the rest of my life.” With the ring firmly on Sam’s hand, he raises it to his lips and presses a kiss on her finger. Mark hands me a tissue and kisses my cheek as the officiant steps forward to speak. “By the powers vested in me by the state of Nevada, it’s my pleasure to pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.” “Whoop!” Mark exclaims as we all clap and whistle as Leo bends Sam backwards and kisses her breathless. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Nash!” “We did it!” Sam exclaims and throws her hand up to Leo for a high-five, which he happily obliges, then pulls her back in for a long, soft kiss. “That was amazing,” I whisper as tears continue to roll down my cheeks. “He has such a way with words.” “Told you,” Meg says as she mops up her own face. “Let’s go eat,” Will says, but holds his hands up as if in surrender. “To celebrate. We all need to celebrate.” “You all go,” Neil says and hugs his wife close to his side, and it’s in this moment, watching Neil cuddle his wife, kiss her tenderly on her temple as she continues to silently cry, that I realize I have this man to thank for the man Mark has become. What a wonderful example of what it is to be a good husband. A good man.

“We need to get back to the babies,” Neil finishes. “Oh, stay just a little while longer,” Natalie says with wide eyes. “The kids are fine.” Lucy shakes her head and hugs her new son-in-law tightly, then cups Sam’s face in her hands and kisses her cheeks. “We want you all to celebrate. We’ll have a party for the whole family after you’re home. Have fun tonight. Enjoy yourselves.” “I am proud of you, baby girl,” Neil says and plants his lips on Sam’s forehead as he hugs her. “Have fun.” “Let’s go celebrate!” Brynna announces, clapping her hands. “Drinks are on Luke,” Sam says sassily, smacking her brother on his arm. “He’s loaded.” “So are you,” he reminds her. “I’m the bride. I’m not paying for anything.” *** “Why are you sitting over here all alone?” Logan asks as he joins me at the table in the corner of the semi-quiet bar we found off the strip. The music isn’t too loud, the drinks are decent and there are enough pool tables to go around our lively bunch. Not to mention, there aren’t many people in here tonight, so the celebrity members of our group don’t have to worry about being approached. “I’m just watching,” I reply with a smile and sip my drink. Mark is currently bent over a pool table, his back to me, making me drool. Dear God, what that man does to a pair of slacks! “I’ve never seen anything like this group,” Logan says with a laugh. “I’m pretty new to it too. They’re fun and welcoming…” “And overwhelming,” he finishes. I lean back and study the man next to me. His brown hair is messy, his green eyes lit with happiness and humor. “I like you.” I hold my glass up to clink with his. “I’m glad Jax found you.” “I like you too, gorgeous,” he replies and tips his glass to mine. “And it was me that found Jax.” “Really?” I lean on my elbow and give him my undivided attention. “He never told me how you met.” “In the grocery store.” “Seriously? Picking guys up in the frozen pizza section works?” “I believe it was over the bananas,” he says and sips his beer. “I don’t know, he looked up at me and something in me just clicked.” He’s watching Jax across the room chatting with Natalie and Jules. I can hear them laughing. I don’t reply, I simply wait for him to continue. “I’ve had a different experience than Jax,” Logan says and takes another swig of his

beer. “My family is awesome. I never came out to my parents, they just always knew and accepted me for me.” “I’m happy for that,” I murmur. “Me too.” He clears his throat and shifts in his seat. “I know that Jax’s experience has been the opposite of mine, and to be honest with you, Mer, I want to hunt down his family and kick their asses.” “Get in line.” “I don’t understand how you turn away someone as awesome as he is.” I follow his gaze to watch Jax tuck Nat’s hair behind her ear. “He has an easy way about him,” I say. “He’s physically affectionate. Always has been. Like that, right there, when he tucked Nat’s hair behind her ear?” Logan nods. “He’s always doing stuff like that to people he knows and feels comfortable with.” “It took him until the second date before he’d let me hold his hand,” Logan says with a rueful shake of his head. “That’s because he was trying to figure out if he could trust you or not.” I bite my lip, unsure how much to say to this man who clearly loves my best friend very much. “Does he know you love him?” “Yes.” He sighs and swigs his beer. “And Jax?” “He feels the same.” My heartbeat speeds up at the pure joy on Logan’s face. “Oh my.” I sigh wistfully. “It’s finally happened for him.” “And for me. Although I never had the issues with my family that Jax did with his, I’ve been selective about who I choose to have a relationship with. I’ve never told a man that I love him before.” “I’m so happy for you.” I rub his arm soothingly, then lean in and kiss his cheek. “So happy for both of you.” “Mer, you need to know, I’m going to ask him to marry me.” I bite my lip as the tears fill my eyes. My gaze finds Jax again across the room. He’s laughing and gesturing with his hands as he tells the girls a story. He’s my friend, but more than that, he’s my brother. “Today is the day for wedding talk,” I murmur with a soft smile. “You don’t think it’s too soon?” “I think it’s wonderful.” “You do? I need to know you’re okay with it.” Logan rubs his fingers over his mouth. They tremble slightly. “You’re his family, Mer. Your opinion matters.” “I love Jax with all my heart,” I answer honestly. “He’s one of the best men I know. But

you know what, Logan? I think you’re one of the best men I know too. You’re lucky to have each other.” He lets out a gusty breath, as though he’s been holding it during the whole conversation. “Thank you.” “I want to be in the wedding.” “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chapter Twenty “You wanna talk about what the hell crawled up your ass and died before or after class?” Jax asks as he leans against my desk and crosses his arms over his chest. Little girls are filing in for their after-school ballet class, chattering and laughing, excited for class. “I’m fine,” I reply with a sigh. Except, I’m not fine. “We’ve been home for two days and you’ve been damn moody,” he mutters then pushes his fingers through his hair. “Are you and Mark fighting?” “No, we’re great.” It’s not a lie. Mark and I have been fantastic. “Something is wrong, KitKat.” He tilts my head back to look me in the eyes. “If everything with Mr. Hot Tamale is so great, why do you look so sad?” “I’ve just been in a funk since the wedding,” I admit softly. Jax tilts his head, watching me closely. “Why?” I jerk my shoulder up in a shrug. “It’s stupid.” “I doubt it.” I sigh and wave at a mom as she sits on a bench on the far side of the room. “It just reminded me that Mom, Dad and Tiff are gone and if I ever marry Mark, they won’t be here for it.” “That’s not stupid.” “It’s not stupid, but it’s silly to still be brooding about it. That would just piss Mom off.” “You’re grieving, sweetie. It’s okay to be sad sometimes.” “Yeah.” I blow out a gusty breath. “I’m starting to piss myself off, though, so it’s time to shake this mood off.” “GGN tonight?” Jax asks. “That would be fun! No plans with Mr. Lovey Pants?” “I can rearrange things.” “Meredith.” Our heads swivel toward the door at the sound of Luke’s voice. “What’s up?” I grin at Mark’s handsome older brother, but I feel the smile fall from my face when I see the look on his. “What happened?” “Jax,” he begins without breaking eye contact with me. “I need you to take care of things here. There’s been a car accident.”

I gasp and feel my heart speed up as my entire body breaks out in cold sweat. “What?” My voice is a low whisper. “There’s been a car accident, Mer. Mark’s on his way to the hospital.” I blink frantically as Luke and Jax continue to talk, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. My ears are buzzing. Or is that my head? Someone takes my hand and pulls me out of the chair. “Meredith,” Jax says sternly, making me meet his gaze. “Breathe, baby. You go with Luke. I’ll take care of this last class and meet you at the hospital later.” I nod automatically as Jax passes my hand to Luke and he leads me out of the studio to his SUV, but I can’t even feel my feet. I’m just following automatically. My face suddenly feels wet. “Is it raining?” Is that my voice? Soft and hoarse and weak? “Yes, sweetheart. Come on, get in my car.” Luke is talking, but I don’t hear him. I lean my forehead against the cool glass of the passenger window, and I’m suddenly thirteen years old, sitting in Mrs. Yakamura’s classroom. “Meredith?” Oh geez, did I do that bad on the stupid math test? Mrs. Yakamura is staring at me with really serious eyes, like I’m in trouble or something. I didn’t do anything I can think of. I mean, she wouldn’t know that I stole Tiff’s favorite barrette this morning and put it in my hair after I got to school. “Yes, ma’am?” “I need you to go down to the principal’s office, please.” The kids around me snicker and my tummy tightens with nerves. “What did I do?” “You’re not in trouble, but they do need you down at the office, sweetie.” “I’m not in trouble?” Why else would I be sent down there? This is the weirdest day ever! “No. But grab your things. You won’t be coming back to class today.” “She’s suspended?” My best friend, Amanda, asks with wide eyes. “No. They’ll explain when you get down there.” I grab my backpack and coat and shrug at Amanda when she does the what the heck is going on look. When I move to pass by Mrs. Yakamura, she pulls me in for a strong hug, surprising me. “I’m so sorry, Meredith.” I must be in trouble. Why else would she be sorry? Oh my gosh, if my dad finds out that I got suspended from school, he’ll be beyond mad. He might even take my dance lessons away, and that would suck the worst. He’s always lecturing me and Tiff about being

responsible and taking school seriously, and that it’s okay to have hobbies but we need to be focused. Blah, blah, blah. I’m only thirteen, for gosh sakes. It’s not like I’m going to college next year. Maybe I won’t go to college at all. Maybe I’ll just be a dancer. I’ll be a dancer and fall in love with a handsome musician and he’ll write me love songs and tell me how pretty I am. Daddy tells me I’m pretty, but he’s my daddy. He’s supposed to say that. Happy with my decision to marry a musician, I execute a perfect pirouette down the empty hallway on my way to the office. When I go inside, I’m surprised to see my mom and the counselor, Mr. Pritchett, waiting for me. “Mom?” Her eyes are red and blotchy. Mine get the same way when I’ve been crying for a long time. “Mommy?” “Oh, baby girl.” She yanks me into her arms and smothers me against her breasts, holding onto me so tight I can barely breathe, and cries hard. She’s shaking and sobbing against me. Why is she crying? She only ever cries when she watches sad movies or when Grandma died. I start to cry too because she’s scaring me. “Come on, Addie,” Mr. Pritchett says, pulling us toward his office. “Let’s sit down for a minute.” “The police officer is waiting outside to take us back,” she sobs. Police officer? “Am I going to jail?” I cry. “No, baby, no. Of course not.” Mom sniffs and wipes her cheeks dry, then pushes my hair back over my shoulders. Her lips are trembling. “Sweetie, there was a car accident today. Daddy’s at the hospital now, but we have to get back as soon as possible because they don’t think…” She can’t finish the sentence. “They don’t think what?” “You need to go see your dad, Meredith,” Mr. Pritchett says quietly. “Where is Tiff? Is she at the hospital too?” Another sob escapes Mom’s lips, but she firms her chin and swallows hard. “No, honey. Tiff isn’t at the h-h-hospital.” “Where is she?” I whisper. Mom shakes her head, takes my hand in hers and kisses it. “She didn’t make it, baby.” I wrinkle my forehead in confusion. “Didn’t make what?” “Tiffany was killed in the accident, Meredith,” Mr. Pritchett says. His eyes are full of tears too. “What?” I pull away from Mom, yank my hand out of hers and bump into a chair.

“What?” “Come on,” Mom says. “We have to get back now.” “I don’t understand.” I can’t stop crying now. My whole body feels hot, like it does when you stand in the bathroom with the shower running hot on a summer day. I can’t breathe. “I want Tiff! I want Daddy!” “We’re going to see Daddy right now,” Mom says and pulls me out of the office, through the front doors of the school to the police car out front. I want to ask why the police are here, but I can’t talk. This can’t be happening. What in the hell is happening? Mom hugs me hard on the drive to the hospital. The tears have dried up, but I feel numb. This can’t be true. Dad had to take Tiff to her dentist appointment this morning. They’re fine. Maybe he took her out to lunch after the appointment and there’s been a mistake. The policeman’s radio is loud with a deep, monotone man’s voice listing numbers and ten-fours. When he pulls up at the hospital, he helps Mom and me out of the car. He has nice eyes. Sad eyes. He pats my shoulder and walks next to us into the hospital, up an elevator and down a hallway. It smells like medicine and cleaner and feet. I hate the smell of feet. Why does the hospital smell like feet? Mom leads us to a room where a curtain is pulled, blocking the view of the bed. She keeps my hand in hers as we walk inside and as we walk around the curtain, I see my daddy lying in a bed with tubes coming out of his mouth. He has a white and green hospital gown on. His face is all bruised. His hand is scratched up badly and his right arm is wrapped in gauze from his elbow to his fingertips. “Daddy,” I whisper. “Go talk to him, baby.” Mom guides me next to him. “You can touch him.” “He’s hurt.” She nods quickly, tears spilling from her eyes again. “He is, honey. They’re just keeping him with us until we have a chance…” My eyes fly to hers. “He’s going to die?” “He is.” A doctor joins us. She has crazy red hair and freckles, but she has kind eyes too, like the policeman. “Your dad was in a very bad car accident, Meredith.” “He’s breathing,” I point out desperately. “With the help of this machine, yes he is. But sweetie, when we turn the machine off, he will pass away.” “How do you know?” I ask angrily. “You don’t know! My daddy is strong! He’s just

scratched up!” “Your daddy is strong, Meredith,” the doctor replies when my mom can’t. “He tried all he could to save your sister. He is a brave man. But you have to say goodbye to him now, honey. You can both take your time. Spend some time with him.” She squeezes both mine and mom’s shoulders and leaves. The policeman leaves after her, and we are alone with my dad. “Mom?” I don’t want to touch him. If I touch him, this might all be real, and it can’t be real. “Mom, he just looks scratched.” “I know.” “I don’t want to say goodbye.” I shake my head slowly. I can’t look away from him. “Okay.” She clears her throat and smiles bravely at me, then pulls two chairs by his bedside and motions for me to sit closest to his head. “Let’s just sit for a while and talk. Let’s tell stories. I bet he can hear us.” “What k-k-kind of stories?” “Any kind. Happy ones.” Mom takes Dad’s hand in hers and bites her lip. She puts it up to her face, nuzzles her cheek into his palm the way she always does when we all sit and watch movies together. Tiff always steals all of the Sour Patch Kids. “Remember when we took the road trip down to the beach in Oregon last year and Dad kept warning Tiff that she might get bit by sharks?” I smile at the memory as Mom snickers. “He likes to torment you girls,” Mom says. “You and Tiff collected about a hundred sand dollars on that trip.” “Ninety-six,” I say proudly. “We were so close to a hundred, but then we had to come home.” Mom and I sit and talk for a long time. Daddy never moves, but I think he can hear. I finally get brave enough to reach out and lay my hand on his arm. “He’s warm.” “I think we have to say goodbye now, baby.” Tears cloud my eyes as I stare at this man that I love so much. “I don’t want to.” “I don’t either.” “Mama, why did this happen?” “I don’t know.” “Where’s Tiff?” She’s quiet for a long minute. “She’s in the morgue, honey.” “Here? In the hospital?” I’ve seen Law and Order when Mom and Dad didn’t know I was watching, so I know how the morgue works.

“Yes.” “Can we say goodbye to her too? Before we leave?” “I don’t know for sure. We’ll ask, okay?” I nod and stare at Daddy. I just want him to wake up. Just for a minute. Just to tell me that he loves me and that I’m pretty. So I can tell him I love him and that I will be responsible and I will take things more seriously. I stand and lean in so I can whisper in his ear. His hair is bloody and his ear is all swollen and scraped up, but I ignore it and talk anyway. “I love you so much, Daddy. You are my hero. I will watch over Mama. Don’t worry, okay?” I sniffle and kiss his cheek, resting my lips against his scratchy stubble for a second. He used to always tease me with his stubble, rubbing it against my neck, making me giggle. I brush my nose over it for a second. “I love you.” I step away and wipe my nose on my sleeve and watch as my mom, rather than sit next to him, or lean in and whisper like I did, crawls on top of him, rests her head on his chest, wraps her arm around his waist, and just cries. It’s the saddest cry I’ve ever heard. So loud and long. She buries her face in his neck and holds on, crying for a long time. When it seems like she might have fallen asleep, she kisses his cheek, his neck and then his lips. Tiff and I always make gross faces when they kiss and stuff but this time it just makes me cry harder. When she lays her head back on his shoulder, she whispers to him. I can’t hear all of the words, but I do hear love, forever, best time of my life. Finally, when she’s all done, she stands and leans over him. She kisses his forehead and next to his lips and presses the red call button. A few seconds later, the doctor comes back with a bunch of other people. She has Mom sign some papers, and then the team of people unplug all of the machines and take the wires off him. I don’t know what they mean or what they do. They leave just the one that beeps with his heartbeat on and silently leave the room. Mom sits with him, murmuring to him, caressing his face. “Love you so much, darling. You’re not alone. You don’t need to be afraid. Go see our girl. Go be with her now, and I’ll see you a little later.” I’m crying silently. The beeps are getting farther and farther apart, until finally, there’s a beep and then… nothing. No more beeps. Just me and Mama, crying. *** The house is quiet. It’s not quite dark yet. After Daddy was gone, we were escorted down to the morgue, which is nothing like Law and Order, to see Tiff. They would only let me see her face. They wouldn’t tell me, but I think her arms were really hurt because I wanted to hold her hand, but they wouldn’t let me. My baby sister was really pale. Her eyes were closed like she was sleeping. But her

hair was bloody like Daddy’s. I wanted to wash her off. They should have cleaned her up. They should have put a pillow under her head. I tried to make them put the barrette I stole this morning in her hair, but they said they wouldn’t. Mama said we would make sure someone puts it in her hair so she’s pretty when we bury her. Mom and I stand in the living room, looking around with blind eyes. Why does it look the same? Dad’s sneakers are by his rocking chair. Tiff’s backpack is on the kitchen table. It smells like them. “I’m going to bed,” I whisper and trudge up the stairs to our bedroom and stop at the doorway. This is our room. Tiff’s and mine. We share a room, even though we could each have our own. Tiff’s bed is made. Her side of the room is always cleaner than mine. “Meredith,” Mom says softly. I turn to look at her. She looks… tired. Her eyes are swollen. Her shoulders are saggy. “I can’t sleep in there,” I say quietly. “She isn’t here to sleep with me.” “Do you want to sleep in the spare room with me?” she asks and offers me a watery smile. “You’re not going to sleep in your room?” “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I nod and follow her down the hall, past her room to the guest room. “It’s not even dark out yet,” I murmur. “And we didn’t have dinner.” “Are you hungry?” “No.” “What do you want, baby?” I shrug and bite my lip. I can’t look her in the eye. I’ll just cry again. “I guess we could just sleep.” I don’t know where Mom got them from, but she pulls Daddy’s T-shirts over our heads and we slide under the covers together. “Daddy will hug us tonight, baby girl,” she whispers brokenly. His shirts do smell like him, and it’s like having him right here with us. “Wait!” I jump from the bed and hold my breath as I run into my room to grab something off Tiff’s bed, then run back in with Mom. Mom hugs me close, Tiff’s ratty old bear between us, and we both cry together, missing Daddy and Tiff already. We cry for a really long time, until we fall asleep. “Meredith?” The passenger side door opens and Luke is there, holding my face in his

hands. “Jesus Christ you’re pale, Mer. Come on, we have to go inside.” “Luke?” Sam is suddenly next to him. “What’s wrong with her?” “I don’t know. She looks… hollow.” “Should I get some help?” “No,” I reply hoarsely.

Chapter Twenty One “I’m okay,” I murmur and move to get out of the car, but Luke holds me still for a moment, examining me. “You’re not okay.” “I need to get to Mark.” “Where were you, Mer? You were gone during that entire thirty minute drive.” “I was in the past.” I firm my chin and do my best to not show him that I’m falling apart here. I don’t matter. I need to get to Mark. Luke swears under his breath and steps back to let me out. “Her dad and sister,” Sam murmurs. “I know,” he replies. “I’m right here. I can hear you.” I try to shake them off, but they flank me. Luke wraps his arm around my low back and Sam takes my hand, and we walk into the emergency room together. “I’m glad you can hear me now because you couldn’t five minutes ago,” Luke says almost angrily. Why is he mad? Maybe he’s just scared. God knows I’m fucking terrified. “What happened?” I ask. Jesus, I wasn’t even thinking clearly enough to ask what happened. “Is he dead?” “I fucking hope not,” Luke replies. Now he is mad, and Luke never gets mad. He takes one look at my face and then takes a deep breath and swears softly. “I’m sorry. No, he’s not dead. I don’t know how bad his injuries are. Isaac is on the way here too. He was on the job site.” “It happened on the job?” I ask incredulously. “How in the hell is there a car accident on the job?” “Let’s see if we can see him and I’ll tell you what I know.” Luke leads us to the reception desk and flashes the woman behind the counter his million-dollar smile. “Hello. My brother, Mark Williams, was just brought in. Can you buzz us back?” She taps on her keyboard and frowns. “I don’t have record of him. When did you say he came in?” “He should already be here.” “Could be they’re still on the way. I do show that we’re holding a room for an ambulance.” “We beat them here?” Sam asks disbelievingly. “Check back with me in a while,” the receptionist says with a smile. Luke leads us to

the waiting room and I plop in a chair, trying not to think about the germs that I’m sitting on. “Jesus, I hate emergency rooms,” Sam mutters. “Do you know what kind of nastiness is on these chairs?” “You and I are on the same page,” I say absently as I rub my eyes. “Okay, tell me.” “All I know is a car hit him in front of the job site. Isaac called me and said they’d called the ambulance and to have us meet him here.” “Are his legs broken? Does he have internal bleeding? Is he conscious?” I’m getting shrill now. I stop and swallow, trying with all my might to keep my panic at bay. “I don’t know anything else,” Luke insists. “We have to wait to see him.” “I’m sure he’s fine,” Sam says and risks coming in contact with the plague and sits next to me. “Honest. If it was horrible Isaac would have said something to prepare us. He would have called the whole family.” I nod my head. Right. She’s right. But if he’s fine, Mark would have called me himself. He wouldn’t have sent Luke. “I mean,” she continues, “he works a really dangerous job. We’ve always known this. He’s always climbing on stuff and working with sharp, dangerous tools and equipment. He could fall, get electrocuted, cut off his hand with that really big saw. At least he’s not working on the fishing boats anymore.” “Sam,” Luke says warningly. “Fishing on those boats is the most dangerous job in the world! I swear, I still have stomach ulcers from waiting for days to hear that he was okay.” “Samantha!” Luke shouts, cutting her off. “I don’t think you’re helping.” Sam looks at me with wide eyes. The blood has drained from my head and my lips are trembling. “Is that true? I never stopped to think that construction is so dangerous.” “He’s careful,” she insists, backpedaling. “Honest, Mer, he’s really careful. He’s never been hurt before.” “But it’s possible.” “Hell, you could get hit by a bus crossing the street, Mer. Anything’s possible.” I shake my head and stand to pace the room, which isn’t easy with all of the people sitting in the cramped space. A couple people are sleeping. One man is holding his face. He obviously has a toothache. A baby is crying in his mom’s arms. Luke comes up behind me and rests his big hands on my shoulders. His hands are so much like Mark’s. “I can’t lose him,” I whisper. “Meredith, I think you’re overreacting, sweetheart. He’s probably just scraped up.”

I twirl and stare up into his clear blue eyes. “You don’t get it, Luke. The people I love die. This isn’t the first time I’ve been rushed to a hospital because of an accident.” “Not all of the people you love die,” he says softly. “The ones that matter the most.” “Mark isn’t dead, Meredith.” He grips my shoulders tightly. “He’s not dead.” I nod again. I feel like that’s all I’ve been doing, nodding like an imbecile. But then the image of my father in that hospital bed enters my head. My mom lying on him, keening in pain and agony and I shake my head in denial. I don’t know if I’m strong enough for this. “He’s here,” Sam says as she rushes over to us. “The chick with the computer—” “Is that her name?” Luke asks sarcastically. “—said that the ambulance just got here. He’s going to be examined and stuff before we can go back.” She cups my face in her hands, not gently, and says, “He’s not dead.” He’s not dead. “How long until I can see him?” “She didn’t know.” It’s the longest fucking two hours of my life. “I’m sorry,” computer chick says with sympathetic eyes. “They’ve taken him back for some tests. As soon as he’s ready you’ll be the first to know.” “If you just tell him I’m here, he’ll want me back there with him,” I beg. “You can’t be in the area where the tests are being done. I promise, I’ll call you back as soon as I get the okay from his nurse.” “His nurse and I are going to have some words,” Sam says with a snarl. We both turn away just as Isaac comes running through the door. “I couldn’t get here sooner. I had to talk to cops and calm the crew down and…” He sees me and immediately hugs me close. “How are you holding up, sugar?” “Not great,” I reply honestly. “They won’t let us back to see him. So you need to tell me if he’s okay.” “I think so,” he replies. “I don’t think he passed out, but I didn’t want to take any chances.” “How in the fucking hell does a person get hit by a car on a construction site?” I ask him angrily. “Fucking looky-loo. Too damn busy checking out the house rather than watching what’s happening in front of her damn car and going too fast. Mark was looking at his phone and just walking around his Jeep, he wasn’t even walking across the street, and she hit him, full on. Sent him flying. Scariest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” “Ms. Summers? You can go back with him now.”

“Go ahead,” Luke says. “Sam and I will wait here for our parents.” I nod and follow Computer Chick into the bowels of the ER. Someone is crying. She leads me to a room with a curtain drawn around the bed. I swallow hard and for a millisecond I consider running away, but instead I take a deep breath and walk right in and around the curtain. And there is my man, in a hospital gown, his hair a little bloody, his face and arms scraped, and a big, fat smile on his arrogant face. “Hey, M,” he says. I immediately burst into tears. I sit in the chair next to his bed and sink my head and arms onto his lap, crying big, gulping sobs. “Shh…” He’s rubbing my head now, my shoulders and back. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m okay, baby.” “You could have died!” I cry into his lap. “I am fine.” He grips my shoulders and makes me sit up to look at him. “Look at me. Meredith.” I can’t open my eyes. I feel so foolish. I know he thinks I’m overreacting. Everyone does, but they haven’t been in my shoes. They don’t understand. “Meredith. Breathe. Breathe with me, baby.” He scoots down in the bed and leans his forehead on mine. “Come on. You’re having a panic attack. Breathe deep and slow, Meredith.” He calms me. My heart slowly returns to normal and my tears stop until I look up into his gorgeous blue eyes and I lose it again. “Baby, I’m okay.” “I know. But I didn’t know before, and it reminded me of Dad and Tiff, and oh my God, Mark, I can’t do that ever again.” “Stop.” His voice is brisk now. “Stop it before I call the nurse in here for you.” “Are you going to be okay?” I whisper. “Yes. I’m scraped up, and I have a knot on my head, but I’m fine. They wanted to do a CAT scan to make sure I don’t have internal injuries.” “Do you?” My heart stops again. “No. I’m fine. I’ll be sore as hell tomorrow, but I’ll walk out of here as soon as Nurse Ratchet brings me my fucking papers and more pain meds.” “Why didn’t you call me?” He reaches for a rolling table at this bedside and holds up his phone. The screen is shattered. I close my eyes in relief and I’m suddenly being lifted into Mark’s lap. “What are you doing?”

“Calming you the fuck down.” He cradles me against him and rocks us back and forth. I wrap my arms around his neck and bury my face in my place in his neck, holding on tightly. God, I love him. He’s everything to me. I can’t lose him the way my mom lost Dad. I don’t think I’d survive it. And I will eventually lose him. Because I lose everyone I love. As we sit here silently, I cling to him as I realize what I have to do. I have to give him up. I cup his face gently in my hands and kiss him softly. My lips linger on his for a moment as I breathe him in and my hands trace the strong muscles in his arms. Finally, I pull away and climb off his lap. “I love you more than I can ever tell you, Mark. But, I can’t bear the thought of losing you the way I lost my family.” I swallow hard as he frowns in confusion. “I just can’t do this.” “Can’t do what, exactly?” “I can’t be with you.” “You are with me, Meredith.” I shake my head and rub my forehead with my fingertips. Jesus, how do I find the words for this? “I don’t think I can be in a relationship with you.” The last few words are said on a sob. His jaw drops just as the nurse bustles in. “Okay, Mr. Williams…” I leave as she’s giving him his instructions and rush out of the ER, through the waiting room and outside. Fuck me, I don’t have my car. “Meredith!” Natalie runs out after me, catching up to me when I get to the parking lot and realize I don’t have a ride home. He’s going to come marching out here any second. “I need to leave, Natalie.” “Is he okay?” “Yes, he’s just scraped up. He’ll be fine.” This time. But what about the next time? “Oh, good.” She breathes a sigh of relief and then sobers when she sees the look on my face. “Where are you going, Mer?” “I’m leaving. I just broke it off with Mark.” “Wow, talk about kicking a man when he’s down.”

“Fuck you, Natalie. You don’t know me or what I’ve been through.” It’s not her fault, but I can’t stop myself from going after her verbally, and I hate myself even more for it. “You haven’t had to bury your parents and your sister and watch everyone around you that you love the most die!” “Yes I have.” “And you haven’t…” I stop, stunned. “What?” “My parents both died when I was in college,” she replies calmly. “I’m an only child.” I blink twice and feel about three inches tall. “Scared you, didn’t it?” “I’m fucking terrified.” Nat nods and pushes her hair out of her face as the wind kicks up. “He won’t let you just break it off, you know.” “He doesn’t have a choice.” She narrows her eyes and watches me for a moment. My eyes fill with tears again, pissing me off even more. “Why would you do this? Even a blind woman can see that you’re completely in love with each other.” “I would rather give him up voluntarily,” I begin and have to swallow hard against the bile rising in my throat. “Than have to lose him the way I did my sister and my dad. I watched my mom lay on my dad’s chest and say goodbye to him, Natalie. I can’t do that.” “I don’t know how anyone can do that,” she says softly, her own eyes full of tears. “What a horrible thing, Meredith. But you don’t know that you would ever be in that situation.” “I don’t know that I won’t.” “You didn’t strike me as a quitter.” My eyes whip over to hers. “I. Can’t. Do. It.” She nods thoughtfully, then hugs me as Jax pulls his car up to us. “Think it over. A love like yours doesn’t come along every day, you know. Love him. Let him love you. Make the most out of every single day, so at the end of it all, you can say you don’t have any regrets, Mer. Life’s too short for that, and no one knows that better than you and me.” She pats my shoulder and jogs back into the hospital. I watch her go then climb into Jax’s sporty little car. “Take me home.” “Is he okay?” “Yes.” He eyes me, taking in my tears and my shaking hands. “Are you?” I shake my head and sob again. “Take me home.”

Chapter Twenty Two ~Mark~ “Are you okay?” Mom rushes to me as I walk into the waiting room. “I’m fine. Where did Meredith go?” Fucking hell, those pills have knocked me on my ass. My arms and legs feel heavy and my head is fuzzy. “Jax picked her up,” Nat says. “She’s scared, Mark.” “I get it, but she’s not getting rid of me that easy. I need your car,” I say to Luke who just smirks at me. I growl at him and would advance on him if my feet would move. “You need to fill those prescriptions and rest,” Mom interjects, pointing at the papers in my hand. “I love Meredith to death, but you’re in no shape to be running all over the damn world.” “Mom.” I take a deep breath to calm my temper. “I need to fix this with her. She’s not okay.” I remember the feel of her in my arms, the trembling, the absolute despair rolling off her in waves. “She’s not trying to be dramatic. Meredith isn’t like that. She’s hurting.” Luke takes the papers from my hand and rattles his keys in his hand. “You’re not driving anywhere, Mark. Nat and I will take care of these and Sam will get you settled at home.” He points outside and wraps his arm around Mom’s shoulders. “Why don’t you come with us, Mom?” She continues to watch me and finally stands on tip-toe to kiss my cheek. “We’ll meet you at your house,” Mom says. “Why won’t you all listen to me? I need to see Meredith!” “Do you honestly think you’re in any shape to charm her right now?” Sam asks with a roll of the eyes. “She’ll still be around tomorrow when you’re not all drugged up.” I glare at her, but she’s right. My eyes are heavy and my body is in that in-between place of numb and pain. Every step out to Sam’s car is agony and effort, making me embarrassingly tired. By the time we make it back to my house, all I want to do is sleep. “Please call her,” I say to Sam as she helps me stumble my way up to my bedroom. “Just call her and make sure she’s okay.” “I will,” Sam promises and helps me into the bed, not bothering to make me change out of the green scrubs the hospital gave me. I roll onto the mattress and immediately slip into a drug-induced sleep. *** Fuck me, I’m sore. I wince as I sit up and try to stretch my muscles. I ache, which shouldn’t surprise me since I’ve refused to take the pain meds over the past six hours so I

can drive to Meredith’s this afternoon. I rise from the bed and take care of business, then curl my lip in disgust when I see that I’m still covered in bloody smears. I crashed before I even had a chance to take a shower. First thing’s first. I need coffee. As I descend the stairs, I hear voices in my kitchen. “I tried to call her three times last night and once more this morning and she wouldn’t answer,” Sam says quietly, sipping coffee as I walk into the room. She’s talking with Jax who also looks exhausted and worried. “How are you feeling?” Jax asks. “Like I got hit by a fucking car,” I reply and pour myself some coffee. “But it doesn’t matter. Talk to me about Meredith. Is she okay?” Jax winces and shakes his head. “No. She won’t calm down. You’re okay, but it’s like a dam has burst and I can’t get her to calm down. It’s freaking me out.” He rubs his hand over his face. “She cried for a long time, then slept for a few hours. When she woke up she went back to crying. Any time I go in her room, she makes me leave.” “Jesus,” I whisper, staring down into the coffee in my mug. “I know she’s still grieving for her mom, and this had to bring up bad memories for her,” I mutter. “It’s just typical for her though,” Jax adds, making both Sam and I frown in confusion. “What do you mean?” Sam says. “Meredith always pushes people away. She always has, for as long as I’ve known her. She couldn’t shake me because I sunk my claws into her and didn’t let go, but even that scares her sometimes. She’s afraid of losing people she loves. So, the ones who fight back and stay are the ones she figures are around for the long-haul.” “Well I’m clearly going to fight back,” I reply. “She’s not shaking me off like this.” “Do you feel well enough to drive or do you need a lift?” Jax asks. “You really should shower first,” Sam says. “You look horrible.” “I’m fine, and I’ll shower at Meredith’s.” I take a long swig of cooling coffee and grab my keys. “Will you be by later?” I ask Jax. “Yeah. I’m going to go buy some juice and soup. I know it’s not the flu, but I don’t know what else to fucking do. She won’t let me touch her. Here, you’ll need a key.” I nod. “Thank you. I’ll take care of it.” I’m moving slower than I usually do, which pisses me off because right now all I can think of is getting to Mer. The drive is quick, and before I know it, I’m at her place. I walk swiftly to her room and pause by her door, listening to her soft sobs inside. Silently, I open her door and when I see her curled up on her bed, her hand over her head, crying in despair, my stomach falls to my knees.

I crawl onto her bed and pull her into my arms. “Meredith, everything is okay.” She gasps, surprised to see me, and stops crying long enough to take me in, but then starts to cry again. “Stop. I can’t be with you.” She’s not fighting me, not trying to get out of my embrace. “Yes, you can.” “Mark, I’m going to lose you too, and I can’t stand the thought of it.” She’s shivering. Instead of trying to talk some sense into her, I simply hold her. Kiss her hair, caress her shoulder and back, rubbing in big, soothing circles. We lie together for a long time, until she finally looks at me. Her eyes are still leaking, but she’s not trembling any longer. “I love you,” I whisper. “I love you too.” She swallows hard and brushes her cheeks dry with the back of her hand. “You know what happened the day my dad and Tiff died.” “Yes, you’ve told me the story, baby.” She nods. “When Luke said there’d been an accident, and we got in the car, I was right back in that place, as if I was thirteen years old again, and the pain was bright and brand new.” I brush my knuckles down her cheeks, my heart breaking for her. “I understand that you’re okay. My brain computes it, Mark. You weren’t hurt badly, thank God, and you’ll heal quickly and everything will go back to normal.” I nod, watching her as she struggles with her heart. “But I can’t help the way my heart feels.” “How does it feel?” “Panicked. Terrified. God, I’m so scared. I didn’t know that your job is dangerous. It never occurred to me.” “Would it have changed things? Would knowing that there are hazards on my job have kept you from falling back into love with me?” She bites her lip and wrinkles her brow, and I want so desperately to lean in and kiss her there, to comfort her, but I wait, letting her reason things out. “I never fell back into love with you. I was always in love with you,” she admits. “But maybe I could have prepared myself.” “Honestly, M, the injuries that happen on a job site are typically small ones. Hammer a thumb, trip on a board. We are very careful and have rules to keep us all from getting hurt.” She pulls away, turning onto her back and looks at the ceiling. “I think you should go home and rest.” My heart stills. “Didn’t you hear a word I just said?”

“I did.” “But you’re still throwing me out.” She bites her lip and jerks her head yes. I stand and walk toward the door, but stop and turn around and watch the tears run down the sides of her face into her hair. She doesn’t want me to leave. She’s just scared. “Fuck this, Meredith. I remember exactly what it felt like ten years ago to stand on your porch and have you tell me that we were through. I refuse to go through that again. I am not giving up on this. I can’t go a day, an hour without thinking about you. Without needing to hear your voice, see you smile.” I rub my hand over my mouth and pace away in frustration and then circle around again. “I’m trying to protect myself!” She stands and faces off with me, her hands fisted at her sides. “You want me to stay with you, to love you every day, but what am I supposed to do when you die and you leave me?” “I’m not leaving you!” “Today. You’re not leaving me today.” “Meredith, I can’t promise you that nothing will ever happen to me because we don’t know. I can’t promise what I don’t have control of.” “Exactly!” She points at me as if I finally get it. “You can’t.” “No one can, M. Are you just going to be alone forever?” “I’m not alone. I have Jax.” “Until he dies too,” I reply coldly and hate myself when her face crumples. “I have my studio.” “What if it burns down?” “STOP IT!” She screams nearing hysterics again. “Baby, you have to know that the chances of any of that happening are minute.” I fight through her flailing arms and pull her tightly against my chest, tucking her head under my chin, and hold on with all my might. “Jax and I aren’t going anywhere. Your studio is safe.” “I’m scared.” “Me too. Mer, I wouldn’t survive losing you again. Your mom was the strongest person I’ve ever met. Next to you, and I’m surrounded by a lot of strong women, sweetheart.” I tip her face up so I can stare down into her beautiful face. “You’re so strong, baby. I love you more than I can ever tell you. I’m sure there are pretty words that would work, but I don’t know what they are. I just know that what I feel for you is so big, there’s no way I can let you go. Please don’t ask me to. I can’t say goodbye to you, M.” I lean my forehead against hers as she finally, finally, wraps her arms around me and

holds on desperately. “I love you so big,” she whispers as she buries her face in my neck, the way she always does. “As long as we have each other, we can do anything.” I smirk at myself. Where the fuck is my man card? “I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true, Mer. Something Luke said not long ago has stuck with me. He said that if Natalie ever tries to leave him, he’s going with her because his life doesn’t work without her.” I feel her grin against my neck and I take the first clean breath I’ve had since she walked out of the hospital room yesterday. “That sounds like him,” she mumbles. “I get it.” I tug her into my lap at the edge of the bed. “I feel the same way.” “Natalie is a lucky girl,” Meredith says. There’s my smart-ass. “My life doesn’t work without you in it, M.” I kiss her temple and continue to rub her back, soothing us both. “I’m sorry.” Her voice is small and shaky. “I panicked. I’ve been panicking all night because I was worried and I was regretting not being with you to take care of you.” “Yes you did.” Now that she’s with me, truly with me, I feel my own trembles begin. “You scared me too.” Her hands glide down my arms, then she sits back and takes in my clothes. “You’re in scrubs.” “My clothes were ruined.” “But that was yesterday.” She bites her lip. “You have blood in your h-h-hair.” “I fell asleep as soon as I got home and I haven’t showered. I bumped my head on the street. Bled like a stuck pig for a little while, but it didn’t need stitches.” “Can you take a shower now?” “Yes.” She stands, takes my hand and leads me to her bathroom. “You should be resting.” “Now you sound like my mother.” She blows her nose and turns on the shower then returns to me. “She’s a smart woman.” “She is. She loves you, you know.” Fresh tears fill her eyes, but she simply smiles softly and nods. “I love her too. I love all of them.” They’ll be yours before long, I think and drag my fingertips down her cheek. She grips the hem of the green scrub top in her hands and gently guides it over my head, then unties the drawstring on the matching pants and lets them fall to the floor.

I’m not wearing underwear. “Me crying turns you on?” she asks in surprise, staring at my semi-hard cock. “You stripping me down turns me on, Mer. Always.” I chuckle and pull her shirt over her head. “That hasn’t changed since we were seventeen.” “You’re scraped up pretty good back here,” she says when she makes me turn around. She presses a sweet kiss to my shoulder blade before leading me into the shower. She didn’t set it too hot, not too cold, but just perfect so when it slides over the cuts and scrapes the stinging isn’t too bad. “I’m going to wash you,” she informs me softly. “I like it when you take care of me,” I murmur. Her hands glide gently over my body, cleaning the brown dried blood and dirt from my arms and hands, washing the blood out of my hair, and when all is said and done, and we’re both dry, she examines me one more time. “See? It’s not so bad now that I’m cleaned up.” “You must be really sore.” So fucking sore. “I’ll be fine.” “Come on.” She leads me back to her bedroom, pulls the covers back on her bed and motions for me to lie down. “It’s mid-afternoon, Mer.” She simply raises a brow. I sigh and climb onto the bed, and grin happily when she joins me. She picks up my right hand, kisses the scratches on my palm, then cradles her small, smooth cheek, nuzzling my palm. She works her way up my arm to my shoulder, kissing each red spot. “Are you going to kiss all my boo-boo’s?” “Yes.” Finally, she straddles my lap and pushes her fingers into my hair, examining my scalp more closely than any of the nurses or doctors at the hospital did. “You must have a headache.” “They gave me something for it,” I reply and close my eyes on a sigh when she continues to soothingly brush my hair with her fingers. “You don’t ever have to stop doing that.” She kisses my nose and then my forehead. Her warm, smooth, toned body is pressed to mine, her amazing breasts in my face, and I can’t stand it any longer. I glide my hands up her thighs, over her ass and up her back, making her purr low in her throat. God, that’s a fucking sexy sound. My cock twitches against her folds, sliding along her clit. She bites her lip and gazes

down at me with lust-filled eyes. “You’re hurt,” she whispers. “I’m never too hurt for this.” I begin to flip our position, but she presses her hands on my shoulders, keeping me in place. “No. Let me.” She smiles slowly as she lifts up, reaches between us and guides me inside her slowly. God, every single time is like the first time. She’s so fucking tight and sweet. “Don’t move,” she says. “That’s impossible.” “No it’s not.” She leans down to kiss me, caresses my cheeks and neck with her fingertips and begins to circle her hips effortlessly. “I’m sorry I got scared.” “Don’t leave me again.” Ever. She shakes her head and kisses me, licks my lower lip and kisses me again, deeper now. My cock pulses inside her. I want to grip onto her hips and drive inside her over and over, but I wait, knowing that she’s comforting us both. Her hands glide to my arms and she holds on as she begins to ride me. Jesus, I’m not even moving and I’m not going to last. “God, M,” I mutter. “Your body is amazing.” It’s true. Her firm, round breasts, tight stomach, full hips all make me weak in the knees. But it’s her heart that has had me in its grip for more than a decade. “Love you,” she whispers and tucks her face in my neck as she picks up speed. “Can I move now?” “Yes, please.” I roll her to her back without breaking our precious contact and cradle her shoulders and head in my hands, tip my forehead against hers as I move in slow, earnest strokes. “Love you,” I say, my lips against hers. “Always.”

Epilogue Three months later… ~Meredith~ “Why are you acting so weird?” I ask Jax and help one of the littlest girls tie her dance shoes. “I’m not.” He won’t look me in the eye, which spells lie with a capital L. “What’s going on?” “Nothing.” “Jax, something’s up. Is everything okay with Mr. Lovey Pants?” Strong arms wrap around my shoulders from behind and Logan presses a kiss to my temple. “Mr. Lovey Pants is fine.” “Hey, handsome.” I grin up at the man that’s quickly become a good friend of mine. He’s perfect for my Jax. “Hey, gorgeous,” he replies flirtatiously. “Get your hands off my man, potato chip,” Jax growls with a glare, making me laugh. “He only has eyes for you,” I assure Jax and brush my fingertip over the ring on Logan’s left hand. “I love the rings you guys chose. Marriage looks good on both of you.” They grin at each other, love and humor and understanding floating between them, making my heart catch. Their wedding was absolutely beautiful. “I’m sorry that we scheduled this recital for the same weekend you’re moving the rest of your things.” I cringe and offer Logan a sympathetic smile. “It’s fine. My dad is keeping an eye on the movers.” “You didn’t have to come,” Jax says. “And you didn’t have to hire movers. I don’t have that much stuff.” “Well, with movers you didn’t have to try to squeeze in time between choreography and dance recitals to pack your stuff, and I wouldn’t miss this recital for the world.” He smiles down at me. “How do you like your new kitchen?” I smile widely as I think of my beautiful kitchen, complete with the insanely awesome and insanely expensive wine cooler I wanted. “I love it. You and Jax have to come for dinner soon. We’d love to have you.” “Sounds great. Have you told him?” Logan asks with a low voice, his blue eyes shining behind his sexy glasses. “Tonight,” I reply.

Logan kisses Jax’s cheek, then mine, and grins. “Good luck with that. I’ll be out in the audience with the others.” “I can’t believe the entire Williams and Montgomery families came,” I mutter and count heads. The little girls are all abuzz with excitement, admiring each other’s pretty outfits and thrilled that they get to wear red lipstick. “You know they love an excuse to get together, and they haven’t missed one of the twins and Sophie’s recitals yet.” “Except Mark.” I scowl down at my quiet phone. “He never has to work on Saturdays, but he said something came up with work and he couldn’t get out of it.” “Okay, it’s time,” Jax says and walks away, motioning for the girls to gather around him. I walk out onto the stage. “Welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for being here today. I am Meredith Summers, the co-owner of Twinkle Toes, and on behalf of Jax and I, I’d like to say thank you so very much for all of your support. We love teaching your little ones and are honored that you’ve trusted this studio to bring them to dance. Your girls have been working very hard to prepare for today’s recital. So, without further ado, let’s get started.” I smile as the families applaud and walk down the steps to my mark in the audience, where the girls can still see me and I can lead them through their dances. As always, we start with the youngest ones. As they file out and begin to move their tiny bodies to the music, one little girl on the end decides to freestyle it, singing with the music, skipping and dancing around the stage, making the parents, and me, laugh. That little girl is going places. Parents happily snap photos and ooh and aah over the girls’ routines as each age group comes out on stage to perform two dances each. Finally, when all is said and done, I return to the stage. “That concludes today’s recital. Thank you again…” There’s a tug on my skirt. I glance down to see a tiny little red-haired girl holding up a red rose to me, which I take and smile down at her. She walks away, and suddenly, another girl appears with a rose. I look up to survey the audience for Mark, thinking this might be his handy-work, but he’s not here. I shrug, thinking nothing of it. Sometimes the dance instructors receive flowers after a recital. As I try to thank the audience for coming, I’m interrupted over and over again, until my arms are full of beautiful, fragrant red roses. Suddenly, all of the Montgomerys, Williamses, and Logan, with Jax now standing next to him, all stand and applaud enthusiastically and I’m at a loss. “What in the world is going on?” “Turn around, Miss Mer,” Josie yells out from behind me. I turn and stop, stunned, at

what I see before me. All eight of the oldest girls are standing in a line holding signs that spell out Will You Marry Me, M? and Mark is on one knee, holding his hand out to me. I stumble to him, walking on numb feet and feel my eyes fill with tears. “Are you kidding me?” I whisper. Mark laughs, his blue eyes dancing with happiness, and he flashes that naughty smile at me, making my knees go weak and my heart sing. “Meredith,” he says and the whole room hushes. “We waited a long time for each other. I don’t think we even knew that’s what we were doing. I will never stop loving you, Meredith A—” “Watch it,” I say, cutting him off from saying my middle name out loud. He laughs and kisses my hand. “In a sea of people, my eyes will always search for you, my love. You are the best part of my life, and I can’t imagine ever being without you again. So, in front of everything and everyone we love most, I’m asking you to believe in us and become my wife. I promise, I’ll work every day making sure you never regret it.” Tears are streaming down my cheeks as I step forward and cup his face in my hand. “Of course I’ll marry you, M.” He kisses my palm, then slips a beautiful round solitaire diamond engagement ring on my finger before standing and wrapping his arms around me. He slants his lips over mine, then kisses my cheek. “You said yes.” “Damn right I did.” I laugh. Everyone in the audience continues to applaud as Mark nuzzles my nose. “Is this a good time to tell you you’re gonna be a daddy?” “What?” He jerks back and gazes down in my eyes. “What did you just say?” “I’m pregnant, babe.” “Holy shit.” He kisses me again, harder this time and then lets out a loud, “Whoop!” “What’s going on up there?” Will calls out from the audience. “We’re getting married,” Mark calls back and raises a brow at me, silently asking for permission to announce the good news. I happily nod and he smiles wide, never looking away from me and calls out, “And we’re gonna have a baby!” Applause erupts again, and I’m suddenly surrounded by people, being passed around from brother to brother, hugged and kissed. The girls are all crying and smiling and hugging each other until they can get to me. “Congratulations, bella,” Dom says happily as he hugs me close and then passes me to Luke. “I’m so happy for you,” Luke whispers in my ear. “If you need anything at all, you only have to call.” I nod with tears in my eyes and then am scooped up into Neil’s strong arms.

“Welcome to our family at last, my sweet girl,” he says with a wide, handsome grin. “It’s about time. We’ve been waiting for you, you know.” “Thank you,” I whisper. “Your mother gave me her wedding dress to hold on to for you,” Lucy says as she pats my cheek softly. “She did? But how did she—” “A mother knows.” Lucy winks at me. “We’d better get you married before you can’t fit into the dress anymore.” I glance over to where Jax and Logan are standing, hand-in-hand, laughing with Jules and Nate, who has a sleeping Stella on his shoulder. Will and Meg are congratulating Mark as Leo and Sam both enfold me in a group hug. “Way to go, babe,” Sam says smugly. “I’ve always liked you.” “Yeah, right.” I snort as I laugh and she laughs with me. “I think the term is tolerate.” “I liked you. Now I love you. You’re good for us.” Jesus, is everyone going to make me cry today? “Proud of you,” Natalie whispers in my ear, then winks at me and gives my arm a squeeze. “We’ll talk later.” I’m passed from person to person, until finally, I’m back in Mark’s arms and he’s kissing me silly. “Are you ready to be a part of this crazy family?” he asks with that naughty grin. “I can’t wait,” I reply and press my face to his neck. “I can’t wait.” THE END

Don’t miss the final book in the WITH ME IN SEATTLE series, FOREVER WITH ME, releasing in the Fall of 2014! WITH ME IN SEATTLE SERIES: Come Away With Me and on audio Under the Mistletoe With Me and on audio Fight With Me and on audio Play With Me and on audio Rock With Me and on audio Safe With Me and on audio Tied With Me LOVE UNDER THE BIG SKY SERIES, available through Pocket Books: Loving Cara, UK, AU Seducing Lauren, coming summer of 2014

Look what’s coming in 2015! From the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author, Kristen Proby, comes an all new series for 2015! Mia, Addison, Riley, Camilla and Katrina have been best friends since elementary school. Five women have never been so different, yet it’s their diverse personalities and their love for one another that have fused them together since childhood. Now they’re all back home in Portland, Oregon. At a crossroads in their lives, they decide to take the chance of a lifetime and open their restaurant, Succulent, in the heart of the City of Roses. Playing a key role in the success of the business, each woman is determined that, not only is Succulent going to do well, it’s going to knock Portland off it’s feet. Specializing in titillating the senses with delicious aphrodisiacs, amazing music, an impressive wine cellar and an atmosphere that is as inviting as it is thrilling, Succulent is an experience, and one you won’t soon forget. Prepare to be seduced in early 2015 with book one in the Fusion Series, A TASTE OF DELICIOUS!

Table of Contents Title Page With Me in Seattle Series Dedication Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty One Chapter Twenty Two Epilogue More by Kristen Proby Look What’s Coming in 2015!

FOREVER WITH ME Book Eight in the With Me In Seattle Series Kristen Proby Copyright Š 2014 by Kristen Proby All Rights Reserved. This book may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission from the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. All characters and storylines are the property of the author and your support and respect is appreciated. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. Cover Art: Photography by: Kristen Proby Models: Kara Coco and Michael Anthony Cover Design: Okay Creations

WITH ME IN SEATTLE SERIES: Come Away With Me and on audio Under the Mistletoe With Me and on audio Fight With Me and on audio Play With Me and on audio Rock With Me and on audio Safe With Me and on audio Tied With Me and on audio Breathe With Me and on audio Forever With Me and on audio

LOVE UNDER THE BIG SKY SERIES, available through Pocket Books: Loving Cara, UK, AU Seducing Lauren

This book is dedicated to the Montgomery, Williams, McKenna, Nash and Salvatore families. Thank you for this wild ride. I’ll never forget you.

Dear Reader, Writing this series has been an incredible journey for me. And to think, when I began writing Come Away With Me, I didn’t intend to write a series. That book was intended to be a stand-alone. But once I met Jules and all of her brothers, how could I resist giving everyone their own love story? I couldn’t. And I’m so happy that I didn’t. Many of you have sent me letters and notes telling me that the Montgomery clan has become a part of your own inner circle. Your family. This moves me more than I can ever tell you. It’s the same for me! I’ve lived with these people for more than two years, and they are very dear to me. I can’t imagine my life without them. It’s been a joy and a privilege to watch this family grow. To watch the friendships form, the babies be born. And I admit, saying goodbye is hard. I struggled with ending the series with Forever With Me. But I truly believe that I’ve given each of our couples the best happy ever after possible. The Montgomerys will always hold a very special place in my heart, and the best thing about books is we can always revisit them. So get comfortable, grab a steaming cup of coffee or perhaps a glass of wine, and settle in. I have a story to tell you… Kristen

Prologue “Wake up, sweetheart.” What the—? Soft lips skim down my neck to my collarbone, making me moan and arch my back. A strong hand pulls me from my side to my back and those lips slide back up my neck to that spot right behind my ear that makes every nerve in my body come alive. “What are you doing?” My fingers find their way into his thick, dark hair as I feel him grin against my skin. My nipples pucker almost painfully. His body is deliciously firm and warm next to me. I manage to open my heavy eyes to find Dominic smiling down at me, those ice blue eyes of his glowing in the moonlight. “I think it’s pretty obvious what I’m doing, bella.” He cups my face in his large hands and lowers his lips to mine, kissing me gently at first, his lips sliding back and forth across mine, and then he settles against me, one leg planted between both of my thighs, his hard thigh pressing against the center of my universe with just enough pressure to make my hips tilt up against him, and he lays the sexiest kiss I’ve ever had on me. He tastes like wine and mint and sexy man. He’s devouring me in the most delicious way. I knew Dominic Salvatore would be an excellent kisser. My hands roam from his soft hair down to his shoulders and arms…his impossibly chiseled, strong arms. “Don’t tell me no, bella.” His voice is rough as he kisses his way down my chest to one breast where he pulls my nipple into his mouth and tugs gently, making me rub my core against his naked thigh again. “Please. I need you.” “This is crazy.” But I don’t push him away. Instead I plunge my fingers into his hair again and drag him up for another long, deep, hungry kiss. God, I can’t get enough of his mouth. He shifts, settling his pelvis against mine. His cock is long and thick and moves easily between my slick folds, the head massaging my clit in a mind-numbing staccato. “You’re so wet,” he whispers harshly. “Open your eyes.” It’s not a request. He’s staring down at me with an intensity I’ve never seen from anyone before. God, he feels so good. I drag my hands down his back to his ass and grip him firmly as I raise my knees high against his sides, opening myself up to him. “I wasn’t going to do this with you.” He clenches his eyes shut and tilts his forehead against mine. “I can’t stay away from you. I’ve tried, bella.”

I can hear Italy in his voice. His body is tight with yearning, but he’s holding himself steady, waiting for my decision. Every muscle is pulled tight. He’s trembling. How can I say no to this? I don’t want to say no to this! “Dom?” “Anything. Anything you want.” I circle my hips. A slow smile spreads over my lips, as his jaw clenches and he mutters an Italian curse word through gritted teeth. “Yes.” I whisper. His hand palms my breast; his thumb circles my tight nipple. “Are you sure?” His hand glides down my side and around to my ass, pulling me more tightly against him. “Yes.” “You’re so damn wet, Alecia.” “I know.” He grins down at me, pulls his hips back, and then slides inside me in one smooth motion, filling me completely. We both gasp, eyes locked, as he stills, buried inside me, and I swear to God, buried in the very heart of me. Except, I don’t do hearts and flowers. “Don’t make me fall in love with you,” I plead. His eyes soften, but he doesn’t reply, he just pulls out all the way, looks down between us and pushes back inside me and repeats the motion twice more. “Faster,” I beg. “No.” I glare up at him, but he simply smiles back at me before kissing my forehead, linking his fingers with mine and pinning my hand above my head. And then he begins to really move those hips, setting up a punishing rhythm. His pubis nudges my clit with every thrust of his hips, pushing me closer to the edge. “Do you know how badly I’ve wanted you, Alecia?” he whispers against my ear as his free hand continues to cup my ass and he controls the speed and depth of his thrusts. “No.” He kisses my ear, my cheek, my nose, and finally my lips as he picks up speed, fucking me harder, faster, making me squirm and moan and pant. Jesus fucking Christ I can’t take it. My hand grips his harder and my toes curl.

“You’re going to come, bella.” “Yes.” “Let go. Do it.” I’m almost there. I’m just on the edge. Fuck me, if he keeps hitting my clit just like that… BEEP BEEP BEEP!! I sit up, sweaty, panting, and every nerve in my body on fire, eyes wildly searching my bedroom. Everything is normal. Except all of the covers have been pushed onto the floor, my tank and panties are gone, and I’m on the brink of the most explosive orgasm of my life. And very alone. I slap my hand on the snooze button, swearing long and loud. Seriously? Seriously?! He’s in every daydream I have, and now he’s invading my sleep too? And I’m about to come without him even touching me. Son. Of. A. Bitch.

Chapter One I’m late. I’m never late. I don’t do late. It’s Dominic Salvatore’s fault. Okay, maybe that’s far-fetched, even to me, but seriously, does he have to infiltrate every thought? Even my dreams? Dreams that leave me sweaty and panting and… and…damn it. I stare at myself in the mirror and shake my head. Get it together. I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for him. I have a day packed full of meetings and appointments with potential clients. No time to dwell on the hot Italian that I can’t seem to shake from my subconscious. My hair doesn’t want to cooperate as I twist it up into its usual knot and secure it with bobby pins. What’s up with my hair today? I do my best to smooth it out and try again, but at just past 7:30 in the morning, my day seems to already be in the crapper. I blow a wayward lock of hair off my forehead with a deep sigh and prop my hands on my hips, glaring at my hair. I wear it up every day. Every. Day. It’s professional. I’m not wearing it down today. So I do my best, then dress in my favorite pink summer suit—maybe it’ll improve my luck today—with pink Jimmy Choo heels and turn back to brush on my makeup and dash out the door. But just after I finish with my mascara, I sneeze, leaving black marks on my cheeks from the wet makeup. Seriously? If this is the way my day is going to go, I should just go back to bed. My phone rings just as I wipe away the black marks and am heading for the door. “This is Alecia.” “Hey, boss lady. I’m already here. Where are you?” “Wishing I were back in bed,” I reply dryly, and press the call button for the elevator. “This day sucks. Is the client there?” “Not yet. You’re just now leaving your condo?” Emily, my assistant, sounds shocked. And for good reason. I don’t do late. The elevator arrives and as I step on, the heel of my shoe catches in the rail of the door and snaps right off. “Son of a bitch!” “What’s wrong?”

“I just broke my favorite Choo heel.” I throw my arm out to stop the doors from closing, pluck my precious heel out of the track and walk back to my door, up, down, up, down, swearing ripely the whole way. “Wow, that’s some language you have going there.” “Eight hundred dollar heels, Em.” “You can probably have them fixed,” she says. “I can hear you laughing at me.” “I’m not. I swear. I think the client just got here, and you’re still thirty minutes out?” “That’s if I don’t hit traffic. Damn it. Start without me. Buy her coffee. Chat her up. I’ll get there in twenty.” “A speeding ticket won’t help.” I hang up without responding and take a precious two minutes to mourn the loss of my shoes. The break on the heel isn’t fixable. So much for my favorite suit turning my luck around today. *** The speeding ticket I got on Interstate 5 held me up by an additional fifteen minutes, putting me almost forty-five minutes behind. Emily jinxed me. Damn her. “I’m so sorry,” I begin, as I walk briskly to the table Emily and a potential client, Summer James and her fiancé, Robert, are sitting at. I hold my hand out to shake theirs and smile brightly. “Traffic this time of day is horrific.” “I would think you would have planned for the traffic,” Robert replies and glances down at his phone, checking the time. Summer scowls at him and then smiles at me. “I understand. Emily has already given us a lot of great information.” “Perfect.” I grin at Emily, who is eyeing my hair like it’s a three-toed sloth, and I turn my attention back to the couple. “I’m sure you’ve already discussed some of your thoughts and plans with Emily, but I’d appreciate it if you’d quickly fill me in.” As I ask the couple about their date and go over some of their preferences on bridal party size and guest count, Emily fetches me a much-needed coffee. Thirty minutes later, after we’ve covered the basics and I’ve gone over the prices for my services, Robert looks mildly sick to his stomach from information overload and sticker shock, and Summer is beaming. Typical. “I think…” Robert begins, but Summer interrupts him. “I think we should hire her too!” “No, babe, I was gonna say I think we can do this ourselves.”

Her jaw drops and she blinks rapidly. “Really? When will we have time?” “You have weekends off,” he reminds her. “So do you. But this is a full time job. I can’t do this alone!” She’s becoming very shrill, making the pounding at my temples even worse, so I do what I do. I step in to avoid a crisis. “I understand,” I begin calmly and lay my hand over Summer’s arm. “This can be overwhelming, and it’s a big financial commitment. Take the weekend to think it over and call us next week.” “Absolutely,” Emily agrees with a wide smile. “You don’t have to decide today.” “Really?” Summer looks like she’s on the verge of tears, and Robert now looks mildly panicked. “Yep.” I nod and pat her arm, then pass her a file full of the information I’ve just gone over with her. “Have a wonderful weekend. Enjoy your engagement party.” “Thank you,” Robert replies and leads Summer out of the coffee shop. “I’ll bet you a thousand bucks he talks her out of it,” Emily says, when they’re out of earshot and we’re gathering our things to leave. “I’ll take that bet. I need new Choos.” “You think she’ll talk him into it?” “She will.” I sigh and take one more sip of my now-cold coffee. “I don’t think I grabbed my bottle of Advil this morning.” “You okay?” “I got a speeding ticket, thanks to you jinxing me.” I turn and glare at her, but she giggles. “I don’t find it particularly funny.” “You don’t look great today.” Em tilts her head and watches me thoughtfully. “Did you go on a bender last night?” I laugh and shake my head. “I wish. No, didn’t sleep well.” I can’t very well tell her that I had wild sex dreams about the sexiest man I’ve ever seen. “Insomnia.” She nods wisely. “You should take melatonin. It works wonders.” “I’ll remember that,” I murmur and check the time on my phone. “I have to be in Olympia by noon.” “Are you meeting with Will Montgomery?” she asks. She smiles softly and sighs. “Yes.” “Can I—” “No, I don’t need you to come along for this.” She pouts, making me laugh. Emily has never made it a secret that she has a crush on the handsome football star.

Hell, we all have crushes on the whole Montgomery family. They’re all fine specimens of men, and their women are sweet and funny. What’s not to like? They’re also my best clients, and are the reason I can afford my condo and my shoe fetish. And I like to think that they’ve become friends as well. “You get to have all the fun,” Emily says. “I do. And I also get to handle all of the bridecrazies and complaints. I believe it falls in my ‘owner’ job description.” “Yeah, you can keep those. I’ll meet you back at your place later this afternoon?” “Yes. You’re meeting with the Peterson couple to go over their flowers, right?” “Yep. The MOB is a pain in the ass.” “The mother of the bride is paying for a one hundred thousand dollar wedding. She’s paid for the right to be a pain in the ass.” “True.” Emily holds her fist out to bump mine and grins. “Have a good time with the hot Will Montgomery.” “I will. I’ll have my cell on me if you need me.” “Back at ya.” With that, Emily climbs into her Honda Civic and drives away. I pause and take a deep breath before I jump into my SUV and head toward Olympia. It’s still early, but that’s okay. I should be early for something today. *** “You look…interesting.” Blake, the caterer and my best friend, cocks his head to the side and watches me with humor-filled eyes as I walk into his office and sit on the edge of the chair across from his with as much dignity as I can muster. “Fuck you.” I smile sweetly and pull my iPad out of my handbag. “We’ve been there, done that. I think you still have some of my T-shirts.” “I sleep in them,” I remind him, and bring my iPad to life, thumbing through client files until I find McBride-Montgomery Wedding. “But if you want them back, you can have them.” “I don’t give a shit about the shirts.” I glance up to find his chocolate brown gaze watching me. Blake is a looker. He’s no Dominic Salvatore, but then, few are. Blake is tall and thin. His arms are muscular, thanks to all of those hours in the kitchen. He has a solid, square jaw and short dark blond hair. He’s the only person I’ve ever allowed myself to fully trust in my life. “Are you ready for Will and Meg?” I ask, hoping to change the subject. “I’m ready for you to tell me what’s up with you today. And what’s up with your hair?” “It’s not that bad.” I roll my eyes, but Blake smirks.

“It’s not your usual perfect. Which means you were flustered this morning.” “It’s just been a shitty day. Bad hair day. Broke the heel of my shoe.” I pout, making Blake grin. “The expensive ones?” “They’re all expensive.” He smirks again. Blake is good at smirking. He can be an arrogant ass. “Is that all?” “Got a speeding ticket and I was almost an hour late meeting a client.” “Wow.” The humor leaves his face and he quirks a brow. “Bad day.” “Yeah.” I clear my throat and glance back down at my iPad. “Been happening a lot lately.” I ignore him and stare blindly at the words on the pad in my lap. He’s right. I’ve been off my game for the past few months, and I don’t know why. Life is good. My business is thriving. I love it. I have a beautiful condo right on the water of the Puget Sound and good friends. But something feels…off. “Wanna talk about it?” “I really just want to talk about Will and Meg, Blake. They’ll be here in a few minutes.” “I have the staff in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the dishes we already talked about. The wine is corked and ready. We’re ready.” “Great.” “Hello?” Megan McBride’s voice calls out from the lobby of Blake’s offices. I jump up, happy to see her, and grateful for the change in subject. I join her and Will, with Blake on my heels. “Hi guys.” I smile and hug Meg and offer Will my hand to shake, but he just laughs and pulls me in for a big hug too. He’s surprisingly gentle for such a big man. Standing at least six foot four, he’s nothing but pure muscle and mischievous bright blue eyes. Will is my favorite of the brothers because of his fun-loving attitude and sense of humor. Meg is a lucky woman. “Sorry we’re early,” Meg says with a shrug. “I’m always early when food is involved,” Will adds, and rubs his hands together. “Bring it on.” “He’s so classy.” Meg shakes her head and slips her arm through Will’s and kisses his bicep. “We’re almost ready,” Blake says, and motions for Meg and Will to follow us into the dining room. Blake’s staff has set it up to look exactly like the tables that Meg has chosen for her reception, complete with the centerpiece of her flowers of choice.

“Oh, babe! Look how pretty it is.” Meg grins and reaches out to touch an orange tiger lily. “Have a seat.” I sit and lay the linen napkin in my lap and grin at the happy couple. Meg is oohing and ahing over the flowers, the china, even the party favors at each place, and Will is watching her with soft, love-filled eyes. The Montgomery family almost makes me believe that true love really exists. “Okay, first we have the Dungeness crab cakes with Washington apple slaw paired with Dominic’s Riesling.” The servers take their place to each of our left, and then in perfect synchronization, lower our plates before us. “Wow, this looks amazing.” Meg grins and raises her fork, then laughs when she glances up at Will, only to find he’s already eaten one whole crab cake. “Good?” “Mm…” He rolls his eyes and digs into the next one. “Good call on going with the Pacific Northwest menu, babe.” “But we added the steak for those who don’t like fish,” she adds, looking to Blake for confirmation. “Yes, you’ll get to taste both the salmon and the filet mignon today as well.” “Oh, God, I won’t be able to eat it all. I have to fit into my wedding dress in two weeks.” “Just take a bite or two of each,” I suggest with a smile. “Blake won’t be offended. That way you can taste everything and approve it for your guests.” “Good idea.” “I’ll be eating it all,” Will informs us and sips his wine. “I don’t have to fit into a dress. Damn, this wine is good.” “Crab cakes and slaw are a thumbs up,” Meg agrees and sips her wine. “Ready for what comes next?” Blake asks, and Meg and Will both nod. Blake signals the servers to return with the salad course. “Okay, here we have a grilled chicken salad with mandarin orange vinaigrette.” The servers again go through the ritual of setting our plates before us in perfect synchronization. “Oh, yum,” Meg whispers, and digs in to her salad. “So good.” Will nods, his mouth too full to speak. Blake and I wink at each other. Blake is a master in the kitchen and my caterer of choice, especially for big events like this one. Will Montgomery’s wedding is going to be all over the news and in every major magazine there is. This is a huge deal for all of the vendors involved, including me. It’s important that I only work with established vendors who are at the top of their game. And no one is better than Blake. “The wine pairing with this is the pinot gris?” I ask and sip the delicious wine. “It is.” Blake nods and takes a few bites of the salad, seemingly satisfied with the outcome.

“I love it all so far,” Meg says with a grin and looks up to Will. “What about you?” “I love it too.” He grins and leans down to kiss her lips softly. “Whatever you want, babe. You know that.” “Now we begin with the entrée. First we’ll try the salmon.” Blake nods at the lead server. “This is a grilled copper king salmon with tomatoes, balsamic marinated mushrooms and pancetta salad, paired with Dom’s merlot.” We all cut into the flakey salmon and moan in elation. Blake does food so well. “Oh my God,” Meg mutters with a moan and braces her hand on her chest. The rock on her finger sparkles. “Keep moaning like that, Megan, and we’ll leave before the next course.” Will doesn’t look down at Meg, but she blushes furiously and squirms in her seat. I have to bite my lips to keep from laughing out loud. I love how the Montgomery and Williams men aren’t afraid to make it clear that they not only love their women, they can’t get enough of them physically. They are in a league all their own. “And now the filet,” Blake says, his eyes also full of humor. “I had these prepared medium. It’s served with a blackberry cabernet sauce and baked potato.” The beef cuts like butter, making us all sigh in pleasure. “And the wine?” Meg asks. “Dom’s cabernet sauvignon.” Meg takes a few bites of the beef and potato and closes her eyes as she raises her wine glass to her lips. “This was so good.” Will has managed, of course, to clear every plate presented before him. He’s only sipped the wine though, choosing to drink water instead. “We have a surprise,” I reply with a grin as the servers clear our plates. “There’s more?” Meg asks with wide hazel eyes. “My belly is full.” “I think you’ll have room for this.” The waiters return and set plates before each of us with four mini cupcakes on each one. “You got Nic to make our cupcakes?” Meg asks, referring to Nic Dalton, the owner of Succulent Sweets, and Will’s brother, Matt’s, girlfriend. “Yes, she made mini ones for the tasting today, so you could taste them after you’ve had the meal. All four of the flavors you chose are there. Lemon raspberry,” I point to each flavor as I name it. “Tiramisu, Death by Chocolate and vanilla with vanilla frosting.” “And Dom has paired them with a late harvest Riesling,” Blake adds. “It’s sweet and will go nicely with any of these flavors.” “Wow,” Meg mutters and she takes a bite of the raspberry lemon and sips her wine. “That’s amazing.”

“Megan,” Will sighs and clenches his eyes shut. Meg giggles and licks the frosting off the chocolate cupcake, looking up at Will with wide, innocent eyes, clearly just egging him on. “What did I do?” Will laughs and eats the remaining cupcakes on his plate, then wipes his mouth. “I think I’ll take you home and show you what you’ve done.” Meg raises a brow. “Sounds fun.” “Oh, it’s gonna be more than fun.” Will turns hot blue eyes on me and I can’t help but bite my lip. The Montgomery men are hot, but add turned on and they’re just…wow. “Do we have anything else we need to discuss today?” “I take it you both approve of the menu?” I ask, and sip my Riesling, as I look through the catering contract on my iPad. “I love it,” Meg confirms. “We’re still waiting on some of the RSVP’s,” I inform them with a shrug. “But that’s not uncommon. Most people hold onto them past the due date.” “How many do you have so far?” “We have 232 confirmed yes,” I reply, and Meg gasps as Will shrugs. “That’s a lot of people.” Meg glances nervously at Will. “This is going to be really expensive.” Will chuckles and kisses Meg’s forehead softly. “It won’t break us.” “I can cut back on the flowers.” Blake and I share a glance, thinking we should leave and let them talk, but Will just laughs and leans in to whisper in Meg’s ear. Her worried face relaxes and she bites her lip and nods as Will kisses her temple and pulls away, shaking his head as though he finds her adorable. “We’re good. I keep having moments of panic,” she admits. “And then Will has to talk me down from the ledge.” “Perfectly normal,” I reply with a smile. “This is a big deal.” “Yeah.” Meg nods and takes another sip of wine. “Emphasis on big. But Will’s team is big, we have a big family and lots of friends. I have so many colleagues and friends from the hospital. I don’t want to leave anyone out.” “Hey, you should celebrate with everyone you love.” Blake smiles kindly at Meg, and I remember why I love him so much. He’s a nice guy. “Thank you.” She smiles back at him and then glances up at Will who has continued to watch her. “So, we’re meeting on Wednesday out at the vineyard?” “Yes. We’ll walk through and talk about the set up and all of the final details. But you don’t have anything to worry about. All of the vendors are ready and the food is now approved and ready to go. The hard part is over.”

Meg’s smile is wide and happy. “Okay. We’re getting married.” “Thank God. This has been the longest engagement on record.” Will scowls down at Meg, who just laughs and rubs her hand along his rock-hard arm. “It’s almost over, football star.” “Let’s go home.” Hugs and handshakes are exchanged, and as Will and Meg turn to leave, I return to my seat, sip my wine, and ask Blake to look over the final contract with me. He steps behind me and rubs my shoulders as we read through it together and I melt back against him. “So, this price point should work up to 250 guests. But I need you to work up the additional price, should it go as high as 300.” “There are still that many RSVP’s out there?” “Unfortunately.” “Hey, what are you doing here, man?” I hear Will say as he and Meg reach the lobby. “I have a meeting with Blake.” Dominic’s voice. “You should see if they have any of the food we just tried left over. It’s awesome.” “I’m fine, but thanks. Did you like the wine pairings?” “They’re perfect. Thank you, Dom.” Meg replies. “I wish you’d let us pay for the wine.” “No, bella. It’s a gift. Have a good day. I’ll see you this weekend.” A chill runs down my spine as Blake leans over me to point at something on the contract. He’s still kneading my shoulder with the other hand. I have no idea what he’s just said, so I just nod. “I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” he murmurs and kisses the top of my head. “Headache better?” “Yeah,” I lie, and offer him a small grateful smile, then look over my shoulder to see Dom watching us. His hands are shoved in the pockets of his slacks. He discarded his suit jacket long ago and rolled the sleeves of his white button-down up his forearms, showing off his tanned skin. His tie is loose. His dark hair is messy, as if he’s run his fingers through it in frustration. And his jaw is clenched and his deep blue eyes are full of heat and anger. My thighs involuntarily clench at the sight of him, and my mind immediately goes to my dream this morning. Those hands and his mouth on my skin. What would it really feel like? I turn away and take a deep, calming breath as Blake crosses the room to Dom and shakes his hand. “We’re just wrapping up here.” “No problem. I’m a little early. I’m meeting my sisters for lunch in a few hours, so I

thought I’d see if you could squeeze me in.” “Absolutely.” “We’re done here,” I hear myself say, as I power the iPad down and stand, preparing myself for Dom’s usual flirtatious come-ons and charming smile. I can stay professional. I will stay professional. I smile at both of the handsome men, but instead of offering me a cocky smile, Dom simply nods at me and turns to leave the room. “I’ll meet you in your office,” he says to Blake, who turns a questioning look to me. I just shrug. “Who knows? But I need my bag from your office.” I march with my head held high into Blake’s office and retrieve my handbag, shove my iPad inside and turn to Dominic. “The wines you chose are perfect. Thank you.” He nods. “My pleasure.” I don’t know what else to say, so I fumble through with, “Enjoy your sisters. Thanks again, Blake.” Before I can turn to leave, Blake pulls me into his arms and gives me a big hug, rocking me back and forth. “I’ll call you later. Take something for the headache.” I pull away and again Dom is watching me with hot blue eyes. He rubs his hands over his mouth and looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t. And I can’t figure out why I want him to. It’s good that he’s not asking me out or flirting with me. I’d just turn him down like I always do. “I will.” I nod and walk out of Blake’s office and wonder what in the hell that was all about.

Chapter Two ~Dominic~ Alecia sends me one last long look and then walks out of Blake’s office, head held high and hair pulled up in a smooth twist at the back of her head, if a bit unruly today. She’s wearing a pink suit that fits her like a glove, molded to her amazing figure, and the sexiest heels I’ve ever seen. The confusion in her brown eyes sends an unexpected pain through my chest, but I quickly dismiss it. I can understand that for the sake of professionalism she’s turned down my advances over the past year, but she never once mentioned that she was in a relationship. Had I known, I would have backed off long ago. I don’t poach on another man’s territory. Ever. Certainly not on a man that I consider my friend and a respected colleague. “So, like Alecia said, the wines were a hit with your brother and Meg,” Blake says, as he sits behind his desk. “I’m happy to hear it,” I reply and smile to myself. It’s still a bit of a surprise to hear the words your brother. I have four of them, and despite knowing them now for more than a year, there are moments that it still knocks me back a step. I’ve grown to love the Montgomery family, and to my utter shock, they’ve welcomed me into the family as if I’d been with them since birth. But I wasn’t. “How many bottles will I need to order?” Blake asks, bringing me from my thoughts. “None. My staff will take care of it. We have plenty on hand.” Blake cocks a brow in surprise. “It’s a lot of wine.” “I have a lot of wine,” I reply with a smirk. “Okay, one less thing for me to worry about.” He shrugs and taps some keys on his computer. “So, we need to talk about the family reunion event late next month.” “Yes.” I lace my fingers and cross my legs. “Did they decide on a menu?” “They can’t come to an agreement.” He rolls his eyes. “Some are vegetarians. Some aren’t. Blah, blah, blah.” I laugh and shake my head. “You’ll figure it out. I can choose a red and a white that will compliment almost anything and call it a day.” “That works.” He nods. “You know, you should hire someone to handle all this stuff for

you.” “I don’t mind.” “Seriously. Alecia does this stuff. You should hire her to organize your events.” No. Way. “I’m quite sure Alecia is busy enough with her own business and her relationship.” His eyes jerk up to mine and his hands still on his keyboard. “Alecia’s in a relationship?” I cock my head to the side and narrow my gaze on my friend. “You’re going to tell me you’re not sleeping with her?” Blake blinks and then laughs, clapping his hands as if I’ve just told the best joke all year. I don’t find it particularly funny. “No.” He shakes his head and goes back to typing on the computer. “That ship has sailed, man.” “Meaning?” “Meaning that she and I started out as fuck buddies and discovered that we actually liked each other, but weren’t in love with each other. God, I haven’t slept with Leash in… almost two years.” He shakes his head again and chuckles. “You’re very affectionate for a friend.” He stops typing again and watches me for a moment before answering. I don’t drop my gaze. “I love her like a sister. I know her, inside and out, and would do just about anything for her. She’s probably one of the best people I know. She had a shit day, and needed a hug. So I gave her one.” She had a shit day. And I added to it, no doubt. “I’m sorry that I misunderstood.” Blake leans back in his chair and steeples his fingers together. “You’re interested.” “I’ve been interested for a long while,” I admit, and rub my hand over my mouth in agitation. “She’s made it clear that she doesn’t return the sentiment.” “Hmm.” He focuses on something over my shoulder, briefly lost in thought. “It’s not a bad idea.” “What?” “You and Alecia.” “Did you not just hear what I said?” I shake my head and turn my attention to my phone, pulling up my notes for the family reunion. “So, a white and a red—” “Alecia says no to everyone,” he interrupts. “She’s not quick to trust. But I think you would be good together.”

“Thank you so much for your approval,” I reply dryly. “Oh, you’ll need it,” he says perfectly calmly. “Because without it, you’d be fucked.” I simply stare at him, waiting for him to continue. “Alecia doesn’t have contact with her family. I’m it. If I didn’t like you, it would be a no-go.” “It’s a no-go anyway. She’s. Not. Interested.” He shrugs and returns to his computer. “Seems to me a girl like Alecia might be worth a little extra effort.” The anger and frustration is swift. Extra effort? I’ve tried to get her to go out with me for a fucking year. The answer is always the same: thank you, but no. I hate hearing that fucking word. No. *** “Hey, handsome brother!” Jules grins, her blonde hair loose around her pretty face. She’s wearing a flowy, red sundress and looks amazing. “Ciao, bella,” I reply and kiss her cheek. “Me too!” Natalie says and leans in to kiss me, then presses herself against me for a long hug. Along with four brothers and all of their beautiful women, I gained two beautiful sisters as well. Natalie, like me, was brought into the fold later in life, after her own parents were killed in an accident. It seems the Montgomerys enjoy adding to their brood. “Ciao, cara,” I whisper into her ear. Her dark hair has been braided down her back. She’s in jeans and a tank top, looking happy and beautiful. “To what do I owe the honor of being invited to lunch with you two?” “We just wanted to see you,” Natalie replies innocently. “What she means is,” Jules begins as she gives the menu a quick look, tosses it on the table, and then leans toward me, her elbows planted on the wrought iron. “We need dirt.” “Dirt?” I chuckle, and set my menu aside as well. “We don’t know you well enough.” “You’ve known me for more than a year, bella. We’ve spent quite a lot of time together.” “You’re going to scare him off,” Natalie says in a sing-songy voice, glaring at Jules, making me chuckle. These two are funny. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Jules rolls her eyes. “I’m not going to scare him off.” “Depends on where this is going,” I reply dryly, but can’t keep the smile from my face. “You’re so handsome,” Natalie says, and smiles softly as she watches me. “I love your dimple.”

“Now you just want something.” “He’s gotten good at the brother thing,” Jules says to Natalie, making my heart stop. I hope so. “So, we’re your sisters,” Natalie says as Jules nods. “And we love you.” “I love you, too,” I murmur, already softening. My God, if I’d grown up with them, I would have been wrapped around their fingers from the moment I laid eyes on them. Who am I kidding? I have been wrapped around their fingers since I laid eyes on them. Both of them, along with all of the women in this amazing family. “You know that anything you need is yours. Just say it.” “Oh, you’re sweet,” Jules says, as the waitress sets waters on the table. “Yes, he is,” the waitress says and winks at me. “Is he available?” “Well—” Nat begins, but I interrupt her. “No.” “Too bad. Sorry it took me a minute, the patio is always busy when it’s nice out like this. What can I getcha?” We order drinks and when she’s gone, I gaze back and forth between the girls. “We really did just want to chat and see you,” Natalie says, and lays her small hand over my arm. “We don’t get much alone time with you.” “And we need dirt.” “Jules!” Natalie laughs in frustration. “What kind of dirt do you want?” I sip my water and choke when Jules replies with, “Are you fucking anyone?” “Are you trying to kill him?” Natalie demands, and pats me hard on the back as I cough. “What the hell?” I ask, and push the water far away from me. I think I need something much stronger and reach for the wine list, satisfied when I see Mama Salvatore wines listed. “Well, you’ve always been very hush-hush about your sex life, and I know you’re not celibate, so I want to know.” Jules shrugs as if this is the most normal conversation in the world, and Natalie offers me a smile, but doesn’t try to deter Jules from her line of questioning. “I don’t think I’m going to have this conversation with you,” I reply slowly. No way, no how. “Why?” Jules asks with a tilt to the head. “Because you’re my sisters.” “Yes, but we’re adults. We have sex. We both have babies, for the love of baby Jesus.”

Natalie nods and thanks the waitress when she delivers our drinks. I order a glass of the merlot from my vineyard and we order our entrees as well. “Let’s change the subject,” I suggest. “Killjoy,” Jules mutters, making me laugh. “How are things with Alecia?” Natalie asks. I’m just going to be reminded of Alecia everywhere I go today. “There are no things with Alecia,” I reply. “Oh, there are things,” Jules replies smugly. “I’ve seen the way you look at her.” I frown, but before I can reply, Natalie says, “And we know you’ve asked her out.” “Which she’s declined,” I reply. “So?” Why doesn’t everyone understand that no means no? “I was taught to politely retreat when a lady says no,” I say and sip my wine. “But you only asked her out for, what, dinner?” Jules asks, clearly confused. “Yes, I believe I asked her to dinner. Three times.” I cringe and shake my head. “A man can only take so much rejection from one woman.” “But what else did you do?” Natalie asks. I pause and frown at her. “What do you mean?” “What did you do to show her that it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to get in her pants?” What am I missing? “Dinner doesn’t necessarily mean get in her pants.” “Sure it does,” Jules says with a wave of her hand. “For example,” Natalie continues, “back in the day, Luke would have my coffee delivered to me. He still does sometimes.” “Oh, and remember when he left all those flowers on our front porch after he screwed up that time?” Jules says with a laugh. “Yep,” Nat says with a smile. “For me, it was the chocolate cheesecake,” Jules says. “Nate always had chocolate cheesecake in his apartment—our apartment now—because he knew I loved it.” “Really? Coffee and cheesecake were the ways to your hearts?” I laugh, but Jules punches me in the shoulder. “Ow!” “You’re not listening! It’s not about the coffee and the cheesecake.” “It’s the fact that they paid attention to the little things,” Natalie agrees. “They didn’t just say, ‘Hey, baby, wanna go to dinner and then go to my place and fuck like rabbits?’”

“Even though we totally fuck like rabbits,” Jules adds. “They showed us that they were interested in us.” “And this worked for you.” My voice is full of sarcasm, but what they say makes sense. All I’ve done is ask Alecia out when we were both at a family function, usually while she was working. I’ve never taken the time to make an effort. Not that I’ll admit that to these two. “So, what are you going to do?” Natalie asks. “Who says I’m going to do anything?” Jules punches me in the arm again. “Do that again, sorellina, and I’ll take you over my knee.” “Don’t think you can charm me with your fancy Italian words,” Jules replies, clearly not afraid of me. “But what did you say?” Nat asks, leaning toward me. It makes me laugh that whenever I use Italian words they want to know what they mean. “I said little sister.” “Aww,” Nat says. “I love that.” “Yeah, yeah, it’s sweet,” Jules says impatiently. “But what are you going to do?” “I’m going to pay for lunch and go home.” “We’ve failed you,” Jules says, and her lip quivers as if she’s going to cry. She’s not fooling me. I laugh as the waitress delivers our sandwiches and Jules wipes imaginary tears off her perfectly dry cheeks. “Do the other brothers fall for that?” “They did when we were kids,” she replies and grins as she pops a French fry in her mouth. “I used to produce real tears too.” “We just want you to be happy,” Natalie says. “Honestly, we do. We love you.” “And we love Alecia. We see how you look at each other.” Jules, perfectly serious now, cups my face in her hand. “Give it some thought. Alecia isn’t the kind of girl you can just ask out for dinner while she’s working a baby shower.” Natalie slides a card across the table at me with a small smile. “Just in case you need her phone number and address.” She winks and exchanges a look with Jules. “She puts her address on her business cards?” I scowl down at the card. If so, she and I are going to have a talk. “No, I wrote it on the back,” Nat replies. “So, do you like the Mariners?” Jules asks.

“Changing the subject now, are we?” They both grin while chewing their food. “Yes, I like the Mariners.” “Good. We’re all going to a game in a few weeks.” “We are?” “Yep,” Jules replies. “Adult night out. No kids.” “You should invite Alecia.” Natalie suggests. “How do I say big brother in Italian?” Dio, they make me smile. “Grande fratello.” She smiles and repeats it back, butchering it, but I don’t care. Nothing ever sounded so sweet. *** I drove all the way home and paced around my office for an hour before leaving again, plugging Alecia’s address into the GPS and heading toward her place, making a stop on the way. With the horrendous Friday traffic, it takes me two hours to reach Ruston Way, the street she lives on. She lives on the water with an incredible view of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainer, with miles and miles of walking paths that meander past restaurants and piers leading to her building. I park and sit for a moment, second-guessing this decision. But I can’t shake the look in her eyes right before she left Blake’s office today, or the knowledge that she had a shitty day. She had a headache. It may not be welcome, but I’d like to help her feel better. When I reach her door, I ring her doorbell and wait. Just when I’m beginning to think she’s not home yet, her door opens and she frowns up at me, confusion filling her amazing brown eyes. “Dominic?” “Natalie gave me your address,” I reply softly. She shed her suit jacket and heels, but she’s still in her skirt. Her white blouse is tucked into it, molded around her full breasts and showing off her small waist and round hips. My cock stirs in my trousers, but I take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand. “How are you feeling?” “Oh, I’m fine—” she begins, but she winces and presses two fingers to her temple. The headache is still hurting her. “I have a bitch of a headache,” she admits. “I have provisions.” I hold up the bag in my hand and offer her a smile. “Why?”

Good question. “Because I didn’t like seeing you in pain earlier today, and I have a feeling I was a part of that.” She smirks and backs away from the doorjamb, allowing me inside. “That’s awfully presumptuous of you.” “Am I wrong?” She shrugs and leads me past a small, clean kitchen into her living area. Her unit faces the water, and the view is breathtaking. “Have you taken anything for it?” She sits on the couch and closes her eyes. “I forgot that I’m out of Advil, and I just didn’t have it in me to go out and buy some.” Poor bambino. “Where is your linen closet?” She points to the hallway and I go in search of a washcloth. When I find one, I return to the kitchen and soak it in cold water, fill a glass, shake out the Advil I brought with me, just in case, and return to her. Her eyes are still closed. Her hair is still up. My fingers have been itching to mess her hair up for months. Instead, I sit next to her. “Here, take these.” “Do you have to yell at me?” she asks with a scowl. “I’m whispering, cara.” I offer her a smile and the Advil, along with the water. “Why are you holding leaves?” “They’re lilac leaves.” I line the folded cloth with the leaves and take the glass from her. “Lean your head back on the cushion and close your eyes, please.” “Why do you have lilac leaves?” “It’s going to help. It’s an old Italian remedy for headaches.” She does as I ask, leaning back against the soft cushions of her sofa and closes her eyes. I lay the cold cloth, leaves against her skin, over her forehead and eyes and press firmly. “Ohhh,” she breathes. I can’t resist touching her, so I brush my knuckles down her cheek and murmur to her. “This will help, cara.” “My name isn’t Cara,” she whispers, making me chuckle. “Cara is Italian for dear or darling,” I reply with a smile. “Oh, that’s nice,” she says. “We have an appointment on Monday, right?” “Yes. But don’t think about work right now. Just relax.”

We sit in silence for a long while as I continue to press the cloth against her head and skim my fingers along the skin of her face, her neck, tucking strands of hair that have dared to come loose behind her ear. She relaxes, the tension leaving her body visibly. When the cloth warms from her body heat, I return to the kitchen to run it under the cold water again and then sit with her once again, pressing it to her head. “How do you feel?” I whisper. She shivers. “Are you cold?” “No,” she replies softly. “I think the headache is going away.” “There are more fresh leaves on the kitchen counter, along with more Advil and soup.” “Soup?” “You have to eat, Alecia.” Her lips tip up into a smile as she raises her hand and covers mine, pulling it and the cloth away from her head. “Thank you.” “Prego,” I reply. “You’re welcome.” She glances over at the kitchen counter and then returns her gaze to mine. “Pink tulips?” “I think you like pink.” She blinks quickly and before she can back away, I skim my knuckles down her cheek one last time, push a strand of hair behind her hair, and lean in to kiss her cheek. Merda, she smells like lilacs and her soap and simply amazing. “Eat the soup, cara. Use the leaves if you need them.” I stand to leave and she moves to follow me. “Stay there, I can see my way out.” “Dom?” I stop and look back at her, one brow raised. “I do like pink. Very much.” I grin and nod and leave while I still can. Because every instinct in me is screaming for me to scoop her up and find her bedroom and stay there with her for the rest of the weekend.

Chapter Three ~Alecia~ He made me feel better. And he brought me flowers. Pink tulips. Not the stereotypical red roses or whatever was available in the grocery store. Tulips are out of season. He had to find them. The sun is out this morning, but it’s not hot yet here on the Tacoma waterfront near my condo. I’m walking briskly—okay, I’m sauntering—just fast enough to feel my heart move. Or maybe those are thoughts of Dominic Salvatore doing that to me. And isn’t that just ridiculous? So, he was nice. I can’t believe that I let my Advil supply run dry, both at home and my emergency kit that I carry with me everywhere. That’ll be the first order of business today after my walk: replenish the pain killer supply. As I adjust my earbuds in my ears and switch to a Plain White T’s song, a bald eagle soars majestically over the quiet water of the sound. The tide is out, revealing all kinds of delicacies for the wildlife, and sure enough, within moments the eagle dives down and picks something up in its talons. Probably a crab. The eagle flies off with his breakfast and my stomach growls as I reach the pier at a restaurant roughly two miles from the condo. I turn around and head back and try not to think about Dom. Not gonna think about the sexy Italian who can cure headaches and make me ache in other more interesting places instead. Nope, not going there. Shit. I always seem to go there these days. Even through the pain of a headache rated an eleven on a scale of one to ten, his fingers skimming over my skin and his whispered voice in my ear made my girlie parts sit up and take notice. And then he had to go and put his lips on me, and it was all over. I haven’t been this physically attracted to a man in… Years. I don’t remember the last time. Maybe never. And isn’t that just my luck? Because Dominic isn’t the kind of guy you have as a friend with benefits and not fall for him. It’s simply not possible. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to fall for him.

I don’t fall. Love isn’t real. Affection. Lust. Those are real. And in my line of business, I see how quickly they fade. Fuck, I’ve lived it. My neighbor from one floor down—Ray? Ralph? Rob?—drives past and waves out of the top of his flashy convertible. He’s made it perfectly clear that he’d like to give the friends with benefits thing a try. He’s good looking. But he’s not memorable, and it seems to me that if I can’t even remember the man’s name, I wouldn’t be terribly impressed with what he can do in the bedroom either. I wave back and breathe a deep sigh of relief when I turn the corner into my complex. I hate exercising. I hate wearing sneakers. I hate sweating. And I have the ass and hips to show for it. I mentally shrug and press the button for the elevator as Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” beats in my ears. Now, this I like. I could dance all day. Since I’m alone in the elevator, I cut a rug of my own and boogie around the inside of the car, then come to a complete stop and school my features just as the door opens, in case someone is standing on the other side waiting to get in. My dance moves are best enjoyed in private. I’m no Meredith Summers. “There you are!” Emily exclaims and shoves her phone in her handbag. She’s leaning against my door. “Why are you at my condo at the ass crack of dawn?” I ask, as I unlock the door and step inside, Emily on my heels. “We have two baby showers and an old lady party today.” “Red Hat Society party,” I reply, and toe off my sneakers as soon as humanly possible. “How can people wear those?” “The sister of the mom-to-be at party number one has already called me three times this morning,” Emily continues. “The MTB is allergic to watermelon.” “We’re not serving watermelon.” I roll my eyes and strip out of my yoga pants and Blake’s old Mariners T-shirt and walk past Emily to my shower. “It’s going to be fine. All of the details are in place for all three parties.” “I know, I just figured that if I’m getting calls at the butt crack of dawn, I might as well be with you when I get them.” “That’s kind of you,” I mutter, and step into the shower. “How was Will yesterday?” Emily yells out from my vanity where she’s primping her hair. “He was hungry, as usual,” I reply with a laugh. “And Dominic?”

I pause mid-shave on my leg and frown at the foggy shower door. “How did you know I saw Dominic?” “Because you’re almost chipper this morning. Blake doesn’t do that to you.” “I’m always chipper,” I lie, and return to shaving my legs. “No, you’re not. I love this eye shadow! So? Was Dominic sexy or what?” Sexy like you wouldn’t even believe. “He’s okay, if you like that sort of thing.” Emily busts up laughing, and I can’t help but smile with her. Who doesn’t like that sort of thing? *** “Old ladies are better than emotional pregnant women any day of the week,” Emily whispers to me as she passes by, refilling the ladies’ teacups with fresh hot water. We are at our third and final event of the day, a late tea with a local Red Hat Society chapter. Eight women are in attendance today, ranging in age from roughly fifty-five to one hundred and five. And Wilma, the one-oh-five year old is a spitfire. “I pinched his rear!” she crows and cackles with glee, her wide-brimmed hat shading her happy face. The party is under a tent to keep the heat off the women, and the hostess, Miss Kitty, also rented portable air conditioners for the event. “Oh, my goodness, Wilma, he’s at least twenty years younger than you!” Betty, Wilma’s younger sister, laughs and sips her tea daintily. “You get to be my age, they’re all twenty years younger than me. I’ve gotta get my fun where I can.” I smile as I place a fresh plate of scones on the table. “These scones are delicious,” Wilma comments and takes my hand in hers, holding on tight. “You’re a doll to bring them for us, Alecia.” “It’s my pleasure,” I reply with a smile and rub her delicate shoulder with my free hand. “Are you all having fun, ladies?” “Oh, yes!” All of the women, in their pretty red hats and purple dresses nod and smile, and if I’m being honest, this is the kind of party I like the very best. “Well, we have surprises for you this month.” I nod at Emily who rolls out a cart full of pretty purple gift bags with red tissue paper as the women all gasp in excitement. “Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” Leona, a sweet seventy-something woman with mocha skin, perfectly coifed hair, and bright red lipstick smiles like a kid on Christmas morning. “I know that, but you are my favorite ladies, so I thought we’d bring you something extra special.”

“Is it that Fifty Shades book?” Miss Kitty asks eagerly. “Uh, no,” I reply, and bite my lip to keep from laughing as Emily and I pass out the bags. “I’ve been listening to that on audio,” Miss Kitty informs her guests. “That Christian Grey is something to write home about.” “My kids bought me one of those e-readers for Christmas,” a lady named Beth adds. “I love it. This way I can read all of those naughty books and no one is any the wiser.” She nods conspiratorially with Miss Kitty, then all the ladies turn their attention to their bags. “Go ahead and open them.” The women dig in and come out with beautiful, hand-dyed red and purple silk scarves. “I know it’s summer, so you probably won’t get to wear them for a little while, but I just couldn’t resist.” “Oh honey, they’re gorgeous!” Wilma exclaims, immediately wrapping hers around her neck. “I’m always cold. I have poor circulation.” She winks at me and then gestures for me to lean in and give her a hug. “I have a date tonight!” Leona announces. “I’ll wear my lovely new scarf.” “Who’s the lucky guy?” Emily asks. “Ed Brenner,” she replies. “He volunteers at the historical society with me, and after making him wait for a while, I finally said yes to dinner.” “Good for you,” I tell her happily. “How about you, honey?” Wilma asks. “Do you have a date tonight?” I turn wide eyes on Emily, who just smiles and waits for me to answer with the others. “No, ma’am.” “I have a very handsome grandson,” Wilma replies. “He’s sixty, though, so that might be a bit too old for you.” “Just a bit,” I reply with a laugh. “My grandson is thirty,” Miss Kitty says with a thoughtful look on her face. “He’s going through a messy divorce and has three kids, but I think you two would get along wonderfully.” Not even if it were Armageddon and he was the last man on Earth. “Oh, no thank you.” “So, you’re just going to go home alone tonight?” Wilma asks with a sad face. “Well, no, I’ll be spending the evening with Ben and Jerry,” I reply. “She reads the naughty books too,” Miss Kitty says behind her hand to her sister, not bothering to be quiet. If only my sex life were really that interesting.

*** He’s going to be late. I check the time on my phone for the fifteenth time in the past twenty minutes and scowl. I hate late. The front door of the Starbucks near my condo swings open and I glance up. My jaw drops and my mouth goes dry at the sight of Dominic as he pulls his sunglasses off his face and scans the small coffee shop for me, his blue eyes heating when they rest on me. He’s in a black T-shirt and jeans. The kind of jeans that mold around firm thighs and a tight ass and make a girl forget how to think. Damn, what this man does to a pair of jeans. I rarely see him in jeans. It’s a sight to behold. “You’re almost late,” I inform him, as he approaches my table, making his lips twitch. “But not quite,” he replies, and leans in to kiss my cheek, then places a bag on the floor by his chair. “Do you mind if I order a quick coffee?” “Not at all,” I reply, and fist my hands in my lap so I don’t reach up and cover my cheek where his lips just were. I’m like a freaking lovesick teenager. Check that. Horny teenager. It’s disgusting. I pull my notes up on my iPad and read through them while Dom orders his coffee and returns to me, carrying two cups, and places one next to me. “What’s this?” “Your tea,” he replies and sips his coffee. “How did you know what I drink?” “I asked the barista,” he replies with a smile. “Not a coffee drinker?” “I hate it,” I reply with a shrug. “I prefer strong tea with honey.” “So noted,” he replies softly. “How’s your head?” I tilt my head and watch him for a moment. “Headache’s all gone. Your magical leaves worked.” He laughs and shakes his head. “There’s no magic. My grandmother used to do that for us.” “Us?” I ask before I can catch myself. What happened to keeping this strictly professional? “My two cousins and myself. We all lived on my grandparent’s vineyard.” “In Tuscany.”

“In Tuscany.” He nods and takes my hand in his, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and laces his fingers with mine. “I’m sure it’s beautiful there.” My eyes are locked on our hands. Pull away, Alecia Marie. Right now. “Mm.” My eyes find his again and I have to blink and shake my head to pull myself out of his trance. This man is potent. I pull away and return to my iPad. “So, we need to go over the vendors for the wedding.” “I’d like a list of the vendor’s employees as well,” he replies without missing a step. “Why?” “I want my security team to run background checks.” “That’s not necessary—” “Yes. It is.” He holds my gaze firmly. “This is my family, Alecia. My very public, wealthy, celebrity family. I have hired security, and they will run background checks on all of the vendors. Even you.” “Me?!” I toss my head back and laugh. “I’ve been working with the Montgomery and Williams families for two years.” “Why is that?” he asks and the smile immediately leaves my face. “Excuse me?” “I think it’s a valid question.” “I think it’s an asshole question.” He quirks a brow. “If you like.” I lean back in my chair and cross my arms over my chest, all warm and fuzzy feelings toward Dom out the damn window. “I work for them because I do a damn good job of it. I know their preferences, and I have a good relationship with them, especially the girls. I’m not star struck by them and I don’t allow my staff to be. I like them, damn it, so if you think I’d hire vendors that would put any of them at risk—” “I didn’t say you would.” “But you think I continue to work for them because, what, it gives me a rush to work with celebrities? Let me fill you in, Mr. Salvatore, I plan weddings and events for politicians, professional athletes, actors, and owners of Fortune 500 companies you can’t even pronounce the names of.” “I’m quite good with languages, actually.”

“Screw you. Do you think they’d continue hiring me if I wasn’t excellent at what I do?” “No.” He’s perfectly calm, sipping his coffee while I rail at him, pissed and offended, and it occurs to me that it was a test. I deflate and brace my head in my hands. “I passed that test, I take it?” “With flying colors, yes.” I glance through my fingers to find him grinning at me. “You’re not funny.” “I enjoyed that.” He shrugs, his muscles straining under his T-shirt. His arms are tanned and strong, his hands long-fingered and I can’t help but wonder if he plays the piano. “Do you play the piano?” “Yes. Why?” “You have hands for it.” “That’s not all my hands are good at.” I bite my lip and continue to stare at his hands as he runs the very tips of his fingers up and down his coffee mug. I bet those hands are good at lots of things. “Did you also hire your own security?” he asks. “Mm.” “Excuse me?” He chuckles, and I blush furiously. “Yes, I did.” “I’ll have the head of my security contact them so they can coordinate.” “I’m going to want to meet with both teams next Friday on the site and go through the choreography of it all. Nothing can fuck this up.” “Agreed.” He pulls a muffin out of a brown paper bag and peels the paper off the bottom, then passes me half of it. “Here.” “I’m fine.” “Did you have breakfast?” “No.” “Here.” I sigh and take the muffin from him, knowing that arguing is futile. “Thanks.” “I hope you like chocolate.” “I’m female.” I chuckle and take a bite of the delicious pastry. “It’s in my DNA to

enjoy chocolate.” “I have a wine that goes perfectly with a nice dark chocolate.” “I know. The late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon. You don’t bottle much of it.” He narrows his eyes and takes a sip of his coffee before responding. “You know your wine.” “I do. I love wine, but it’s also part of my job. I can’t serve bad wine at events.” He reaches down and pulls the bag onto the table and sets it before me. “For you.” Inside is the limited edition white wine that I covet every summer. “Oh,” I breathe, stunned. “I love this.” “I know.” I glance up in surprise. “When I brought it to Brynna and Caleb’s wedding last summer you practically drooled over it.” “It’s so great. I try to order some every summer. I’ll share this with Emily.” “Who’s Emily?” “My assistant. This is her favorite too.” He runs his forefinger over his bottom lip. “I’m sure I can find a bottle for her as well.” “Thank you.” How am I supposed to resist a man who brings me my favorite wine and is generous enough to offer the same to my staff? “When are you going to come out to the vineyard to work?” he asks quietly. I’ve been avoiding this. I love his vineyard. And I’m attracted to him. And that’s just not a combination that makes me comfortable. But he’s right. I have to go out there. “Does Wednesday work? You don’t have to show me around. I’m sure you have staff who can help me out.” “I’ll make sure you’re well taken care of,” he replies noncommittally. “Thanks. Well, I have another meeting in Seattle in an hour, so I should go.” “Of course.” He stands and holds his hand out for mine, helping me to my feet. “Do you need directions to the vineyard?” “No, I know where it is.” He nods and holds the door open for me. “Where are you parked?” “Oh, there wasn’t any parking when I got here, so I’m a block over. You don’t have to

walk me.” “I’ll walk you.” “You’re rather stubborn, aren’t you?” I ask, as we walk toward my SUV. “That’s what mama always said,” he replies with a laugh. “But she also taught me to make sure a woman reached her destination safely.” And, queue the butterflies. “Chivalry isn’t dead after all,” I mutter. “It shouldn’t be.” I unlock the doors and he opens the driver’s side for me, leans in to lay the wine on the passenger seat, and takes in the back of my packed vehicle. “What do you have in there, cara? It’s packed.” “Decorations, samples. Stuff. I never know when I might need something.” He turns back to me with a smile, but when his eyes catch mine, his face sobers. He reaches toward me and tucks a lock of hair behind my ear, then gently cups my jaw in his palm and lightly traces circles on my cheek. My nipples pucker, my breathing increases, and he licks his lips as his eyes drop to my mouth. He’s going to kiss me. I lean in, just an inch, craving his lips on mine, yet knowing this is such a bad idea. The worst idea ever. I don’t want him to kiss me. I so want him to fucking kiss me. But rather than tip his face down to mine, he backs away, takes a deep breath, and gently pulls his fingers away from my face, leaving me yearning for him. “I’ll see you Wednesday, cara.” I bite my lip in disappointment, but offer him a quick grin. “Wednesday.” And with that, he turns and walks back the way we came, his hands in his pockets, those jeans moving deliciously over his ass and his black T-shirt showing off every muscle in his back and shoulders and every part of me is screaming for him. Such a bad idea.

Chapter Four “Good morning,” I say with a smile as I answer my phone via the bluetooth on my car. “Hi Alecia, it’s Meg.” “How are you today?” I ask and change lanes. The traffic on Interstate 5 is surprisingly light this morning heading south. I’m just passing by Fort Lewis, and with each passing mile, I keep getting more nervous. This is a welcome distraction. “I’m stressed out. Why didn’t anyone tell me that getting married was such a pain in the ass? I should have just followed Leo’s lead and gotten married in Vegas.” “Getting married in Vegas suited Leo and Sam, but I don’t think that’s your style.” Meg’s mega rock star brother, Leo, married his long-time girlfriend Samantha Williams just last month in Las Vegas when the whole crew, all of the Montgomery and Williams siblings and their significant others, were there for a combined bachelor/bachelorette party for Will and Meg. I was supposed to join them, and was looking forward to it, but I ended up picking up a last minute wedding and had to bow out. Then Leo and Sam go and get married on me, and I missed it! Damn them. “Well it would have been much less stress, let me tell you.” “Okay, talk to me. The stress is my job. What’s up?” Meg takes a deep breath. “Twenty-eight new RSVP’s since I saw you last week.” “Okay.” “Okay? What is wrong with people? All of the RSVP’s were supposed to be returned six weeks ago! That’s twenty-eight more people that we need to find seating for, Blake has to cook food for. Party favors! Oh, my God, twenty-eight more party favors!” “Take a deep breath, Meg.” My voice is crisp now and all business. “This is what you’ve hired me for, remember? I have this covered.” “It’s twenty-eight more people to pay for, Alecia. I know Will says that he doesn’t care about the money, but this wedding has turned into this enormously expensive affair with celebrities and so many people, and it’s costing him a fortune!” I nod, knowing she can’t see me. It’s costing a fortune. “Meg, Will wants to give you this wedding. He loves you big. Anyone can see it.” “He does everything big,” she whispers, and I can hear the tears in her voice. All brides are nervous and worry about their day, and few handle the stress of an affair of this size this well. “It’s a lot of people. Celebrities and wealthy people, yes, but Meg, they’re your friends.

You know every single person you’ve invited.” “I know. I made sure of that. We’re not turning this into a media circus. Only guests we know and care about will be there.” “Exactly.” I hear her take another deep breath. “I’m being ridiculous.” “You’re being a bride,” I reply with a chuckle. “It’s okay. There will be several more moments like this between now and next Saturday, but seriously, don’t sweat it. Everything is under control. We have wiggle room for extra people. This doesn’t concern me at all.” That’s not entirely true, but she’ll never know it. “Okay. I feel better.” “Good. I’m actually about to turn into Dom’s winery right now. I’m going to go over the plans for the set up and start to get things underway.” “Oh, my God! It’s happening! The butterflies are back.” “Why do you have butterflies, sweetheart?” Will asks her. He must be hugging her because his voice is very close to the phone. “Alecia is going to the winery today to start on things.” “Hi, Alecia,” he says into the phone.” “Tell him hello. Go attack him or something to take your mind off things. I have this handled. I promise.” “Yes, go attack him,” Will agrees. “Bye, Alecia.” “Bye guys.” I chuckle and end the call as I park in the circular drive in front of the large villa before me. Meg gets to go have sex with Will Montgomery. Lucky bitch. I turn the engine off and stare at the villa for a moment, take a deep breath, and pray that Dom’s assistant will be showing me around. He’s a distraction I don’t need today. And he does distract me. But luck isn’t running in my favor when the door to the villa opens and Dom steps outside and saunters to my door, opening it for me. You can do this! You’re a professional! “Good morning,” he murmurs and holds his hand out for mine. “Good morning,” I reply. I place my hand in his and allow him to help me out of the car, and immediately curse myself when the zing of awareness travels up my arm and lands squarely in my belly, making me warm all over. Damn sexy Italian.

“You’re earlier than I expected.” “There’s a lot to be done, and I have some vendors coming this afternoon to drop off supplies. I wanted to get a head start.” He nods and leads me along the sidewalk, away from the front door of the villa. “Let’s look around outside first, then I’ll show you the house.” “Sounds fine,” I reply and pull my hand from his to turn on my iPad and bring up my notes. “Would you like to change your shoes?” he asks, making me stop in my tracks. I blink up at him in confusion and then look down at my black heels. “Why?” “We’ll be walking quite a bit, and those can’t be terribly comfortable. Sexy as fuck, but not exactly practical.” I smirk. Yes, my shoes are sexy as fuck. “These are sneakers for me, Dom. I’m fine.” “As you wish,” he replies with a half-smile, showing off the dimple in his cheek and making my nipples pucker. Damn nipples. He’s in dark grey slacks today. I’ve decided that his ass looks fantastic in anything. Jeans, slacks, it doesn’t matter. And he’s wearing another white button-down, this one has grey pinstripes, the sleeves rolled, and the top button undone. I want to lean in and breathe him in. Down, girl. “Where are we headed first?” I ask, staring down at my iPad. “Where would you prefer?” “Let’s look at where the dance floor and stage are going. That’s the biggest project for construction, and I want to get a feel for it first.” I glance up to find him smiling down at me with warm eyes. “What?” “I like it when you put on your business side.” “I’m so relieved,” I reply dryly. Stop flirting with me! He just laughs and leads me around the building. There are sidewalk paths that meander through beautiful, lush green grass and gardens and water gardens. The grounds of the winery are simply gorgeous. It’s still early in the day, so it’s not too warm, but I’m glad I wore a light linen shift dress rather than a suit, since I’ll be outside the majority of the day. “You live so far away from the city,” I say, needing to cut through the silence that he seems to be perfectly at ease in. He glances down at me with an easy grin.

“Wait until you see why.” “Well, I can see that it’s beautiful here.” “Oh, you haven’t even seen the best parts.” “Lead on, sir.” The back of the villa is as beautiful as the front. There are wide windows, opening the inside up to the amazing views of the vines and gardens. About fifty yards away, sitting perpendicular to the main villa is a smaller, one-story building with wide barn doors, currently pushed open. “That’s going to be the store,” Dom says. “I have a crew in there setting it up. I’d like to have it up and running the week after the wedding.” “That’s a great idea,” I reply. “It looks different since we were here briefly last year, when Meg and I came out to look around.” He nods. “I’ve been renovating. I added onto the back of the villa, expanding my private quarters. This is my wing,” he points to the section of the house we’re walking past now. “And that side is going to be for guests. I might start using it as a bed and breakfast.” “You could even host concerts and events here. There’s plenty of space.” His eyes fall to mine. “Maybe, eventually. The guest wing is finished, and I’ll take you in there later to show you where the groom and bride suites are.” “Great. What’s over there?” I point over behind the new building housing the store. “The vines run over on that side of the property. It’s hilly, and perfect growing conditions. The reception tent is going over here.” He leads me to the left, where the sidewalk ends, and down a long dirt path to a grassy field, at least two square acres big. “This is perfect.” The land is level, so people won’t be trying to dance on uneven ground, falling after having too many drinks. “I’ll have them set up the stage on this end.” I walk all the way to the left, cursing when one of my heels sinks into the grass and kick my shoes off so I don’t ruin them. “I knew you’d shed the shoes.” “My feet don’t hurt, they’re just too expensive to ruin in the grass,” I reply absentmindedly, and keep my eyes on the meadow, mentally measuring the space. “Yes, the stage will fit perfectly here. And with the sound equipment facing the villa, everyone will be able to hear the music, even if they choose to wander through the gardens and such.” I bite my lip and turn to gaze at the rest of the space. “This is a perfect place to set up a dance floor. There is plenty of room for tables around the perimeter.” “Did you say there will be a tent?” Dom asks from behind me, startling me. “Yes. It protects the guests from the sun and the rain, and around here, you never know what you’ll get.”

“It’s going to be a big tent.” “That’s why they’re coming tomorrow to begin setting up,” I reply and fetch my shoes. “This is plenty of space for both a formal sit-down dinner and dancing. I love it. Okay, let’s move on to the ceremony site.” I begin to walk away, and then realize he’s not beside me. I turn to find him standing, hands in pockets, watching me. “What?” “You’re good at this.” “Of course I am.” His lips twitch as he approaches me. “It looks good on you.” “I’m working.” “Meaning?” “No flirting.” “Is that what I was doing?” “Weren’t you?” He chuckles and reaches over to drag his fingertip down my neck, from just below my ear to my collarbone. “Yes, but not on purpose.” “Well, stop it.” I turn and begin walking again, ignoring the way my skin sizzles where his fingertip was. “Ceremony site?” “Over here,” he replies, and leads me back onto a sidewalk path for about a hundred yards, passing a large, dark brown barn. “The barrels are in there, along with the bottling equipment.” “Oh, that’s cool. I’d love to check that out.” “I’ll show you,” he says, and leads me into a field just past the barn, where vines of grapes are standing in perfect rows. “Oh, this is beautiful.” He grins and nods. “Meg wanted to get married in the vineyard. So, she will. As you can see, there is a wide space in the middle of the vines where we set up harvesting supplies. I think it’ll be a good place to set up for the ceremony.” My eyes are raking over the gorgeous green-leafed vines, heavy with purple grapes, and my heart yearns. I wish I could hold every wedding right here. It’s amazing. In the background, there’s a steep hill with more vines climbing up it and the Cascade Mountains are the backdrop, providing a glorious painting of color. “This is beautiful,” I whisper. “Where does the sun set?” I shade my eyes and look

around for the sun. “Behind us. So, the guests won’t be looking into the sun.” “Perfect.” I grin and tap notes into the iPad, doing the happy dance inside. “With the colors of the vines and the mountains, we don’t need many flowers out here. I’m going to have my construction crew build a simple arbor at that far end and I’ll have the florist weave some flowers into that.” We go over the chair placement and then turn to walk back toward the villa. “When will you pick the grapes?” I ask. “The harvest usually begins in late August and goes through September,” he replies. “It’s a busy time for me.” “Why?” “I’m harvesting grapes?” “Alone?” I ask incredulously. “No,” he laughs. “I hire about fifty people to come help. But I love it, so I work right alongside them.” “What do you love about it?” I ask. “The feel of the grapes in my hands. They’re heavier than you’d think. Watching the buckets fill. Getting my hands dirty. I don’t even mind the blisters.” “It’s hard work,” I remark softly. “Very. But rewarding.” His voice is like smooth chocolate, full of affection and passion for this life that he loves. And what’s not to love? This place is simply breathtaking. “Okay, I think we can go inside now and take a look at the bridal suites.” Dom nods and gestures for me to walk with him back to the villa. “I’ll take you through the back.” “I love this patio.” The back patio is covered, with a beautiful outdoor kitchen and sitting area. Tuscan tile is laid on the ground and runs up the outside wall, framing a wide gas fireplace. “You could make a few s’mores in that fireplace.” “I haven’t even lit it yet.” He chuckles. “But I think that’s a great idea. I don’t believe I’ve had s’mores before.” He opens the back door and guides me into a wide, open sunroom, furnished with deep furniture in earth tones. A small fountain gurgles in the corner. It’s the perfect space to curl up and read a book. Not that I have time to read books. This leads into the kitchen. I’m sure Blake cries tears of pure joy when he works in here. It’s industrial and huge, but manages to still be inviting and homey. “Would you like something to drink?” Dom asks.

“I’d love some water, please.” He fetches a bottle from the refrigerator and twists the top off for me, then hands it to me. “Anything else?” “No thanks.” “Okay. The guest suites are this way.” I follow Dom past a dining room that sits twelve to a staircase that leads to the second floor. “This banister and hallway separate the two wings up here,” Dom says, gesturing to the dark oak banister that opens the hall up to the foyer below. “My personal wing is down there,” he points to the right, “and the guest wing is this way.” Six heavy doors stand open to six fully furnished bedroom suites, each decorated in Tuscan colors, but in its own style. Some have king beds, some two twin beds, and a smaller one has a cozy-looking queen sized bed with an over-stuffed chair and ottoman that is just begging to be curled up in. Another reading spot. “These rooms are beautiful, Dom.” “Thank you.” He grins and leads me to the room at the very end. “This will be the bride’s suite.” I gasp when I step inside. The windows are floor-to-ceiling and run the length of the room, filling the space with light. Just inside is a sitting area with a fireplace. There are two doors, one on either end of the room. “The bathroom is through there,” Dom points to the left, and I immediately open the door and gasp again at the ornate fixtures. You could swim laps in the soaking tub. “And the bedroom through that door, but I didn’t have the bed delivered. Instead, I had couches, chairs and tables put in there so between these two rooms, there should be plenty of room for all of the girls to do whatever it is that girls do on wedding days.” I smirk, but my heart just melted, and if I was that kind of girl, I would let out a loud, “Awwww!” He’s done perfectly, and put so much thought and love into it for his family. “It’s perfect, Dom.” “You think?” “I know.” He nods once and gazes around the room in satisfaction. “Where will the boys be?” “We will be downstairs in the entertainment room.” I let out a loud laugh. “Well, that’s appropriate.” “I couldn’t very well put us next door or across the hall. I’d never be able to keep Will out of here.” “You’re absolutely right,” I agree. “Lead on, then.”

Once downstairs, Dom leads me to the opposite side of the house and opens a door to a large entertainment room, with two pool tables, movie theater seats facing a wide screen, and a wet bar. “This is the boy room.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them, and I immediately feel my cheeks flush. “I’m sorry—” “No, you’re right,” Dom says with a laugh. “I’ve had my brothers over a time or two to help me break it in.” “It’s also perfect for the guys on wedding day. I’ll have the wet bar stocked with snacks and drinks, and I’ll do the same upstairs.” I add the notes to my iPad. “Starting tomorrow, I’ll be here at six in the morning until late into the evening every day until the day after the wedding.” “Why will you be here the day after?” “To oversee the cleanup. An event of this size makes a mess, trust me.” “That’s quite a commute every day,” he says and shoves his hands in his pockets. “It’s fine.” I glance back to the iPad. “Stay here.” My head whips up and I frown at him. “Why?” “It’s more convenient. I have plenty of space. There’s no need for you to drive back and forth.” “Dominic, I’m fine with it. It’s part of the job.” “Let me put it like this,” he replies and steps closer to me. He cups my cheek in his palm, and his bright blue eyes are intense as they stare into mine. “I would prefer you stay with me. It’s safer.” “Excuse me, Mr. Salvatore?” We both turn at the voice in the doorway. A petite woman, in her early forties, wearing a sharp black suit and her jet black hair in a pixie cut, smiles at Dom. “Celeste,” Dom says, and lays a hand on the small of my back. “This is Alecia. From this moment on, anything she needs is number one priority.” “Of course,” she replies with a smile and a nod. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you have a call from Italy, sir.” “I’ll take it in my office.” Dom turns to me and grins. “Don’t leave yet.” “I’m here for a few more hours.” “Good.” He saunters out quickly, and Celeste smiles at me. “Can I get you anything, Alecia?” “No, thank you. I’m going to walk outside.” “Just let me know if you need anything.” She winks and follows the way Dom left. I walk slowly through the house and back out through the sun room, the outdoor eating

space, and past the wine store to see the grape vines that I didn’t see earlier. When I turn around the end of the building, my breath catches in my throat. The terrain is certainly hilly, but for as far as the eye can see, it’s covered in perfectly straight lines of grape vines. The sun is bouncing off the green leaves as they sway in the light breeze. Heavy purple and green grapes hang from the vines. The colors are spectacular. The breeze is light and refreshing. I can smell the earth and the pure clean of it all, and in this moment, I know why Dom chose this property, so far from the city. It’s pure heaven. Suddenly, the air shifts, and I can feel the heat from him at my back. He runs a fingertip along the nape of my neck as he steps closer, and just like that, my entire body is in tune with him, begging to give into the pull that I feel when I’m near him. “This is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.” He cups my shoulder in his hand, gives it a reassuring squeeze, and then nudges me around to face him. I keep my eyes pinned to his chest until he tips my chin up with his finger. His eyes are bright and warm with affection, which throws me. How can he know me well enough to look at me with so much damn affection? “Stay this week, cara.” Say no. The commute isn’t that big of a deal. But instead, I feel myself nod and his eyes drop to my lips. His hands both cradle my jaw, his fingertips graze my hair, and he inhales deeply before tipping his face to mine. His lips brush over my mouth softly, barely touching my skin. He nuzzles my nose before returning to my lips, kissing me tenderly, as if we can stand here and kiss all day long. His tongue crosses my lips and just barely touches mine before retreating again, and rather than take the kiss deeper, he pulls away, presses his damp lips to my forehead, and then smiles down at me. “Thank you,” he whispers. For what? I want to ask. Agreeing to stay? Returning his kiss? My body is humming with anticipation. His warmth, his strength, his scent surrounds me, and I have to pull away before I do something really embarrassing, like jump him. Suddenly, there is a loud truck honking from the front of the villa. “The contractor is here.” My voice sounds strained, even to my own ears. “We’d better get to work then.” He flashes me a quick smile, that sexy dimple winking at me, as he pulls away and simply laces his fingers through mine and leads me away from the breathtaking view.

Chapter Five “This is a great start,” I say to Scott, the foreman of my construction crew the next morning. He’s one of Isaac Montgomery’s men, and given that Isaac is Will Montgomery’s oldest brother, I know that the whole crew will be paying extra special attention to this project. “The stage is fancy.” “It’s sturdy,” he corrects me with a grin. “Knowing the Montgomery family, there will be a lot of people coming and going off this stage, and dancing too. We can’t have it falling in on them.” “No, we can’t.” I laugh, knowing he’s right. “Also, some of Will’s teammates weigh a good three hundred pounds. Each.” “I’m gonna add more support,” he says as his face pales, making me laugh again. “It’ll be great. Thanks, Scott. I’ll see you in the morning.” Scott waves and moves over to speak with his crew, and I turn toward the house, smiling when I see Dominic. “How was the first day?” he asks as he approaches, coming from the way I’m headed. “Busy, but productive.” I pinch my neck in my palm and stretch my head from side to side. I’m exhausted, and I’m secretly relieved that he talked me into staying here. Driving all the way home this tired probably isn’t the safest thing to do. “Are you finished?” “Yes.” I grin and take a deep breath. I love the way it smells here. “How was your day?” “Busy as well.” He reaches over and brushes his finger down my neck, making me shiver. Jesus, all he has to do is touch me with one finger and I want to jump him. “What did you do?” I ask, trying to keep my voice steady. “Do you ever wear your hair down?” he asks, rather than answering my question. “Not on work days,” I reply with a frown. “Why?” “Because it’s more professional and easier to wear it up.” He offers me a mischievous half smile and leans in like he’s going to tell me a secret. “I can’t wait to mess it up.” My jaw drops, and before I can respond, he smirks and takes my hand in his, gesturing for me to walk with him. “I’d like for you to have dinner with me on the patio tonight.”

“I don’t expect you to eat with me every night, Dom.” “I think I just asked you to join me.” No thanks, Dom. I’ll just head up to my room now. I glance up to find his jaw ticking and his lips pressed in a line, as if he’s bracing himself for another rejection. But if I’m being honest, I am dying to eat on that patio. The sun is going to set soon, and the view is going to be awesome. I’m here for a whole week. I might as well take advantage of it. “I’d like that.” His jaw and lips loosen, and he glances down at me with a smile. “Excellent.” “So, what did you do today?” I ask again, as he holds a chair out for me at the table on the patio. “I arranged for Cuppa di Vita wines to be available in a new liquor store chain coming to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, listened to my cousin, Gianna, complain for about an hour about her brother, Marco, about what, I’m not entirely sure, because I tuned her out. Then Jules called and wanted to know if I was being nice to you,” he cocks a brow at me as he sits across from me and begins to uncork a bottle of wine. His hands look amazing, and he works with a quick efficiency, having the bottle open in seconds. “What did you tell her?” I ask with a laugh. “That I’d hardly seen you since you arrived this morning.” “I got the same phone call.” He passes me a glass of the wine, and I smell it with appreciation. “Mm, smells good.” “From Jules or my cousin Gianna?” Dom winks at me as I chuckle. “Jules. But she wanted to know if I was being nice to you.” “What did you tell her?” “That you’re a big boy and can take care of yourself.” “I bet she didn’t like that answer.” “I think she might have threatened to come out here tomorrow to check on us, but I pretended that I was being called by a crew member and hung up on her.” I wink at him and sip my wine. “My family is…tenacious.” Dominic begins uncovering silver-domed plates, and my stomach growls loudly. “Hungry?” “Oh, God, yes. I just realized I haven’t had anything since this morning.” “Well, there’s plenty.” He scoops large helpings of pasta and red sauce onto plates and passes me one. “This is my mama’s recipe.” “You cooked this?” “It’s not hard.” He shrugs and offers me bread, watching me with humor-filled blue

eyes. His hair is a bit messy today, as if he ran his fingers through it over and over again. I take a bite of the pasta and lean back in my chair, eyes closed, and savor the flavors and seasonings hitting my tongue. “Damn, that’s good.” I hear Dom inhale sharply and open my eyes to find him watching me with his heated gaze. “I think I love watching you eat,” he murmurs. “I am good at it,” I reply with a laugh, and sip my wine. “This wine is excellent with the sauce.” “I know.” His smile is smug. “So, your family was a pain in the ass today,” I say, encouraging him to keep talking. I love the sound of his voice. He stops twirling pasta on his fork and stares at me with a frown. “No. My family is never a pain in the ass. They can be challenging, frustrating even, but never a pain in my ass.” He sets his fork down and takes a sip of his wine. “My family is the best part of my life.” “Better than the vineyard?” “Better than anything.” “That must be nice,” I murmur, and take a bite of pasta to give my hands something to do. I suddenly feel self-conscious and jealous, and that’s just ridiculous. Not everyone has a tight family. “Tell me about your family.” “Oh, trust me, you don’t want that story.” “I do trust you, and I do want that story.” I take a deep breath and another sip of wine. This man is good with words. “We’re not close.” “Why?” I shrug and keep my gaze on my dinner. “There wasn’t a specific reason, we just never were terribly close. I don’t speak to them now. Why did you wait so long to find Steven?” I ask, and immediately want to call the words back. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.” “I don’t mind.” He uses his bread to soak up any remaining sauce on his plate, pops it in his mouth, and sits back in his chair. He pushes his fingers through his hair, while he gives my question some thought. Steven Montgomery is the patriarch of the Montgomery family, and it came to light only about a year ago that Dominic was the son that Steven never knew about. “When my mother was alive, it felt like a betrayal to her to want to find him,” he

confesses, and swirls the wine in his glass absentmindedly. “She gave me a great life, Alecia. She was so young.” Finished with my own meal, I push my plate away, lift my glass, and stand. “Let’s go sit by the fireplace for story time.” “Good idea.” He grins and follows me to the fireplace, flipping a switch that makes the flames come to life, before sitting next to me on a cozy loveseat. He shifts toward me, with one knee up on the cushion, so he can look me in the eye. “She was young,” I prompt him. “Very. She was twenty-two when I was born. She was here in the States on a scholarship for college, and intended to always stay here. She didn’t want to move back to Italy. But, she didn’t have family here, and being a single parent is tough, so when I was about five, we went back to live with her family in Tuscany. “My grandmother and grandfather welcomed us and loved us. We lived on their vineyard, which is where I learned to love the lifestyle.” He reaches over and pushes a strand of my hair behind my ear and rubs my earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. The man is forever touching me. And I don’t seem to mind. “Mama worked as a personal assistant for a high-powered hotelier based in Florence, which was about twenty minutes from our home. When I was sixteen, the hotelier decided to come to the States to build a new resort, and he of course expected Mama to come with him, so we both came.” “What did you think of that?” I ask. I can’t take my eyes off of him. He’s so expressive as he talks; his accent more pronounced when he speaks of his family and the home of his childhood. “I didn’t want to come. I was horrible to her. I had suspicions that she was having an affair with him, and that’s why he wanted her to come with him.” My eyebrows climb into my hairline. “Was she?” “Probably. But if they were, it was discreet. I do know that they had a great deal of affection and respect for each other.” “That’s nice,” I murmur. “So, we came to California. Mama’s boss, Arturo Baldovini, was building a big resort near Sonoma.” “Wine country,” I murmur with a grin, as Dom refills both our glasses, emptying the bottle. “Exactly. Once we settled in, I did well. I took jobs with the vineyards during the harvest, earned my own money. I graduated from high school there and then went to college at Sonoma State University.” “Why there?”

“I didn’t want to be far from my mom, just in case she needed me.” He shrugs. “But then the resort was finished in my sophomore year, and Arturo and Mama returned to Italy.” “And you stayed.” “I stayed. I love it here. I worked my way through vineyards all over California, learning everything I could, so I could one day own one of my own.” “You don’t really even have much of an accent unless you speak Italian.” “I’ve lived here a long time. Well, until Mama got sick about five years ago. I was thirty, and I got a call from Gianna that Mama was sick with cancer, and that I should go home. So I did.” He sips his wine and cringes. “She passed less than six months later.” “I’m sorry.” “Well, the point of all of this is, while she was living, it never really occurred to me to look for my biological father. My life was happy and full, and I had a wonderful family. And during the few moments that I did wonder, it felt like I was being disloyal to her. “About a month after she passed, I was going through some of her things and I found a box full of journals. I set them aside, intending to read them one day, but I wasn’t ready yet. “Arturo came to see me, and said that Mama had asked him to help her invest her money, which he had, and to my utter shock, had done it well. She left me millions, Alecia.” My jaw drops as I watch his face, the awe and the love crossing his face. “Arturo said, ‘Your one dream has always been to own your own vineyard. This is your chance to own it anywhere in the world you want.’” “And you chose here.” “I chose this land before I knew about Steven.” “No way! That’s too big of a coincidence.” “It’s true.” He lifts a bottle off the floor at his feet and deftly uncorks it, then pours us each a fresh glass. “I’d owned this place for about two years when I came across that box of journals again. I pulled one out of the box, and a letter addressed to me fell out of it. She said that she was sorry for not telling me sooner about my father, but that she didn’t know how it could affect him. She didn’t give me all of the details, and Steven has filled me in on what she didn’t say since then, but he was on a business trip and picked her up in a bar. It was a one night stand thing, and after they had sex, he confessed that he was separated from his wife, and that he missed her and his children.” “Wow.” “Yeah. He’d left her his business card, so she knew how to reach him, and when she found out she was pregnant, she did call the number on the card, but his wife answered.” “They’d reconciled,” I guess.

“Yes, and Mama couldn’t bear the thought of ripping his family apart. So, she didn’t tell him. “I almost didn’t look for him, knowing about his family. I didn’t want them to think that I was trying to start some drama, or interrupt their lives. But I admit, I was curious.” “I would be too,” I add. This wine is going to my head. “So, I hired a private investigator, and within about a month, he found him.” “And all that time, you were less than an hour away.” He nods thoughtfully and then shakes his head. “I was so fucking nervous. We went through the blood tests to verify paternity, but that wasn’t the hardest part.” “What was?” I ask, expecting him to say meeting his siblings. “Meeting Gail.” “Really? Gail’s great!” “I know that now, but Alecia, how do you say hello to a woman, knowing that her husband had an affair with your own mother well over thirty years ago that you are the product of?” “You tell me.” He shakes his head again and sips his wine. “She hugged me.” His gaze turns to mine and he frowns in wonder. “Took one look at me and just wrapped her little arms around me and said, ‘I’m so sorry that you lost your mama, sweet boy.’” “Oh my.” Tears fill my eyes at the thought. “Yeah.” He takes my hand in his and threads our fingers together. His hand feels cool and smooth against mine. “I know it had to hurt her, Alecia. But she has never once treated me with any kind of malice.” “She never would.” “The second hardest part was meeting the siblings.” He laughs now, and brushes his knuckle down my cheek. “That was not easy. But over the past year, we’ve come to know each other, and most importantly, trust each other.” “It’s a big, overwhelming, amazing family.” I smile, as I think of the whole family. “They are the funnest people I know.” “Me too.” He chuckles. “I’m lucky to have them. They’ll never be a pain in my ass.” “They’re lucky to have you,” I whisper. “Natalie’s baby shower for Olivia was my first job with them. That was more than two years ago now. I’ve helped with every wedding, shower, birthday party, and major event since then. I think you’re all lucky.” “Who’s lucky to have you, cara?” I blink at him, and just then my phone beeps with an incoming text. Saved by the bell. I glance down and then laugh.

“What is it?” “One of my brides. She’s changed her flower choices four times already, and her wedding is in three months. I don’t even know why she’s bothering. The marriage will be over inside of eighteen months.” “That’s a cynical attitude for a wedding planner,” Dom says dryly. “Just because I plan a good party, doesn’t mean I believe in love.” I glance up to see him cock a brow and wait for me to continue. “Let’s just say that I’m not a firm believer in happily ever after, and yes, I’m speaking from experience, and no, I’m not telling you that story tonight.” “A story for another night, then.” “Or a story for never.” I take a deep breath and stretch, and as I look around, I realize that night has fallen and the stars are twinkling brightly around us. “It’s late. I have to be up early.” Dom stands and helps me to my feet, then escorts me inside and up to my room, just down the hall from his own room. I hope I don’t pick now to start sleep walking, because he has me so tied up in knots I’ll most likely end up in his room, crawling into bed with him. “Thanks for walking me up,” I say, when we reach my door. “And thanks for the story. I enjoyed it.” “Much to my surprise, so did I. I haven’t told that story before.” I’m facing him, but not touching him. I can smell his body wash and that scent that’s simply Dominic, and my whole body tightens. What is up with the chemistry between us? Before I can turn away, he gently glides his knuckles down my cheek, then lifts the other hand and cups my neck and jaw, and the air around us is shimmering with longing and lust. He leans down and sweeps his lips lightly over mine and then, just like yesterday, kisses me tenderly, nipping at my lips gently. Finally, he pulls back just an inch to catch his breath and tips his forehead against my own. “Sleep well, cara,” he whispers, as he pulls me against him for a long, firm hug. Even in my heels, I fit just under his chin, and being pressed against his chest is the best feeling ever. He’s hard and warm and…comfortable. I could stay here all night. So I do the only thing that makes sense and I pull slowly away, not even trying to mask the confusion and longing that must be on my face. “Sleep well, Dominic.” He watches me with heated blue eyes as I turn away and close the door to my room behind me, then lean my back against the smooth wood. How can a man kiss me like it’s the first time…again?

Chapter Six I wipe the fog off the mirror in my larger than life bathroom and stare at my bloodshot eyes. Damn sexy Italian. I slept like shit because all I could think about was the way his lips feel on mine, how standing in his arms is the safest I’ve ever felt, and that sexy accent of his when he speaks Italian is enough to melt a girl’s panties at twenty paces. I have too much to do today to have him on my mind. I have to keep my head in the game. My eyes on the prize. My…crap, what’s that metaphor about the target? Either way, I don’t have time to get all moony over Dominic Salvatore. Just as I begin to rub lotion into my still-wet legs, there’s a knock on my door. While shrugging into a robe, I pad across the bedroom and open the door to find a smiling Celeste holding a breakfast tray. “Mr. Salvatore asked me to bring you something to eat. Can I set this inside for you?” “You didn’t have to do that,” I reply, and reach out to take the tray from her. “Thank you, I’ll take it.” “It’s no problem. And just between you and me?” She laughs and crosses her arms over her chest. “He chose everything on that tray. It was actually very…surprising.” “Surprising?” “I’ve never seen him take so much interest in breakfast before. Have a good day.” She waves and leaves, and I carry the tray to the seating area before the window. The silver tray is covered in a cream colored cloth, and boasts a small vase with a single pink tulip, making me grin and my heart soften, just a bit. Under the silver dome lid, I find scrambled eggs, bacon and yogurt. And he even remembered how I take my tea. He’s not just a sexy Italian. He’s a sweet sexy Italian. As I nibble a piece of bacon and sniff at the soft pink petals of the tulip, I notice a small white card with my name written in bold handwriting. Inside is a note. Alecia, Good morning. I hope you slept more soundly than I did. Couldn’t stop thinking about how badly I wanted to keep kissing you, and mess up your gorgeous hair. Thank you for listening last night. Dom

I read it three more times with a silly grin on my face, and feel my belly fill with gigantic butterflies. Oh boy. What in the hell am I going to do with him? *** “I don’t give a shit if every hole has been dug, you’re going to fill them and re-dig them.” Isaac Montgomery, the eldest of the Montgomery clan, is pissed, and for good reason. The person in charge of digging holes for the tent measured incorrectly. “You got it, boss.” “Mark,” he calls over to Mark Williams, another member of the huge family, and a part of Isaac’s crew. “How is the arbor coming?” Mark cringes and joins us. “Hey, Alecia.” “Hi, Mark. What are you doing here today?” “Scott’s kid came down with appendicitis, so I’m taking over this job.” He turns to Isaac. “We don’t have enough supplies. One of the guys forgot to restock his truck last night.” “What the fuck?” Isaac asks, and props his hands on his hips. “Since when did this become an amateur operation?” “He’s headed back to town to get what we need, but we’ll lose two hours.” That means we’ll all be working an extra two hours today. “Okay, it is what it is.” I consult my iPad and make notes. “Mark, do you know when the outdoor restrooms will be delivered?” “My brother just had to order the hoity-toity toilets,” Isaac laughs. “I’m sorry, but I refuse to put a Honey Bucket out for the guests to use,” I reply, and shake my head. “Hell, the men could find a bush,” Mark says with a smirk, and then laughs when he sees the scowl on my face. “I’m just kidding.” “This isn’t a frat party, you know.” “Wait until the music and liquor start.” Isaac pats my shoulder almost apologetically. “And it’s not the boys you have to worry about.” “Our girls know how to have a good time,” Mark adds with a smile. “Oh, I’m aware, and I’m looking forward to it,” I reply. The girls are a blast, if a bit of a handful. “You know you love it.” “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Isaac confirms with a half-smile. “I’m going to go check on other details before I leave you in Mark’s capable hands.” “Let me know if you need anything.” I nod at the guys and turn away just as my phone begins ringing. “Hello, Tonya.”

“What the fuck, Alecia? I’ve texted you nine times today!” “I’m aware. I haven’t had a chance to respond.” “I need more attention than this! This is ridiculous! I need to feel like I’m your only client!” I roll my eyes and rub the back of my neck. “Your business is appreciated and important, Tonya, but you’re not my only client. What’s going on today?” “If you would have read my texts, you would know. My fiancé’s sister is a bitch. I don’t want her in my wedding.” “Okay.” I take a deep breath and mentally think, hello pot, meet kettle. Tonya is my most challenging client. If you look bridezilla up in the dictionary, her photo is right there. “Have you informed her that she’s not going to be in the wedding party?” “That’s your job.” “No, Tonya, it’s not my job. This is a family matter.” “What did I hire you for?” I take another deep breath and count to ten. “You know what, if you’re not going to do your job, I don’t fucking need you! I don’t need this stress! You’re fucking fired!” She hangs up on me, and I exhale. That commission was huge, but sweet Jesus, it wasn’t worth the shit that girl can sling. “What’s wrong?” My head whips up and I find Dominic standing ten feet away, hands in his pockets, watching me quietly. “I’m fine.” His jaw ticks, and the next thing I know, he takes my hand in his and leads me across the grass, into the back of the villa, and into the sunroom, shutting the door behind us. “You’re not fine.” He stalks to me, all tall muscle and intense blue gaze, and just like that, my breathing increases and I can’t remember why I’m frustrated and pissed off. I back up as he advances, until my back is against the wall. He braces one hand on the wall beside my head and cups my cheek with the other. “You’re not fine,” he whispers, just before his lips meet mine in a slow, lazy kiss, just like the last two. But I’m not feeling slow or lazy. I moan and bury my fingers in his hair, grip it in my fists and press myself against him, taking the kiss from easy to hot in one-point-three seconds. I bite his lip, then devour his mouth, sucking and biting, and I just can’t get fucking close enough to him. He growls as he leans into me, pressing me between his hard body and the hard wall at my back. His hands travel from my shoulders, over my breasts and down my sides, and then he gathers my skirt in his hands, pulling it up around my waist. I slide one leg up his,

hook my leg around his hip, and moan in delight when his hand cups my ass firmly, tilting me against his hard erection. “Cazzo, cara,” he whispers, as he kisses his way down my jawline to my neck. Oh, God, my neck! It’s my sweet spot. I’m not responsible for my actions if he kisses my fucking neck. Suddenly, from somewhere behind him, someone clears their throat loudly, making us both come to a halt. Dom catches my gaze in his molten blue one and slightly shakes his head, warning me not to move. Thank God he’s shielding me from the view of the person behind him. “Yes, Celeste.” “You’re needed out in the barn, sir.” “Thank you.” We hear her walk away and he lets my leg lower to the floor. We’re both panting hard, my nipples are hard nubs, stabbing his chest, and dear God, I’ve never ached for anyone the way I’m aching for him right now. “Are you okay?” he asks. “We didn’t even hear her,” I mutter with frustration. What am I doing? Thank God the sun shades are pulled on the windows of this room; otherwise, the entire crew would have had an eyeful. “Are you okay?” he asks again. “Fine.” Fuck, I’m not fine. He watches me for a heartbeat, then presses his lips to my forehead. “That was a lie. You’re only allowed one, cara.” “I’m not—” “We’ll talk tonight.” He steps back, makes sure I am steady on my feet, and then drags his fingertips down my cheek. “Don’t ever let anyone speak to you the way that woman did again.” I raise a brow in question. “She was loud. I could hear her as if I had my own ear to the phone. You don’t have to be abused like that by your clients.” I blush and smooth my skirt down my legs. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not working for her anymore.” “Good.” He tilts my chin up and I’m caught in his bold blue gaze. Damn it, I like him. “Thank you for breakfast.” “You’re welcome.” He smiles now, a bright, full on, infectious smile that lights the room before leaning in and pressing one more light kiss to my lips. “Tonight.”

He winks and then walks back outside toward the barn. I have to take a moment to catch my breath. What the hell was that? I can’t control myself around the man. He barely kissed me and I climbed him like a tree. And, God help me, I want to do it again. I shake my head and walk into the kitchen. I need a cold bottle of water STAT, and then I need to get back to work. I stop short when I see Blake in the kitchen bustling about and whistling happily. “I wasn’t expecting you here today.” “I needed to check in with Dom on a few things and decided to start organizing things in here the way I want them.” He tilts his head and narrows his eyes at me, and then a slow, sly grin spreads over his lips. “You’re getting some.” “Shut up.” I roll my eyes and stomp to the fridge to retrieve a water. “Is this why you’ve been avoiding me?” he asks, and makes a note on his notepad. “I’m not avoiding you.” Exactly. “Called you twice,” he murmurs, and avoids my gaze as he pulls open a cabinet door to count cookware. “I’ve been busy. You know this is my biggest event this year.” He nods and purses his lips. “What, are your feelings hurt?” I smirk and take a long pull on the water. “Well, given that in the last three years you’ve never not called me back, I might be a bit pissed.” “I’m not at your fucking beck and call,” I reply hotly, and immediately hate myself. What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m damn sexually frustrated and having a shit day. “So, what crawled up your ass today, Leash? Because whatever it is, can we pull it out, so you can stop with the crabby-ass attitude?” Dominic Salvatore is my issue. So not telling him that. “I’m sorry.” I sigh and round the island to give Blake a hug, and sigh when his strong arms circle around me and hold me tight. “I’m a bitch.” “You’re not a bitch. But you’re not yourself.” “It’s a big event,” I say again. “You never used to lie to me.” I cringe and think of Dom’s words about lying in the

sunroom. “It’s just a bad day. Honest.” I plaster a smile on my face and look up into his big brown eyes. “And I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was distracted last night.” He quirks a brow. “Not like that.” I pull away and reclaim my water before heading for the door and away from Blake’s all-knowing gaze. “I’ll call you later.” “Be careful, Leash.” “I’m fine.” I roll my eyes to make him smirk and head back outside to work. *** I can’t freaking sleep. Again. There were no more issues with the construction crew this afternoon, but we were set back long enough that we all worked through dinner, and by the time I was done for the day, I just didn’t have it in me to face the sexual frustration that comes from being with Dom. I made a hasty retreat up to my room to return calls, check my email, and get ready for tomorrow. And now my work is all caught up, it’s late, and I should be fast asleep. Instead, all I can think about is the sexy Italian most likely asleep just a two-minute walk away. I blow out a gusty sigh and toss the covers aside, throw my hair up into a messy knot on the top of my head, and pull on a pair of yoga shorts with my plain white tank before opening the door to my room and sticking my head out to make sure no one is walking down the hallway. No one, meaning Dominic. Assuring myself that the coast is clear, I pad down the hall to the linen closet and almost jump with joy when I find cleaning supplies. I load my arms with sponges and cleaners and pad back to my room, close the door, and march into the bathroom. When I’m stressed out, I clean. It’s soothing, and I do my best thinking when I’m scrubbing the hell out of something. I pull my travel speakers out of my computer bag and connect the Bluetooth on my iPhone to them, then set my music to my angry cleaning playlist. Eminem and Rhianna begin singing about Monsters and away I go, swinging my hips with the blaring music. It’s a good thing I’m the only one on this side of the villa. No one will be able to hear my music. Half an hour later, I’ve scrubbed the sink, the toilet and the shower and I’m on my hands and knees, cleaning the floor around the sunken tub.

Where does Dominic get off, always coming on to me anyway? I’ve said no to his advances in the past. You’d think the man would take a hint, for crying in the night! And what’s up with his arms? Why do they have to be so…defined? I bet he doesn’t even have to try to look like that. He just looks like that. I scoot backwards toward the door and scowl. “And what’s up with his secret Italian home remedies?” I ask the room at large, just able to hear myself over the sound of Lady Gaga singing to Alejandro. “I wonder what the Italian home remedy is for sexual frustration?” A deep, male voice chuckles behind me, making me still, and then hang my head in resignation. “Shit.” I glance back over my shoulder and sure enough, there he is, leaning against the doorjamb of the bathroom door, arms crossed over his naked chest and a mischievous grin on his delicious lips. “Don’t you know how to knock?” “You didn’t hear me over the music.” I stand and shut the music off, immediately sending the room into a shocking silence. “What can I do for you?” Can you please cover your ridiculously muscled chest? Jesus, is that chest even legal? “You didn’t come down for dinner.” “I had work.” I cross my arms over my chest, hoping to cover the fact that I’m not wearing a bra and tear my gaze from his torso. “And it was late by the time I was done.” “You know, I have people who do this.” He gestures to the cleaning supplies on the floor. “I clean when I’m stressed.” His face sobers. “What’s stressing you out, cara? I’ll take care of it.” I bark out a humorless laugh. “Right.” “Talk to me.” I bite my lip and then shake my head. “I’m fine.” “That’s number two.” His normally calm and easygoing voice is now hard, just like his eyes. “Okay, you want to know what’s wrong with me?” I push away from the sink and pace across the bathroom. “I had too many construction issues to deal with today, which put us behind by hours that had to be made up today in order to stay on deadline.” I pace back toward Dom and immediately regret it when I see his eyes narrow and his biceps bulge when he crosses his arms again.

“I lost the wedding with Tonya. Yes, she’s a first class pain in the ass, but the commission was good.” I pace away again. “I hurt Blake’s feelings, and I never hurt his feelings. I sometimes forget that he has feelings. And I was insensitive and bitchy with him, and he didn’t deserve it.” I turn back to Dom, all riled up and unable to stop the purging of words out of my mouth. “And here you are, all sexy and funny and kind, and you make my body crazy! I’m so sexually frustrated I can’t fucking see straight.” My chest is heaving with labored breaths as I stare at him, mortified that I said what I just did, and still pissed off. Suddenly, he walks to me with measured, carefully controlled steps and lays his hand on my hip, urging me toward him. “Do you think you’re the only one, cara?” His eyes drop to my lips and then return to mine. “I’ve wanted you since the minute I saw you.” He’s backed me up, like he did earlier in the sunroom, and suddenly my hips are pressed into the vanity. “Why?” I whisper. “I recognized you, and I’d never seen you before. My body yearns for you. I can’t get enough of your laughter. And if I don’t get my hands in your fucking hair right now, I’ll go out of my fucking mind.” With my eyes pinned to his, I reach up and pull the knot out of my hair and let it fall around my shoulders. Dominic takes a long, deep breath as he pushes his hands gently into it at the base of my neck and tilts my head back. “If you’re going to say no, say it now, Alecia.”

Chapter Seven ~Dominic~ Her eyes dilate as her chest heaves with her labored breathing, and I’ve never seen anything so fucking sexy in all of my life. Her body is on fire, pressed against mine. My hands are fisted in her long, soft hair, tugging her head back so I can look into her chocolate brown eyes. She swallows hard and licks her lips, and my sanity is holding on by a fucking thread. I tilt my head down, but don’t kiss her. Not yet. My lips are hovering over hers, my nose brushes lightly over the tip of hers, and her eyes flutter. “Yes or no, cara?” “Dominic—” “Answer me.” “Yes!” She surges up and takes my lips with hers in a frustrated kiss, plants one hand on the nape of my neck, keeping my lips over hers, and her other small hand goes on a long journey all over my bare torso, down my chest, across my stomach and around my side to my back, then around again, as though she just can’t wait to touch me everywhere, all at once. And fuck if I don’t feel exactly the same way. I boost her up onto the vanity, then brush her hair back over her shoulders and allow my hands to travel down her arms and up under the thin material of her white tank top. She’s not wearing a fucking bra. I didn’t think my cock could get any harder, and then my thumbs brush over her hard nipples and her hips surge against my pelvis, and that’s it. Game over. She manages to reach into the waistband of my gym shorts and tug them down around the middle of my ass, just far enough to unleash my cock, and my eyes cross as she pumps my dick in two long, fluid motions. “Jesus, Alecia.” My voice is rough. “Your skin is dark everywhere,” she murmurs, her eyes watching the hand that’s wrapped around my shaft. I’m not going to last if she keeps this up. I take her hands in mine, kiss them both, then pin them behind her back, thrusting her breasts high, perfect for my lips. “Wanna touch you,” she gasps, then lets her head fall back on a long moan as I pull one perfect nipple into my mouth and suck, then release it with a loud pop before turning my

attention to the other one. “Love your tits, cara,” I whisper. I glance up to find her eyes closed and her bottom lip clenched between her teeth. Her tank is pushed up above her breasts, under her armpits, and her hips are moving in a rhythmic circle. I cup her sex, over her yoga shorts and grin when she gasps and gazes up at me with wide eyes. “You like that?” “Touch me,” she whispers. “Oh, I plan to do a whole lot more than that,” I reply, releasing her hands. She immediately braces herself on my arms as I reach between her legs and rip her shorts and panties right off her, leaving them in shreds under her sweet ass. “I would have taken them off for you,” she says with a wry grin. “No time,” I reply, and take my cock in my hand, but instead of plunging right inside her, I drag the tip of my cock through her wet folds, up around her clit and back down again, and then I let it simply rest against her pussy and lean in to take her mouth again. I thrust my hips against her, nudging her clit with every push, making her squirm and clench her legs around my hips, her hands on my back, pulling me closer against her. But I’m not sinking inside her. Not yet. “Dom,” she says with a growl. “Yes.” “Inside. Me. Now.” “Not yet.” “Oh, my God!” she cries as I fall to my knees, spread her wide, and feel my heart stutter. Mother of God, she’s stunning. She covers her stomach with one hand and balances herself on the other, and I frown up at her in confusion. “That’s not my best side,” she says, her cheeks reddening. “Are you fucking kidding me?” She’s self-conscious? I take her hand and press a wet kiss to her palm, then press it against my cheek as I stare up into her deep brown eyes, full of lust and excitement, and just a little fear. “You’re beautiful, tesoro. Don’t hide from me.” I lift up and kiss her breasts, down her stomach to her navel and over the slight swell of her abdomen to her bare pussy, and just when I rest my lips against her clit, her hips pulse again and she buries her hands in my hair, keeping me pressed against her sex.

I take a deep breath, inhaling the musky scent of her, and kiss her long and deep, dragging my tongue through her folds and plucking her lips with mine, until she’s about to fall off the bathroom vanity. “Dominic,” she moans. Her thighs are beginning to shake uncontrollably, and I know she’s close. I push one finger into her wet pussy and clamp my lips around her clit, and she comes spectacularly, crying out, and pulling my hair. It’s the most amazing reaction I’ve ever witnessed. Before she can recover completely, I stand and swoop her up into my arms and carry her to the bed, lay her on her back and cover her completely, my pelvis nestled between her legs, my pulsing cock cradled in her folds. I brush her hair off her cheeks as she stares up at me, trying to catch her breath. “That was one.” “One what?” she asks breathlessly. “One orgasm.” “You’re counting?” She giggles, which makes her core flex against my cock, stealing my breath. “Oh, yes, I’m counting. You won’t have the brain cells to keep track.” “How many are we going for?” She pushes her fingers into my hair, brushing it off my forehead. Nothing’s ever felt so good. I love the way she touches me. “As many as possible.” “I’m good with one.” She shrugs one shoulder, but I smile down at her. “I’m not.” I rest my lips against hers, brushing back and forth. I pull my hips back and the tip of my cock is just about to slip inside her when her eyes go wide. “Stop!” “What? What’s wrong?” “Condom!” I lean my forehead against hers with a frustrated groan. “I wasn’t exactly expecting this.” “I’ve had an IUD for a while. I can’t get pregnant. Are you clean?” “As a whistle.” A soft smile spreads over her gorgeous face as her hands glide down my back, grip onto my ass, under the elastic of my shorts, since I didn’t take the time to remove them, and she pulls me inside her in one long, slow motion, making us both moan and shudder. “So tight,” I whisper, keeping as still as possible. My fingers brush down her cheeks, and I can’t help but let my lips dance over hers lightly as her body stretches and adjusts to me. “So fucking small.”

“I think you’re just big,” she replies with a laugh, hitching her legs up around my hips, opening herself wider, and making me swear under my breath. I can’t help it, I have to move; I have to feel how it is to slip in and out of her hot, wet flesh. “Si sente così fottutamente incredibile.” Dio, I can’t hold back. “English,” she says with a breathless laugh. “Mi dispiace.” I laugh and shake my head. “I’m sorry. I said, you’re so fucking amazing.” “Oh, I like that,” she says, and braces her hands on my chest. “God, you make me forget my English. I’ve never forgotten my English.” I want to lift up and look between us, to watch my cock surge in and out of her, but I can’t resist covering her and kissing her, holding her beautiful face in my hands as my hips pick up speed. I feel her tense up, her pussy is milking my cock for all it’s worth, and I know she’s about to fall over the ledge into another orgasm. “Go,” I whisper against her lips. “Go.” “Oh, my God,” she whimpers. “Si,” I reply. She shakes her head back and forth and stares up at me almost desperately as her pussy clamps down and the ripples start. Her back arches and I take one of her nipples into my mouth and roll the tip with my tongue as she cries out, bursting with pure energy. “That’s two,” I say with a growl, pull out of her and flip her over onto her stomach. I shimmy out of my shorts impatiently and straddle her legs, spread her ass cheeks, and guide my cock back inside her, making her cry out, and I almost explode as she clamps around me. Not yet. I begin to fuck her in earnest, my hips hitting her ass hard. I brush her hair off her back, exposing one shoulder and lean over to bite her, where her neck and her shoulder meet, and her pussy spasms around me again. Her neck is her sweet spot. I grin and repeat the motion, careful not to leave marks. Her hips surge up, arching her back beautifully. I grasp one hip in my hand to hold her still as I fuck her hard, and feel my balls tighten and lift; the base of my spine tingles, and I know I’m about to lose it. “Come again, Alecia,” I order her with a firm voice. She gasps and clenches around me. “Again,” I repeat as I push in as far as I can and hold firm. “Now!” She cries out as the third orgasm takes her over, and I come with her, hard. Wrecked. Undone.

Dios, what has she done to me? When I can breathe again, I pull out of her and return to the bathroom, wet a cloth and when I walk back to the bedroom, I smile when I see she hasn’t moved an inch. “Did you fall asleep?” I ask softly, and press the warm cloth between her legs, startling her. “What are you doing?” “Cleaning you up,” I reply calmly. She sighs and lets me finish wiping her clean, and then I toss the cloth on the floor and rejoin her. “How do you feel?” “Thoroughly fucked,” she replies with a grin as I push her onto her side so I can slide next to her on my back and pull her against me, her head resting on my chest. I sink my fingers in her hair and watch the blonde strands sift through my fingers. “Well, you were thoroughly fucked,” I reply with a smile. “It was rather unexpected,” she says softly. “You asked what the Italian home remedy is for sexual frustration. I thought it best to just go ahead and show you.” “Mm,” she murmurs. I can feel her smile against my chest. “I was so pissed.” “So I saw.” I kiss her head and take a deep breath of her citrusy shampoo. “You seem to be calmer now.” “Mm,” she murmurs again. “It’s going to be a pleasure keeping you on your toes.” I can’t help but smile at the thought. “Yeah, right,” she replies, and nuzzles her nose against my chest, making my cock stir. “Just wait and see, tesoro.” She takes a deep breath and drags her leg up mine, linking them together. Her arm is draped around my stomach and her ear is pressed to my heart. I’m content to simply lie with her, brushing my fingers through her hair. I’m exhausted, but I don’t want to sleep. I’m finally in Alecia’s bed, and I don’t plan to miss a moment of it. “I should go to sleep,” she whispers against my skin. I grin and kiss her head. “Go ahead.” She tenses, every muscle in her body waking up, and she lifts her head to frown at me. “We’re not sleeping together.” Blow to the gut. “Excuse me?” I keep my voice even and lift an arrogant brow. “We fucked, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to spend the night together.”

She sits up and tries to hop out of bed, but I’m faster. I pull her back onto the bed and cover her body with mine, my face inches from hers. “We didn’t just fuck.” “Yes. We did.” She tries to wiggle out from under me, but I’m much stronger. “Dominic, you’re hurting me.” Back at you, sweetheart. I immediately release her and shake my head. My feelings are hurt. This is new. I glance back at her to see that she’s wrapped the sheet around her, and she’s gazing at me with uncertainty. Not fear, just as if she’s not sure what I’ll do next. “I’ll go.” I pull my shorts on and turn back to her. “But I’ll be joining you for breakfast.” “That’s not—” “It’s necessary to me, Alecia,” I reply and lean down to capture her swollen lips with mine. “I’ll see you in the morning.” I turn and leave without looking back and stalk down the long hallway back to my own room. She fucking kicked me out. That’s never happened before. I flop onto my back on the bed and stare at the ceiling. I can still smell her, and it makes me wish she were still pressed up against me. I think back over the evening, wondering where things went wrong. The sex was… Amazing. Fantastic. The best I’ve ever fucking had. And I know I wasn’t alone in that. The way she responded to my touch was extraordinary. But it was when we were cuddled up, ready to sleep, that she panicked. My piccolo tesoro is uneasy with intimacy. I feel my lips tip up in a smile, as I realize just how much of a pleasure it’s going to be to keep her on her toes. Just as she’s keeping me on mine. And fuck if that isn’t sexy. ***

It’s early when I let myself into Alecia’s room. She’s still in bed, under the sheets, curled into a ball on her side. The gentle rise and fall of her delicious curves are outlined with the white sheet. Her honey-blonde hair is fanned out behind her on the pillow, her cheeks are pink with sleep, and her rosy lips are parted and wet. She’s an angel. I set the breakfast tray on the table beside the bed, tether my iPhone to her wireless speakers via Bluetooth and press play on the new Alecia playlist. It’s full of soft, moody music like Sarah Bareilles and Adele. Unable to resist, I pluck the pink tulip from its vase and slip under the sheet next to her as Adele begins to sing Chasing Pavements. I’m still wearing my gym shorts. I’d rather be naked, but I’m not even sure she won’t scream the house down when she realizes I’m in bed with her. I inch close to her, drag the petals of the flower, then my fingertips, down her soft cheek and grin when she presses closer to my touch, as if even in sleep she’s drawn to me. “Alecia,” I whisper before pressing my lips to her forehead. “Mm.” She frowns in her sleep. She’s adorable. “Alecia,” I repeat and kiss her nose. “Wake up.” “No.” She opens one eye half-mast, snags the flower and snuggles it next to her cheek, sniffing it, then wiggles down further into the covers. I chuckle and wrap my arms around her, drawing her against my chest. Ah, that’s better. “I brought you breakfast.” “Why are you in bed with me?” I smile against her head and press a kiss to her hair as she wraps her arms around my waist and holds on sleepily. “Because it’s morning; I didn’t sleep here as you asked, and I needed to see you.” “I can’t resist your charm when I’m half asleep,” she murmurs and kisses my chest sweetly. “If you brought me tea, I’ll let you live.” “Tea and fruit and some other delicious things.” “Strawberries?” she asks. “Do you enjoy strawberries, sweetheart?” “Yes. I like it better when you use the Italian words.” I chuckle and pat her ass through the sheet. “I’ll remember that.” “I thought you were mad at me,” she admits with a small voice. I tip her head back so I can look into her deep brown gaze and shake my head. “Confused, but not mad.” “Sleeping together pushes this into a category that I’m not sure I’m okay with.”

“We’re already there, Alecia.” She begins to stiffen again, but I kiss her forehead and tuck her against me, not willing to allow her to pull away again. “But that doesn’t mean that we won’t go at the pace you’re comfortable with. We have all the time in the world.” “What if sex is all I can ever give you?” My heart hurts for her. Who taught her that love means pain? Why is she afraid to see where this leads? “Then I’ll be a very sexually satisfied man,” I reply, rather than ask my questions. She sighs deeply and relaxes against me again, and I can’t help but smile in satisfaction. “Alecia, as long as I can feel you come apart in my arms, and share moments like this one, and like the one the other night by my fireplace with you, I’m content.” “For now.” “Hey.” I lean back so I can look her in the eye. “Right now is all that matters. I’m not asking to put a ring on your finger.” She bites her lip and looks so uncertain. “I need to be honest, Dominic.” “Always,” I agree. “I don’t think I believe in love. If you think that that’s where you want this to go, you should know that I am not capable of that.” Bullshit. Rather than argue, I sigh deeply and rub her upper arm soothingly. “Understood.” “Really?” Fuck no. “Really.” She sighs in relief and offers me a sweet smile. “Okay. I’m hungry.” “Me too.” “I’m hungry for fruit and tea,” she clarifies with a laugh, and my stomach clenches. I love her laugh and her smile when she’s happy and carefree like this. It happens so seldom. I want to give her lots of smiles. “Let’s feed you then, tesoro.” “What happened to cara?” I’ve been slowly falling for you for a long time, and I’m afraid I fell the rest of the way in love with you last night, and you’re so much more than my darling. You’re my treasure. But that would send her screaming back to Tacoma. Instead, I simply laugh and shake my head as I pour her tea. “You’re very authoritative when it comes to terms of

endearment.” She shrugs and sips her tea. “I like the Italian.” “And you’ll get it, cara. I’m right here.” She pops a slice of pineapple in her mouth and watches me speculatively. “What did you mean last night when you said I made you forget your English?” “Just that,” I reply, and spread strawberry jam on a toasted English muffin. “I didn’t even realize I wasn’t speaking English, I was so lost in you.” This thought seems to make her happy. She smiles softly. “How long have you spoken English?” “Since I could speak. My mother raised me to be bilingual.” She takes in this information while she chews her fruit, then takes a bite of my muffin, licks jam off her lip, and then grins at me. “So, it was good then?” “Good?” I shake my head. “No.” “No?” I shake my head again and set her tea on the tray, moving it out of my way so I can scoop her up and pull her into my lap. She wraps her arms around my shoulders. After I left last night, she must have pulled her tank and fresh panties on. Her hair is loose, falling in waves around her face, washed clean of makeup. She’s so beautiful she makes my heart stop. “It was—” I slide my fingertip down her temple, then hook her hair behind her ear. “It was the most amazing,” I kiss her lips, “arousing,” kiss her cheek, “life affirming,” kiss her jaw and down to her neck, “time of my life.” “You should know that if you kiss my neck, I’m not responsible for my actions.” I grin against the smooth skin of her neck and slide my hands under her tank. “Challenge accepted, tesoro.”

Chapter Eight ~Alecia~ God, I love it when he’s shirtless. I plunge my fingers into Dom’s hair and hold on tight as his hands move under my tank, up my sides and around to gently cup my breasts, his thumbs barely brushing over my nipples, already puckered and primed for his attention. “I love the way you touch me,” I murmur against his lips. It’s the honest truth. His hands do things to me that I didn’t even know were possible. And I’m no virgin. “Your skin is so soft,” he whispers, and nibbles his way back down my neck, sending shivers through me. Sarah Bareilles begins to croon out Gravity through my speakers and I grin softly. “I love this song.” “It’s appropriate,” he replies before nipping my chin. “How so?” He pulls back, cups my ass in his hands, and grinds his hardness against me. “I can’t stay away from you, Alecia. Knowing that you might throw me out of here this morning, I still couldn’t stay away, any more than I can fight gravity.” And that terrifies me because the feeling is entirely mutual. Before I can respond, he pushes my tank over my head, tosses it to the floor, and covers my breast with his lips; his hands are roaming my back, his fingertips digging into my flesh deliciously. His passion is intoxicating. When he touches me, he touches me. There’s no half-way about it, no wondering what he’s thinking. It’s perfectly clear what he’s thinking. He’s thinking about me. And fuck if I can think of anything at all but him. I wrap my legs around his waist and grind my core against him, grinning when he releases a long, low growl. There’s something decidedly thrilling about making a strong, controlled man like Dominic Salvatore come apart at the seams. He moves quickly, placing me on the bed, grips my panties at my hips and slowly guides them down my legs, tosses them over his shoulder and gazes down at me like I’m a feast and he hasn’t eaten in days. “Do you have any idea,” he murmurs and places light kisses on the inside of my thigh, “how beautiful you are? You’re all soft, and warm, and still a bit sleepy, and I’m going to steep myself in you, Alecia.”

I can only bite my lip and watch as he continues to kiss my skin, up one hip, to my belly and between my breasts. My hands roam over his muscled shoulders, arms, back. His skin is smooth and warm and so fucking masculine, I can’t take my eyes off of him. I hook my toes in his shorts and push them down his hips, and he grins down at me roguishly, that sexy dimple in his cheek winking at me. “You’re not so bad yourself, you know.” My breath catches as his fingertips brush up my side, then down my belly and between my legs, and breathing is out of the question altogether, as his fingers play my pussy like a freaking musical instrument. “Holy shit,” I whisper. His lips are glued to my neck, wreaking all kinds of havoc, and he has the nerve to chuckle as I’m ready to come out of my skin. “Do you need me to stop?” he asks. “Don’t you dare,” I say, and grip onto him harder, afraid that he’ll do just that. His fingers are sliding through my folds, spreading my wetness around, and if I wasn’t so damned turned on right now, I might be just a little embarrassed at just how wet I am already. My hips are moving of their own volition, circling, following his lead. And just as I’m about to fall apart, he stops. Fucking stops. “What the hell?” My eyes fly to his. I expect to find him smiling smugly, but he’s intense and hot, and breathing just as hard as I am. “Why did you stop?” “I don’t want you to come yet.” “Why?” He shakes his head and kisses my cheek gently. “I have a plan.” “There’s a plan?” I cup his face in my hands and stare up at him as he hovers over me, catching his own breath. His cock is lying, heavy and full, against my belly. “Maybe you should reevaluate the plan.” “It’s a good plan, tesoro.” His lips nibble mine, almost lazily, and my body is still humming. He buries his hands in my hair and just kisses me for long minutes, softly at first, and then deeply, passionately, rubbing his chest against mine, moving his body over me in an ageless dance. I reach between us to take his cock in my hand, but I only get two good pumps in, and feel the drop of dew with my thumb, before he pulls away, laces his fingers with mine and pins my hand over my head. “No touching is part of the plan?” I whisper. “You have me on the edge.” “I’ve barely touched you.” I search his bright blue eyes and feel my heart thud when he leans his forehead against mine and takes a deep breath. “All you have to do is look at me and I feel like a teenager.” “Now you’re just being charming.” He chuckles as he rears his hips back and slowly slides right inside me, all the way

inside, and then all the laughter is gone from his face as he stares down at me. My body shimmies and moves under him, adjusting to him, and his jaw tenses. “God, you’re tight, cara.” I take a deep breath. “I’m going to come,” I say, and close my eyes. God, I can’t help it. He’s plunged all the way in, he’s pressing against my clit, and holy shit. “Go ahead,” he whispers, and begins to pulse his hips, nudging the root of his cock against my sweet spot, over and over, and I can’t stop the eruption that starts at my core and shoots out of my every nerve, making me clench onto him and ride it out. He swears ripely, but tenderly cups my face in one hand, releases my other hand, and grips onto my ass cheek, pulling me even more firmly against him. “Open your eyes.” I comply and stare up into his icy blue gaze as he begins to move faster, his hips pumping, his cock plunging in and out of me, and his hand gripping onto my ass so hard, I’m sure I’ll have bruises there later. I can’t wait to see them. “Again,” he growls. “I can’t.” I shake my head, but he kisses me hard and grinds his pubis against my clit. Every muscle in his impressive body is tight, flexed in raw sexual need. He’s simply breathtaking. “Again,” he insists. “Oh God, Alecia.” The hoarse whisper of my name is all it takes to send me over the edge again. I cry out, holding onto him for all I’m worth, as my world crumbles out from under me. Dominic hardly makes a sound, aside from his harsh, labored breathing, as he succumbs to his own release. Jesus. Neither of us can breathe. We’re gasping, trembling. I’ve never had an orgasm like that. Make that like the last half-dozen or so he’s given me in the past twelve hours. A girl could become addicted to this. “That’s the plan,” he says, with a cocky grin. I must have said that last part out loud. “I need a shower.” His eyes light with excitement, like a kid on Christmas morning, and I laugh and swat at his arm. “We have work, sex maniac.” “We could conserve water.” I shake my head, but can’t help but grin as he leans down and kisses me like he always kisses me, with a lazy confidence, as though it’s our first kiss all over again. He’s so fucking good at that. “Are you okay?” He brushes his knuckles down my cheek and watches me closely.

“Yes,” I reply, and realize that I mean it. I am okay. He studies me for another long minute, and then kisses my nose and rolls away, giving me space to sit up and stretch. “But you have to go away. No more distracting me. I have to get to work.” “That hurts.” I spin and then relax when I see he’s lying with his hands behind his head, a confident smile on his lips. “I thought I was more than a distraction.” “You’re a sexy distraction,” I qualify and, without covering my nakedness, stalk away and into the bathroom. I start the shower and am just about to step into the hot spray when Dominic walks into the bathroom, wearing his shorts again, and scoops me up into a big hug. His hands glide over my back, down to my ass, and up again, but rather than join me in the shower, he plants a kiss on my head and murmurs, “Have a good morning. I’ll see you later.” Dominic Salvatore gives the best hugs ever. I hold on for a moment, soaking in his warmth, his calm, his musky scent, before backing away and giving him a bright smile. “You enjoy your morning too.” He tilts his head to the side and narrows his eyes. “Thank you.” He sees too much. I nod and turn to get into the shower, but he takes my hand, making me look back at him over my shoulder. “Yes?” “Finish your breakfast when you’re done.” “Yes, sir.” I pat his hard chest, then get into the shower and close the glass door. “See you later.” “Later.” He leaves and shuts the bathroom door behind him, and I immediately deflate like a balloon. What in the hell am I doing? Last night was…God. I don’t even know how to categorize it. I’ve never felt that connected to anyone in my life. Not even Blake. Not even my ex-husband. I wanted him to stay. I wanted to lie in his arms and feel him breathing all night long, so I did the only thing that made sense to me and sent him away. The hurt look in his eyes will forever be burned in my mind. I wanted to say never mind. Ask him to come back to bed. But he scares me! He makes me feel things I have no business feeling. And he can deny it all he wants, but he’ll eventually want to take this farther than just sex. Hell, I might eventually want to take it farther than just sex. And that would be a disaster, because I don’t do love. I can’t. Like Jonathan used to say, I’m not capable of it. I can’t do this. I can’t face Dominic today. I have to figure out how I’m going to tell

him that this was a one-time deal. Okay, a two-time deal. I finish showering, my mind is made up, and dress quickly in a blue summer dress with black heels, twist my hair up, grab my computer and my handbag, and set out downstairs. “Isaac!” I call out to the tall man as I approach the reception site. “Hey, Alecia,” he says with a smile. “Things are going to go more smoothly today. I promise.” “Great.” I smile and gaze about the area, pleased with the progress already today. “It looks like things are pretty well under control today.” “They are.” He takes in my handbag and tilts his head. “Do you need to leave?” “I do.” I so do. “But I’ll have my cell on me, and if you need me for anything, I can be back here within the hour.” “We’ll be fine,” he assures me. “See you tomorrow?” “You’re coming every day?” I ask with surprise. “Yes. This is my brother’s wedding. There won’t be any more mistakes. Between Mark and me, we have it under control.” “Sounds good.” I nod, not really paying attention to him, just needing to go. “Thanks for everything, and don’t hesitate to call if you need me.” He nods as I turn and walk briskly around the villa, almost running into Celeste as she’s arriving for the day. “Oh! Hi, Alecia.” “Hello, Celeste.” “You’re leaving?” She raises a brow. “Is everything okay?” “Yes,” I lie. “I have some business to see to. Can you please pass the message on to Dominic? I won’t be back until tomorrow.” Coward, my mind taunts me. “Sure, I’ll let him know. Have a good day.” She waves and disappears inside, and I make a hasty retreat, immediately regretting leaving, but unable to turn around. *** Four hours later, I’m pacing my living room. I’ve talked myself in and out of pursuing a physical relationship with Dominic six times. Six. Times. I’m sick of myself. I scoop up my phone, and before I know it, it’s pressed to my ear and ringing. “So, you do remember that I exist,” Blake’s dry voice comes through the speaker and I want to cry. I bite my lip and stare out my window at the boats floating on the blue water

of the sound and concentrate on breathing. “Hello?” “I’m here.” “What’s wrong?” he asks, immediately concerned, and that makes me want to cry too. “Damn it, Leash, talk to me.” “I’m an idiot.” “Sometimes,” he agrees, and then chuckles, and I take a deep breath. “Why this time?” “You’re not helping.” “Start at the beginning. What’s up?” “I slept with him.” I walk numbly to the glass and lean my forehead against it. The cold feels good on my warm skin. “And I liked it.” “I hope you liked it. If not, what in the hell is the point?” “Not helping.” “Who, exactly, did you sleep with?” “Dominic Salvatore.” I swallow and close my eyes. “I slept with him last night, and again this morning, and then I ran out of there and came home. I’m an idiot.” I can hear Blake shuffling around and then his chair creaks as he leans back in it. “Why is sleeping with Dominic a bad thing? He’s a good guy.” “That’s just it. He is a good guy. And he’s sexy and hot and the best sex I’ve ever had.” “Hey!” “Oh, stop it.” I roll my eyes and pace back toward the kitchen. “So I’ll ask again. What’s the problem?” “This isn’t just a fuck buddy situation, Blake. I’m way too…” I wave my arm about, trying to come up with the right words. “Beautiful? Amazing? Wonderful?” “I was going to say incapable of having a real relationship.” I bite my lip and then feel myself grin. “But thanks for the compliments.” “I don’t know what the fuck Jonathan did to you, but I do know that he did a number on your view of relationships. Leash, of course you’re capable of having a relationship. You and I have been in one for more than three years.” “That started as sex, and now we’re just friends. And I love you, but not in that way.” “And you think you could love Dom in that way?” Much to my distress, tears fill my eyes. “I like him.” “Do you think he likes you back, or is he just looking to get laid?” You make me lose my English. “He likes me.”

“He’d be stupid not to.” Blake chuckles ruefully. “Alecia, you are a sexy, beautiful, smart woman. Not all romantic relationships work, but some do.” “Not for me.” “Shut up for a minute. Jesus, you’re fucking stubborn.” “Did you just tell me to shut up?” “Yes, and you’re not good at taking orders, obviously.” Come, Alecia. I’m good at taking orders from Dominic. “Just take a deep breath, Leash. You’re over-thinking this. I know you. You had a good time, and it scared you, and now you’re doing the girl thing, over-analyzing it all.” “I am a girl.” “I’m aware,” he says with a chuckle. “I love you, kiddo. You’re the best friend I ever had. You’re still the best sex I ever had.” “Blake—” “You deserve to be happy. Just be happy, Leash.” “I want to be happy too,” I choke out. “So, just do that. Be happy. Fuck him senseless. Laugh with him. Let him teach you about wines and all that other fun shit, and don’t worry about the rest of it.” “How did you get so smart?” “I was in love with you for a long time, and you couldn’t love me back.” My heart stumbles to a stop as my eyes widen and my jaw drops. “I’m lucky just to have you in my life. I got over it, and now I think of you more like a sister, but don’t shut Dom out the way you did me. Not if you think it could work out between you.” “Blake.” “I mean it. Go back out there.” “I’m going to go help Emily out tonight at the Haverland wedding.” I’m still stuck like stupid on I was in love with you for a long time. “Blake, I didn’t know.” “You weren’t in a good place then, kiddo. You’re good now. I’m okay.” “We’re okay?” “We will be if you go back to the vineyard tonight. Emily doesn’t need your help. The Haverland wedding is tiny, and she has it handled.” “It’s my business. I should be there.” “It’s your business, and you’ve hired good people. You’re being stubborn again.” “I love you too, you know.” “I know. Go to the vineyard.” “No.”

“I’ll give you a thousand bucks.” “I don’t need it.” I giggle and flop down on my couch, feeling more relaxed than I have since this morning when I was in Dom’s arms. “You’re bossy.” “Fine. Do what you want.” He sighs dramatically. “What do I care if Salvatore gets laid?” “He already got laid today. He’s fine.” “I don’t want to know this.” I chuckle again and then take a deep, cleansing breath. “So, I overreacted.” “Probably. What’s up with women? Why can’t y’all just fuck like rabbits and then get on with your day? Why do you have to sketch out a three-year plan and talk it to death? Just enjoy the sex, for Christ sakes.” “People should pay you for this advice,” I say dryly. “Speaking of sex, are you seeing anyone?” “I’m seeing a few someones,” he replies with a smile in his voice. “I don’t have sex hang-ups.” “You’re gross. Tell me you’re being careful.” “I buy condoms by the case.” “Ew.” “You asked, sweetheart.”

Chapter Nine ~Dominic~ “Good morning, Mr. Salvatore.” I glance up from my computer as Celeste walks briskly into my office. “Good morning.” “I just saw Alecia,” she begins, and opens her iPad to go over notes with me, as is our usual morning routine. “She was just leaving.” My heart stills. “Leaving?” “She said she has some business that requires her attention, so she asked me to pass the message on to you.” “Fine.” I nod, as the rest of me sighs in relief. Business. Yes, it’s just like my Alecia to run off at a moment’s notice if her business needs her. I love her work ethic, her passion for her job. Yet, it’s interesting that while she loves the planning, she’s as cynical as they come when it comes to love. I wonder if I can change her mind in that area. I begin rattling off duties for Celeste to see to during the day. “Mick, the head of security, will be here tomorrow morning, and every day thereafter until the wedding.” “Yes, I have that on the schedule,” Celeste replies with a nod. “Do you want me to have lunch brought in for your brothers today?” “My brothers?” I ask with a raised brow. “Yes, all of them are here.” I blink at Celeste in confusion. “All of them?” “Whether related by blood or marriage, they’re here. The backyard is a huge mass of testosterone. Can you bring them by more often?” I laugh as I stand and shake my head at my assistant. “They’re all completely in love with their women, you know.” “I don’t have to touch them to appreciate them. I’m sure their women would understand.” “Would Clay understand?” I ask, referring to her husband of more than a dozen years. “Clay doesn’t have to know.” She smiles and follows me out of my office. “So, lunch?” “Yes, have sandwiches brought in from that café I like in Olympia. I’ll be in the backyard.”

“Lucky bastard,” I hear her mutter, and can’t help the smile that comes to my lips. I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that the Montgomery side of my family is a handsome one. I don’t see any of them as my eyes scan the reception area, but I can hear raised voices coming from the ceremony site in the vines. “Why do you smell like me?” Isaac asks Matt, the second eldest brother, with a scowl. “I had to use your body wash when I caught a shower at the office before we came here,” Matt replies calmly, with more than a little mirth in his trademark Montgomery blue eyes. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Isaac yells, as the rest of the brothers laugh. “You can’t use my body wash!” “It’s soap, dude,” Caleb says with a shake of the head. Caleb is only a year older than me. “I have to burn the fucking body wash now,” Isaac mutters. I stand back and take them all in. Not only are all four of my brothers here, both Luke and Mark Williams are here, along with Leo Nash and Nate McKenna as well. The whole fucking family. Mark is measuring boards and Isaac is manning a saw. I frown as I realize they’re all in jeans, holding tools, hammering boards. Even McKenna. “Are we having a party that I wasn’t aware of?” I ask as I approach. “Oh, good, you’re here.” Will grins and shakes my hand, then claps my shoulder. “We’re making the arbor.” “We are?” I glance toward Isaac. “Don’t you have a crew for this?” “We decided this would be more meaningful,” Luke replies with a smile. “We’re making the arbor, and Will is going to take it home after the wedding and put it in their garden.” “It’s something from the brothers,” Leo adds with a grimace. “I tried to talk them into just letting me write a song, but Will has his pansy ass set on something pretty for the garden.” “Fuck you, man, Meg loves the garden,” Will replies, and then grabs Leo into a headlock and rubs his head with his knuckles. “You telling me that if Sam said she wanted pretty in the garden, you wouldn’t give it to her?” “I’d give her anything she asked for,” Leo replies as he wrestles out of Will’s hold. “And did just this morning.” “Watch it,” Luke advises. “She may be your wife now, but she’s my sister, and I can still kick your ass if need be.” Matt shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “Anyway,” he says, and grins at me. “We were waiting for you. You have to hammer some nails for your soon-to-be sister-in-law too.”

I roll my sleeves and take an offered hammer from Mark. “How’s the baby?” Caleb asks Nate, and we all crack up when the tall, tough former fighter breaks out in a goofy grin. “Stella’s awesome.” Nate wipes his sweaty forehead on his black T-shirt and takes a long drink of water. “She’s fucking beautiful.” “Well, look at her mother,” Mark says off-handedly as he measures out more boards, earning a raised brow from Nate. “Have you been looking at her mother?” Nate asks, and we all glance at each other, trying to hold our laughter in. “Sure, I mean—” Mark suddenly stops and frowns and then looks at Nate. “Dude, not like that. It’s Jules, for fuck sake.” “I’m well aware of who Stella’s mother is,” Nate replies with a chuckle. “And you’re right. She’s gorgeous, so it makes sense that I’ll have my hands full with Stella.” “This family is good at producing beautiful babies,” Isaac agrees. “I find it a bit disturbing that there are no women around and we’re talking about babies,” Will says. “Shouldn’t we be talking about sex and cars and football?” “If you talk about sex,” Leo begins, “you’ll be talking about my sister, and that’s not okay.” “How are things with Meredith?” I ask Mark, steering the conversation away from sex and babies. “Great.” He grins and passes a board to Isaac for cutting. “And how are you feeling?” Caleb asks him. We all sober as we wait for his response. Mark was hit by a car while on the job more than a month ago, and while the injuries weren’t serious, it was a scary time for the family. “I’m good as new,” he replies. “But I don’t mind having Meredith around to coddle me now and then.” “And how are all your beautiful girls?” I ask. The guys all nod and grin, thinking of their women. I can’t help but think of my woman and smile myself. “My woman is gonna love this,” Will says, as he gestures to the wood lying in a heap on the ground. “She has no idea. And it’s going to mean more to her because you all made it for her.” Will’s face sobers as he looks at each of us. “No one’s ever needed family more than my Megan.” “Well, she has it in spades now,” Caleb replies and strips his sweaty shirt off, tossing it aside. “Okay, boards are cut,” Isaac announces and then begins giving us all instructions on the most efficient way to assemble it, and we break off into teams. “You’re quiet today,” Caleb comments as he, Matt and myself work on the top of the arbor.

“I’m quiet every day,” I reply. “Besides, you’re one to talk.” Caleb shrugs and passes me a handful of nails. “Who is she?” Matt asks quietly. “Who is who?” “The woman that put that shit-eating smile on your face earlier.” “That’s an unfortunate turn of phrase,” I reply. “It’s a woman,” Caleb confirms. “He’s evading.” “I’m not evading.” They both stop what they’re doing and stare at me, then bust up laughing. “I’ve just started seeing Alecia.” “Holy shit! You talked her into it?” Matt asks. “Wore her down is more like it,” Caleb replies, then bumps fists with Matt. “She’s an interesting woman,” I reply, rather than take the bait to get angry. I may not have grown up with brothers, but I did grow up with cousins. I know baiting when I see it. “Interesting how?” Nate asks from a few feet away. I glance around to find that everyone has gone quiet, listening to me. These men are worse than a bunch of gossiping women. I shake my head and hammer a nail. “She’s sexy as fuck, but she doesn’t know it,” I begin, then tap another nail in place. “She’s feminine, but tough as nails.” “I wouldn’t want to take her on,” Luke adds. “I’ve seen others try, and she tramples them under one of her gorgeous heels without breaking a sweat.” I nod. “She’s excellent at her job, but she doesn’t believe in love.” “Hold up.” Caleb stands and turns to me. “What the fuck does that mean? She plans weddings for a living.” I shake my head, just as confused as the rest of them. “And she loves it, but says she doesn’t believe in happily ever after.” The guys frown, and I swear under my breath. “That doesn’t mean you should fire her from planning family events. She does an excellent job—” “No one’s firing her from anything,” Nate replies calmly, as the others shake their heads in agreement. “But it’s a definite surprise.” “Just shows she’s professional,” Mark says. “True,” Leo says with a shrug and tugs his Metallica tank over his head. “I mean, I don’t always love all the music out there, but I have a passion for mine. She’s good at the organization of it, and she gets results.”

“She’s bossy,” Will adds with a grin. “And she’s sexy while she’s doing it.” “I think we can all agree that we’re all attracted to strong women, since that’s what we all have,” Luke agrees with a smirk. “Meg’s not bossy,” Will says with a scowl. “That’s what she’s let you believe,” Caleb says and slaps Will’s shoulder. “Well, she’s not bossy in the bedroom.” “I don’t imagine any of us would let them take control in the bedroom,” I say with a smile. “Are you going to talk her into giving love a try, or are you just in it for a piece of ass?” Nate asks. My eyes narrow on his and my hands flex into fists. “He’s been waiting too long for her for it to just be about the sex,” Isaac says. Nate doesn’t answer; he just continues to watch me with calm grey eyes. “I’m not just fucking her.” “Okay then.” “What if I was?” I ask out of curiosity. “Well, that’s your business,” Nate replies, and turns back to hammer more nails. “But I think that Alecia is worth more than that.” “She’s worth everything,” I mutter under my breath before taking a long drink of water. “We’re going to the Mariner’s game the week after the wedding, right?” Mark asks. “Yes, we have tickets,” Matt replies. “And I might need your help with something that day.” “Don’t do it like that, man,” Caleb says with a roll of the eyes. “It’s cheesy as fuck.” “Not the way I’m thinking of doing it,” Matt replies with a scowl. “Is he going to propose at a baseball game?” Will asks. “Dude, you should have done it at the fucking Super Bowl. We won, for Godsake.” “I wasn’t ready,” Matt replies. “Don’t do it in public,” Luke says, and runs his hand over the plank of wood that has Meg and Will’s names and the date of their wedding carved into it. “Make it more special than that.” “Oh! I know! Since Nic owns the cupcake place, bake her some cupcakes and put the ring in one of them and she’ll find it when she eats it.” Mark looks pleased with his idea, but Caleb clocks him in the back of the head. “That’s ridiculous,” Leo says. “She’ll choke on it.” “Trust me, I have an idea.” Just as Matt begins to outline his brilliant idea for his

proposal to Nic, my phone vibrates in my pocket. Blake. I walk away from the brothers and answer the phone. “Hello.” “Hey, man, is this a bad time?” “This is fine. What’s up?” Blake sighs heavily on the other end of the line and then curses ripely. “No, I don’t believe I’m interested in fucking you sideways,” I reply with a smirk. “I shouldn’t be calling you.” Something in his voice has the hair on the back of my neck standing up. “What’s wrong?” He swears again, and now I’m just pissed. “Blake, what the fuck?” “First, let me say this: everything Leash ever tells me is in confidence, and I don’t make a habit of breaking that confidence.” “Understood.” I turn to watch my brothers, not really seeing them, and narrow my eyes. “What’s going on?” “I just got off the phone with her. Have you spoken to her?” “I saw her just this morning. She left for some work that she needed to take care of.” “That’s bullshit,” Blake says grimly. “She ran, man.” “What exactly do you mean, she ran?” “She’s not working, she’s at her apartment over-thinking the fact that she slept with you. She’s scared. She has her reasons, and they’re her reasons to tell you, but intimacy scares the fuck out of her.” “I figured that out,” I reply, and feel my blood heat. It has nothing to do with the heat of summer. “Yeah, well, I thought you should know.” “Why?” “Why what?” “Why are you telling me this?” I turn my back on my brothers again and pace away. “Because I think you’ll be good for her, and because when I got off the phone with her a little while ago, she sounded regretful that she left, and I know she won’t fix it on her own.” I push my hand through my hair and shake my head in exasperation. “I’m on my way to her place.”

“I think she was going to go help out with a wedding tonight, but you might catch her if you leave now.” “Thanks, man.” I hang up and return, just as Matt scowls at Caleb and shouts, “Are you just going to stand around all fucking afternoon?” “No,” Caleb replies sarcastically, “I’m gonna fuckin’ riverdance, asshole.” The guys laugh at Caleb’s witty response as I slip my phone in my pocket. “I have to go, guys.” “Everything okay?” Will asks. “No, but it will be. If you need anything, Celeste is just inside.” “We’re fine,” Isaac says. “We’ll have this done in an hour, tops.” “Is she okay?” Caleb asks. “I don’t know.” I shove my hands through my hair again. “I’m going to go figure it out.” “Let us know if you need anything,” Matt says. “Good luck,” Luke says with a grin, as the others wave. I run through the house, grab my keys and wallet, and set off to Alecia’s apartment. She fucking ran. *** I take the stairs up to Alecia’s floor, rather than wait for the elevator. Just as I burst through the stairwell doors, Alecia is stepping out of her apartment and her eyes go wide when she sees me stalking toward her. “What are you doing here?” “That’s my question,” I reply, and stop a few feet away from her. “I live here,” she replies and props her hands on her hips, pulling her pink blouse tight over her full breasts, and making my cock take notice. “But I’m about to go to work—” “No, you’re not.” Her jaw drops at the hard tone in my voice. “Yes, I believe I am.” “You’re going to invite me in your place so we can work out all the reasons why you ran from the villa today.” Her eyes narrow on my face. “I didn’t run anywhere.” “Like hell.” I step forward and cage her in against her door, my hands on either side of her face, and lean in, but don’t touch her. Not yet. She takes a deep breath and lays a hand on my chest to push me away, but instead swallows hard and stares at my mouth.

“I couldn’t stay there,” she whispers before catching herself. She grips my shirt in her fist and scowls up at me with bright, angry brown eyes. “And it’s none of your business if I decided to come home for the day.” “It’s my business, tesoro, to make sure you’re okay, and you clearly weren’t if you felt that you couldn’t stay in my home after I’d just spent the better part of last night and this morning inside you.” Unable to resist touching her for one more moment, I drag my knuckles down her cheek, and feel the flare of satisfaction when her eyes close and she leans into my touch. “Invite me in, please.” “I told Emily I’d help her tonight.” “You can un-tell her.” “You’re not going to leave, are you?” “No, cara, I’m not leaving.” She opens the door at her back and motions for me to follow her into her apartment, closes and locks the door and pulls her phone out of her bra. “Emily, I’m sorry, something’s come up, and I won’t be able to help you after all.” She smiles as she watches me lean my hips back against her kitchen counter. “I know you didn’t really need me in the first place. But you know where to find me if you do need anything. Good luck.” She clicks off and sets the phone and her handbag on the table by the front door. “Happy?” “No.” I sigh and cross my arms over my chest. “No, I don’t think happy is the right word to describe how I feel.” “How do you feel?” “Frustrated. Concerned. Baffled. To start.” She nods slowly and walks past me to the kitchen, pours us each a glass of Merlot, then passes one to me. “This isn’t one of mine,” I comment wryly and take a sip. “No, but it’s nice.” She walks out of the kitchen toward the living room and I can smell her citrusy shampoo as she passes by. “Hmm.” The wine is nice, and I have a feeling she needs it to bolster her courage. “Have a seat,” she says, motioning to the couch, and I have to take a breath to rein in my temper. This morning, she was writhing beneath me and now she’s speaking to me like I’m a business associate. So, I sit right next to her and brace my arm on the back of the couch behind her head and pull the pins out of her hair, letting it spill into my fingers. “That took me a while to put up,” she says. “I like it down.” “I’ve noticed.”

“Talk to me, cara.” “What do you want me to say?” “Fuck this.” I take her glass and set them both on the coffee table, then cradle her face in my hands and kiss the hell out of her. She gasps and grips my shirt in her fists at my sides and holds on tight as I take the kiss from hot and hard to soft and lazy and back again, before pulling away and staring into her eyes. They’ve gone soft and glassy, making me feel satisfied. “That’s better.” “You’re good at that,” she whispers with a sigh. “As are you. I don’t want you to pull away from me, tesoro. Not now. Not after last night.” She tries to look down, but I catch her chin with my thumb and finger and keep her gaze locked on mine. “If you get scared, or nervous, or have doubts, you run to me, not from me, do you understand?” “This is so far outside my comfort zone, I don’t know what to do.” “I think that’s the most honest thing you’ve ever said to me,” I murmur and kiss her forehead. “I’m not letting you slip through my fingers, Alecia. I’m not going anywhere, today or any other day. But I can’t understand if you don’t talk to me.” She shakes her head and closes her eyes, but not before I see the pain there, and my own heart cracks for her. “Being naked with you is easy compared to talking to you about my past.” “I love it when you’re naked with me,” I murmur with a smile. She opens her eyes and grins back at me. “But I need you to talk to me. Let’s start with what we were talking about the other night. I believe you said something about not believing in happily ever after.” She squirms and finally pushes me away, and then stands. And just when I think she’s going to throw me out of her apartment, she surprises me with, “Let’s take a bath.”

Chapter Ten She doesn’t stop to see if I’m following her as she walks purposefully into the bathroom, wine in hand, and turns on the taps of the garden tub. “Nice bathroom,” I comment calmly as I lean a shoulder against the doorjamb, watching her as she bustles about, keeping her hands busy pinning her hair back on her head and setting out towels. “It sold me on the place,” she replies with a grin. “I haven’t used the tub yet. No time.” She kicks out of her sexy black heels and begins stripping off her clothes as the tub fills and the room heats up, and I can only stand here and watch her. She’s not trying to tease me, she’s not trying to be enticing. And yet I want to rush to her, strip her bare and fuck her against the bathroom vanity more than I’ve ever wanted anything. Except to hear what she has to say. She won’t make eye contact, and I let her take her time to get comfortable. She pours something into the water that makes the room smell like jasmine. Turning her back from me, and this will be the last fucking time she ever does that, she strips bare and sinks down into the water. “Are you just going to stand there and look at me?” she asks testily. “Was that an invitation?” She exhales deeply and closes her eyes, then offers me a shy smile. “I’m sorry. Yes, please join me.” I push away from the doorway and unbutton my shirt, slip it off my shoulders and hang it on the hook behind the door. I don’t take my eyes off of her as I undress, and can’t help the smile that comes as her eyes follow my hands, gliding down my body. She licks her bottom lip as her eyes widen and her breathing picks up. I walk toward her, but rather than sit behind her, I sink into the water opposite her, pick her foot up and begin to dig my thumb into the sole, earning a low moan from her sweet lips. “Oh, God, that’s good.” I’m not sure what to do for her, and this is a first for me. So I simply sit and wait, letting the hot water work its magic, relaxing us both, and finally, after long minutes of me rubbing her feet and calves, she leans her head back on the edge of the tub, closes her eyes, and begins to talk. “I’m not a particularly lovable person, Dominic.” And pisses me off from the first words out of her gorgeous mouth. “My mother never made it a secret that she didn’t want children.” “Are you an only child?” I ask quietly, casually. “Yes. My parents didn’t plan to have kids, and I was a mistake.”

You’re not a motherfucking mistake. “From the time I was small, it was clear that I was an interruption. They loved each other, very much, and intended to always be a couple.” She pauses and bites her lip, a small frown between her eyebrows, as though she’s choosing her words carefully. “It wasn’t that they didn’t love me, in their way, they just weren’t interested in me.” I rub my hands up her calves, massaging the muscles in her slender legs and concentrate on keeping my breathing even and face calm. “From the time I was old enough to eat by myself, my mom would fix me a plate and set me up in front of the television to eat, so she and dad could eat together in the kitchen. That was their time. It still is.” She shrugs her shoulders, making her nipples surface above the water line and pucker from the cold air. Her cheeks are flushed pink from the warmth of the water. She’s pink everywhere. Gorgeous. “They kept me busy in school,” she continues. Her voice is perfectly calm. There’s no anger, no sadness. Just composure. “I also play the piano. I had lessons twice a week from the time I was four until I graduated from high school. Then, when I wasn’t involved with piano, they had me in soccer, basketball, and softball.” She cringes and then laughs. “I fucking hate to run.” “You hate to run?” I ask with a smile. “I do. I hate it. And they always signed me up for things that involved running. I asked if I could do cheerleading or anything else, but those sports were on a regular rotation, so I was always doing something after school.” She sighs. “That’s probably why I don’t like to exercise much now and my ass is too big.” “Your ass is not too big,” I reply calmly, but inside I want to beat the shit out of her parents. Who the fuck treats their child like they’re an imposition? “Besides, you run around plenty for your job. In heels, no less.” I drag my thumb along her arch, earning a groan from her. “I’m used to the heels,” she replies and smiles at me, then leans her head back again and continues her story. “So, I was in school all day, practicing something each afternoon, then doing school work until bedtime each day.” “Surely your parents attended your games. Your recitals?” “No, those were their date nights,” she replies quietly. “I don’t recall them ever going to an event.” My hands still on her foot, and tighten just a bit as pure rage seers through me. Alecia’s head comes up and she frowns at me. “What’s wrong?” I shake my head and resume rubbing her foot. “Nothing. Go on.” Her eyes narrow on mine for a moment, then she shrugs and leans her head back again. “You’ve got good hands.” “You’ve got good feet,” I reply, waiting her out.

“So, when I was a senior in high school, I met Jonathan. He was…attentive.” “Attentive?” I ask. “He paid attention to me. I was always kind of shy. I didn’t make a lot of friends, mostly because I was always too busy to spend time with them after school. But Jonathan paid attention. He was also a senior. He used to say he liked the looks of me.” She giggles. “Why wouldn’t he like the looks of you?” “It was the turn of phrase that made me laugh. He could be charming. And he was interested in me.” And you soaked that up like a sponge in the ocean, fiorellino. “My parents happily sent me off to college. They didn’t care which one, as long as I went away.” How in the fucking hell can she be so calm? My heart is aching for her, and she’s as cool as can be. I continue to rub her, sure to be quiet, so I don’t spook her. I have a feeling at this point she’s just relaxed and talking on autopilot. “So, Jonathan and I went to the same college, and eloped to Vegas our junior year.” She chuckles and shakes her head. “I thought he was the sexiest, funniest person in the world. I was a stupid, young girl.” “How long did it last?” I ask quietly. “Longer than it ever should have,” she replies with a sigh. “Jonathan made it clear from early in the relationship that I was a huge disappointment.” I can’t take it anymore. I grip her foot tightly and pull her toward me, turn her around, and settle her between my legs, wrap my arms around her and plant my lips on her head. “Go on.” “Are you okay?” she asks with surprise. “I am now.” No, I’m not fucking okay. I have to take another deep breath, inhaling in the sweet scent of her, feel her against me, warm and strong and whole, to calm myself. “How did he make you feel like you were a disappointment?” My voice is deceptively calm. “I was a disappointment, Dom.” “Why?” She shrugs and laces her fingers through mine, then hugs our hands to her chest. “I didn’t like the same things that he did.” She falls silent for a minute, and then swears ripely, surprising the hell out of me. “He liked to go to sex clubs, shows, places where clothing was optional. I didn’t feel comfortable going to those places.” “Okay.” I’m clearly missing something. “No, not okay.” She kisses my fingers. “He wanted me to wear skimpy clothes that I wasn’t comfortable in. I know I’m not horrible on the eyes, but I do have curves, and I

don’t feel that it’s appropriate to walk around half naked in front of people I don’t know. Hell, I don’t particularly like walking around half naked in front of people I do know.” She chuckles, but I don’t find it fucking funny. “It would make him angry. He wouldn’t yell at me, though. No, he would just ignore me.” “Ignore you?” I can’t help the tightness in my voice. “Yeah.” She sighs. “He knew that ignoring me was the best way to hurt me. I’d been ignored most of my life.” “So, he ignored you as a punishment.” “He did. And as time passed, it got worse. He would sleep on the couch, which he knew made me crazy. Wouldn’t speak to me for days, sometimes weeks at a time. When I started the business, and completed my first wedding, I asked him to take me out for a fun dinner to celebrate.” I hug her closer to me. “And he said, ‘Why? It’s just a fucking job.’” She chuckles and shakes her head, then glances over her shoulder at me. “He was an asshole,” I mutter. “Yeah. But—” “But?” “Well, I’m not going to say I deserved it, because that’s ridiculous, but he was right. It was just a job.” “It was something you worked hard on, and you wanted to celebrate it. It wasn’t just a job for you. And if he’d loved you the way he should have loved his wife, he would have seen that.” “Hmm,” is her only response. “So, back to the love thing.” “The love thing?” I ask with a laugh. “It’s just not in me,” she replies and shrugs a shoulder, but then plants another kiss on my hand. “So, I’m comfortable with pursuing a physical relationship, if you’re still interested in that, but don’t expect much more from me, because you’ll just be disappointed.” Her voice is perfectly matter of fact and reasonable and I want to just…shake her. What? She leans her blonde head back and gazes up at me. “Dom?” “Ah, tesoro,” I murmur and glide my wet knuckles down her cheek softly. “Let’s table this discussion for now, okay?” I grip her hips in my hands and lift her to her feet, then pull myself up behind her, help her step out of the tub and reach for a towel. I wrap it around her shoulders, and gripping each end in my hands, I pull her against me, making her grin shyly. “No more talking?” she whispers, her eyes pinned to my lips.

“Maybe less talking.” I lower my lips and gently brush them over hers, barely touching her skin, before nibbling the corner of her mouth and then gliding my tongue along her bottom lip to the other side, where I can nibble some more. She shivers, so I let my hands roam over the towel, drying her off. When we’re both dry, I lift her in my arms, snag her bottle of lotion from the sink and carry her into her bedroom. It’s dark now. With Alecia cradled in my arms, I pull the linens back on her bed, switch on the sidelight and gently lower her onto the bed, laying her on her back. She’s watching me through dreamy eyes, relaxed from the warm bath. “You are sure handsome to look at,” she murmurs, and lifts my hand to her lips. “You have such a sweet heart,” I whisper, as I lean in and kiss her forehead. “Close your eyes.” “It’s too early to go to sleep,” she replies. “I’m not trying to put you to sleep.” I rub lotion between my hands, warming it, then begin to massage it into Alecia’s soft, smooth skin. I run my hands over her arm, her shoulder and her hand and grin when she sighs deeply and closes her eyes. “You’re good with your hands,” she says. “They enjoy touching you,” I reply, as I move to the other side, then add more lotion and glide my hands over her upper chest, between her breasts and down her sides. “You have the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen.” “The skin is the largest organ in your body. You should take care of it,” she says primly, making me chuckle. “Brains as well as a beautiful face.” I work my way down her legs and give her feet another good rub, earning a long sigh of contentment from her. “Don’t the shoes you wear kill your feet?” “No,” she replies immediately, then bites her lip and squints one eye open to gaze at me warily. “Okay, can you keep a secret?” “Anything you ever say will stay between the two of us, cara.” “They fucking kill me,” she says, and closes her eyes again, but the corners of her lips tip up in a smile. “But I love them too much to ever wear anything else.” “You look fucking amazing in them,” I reply, as I urge her to turn over onto her belly. She cradles her head in her arms and sighs deeply as my hands glide up and down her slender back, kneading and stretching her muscles. “You have great legs.” “That comes from walking in four-inch heels every day. Sweet Jesus, that feels good.” I move over the spot on her right shoulder again, and if I’m not mistaken, she purrs. “Don’t ever stop touching me,” she whispers with a blissful sigh, and my heart catches. “That’s the plan.” I lean in and kiss her neck, right in the spot behind her ear that drives her mad. She sighs again, and her hips tip up, brushing her ass over my already hard cock. Her lips are still curved at the corners, and a blush creeps up her cheeks as she rotates her

hips once again, feeling the heavy weight of my dick against her ass. I grin and kiss her neck again, then drag my lips down to her shoulder and over between her shoulder blades. Her hand grasps the pillow, but I whisper in her ear, “Relax, babe,” and she lets go, then frowns up at me. “I prefer the Italian.” I raise a brow. “Is that so?” “You know it is.” She purses her lips in a pout and closes her eyes again as my fingertips trail lightly down her back and up her sides, making her squirm. “That tickles.” “You’ll learn, babe,” I begin, and continue to make her skin tingle, “that you won’t top me in bed.” I nip her shoulder as she takes in a quick gasp of air and bites her lip. “I know what you prefer, and I plan to continue learning. Your body is expressive.” I straddle her legs and sit back on my haunches, grasp her ass cheeks in my hands and squeeze gently and she shivers and lets loose with a low moan that shoots energy straight through my cock, making it slap the crack of her ass. “See, you like that.” “I do,” she agrees with a whisper. “And you like this.” I cover her body again, nip at her neck and slip a hand between her closed legs, pushing on her clit with my fingertips, spreading her juices through her lips. “Oh, God, I so love that.” I grasp her hand in mine, and she quickly links our fingers and tucks my hand under her face. I grip my cock and guide it down her crack and inside her, and we both groan at how amazing she feels wrapped tightly around me, tighter still because of her thighs pressed together between my own. “Fuck, you feel good, Alecia.” “How is it possible that you grew since this morning?” she asks in awe. “It’s the angle,” I reply with a chuckle, and then feel my eyes roll up into the back of my head when she clenches around me. “God, do you have any idea what you do to me?” “I have a fairly good idea,” she replies smartly and rolls her hips. “It’s inside me as we speak.” “The fact that you can speak means I’m not doing my job,” I reply and with my free hand I brush her hair off her face, then drag it down her back, her side, and hold onto her hip firmly, keeping her from moving, and begin to thrust my hips in earnest, loving her long and slow, just slower than I know she wants me to. She growls and turns her face, resting her forehead against my hand. “Harder,” she moans. “Not yet,” I reply and keep up the long, slow pace. “I’m going to eventually make you understand how amazing you are, tesoro,” I whisper into her ear. She frowns in surprise, but is pinned beneath me. She can’t do anything but feel and hear me all around her, and I take full advantage of her vulnerability. “You are not a quick fuck for me. If that were the

case, I wouldn’t have followed you here today.” I adjust my grip on her ass, spreading her cheeks further apart so I can plunge in even deeper, but not faster. “You are sexy, yes, and God knows I want you so bad I’m blind with it, but that’s not all you are, Alecia.” “Dominic.” “I didn’t say you could talk.” I nip at her earlobe. “It’s your turn to listen.” She bites her lip as I seat myself as far as I can and pulse my hips, hitting her G-spot and her clit at the same time. I can feel her about to lose it. “Yes, this is scary,” I whisper. “It’s not exactly in my comfort zone either, but the thought of not having you terrifies me. If you thought you’d scare me off earlier, you were wrong. I’m not going anywhere.” “I wasn’t trying to scare you off,” she says as her pussy pulses around me. “I was being honest.” “And I appreciate your honestly, cara.” I pull back, dragging my cock almost all the way out of her, and then switch up the intensity again, taking my time to sink back into her. She’s panting, and her lips are wet and parted. “You are precious. You are worthy of so much more than you know. Knowing that others made you feel insignificant pisses me off, but it’s their loss.” I press my lips to her ear. “It’s their loss.” “Dominic,” she whispers as her body begins to writhe and tremble under me. “Yes, tesoro,” I reply and finally give her what her body is craving, moving faster, a bit harder, inside her. “Come for me.” “Oh, God,” she breathes and her body shudders, tenses and comes apart at the seams beneath me, crying out my name. My name. “That’s right,” I say raggedly. I pull out of her and urge her onto her back, settle between her legs, and sink inside her still-trembling pussy as her arms and legs envelope me tenderly. She sinks her fingers in my hair and watches me with wide, glassy brown eyes as she hitches her knees up around my hips, opening herself up to me completely. “This is me with you, Alecia. Not your ex, or any other idiot who let you get away from him. It’s just you and me.” I nibble her lips and make slow, sweet love to her, drunk on her. I push one hand under her ass, bringing her flush against me. “You and me, understand?” “You and me,” she agrees, before pulling my lower lip between her teeth, and I can’t hold myself back any longer. I bury my face in her neck as the orgasm shoots its way through me. I rock my pelvis against hers and come inside her as she cries out and clenches around me once again, coming along for the ride. After I catch my breath, I brace myself on my elbows, taking my weight off of her and grin down at her softly. “I think we need another shower.” “I think you’re right.” She chuckles and her pussy squeezes me, instantly making me

hard again. “Later,” I murmur with a smile and hitch her leg up over my shoulder. “It seems I’m not finished with you.”

Chapter Eleven ~Alecia~ “It’s just you and me.” Dom’s words echo in my mind as I slowly slip from a dreamless sleep to lazy wakefulness. His arm is draped gently around my waist, his chest pressed against my back. Even in sleep, he’s holding me against him. You and me. I grin and take a deep breath, then shimmy around so I’m facing him. His face is relaxed in sleep, his lips closed, his eyelashes brushing his cheeks. What’s up with men having better eyelashes than women? I nudge the tip of his nose with mine, then place a gentle kiss on his lips and scoot out from under his arm and pad sleepily into the bathroom. I desperately need that shower we never got around to last night. Not that I’m complaining. My body is humming, extra sensitive from all of Dominic’s attention as I step into the spray of water and grin to myself as I begin soaping up my body. I’m still scared out of my mind. I’m not going to lie to myself and try to think that I’m suddenly a hearts and flowers kind of girl. I’m still not so sure that shit exists, but what Dom said last night made complete sense. What I feel with him is unique to him. To us. It has nothing at all to do with either of our pasts. He has nothing to do with Jonathan, or my parents. It’s just him and me. And damn if it’s not the safest feeling I’ve ever had. I finish shaving my legs, grinning when I see his fingerprints in my thigh muscles. Yep, damn sexy. Is it weird that I think it’s hot that Dominic left fingerprint bruises on my skin? I shrug, turn the tap off, quickly dry my skin and wrap up in a large, fluffy, blue towel, then lean across the vanity and swipe the fog from the mirror before moisturizing my face. If he touches me the way he did last night, he can leave bruises anywhere he wants. I smirk and brush out my hair, then twist it up onto the back of my head, securing it with pins. Just as I lower my arms, Dom appears behind me in the mirror. He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes are pinned to mine as he gently squeezes my shoulders and kisses my neck, in that spot that he knows makes me weak in the knees. His hands glide down my arms, to my hands, which he guides to the counter top.

“Leave your hands right here,” he whispers against my ear. I bite my lip and close my eyes, but he leans past me, his long arm reaching around me and wipes the fog that has reformed on the mirror away. “Keep your eyes open, cara.” I find his gaze in the mirror once more. His lips twitch with humor, his dimple winks at me, and the next thing I know, my towel is gone and tossed on the floor. My eyebrows climb as his eyes rake over me, from my face, down my chest, to my stomach in the mirror, then he pulls back and his eyes take the same tour of my body from behind. And just like that, I’m on fucking fire. “Dom—” “I didn’t say you could talk,” he murmurs lazily, but his eyes are direct and firm as they meet mine in the glass. I love it when he gets bossy. He pulls the tip of his finger down the nape of my neck, and continues down my spine, sending gooseflesh over my skin. When he reaches the small of my back, he grips my hips in both hands and urges me back, bent over, sticking my ass in the air. His hands slide back to cup my ass gently, reverently, and I can already feel the moisture forming between my thighs. Jesus, I want him like crazy, and I just had him a few hours ago. “I thought about taking you like this last night,” he says softly, his fingertips gliding up and down my sides. It would normally tickle the hell out of me, but all it does is make my nipples pucker in anticipation. “But I decided this wasn’t what you needed then.” He leans over me and plants his lips in the crook of my neck, then finds my gaze with his again as he grips my hands and moves them from the countertop to the mirror. “Lean on the glass,” he instructs me firmly. He cups both of my breasts and tweaks my firm nipples with his thumbs. “I like you in this position. With your ass pushed out, spread open for me.” My jaw drops as I watch his tanned hands move over my white skin. “I want you to keep your hands on the mirror, cara. And I don’t want you to watch me.” I frown at him, not understanding. “You’re to keep your eyes open, but I want you to watch you.” He kisses my spine, right between my shoulder blades as his thumbs continue to torture my nipples. “I want you to see what I do to you.” I know what he does to me. He makes me completely crazy. He makes me feel like my body is turning inside out. He makes me lose myself. I open my mouth, but before I can speak he says, “Don’t argue with me, unless you

want this to stop.” Forget bossy. Try tyrannical. And with those last words of instruction, he kisses his way down my back and squats behind me. It feels bizarre to watch my own face as I’m getting turned on. “How do you feel?” he asks before he plants a kiss on my left ass cheek, as if he’s reading my mind. “Shy,” I reply immediately. “Good girl,” he says and drags his hand up the inside of my right thigh and skims his fingertips through my folds and against my clit, then retreats immediately. I gasp, my lips part, and I can see the pulse in my neck pick up speed. “Look at the way you blush,” he whispers. The very tips of his fingers, his short fingernails, scrape up and down my ass slowly, softly, making me catch my breath. “I love it when your cheeks get red with arousal.” I’ve never noticed it before. I didn’t know I did that. A blush spreads from my cheeks, down my neck to my chest, and my hands form into fists, still leaning against the mirror. I can see his shoulders on either side of my hips, and I bite my lip at the thought of his face being eye-level with my pussy. “You blush down here, too, you know.” He plants another wet kiss on the opposite cheek, just as his hand takes another trip up the inside of my left thigh and into my dripping wet folds. I moan and drop my head, my eyes closing, and he’s suddenly…gone. “If you stop, so do I, cara.” My head whips back up. He’s shifted to my left side, watching me in the mirror. “I mean it.” I bite my lip again and nod, and he moves behind me once again, grips my hips in his hands, and without further ado, leans in and swipes his tongue, from my clit to my anus, in one long, firm, wet motion. I’m panting now, my pulse scattered, the blood rushing in my ears. He presses his thumb to my clit and pulls my lips into his mouth, gently pulsing, then his tongue sinks inside me. He rubs his nose against my puckered anus, but then he switches it up again, drags his lips down to my clit, flicking it softly, just before he sinks two fingers deep inside me and makes a come here motion, hitting my goddamn sweet spot. “Dom!” I shout, my hips bucking. God, my eyes are glassy, the pupils dilated. My skin is glistening with a light sheen of sweat, and my lower lip is swollen from my own teeth. He’s going to fucking kill me. “That’s right, baby,” he says loudly, before gripping onto my clit with his lips once more, sucking firmly, turning me inside out. I watch in wonder as I tumble over the edge, crying out, pounding my fist against the mirror as I go blind, seeing only stars as I come hard.

I can’t fucking breathe. Before I know what’s happening, Dom stands and turns me in his arms, boosts me onto the vanity and pushes inside me, smoothly burying himself in my dripping wetness. He covers my mouth with his, leans his own hands against the mirror and begins to drill in and out of me violently, as if he’s a man possessed. I’m clinging to him, my legs wrapped around his waist and my hands gripping his upper arms as his mouth plunders mine. I can taste myself on him, and it only makes me want him more. With one hand, I reach between us and press my fingertips on my clit, then sink them lower and press against the base of his cock as he moves in and out of me. He growls and tears his mouth from mine so he can watch my hand, then turns those feral blue eyes on mine. “Che è così fottutamente sexy,” he groans. “God, you’re so fucking sexy.” I can feel my body tightening as another orgasm gathers in the core of me, then explodes through me. I lean in and bite Dom’s shoulder as I buck and shudder against him. “Fuck yes,” he growls, one hand planted on my ass as he pulls me even more firmly against him, grinding his pubis against my clit, and comes long and hard, emptying himself inside me. We stay right here for long moments, me clinging onto him so I don’t fall back, Dom gripping my ass almost painfully, while leaning on the mirror with his other hand, chasing our breath. Finally, he tips his forehead against mine and shakes his head. “Do you see how damn sexy you are?” “I see—” I begin, but he stops me with one firm look. “No smart ass responses.” “Yes. I see it.” “Thank Christ.” He kisses my forehead tenderly and backs away, helping me off the vanity. “I want to spend the day with you,” he says. “Well, we’ll be out at the vineyard, so—” “No, away from the vineyard.” I turn to stare at him. “Dom, I spent the day away from the vineyard yesterday. I have work to do.” “It’s Sunday, cara.” He throws me a cocky grin. “No one else is working today.” I chew my lip as I think of all of the things I should be doing today, but he cocks a brow at me, and I cave. I want to spend the day with him. “What do you have in mind?” He flips the water on in the shower before tugging me against him and plants a kiss on

my nose, then my lips. “I want to take you somewhere special.” *** I toss crackers and grapes into the basket I’m putting together for our day out and shake my ass in time with Matt Nathanson, singing “Faster.” I add cheese, salami, and strawberries, then shimmy over to my wine rack and choose a bottle of Dom’s red, two glasses, and then bounce around the kitchen, singing along with Matt. Suddenly, Dominic’s strong hand takes mine, and he gracefully spins me into his arms, dancing us both about the kitchen. “I love watching you move,” he whispers against my temple as he holds me close. I chuckle and move my hips suggestively, playfully, just as he pushes me away from him again, then pulls me back in, my back against his front, my ass pressed against his crotch. I wrap my arm up around his neck and tilt my head back so he can kiss my nose, and then, Patrick Swayze-style, he twirls me one more time, then dips me low as the song comes to an end. “Very nice, Mr. Salvatore.” His lips twitch, and that dimple winks at me as he pulls me back to my feet and lays a quick, hard kiss on my lips. “Are you ready to go?” he asks. My eyes wander down his casual white button-up and sexy jeans, then back up to his face to find a half smile on those amazing lips and his eyes shining with…lust. “Keep looking at me like that, cara, and we won’t get far today.” I simply bite my lip and keep looking, enjoying the way he looks back at me. Finally, he shakes his head and laughs. “We’re going. Out. Now.” He gathers the basket, then takes my hand in his spare one and plants a wet kiss on my knuckles. “Come on.” *** “I didn’t know this was here,” I comment, as Dominic and I walk side-by-side up a long pier that overlooks the sound. It’s a bit overcast today, keeping us cool, but the scenery is no less stunning. “It’s only a few miles from my condo.” He nods and gazes out at the water, then frowns at the chain-link fence with locks of all different shapes and sizes hanging from it. “Locks of love,” I murmur with a grin. “I guess they’re trying to copy the place in Paris?” “I don’t get it,” he says, before glancing down at me with a raised brow. “Is it supposed to be romantic?” “It’s supposed to be symbolic,” I reply with a shrug. “You know, obviously if we place a lock here with our initials with all of the rest, our love is true.” I smirk and shake my head. “It’s like Valentine’s Day.” He blinks in surprise. “Okay, you have to explain that to me.”

We lean against the railing and watch sailboats float past. The water is deep blue and choppy. We shed our shoes at the base of the pier, along with the basket and wine. Dom takes my hand in his and lifts it to his lips, planting a firm kiss right on the back of my hand as I lean my cheek against his shoulder and take a deep breath of the salty air. “It’s a gimmick,” I say simply. “You’re so not a romantic, tesoro.” He chuckles and kisses my hand again, and I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t sit well with me. “I am,” I insist, and turn to lean my back on the railing so I can face him. “I am when it comes to what matters.” “What matters?” His voice is quiet, but insistent, and his deep blue eyes are pinned to mine. “Romance isn’t about proving to someone you love them with flowers and greeting cards and chocolate. Or even a lock on a fence. It’s a daily reminder. It’s saying, I choose you. Today and every day.” I shrug, and look down, embarrassed now. Why in the bloody hell did I say that? But Dom tilts my head up and smiles down at me in that gentle way he does. “I hear you.” I turn back to the water and take a long, deep breath. “God, I love it here.” “Why?” he asks suddenly. “Why?” I repeat and frown at him. “Why do you love it here?” I glance back out at the water and then to the tall, dark man next to me. “Are we not looking at the same scenery?” “Don’t be difficult. What is it about this place, this water, that you love?” I sigh and turn my gaze to the water, the islands, the birds, the boats. “It centers me. I knew when I bought my condo that I had to be on the water, and I scrimped and saved until I could afford my place. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.” I take Dom’s hand and lead him down the pier toward the grass. “I love everything about the waterfront. The smell, the way the wind hits my face and filters through my hair. There’s nothing like watching a parasailer, or catching a glimpse of a sea lion in the water.” Dom lifts the basket and the wine and I take my shoes and the wine glasses and follow him out into the wide grassy area, where we drop everything and sit facing each other. “This is my home.” I shrug one shoulder and pluck a blade of grass out of the dirt. “I get it,” he replies with a nod. “It’s where you fit.” “Exactly.” “That’s how the vineyard is for me,” he says, and squints as he gazes out at the water. “And Italy.”

“I would love to see Italy. Tell me about it.” He grins, and then before I can react, he’s pulled me in his arms, and onto my back in the grass, covering me with his solid body. “Close your eyes.” “There are children nearby,” I reply dryly, making him laugh. “Close your eyes,” he repeats. I wrinkle my nose at him and then do as I’m told, relaxing in the grass. “I’m not even going to think about the bugs that could be crawling around in my hair right now,” I comment lightly. “I’ll protect you,” he replies and suddenly, his fingertips are grazing along my cheekbone, and I melt. “Italy is unlike anywhere else. Tuscany, specifically, is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.” His fingers journey up my temple, along my forehead, and over my eyebrows, making me sigh in contentment. Dear sweet Jesus, the man is good with his hands. “The villages are busy, bustling with people, but they’re the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.” His fingertip drifts down my nose. “And the colors are just spectacular. The hills are vibrantly green. The sky boldly blue, but when the sun is hanging just right, everything is gold.” The last few words are whispered as he traces my lips with the pad of his thumb. “Watching the sunlight bounce off the dew on my grapevines is as close to heaven as I’ll ever be. It smells…clean. New. Every day is new.” Now he sinks his other hand in my hair, brushes tiny tendrils off my forehead and cheeks, sending sparks of awareness through me, yet I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been. His voice is soothing. His hands are calming. I can’t believe how gentle his touch is when I know how rough he can be. I can’t get enough of him. He leans in close and whispers in my ear, “I can’t wait to show it to you. Italy is going to love you.” Before I can respond, he covers my lips with his, in a long, slow, sweet kiss, in that way he does that feels like it’s the first time he’s kissed me all over again. His fingertips continue to tickle my forehead, while his other hand drifts down my side, barely brushing over my breast, down to my hip, where he holds me as his lips brush back and forth over my own. He nibbles his way to the corner of my mouth, then licks along my bottom lip, tugs it with his teeth, and settles in to kiss me long and slow once more. When he finally pulls back, I can’t open my eyes. My lids are heavy with desire and need, and his fingertips on my skin are making me nuts. He kisses my cheek, then my nose, and whispers, “Open your eyes, cara.” They flutter open and I’m staring up into the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, surrounded by dark lashes, olive skin, and raven hair.

“How do you always kiss me like it’s the first time?” I ask breathlessly. His eyes flicker down to my lips, then back to my eyes. Instead of answering, he offers me that heart-stopping smile, and moves in to kiss me all over again. I grip onto his strong back and go along for the ride, enjoying his lips on mine, his body covering me, his manly scent flowing around me. I’m in way over my head. And I don’t want to be saved.

Chapter Twelve This week has flown by. The second Dominic and I returned to the vineyard, it was full speed ahead with Montgomery wedding plans. “We’re heading out, Alecia, unless there’s something else you need,” Mark says, as he waves goodbye to his crew. “I don’t need anything,” I assure him with a grin. My heels click on the hardwood dance floor as I approach him. “This is beautiful.” His blue eyes take in the massive tent, floor, and stage and he gives me a satisfied nod. “We did good.” “You did excellent,” I agree. “We’ll hang the lights and set out tables tomorrow, and that’s about it.” I can already picture the white twinkling lights strung throughout the tent in my head, the tables set up and decorated with beautiful flowers, smiling people dancing and laughing. I can’t wait. “Rehearsal dinner tomorrow night,” I remind him, as he turns to leave. “Like I could forget that.” He shakes his head and laughs. “I hope you’re ready for the party about to ensue tomorrow night.” I cock my brow and tilt my head in question. “The girls will drink and celebrate, let loose. Our family won’t feel comfortable letting loose at the reception, but given that tomorrow night is private, well…” He shrugs and offers me a roguish grin. “Game on.” “Thanks for the warning.” I wave him off and walk toward the house, let myself in through the side door and run right into Dominic as he comes out of his office. “Hey there, handsome.” A soft smile spreads over his face, and before he can respond, I rise up on my tip-toes, wrap my arms around his neck and press my lips to his in a quick, chaste kiss, then pull away and drag my hands firmly down his arms to his hands and clench them tightly in mine. “Hi yourself,” he responds. “How’s your day?” “It’s gone well. I’m assuming yours has as well?” I nod and kiss his palm, just before he cups my cheek and rubs his thumb over the apple of my cheek. “I have a few more things to see to.” “I’ll see you soon, then.”

I smile and squeeze his hands once more before walking away toward the kitchen. Unable to resist, I toss a glance over my shoulder to find him watching me walk away, one hand resting on his chest over his heart, his deep blue eyes smiling at me. Dear sweet Jesus, my man is hot. And the way my heart skips at the look on his face is just almost disgusting. And I don’t even care. I wiggle my fingers in a wave and saunter happily into the kitchen where Blake is whistling while he works, looking handsome in his chef jacket, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing off his flexing forearms. “Something smells good,” I comment lightly, and lean over the stove, reaching for the lid of a pot. “Hands off, sister.” “I’m hungry.” “I’ll feed you, but get your nose out of my pots.” I stick my tongue out at him and cross to the fridge. “Did the food come in for tomorrow’s dinner?” “Yes, boss.” “Are the artichokes fresh?” I poke at the large, beautiful vegetables. “Get your hands off my shit.” I close the fridge and turn to find Blake glaring at me while he chops something briskly. “You’re going to cut your fingers off if you don’t watch what you’re doing.” “Why are you in here pestering the fuck out of me?” “Because I love you?” I bat my eyelashes at him and then laugh when he cocks a brow and smirks. “Because I’m checking to see if you have things under control.” “When have I not had things under control?” “It’s my job to check.” “So, you checked. Are you done micro-managing the rest of the crew for the day?” “Yep.” I reach around him and pluck a piece of red pepper off his cutting board and pop it in my mouth. “You were my last stop.” “Good,” Dom says, as he saunters into the kitchen with two bottles of wine in his hands. “Is dinner almost ready?” he asks Blake. “Yep.” “Wait. Are we having a party?” I ask. “We’re having dinner,” Blake replies with a grin. “I know how you get when you work. You forget to eat, and then you get hungry and you annoy the piss out of everyone around you.”

“That’s not true,” I insist. “Which part?” Dominic asks, as he pulls three wine glasses out of a cupboard. “If you guys are going to gang up on me, I’ll go home.” “No you won’t,” Blake replies, as Dom just narrows his eyes at me and shakes his head slowly from side to side. “I made your favorite. And if you leave, you can’t have any.” “Homemade mac n’ cheese?” I ask hopefully, making Dom smile widely. “And…” Blake says in a sing-song voice. “And turkey breast?” I clap my hands in excitement. “And…” “If you say collard greens, I’ll kiss you.” “No,” Dom interjects lazily, as he pulls the cork out of the first bottle, “you won’t.” “I’ll give them to you for free,” Blake says with a laugh. “And it’s just about ready.” “Woot!” I offer Blake a fist bump and help the guys carry everything outside to the table near the fire pit. We all settle in, Dom right next to me and Blake across from us, loading our plates, sipping our wine, and I can’t help but wonder if this is going to be… weird. I’ve slept with both of these men, and they’re both very special to me. “So it looks like it’s pretty much done back there,” Blake says, as he takes a bite of the mac n’ cheese, gesturing to the tent. “Yep, just a few odds and ends to finish tomorrow,” I reply, and load a bite of turkey, greens, and mac n’ cheese all on my fork, then groan loudly when they all hit my tongue. “So good,” I say, my mouth full of food. “You’re such a lady,” Blake smirks. “I don’t have to be a lady when you feed me this,” I say, and take a sip of wine, eyeing Dom over my glass. “He doesn’t feed me this very often,” I inform my sexy Italian. “You always tell me the pasta will make you gain fifty pounds,” Blake reminds me. “It will.” “Women,” Blake says with a shake of his head. Dominic leans in and whispers in my ear, “Your body is perfect.” He kisses my cheek and returns to his meal. Blake doesn’t miss a thing. He grins widely. “This is nice.” “Emily will be here tomorrow morning,” I say, trying to change the subject. “She and I will start handling the nitty gritty things.” “Nitty gritty?” Dom asks with a smile. “The little things,” I reply. “Greeting the florist for tomorrow’s flowers, and meeting with her about Saturday’s flowers. Placing calls. Picking up favors, double-checking the guest list and forwarding it on to security.” I sip my wine and continue to tick items off in

my head, then blink and look around. “Sorry.” “I already spoke with Emily,” Blake says nonchalantly, and won’t look me in the eye as he cuts his turkey. “When?” I ask. “Last night,” he replies. Last night? “There wasn’t an event last night,” I say, and chew on my own turkey. “No, there wasn’t,” Blake replies. I glance up at Dominic to find him watching me closely. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but he quirks a brow at me and I shrug. “But you saw her last night?” I ask in confusion. “I did.” “Did you enjoy yourselves?” Dominic asks and sips his wine as I stare at Blake in shock. Blake and Emily? “Very much,” Blake says with a grin. “You’re seeing Emily.” It isn’t a question. “Problem?” Blake asks defiantly. I set my fork down and clear my throat. “It’s Emily.” “We’ve established that, Leash.” Blake’s mouth is set in a firm line. “I know you,” I murmur quietly. “As do I,” Dominic interrupts, still the epitome of calm. “And because I do, I know Emily will be well taken care of.” He takes my hand in his and kisses my fingers, and then says in a low voice, “Don’t say something you’ll regret.” I look back and forth between these men and swallow hard. “Jealous?” Blake asks and winks at me, trying to be funny. “I love you both,” I reply honestly. “You’re two of my dearest friends, and I don’t have many of those, Blake. So if this falls apart, and I have to choose—” “God, you’re dramatic,” Blake says with a roll of the eyes. “I’m being honest,” I insist. “I’m dating her, yes.” “Are you fucking her?” “Alecia,” Dom says, with a shake of his head. “Yes, I am, Leash,” Blake replies frankly. “This has disaster written all over it,” I mutter, and take a long drink of my wine.

“She’s different,” Blake says, and stares down into his wine. “I don’t have the urge to run away from her.” “There are things you don’t know, Blake.” I shake my head and think back on the long conversations that Emily and I have had about her abusive past. “I know,” he replies and pins me in his sober gaze, the one I don’t see often. “And I’m sticking for as long as she’ll have me.” I stare at my friend, Dom’s hand still in mine, holding on to me tightly. “Be nice to her,” I say quietly. “She deserves to have someone be nice to her.” “I’ve been very nice to her,” he replies with a cocky wink. “God, you’re a pig.” I scowl at him, but soften when he lets out a belly laugh. “You’ve never warned me off a woman before,” he says. “I’ve always found out about them long after they left your bed,” I remind him, and then turn to Dominic. “If I’d known them beforehand, I would have told them to run screaming in the other direction.” “Oh, they scream all right.” “Yuck,” I grumble, and then chuckle as I drink more wine. “Have you always been so disgusting?” “Pretty much,” he replies, as he clears his plate. “Don’t worry, Leash.” “Worry is my middle name,” I remind him. He sighs and finishes his wine. “I’m going to head out.” He reaches for his dishes, but Dominic waves him off. “I’ll handle this,” he says. “You cooked,” I say with a grin. “I usually cook and clean when you’re around,” he says as he stands. “That’s bullshit. I like to clean.” Blake laughs. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Drive safe,” Dom says with a wave, as Blake lets himself out. He sips his wine thoughtfully as I finish my dinner and sigh in contentment. “I wish he’d tell me how he makes this mac n’ cheese,” I grumble, as I gather dishes. Dom stands and helps me, and soon we are bustling about the kitchen silently, each of us lost in our thoughts as we clean. I stack the last plate into the washer and close the door and look up to find Dom leaning his hips against the counter top, his arms crossed over his chest, watching me quietly. “What’s wrong?” I ask. He shakes his head and frowns. “Nothing is wrong.” “What’s on your mind?”

“You really are just friends. With Blake.” I tilt my head. “Don’t tell me you were feeling threatened by Blake.” “I wouldn’t call it threatened,” he replies and rubs his fingers over his lips. “I’ve never spent any significant time with both of you before. I can see that you care about each other, but not on an intimate level.” I nod slowly. “Like I said, he’s one of my dearest friends. We had a physical relationship a long time ago.” His nostrils flare at that, his eyes narrow, just a bit, but he listens calmly. “It was obvious that we’re much better as friends. He means a lot to me. He’s the one person in my life that I know will never leave me.” Dom’s eyes narrow as he watches me. “I’m not going to leave you, Alecia.” I swallow and shrug a shoulder, not sure what to say. “Okay.” He nods, as if that settles something and crosses to me. “Okay?” “Okay,” he repeats and pulls me in for a hug, kisses my forehead, and breathes me in all in one smooth move. “You smell amazing.” I grin and enjoy the feel of his arms looped around me, pulling me tightly against him. “You’re a bit tense,” he continues. “It was a long day.” “Come.” He pours a glass of wine, then takes my hand and leads me through the house and up the stairs to his master bathroom. He magically produces a single pink tulip and hands it to me with a soft smile. I rub the petals against my nose and breathe the sweet scent in as he turns and runs me a bath, lights candles, and then turns his attention back to me. With sure fingers, he unzips my dress and pushes it off my shoulders, letting it pool around my ankles. “You’re beautiful, cara.” His eyes roam up and down my torso. “This bra is pretty.” His fingertips skim my skin over the light pink cups of my demi bra, making my nipples pucker before he unclasps it between my breasts and it joins the dress on the floor. With his eyes on mine, he hooks his thumbs into my panties and guides them over my hips and down my legs. “Step out of those killer heels, please.” He takes my hand in his and leads me to the bathtub, watching as I sink into the steamy water and settle back with my head leaning on the ledge of his vast bathtub. “Here’s your wine,” he says with a grin as he sits on the ledge. “It’s pretty in here.” “With you here, yes it is.” “You’re a charmer.” “I’m just calling it like I see it,” he replies with a half-smile, showing off that sexy

dimple. “I like your dimple.” “I hope that’s not all you like.” I shrug. “Probably not.” He chuckles and drags his fingertip down my cheek. “Actually, there’s more to you than the flirty, charming Italian that I’ve known you to be.” His blue eyes find mine, and he watches me calmly as I take a sip of wine. “You’re not going to ask me what I see?” I ask boldly. “What do you see, tesoro?” I take his dry hand in my wet ones and plant a kiss to his palm. “I see a professional, intelligent, kind—” “Just don’t call me nice.” “Sexy, sweet man.” “You’re the sweet one, Alecia.” “This bath is nice.” “I’ll take your word for it.” “You’re not joining me?” “No.” He sweeps my hair off my forehead with one fingertip. “I want you to relax. Take a deep breath.” He leans in and kisses my head, then stands and leaves the room. Damn, he’s sweet. I set the wine glass on the ledge of the tub and sink as far into the water as I can without sinking my mouth and nose under the water, take a deep breath, and the next thing I know, strong arms are lifting me out of the tub. “No falling asleep and drowning, sweetheart.” “I’m getting you wet,” I murmur against his chest and burrow closer to him, my arms around him, my nose pressed to his neck. “But don’t put me down.” He chuckles and kisses my forehead. “I have to set you down for a second to dry you off.” He dries me off quickly, and before I can get cold, I’m back in his arms, being carried into the bedroom, where he gently lays me in the bed and pulls the covers up over my nude body. I watch him with heavy-lidded eyes as he quickly sheds his clothes and joins me, pulls me against him, into him, his arms folding around me and hugging me tightly, as if he’s afraid I’ll roll away from him. Not a chance in hell of that.

I never knew that falling asleep in someone’s arms could be so comforting. Because it never has been before. I sigh deeply and press a kiss to Dominic’s neck. “This is delightful.” “Mm,” he replies and kisses my hair. “Sleep, sweet girl.” “We’re not going to have sex?” I ask with surprise, and pull back far enough to look him in the eye. His fingertips dance down that sweet spot on my neck, sending shivers down my arms, just as his other hand takes mine and he laces my fingers through his, then brings them up to his lips. “I want to sleep with you,” he whispers roughly. “I don’t mean have sex with you, although I always want to be inside you. I want to sleep with you, in my bed, with your head on my chest and my arms wrapped around you. With my nose buried in your hair so I can breathe you in all night long.” He takes a deep breath and kisses my fingers again. “I want to sleep with you, here in this chilly room, so we have to cuddle closer. No talking, just being here, with you. I just want to be with you, Alecia.” I swallow hard, my eyes pinned to his lips as he speaks, and feel my heart trip and my stomach tighten at his words. “I can live with that,” I whisper hoarsely. “Good. Sleep, cara.” He kisses my fingers again, rests our hands on his chest and guides my head down onto him, where I just seem to fit perfectly, despite our immense height difference. I take a deep breath and feel myself relax against him. I feel him grin against my head as his fingertips tickle my neck again. “Keep doing that and I won’t sleep,” I whisper. “You’ll sleep,” he replies confidently. I don’t speak again. I simply lie with him. Be with him, and after long minutes I feel him slip into sleep, but I lie awake for a while, listening to him breathe, listening to his heartbeat against my cheek. Listening to the silence around us. Is this what it feels like to be in love? This contentment, this attraction? This trust? I can’t resist planting a kiss on his chest, and I feel his arms tighten around me in his sleep. I’m quite sure that if this is what love is, I’ve tripped over and fallen right in.

Chapter Thirteen “Seriously, this is like hot man overload,” Emily whispers to me as we sit in the white chairs before the arbor Dominic’s brothers made for Will and Meg’s wedding. The whole family is here for the rehearsal. All of the Montgomery siblings and their spouses¸ all of the parents, even the kids. It’s a huge family party, and they’re having a great time ribbing each other. “And here,” the pastor says patiently, as two of the brothers, Matt and Caleb, snicker at something Isaac whispered to them in the front row. “Is where you recite your vows to each other. Will, you first.” Will, with a perfectly sober and serious expression on his impossibly handsome face, takes Meg’s hands in his and stares down at her intently. “Megan, I promise to never make you work out with me. I know how you value your laziness.” His lips twitch as his brothers snicker. “I vow to send cupcakes to your work regularly.” He grins wickedly, and I know we’re about to get an earful of something fun. “I vow to remember where all your sweet spots are on that fantastic body of yours, and pay the appropriate amount of attention to them on a regular basis.” “You’re the reason we have to put instructions on shampoo bottles in this country,” Samantha calls out, earning a fist bump from Brynna. “I’m not going to say the real vows today,” Will says, his eyes still pinned on his bride. “Those are for Saturday.” “Your turn, Meg.” “I’m not saying mine either,” she says with a grin. “I want to get to the kissing part.” “That’s my girl,” Will agrees and leans in to kiss her, but she slaps her hand over Will’s lips and leans away, looking at the pastor. “Wait! How are we supposed to kiss?” “No tongue!” Leo yells out, making us all laugh. “Mmph hump smeethart,” Will says against Meg’s hand. “What?” she asks, pulling her hand away with a smile. “I’ve never needed instructions on how to kiss, sweetheart.” Will slips his hands around Meg’s waist and pulls her flush against him, bending at the knees to match his lips up with hers, and suddenly they’re in a passionate embrace, kissing with great enthusiasm. “Stop it right now!” Jules cries and covers her sleeping infant daughter’s eyes where she’s perched on Nate’s shoulder. “There are children here!” Will dips Meg dramatically, never taking his mouth from hers. Dominic turns in his seat and smiles at me, shakes his head, and then shrugs as if to say, “What can you do?” “Okay, we get it, you love her,” Steven says as he stands. “Let the poor woman breathe,

son.” “Sweet Lord, if a man kissed me like that, I’d die,” Emily whispers in awe, making me laugh. “I hear Blake has been kissing you just fine,” I murmur, and watch her face flush. “I was going to tell you.” We watch quietly, not looking at each other, as the Montgomery family stands and chats, the girls fussing with babies and kids, the guys admiring their handiwork on the arbor. “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy,” I tell her honestly. “I’m happy.” I nod once and drop the subject, standing to get back to work. “Okay, guys, good job.” I clap my hands as I walk to the happy couple. “Dinner is being served in the tent. We might as well break it in, right?” “Alecia, this is spectacular,” Meg says with a wide grin. “It’s so pretty.” “If you like it now, just wait for Saturday.” “You heard the woman!” Will announces almost urgently. “Food!” “Will hasn’t eaten in about an hour,” Isaac says with a roll of the eyes. “He thinks he’s starving.” “Be nice to my boy,” Gail, their mother, admonishes Isaac as she lifts Luke and Natalie’s daughter, Olivia, into her arms and kisses her cheek, then follows the others toward the tent, where the servers have set up a vast buffet spread. A DJ is playing soft music, and the twinkle lights have been turned on, giving the space a dreamy glow. Emily marches ahead, talking into her earpiece, alerting the kitchen staff that we’re moving into the tent and ready for drinks. I bring up the rear, but before I can get far, Dominic joins me and brushes his fingertips down my neck, in that way he does that sends shivers down my spine. “How are you?” “I’m great. Meg and Will are happy, that’s all that matters.” I grin up at him as he takes my hand in his, kisses my knuckles, and walks with me into the tent. He and I hang back, taking in the scene before us. The tables have been set up for Saturday, and five of the round tables have been covered and dressed prettily for tonight’s dinner. The flowers Meg chose as her wedding flowers, tiger lilies, roses and calla lilies, serve as centerpieces. The lights hanging above are pretty and cast a glow about the room. The parents are seated at one table together, laughing and talking, some holding babies. Steven has his arm wrapped loosely around his wife’s shoulders, and he’s watching her with loving eyes as she tells the table at large a story. The others are scattered about the other tables. Meg and Will invited their entire family, including Meredith’s best friend Jax and his fiancé, Logan.

It’s a smaller party, but full of love and fun. Will is already seated with a heaping plate in front of him, eating and joking with his brother Caleb at the next table. “Dude, you totally slipped Bryn the tongue when you got married!” he says. “Hell yes I did, and I’d do it again.” “You’re all disgusting,” Jules grumbles, but smiles at the server who delivers her a drink, almost making him stumble over himself. “Oh, thank you. You’re my newest friend.” “Don’t flirt with the waiter, baby,” Nate says with a chuckle. “You’ll make him trip.” “He’s fine,” she says and waves Nate off. “Alecia! Come sit by me.” “Oh, I have to work.” “No.” Meg shakes her head and points to the empty chair next to Jules. “You worked already. It’s beautiful. Now I want you to be my guest.” I frown, but Emily speaks into my earpiece, “I got this, boss. Easy peasy. Enjoy yourself.” “Excellent idea,” Dom agrees, and plants his hand on the small of my back, guiding me to the table with Jules, Nate, Luke, and Natalie. He pulls the chair out for me, and when I sit, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I’ll go get you something to eat.” I frown up at him, but he’s already marching away toward the buffet. “This is weird,” I announce, and gaze around the table. “I’m supposed to be working.” “You’re our friend,” Natalie says with a smile and kisses her infant son’s cheek. “We want you to celebrate with us. You’ll be busy enough at the wedding.” I nod and gaze around the room, taking in the way Matt’s hand rests on his girlfriend, Nic’s neck. It’s a gentle touch, yet almost…commanding. The beautiful woman is smiling at Stacy, Isaac’s wife, as Stacy and Brynna discuss which of Nic’s cupcakes they enjoy the most. Isaac, Caleb, and Matt are watching their girls with contented smiles. It sounds like the tiramisu is winning the cupcake contest. “I’ll take one of those lemon drops martinis, Linus,” I say to my young server, who is still blushing from Jules’ attention. “Daddy!” Olivia calls from Gail’s arms across the room, holding her hands out and grinning at Luke. “Kiss you, Daddy!” “I think that means she wants you,” Nat says, as Luke stands and crosses to his daughter, lifting her easily into his arms and burying his face in her neck, blowing raspberries. Seriously, that might make my ovaries explode. That might make any woman’s ovaries explode. Luke Williams, former movie star, is maybe the hottest thing on this planet.

Not that I’ll ever admit that out loud. “We need to discuss Stella’s first birthday party,” Jules says to me. “She’s not even six months old,” Nate says, as he brushes his hand down his wife’s hair. “Let her be little, Julianne.” “She’ll need a great party,” Jules insists, but leans into her man’s touch. “She’ll have one,” I assure her. “But he’s right. Let her be little for a while.” I gaze at the pretty baby with the pink bow on her head, her little pink dress and big blue eyes staring back at me. “Would you like to hold her?” Nate asks, as Luke returns with Livie. “Oh, I don’t think—” “Here.” Jules passes the baby to me, and suddenly I’m sitting here, at this party that I planned, that I’m supposed to be working at, with a gorgeous baby in my arms and my man setting a heaping plate of food before me. “Who do you have here?” Dominic asks as he sits next to me. He kisses Stella on the cheek, then pays the same attention to me. “Hello, bella,” he croons to the baby, “il mio dolce bambino.” “I love it when you call her your sweet baby,” Jules says with a smile. “It sounds pretty.” “She’s pretty,” I murmur and instinctively cradle Stella against my chest, kiss her head and bury my nose in her wispy blonde curls, inhaling her baby smell. “Babies always smell so good.” “Not always,” Jules says with a laugh. “Well, I don’t have to change their diapers,” I reply with a smile. “You look good with her,” Natalie says, and sips her drink. “Let me take her, tesoro, so you can eat,” Dom says, and smoothly takes the baby from my arms. “What did that mean?” Nat asks. “What did what mean?” Dominic asks and smiles at Stella. “Goodness, you’re getting big, bella.” “You called Alecia tesoro,” Jules says. “We’ve never heard that one. You always call us bella or cara.” Dom rubs his nose against Stella’s and then laughs with the baby, barely paying attention to his sisters. “Tesoro means my treasure,” he says, and glances over at me with warm eyes. “I’m calling her my treasure.” I feel my eyes go round as I swallow the bite of food I’d just taken and gape at him. His treasure? His treasure.

Well, if that doesn’t spark butterflies, I don’t know what does. And then it occurs to me, he’s been calling me his treasure since the first time we made love. “Charming Italian,” I whisper, earning a laugh from Jules. “Oh, he’s definitely that,” she agrees. “I think it’s very sweet,” Nat says with a smile. I can feel Dom watching me as I focus on my food. “Why does this make you shy?” she asks me. I shrug a shoulder, frown and drink the rest of my martini, then gesture to Linus for another. “We know you’re seeing each other,” Jules assures me happily, and I want the floor to open up and swallow me whole, but I smile brightly, not wanting anyone to think I’m uncomfortable. I had no idea we were making our relationship public. “And, can I just say, it’s about time.” “Excuse me,” I murmur and stand. “Are you okay?” Dominic asks. “Of course.” I smile again and nod. “I just need to check on a few things.” I make it out of the tent and around the store building, where the hills roll, full of grape vines as far as the eye can see and take a long, deep breath. His family knows we’re seeing each other. Isn’t it too soon for that? “Here she is,” Natalie says as she and Jules come around the corner and stand on either side of me, flanking me, staring out at Dominic’s land. “It’s gorgeous here,” I say. “Do you often have the undeniable urge to leave a party and stare at the scenery?” Jules asks, as she drops her arm around my shoulders. “Maybe,” I reply primly. “We didn’t mean to scare you off,” Natalie says. “I just needed some fresh air,” I lie. “We scared you,” Jules says. “Is it because we know you’re doing the nasty with our brother?” “Well, I’m scared now,” I reply and shake my head ruefully. “I had no idea that you guys chatted with your brothers about who they have sex with.” “Ew.” Jules scrunches up her nose and shivers. “We don’t do that. But we can tell that you’re doing the sex stuff.” “Sex stuff?” I snort. “Is that the scientific term for it?” “He’s been interested in you for a long while,” Natalie says softly, watching the

horizon, as she slips her hand in mine. “There were times I’d see him watching you with so much want in his eyes, it was almost painful.” “So, he wanted in my pants.” “You’re a smart girl,” Jules says. “You know that’s not all it is.” I don’t say anything in return. What is there to say? It’s not just sex, for either of us. He calls me his treasure, for Godsake. “If that’s all it is for you—” Natalie begins, but I immediately interrupt. “It’s not,” I say firmly. “Good.” Jules kisses my cheek just as the DJ switches the song to “Blurred Lines.” “Now, let’s go get our drink on and dance, friends. We have a wedding to celebrate.” *** “I love your mom,” I tell Jules, as she and I sway on the dance floor, not unlike junior high students at a school dance. We’ve had countless lemon drops, and if we let go of each other, I’m not so sure we’ll stay upright. Okay, we most definitely won’t stay upright. “I love her too!” Jules yells right in my ear. “No, you don’t understand.” I take her face in my hands and hold her still so I can talk to her. “When she was leaving to take the babies home, she hugged me and thanked me for this dinner. She’s the sweetest person ever born. Ever.” “I know.” Jules leans her forehead on mine and now she’s even more blurry than she was before. “She rocks. I love my mommy.” “Batting for the other team now, Jules?” Mark asks from a nearby table. “It would be hotter if you two would take off your clothes.” “The men in this family are all perverts,” Jules tells me seriously. “You need to be aware of this now.” “Come sit down, Julianne.” Suddenly, Nate is standing next to us, pulling us in to either side of him; his strong arms wrap around our shoulders, and he leads us to a table where most of the others are sitting and talking. Everyone except Meredith’s best friend Jax and Brynna, who are currently dancing like crazy on the dance floor. “Wait. Where are Will and Meg?” I ask, as I continue to survey the table. “They disappeared a few minutes ago,” Isaac informs me. “Orgasms,” Stacy sighs. “She’s getting some right now, I’ll bet.” “Lucky bitch,” Sam grumbles from her perch on Leo’s lap. “Are you gonna give me some orgasms tonight, rock star?” Leo grins and whispers something in his wife’s ear that has her cheeks going pink and she bites her lip. “Hell to the yes,” she says happily.

“You know what orgasms are?” Nic says suddenly. “Seriously, why do these women talk about nothing but sex when they’ve had liquor?” Caleb asks, as Dom takes my hand and pulls me into his lap. He nuzzles my temple and I easily curl up against him, happily fuzzy from too much alcohol. “I know what orgasms are,” I hear myself say, and then clap my hand over my own mouth. I can feel Dominic laugh beneath me. Damn, he’s strong. “You’re strong,” I say, attempting to whisper, but I don’t think it comes out that way, based on the way the boys all snicker at my comment. “Orgasms,” Nic continues, “are nature’s way of saying, ‘Yeah, life sucks ass, but here, have some candy.’” “Does your life suck, little one?” Matt asks Nic, planting a kiss on her hair. “Not even a little, but you gotta admit, that shit’s funny.” “Orgasms are so like candy!” Jules exclaims. Brynna and Jax return to the table, sweaty and panting. Brynna collapses in Caleb’s lap and kisses his cheek as Jax sits next to his man, Logan, who has been content to sit and listen quietly, a soft smile on his handsome face. “There are some seriously hot men at this table.” I’m mortified to hear the words actually come out of my mouth. “I was supposed to say that for my own brain, but my mouth didn’t get the memo. Sorry.” “You’re right,” Brynna replies with a smug smile. “We could open a store. Hot Men R Us.” “You’re trying to sell us off?” Isaac asks. “I bet we could get a lot of money for you,” Natalie says, and smiles up at her husband. “Especially this one.” “Plus, Dominic has the sexy Italian speak going for him. Chicks dig that,” I add, and wiggle in my man’s lap. He presses his lips against my ear. “Keep moving like that, and I’ll need to find a private spot to fuck you silly,” he whispers. And just like that, my girl parts are wide awake and completely sober. My brain isn’t sober, but that’s okay. “I’m so fucking drunk,” Stacy mutters, and rubs her nose on her husband’s shoulder vigorously. “And my nose always itches when I get drunk.” “Then you’re not drunk enough,” Jules says with one eye closed. “Why is your eye closed?” I ask her. “It stopped working.”

“I think you’re drunk too,” I reply with a laugh, wiggling slightly in Dom’s lap and feeling him growl in my ear. “You know what rhymes with drunk?” Sam asks. “Sex!” “Nuh uh,” Meredith replies with a frown. “But fuck does!” “Drunk and fuck do not rhyme,” Mark says with a surprised laugh. “It’s closer than sex,” she says defensively. “Everything rhymes with sex when you get to have it with an apa,” Jules says. “Julianne,” Nate warns her. “It’s true!” “What’s that like, anyway? I’ve always wanted to know.” “You can’t have sex with my husband.” Jules frowns for a second, then a smile spreads over her gorgeous face. “Well, maybe you can.” “No,” Nate replies quietly, “she can’t. No offense, Alecia.” “None taken.” I grin at the crazy-hot man. “You’re hot as fuck, though.” “He really is,” Jules agrees happily. “And the apa…wow.” “Will you get one?” I ask Dominic, just as he takes a sip of wine, and he immediately chokes. “Fuck no.” “Maybe I’ll have to find someone with one,” I say thoughtfully. “Just to give it a try.” “That’s it.” Dominic stands with me in his arms and doesn’t even set me down as he begins to stalk out of the tent. “Where are we going?” I look over his shoulder and see the others laughing and watching us leave. I wave happily and they all wave back. They’re so friendly. “I’m going to teach you a lesson, tesoro.” “A lesson?” I giggle and bury my nose in his neck, breathing him in. “I’m kind of dizzy.” We pass by the barn. I can hear voices, heavy breathing and Meg giggling. “I think we found Meg and Will,” I whisper into Dom’s ear, as he hurries past. “Merde, I didn’t need to ever hear that,” Dominic grumbles, making me giggle more. He strides around the store building, where I stood a few hours ago with Jules and Natalie, sets me on my feet, and pins me against the wall. “I dare you,” he begins with fire in his bright blue eyes, “to say again that you’re going to go find another man to fuck.” “Um, it was a joke, babe.”

His eyes narrow and his nostrils flare, and I know I’m in big trouble. “Are you jealous?” I ask incredulously. “Not usually,” he says. “I’m not the jealous type, but what’s mine is mine, Alecia. And you’re mine. What I have with you, I don’t want with anyone else. You’re all I fucking think about.” He’s gathering my skirt in his hands until it’s bunched around my waist, and he slips his finger inside the elastic of the crotch of my panties and brushes the lips of my pussy, making me gasp. “Dom!” “That’s right.” He bites my lower lip, then soothes it with his tongue and pushes his finger farther into my panties. “Me. I’m the only one who can touch you here, or anywhere. This is mine.” With those words, his finger slips inside me deeply and he presses against that spot that he knows so intimately, sending me up onto my tiptoes. “Holy fuck,” I whisper. He wraps his free arm around my waist, pulling me flush against him as he finger-fucks me, dragging his palm against my clit in the process, making me fucking crazy. “I’m going to come,” I whimper, but he pulls his hand away. “Not yet,” he growls. “Hey!” But before I can say anything more, he spins me around, bends me over, and shoves my panties aside, while I hear the zipper lower on his slacks and he’s suddenly slamming inside me. I have to brace my hands on the building for leverage as he fucks me hard and fast. His breath is harsh, his hands almost bruising on my hips. I bite my lip, but I can’t be quiet as he fucks me unlike he ever has before. It’s primal. Rough. Fucking amazing. He leans over me and groans, presses his lips to my ear and whispers. “You. Are. Mine. This is mine. Don’t ever forget that, tesoro.” I push back on him and grin when I make him groan, but suddenly his fingers are pressing on my clit as he fucks me hard, and that’s all I can take. I come brutally, biting my own arm so as not to cry out, spasming around him. “That’s right,” he says and pushes in me twice more before he stills and surrenders to his own climax, resting his forehead on my back. Finally, he slips out of me and turns me to face him. He cups my face tenderly in his hands and kisses me gently, but when he pulls back, his eyes are no less fierce. “Mine.”

Chapter Fourteen ~Dominic~ She’s fucking magnificent. “I want six men at the parking lot,” Alecia says as she paces back and forth across my back patio. She’s holding every one of the twenty four men’s rapt attention. Her voice is sharp and no-nonsense. Her back straight. Her eyes hard. I’ve never seen anything like her in my life. “I was planning on four,” Derek, my head of security, replies. Derek is a former Army ranger, six-foot-five and built like a fucking brick house. Alecia doesn’t even bat an eye. “I need six.” “No one knows where the wedding is being held,” Jason, the head of Alecia’s security, points out logically. “The guests are parking ten miles away and we’re bussing them in.” “I’m aware,” Alecia replies. “Look, guys, I’m going to be a hard ass on this one. Will Montgomery won the Super Bowl last year, and it’s not just him that the paparazzi are interested in. You’re all aware that we have rock stars coming, movie stars, producers, and other football players. Security can’t be breached. If even one paparazzi follows a bus here, or figures out the location and spreads unauthorized photos, I’ll have all of your dicks on a platter.” “Montgomery was smart about this,” Derek reminds her. “The guests were simply given an address to park their cars. Even they don’t know where they’re going.” “I’m aware. I set it up,” she replies. I lean my shoulder against the wall, cross my arms over my chest, and watch my woman take control over two dozen strong men. I want to kiss the fuck out of her. “If we put two more guys on the parking lot, that’s two less that will be here.” “You’ll have eighteen men here,” she replies with a shake of the head. “Are you being a pain in the ass because I’m a woman, or are you just always this stubborn?” Derek stands, his jaw ticking and watches Alecia for a long minute. She’s staring him down, and it’s the most amazing bout of chicken I’ve ever seen in my life. “Fine,” he says at last. “You’ll get your six.” “Yes, I will. Follow the guest list. I don’t care if someone claims to be a long lost grandma and turns on the big crocodile tears. If they’re not on the list, they don’t get in. Period. If you have questions, talk to me. I’ll have my earpiece in all day.”

“You know, I like a bossy woman.” This comes from a younger kid, as tall and built as Derek, but clearly too young to know to keep his mouth shut. Alecia stops in her tracks, narrows her eyes and pins him in her glare. “Do you?” “Yes, ma’am,” he replies with a cocky smirk. Oh, you young idiot. “What’s your name?” she asks him. “Stokes,” he replies. “Stokes.” She crosses to him, props her hand on her hip and smiles sweetly at him. “Do you have mommy issues, Stokes?” The other men smirk, but Stokes’ eyes go hard as his face sobers. “No, I just think it’s fucking sexy when a woman has a backbone.” Alecia tilts her head to the side and then nods. “Good. Because I have one. Don’t fuck this up, Stokes.” She backs away and nods to Derek and Jason. “That’s all. Let me know if there are any issues.” “There won’t be,” Jason replies, and turns to continue briefing his men as Alecia walks away. “She should be in the military,” Stokes says with new respect in his voice. She’s too good for the military. “Good job, Lieutenant,” I whisper as I fall into step beside her. “I will cut off someone’s junk if I find out they only put four men out there,” she grumbles. “You’re awfully angry at the male genitals today, cara.” She smirks and then lets out a short laugh. “I’m around a lot of men today.” “Everything is going to run like clockwork.” “Don’t say that. You’ll jinx it. I should go see Blake.” “Blake paid me five thousand dollars to keep you out of the kitchen today.” She frowns and blinks up at me. “He did not.” “He did.” Okay, he didn’t, but she’ll just make them both crazy if she stomps in there and harasses him today. “Everything is set. The food already smells amazing. The tables are set, and the florist is working her magic on the arbor and the tent.” “The cupcakes—”

“Get here in a few hours and Nic will set them up. She’s awesome.” I take her shoulders in my hands and kiss her forehead gently. “But I get it. This is what you do. So go get ‘em, tiger.” She grins up at me before gripping my shirt in her fist and pulling me down for a quick kiss. “Thanks. I’ll catch up with you later.” “Alecia.” She stops about twenty feet away from me and turns back with a raised brow. “This fierce side of you? It’s sexy as fuck.” She doesn’t answer; she simply smiles before turning and walking away, with just a little more sway in her magnificent hips. God, I fucking love her. *** I haven’t spoken with Alecia since that moment this morning. The family began to arrive, and chaos has descended on the vineyard. And I love it. The guys are in my playroom, shooting pool and yelling insults at each other, which is pretty much par for the course with my brothers. The girls are out back in the tent, helping Nic set up the cupcakes. Or, getting in her way, and she’s too nice to tell them to get lost. Meg is getting ready up in the bridal suite, and to escape said chaos, I decide to head up there to say hello. Alecia opens the door to my knock and steps back, letting me inside. Natalie has her camera pressed to her face and is quickly snapping photos. And Meg is standing before the mirror, dressed in her gorgeous gown. It’s lacy, but not frilly. It’s sleeveless, and the neckline plunges deep between her breasts. The skirt hangs straight, with no train. It’s elegant, chic, and completely perfect for our Meg. “You are stunning,” I tell her, as I lean in and kiss her cheek, careful not to muss her up. “Thank you.” “I didn’t think you were the photographer,” I say to Natalie. “Just for this part,” Nat assures me. “I didn’t want a stranger taking photos of me getting dressed.” Meg wrinkles her nose and turns back to the mirror. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” “It’s perfect,” I assure her. “I’ve never seen a more beautiful bride.” “Don’t make me cry!” Meg whines. “It took forever to get my makeup like this.” There’s another knock on the door, and then Leo walks in and stops in his tracks, his eyes wide as he takes Meg in from head to toe. And then a slow smile spreads over his mouth as he tucks his hands in both of his pockets and rocks on his heels.

“Ah, Meg-pie,” he whispers. “Does the dress suck?” she asks, making both Nat and Alecia roll their eyes. Leo crosses to her, gently folds her into his arms and rocks her back and forth slowly. “You are so beautiful, Meg-pie.” “You’re going to wrinkle me,” she says against his chest. “No, I’m not.” There are tears in his eyes as he presses his cheek to her hair. “I love you so damn much. You know that, right? There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you, Meg.” “I know.” “You’re my sister in every way that matters. You’re my constant. Before Sam, it was you and music, and I need you to know that I haven’t forgotten that, Meg.” “Leo,” she whispers, and I nod at Alecia as Natalie quickly snaps pictures. Alecia and I slip out the door, leaving Meg and Leo to have their special moment. She leans her back against the wall and closes her eyes tightly. “Hey, are you okay?” I cup her smooth cheek in my palm and watch as she turns tearfilled eyes up to mine. “I don’t know what it feels like to be loved like that,” she whispers, breaking my heart. “Holy crap,” Natalie says as she sneaks out of the room and closes the door behind her. “That was the sweetest moment I’ve ever witnessed. I’m so glad I captured it.” “Those photos are going to rock,” Alecia agrees, and wipes the tears from her eyes. My gut hurts from seeing the pain in her beautiful brown eyes. “Alecia.” She shakes her head and offers me a shy smile. “I’m fine. It was just a really emotional moment. Can you please go check on the boys?” Her eyes are begging me to drop it, so I do, but I lean in and kiss her cheek. “We’ll talk later,” I murmur, and kiss Nat’s forehead as I walk back down the hall. She’s going to know what it feels like to be loved like that if it’s the last thing I do. *** I clasp Alecia’s hand tightly as Leo walks a nervous Meg down the aisle. I talked Alecia into sitting next to me during the ceremony as my date last night while I was buried inside her and she couldn’t even remember her name. Playing dirty? Damn right. It worked. The sun is setting behind us, casting everything in gold, making Meg’s auburn hair shine. She’s on Leo’s arm, walking to “Baby, I Love Your Way” being played by Leo’s band, Nash.

The guitarist, Jake, is singing the lyrics in his rough voice, perfect for the song, and for Meg. She’s smiling brilliantly, her eyes pinned to my youngest brother, whose eyes have gone glassy. Of all of my brothers, I’ve come to learn that Will is the one that isn’t afraid to show his emotions. Whether he’s happy, sad, hungry, angry, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t hold back. I couldn’t respect him more. “Who gives this woman to this man?” The pastor asks when the music ends. “I do,” Leo responds, kisses Meg, then joins his own wife next to me. “Unca Will!” Olivia exclaims and points to Will excitedly. “Yes, baby,” Nat whispers in her daughter’s ear as Will turns and winks at the toddler. “Dearly beloved.” The pastor speaks of love. Commitment. The sanctity of marriage. The promise. And I can hear him, but all I can focus on is this woman at my side, with her hand in mine, and all of the promises I want to make to her. Telling her this now would send her running into the hills, but Alecia is it for me. I love her. I can’t imagine my life without her. If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is. “And now, the vows. Megan, I’ll ask you to recite your vows first, please.” The pastor steps back and all our eyes are pinned to Meg as she takes a deep breath and stares up into Will’s eyes. She grins. “I wrote it all down, but I just realized that I don’t need to read a piece of paper to tell you how I feel about you.” She swallows hard and her face sobers. “I take you, Will, to be my husband. I vow to always be honest, to be fair, to be spontaneous, and to always hold you in the highest regard. I promise to dream with you, to support you, and to always be your biggest fan. I will be your faithful partner, your unyielding encouragement, and your forever love.” She blinks and one tear falls down her cheek, but Will catches it with his thumb and rubs the apple of her cheek tenderly. “I promise you this today, and every day, for the rest of my life.” “Will, your vows, please,” the pastor says kindly, as Will brushes a tear of his own away. “Megan,” he begins and has to pause to swallow hard. “I hope you understand today how very much I love you. I wonder if you’ll ever truly understand how much of me belongs to you. You are the delight of my life. Loving you is an adventure that I wouldn’t miss for the world. I’m honored, my love, to take you as my wife today. I vow to spend the rest of my life giving back to you what you give to me every day. To be your constant companion, your most trusted confidant, and your truest friend. I vow to never keep score.

I vow to accept you, to honor you, as you are, for the rest of my life. I will be faithful to you, forsaking all others. I will choose you, always.” “Wow,” Jules whispers, and wipes the tears from her face. Meg and Will exchange their rings, their faces bright with smiles and tears, and finally, the pastor says, “You may now kiss your bride.” Will sweeps Meg right off her feet and into his arms, kissing her soundly, and making us all laugh. “Atta boy, Montgomery!” his teammate yells, as we all stand and applaud. “It’s my honor to present Mr. and Mrs. Will Montgomery!” *** It’s time to take my woman upstairs. The crowd is thinning considerably. At just after two in the morning, Will and Meg are still dancing in the middle of the floor. Most of Will’s teammates are still here, talking, mingling, and hitting on a few of the nurses that work with Meg at the hospital. All of the food and cupcakes were long ago inhaled. I lost count hours ago of how many bottles of wine we went through tonight. I know it’s in the hundreds. I’m so damn proud of Alecia for not only pulling off the event, but for making it spectacular. My eyes find her, smiling and talking with Blake and Emily, at the empty cupcake table. “Emily,” I say as I approach, “can you finish up here?” “I can’t leave—” “Yep,” Emily says, interrupting Alecia with a broad smile. “Blake will help me.” “There are still guests here. I have to stay.” “No, you don’t.” Blake pulls her in for a hug. “You kicked ass today, Leash. Go celebrate.” “Are you sure?” Alecia asks Emily. “Absolutely.” Alecia turns to me, and for the first time today I can see the exhaustion settling in. If I have my way, she’ll sleep for three days straight. “Let me say goodnight to Will and Meg.” I nod and watch her walk to my brother and new sister-in-law. They both hug her tightly, and wave at me as she returns to me, tucks her hand in mine and says, “I’m ready.” She doesn’t speak as we walk into the house and up the stairs. The silence is comfortable.

Welcome. I reach around her to open the door to my master suite and gesture for her to go in before me and smile when she lets out a gasp of surprise. “What is this?” She turns those wide brown eyes to me in wonder. “A celebration, tesoro.” I close and lock the door behind me and lead her further into the room. Candles flicker around the room, the only light in the space. Pink tulip petals have been formed into a heart on the bed, and right in the center of them are… “Shoes!” she exclaims and hurries to the bed. “Oh, my God.” “What is it?” I press my chest to her back, my hands gripping her shoulders, and kiss the top of her head. “There are blue boxes in those pretty pink shoes.” I grin. “Indeed.” “And the pink shoes are strappy.” “Right again.” She crosses her arms and grips my hands with hers, holding on tight. “We’re celebrating Will and Meg with designer shoes and blue Tiffany boxes?” “No.” I turn her to face me and cup her face in my hands. “We’re not celebrating the wedding, cara. We’re celebrating you.” She frowns in confusion. “You were amazing, not just today, but during this whole process. You should be so proud of yourself, sweetheart.” I kiss her soft forehead, her nose, and then gently lay my lips on hers, kissing her lightly before pulling back. “Don’t you want to open the boxes?” “Desperately.” She chuckles, and turns back to the bed. “Wait. Let’s get comfy. I’ll rub your feet while you open the boxes.” “Wow. This is a lot of pampering, Dominic.” “You haven’t seen anything yet.” I wink at her and help her get comfortable, leaning against the pillows. I pull her shoes off her small feet, sit on the bed, and begin kneading the arches. “Oh, God.” Her eyes close and she leans her head back against the headboard. “You’re seriously good with your hands.” “If you fall asleep, you won’t see what’s in those boxes.” She bites her lip and raises her head and looks at me. “You didn’t have to do this.” “Yes, I did. Open them.” First, she examines the shoes, her eyes bright with feminine lust for such things, which makes me laugh.

“I kind of like looking at them like this,” she confesses. “I mean, the blue looks so pretty in these pink shoes.” I raise a brow and wait for her to finish admiring the shoes, and finally she can’t resist any longer. She tugs one box out of a shoe. “Oh my,” she breathes when she opens the box. “There’s a lot of pink happening around here tonight.” She’s quiet for a long minute, her lip gripped in her teeth as she simply stares at the white and pink diamond necklace nestled in the blue box. Her brown gaze shoots up to mine as she reaches for the other box. “Lots of pink,” she says again, when she sees the matching bracelet. “They match the pink shoes,” I whisper, and continue to knead the muscles in her calves. “Your calves are tight.” “I was walking in heels for roughly fourteen hours today.” Finally, without another word, she simply climbs over to me, into my lap, and wraps herself around me, clinging on tightly. “I don’t know what to say,” she whispers. “You don’t have to say anything.” “They’re so beautiful. Thank you so much.” “They’re going to look amazing against your skin, cara. That’s why I chose pink. You wear pink so well.” She buries her face in my neck and kisses me gently. Now is the time to tell her how much I love her. But instead, I stay quiet, plucking pins from her hair until it’s falling around her shoulders and plunge my fingers in it, pulling it to my nose. “You smell amazing.” “You smell amazing,” she replies, her nose still pressed to my skin. “You were remarkable to watch today. You were so in control, so focused.” “That’s my job.” “You’re excellent at it.” She smiles against my neck. “Are you going to let me lay you down and help you get more comfortable?” “I’ll let you lay me down and make love to me,” she says with a small voice. You don’t ever have to ask me twice. I tip her onto her back and hover over her, helping her shimmy out of her beautiful blue dress and matching underwear, until she’s spread out under me, the pink tulip petals around her, her golden blonde hair fanned around her head, looking like nothing short of

an angel. “You take my breath away,” I whisper. She grins as she works on the buttons of my shirt, shoving it over my shoulders and tossing it aside, then making quick work of my pants. When I’m naked at last, I settle over her, bracing myself on my elbows, my heavy cock nestled in her slick, hot folds. I brush imaginary tendrils of hair off her forehead and cheeks with my fingertips, sweep my nose over hers, anything to touch her. I’ll never get enough of feeling her skin with mine. “Dominic,” she whispers, then gasps as I move my hips, just a bit, sliding through her wetness. “Yes, my treasure.” Her eyes flare at the term of endearment. “Are you more comfortable hearing it in Italian, tesoro?” “I guess I’m surprised to hear it at all,” she replies truthfully. “You are my treasure.” I kiss her cheek, then drag my lips down to that sensitive spot by her ear. “You are the best part of my life.” Her hands glide up and down my back, then her fingertips follow the same path, making me even harder. I rear back and sink slowly inside her waiting heat, watching her gorgeous eyes as I press in as far as I can, then rest there, watching her. “So proud of you, Alecia.” “Thank you.” Tears fill her eyes and she closes them. “Don’t close your eyes,” I whisper and brush a tear aside. “You don’t ever have to hide from me.” “I’m not.” She shakes her head lightly, then looks back up at me, with her heart wide open for the first time. It’s magnificent. “Do you know how much you scare me?” she asks, her voice barely a whisper. I begin to move, filling her, then pulling out, in long, smooth, sure strokes. Her breath hitches, her fingers dig into my back, and she clenches around my cock in the most delicious of ways. “You are everything,” I say into her ear, as I make gentle love to her. “And yes, tesoro, it scares me too, but not having you scares me even more.” “Me too.” I grip her hand in mine, lacing our fingers, and press it down into the bed as I begin to ride her harder, but not faster. I press the base of my cock against her clit and grind down, and that’s all it takes for her to fall over the edge, coming hard, taking me with her. I love you.

Chapter Fifteen ~Alecia~ I’ve been waking up to his handsome face for more than two weeks now, and it never fails to take my breath away. Or make me squirm in pure, unadulterated lust. I mean, look at him. He’s all dark skin and hair against my white sheets, gathered at his waist, giving me a prime view of his defined abs, sculpted arms, and magical hands with long fingers. He’s shown me what my body was made for. In the week since the wedding, he’s spent every night here in my bed with me, leaving each morning to go back to the vineyard, but he always returns every evening for dinner, wine, conversation, and the best sex of my life. I can’t resist dragging my fingertips down his rough cheek, enjoying the way the scruff feels on my skin. With his eyes still closed, he grins, flashing that dimple, and captures my hand in his, bringing it to his lips. “Good morning,” he whispers against my palm. “’Morning,” I reply and lean in to kiss his shoulder. “We need to get up soon. Baseball game today, remember?” “I remember.” He pulls me into his arms, into what I consider my spot, cozied up against his side, my head on his chest and arm wrapped around his ribs, where I simply fit just right. “But we should do this for a little while first.” “Do what?” I nuzzle my nose into his neck and take a deep breath, enjoying him. “Just be,” he says, and kisses my head. “This is nice,” I whisper. “Mm.” “I’m not gonna be available every night next week,” I say regretfully. “Oh?” “It’s summer, so I have events every night next week. Except Wednesday.” “I have an event at the vineyard on Wednesday,” he says with a sigh. “We’ll survive five days apart, cara.” His hand travels down my back to my ass and back up again, into my hair, then down once more, lulling me into sleep.

“Tesoro,” he whispers in my ear as he rolls me onto my back. His fingertip brushes down my temple and cheek. “Wake up.” “Hmmm.” “We slept another hour.” “We did?” I ask groggily and stretch, still not opening my eyes. “We need to get ready to go.” “Okay.” I don’t move. I simply lay here and enjoy his hands on me, in this space right between sleep and wakefulness. “This isn’t waking up,” he says dryly. “I’m awake.” “I wish we could just stay here all day, cara, but it’s kind of a big day for Matt and Nic. We have to go.” “I want to go,” I reply and crack open an eye to find Dom hovering above me, that dimple winking at me, his blue eyes happy and pinned on mine. “Hello, handsome.” “Ciao, bellissima,” he replies and flashes that charming grin at me. “Dear God, I love your Italian. It’s sexy as hell.” “It is?” His voice is heavy with sarcasm. “You know it is.” He brushes his fingertips down my chest to my stomach. “Hai la pelle più morbida.” “What was that?” “You have the softest skin,” he whispers and plants a kiss on my shoulder. “We don’t have time for this,” I warn him with a grin. Jesus, his lips are incredible. Instead of answering me, he grins wolfishly and suddenly stands, pulling me with him. He tosses me over his shoulder and stalks into the bathroom, starts the shower and when the water is warm enough, sets me down in the large stand up shower. “I could have walked,” I inform him. “But then I wouldn’t have carried you,” he replies, and reaches for my shower gel. “Are we conserving water?” “Smart girl.” He lathers up his hands along with a wash cloth and begins to drag both over my skin, cleaning me up. “That feels nice,” I murmur, watching him. His lips twitch as his hands glide south, over my belly, over my smooth pubis and into the most sensitive part of me. “Dom!” I gasp and grip onto his arms, holding on tight. “Yes?”

“Holy shit, you’re good at that,” I groan as his free hand glides down my ass, and now he’s reaching me from both sides, rubbing my clit from the front and plunging fingers inside me from the back, and it’s the most incredible sensation. He plants his lips on my neck, then bites me there, licks his way up to my ear and says in a firm, direct tone, “Come.” Jesus, who could refuse him? I come hard, shuddering against him. If he weren’t holding me up, I’d fall into a boneless mass on the tile floor. With my forehead leaning on his chest, I struggle to find my breath, and my legs. “Damn, babe,” I say with a laugh. “That was fun.” “Yes, it was. Now, no more distractions. We have to go.” “But, what about you?” He winks and slaps my ass playfully. “I’ll collect later. Trust me.” *** “Heyyyyy, batta, batta, batta!” “Um, Bryn, this is batting practice. You can’t heckle the players during practice.” Matt shakes his head at his sister-in-law playfully. “I can too. It’s the freaking White Sox, Matt.” “Hey! I love the White Sox,” Nic says with a frown. We’re all here, all of the siblings with their spouses, and Nic is the only one wearing a White Sox shirt. The rest of us are in our Mariners gear. “I didn’t know you were so into baseball,” Stacy says to Nic with a grin. “I like it more than football,” Nic admits, and then laughs. “And I can only say that because Will and Meg are still on their honeymoon.” “I’m so telling,” Jules says. “No, you’re not,” Nate says, and kisses his wife square on the lips. These men seriously never stop touching their women. It’s awesome. As if to prove my point, Dom wraps his arm around my shoulders and leans in to kiss my temple. They’re an affectionate lot, that’s for sure. “How did we get these seats?” Meredith asks, looking out at the field from our front row seats. We’re right between first base and home plate, and we have a prime view. “I can practically smell the sweat.” “Ew,” Sam says, wrinkling her nose. “No one said anything about sweat.” “You’re married to a rock star, Sam.” Stacy shakes her head at Sam. “You should be used to sweat by now.” “I’m married to a rock star,” Sam repeats proudly. “My husband is a rock star.” “It’s still new,” Nat murmurs. “I still get a kick out of calling you my wife,” Luke says to her. “And it’s not so new

anymore.” “It’s getting really girly around here,” Mark says with a scowl. “We have connections,” Jules says to Meredith. “It doesn’t suck.” “Not in the least,” Meredith agrees. “It looks like the Sox are almost done with practice,” Matt says and pulls Nic to her feet. “Come on, we’ll go get a ball signed.” “Rhys O’Shaughnessy is playing,” Nic says, and claps her hands excitedly. “He’s my favorite.” Matt leads her away, and everyone springs into action, pulling out their phones to capture photos. “I’m getting Will and Meg on FaceTime right now,” Jules says, and then grins when their faces appear on her screen. “Hi guys! He just took her down to the field.” “Jules, turn the camera. I want to see my brother get engaged, not your face.” Jules sticks her tongue out at her brother, then turns the camera around so Will and Meg can watch. “He got her favorite player in on this?” I ask excitedly. “He did,” Dom confirms, gripping onto my hand, as if he’s as nervous as his older brother. “Rhys is running over with a ball!” Natalie says. Nic is all smiles as the tall, handsome player hands her a ball, kisses her cheek, and shakes Matt’s hand. “I wish we could hear what they’re saying,” Jules grumbles. “He wanted it this way,” Caleb says softly. Rhys points to the ball in Nic’s hand, and she looks down at it, then her jaw drops as Matt lowers himself to one knee and takes her hand in his. “Is it just me, or is this cheesy as fuck?” Mark asks. “Shut up, it’s not cheesy. It’s brilliant.” Brynna smacks Mark’s arm, shutting him up. We can’t hear what’s happening, but suddenly, Nic is nodding furiously, and Matt puts a ring on her finger, then stands and lifts her off her feet, hugging her tight, whispering in her ear. Rhys and his teammates applaud and begin to circle around them to congratulate the happy couple. “Fuck that! I want to hug them now too!” Jules, careful not to lower her phone, jumps up and leads us all down onto the field. Stacy, Brynna and Meredith jump the wall, garnering the attention of security, but Dom holds up a hand. “That’s their brother. They’re just anxious to congratulate him.”

“No more jumping down,” the tall security man says sternly, then his jaw drops when he sees Leo. “Is that Leo Nash?” I immediately walk to the man and speak quickly, in my no-nonsense voice. “This is a family outing. Not a photo op. I hope you’ll remain discreet, please.” “Of course.” He nods and walks away, minding his own business. When I turn to rejoin the others, Nic and Matt are surrounded by family and players, but Dom is waiting for me with a sober face. “What’s wrong?” He shakes his head. “Not a damn thing.” He takes my hand and leads me to the others. “He wrote Will You Marry Me on a baseball!” Nic exclaims and shows everyone. “Aww, and had your favorite player give it to you,” Stacy says dreamily. “I’m your favorite player?” Rhys asks, as if he didn’t already know. “Maybe,” Nic says, and then laughs. “Yeah, you definitely are.” “Is it my undeniable good looks?” he asks. “No, it’s your batting record. Seriously, you have the most hits this year in all of the MLB, and watching you hit is like watching a dance. You’re damn good.” Rhys cocks his head to the side and watches Nic more seriously. “Thank you.” “I’m sorry to break this up, guys,” the security guard says, “but I need you to take your seats. We’ll be starting soon.” “Okay, that was cool,” Mark concedes as we go to find our seats. “I want nachos,” Brynna announces. “And a hot dog.” “Pizza!” Stacy agrees. “We’re going out for dinner after this,” Nate reminds the girls. “We’re at a baseball game,” I say, as if it makes perfect sense. Because it does. “We need Cracker Jacks too,” Sam says. “And cotton candy.” “And a dentist,” Luke says with a cringe. “Beer.” I add. “The beer here is warm,” Dominic says. “I don’t care. I’m at a game. I need beer and peanuts.” “Wait!” Meredith stands, looking about. “Where are Matt and Nic?” We all turn and search the area, and suddenly Caleb points back down to the field. Matt and Nic are coming out of the White Sox dugout, headed for the field.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer begins. “Throwing out the first pitch today is a young woman who just got engaged on our field! Give a big Seattle welcome to Nic Dalton!” “Oh, my God, I have to get Will back!” Jules is furiously tapping the screen of her phone as we all jump up, cheering loudly. “Atta girl!” Brynna calls down to the field. Dom and his brothers are whistling loudly. “This is so fun!” I clap my hands, jumping on the balls of my feet. Nic walks out to the pitcher’s mound, ball in hand, but instead of standing in front of the mound, she stands on top of it and gives the catcher an arrogant look. Her lips twitch, but then she winds up and throws the ball perfectly, right into the catcher’s mitt, as if she’s a pro who’s been throwing baseballs for years. “Holy shit, Will, you’re not the only one in the family with a hell of a right arm,” Isaac says excitedly. “That’s so fucking awesome!” Will exclaims through the phone. Matt and Nic wave at the crowd, then join us in the stands. “You are so damn cool,” Luke says to Nic as he pulls her in for a hug. “I know,” Nic replies, and laughs as she’s passed from brother to brother. “Okay, you all have your own girls,” Matt says finally. “Hands off mine.” “Now, back to food,” Brynna says, and flags down a guy carrying a box full of peanuts. “It’s going to cost us a thousand dollars to eat all this junk,” Nate says. “You can afford it, ace,” Jules replies happily, and cranes her neck looking for another vendor. “Where’s the pizza guy?” “Were those rookies hitting on you when we were down hugging Nic and Matt?” Meredith asks Natalie. “Yeah.” Nat shrugs and shakes her head. “They didn’t know any better.” “They do now,” Luke replies mildly. “What did you say?” Stacy asks. “He didn’t say anything,” Nat replies and lays her head on her husband’s shoulder. “He glared at them like a caveman and the one guy recognized him and they shut up.” “I’m a caveman?” Luke asks in surprise. “You’re all a bunch of cavemen,” Meredith replies. “Am I a caveman, cara?” Dom murmurs in my ear. I snort and stare up at him, then lean in to talk into his ear. “I believe it was you who fucked me against the building on your property because I joked about fucking someone with an apa.”

I pull back and see his eyes narrow. “And just hearing you say that makes me want to do it again.” “See? Caveman.” *** “I’m so fucking full,” Brynna says as we walk down the sidewalk outside of the stadium toward a nearby pub. “That’s because you ate everything except for the seat you were sitting in, legs,” Caleb says with a laugh and takes her hand in his. “I didn’t eat any of Jules’ pizza,” she replies with a pout. “I would have cut your hand off if you’d tried to steal my pizza,” Jules says. It’s a beautiful summer night. Not quite dark out yet, warm with a light breeze. Perfect Seattle weather. “I love nights like this,” I breathe, as the others joke and chat around us. Dominic is walking beside me, slowing his strides to match mine. He kisses my hand, then tucks it in the crook of his elbow, content to let me lean on him as we walk. “Seattle is beautiful in the summer.” “Seattle is always beautiful,” he replies softly. “Even when it rains.” “It’s certainly always green,” I reply with a nod. “Not so different from San Francisco.” “Why didn’t I know that you’re from San Francisco?” he says with a frown. “I don’t know.” I shrug and laugh when Sam jumps on Leo’s back, making him give her a ride. “It’s not a secret. I guess it never came up.” “When did you move to Seattle?” “Right after I left Jonathan.” I lean my head on Dom’s shoulder. “There was really nothing for me there anymore. And I’ve always enjoyed Seattle.” “It’s lucky for me that you loved it here.” “Back at you,” I reply sincerely. “What are the odds that we’d both be from opposite sides of the world and end up in the same city?” “It’s not odds, tesoro, it’s fate.” I snort and shake my head, but when I glance back up at him I see he’s completely serious. “You don’t believe in fate?” he asks. “Not really. I guess I’ve never really thought about it.” He nods thoughtfully. “I would think that if ever there was a couple fated to be together, it would be you and me. Like you said, we’re from opposite sides of the globe, neither of us started here, and yet, here we are.” “You two are slow pokes!” Sam calls back to us as Leo walks backwards. “If you trip and fall and drop me, rock star, we are going to have issues.”

“I’m not going to drop you, sunshine.” “I want a ride too,” Stacy says demandingly to her husband. “I’ll give you a ride, all right,” Isaac replies with a cocky grin. “Stop it!” Jules cries, just as Luke stops dead in the center of the sidewalk, pulls his wife into his arms and drops a kiss on her that would make the gods weep. “For the love of Christmas, we’re in public!” “I don’t give a fuck,” Luke replies calmly, still staring in Nat’s eyes. “God, you’re gross,” Jules grumbles. “I need cheesecake.” “We’ll get you some,” Nate replies with a laugh. “Just ignore the PDA. Or join it.” He buries his face in her neck and bites her flesh, making her moan. “Oh, that doesn’t suck.” “You’re all a very affectionate group of people,” I observe, as we walk into the pub and score a big table near the back. “Does that bother you?” Meredith asks. “No, it’s just unusual.” We settle in, glance at menus, order drinks and just when I think my comment has been forgotten, Luke continues. “If it does bother you, Alecia, just say so.” “Hey! I say so all the time and you do it anyway,” Jules complains. “I’m fine,” I reply with a laugh. “It’s not that it bothers me. I’m just not used to it.” “Were your parents affectionate?” Nic asks. “They were with each other,” I say slowly. “But not with you,” Nic replies. I shrug and shake my head, as if it’s no big deal. “My mother hasn’t touched me in six years,” Nic says as the waitress sets a glass of water before her. “What?” I frown at the beautiful woman, surprised. “We don’t get along well. Never have really. So all of this affection was new to me too.” Matt kisses her temple gently. “You’ll get used to it,” Jules adds. “I drink a lot, to dull the grossness.” Natalie laughs and throws a napkin at her best friend. “I want hot wings,” Brynna announces. “I thought you were full?” Caleb says. “I’m in the mood to suck the fuck out of a bone,” she replies, and my eyebrows climb into my hairline.

“Excuse me?” I ask. “Oh, just wait,” Sam says with a grin. “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Brynna suck the fuck out of a bone.”

Chapter Sixteen ~Alecia~ “But I hate to run,” I whine, as I pull into my parking space and cut the engine. “Don’t be a pussy,” Blake replies into my ear. “I need a run and I want to talk to you, so I’m picking you up.” “You’re using me as an excuse because I have the best running trails in my neighborhood.” “That hurts, Leash,” he says. “It’s true, but it hurts.” “You’re a smart ass.” I giggle and walk to my building. “I’m a smart ass who’s almost to your place.” “What? I’m just getting home.” “Well, hurry up and change. I just got off the freeway. See you in a few!” “Damn it, Blake!” But it’s no use. He’s already hung up. I hurry upstairs, let myself in, and immediately begin shedding clothes. My shoes come off first, tossed just inside the door, then I unzip and shed my skirt, leaving it in a wad by the kitchen. My blouse and bra are flung next, one ending up on the couch, and I have no idea where the other went. I’ll pick them up later. I hurry into a sports bra, tank and yoga shorts, and Blake bursts through my front door, just as I’m lacing up my shoes. “You’ve gotten messy, Leash.” “Eff you. You didn’t give me any time.” “Are you going to pick your clothes up?” “I will later.” I sigh and wave him off. “I have to take them in to be dry cleaned anyway. Are you really going to make me run?” “Yes, ma’am.” He winks at me and wraps his arm around my neck, kisses my head with a loud smack, and pushes me away. “Why do I have to go? Can’t you go running without me and just come back here when you’re done?” “God, stop whining,” he says and rolls his eyes. “It’ll be good for you.” We leave my condo, ride down the elevator and walk out to the sidewalk, then break out into a slow jog.

“This is as fast as you’re going to go?” Blake asks me with a smirk. “If you don’t like it, go by yourself.” I sniff and already hate the way it feels to run. I’ve always hated it. “How’s Emily?” “Why do we have to talk about this?” “So it takes my mind off the fact that I don’t want to be running.” “So, let’s talk about your love life” “Hell no, you’re the one making me run. So start talking.” He sighs and stares out at the water, watching a boat drift by. “We’re good.” “Well, that was informational.” Blake laughs ruefully. “One of the things I love about you is that you don’t take my shit.” “You don’t need me to take your shit. You have enough people in your life who do that for you.” “True enough.” He picks up the pace, just a bit, and I growl at him, making him laugh again. “You’re kind of a weenie, Leash.” “Emily.” “She’s great.” He sighs again, not because he’s out of breath, but because he doesn’t want to talk about this with me. I don’t care. “She’s funny. Smart. Has a banging body.” I shake my head and look up toward the heavens. “Seriously.” “She seriously has a banging body.” “Does it always go back to sex with men?” “Pretty much, yeah.” He seems to give this some thought and then shrugs. “So I enjoy sex. Sue me.” “I enjoy it too, but that isn’t in the top three things that I talk about when I discuss who I’m dating.” “Okay, what are your top three things?” “He’s smart, sweet and funny.” “What’s number four?” “He’s amazing in bed.” He laughs long and loud, then high fives me. “You’re funny.” “I know.” “I really enjoy Emily,” he says, serious now. “She’s fun to be around, and she also doesn’t take my shit. If I cook something she doesn’t like, she’s honest about it. She’s

sweet.” “She is sweet,” I agree. “I’m glad it’s going well.” “You are?” he asks, surprised. “Of course. I want you to both be happy.” “When we were at Dom’s, you didn’t seem so convinced.” “I admit, I always imagined you’d be happy with someone other than each other,” I admit with a shrug. I’m breathing harder now, and that pisses me off. “But you’re adults.” “How are things with Dom?” I grin before I can stop myself, and Blake being Blake, he catches it. “That good, eh?” “I like him.” “Thank you, captain obvious.” I laugh and elbow his arm. “He’s nice to me.” “He’d better be, or I’ll kick his ass, friend or not.” “That’s sweet.” “Out of morbid curiosity, what do you like about him?” I frown and ponder the question, running in step with him, our feet pounding the pavement. We pass an older man walking his dog, and a young mother with a baby in a stroller. “I respect him,” I begin. “When I first met him, I thought he was just a player. Some charming Italian who melts panties off women with just a few pretty words, and works his way from bed to bed.” “Wow, you got all of that from meeting him at family gatherings?” I shrug and keep talking. “But he’s not that person. He loves his family fiercely. He’s proud of his business. He’s so damn good to me.” “I’m glad.” I glance over to find Blake watching me with serious eyes. “You deserve to be happy too, you know.” I nod and then laugh. “And as ridiculous as this sounds, I think I’m in love with him.” “Oh, I could have told you that.” “What? How?” “You should see the look on your face when you talk about him,” he says with a grin. “You’re such a girl.”

I shake my head as we turn back toward the condo. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in love before, B.” “You’ve been married,” he says. “I’m learning that doesn’t mean much,” I reply honestly. “I mean, I think I thought I loved Jonathan when I married him; I hope I did, but it was nothing at all compared to this. And it’s going to sound silly, but I miss him.” “Why is that silly?” “I just saw him Monday morning. I’ve been too busy this week to see him, and I miss him.” “Why are you running with me on your one free night this week rather than spending it with Dom?” “Because he has an event at the vineyard, so he’s not free tonight.” “Have you told him you love him?” “Are you nuts?” I shriek. “No way.” “Why not?” “Because I’ve only been seeing him for a few weeks. It’s too soon.” “Women.” He rolls his eyes and speeds up more as my building comes into view, but I let him go ahead of me, and stay at my pace. When I approach my building, he’s panting, stretching his legs by the front door. I immediately begin to stretch with him. “You should go see Dom tonight, Alecia.” “He’s busy.” “Not too busy for you to show up and tell him you love him.” “I can tell him this weekend.” “Why wait? You miss him. You love him. Go see him. Seriously, life’s too short for this bullshit.” I let us into my condo, frowning at my friend. “When did you become a dating expert?” “Look.” He takes my shoulders in his hands and forces me to look him in the eye. This is very un-Blake. “What if you don’t get the chance to tell him? You’ll always regret it.” “Have you told Em you’re in love with her?” “Hell yes, I have.” I’m struck dumb. I stare up at him, and then fling my arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. “I’m so happy for you.” “Go be happy for you. He’ll love seeing you.” “Are you trying to kick me out of my own condo?” “Hell yes, I want to use your shower. The spray in there is fantastic.”

I laugh and walk into my bedroom closet, blindly change my clothes, and then scowl when I realize I’m sweaty. “I should take a shower.” “Yeah, no man wants to hear his woman say I love you while she smells like a gym rat.” I stick my tongue out at him and march back into my bedroom, stripping out of my clothes on my way to the shower. What the hell am I going to do, just show up in his office and blurt out, “I love you! Surprise!” That’s lame. Maybe I should take him dinner or something. Except, he said he has to work tonight, so that won’t work. Why am I overthinking this so much? Just go tell the man you love him! But what if I do, and he just stares at me in confusion. Or worse yet, says thank you. Dear God, I would die of horror. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I should wait. It’s still early in our relationship. There’s no need to rush this. You’re my treasure. Would a man say that to someone he doesn’t love? I don’t think so. I turn off the tap, and just as I reach for a towel, there’s a commotion in the living room, and I hear a very angry Dominic yell, “What the ever loving fuck is going on?”

Chapter Seventeen ~Dominic~ I miss her. It’s been less than three days since I last held her, tasted her, and I miss her as if she’s a part of me. Because she is. I’m tempted to say fuck it and just go to her tonight. Let Celeste handle the event. That’s what I pay her for, isn’t it? I reach for my cell to text Alecia when my office line rings. “Salvatore,” I answer briskly. “Ciao,” my cousin Gianna says in my ear, but I can hear an edge in her voice, with just that one word. “What’s wrong, bella?” “I need you here, Dom.” “You do this every three months like clockwork, Gianna. I can’t just pack up and come to Italy. I have a business here. A life.” “Marco has been robbing us blind.” I sit forward in my chair, frowning, sure I’ve heard her wrong. “Mi scusi?” “You heard me.” She sighs the sigh of one who is bone-tired. “The vineyard is broke, Dominic.” “How?” “A little at a time. I think he’s been gambling again.” I close my eyes and everything in me stills. That little motherfucker. “Where is Marco, Gianna?” “I can’t find him.” “Son of a bitch!” I pinch the bridge of my nose, already making plans to fly to Italy today. “Dom, you’re the one that knows figures. You’re the only one who can fix this. I need you here.” “I’m on my way.” “Grazie,” she begins, but I cut her off.

“And when I get there, we are going to have a long talk about why it took you so fucking long to call me.” “Just get here.” She hangs up, and I’m tempted to hurl my phone across the room, but instead I yell for Celeste. “What’s wrong?” she asks, as she comes into my office. “I have to leave for Italy this evening.” “Is everything okay?” “No.” I swear and pace behind my desk. “I’ll need you to stay this evening for the event. I want someone here to supervise.” “I can do that.” “Good. I’m going up to pack.” “Do you want me to book the airline?” “No, I’ll do it. You’ll be able to reach me in Italy if you need anything.” “How long will you be gone?” “I don’t know.” I sigh, already sick to my stomach at the mess that awaits me there. “It could be a few weeks. A month at the most.” “Don’t worry about anything. Everything will be fine here.” “Thanks, Celeste.” I quickly gather my laptop, iPad, cords and pack my briefcase, pocket my phone and jog upstairs, taking two stairs at a time. I dial the airline as I unzip a suitcase and begin filling it with clothes and essentials. I’m an excellent multi-tasker. “I need to be on a plane to Italy tonight, from SeaTac, first class.” I can hear the agent get to work, her nails clicking on her keyboard as she works on finding me a flight, and I remember that Alecia tried to call while I was talking with Gianna. Alecia. Fuck, I have to tell her I’m leaving. “I have a flight available at eight this evening,” the agent says. I check my watch. That gives me an hour to finish up here before I have to leave for the airport. And I need to talk to Alecia, preferably in person. Or, I could just take her with me. She has a team of people who can manage her business without her for a few weeks.

I grin as the idea forms in my head. “That works, but I’ll need two seats, please.” “I have that,” she responds. I give her the passenger information, pay with my credit card, and finish packing, suddenly excited at the spontaneous trip back home. I’ve been eager to show Alecia where I come from, to see her face light up when she sees my grandparent’s land, or when I take her shopping in Rome. With renewed energy, I check in once more with Celeste, then head out, driving toward Seattle. I can’t wait to see her, but first I place a call to Steven. “Hello.” “Hey, it’s Dom. I wanted to let you know that I’m heading to Italy rather unexpectedly.” “Is everything okay?” The concern in Steven’s voice always makes me pause. The way he’s accepted me, so readily, always disarms me. “No, but it will be. There are issues at the vineyard, and I’m needed.” “Of course. Be safe, son, and let me know when you get there, and if there’s anything at all that you need.” “Thank you.” I nod and smile to myself. “I’m taking Alecia with me.” “Is that so?” I can hear the smile in his voice as well. “So, not completely a work trip, then?” “No, I want to show it to her.” “Good for you. Be safe.” I end the call and immediately call Matt, giving him the same information. “You’re taking her to Italy? Is she excited?” “She doesn’t know. It’s a surprise.” “Now, that’s one hell of a surprise.” “I know.” I laugh. “Chicks dig shit like this.” “You sound more American every day, brother. Have fun. Call if you need anything.” I end the call just as I leave the freeway, headed to Alecia’s condo. My Montgomery family is a special one, there’s no doubt about it. I walk quickly into Alecia’s building, checking my watch. We have just enough time for her to pack a bag and to drive to the airport. I hope I don’t have to get her naked to convince her to go with me. Not because I don’t want to get her naked, and sink inside her for the better part of the night, but because there’s simply no time.

I check my watch again. Okay, maybe I’ll just get her half naked. I’m smiling at the prospect of taking her hard and fast in the kitchen when I approach her door, and open it without knocking, surprised that it’s unlocked. I glace down and frown when I see the shoes I gave her the night of Will’s wedding tossed just inside the front door. Then scowl more then I see her skirt wadded on the floor by the kitchen, and her top and bra flung in the living room. Sitting on the couch, with one ankle propped on the opposite knee, his arms stretched on the back of the sofa, sweaty and wearing only gym shorts is Blake. His shirt has been thrown on the arm of the couch. He’s sweaty, his hair a mess, and he looks…satisfied. And I’m going to fucking kill him. “Hey, man. Alecia is going to be surprised to see you.” “What in the ever loving fuck is going on?” I yell and advance on Blake. He immediately stands, frowning as if he’s confused, which only makes me want to punch him more. What? She didn’t see me for three days and decided to call Blake to scratch her itch? I’m so fucking stupid. “Dom?” Alecia says from her doorway. She’s wet, fresh from the shower, wearing only a towel, and the world falls out from under me. “Are you fucking kidding me?” “Hey, man, it’s not what you think—” Blake begins, but I advance, pressing my face close to his. “What I think is that I thought I could trust you. You fucking lied to me.” “No, Dominic,” Alecia says, as she lays her hand on my arm. I look down at her hand and then into her face, and she immediately pulls away. I glare at both of them and pace away, pushing my hands through my hair. “What, exactly, are you accusing me of?” Alecia asks angrily. Her brown eyes are on fire, her cheeks flushed, as she props her hands on her hips and glares at me. “You’re about to lose your towel,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. “I don’t care. Just say it.” “That’s right.” I shake my head and laugh humorlessly, pacing her living room. “Why should you care if you lose your towel? We’ve all seen the goods, right?” “Hey,” Blake begins, but I turn on him, hands fisted at my side, and suddenly Alecia is between us, hands on both of our chests. “We didn’t—” “This isn’t my first rodeo, Alecia. I’ve walked into this before, only last time it was my fiancé and my cousin.”

“What?” Her face pales as she stares up at me. “And you think I would do that?” Her face reddens with anger. I simply shrug as Blake swears under his breath and paces away. “You know what?” Alecia stomps to the door and opens it wide. “I think you should go.” “Say you didn’t fuck him,” I reply and advance on her. “Jesus, Dom—” Blake begins, but Alecia interrupts him. “I shouldn’t have to! I want you out of my condo. Now.” “This isn’t the end of this,” I say, staring down into her angry eyes. I’m just as pissed off. I want her to say no. Of course I didn’t sleep with him. And if she hadn’t, that shouldn’t be so fucking hard to say. “I’m not talking to you right now.” She shakes her head adamantly. “We will finish this later.” When I step out into the hallway, she slams the door behind me. I hurry to my car and drive blindly north, through Tacoma, to the airport, getting angrier with each mile. She fucking played me. I want to turn back and confront her again. Kick Blake’s ass. But there’s no time. I’m needed in Italy now. My family needs me. I need Alecia. Or I thought I did. She just practically admitted to fucking Blake by not denying it. Read the writing on the wall, man. My cell rings, showing Gianna’s name. “What.” “Gee, that’s a nice way to answer the phone.” “What do you want, Gianna? I’m on my way to the airport now.” “I want to say thank you again. I’m excited to see you, and I wish it were under different circumstances.” I sigh and rub my hand over my face. “I’ll be there by tomorrow night.” “Also, I just spoke with Liliana, and I might have mentioned that you’re coming.” I shake my head and swear under my breath at the mention of my former fiancé. “Gianna.” “She would love to see you.” “I’m not interested, Gianna.”

“It’s been a long time, Dom. I’m not suggesting you marry her. Just talk to her. She’s missed you too.” She fucked Marco, is all I can think, but I’m too fucking pissed to argue. “Fine.” An idea begins to form. “Actually, Gianna, I will speak with Liliana. Invite her for dinner on Friday.” “I was hoping you’d say that! I already invited her.” “Good. I’ll see you when I get there.” I hang up and tap my lips with my fingers, thinking about the two women that I’ve ever been stupid enough to give my heart to. One betrayed me with my own cousin, not even bothering to try to be discreet. I’m quite sure she intended for me to find them the night before our wedding. It worked. And thank Christ I discovered the truth before I married her. But when I think of Alecia, it’s a physical ache in my chest. How could she do this? Why?

Chapter Eighteen ~Alecia~ “I can’t fucking believe him!” I shriek and stomp into my bedroom to throw on clothes —any clothes, I don’t even bother to see what I’m throwing on—and march out to the living room where Blake has pulled his shirt on and is staring out the window. “I can’t believe I was going to tell him I love him!” “You do love him,” Blake says calmly, and turns to look at me. “And he obviously loves you.” “Loves me? He loves me and he accuses me of screwing around with my best friend?” “Look around, Leash.” His arm sweeps around the room. “Your clothes are everywhere. I was half naked, and you came out of the shower. If it had been me walking in on this, I would have killed him. I’m lucky my jaw isn’t broken right now.” “He should trust me!” I yell in response. “I would never do that to him!” “I agree, but did you know about the ex-fiance?” “No.” I shake my head and pace to the kitchen to open some wine. “And that’s another thing that pisses me off. He was freaking engaged? How has he never mentioned that little tidbit before?” And why in the hell does the thought of another woman wearing his ring make me homicidal? “Sounds like it’s not exactly a good memory for him,” he replies dryly. “Besides, did you ever ask him if he’d been engaged before?” “Why would I ask him that?” I turn and stare at Blake like he’s grown an extra head, but all he does is shrug. “You didn’t help things, you know.” “Are you saying this is my fault?” I demand. “Part of it, yes. He jumped to conclusions, but you refused to deny it, Alecia. Seriously, you were both pretty fucked up.” I sigh and hang my head as some of the mad leaves me. “What he accused us of is horrible.” “Definitely,” he agrees. “But you didn’t say, Dominic, I would never fuck Blake. He’s too good for me and the sex was too amazing and I can’t ever do that again.” I roll my eyes, but he just grins. “No, instead you said, and this is the Cliff’s Notes version, but as a man, this is what he heard, fuck you. I don’t have to justify anything to you. Get the eff out.” “Shit.”

“I have dinner with Emily tonight, so I’m going to go. I suggest you go to the vineyard and apologize, Leash.” I wrinkle my nose, but I know he’s right. “I hate the taste of crow.” “Take a salt shaker.” *** I try to call Dom’s cell phone, but there’s no answer. In fact, it goes straight to voice mail. He’s so angry he shut off his phone? Shit. I pull into Dom’s driveway and walk inside without knocking. “Dom!” I poke my head into the playroom, the dining room, the kitchen. No luck. “Dom!” I’m walking briskly down the hallway to his office when Celeste sticks her head out, surprise written on her pretty face. “Alecia.” “Hey, is Dom in his office?” “No, I’m sorry.” “Oh.” I turn toward the back of the house. “Is he out in the barn?” “No, he’s on his way to Italy.” I blink and turn back to her, sure I’ve misheard her. “Excuse me?” “He’s on a plane, Alecia. He got called home.” This is his home. “When?” “Not long ago.” He’s on his way to Italy, and he didn’t tell me? “When will he be back?” “He didn’t know. It could be a few weeks. Maybe a month.” “He’s going to Italy for a month.” I sound like an idiot, repeating everything she’s saying, but I can’t help it. Italy is going to love you.

“It could be less.” I nod and then shake my head, trying to clear it. He left for Italy without telling me. “Are you okay, dear?” “Oh, I’m fine.” “Do you want me to give him a message?” “No.” I shake my head and offer her a bright smile. “No message. Thanks.” I turn and walk as quickly as I can out of Dominic’s house, to my car, throw it in drive and speed away, barely feeling the tears running down my cheeks. I try to call his cell phone again, but it goes straight to voice mail. He’s on a motherfucking plane. I dial Blake’s number. “If you’re calling me, it didn’t go well.” “He’s going to Italy,” I reply, and hate the sound of tears in my voice. “Seriously?” Blake asks. “I can’t make this crap up. The going gets tough and he runs off to freaking Italy. He didn’t even stay and fight for me, Blake. What in the hell is up with that?” Blake is trying to talk, but I’m on a roll, angry and frustrated and so fucking hurt I don’t know what to do with myself. “I mean, am I that big of an idiot? Am I so unlovable that people can just leave me without so much as looking back?” “Alecia, stop. Take a breath.” I do as he says and wipe angrily at the tears on my cheeks. “He was supposed to take me to Italy with him, and instead, as soon as he thinks the very worst of me, he hops on a plane.” I can’t fucking believe it. “Alecia, I don’t think this has as much to do with Dominic as it does with you and your own issues.” “I don’t have issues,” I reply stubbornly. “Oh, sweetheart, you have more issues than any of the Real Housewife chicks.” “I’m going to tell Emily you watch that crap.” “Seriously, Alecia. You don’t know that Dom has abandoned you.” “People don’t stay in my life, Blake,” I reply softly. “They just don’t.” I end the call and stare blindly at the freeway as I drive home. There are no more tears, just stunned silence. I park and walk up to my condo, let myself in, and stare in disbelief at the shoes Dom gave me where I left them when I hurriedly toed them off to get ready for

my run with Blake. I pace around the space, stare out the window at the ferry floating by, and then pace some more. People don’t stay in my life. And why don’t they? I never speak to my parents. My ex-husband walked away from our relationship with barely a look back. I’m tired of being disposable. You’re my treasure. God, he was a damn talented charmer, I’ll give him that. With my mind made up, I fish my phone out of my bag and dial Emily’s number. “Hey, boss.” “Hey,” I reply, putting a smile in my voice, and quite proud that my voice doesn’t shake. “I’ve had something come up. Would you mind taking over for me for the next week or so?” “Sure,” she replies, and I can hear the questions in her voice. “Is everything okay?” “Of course,” I lie. I just have to go have it out with my parents, which is long overdue. “I just have some personal things to see to.” “Okay. Don’t worry about anything.” I swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep, silent breath. “You’re the best. Thanks.” “No worries.”

Chapter Nineteen Gianna is fussing at the stove over our grandmother’s red sauce, humming under her breath, then pulls fresh bread out of the oven. I missed this kitchen. It makes me think of Nonna and laughter and home. Our grandfather updated this kitchen years ago, installing an industrial stove, oven and refrigerator, and Nonna made good use of it, always in the kitchen, always feeding someone. If we’d been smart, we would have bottled and sold her red sauce while she was alive, rather than wine. It most likely would have sold better. But she would have had none of it. I sip my wine, a pretty little Merlot that came from this land, and page through my cousin’s financials on her laptop one more time. “So, he was making withdrawals of more than ten thousand Euros at a time, and you didn’t notice? Come on, Gianna, I’m not stupid.” “He always had reasons,” she says, flailing her arms about as she paces the kitchen. I check the time, conscious that Liliana will be here soon, and I want this wrapped up before she arrives. “His car was broken. He had medical bills.” “Marco has never been sick a day in his life.” “Why would I question him?” she demands, her deep brown eyes on fire. “Why? He’s my brother, yes?” “You would question him because he’s done this before.” “But never like this!” I sigh and push my fingers through my hair. I’m still exhausted from jet lag, from being angry at Alecia. From worrying about this vineyard. “I’m going to go to the bank next week, Gianna. I’ll get you figured out. I’m still digging through your records, which are a mess by the way, and trying to figure out exactly how much he owes you.” “He’s not going to pay it back, Dominic.” “Oh yes,” I reply, my voice full of steel. “He will. And when I find him, I’m going to kick his ass.” “That’s not why I asked you here.” “Well, it’s happening anyway. You wanted my help, and you’re getting it.” She stops by the table, twisting the kitchen towel in her hands and finally wraps her arms around my shoulders and hugs me tightly. “Thank you for coming right away, Dom. Thank you for helping.”

“You should have called me months ago.” “I thought it would stop. I thought maybe I could help him.” “He doesn’t want help, Gianna. That’s something you need to remember.” She smiles up at me sadly. “He’s my brother.” The doorbell rings and Gianna pulls away. “I’ll go get the door.” I close the laptop and stow away the paperwork before Gianna leads Liliana into the kitchen, both chatting excitedly. “You’re here!” Liliana exclaims and launches herself into my arms, plants her lips on my cheek and clings to me. It very nearly turns my stomach. “I’m here,” I reply and pull her off of me and motion for her to sit at the table. “How are you, Liliana?” “Oh, I’m great.” She smiles, and I can’t help but take her in, from head to toe. She’s in stylish, brightly colored clothes that fit her long, lithe body like a glove. She’s always been thin, almost too thin. But her breasts are full and almost spill from her blouse. She’s had them done. Her lips are bright red, her skin pale and perfect. Her raven black hair spills around her shoulders in loose curls, and her blue eyes are bright as she watches me, her lips tipping up in a flirtatious smile. “I’ve missed you, Dominic.” I cock a brow. “Have you?” “Very much.” She leans over and grips my hand in hers, but I slowly lean back, out of her reach. I don’t want her touching me. Gianna serves dinner, and the two of them chat happily, gossiping about mutual friends, giving me a chance to watch Liliana. Was I ever really attracted to her? Of course I was, but the reasons why are a mystery to me. She obviously works very hard to make herself beautiful, and yet ironically, she’s incredibly unattractive. Being a cheating bitch will do that, I suppose. “Oh, Dom, do you remember that weekend trip we took to Rome? That last one when we got engaged?” I physically flinch before I can stop myself. Of course I remember the weekend trip to Rome. “What of it?”

“Well, I was just there a few weeks ago, and that little bed and breakfast that we stayed in is for sale. Of course, I so longed to buy it, purely for sentimental value.” She bats her eyes at me. “You should buy it.” “Why in the hell would I do that?” “Because it’s our special place, of course.” Gianna frowns at Liliana, and then watches me warily. I set my fork down, lean on my elbows, and watch Liliana over the rim of my wine glass. “What’s your game, Lil?” “Game?” Her eyes go wide, innocently, and four years ago, I would have bought it hook, line and sinker. “There’s no game. That place is special to me. I would hate for someone to buy it and turn it into something horrible.” “Gianna,” I begin and stand, gesturing for Liliana to take my hand, which she does without hesitation. “I’m going to take Liliana outside to talk privately.” “Of course,” Gianna replies, and begins clearing the table. I try to pull my hand from Liliana’s, but she holds firm, smiling flirtatiously up at me, the way she used to do when she couldn’t wait to get me home and rock my world, as I lead her outside and around the side of the house on the wrap-around covered porch. “Thank goodness we’re alone at last,” she purrs and glides her hands up my chest, leaning into me, tipping her head back in invitation. “I’m so happy that you’re home, mi amore.” I back away from her touch and cross my hands over my chest. “I’m not your love, Liliana. I’m not anything to you.” “That’s not true.” I tilt my head to the side, watching her closely. “You fucked my cousin. The night before we were to get married.” Her lip quivers and tears spring to her eyes, but I don’t for one minute believe they’re genuine. Liliana is a master manipulator. “It was only cold feet.” “Or a cold heart,” I reply calmly. “I wish you would just forgive me, Dominic. It was a moment of weakness. It meant nothing at all.” I nod, considering her words. “Yes, Marco told me that you’d been fucking him for about three months. So, was that just a three month long moment of weakness then?” Her eyes narrow and lips firm. “Did you come here to reconcile or not?” “Not.” I drag my finger over my lips, considering her. “I came here because my cousin needed me.”

“Then why did you invite me to dinner?” She props her hands on her slender hips and glares at me. “For a few reasons.” I rest my hip on the banister casually. “One, I’d like to know how much money you’ve talked Marco into giving you over the past six months.” She starts to speak, but I hold a hand up, stopping her. “I also wanted you to finally admit that you’d been fucking him since before I proposed to you. And I wanted to simply ask you why.” “Why what? Why does Marco give me money? Why was I fucking him?” “All of it.” She tosses her head back and laughs. Not the sexy, lovely laugh I once knew her to have, but a vindictive, malicious laugh that only makes her look more ugly. “Oh, come on, Dominic. You’re an adult. We had a good time together. The sex was spectacular, we made each other laugh.” “The sex was mediocre,” I correct her and smirk. Sex with Alecia was spectacular. “It was never about you,” she spits out. “As soon as I set foot on this vineyard when I came out here to take care of your mama, God rest her soul, I knew that I wanted it.” “You wanted the vineyard?” I ask incredulously. “For what? You’re a nurse.” I rack my brain, thinking back to those months when Liliana came here to care for my mama when she was dying, how compassionate she was. She’d been my rock during that time, and it was why I’d fallen in love with her. “I’m a damn good nurse, but do you honestly think that’s what I want to do forever? Watch people die?” “What do you want?” “I want money!” She shakes her head at me like I’m stupid. “You always talked of moving to America, starting over, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I love it here. Right here. And I knew Marco would never leave.” “So, you seduced him.” “And I still do,” she replies with a smug smile. “And he does pretty much whatever I tell him to.” “Including steal money from his sister,” I growl. “Hey, I’ve been asking Gianna to talk you into moving back home for a long time, Dominic. You were the one I wanted, but I wanted you here. And I wanted a claim on this vineyard.” “Have you forgotten that you’d signed a pre-nup, Lil?” I smirk, when her face pales and she glares at me. “And aside from that, Marco and I are not controlling owners in this vineyard. He and I only each own twenty-five percent. Gianna owns fifty percent. This is her vineyard.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing I’ve kept the mindless twit as a friend all these years, isn’t it?” “You’re no friend of mine.” We both turn, shocked to find Gianna standing at the end of the porch, a bottle of wine in her hands, quivering with rage. “Gianna, bella, you misunderstood me.” “No, I didn’t.” Gianna shakes her head and sets the wine on the railing. “All this time, I thought you were in love with Dominic.” She turns her sweet eyes to Liliana and sighs. “I felt sorry for you.” “Well, that’s something we have in common,” Liliana replies coldly. “You’re going to need to get the fuck off my property now,” Gianna says, surprising us all with her language. Liliana turns to me in a huff. “Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” “Absolutely. Get the fuck out.” “Dom,” she begins, and softens her face into a soft, self-deprecating smile. “When your mama was dying, she told me that she hoped that you’d find a nice woman like me. She wanted us to be together.” “My mother didn’t know what you are, Liliana. I do. Get off of Gianna’s property before I have you arrested for trespassing.” Liliana glares at both of us, then stomps inside for her purse and slams out the front door. Gianna and I watch each other quietly as we hear her car start and the tires squeal as she tears out of the driveway. “Are you okay, bella?” I ask her. She frowns and nods, but then her face crumbles and she shakes her head no. I cross to her and gather her close, rocking her back and forth as she cries. “I thought she was my friend.” “I know. I’m so sorry.” “I thought she loved you, and I felt sorry for her, and that’s why I always ask you to come home.” “I knew that too.” “God, she’s a bitch.” I chuckle and kiss her head, then lead her to the porch swing and help her dry her cheeks. “You knew all of it,” she says quietly. “You knew that she was helping Marco steal from me, and all the rest of it.” “I did.” “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I tilt my head and watch her quietly, and finally she sniffs and nods. “You tried. Right after it all happened, you tried, and I told you that you were imagining things and wouldn’t believe you.” “She was your friend.” “You’re my family,” she replies. I shrug and then nod, just as my phone rings in my pocket. “Hello, Celeste.” “Hi, Dominic. I’m placing the food order for the family reunion being held here next weekend, and I wanted to make sure that you don’t have anything to add to it.” “No, the last email I sent you is it. Check with Blake, though. He might have tweaked the menu a bit.” “Yes, sir. Oh, and did Alecia catch up with you the other day before you got to the airport?” I frown, ignoring Gianna’s look of surprise at Alecia’s name. “What are you talking about?” “Oh, she was looking for you. She didn’t leave a message, but it sounded important.” Of course it was important. I’d caught her with Blake. “Thanks, Celeste.” “You’re welcome. I’ll see you in a few weeks.” She clicks off and I shove my phone in my pocket. “Who’s Alecia?” “No one.” Everything. “What is it the American’s say? Oh yes, bullshit. Who is she?” I take a deep breath, and before I know what I’m doing, I’ve spilled everything to her. How I met her, how we came together, how much she means to me, all the way through to the day I was coming to Italy and I found out she’d been sleeping with her best friend. “But she was trying to find you when you were on your way here. Celeste just said so.” “Of course she was,” I scoff. “She got caught and she was trying to beg for my forgiveness, which she won’t get.” “So, you haven’t spoken to her.” “No.” Gianna sighs and murmurs something about pig headed men. “Perhaps you should talk to her before jumping to conclusions.” “I know what I saw, Gianna.”

“You saw her best friend sitting on the couch.” “Half naked, sweaty, and their clothes thrown all over the fucking living room. It wasn’t exactly innocent.” “Well, I’ll concede that.” She bites her lip. “I’m sorry. I’m clearly not the best judge of character, and I’ve never met your Alecia.” “She’s not mine,” I reply quickly. “Isn’t she?” Gianna grins and cups my face in her hands. “You love so strongly, Dominic. You always have. It’s one of the things that both opens you up to great heartache and brings you such joy. Liliana dimmed that light in you for a while, but I can see that it’s back. There’s anger there, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but perhaps you should try to reach out to her.” “She hasn’t tried to contact me either, Gianna.” “You’re halfway across the world. It’s been two days. Cell phones aren’t always reliable.” She leans in and kisses my cheeks then stands. “Ti amo.” “I love you too.” I kiss her hand before she walks away, lifts the forgotten wine bottle off the railing, and returns inside. I know what I saw. There was no way to mistake it. Her clothes were everywhere; Blake was half dressed. And she refused to fucking say that she hadn’t just been with him. She wouldn’t deny it. If she came looking for me, it was because I found out about it. Right? I shake my head and scrub my scalp in agitation, and then decide fuck it and pull my phone out of my pocket and quickly dial her number. It goes straight to voice mail. I frown and try one more time, but it again goes to voice mail. It’s either dead or she shut it off. I take a deep breath, and finally bring Jules up in my contacts and dial her number. “Hello.” “Hey, Jules, I’m trying to reach Alecia and I can’t get through on her cell. Have you spoken with her?” “Dominic?” “Who else would this be?” “Your number came up as unknown. You’re lucky I answered.” “Have you spoken to her?” I ask again. “No, I haven’t spoken to her since the baseball game. Is everything okay?” I swear under my breath and rub my fingers over my lips. “No, it’s not okay. But I’ll

figure it out.” “I’m sure she’s fine, Dom.” “Thanks, bella.” She’s probably right. I’m sure she’s fine. But now worry has settled in. I need to get Gianna back on her feet and have words, and come to blows, with Marco, so I can go home and figure out what the fuck is going on.

Chapter Twenty ~Alecia~ I didn’t know I could hate a city as much as I hate San Francisco. And it’s really not the city’s fault. It’s a beautiful city with lovely buildings and interesting people. Excellent food. There’s always something going on here, whether it be an art exhibit or a festival. And the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean are stunning. But there are nothing but bad memories for me here. I drive my rental car through the neighborhood I grew up in. I know the streets like the back of my hand. I walked home countless times, alone, when one of my parents forgot to pick me up from school, or simply didn’t come get me because it was inconvenient. I could find their house blindfolded. I pull up to the curb, cut the engine, and simply gaze about the tidy, middle class neighborhood. It’s a beautiful, sunny summer day. The trees are heavy with green leaves, the sidewalks tidy and busy with kids on bikes or running around with friends. Two of the neighbors are mowing their lawns. I step out of the car and stare at Mom and Dad’s house. They must have had it recently painted. Instead of the solid, dependable dark grey from my childhood, it’s now a rust color, and the green shrubs on either side of the small porch look even brighter against the house. I take a deep breath and walk slowly up the sidewalk, climb the stairs of the porch, and ring the doorbell. My eyes can’t help but travel to the corner of the porch where I used to sit for hours on end, watching the other kids in the neighborhood, wishing I didn’t have to go to another piano lesson or basketball practice or day camp. The door opens and my mother, her blonde hair curly and a bit unruly around her thin face, dressed in a simple white T-shirt and blue jeans rolled up to mid-calf, opens the door with a surprised smile. “Alecia! Oh my goodness, what are you doing? Come in, darling.” She steps back, letting me in and kisses both of my cheeks. “Alan! Alecia is here!” “Hi, Mom.” “Well, this is a delightful surprise. Are you visiting from Sedona?” “Seattle,” I correct her and clench my hands into fists. “I live in Seattle.” “That’s right, dear. Come on back to the kitchen. Your father and I were just about to have some lunch.” The furniture is the same. Brown leather couches and a tube TV at least fifteen years old sit in the living room. The same worn dining room set in the kitchen. Even the mug my dad is drinking out of in the kitchen is one I gave him for Christmas

when I was nine. “Alecia,” he says kindly, and kisses my cheek. “How nice of you to visit. It’s been, what, at least six months?” “Three years,” I reply, and blink back tears. Why does this always surprise me? Mom frowns and begins gathering lunchmeat, cheese, and bread to make sandwiches. “No, it can’t be that long,” she says and shakes her head. “I’m quite sure we spoke to you at Christmas.” “No, you didn’t,” I reply firmly. This is what I’m here for, right? I might as well start standing up for myself now. “Well, it’s good to see you,” Dad says with a grin. “How is Sedona?” “Seattle,” I say between gritted teeth. “Why can’t either of you ever remember that I live in Seattle?” “Do you want ham or turkey, dear?” Mom asks Dad. “Turkey, please. Alecia, come sit.” He gestures to the chair to his left, and I lower myself into it, set my handbag on the floor, and take a deep breath. I wish I had a good, strong drink. “I won’t be here long,” I begin, and bite my lip, mustering up courage. “What is it, darling?” Mom asks kindly and cuts dad’s sandwich in two, diagonally, just the way he likes it. “If you didn’t want me, why did you have me?” They both still, then frown at me, flustered. “What are you talking about?” Dad says. “I know I wasn’t planned,” I continue, tracing a pattern on the table with my fingertip. “That was never a secret. But, if you didn’t want me, and I was an accident, why didn’t you give me up for adoption, rather than keeping me and ignoring me my whole life?” “Ignoring you?” Mom demands, and sits at the table, the sandwich forgotten. “Let’s not mince words,” I say, and look them both in the eyes. “I was never allowed to eat with you. You kept me busy in school to keep me out of your way. I hated sports. I didn’t even particularly like the piano.” “Do you have any idea how much it cost to keep you in piano lessons? In sports?” Mom sits back, angry now, her brown eyes wide and frustrated. “We gave you everything. Sent you to the best schools. The best college.” “I had everything so you wouldn’t have to be bothered with me,” I interrupt her. “And it’s the past. There’s no changing it. I just want to know, why? What was it about me that was so unlovable that you couldn’t bear to even eat meals with me?” I hate that I hear the catch in my voice, but I firm my lip, refusing to back down. “That wasn’t it,” Dad says softly. “You were always such a self-sufficient child, Alecia.

You played well alone.” I shake my head, and can’t help but laugh humorlessly. “Dad, I learned to be self-sufficient. You two never made a secret of the fact that you’d wished it was just the two of you. I’ve always, always felt like a third wheel. You didn’t want me.” I shrug as Mom gasps, covering her mouth with her hand in surprise. “Really, Mom? You don’t even know what city I live in.” “Maybe we could have paid more attention,” Dad says thoughtfully. “But I, for one, thought we were giving you the best of everything. The best music lessons and sports programs. The school. Your mother and I worked very hard to be able to afford those things for you, Alecia.” “I worked more than full-time just to pay the tuition for the private school,” Mom adds. “I’m not saying that I did without things.” I swallow and fist my hands, pissed that they’re starting to shake. “I had plenty of things. But I didn’t have affection. I didn’t feel loved. And I just want to know what it is about me that is so unlovable.” “My God, Alecia!” Mom exclaims. “Of course we love you. You’re our little girl!” “I don’t remember you ever saying I love you to me. You didn’t hug me. You’ve never said you were proud of me.” They stare at each other in confusion, then look back to me. “You hugged each other. I come from a very loving marriage,” I continue. “But I don’t come from an affectionate family.” “I guess we weren’t terribly demonstrative when it came to affection,” Mom says. “Some people just aren’t,” Dad says with a shrug. “But we never mistreated you. We didn’t hit you or yell at you or even punish you very often.” I sigh and rub my hands over my face. “Why do I feel like I’m spinning my wheels?” “Are you saying we’re shitty parents, Alecia?” Dad asks. “Yes! And I want to know why you don’t love me!” I yell and stand, my hands in fists at my sides. “I want to know why you never held me, or said kind fucking things to me! I want to know why you always sent me away rather than keeping me close to you!” “Watch your language, daughter,” Mom warns sternly, but I just shake my head and pound my fist on the table. “I didn’t deserve that!” “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Mom says with a sniff, her nose in the air, and I know that they aren’t going to answer me. “Maybe,” I begin thoughtfully, “you’re just too self-absorbed to realize that you did anything wrong. Maybe it’s easier to live in denial, in your perfect little home, your perfect little bubble, and believe that you treated me well. But I came here to tell you that you didn’t. And that it’s not okay. It’s made me question myself my whole life.”

I sit back in the chair and clasp my hands together. “I’ve always wondered why I was so unlovable. What did I do? I ran into the arms of the first man—boy then—to show me attention, and I ran as fast and as far as I could when I graduated to escape the loneliness of this house. You don’t want to acknowledge that you’re shitty parents? Fine.” I stand and lift my handbag. “You were shitty parents. But I love you, because you’re my parents.” I turn to leave, but when I get to the kitchen door, I turn back to them. “If you ever want to have a relationship with your only daughter, you call me. I’m not going to chase after your love. I’m not going to beg for it. For the first time in my life, I’m at the top of someone’s priority list: mine.” On shaky legs, I walk through the home of my childhood, out the door and to my car. It takes me three tries to get the key in the ignition, but I finally pull away, breathing hard, trembling, but so fucking proud of myself. It’s about time I stand up for myself. I get to the end of the block when my phone rings. Jules. I send it to voice mail and shake my head. I cannot deal with talking to any of the Montgomerys today. Instead, I search for another contact and press send. “Alecia?” “Hello, Jonathan,” I reply and clear my throat. “Would you be willing to meet up with me for breakfast tomorrow?” “You’re in San Francisco?” “Yes.” No, I want you to fly your dumb ass to Seattle and meet me there. “Where?” “Our diner, nine o’clock.” “I’ll be there.” He pauses. “Are you okay?” “I’m going to be.” I end the call and point my car toward my hotel. The phone rings again. Unknown Number. “Fucking telemarketers,” I mumble, and send it to voice mail, and no sooner does the phone ring again. Jules. “What?” I snap. “Um…hello.” I can hear commotion in the background. People laughing. “Sorry, Jules. What can I do for you?”

“Well, we’re having a family dinner, and Jax and Logan are here, and they’ve decided to get married in two weeks, which I know is short notice, but we want to make sure that if you can’t help plan, you can at least come to it.” She pauses to take a breath and I can hear someone—Sam?—yell, “You better bring your sexy ass to it!” Oh, hell no. “I’m sorry, Jules, I’m quite sure I have an event that day.” “No, you don’t. I talked to Emily.” “Then why did you just ask if I did?” “Well, I’m polite, aren’t I?” I can’t help but grin. “If there’s no event, it must be because I have something else going on. Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m going to have to decline.” I can hear movement, and the background noise lessening until it’s nonexistent, and then Jules says, “Okay, cut the shit. What is going on?” “I don’t know what you mean.” “You don’t sound like yourself at all. You sound…sad. Talk to me, friend.” She just had to throw friend in there, didn’t she? “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be at one of your family’s parties right now, Jules.” “What did my idiot brother do?” I frown and park at the hotel. “Who said he did anything?” “I’m not stupid, Alecia. Talk to me.” I take a deep breath. My nerves are already shot from my visit with my parents, and I haven’t slept in days. To my horror, I feel my eyes fill with tears. “I just don’t think it’s going to work out between your brother and me.” “Why?” Jules asks in a soft voice. “I think you’re perfect together.” “I need to be with someone who makes me a priority, Jules.” “Okay.” She sounds confused. “What’s the problem?” “I’m not that for Dominic. And I deserve that, Jules. I need it.” “Everyone deserves it, but I don’t understand why you think you’re not a priority for Dom. Hold on.” She pulls the phone away from her face and murmurs to someone quietly before returning. “Please don’t tell the family about this.” “That was my dad. He’s just making sure everything is okay. He won’t say anything.” “I hope you’ll still think of me when events come up.”

“Girl, you’re doing Jax and Logan’s wedding. We won’t take no for an answer.” I bite my lip as longing fills me. I love working with this family. It’s not just because of the money, but because they’re fun and my best clients. I don’t want to give them up. And why should I have to? I didn’t do anything wrong! “Okay. I’ll call you next week. I’m out of town right now.” “Where are you?” “San Francisco. I have some demons to put to rest.” “Alecia, I’m worried about you.” “Don’t be. I’ll be fine. I’ll talk to you next week.” She sighs in my ear. “Fine. We’ll talk next week. And I mean talk, Alecia.” “I’ll see you soon.” *** When I arrive at the Alley Cat, the diner that Jonathan and I had Sunday morning breakfast at every week during our entire marriage, he’s already sitting in our booth, near the back, looking nervous as he stares down into his coffee mug. I take a minute to soak in the sight of him. His mink-brown hair is longer than he used to wear it, almost shaggy. He’s still thin, just this side of too thin, with no muscle definition on his arms. He’s wearing his usual metal band T-shirt and baggy jeans. He looks young. Carefree. I sit opposite from him, unlike when we were married. “You used to sit beside me,” he says with a half-smile and sits back in the booth arrogantly. I don’t return it. Instead, I sit back and say the first thing that comes to mind. “You should be ashamed of the way you treated me.” His eyes widen, but I see I’ve struck him dumb, so I continue. “The way you used to belittle my job? Not okay.” My voice is perfectly calm, but my eyes are pinned to his. “The way you’d give me the silent treatment when I disappointed you? Definitely not okay. Making me feel small, or that your shortcomings were my fault, was not okay.” The waitress appears to take my drink order, but I simply shake my head, sending her on her way. “You pushed me away when I tried to give you affection. You made sure I knew that I was the last person on your priority list. You had inappropriate relationships with women that you weren’t married to.” I lean forward, bracing myself on my elbows. His face has paled, but his mouth is tight, and I can see I’m pissing him off. “And making me feel like a piece of shit because my sexual appetites weren’t the same as yours was not fucking

okay.” He swallows hard. “Are you done?” I tip my head back and forth, giving it some thought. “For now.” “It’s good to see you too. You look beautiful, by the way.” I blink and frown at him. “I’m out of here.” “Wait.” His hand covers mine before I can slide out of the booth. “Don’t go. You’re right. None of that was okay.” “Okay.” I pull my hand out of his and watch him quietly. “Since we agree on that, now I get to ask you why.” He laughs and shakes his head. “Why was I a douche?” “You were an asshole, Jonathan. And I want to know why. What was it about me that was so unlovable? What gave you the right to make me feel less than, especially knowing my past with my parents.” “Oh, Alecia, you are not unlovable. I’ll apologize first and foremost if I ever made you feel that way.” My eyebrows lift in surprise. “I was so in love with you I couldn’t see straight. You were beautiful and smart and so fucking talented.” My jaw drops, and then I recover and simply scowl at him. “If that’s how you treat someone you love, I really don’t want to know how you’d treat someone you can’t stand.” “I was never good enough for you, Alecia. I knew that. I didn’t know why you were with me. And when you started your business and it became successful, I was worried.” “Worried?” “That you’d figure out that I wasn’t good enough for you. I dumbed it down, made it seem insignificant, because I was too much of a pussy to simply be proud of you. And the rest?” He shrugs and shakes his head. “I’ve been going through some therapy to figure it out. I knew I was hurting you, and I hated it, but I couldn’t stop.” “What’s the verdict?” “I’m a selfish jerk.” “Pretty close,” I reply with a nod. “You do realize that being a complete asshole to someone that you’re afraid of losing is not the way to keep them.” “Hey, no one said I was smart.” His face sobers. “Your parents didn’t deserve you, blondie. I sure as fuck didn’t deserve you either. But it didn’t have anything at all to do with you not being lovable.”

“It seems I’m the common denominator here, J.” He shakes his head adamantly. “You had shitty luck when it came to the people who were in your life. And I’ve wanted to see you for a long time to say I’m sorry.” “Well, this isn’t what I was expecting.” “Were you going to rail at me, throw my coffee in my lap, and stomp off all selfrighteously?” “Something like that.” “Well, before you do that, just know that I’m sorry for being a douche. You deserve someone who will love you and appreciate you in ways no one ever has before. I want that for you, blondie.” “Thanks,” I whisper, and bite my lip to keep the tears at bay. “You never came to get your piano or your other things. They’re still at the house. You can come get them whenever you want.” “You didn’t sell the house?” “No.” “I don’t want the piano.” I sniff and shake my head, looking out the window to the waterfront. “Seriously? But you’re so damn good at it.” “I only ever played it for my parents. I won’t play it again.” I gaze over at my exhusband and finally offer him a soft smile. “It was good to see you too, J.” He reaches for my hand, and for just this moment, I let him. It feels familiar, but it’s not the hand I want to hold mine. Not even close. “I want you to shine, Alecia. And I want to tell you, right here in our place, I’m so fucking proud of you.” I lean in and kiss his hand, then smile at him. “Thank you.” And with that, I stand and walk away, not looking back.

Chapter Twenty One ~Dominic~ God, I’m so fucking tired. Being gone from my vineyard for ten days was too damn long. Celeste is fantastic, but I like things to be done a certain way, so I’ve done nothing for the past forty-eight hours but work and sleep, trying to shake this God-forsaken jet lag. I hit send on an email, cementing a partnership with a new restaurant in the Portland area called Seduction, intrigued by the five owners, and make a mental note to take a trip down there soon to check it out. I begin reading through an application for an event for this fall, and stumble when I see that it’s Alecia who is planning the affair. I wish she’d talk to me. I’ve tried to call her several times over the past few weeks, but she’s not answered, and I refuse to beg her to answer the goddamn phone via text. That’s just ridiculous. I eye my phone and wonder just how ridiculous it really is, just as there’s a knock on my door, and am surprised to find Steven standing outside my office. “Is everything okay?” I ask, as I stand and gesture for him to come inside. I close the door behind him. “Oh, yes, I called earlier and Celeste said you were in today, so I thought I’d drop in and see how your trip went.” “It was…necessary,” I reply and sit in my chair as he takes a seat before me. “But the issue seems to be resolved now.” I secured a loan for Gianna, without telling her that I’m the one backing it, so she can get back on her feet. And I managed to have a heart-to-heart with Marco, right after I knocked him on his ass. Both were immensely satisfying. “I’m glad you’re home,” my father replies with a smile. He steeples his hands. “Did Alecia enjoy Italy?” I lean back in my chair and shake my head. “She didn’t go.” “Why not?” I watch my father and consider lying, but instead I simply say, “I think I fucked up, and Alecia and I are done.” He cocks a brow. “What did you do?” I stand and turn my back to him, push my hands in my pockets and stare out the window that looks out over my land. The remnants from Will’s wedding are long gone, and it’s as though Alecia was never here.

Except that I see her everywhere I look. “I thought I caught her having an affair with her best friend,” I admit softly. “I was angry. Hurt, actually.” “Of course.” “But now, I’m not so sure that what I saw was what it looked like, and I can’t get her to take my calls. I have a feeling she’s done with me.” I sigh and turn back to him. “So now, I need to know how I’m supposed to get her out of my system and move on.” “Well, you know what they say about getting a woman out of your head, son. Put another one in your bed.” My eyes narrow as anger shoots through me. “I’m not interested in fucking someone else. I can’t hop from the bed of the woman I’m in love with to someone else’s. Maybe you can tell me how to do that, Dad.” Steven doesn’t even flinch. “I deserve that.” He nods slowly for a moment. “Yes, you do.” “I think it’s very telling that you’re not interested in other women, Dom. Maybe it’s not as over as you think it is. Seems a shame to give up on something you worked so hard to have in your life.” “She won’t speak to me,” I remind him. “And now that we’re on the subject, how could you do it? How could you bounce from Gail to my mom?” “I didn’t bounce anywhere,” he replies coldly. “I thought my marriage was over, and I was an idiot. I regretted it for a long time. I don’t anymore.” “Why?” I ask with surprise. “Because of you.” He shrugs and then sighs. “You were the best part of your mother’s life, Dominic. I never saw her again, but I can guarantee you that much. And now we have you in our family, and I couldn’t be more thankful.” “I disrupted your life, and I’m quite sure I put undue stress on your marriage last year.” “You did neither.” He waves me off and laughs ruefully. “My wife knew all about your mother not long after it happened more than thirty years ago. It wasn’t a secret between us. Was it a surprise? The biggest of my life. And it was an adjustment for my other children, but I think it’s obvious that you’re accepted and loved, Dominic.” Loved? I think back on the past year, at how the Montgomerys have folded me into their family, accepted me unconditionally. I am their brother, without hesitation. Even Gail has been nothing but gracious. Yes, they are my family and I love them back. I’d do anything for any of them. “I’m grateful for all of you,” I murmur.

“There’s no need to be grateful, son.” He grins at me with the smile of a man who has everything he could ever want. “Family just is. Now, about your Alecia.” “She’s not mine.” “You’re not interested in anyone else. You’re trying to reach out to her.” He seems to be struggling with what to say, and he finally says, “Give her some time.” “What do you know?” I ask, suspicious that he isn’t telling me everything. “I know that it’s not my story to tell. Alecia has had a rough go of it lately, and maybe she just needs some space.” “Fuck that. If she needs me, I’ll go take care of her.” “I didn’t say she needed anyone to take care of her,” he replies sternly. “I said she needs time.” “I’m not a patient man.” “Well, you come by that honestly,” he says with a chuckle. “I’d like for you to show me your operation here, and then I’d like to have lunch with my son, if you’re up for it.” My eyebrows climb into my hairline in surprise. “I’m definitely up for it.” “Excellent.” We walk through the grounds, the barn where the barrels are stored, the production barn, the store. He’s engrossed in all of it, just as he is each time he comes out here. “I’d like to develop a special wine for the women in our family. What do you think?” I grin slowly, then smile widely. “I think that’s an excellent idea. We could surprise them with it for Mother’s Day next year.” “Perfect.” Steven nods and claps his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so happy you found us, son. I should have said it months ago, but I don’t think you were ready to hear it yet. I’m proud of you.” I blink hard and stare out at my vines, my heart in my throat. “I was terrified when the P.I. gave me your information.” “I was rather nervous myself when I met you for the first time,” he replies. “But just as it is with all of my children, Natalie included, you are important to our family. You are important to me. I’m sorry that I missed out on so many years with you, but I hope that we can have a relationship with each other going forward.” I nod, not sure what to say, knowing that anything I do say is going to sound rough. “Good.” He pats my shoulder again and walks back toward the villa. “Let’s go get lunch. I’m starving.” *** She’s avoided me all damn day. I’m standing in Steven and Gail’s backyard while children run around, my sisters laugh,

and Jax and Logan are newly married. The happy couple are feeding each other cupcakes, smashing the frosting in each other’s noses. “I’ve never understood the whole let’s punish the cake by smearing it all over each other thing,” Will says with a frown. “I don’t understand why you’re not over there trying to snatch some cake,” I reply dryly. “Holy shit, you’re right!” He runs across the lawn to the patio as if a linebacker is on his heels. “I think he already stole one from the back earlier,” Caleb says with a shake of the head. “How is he not fat?” “Because he works out six hours a day,” Leo says as he pulls his wife into his arms and kisses her head. “This is the man section,” Sam says with a frown. “Where are the girls?” “I didn’t realize we had sections,” Steven says as he joins us, handing me a beer. Alecia walks by, completely ignoring me, just as she’s done all damn day. “Excuse me,” I murmur and follow her. “Trouble in paradise?” I hear Sam ask. “Alecia,” I say and hurry to catch up to her. “Stop.” “I don’t have time.” She presses on her ear, and speaks into her sleeve. “I need more champagne out here, and Logan’s mother is drinking out of a plastic glass, Em. That’s not okay. Get her a glass flute.” “I’d really like to speak to you, cara.” She stops and turns to me, finally looking at me for the first time today, and she takes my damn breath away. Her hair is up in its usual knot, her brown eyes are wide, but unsmiling. She looks like she may have lost a few pounds from the way her green dress hangs on her sweet little body. But rather than answer me, she simply shakes her head and stomps away, talking briskly to Emily in her sleeve. What the fuck am I doing? Why am I chasing her? “Wanna talk about it?” Natalie has joined me, Keaton on her shoulder sleeping peacefully, watching Alecia walk away. “Not particularly.” “She looks sad.” I haven’t taken my eyes off of her. “I don’t see sad.”

“Then you aren’t looking hard enough,” Nat replies and kisses her son’s head. “What did you do?” “Why does it have to be me?” She just raises a brow. “Because if she’d been the one to screw up, you wouldn’t be chasing her the way you are.” “I’m not chasing her,” I reply with frustration. “I’m simply trying to have a conversation with her.” Nat nods. “Try harder.” I glance down at her. “Thanks a lot.” “You’re welcome.” She smiles widely and walks away, like the smart ass that she is. Try harder. I sigh and then follow the way Alecia just went, into the house, and find her in the kitchen. “Alecia,” I say calmly. “I’d like a moment, please.” Emily smiles at me and nods, then hastily walks out of the room, leaving us alone. Alecia shakes her head and turns her back on me, uncorking more champagne. “Alecia,” I try again. “No!” She spins back to me, her eyes narrowed. “I. Don’t. Have. Time. I’m working, Dominic. Just leave it be.” I study her eyes, and now I can see it. The sad. But I also see a new resolve that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. And that’s what scares the fuck out of me. Is she resolved to live without me? “I’ll leave you be for now, tesoro.” She starts to argue, but I lean in and make her look me in the eyes. “For now. But we will talk.” “Fine.” She turns away again and resumes her work. Jesus, everything in me wants to pull her into my arms and bury my nose in her hair, breathe her in, feel her against me. I’m longing for her. But I know I wouldn’t be welcome now. Not only that, I’m not sure that I welcome it. Not until I know what in the hell is going on. I turn and leave the kitchen, running into Jules as I return to the backyard. “Hey, big brother.” She smiles sweetly, and I have the distinct feeling I’m about to be set up. “Hello, bella,” I reply. “What do you want?” “I just want to talk.” She loops her arm through mine and walks with me to join Meg, Will, and Nate standing by Steven’s newest koi pond.

“What are we talking about?” I ask. “We’d like to do a fund raiser for the hospital,” Meg says with a soft smile. “Nate thought it would be a good idea to have a dinner, dance, and silent auction, which they already do every year, but…” “But rather than have it in downtown Seattle this year, we were thinking of asking if we can book the vineyard. Include packages in the silent auction of wines, and maybe a stay out there. Stuff like that.” “Of course. The vineyard is always open to you. You know that.” “Awesome!” Meg hugs me hard, then presses her hand on my chest. “You’re my favorite brother-in-law.” “I was your favorite ten minutes ago when I suggested it,” Nate says with a smile. “Shh,” Meg says, holding her hand over Nate’s lips. “Don’t ruin it.” Alecia hurries past with Meredith, talking fast and completely ignoring me. That’s the last damn time she’ll pretend that I’m not here. “She went to San Francisco, you know,” Jules says quietly. My gaze jerks down to her. “When?” “A few weeks ago.” She shrugs and takes a sip of her drink. “She won’t say why. Just that she had some things to deal with.” Her family. She went alone. What the fuck is going on? Jules watches me for a long minute, her usual smile gone, replaced with serious eyes. “I need to go talk to Natalie,” she says finally, and walks away. “So the event will be in the spring,” Meg says excitedly, and for the next thirty minutes, she and I bounce ideas off of each other to make the event fresh and new. “Dom, can you help me with something?” Natalie asks as she approaches me. “I’m sorry to interrupt. This won’t take long.” “Of course. What’s up?” “There’s a book on the top shelf of Steven’s study that I want to show Luke, and I can’t reach it. Can you get it for me? I’ll show you where it is.” I frown down at her. “What about Luke?” “He’s busy with the babies,” she says and grabs my arm, not giving me time to look around, and practically drags me into the house, through the kitchen and down the hall to my father’s study. “It’s right in here—” She looks like she’s staring at the bookcase, then turns when she hears voices. “Oh, hold on. Stay right here.”

“Nat, what’s going on?” Suddenly, Jules and Alecia appear in the doorway. “What is going on?” Alecia asks as Jules pushes her in the room, then Nat and Jules each grab a doorknob on the French doors and pull them shut. “There!” Jules yells through the door. “Now you have to talk! So talk!”

Chapter Twenty Two ~Alecia~ “Alecia!” Jules calls out and hurries over to where I’m talking with Jax and Logan in Steven’s garden. “Hey, Jules.” “You guys are so damn hot,” Jules says as she approaches us, then hugs each of them. “Like, super hot. I love your suits.” Jax and Logan opted for grey suits, minus the jackets, with a three button vest and white button up shirts rolled on the forearms. Jax is wearing a green tie and Logan is wearing a soft pink one, in honor of his mother, who is currently battling breast cancer. They look hip and fresh and completely handsome. “Thanks, gorgeous,” Jax replies and kisses her cheek. “Are you happy?” Jules asks them. “Couldn’t be happier,” Logan says with a grin, then kisses his groom on the cheek. “This was perfect, and your family is awesome for hosting.” “Well, we were happy to do it.” She sighs happily. “It’s so romantic. Alecia,” she turns to me. “Can I steal you for a minute? I’d like to discuss something with you.” “Of course.” “Thanks again, Alecia,” Logan says and hugs me tight. “You did an awesome job.” “My pleasure.” I collect my hug from the incredibly sexy Jax, then follow Jules toward the house. “What’s up?” “Oh, let’s go inside and get out of the sun,” she says and takes my hand in hers. “It’s so hot today.” I frown over at her. “It’s not that hot.” “You’re not hot? Oh, I’m roasting.” She fans her face and rolls her eyes. “Maybe my hormones are still out of whack from having Stella.” “She’s five months old,” I remind her. “Well, either way, I’d like to go inside. Too much sun causes wrinkles.” She winks at me and leads me through the kitchen. “Let’s go to my dad’s study. It’s quiet in there.” She’s up to something. One thing Jules is not is a good liar. Before I know it, she’s planted her hand in my back and shoved me not so gently into the study, and she and Natalie pull the doors closed behind me, leaving me with an equally surprised Dominic. “There!” Jules yells. “Now you have to talk! So talk!” I close my eyes and sigh in defeat. Damn them.

“We love you!” Natalie calls in a sing song voice. Dominic leans his hips back on Steven’s desk and crosses his arms, watching me quietly. Resigned, I cross to the couch, it’s back facing the desk, and lean my hips against it, facing him, mirroring his stance. “Why aren’t they talking?” Jules mutters. Dom’s lips twitch with humor. “So, how was Italy?” I ask, breaking the silence. He frowns and blinks. “It was fine.” I nod thoughtfully. “Good.” “How’s Blake?” he asks out of the blue. I scowl. “Fine, I guess. Why wouldn’t he be?” “Are you fucking him?” he asks quietly, and I’m struck dumb. Am I fucking Blake? “What did he ask?” Natalie whispers loudly. “I don’t know, they’re not talking loud enough,” Jules replies. “Am I fucking Blake?” I repeat. He just raises a brow and waits, but his eyes have softened as he watches me. “You think I’m fucking Blake?” I hate the quiver in my voice. Hate it. How could he possibly think that? “Let me get this straight.” I push away from the couch and pace before him. “You come to my condo and walk in on something you didn’t even fully understand, get angry, make accusations, and then you leave the damn country. I haven’t seen you in weeks, haven’t heard from you, and the first thing you ask me is if I’m fucking my best friend?” “I saw it,” he replies. “What, exactly, do you think you saw?” “I came to your condo to ask you to go to Italy with me, and I walked in to find Blake half naked, you coming out of the shower, and your clothes thrown all over the living room.” “You came to take me to Italy?” My heart stops. He wanted me to go with him? “I did.” “I was in the shower,” I reply, the blood leaving my face. “Getting ready to come see you.” He tilts his head. “Excuse me?” “Blake and I went for a run, and then he talked me into going to your place.”

He swallows hard, processing my words, and I’m still stuck like stupid on I came to take you to Italy with me. “And then you pissed me off so bad with your insane accusation that the reason I was going to come to your place completely left my brain.” “Why were you coming to see me?” he asks quietly. I can’t tell him this! “I guess there’s nothing left to say.” I turn to walk away, but he stops me, his hand on my arm. “Oh, there’s plenty to say.” “You thought I was unfaithful to you!” I round on him, furious. “You jumped to conclusions without talking to me!” “I’ve tried to call you,” he replies, his voice hard and cold. “You never answered. I had to go to Italy. I had a family emergency.” “You left without me! I thought you’d just left because the going got rough! That I didn’t mean enough for you to fight for me. Just like everyone else in my life.” “Alecia, no.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “I think it’s obvious that this isn’t going to work.” I school my features and swallow hard, determined to get through this without letting him see me cry. “You obviously don’t trust me, and what I need, you can’t give me.” “Just tell me what you want! Tell me how you fucking feel!” “I fell in love with you!” I yell back angrily. “I was so in love with you my heart ached. And then I find out that just like everyone else in my life, you rank me last on your priority list!” “This is bullshit!” he exclaims. “You are my priority. You’re my only priority, damn it!” He takes my shoulders in his hands and holds me in front of him. “I was coming to you to take you with me.” “I was coming to you to tell you I love you,” I reply before I can stop the words, and feel my eyes fill with tears. “And when I got there, I was told you’d left for Italy. And you didn’t even call me to tell me your were leaving.” “Oh, baby, no.” He pulls me against him, and hugs me tightly, in the special way he does. “I’m so sorry for this. For all of it. We’ve been hurting for weeks for no reason.” “I didn’t fuck Blake,” I say, the anger surging through me again as I push away from him. “I would never do that. How could you think that?” “It looked really bad,” he replies with a sigh. “And I’ve lived that before.” “The ex.” I cover my mouth with my hand. “After my mother died, I was engaged to a woman, and I walked in on her having an

affair with my cousin the night before our wedding.” “Oh, my God,” I whisper and glance away, covering my mouth with my hand, but then I get pissed again. “And you immediately assumed that I’d do the same?” “I was worried about Gianna back in Italy. I was excited to see you and whisk you away on a romantic trip to my home, and when I walked unannounced into your condo, I felt like I was reliving that scene in Italy all over again.” “But nothing happened,” I insist. “Nor would it ever happen. Blake is in love with Emily.” He simply nods, his eyes sad, mouth grim. “It’s been a shitty few weeks,” he says quietly. I simply nod. “One good thing came of it, though.” “What’s that?” “I went home too. To San Francisco. I confronted my parents and Jonathan.” His eyes warm. “What happened?” I lean against the couch again and cross my arms, wanting to touch him. Aching for him to hold me again. “My parents are my parents. They don’t get it, and honestly, I don’t know if they ever will, but I told them how they made me feel and I felt really proud of myself when I left.” “You should be proud of yourself. You’re so fucking strong. And Jonathan?” “That was a surprise.” I frown. “He apologized to me.” “Really.” “He was actually…sweet. And it felt good to put some closure on it.” He nods and smiles softly. “I’m so happy for you, Alecia.” “So, what now?” I ask, waiting for him to make a move. “Well, I can’t unlove you, cara. Trust me. I’ve tried. The past few weeks have been a hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” “You love me?” I ask with a whisper. Finally, finally, he reaches for me, crushes me to him and holds on tight. “Loving you is like breathing, Alecia. Being apart from you, thinking that I’d never hold you like this again, was agony. I love you so much, and I’m so sorry that I didn’t say it before.” “I’m so afraid that you’ll hurt me,” I whisper against his chest. “I know it sounds stupid, but I can’t help it.” “Love doesn’t hurt you, tesoro. People who don’t know how to love hurt you. You have so much love to give, and trust me when I say, I’m never going to stop loving you. I’d never walk away from you and you can damn well know that I’m going to fight for you. Remember what I told you that night in your condo? It’s you and me.”

“I missed you,” I murmur with a nod. “I missed us.” “That’s the last time you’ll miss me.” He tips my chin up and smiles down at me softly. “I’m sorry.” “Me too.” “Here!” Jules calls from the other side of the door. “You’re gonna need this!” She slides a condom under the door, and Natalie giggles. “Wait!” Natalie slips another with it. “Take two. You’ve earned it.” “They’re still out there,” I mutter with a laugh. “We’re not having sex in here!” Dom calls out. “And you both need to go away!” “Killjoy!” Jules yells. “You should be thanking us!” “Thank you!” I say. “Now go away!” “We’re not appreciated,” Natalie says. “Let’s go eat cupcakes.” “Will’s probably already claimed them all.” *** “I think it went well,” I say, as Dominic escorts me up to my condo after the reception. “I’m here with you, so yes, I’d say Jules and Nat’s plan went well.” “The wedding, silly.” I nudge him with my elbow and then laugh and wrap my arms around his waist, lean my cheek on his chest and breathe him in as we wait for the elevator. “Okay, that went well too.” “Are you tired?” he asks quietly, his lips in my hair. “I’m fine,” I reply and lead him to my door. “Are you tired?” He shakes his head slowly, his eyes pinned to mine as he slowly stalks me through my apartment. “Are you hungry?” I ask. He smiles slowly, that dimple winking at me, as he shakes his head again and reaches for my hand, pulls me to him and lowers his lips to mine and kisses me gently, lightly, his mouth dancing with mine in the dark silence of my condo. My fingers find each of the buttons on his shirt and then I push it over his shoulders to the floor. He reaches for the zipper on my dress, but I quickly sink down, squatting before him, and make quick work of his belt, unfasten his pants, plant a kiss on his stomach, right between his navel and his cock as I stroke his already semi-hardness, kissing my way down to it. “Alecia,” he whispers, as I lick around the rim of the head, and grin when he sucks in a breath and his abs contract. “Fuck.” “I haven’t even done anything yet,” I say and grin up at him. “You breathe and I’m hard, cara.”

He’s such a charmer. Let’s see if I can make him lose his English. I fucking love it when he speaks Italian to me. I plant a sweet kiss on the tip, right over the slit and then smile innocently, watching him, as I open my mouth and sink over him, pulling him all the way into my mouth. “Gesù hai intenzione di uccidermi,” he whispers, and I mentally high-five myself, clench my mouth around him and pull up, swirl my tongue around the tip and repeat the motion, over and over again. He rips the pins out of my hair impatiently, tossing them on the floor, then sinks his hands in the strands, pulling slightly, making my panties flood. I love making him crazy. Suddenly, he’s pulled me to my feet, kisses me hard, and lifts me in his arms and carries me to my bedroom. He sets me on my feet, and before I know it I’m stark ass naked and he’s lain me on my back in the middle of the bed, crawling over me with blue eyes bright with pure male lust. “I love being intimate with you,” he whispers against my lips as he settles his pelvis against mine. “And I don’t just mean this, although, this is fucking amazing. I mean intimate.” He kisses me deeply, his tongue tangling with mine, then nibbles his way down my jawline to my ear. “Explain, please,” I whisper, and then gasp when his hand journeys up my side to my breast and his thumb finds my nipple. “Intimacy is who you wake up thinking about at three in the morning,” he says, then licks up my ear lobe. “It’s talking about your hopes and fears in the dark.” He tweaks my nipple again, then that hand travels down my side, headed south. “It’s the one person you give your undivided attention to when ten other people are fighting for it.” I gasp when his fingers find my clit and press lightly, then slip down into my folds and simply slide back and forth through the wetness. “It’s that person, always in the back of your mind, no matter how distracted you are.” “God you’re good with both your mouth and your hands,” I say, and bite my lip as he leans up on his elbow to stare down at me. “You say such pretty things.” “You like my mouth, mi amore?” he asks, making me grin. “I know that word,” I say softly. “Which one?” “Amore.” “Do you?” he says and nuzzles my nose with his before kissing down my neck, sending electricity zinging down my limbs. Dear God, his mouth is incredible. “I love you too,” I whisper, making his head come up and his blue eyes widen. “Say it again.”

I cup his face in my hands. “I love you.” He sighs and drags his knuckles down my cheek. “One more time.” I love you I mouth silently. He closes his eyes for a heartbeat, then opens them and smiles that naughty, you’re about to have the time of your life, smile. He kisses my lips firmly, bites my lower lip, and then bites my chin softly. “I love you, Alecia,” he says and buries his face in my neck, sucking and biting the tender flesh there. “And I’m going to spend the rest of the night showing you just how much.” “This has possibilities,” I reply dryly, but my breath catches in my throat when he nips at my nipple, then sucks it into his mouth, pulling back with a loud pop. “Possibilities?” “Mm.” I circle my hips in invitation, but he just moves lazily to the other breast, circles it with his nose, nips at it, and watches it get hard. “Your body is so responsive,” he whispers, and blows on my wet nub, making me moan. “Dom,” I whisper. “Yes, amore.” “You sure know where my buttons are.” He grins. “And yet, I find new ones all the time.” He moves down the bed, spreads me wide, and before I know it, his mouth is latched onto my clit and he’s sending me over into a mind-numbing climax. I grip onto his hair and cry out, riding the wave of the orgasm, then sigh when he moves lower, kissing me intimately. His tongue is inside me, and then he nibbles on my lips. “You’re so damn beautiful down here,” he says, watching his own fingers tickle through my folds. “So pink.” The tip of his finger nudges my clit, and I tense up again, my hips surge, and he chuckles “Sensitive.” “Maybe a little,” I agree. He cocks a brow and tips his head down to press a kiss to my clit, making me sigh with pleasure. “Okay, a lot.” “I’m forever craving you,” he whispers and slips two fingers inside me, slowly moving them in and out. “Oh, my.” I tip my head back, close my eyes, and grip onto the sheets. Jesus, the sensations he sends through my body should be illegal. “Watch me,” he demands. I’m a panting, quivering mess as I lift my head and watch

him press his lips to me, gently at first as his fingers are still moving lightly, but then he gets rougher, more forceful, more urgent. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” I moan, unable to look away from him. “You’re so damn good at that.” “It’s you,” he mumbles around me. “It’s you.” I cry out as I come again, my hips jerking, rocking shamelessly against his face, and finally he’s climbing up me and slipping inside me in one fluid motion. He braces himself over me, not moving, brushes my hair off my cheek, and lays his lips on mine. “It’s all for you.” He kisses me deeply, and I can taste myself, and him, and it’s the best kiss we’ve ever had. It starts slow and lazy, but my hips won’t stay still. I start to pulse under him, clenching, rolling, until he tears his lips from mine on a long groan and begins to fuck me in earnest, moving fast and sure, staring into my eyes. He braces one arm on the headboard, and the sight of his toned, sexy body takes my breath away. “You’re unbelievably hot,” I tell him honestly. “Seriously, your body is incredible.” He smiles arrogantly, but when I tip my hips up and clench down on him, he closes his eyes and swears under his breath in Italian, turning me on even more. “Fuck,” I agree. I reach down and press on my clit, and that’s it, I tip over, coming loudly, violently. His eyes open and he watches me raptly, and when I’m done, he pulls out, turns me over, pulls my ass in the air and slams back inside me. He smacks my ass and rides me hard and fast. “You’re mine, Alecia.” He presses his lips to my shoulder, then bites me gently and groans as he comes. “Mine.”

Chapter Twenty Three Three months later… I can hear him whistling in the bathroom, the shower running. I can picture his tight, naked body, soapy and tanned under the water. I’m tempted to get my lazy ass up and join him, but the bed feels nice, and I’m not anxious to get this day started. I’m nervous. I roll over and see the photo on Dom’s side of the bed of the two of us in Italy and smile. I think it’s the cheesiest selfie we’ve ever taken, but it’s his favorite of us, so he framed it and stuck it there, next to his bed. I rest my head in my hands, and as he continues to whistle away in the bathroom, daydream happily about the day he surprised me with that trip… “Close your eyes, amore,” he whispers against my cheek. Summer is just beginning to give way to fall, and the air is lighter, almost crisp, here near the water. He’s brought me back to the pier near my condo, with the locks of love that he still sneers at, and we are enjoying our wine in the grass. I follow his instructions, expecting him to tell me a sexy story, but instead I feel him place something in my lap. “If that’s a puppy, you can just take it back where you got it. I don’t do pets.” My lips turn up in a grin as he laughs. “Not a pet, puppy or otherwise, cara,” he assures me. “Open your eyes.” In my lap is a plain white envelope, with nothing written on the outside. “A Dear John letter?” I ask dryly. “You’re funny today,” he says with a smile and tucks my hair behind my ear. I love that he is forever touching me. I’ll never get tired of it. “Open it.” Inside is an itinerary, for two, to Italy. “Holy shit,” I whisper. “I want to show you Italy. I want you to meet Gianna.” “I want to meet both,” I reply, and then throw my arms around him. “We’re going to Italy!” “We are.” “When?” “Whenever you like. The tickets are open-ended, so we can go whenever it’s convenient for you to get away.”

“You might be the best Italian boyfriend ever.” He laughs, lays me back in the grass, and kisses me silly, sending tingles all through me. Charming Italian. “You have to get out of bed,” Dominic calls from the bathroom. “I will,” I reply. “This picture is cheesy.” He sticks his head out of the doorway and scowls at me. “I love that picture. You’re beautiful in it.” Then he’s gone again, bustling around in the bathroom. The water is running. I hear him snatch his toothbrush out of its holder. Honestly, I love that damn picture, it’s just fun to tease him about it. That was my favorite day in Italy. “I get to crush the grapes with my feet?” I ask excitedly. “Like in ‘I Love Lucy’?” “Something like that,” Dom replies and leads me into a barn with a big tub that looks like a water trough. A man dumps a bucket of grapes in it and grins at Dom. “Tutti pronti,” the man says and walks away. “What did he say?” I ask. “All ready,” Dom replies. “Are you ready?” “I’m going to stomp around in the grapes?” “Yes.” His eyes are full of mischief as he leads me to a bucket of warm water, and helps me rinse off my feet, then holds my hand as I climb in the large tub and step into the grapes. “This feels…weird.” I stand still, facing the open doors of the barn, where I can see the rolling hills of Tuscany and lines and lines of vines. It’s the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. Aside from the one in Washington, at Dominic’s vineyard. “You have to stomp on them, tesoro,” he says. “Why aren’t you doing this with me?” I ask suspiciously as he aims his phone at me and snaps a picture. “It’s more fun this way.” “Uh huh.” I begin to walk, scrunching up my nose at the way the grapes squish between my toes. It smells earthy and good, but feels so weird. “This is kind of gross.” “You’re so funny,” he says with a smile. “I can’t believe you do it this way for all of your wine,” I say, as I trudge through the grapes.

“We don’t,” Gianna says from the doorway. “I can’t believe you’re making her do that.” “I knew it!” Dominic is doubled over, laughing. “You’re such a shit,” I say with a laugh. “My feet are going to be purple forever.” “Just for a few days,” he says, and wipes his eyes. “You look like you’re having fun.” “Please get me out of here.” He lifts me out of the tub, sets me on my feet, and holds his phone up, getting a selfie of us with Tuscany in the background, laughing, delighted with each other. “You know,” Gianna comments as she watches us. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this happy, Dominic.” “I haven’t been,” he replies, and rests his forehead on mine. “Until I found her.” “Get your ass out of bed!” Dom calls from the bathroom. “You’re bossy,” I grumble, as I roll out of bed and tug on panties and a bra, then decide, screw it, and throw his white shirt on from yesterday and join him in the bathroom. He’s standing in front of the mirror, shirtless, and leans his hands on the vanity as he watches me. “You’re going to wear my dirty shirt to meet your parents?” he asks with a grin as I hop up onto the vanity next to him and swing my feet back and forth. “You know, you don’t have to go,” I reply reasonably. “They’re nice enough, but you shouldn’t have to endure it. I can go alone.” “No,” he replies simply, and combs his hair. “I still can’t believe they called,” I say with a frown, watching Dom. “I mean, I told them to, if they ever wanted to have a relationship with me, but I didn’t expect them to actually do it.” Big, gigantic butterflies take flight in my belly as I think about meeting up with my parents for lunch. They flew up here just to see me. “I can’t believe they even knew what airport to fly into.” Dom snickers and pulls his shaving stuff out of a drawer. “I mean, this is kind of ridiculous.” “Alecia.” “Yeah?” He slides me over in front of him and pins me here, his hands on the granite at my hips, and kisses my nose lightly. “Stop worrying.” “I’m not.” “You are.” He kisses my forehead, then hands me his shaving cream. “Lather me up.”

“This could be fun.” I grin and shoot the white foam into my hands, then rub them together and begin rubbing it on his handsome face. I’m all smiles, delighted with him, as he clenches his lips closed so I can get the area between his nose and lips, then laugh when I get it up his nose. “Sorry. I don’t put shaving cream on a face often.” He laughs with me as I concentrate on my task, making a complete mess of him. “Spread it down on my neck.” I follow his directions, then lean back and take in my handiwork. “I suck at this.” “It’ll get the job done,” he replies, and hands me his razor. “I get to put a sharp instrument against your neck?” I ask incredulously. “Don’t make me regret this.” Before I can begin, he leans in and plants a kiss right on my cheek, leaving a dollop of cream on my skin, making me giggle. “You’re making a mess!” “We’re even on that score.” He watches my face calmly, and holds perfectly still, as I glide the razor down his cheek, doing my best to get all of the whiskers. When I get to his neck, I give up. “You finish. This part makes me nervous.” He grins and takes the razor, slides me aside, and leans in to the mirror to finish up. “You did a good job, amore.” “I was worried that I’d cut you, my love.” He stills at my words. He always does when I call him my love. He wipes his face off with a towel, and I lean in and kiss him on the cheek, resting against him for just a moment. He tosses the towel aside, and slides me back in front of him. “You can’t wear this,” he says and slips his shirt off of me, then to my surprise, simply wraps his arms around me and hugs me close. “Your back is so slender,” he murmurs. “My hands look so big on it.” “I love the way your hands feel on my back,” I reply softly, and breathe him in. “You smell good.” “Alecia, you take my breath away.” He buries his face in my neck and, still holding on tightly, takes a deep breath. “You are everything good in my life.” “Are you okay?” I ask, a bit concerned. He’s holding onto me almost desperately. “I need you to know,” he begins and kisses my cheek, then pulls back only far enough to look into my eyes. “I don’t want to just spend my life with you. I want to spend my only life with you. Every day.”

He swallows hard and drags his fingertips down my back, then up again, caressing me sweetly. “I know that forever is a long time, but if you tell me that I get to wake up to your sweet smile every day, it will never be long enough.” He sweeps my hair back behind my ear. “A smart woman once told me that love is a daily reminder. It’s saying, I choose you. Today and every day. Spend forever with me, Alecia.” My heart stills, then stumbles into double time. “Did you just ask me to marry you?” I whisper. “I need you to marry me, be my partner, my friend, my love. You’re everything, amore. I love you more than you will ever understand.” “I love you too,” I reply and kiss his lips softly. “Is that a yes?” “Hell yes.” Epilogue Ten Years Later ~Steven Montgomery~ The day is just waking up as I pad down the stairs in my son, Dominic’s, home toward the kitchen. My bride of fifty years today is still sleeping like an angel upstairs, and rather than make love to her, which was my first thought, as it is every morning, I decided to let the poor woman sleep. It’s going to be a busy day. I’m surprised to hear quiet voices in the kitchen, assuming that I’m the first up. “Good morning, Dad,” Natalie says with a grin. She and Luke are sitting at the breakfast bar, sipping coffee. It never gets old hearing this sweet girl call me Dad. I’m not the man that she comes from, but she’s been mine for more than twenty years now, and I couldn’t love her more. She gives me a big hug, and when I point to my cheek, she plants a kiss there as well. “You two are up early.” I pour myself a cup of coffee and lean against the counter. “Josie and Maddie got in late, so we stayed up with Brynna and Caleb waiting for them,” Luke says. “And then Haley woke up this morning with bad dreams, so we decided to just stay up. I’m still not used to the twins driving.” “Neither is Caleb,” I reply. “No parent is ever ready for their kids to grow up.” “Olivia has decided that she’s in love,” Natalie says with a grimace, and laughs when Luke simply glares at her. “It’s just hormones.” “I’ll lock her in her room.” “No, you won’t.” “She’s twelve,” Luke says adamantly. “It’s all downhill from here, son,” I inform him good-naturedly. “Before you know it,

it’ll be your fiftieth wedding anniversary and you’ll have seventeen grandchildren.” Luke pales and I laugh, enjoying his panic. “We have a while before that happens,” Nat reminds him, patting his face. “Of course, it doesn’t help that you have three daughters.” “I’m surrounded by women,” he agrees, and I smile as I think of the two littlest ones, Chelsea and Haley, who are two little spitfires, even at nine and seven. “Keaton is all boy, though, and helps balance things out.” “How’s work?” I ask Luke. “It’s good.” “He’s collaborating with some amazing people for his next project,” Nat adds proudly. “I have a feeling he’ll be nominated for the Oscar again next year.” “I don’t need Oscars,” Luke says with a shake of the head. “Although, it doesn’t suck to have one on the mantle.” “I’m so proud of you, handsome.” She leans in to kiss him, and I refill my cup and wink at them, then head out the back door to sit on the patio before they get too carried away. The fire is already roaring, and Isaac, Stacy, Caleb and Brynna are huddled around it, drinking their own coffee, my boys cuddled up to their women. I raised smart boys, that’s for sure. “Good morning,” I greet them and sit in the single unoccupied chair. “Seems everyone is up early.” “It’s a good morning for it,” Isaac replies, gesturing to the sun coming up over the mountains, casting the vines in soft pink sunlight. “It’s beautiful,” Stacy agrees. “And most of the kids are still sacked out in the play room, so we’re taking advantage of the quiet.” “Good plan. I hear the twins got in late.” Caleb frowns and sighs. “They made curfew, I just hate that they’re driving, and they came out here, so they were on the freeway late at night.” “They’re good girls,” Brynna says, and rubs her hand down her husband’s leg. My boys chose well when it came to their women. Strong, beautiful, smart women, all of them. “Is Maddie still insistent that she wants to go to New York after she graduates to dance?” Stacy asks. “Yes,” Brynna replies with a sigh. “I don’t think we’ll be able to talk her out of it.” “She’s so good,” Stacy says. “She could do great things with it.” “New York is too fucking far away,” Caleb growls. “We have time,” Brynna whispers. “A year,” he says. “It’ll feel like ten minutes.”

You have no idea, my boy. More like the blink of an eye. “What about Josie?” I ask. “She has a boyfriend, you know,” Brynna says and eyes her husband, who scowls again. “She’ll probably go to college here in Seattle.” “If he touches her, I’ll break his arms.” Brynna rolls her eyes. “I’ll help you,” Isaac says casually. “Oh good, you start in too,” Stacy says. “Sophie’s a teenager now. I may need his help before long.” “I’ll be there, brother.” Caleb salutes Isaac with his mug, making us laugh. “Liam and Michael were up until the wee hours of the morning playing video games. We may not see them until the dinner tonight,” Isaac says, referring to both of their youngest boys. “We’re here to celebrate, so why shouldn’t they get to do what they enjoy?” I ask with a shrug. “I’m so happy that you and Mom wanted to do this,” Isaac says. “Of all the things you could have done for your fiftieth, you chose to have all of us come here for the weekend.” “We would have sent you on a cruise, or to Europe, or somewhere quiet and fun,” Caleb adds. “There is nowhere your mother and I would rather be than with our children.” And that’s the God’s truth. “You hate me!” A high voice shrieks and a small blonde girl runs outside in a sprint, crying. “Erin! Get back here!” Meg yells, running after her older daughter. “Hate us!” the youngest, Zoey, agrees and runs behind her sister, giggling. “Stop being dramatic and get back here!” Meg stops, with her hands on her hips and glares at her daughters. “Why do they have to have their father’s speed?” “It’s okay, lazy bones, I got this.” Will jogs past her and runs into the backyard after his daughters. “When your mother calls you, you come! Do you hear me?” “They’re not children,” Meg says. “They’re aliens.” “That’s why I didn’t have any,” Sam says with a yawn as she comes out back, Leo by her side. She wraps her arm around me and kisses my cheek. “Thanks for including us this weekend.” “You and Mark are a part of this family, sweet girl. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Here, have a seat.” I stand and shake Leo’s hand. “I’m going to go wake my wife up.” Leo drops into the chair, smiling when it rocks, then pulls Sam into his lap. “Rock with

me for a while, sunshine.” “When does the new album come out, Leo?” Will asks as he carries his girls, one under each arm, back to the house. “Next month,” Leo says with a grin. I walk inside, and in the short time since I left the kitchen, it’s become a war zone. “Mommy, I’m not hungry!” Abigail cries to Nic, who is holding her youngest, Finn, on her hip. “You need to eat anyway,” Nic says patiently. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” “Listen to your mama,” Matt says, boosts Abbi onto his lap, and offers her a bite of waffle on her fork. “She knows these things.” It does my heart good to see Nic and Matt with their children. Thank God for adoption. They share a smile, the kind that also makes my heart warm. They love each other. And at the end of the day, what more can you ask for? “Did you seriously just drink out of my glass, you little brat?” Lucy, Mark and Meredith’s oldest, demands of her little brother, Hudson. “You are disgusting!” “Hud,” Mark says and ruffles his son’s hair, “don’t be disgusting.” “I want you to dance with me,” Emma demands of her aunt Meredith. “Emma.” Alecia gives her daughter a stern look as Dominic strolls into the kitchen and sweeps his lovely wife up in a hug. “Aunt Meredith just woke up. Let’s give her some time, okay?” “Okay,” Emma says, defeated. “Good morning,” Dominic says, as he takes in the chaos, then erupts into laughter. “Never a dull moment when the family gets together.” “I love it,” I reply and pull my son into a hug. “Thank you for this.” “Nonsense,” Dom replies. “We don’t get together as often as we should.” “Where’s Grandma?” Lucy asks. “She’s still in bed,” I reply with a wink. “You all tuckered her out yesterday when we played football.” “Grandma’s good at football,” Liam says as he walks in the room, looking for food. “That she is,” I agree, and suddenly want to go cuddle her. “I’ll go see how she is.” “Hey, Dad,” Dominic says, and the automatic smile that comes when he calls me Dad, slides across my face. “Happy anniversary.” “Happy anniversary!” The others echo and clap. “Thank you. I think I’ll go give your grandmother her anniversary present,” I say, just as Jules and Nate walk in the room with their daughter, Stella.

“Dad,” Jules says with a scowl. “Ew.” “Nate,” I say with a laugh as I pass by them. “I’m going to let you handle your wife.” “I’ve been trying to handle her for more than a decade, Steven. I’ve learned that’s just not possible.” “That’s right.” Jules smiles and kisses my cheek. “Love you, Daddy.” “Love you, baby girl.” “Oh, for the love of all that’s holy,” she says as she sees Luke and Natalie kissing by the refrigerator. “Do you not know how you got four kids?” I laugh as I climb the stairs to the bedroom. My family is big and chaotic and sometimes overwhelming, but they are perfect. I slip inside the room and smile softly at the woman sleeping quietly. This person, right here, is the center of my universe. I lie beside her and just stare at her sweet face. After fifty years of marriage, she still takes my breath away. There may be a few more lines on her face, and a few gray strands in her hair, but I love her with the love of a young man. She gave me all of those beautiful people downstairs. She gave me a life. The best life a man could ever hope for. As we are in the winter of our lives, I realize how rich we are. The money is nothing; it’s our children, our grandchildren, our friends, who fulfill us. And most of all, each other. I drag my knuckles down her soft cheek and smile when her eyes flutter open and she presses her lips to my hand. “Good morning, my love.” “Thank you,” I whisper. “Whatever for? I haven’t even left the bed yet today.” “For loving me. For our children.” I press my lips to her forehead. “For being mine.” “I’ve been yours for a very long time.” “Not nearly long enough.” THE END


Introducing the Boudreaux series! Here is a sneak peek at book one in the Boudreaux Series, EASY LOVE, coming early Spring, 2015!


Prologue ~Eli~ “You work too hard.” The voice comes from behind me. I’m standing behind my desk, gazing out over the French Quarter and Mississippi River from my fifty-fourth floor office windows in New Orleans. The sun is blazing already. It’s only eight in the morning, but it’s a stifling eighty-six humid-filled degrees out there, much hotter than the cool comfort of my office. It seems all I do is watch the world from this office window. And where the fuck did that thought come from? “Earth to Eli,” Savannah says dryly from behind me. “I heard you.” I shove my hands in my pockets, fingering the silver half-dollar that my father gave me when I took this position, and turn to find my sister standing before my desk in her usual crisp suit, blue today, her thick dark hair pinned up and worry in her hazel gaze. “And hello pot, I’m kettle.” “You’re tired.” “I’m fine.” She narrows her eyes at me and takes a deep breath, making my lips twitch into a half smile. I love getting her riled up. It’s ridiculously easy. “Did you even go home last night?” “I don’t have time for this, Van.” I lower into my chair and motion for her to do the same, which she does after shoving a banana under my nose. “But you have time to stare out the window?” “Are you trying to pick a fight today? Because I’ll oblige you, but first tell me what the fuck we’re fighting about.” I peel the banana and take a bite, realizing that I’m starving. Savannah blows out a deep breath and shakes her head while mumbling something about pigheaded men. I smile brightly now. “Lance giving you problems?” My hands flex in and out of fists at the idea of finally laying that fucker flat. Savannah’s husband is not one of my favorite people.

“No.” Her cheeks redden, but she won’t look me in the eye. “Van.” “Oh good, you’re both here,” Beau says as he marches in my office, shuts the door behind him, takes the seat next to Savannah, steals my half-eaten banana out of my hand, and proceeds to eat the rest of it in two bites. “That was mine.” My stomach gives a low growl, not satisfied in the least, and I give a brief thought to asking my assistant to run out for beignets. “God, you’re a baby,” Beau replies and tosses the peel in my garbage. My older brother is taller than my six-foot-four by one inch and as lean as he was in high school. But I can still take him. “Why the fuck are you two in my office?” I sit back and run my hand over my mouth. “I’m quite sure you both have plenty to do.” “Maybe we missed you,” Savannah says with a fake grin and bats her eyelashes at me. “You’re a smart ass.” She just nods knowingly, but then she and Beau exchange a look that has the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. “What’s going on?” “Someone is stealing from us.” Beau tosses a file full of spreadsheets in my direction. His jaw ticks as I open it and see columns of numbers. “Where?” “That’s what we don’t know,” Savannah adds quietly, but her voice is full of steel. “Whoever’s doing it is hiding it well.” “How did you find it?” “By accident, actually,” she replies crisply, all business now. “We know it has to be happening in accounting, but it’s buried so deep, the who and how is a mystery.” “Fire the whole department and start over.” I shut the file and lean back, just as Beau laughs. “We can’t fire more than forty people, most of whom are innocent, Eli. It doesn’t work like that.” “There has to be a paper trail,” I begin, but Savannah cuts me off with a shake of her head. “We’re paperless, remember?” “Oh yeah, saving the fucking trees. Are you telling me that no one knows what the fuck is going on?” “It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s big enough to piss me off,” Beau says quietly. “How much?”

“Just over one hundred G’s. That we’ve found so far.” “Yeah, that’s enough to piss me off too. They’re not just stealing post-its out of the supply closet.” “And it’s not predictable. If it was a regular amount, on a routine, we could find it no problem. But I don’t want to cause mass hysteria in the company. I don’t want everyone to think that we’re looking over all of their shoulders every damn minute.” “Someone is stealing and you’re worried about the employees feelings?” I ask with a raised brow. “Who the fuck are you?” “He’s right,” Savannah adds. “Having the co-CEO’s of the company on everyone’s asses isn’t good for morale.” “What about having the CFO do it?” I ask, referring to Savannah, who shakes her head and laughs. “No, I don’t think so.” “So we just sit back and let whoever the fucker is use us as his own private ATM?” “Nope.” Savannah smiles brightly, her pretty face lighting up. “I want to bring Kate O’Shaughnessy in.” “Your college friend?” I glance at Beau, who has no expression on his face whatsoever. Typical. “This is what she does for a living.” “She looks over people’s shoulders for a living? She must be everyone’s favorite person.” “You’re on a roll today,” Beau says quietly. “Kate works with companies who are dealing with embezzlement. She comes in as a regular employee and blends in, investigating on the down-low.” “Can she actually do the job? It won’t work if she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” “She has an MBA, Eli. But I want to put her in as an administrative assistant. They see and know everything, and they talk to each other. She’s likable.” “Okay, works for me.” I glance at Beau. “You?” “I think it’s the way to go,” he agrees. “None of us have time to do it ourselves, and I don’t trust handing this off to anyone else. Like Van said, people talk. I’d like to keep this quiet. Kate will sign all the necessary non-disclosure agreements, and from what I’ve heard, she’s excellent at her job.” “One thing,” Van says and leans forward to stare at me, the way she does when I’m about to be in deep trouble. “You’re not allowed to mess around with her.” “I’m not an asshole, Van…” “No, you’re not allowed to get your man-whore hands on her.” “Hey! I am not—”

“Yeah, you are,” Beau says with a grin. I sigh and roll my shoulders. “Not having the same date twice doesn’t make me a whore.” Van simply raises a brow. “Leave her be.” “I’m a professional, Van. I don’t sleep with the employees.” “Is that what you said to that assistant that sued us a few years back?” “Anymore.” “God.” Van shakes her head as Beau laughs. “She’s a nice woman, Eli.” Instead of replying, I simply narrow my eyes at my sister and swivel in my chair. Kate’s a grown woman, one I’m most likely not attracted to anyway. It’s been a few years since much of anything has held my interest for long. That would require feeling something. “Call her.”

Chapter One ~Kate~ “Hello?” I ask breathlessly as the cab I’m in whizzes down the interstate, heading directly for the heart of New Orleans. “Where are you?” Savannah asks with a smile in her voice. “In the cab on the way from the airport. Are you sure I shouldn’t check into a hotel room?” “No way, Bayou Industries owns a beautiful loft that we’ll pretend you’re renting while you’re here. Come directly to the office. I have a meeting, so I won’t be able to greet you, I’m sorry.” “It’s okay,” I reply and bite my lip as the cabbie cuts off another motorist and my stomach rolls. “I’m hoping to make it alive. I might not survive the cab ride.” Savannah chuckles in my ear and then I hear her murmuring to someone else in her office. “I have to go. Eli will meet you.” “Eli? I thought I’d meet with Beau—” “Eli’s not as scary as we’ve all led you to believe. I promise.” And then she’s gone. The cab swerves again, and I send up a prayer of thanks that I didn’t eat breakfast this morning as I use my hand to fan my face. It’s darn hot in the Big Easy. During all the years I went to college with Savannah and her twin brother, Declan, I

never did make it down here to visit them, and I can’t wait to explore the French Quarter, eat beignets, have my tarot cards read, and soak it all in. Of course, I’d rather soak it all in while not wearing so many clothes. Who knew it would be so hot in May? I shimmy out of my suit jacket, fold the sleeves over so they don’t wrinkle, and watch as above ground cemeteries, old buildings, and lots of people zoom by. Eli is the one Boudreaux sibling I’ve never met. I’ve seen photos of the handsome brother, and heard many stories about his stoic, tough, playboy ways. Van says the stories are exaggerated. I guess I’ll find out for myself. Well, not the playboy part. That’s just none of my business. Finally, we come to an abrupt stop. There’s a red cable-car on one side and mountains of concrete on the other. I stumble out into the hot Monday afternoon, and sweat immediately beads on my forehead. It’s not just hot. It’s sticky. But I smile despite the discomfort, tip the reckless cabbie and roll my suitcase behind me into the blessedly cool building, where a woman sits behind a long, ornate desk, typing furiously on a computer while speaking in the phone. “Mr. Boudreaux is unavailable at this time, but I’ll put you through to his assistant, one moment.” She quickly pushes a series of keys, then smiles up at me. She’s very smiley. “I’m Kate O’Shaughnessy.” “Welcome, Ms. O’Shaughnessy,” she says, holding that smile in place. “Mr. Boudreaux is expecting you.” She types furiously and begins speaking into her phone again. “Hello, Miss Carter, Ms. O’Shaughnessy is here for Mr. Boudreaux. Yes ma’am.” She clicks off efficiently. “Please have a seat. Can I get you some water?” “No, thank you.” Miss Efficient simply nods and returns to her ringing phones. Before I have a chance to sit, a tall woman in black slacks and a red sleeveless blouse walks out of the elevator and straight to me. “Ms. O’Shaughnessy?” “Kate, please.” “Hello, Kate. Mr. Boudreaux is in his office. Follow me.” She smiles and offers to take my suitcase, but I shake my head and follow her into the elevator. She doesn’t ask me any questions, and I’m thankful. I’ve learned to lie well in this business, but I don’t know what she’s already been told. I’m led past an office area and into the largest office I’ve ever seen. The massive black desk sits before a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The furniture is big and expensive. Comfortable. There are two doors, each on opposite sides of the room, and I can’t help but wonder what they lead to. “Ms. O’Shaughnessy is here, sir.”

“Kate,” I add without thinking, and then any hope of being able to think at all is tossed right out of those spectacular windows when the tall man standing before them turns to look at me. The photos didn’t do him justice. Yum. The door closes behind me and I take a deep breath and walk toward him, hiding the fact that my knees have officially turned to mush. “Kate,” I repeat and hold my hand out to shake his over his desk. His lips twitch as he watches me, his whiskey-colored eyes sharp and assessing as they take a slow stroll down my body, then back up to my face. Jeez, he’s taller than I expected. And broader. And he wears a suit like he was born to it. Which, I suppose he was. Bayou Enterprises has been around for five generations, and Eli Boudreaux is the sharpest CEO it’s seen in years. He moves around his desk and takes my hand in his, but rather than shake it, he raises it to his lips and places a soft kiss on my knuckles. “Pleasure,” he says in a slow New Orleans drawl. Dear God, I might explode right here. “I’m Eli.” “I know.” He raises a brow in question. “I’ve seen photos over the years.” He nods once, but doesn’t let go. His thumb is circling softly over the back of my hand, sending my body into a tailspin. My nipples have tightened, pressing against my white blouse, and now I wish with all my might that I hadn’t taken off my jacket. “Please, have a seat,” he says and motions to the black chair behind me. Rather than sit behind his desk, he sits in the chair next to mine and watches me with those amazing eyes of his. A lock of dark hair has fallen over his forehead and my fingers itch to brush it back for him. Calm the eff down, Mary Katherine. You’d think I’d never seen a hot man before. Because I have. Declan, the youngest of the Boudreaux brothers, is no slouch in the looks department, and is one of my best friends. But being near him never made my knees weak or made me yearn for a tall glass of ice water. Or a bed. Or to rip his clothes off his body. Whoa. “Did Savannah fill you in on what’s happening?” Eli asks calmly, his face revealing nothing. He crosses an ankle over the opposite knee and steeples his fingers, watching me. “Yes, she and I have talked extensively, and she’s emailed me all of the new-hire paperwork, as well as the NDA’s, which I’ve printed and signed.” I pull the papers out of my briefcase and pass them to Eli. Our fingers brush, making my thighs clench, but he seems unaffected. Typical. I don’t usually inspire hot lust from the opposite sex. Especially not men who look like Eli. Which is fine, because he’s my boss and my best friends’ brother and I’m

here to work. I clear my throat and push my auburn hair behind my ear. With all of this humidity, it’s going to be a curly mess in no time. “That’s a beautiful ring,” he says unexpectedly, nodding toward my right hand, still raised near my ear. “Thank you.” “Gift?” He’s a man of few words. “Yes, from my grandmother,” I reply and tuck my hands in my lap. He simply nods once and glances down at the papers in his hand. He frowns and glances up at me, but before he can say anything, his office door swings open and Declan walks in with a wide smile on his handsome face. “There’s my superstar.” I squeal and leap up and into his arms, and Dec squeezes me tight and turns a circle in the middle of the wide office. He finally sets me on my feet, cups my face in his hands and kisses me square on the mouth, then hugs me again, more gently this time. “You okay?” he whispers in my ear. “I’m great.” I gaze up into Dec’s sweet face and years of memories and emotion fall around me. Laughter and tears, love, sadness, affection. “It’s so good to see you.” “Have you done anything fun since you got to town?” “I almost lost my life in a cab,” I reply with a laugh. “I came straight here.” “I’ll take you out tonight. Show you the French Quarter. I know this great restaurant—” “That won’t be necessary,” Eli interrupts. His voice is calm. He’s standing now, his hands shoved in his pockets, his wide shoulders making the large office feel small. “You have a gig tonight,” he reminds Declan. “I can take you out before.” “Don’t worry about Kate this evening,” Eli replies, still perfectly calmly, but his jaw ticks. I feel like I’m watching a tennis match as my head swivels back and forth, watching them both with curiosity. “You know what Savannah told you,” Declan says softly to Eli. No response. Declan glances back down to me. “I really don’t mind calling the gig off tonight and settling you in.” “I’ll be fine, Dec.” I grin and pat his chest. “Where will you be playing?” “The Voodoo Lounge.” “I might just show up.” I push up onto my tiptoes and kiss his cheek. “I don’t want you wandering around the French Quarter after dark.”

“I’ll take her,” Eli offers, earning a speculative look from Declan who then gazes down at me and kisses my forehead softly. “I’ll save a seat for both of you then,” he replies with a happy smile. “Have a good afternoon. Don’t let the boss man run you ragged.” He winks at me and grins at Eli, then slips back out the door. “You and Declan are close,” Eli says when I turn back around. His hands are still in his pockets as he rocks back on his heels. “Yes. He, Savannah, and I were sort of the three amigos in college.” “Are you planning on fucking him?” “Excuse me?” I feel my jaw drop as I stare at the formidable man before me. I prop my hands on my hips and glare at him. “That’s none of your darn business.” He purses his lips as though he’s trying not to laugh. “It’s none of my darn business?” “That’s what I said.” He tilts his head and looks like he’s about to say more, but then he saunters to my suitcase and pulls it behind him as he gestures for me to follow him. He’s kicking me out? “Miss Carter, I’ll be out the rest of the day. Reschedule my appointments.” His assistant gapes at him and then sputters, “But, Mr. Freemont has been waiting…” “I don’t care. Reschedule. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Eli calls the elevator, his eyes never leaving me as we wait for the car to arrive. “Do you have a change of casual clothes in here?” “Yes. The rest of my things are being shipped down and should arrive tomorrow afternoon.” He nods and motions for me to lead him into the elevator. “Eli?” The air literally crackles around us as he glances down at me and raises a brow. He’s barely touched me and my body is on high alert and my mind is empty. “Where are we going?” “To your place.” “You know where my place is?” “I own it, cher.” He sighs and finally reaches over and tucks my hair behind my ear, making me shiver. “Are you cold?” “No.” I clear my throat and step away from him. “If you’ll just give me the address, I’ll take a cab to my place.” “I wouldn’t dream of endangering your life again,” he replies with a half-smile, and every hair on my body stands on end. Good lord, what this man can do with a smile.

I need to get my hormones under control. It’s simply been too long since I got laid, that’s all. And I’m not going to scratch this particular itch with this particular man. He’s my boss. My best friends’ brother. No way, no how. “You coming?” he asks. Yes, please. I realize the elevator has opened and he’s standing next to me, waiting for me to go first. “Of course.” “Of course,” he chuckles. “We can walk it, it’s not far, but it’s hot out, so we’ll drive.” I nod and follow him to his sleek, black Mercedes, which he expertly drives down the narrow streets of the French Quarter. I can’t help but practically press my face to the window, trying to take in everything I see at once. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur. “Have you been here before?” “No. I can’t wait to walk around and soak it all in.” He parks less than three minutes after we set off, and kills the engine. “We’re here.” “Already?” “I told you, it’s not far.” “I could have walked that, even with the heat.” “It’s not necessary to make you uncomfortable,” he replies simply and climbs out of the car, gathers my bag, and with his hand on the small of my back, leads me up to a loft that sits above an herb shop called Bayou Botanicals. I can smell sage and lavender as Eli unlocks the front door and ushers me inside where I stop on a dime and take in the beautiful. The outside of the building is well kept and beautiful with worn red bricks and green iron railings, but the inside is brand new and simply opulent. “I’m staying here?” “That you are,” he confirms, his accent sliding along my skin like honey. “You’ll consider this your home while you’re with us. Here are your keys.” He passes the keys to me, then turns his back and leads me to the kitchen, which boasts brand new appliances, dark oak cabinets and matching granite countertops. “The bedroom is through there,” he continues and leads me into a beautiful room with a four-poster bed. “The linens are clean and fresh. The bathroom is there.” He points to this left, but my eyes are stuck on the doors that lead out to the balcony, which offers a beautiful view of the street below and Jackson Square just a block away. “There are times that it gets noisy with music and people, but there’s never a dull moment in the French Quarter.”

I nod and turn back to him. “Thank you. Shall we go back to the office?” “It’s mid-afternoon, Kate. Take the rest of the day to settle in.” “Oh, but, I’m here to work. Surely, I could—” “It would look odd to bring on a new hire in the middle of the day, don’t you think?” Of course it would. I smile sheepishly and nod. “You’re right. I’ll work from here.” I toss my jacket onto the bed, pull my laptop out of my briefcase and walk briskly into the kitchen. “It’s going to be a process.” “Kate, I don’t want—” “I’m not going to be able to just dig in and start investigating. Van’s right to give me an assistant position, but that’s going to be even tougher.” I tie my hair back off my face and lower into a kitchen chair as I talk briskly. If I talk about work, I won’t be ogling him and thus losing more brain cells. “Kate.” “I’m going to have to play by the rules for a while, a couple weeks at least. I need people to trust me, so they’ll open up to me.” “Kate.” “I—” “Enough!”

More by Kristen Proby WITH ME IN SEATTLE SERIES: Come Away With Me and on audio Under the Mistletoe With Me and on audio Fight With Me and on audio Play With Me and on audio Rock With Me and on audio Safe With Me and on audio Tied With Me and on audio Breathe With Me and on audio LOVE UNDER THE BIG SKY SERIES, available through Pocket Books: Loving Cara, UK, AU Seducing Lauren, coming summer of 2014

Table of Contents Copyright With Me in Seattle Series Dedication A Note from the Author Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty One Chapter Twenty Two Chapter Twenty Three The With Me in Seattle Series Family Tree

Easy Love Excerpt Other Books by Kristen Proby

Easy With You A With Me In Seattle Novella

By Kristen Proby

1001 Dark Nights

Easy With You A With Me In Seattle Novella By Kristen Proby 1001 Dark Nights Copyright 2015 Kristen Proby ISBN: 978-1-940887-80-7 Foreword: Copyright 2014 M. J. Rose Published by Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental.

Book Description Easy With You Nothing has ever come easy for Lila Bailey. She’s fought for every good thing in her life during every day of her thirty-one years. Aside from that one night with an impossible to deny stranger a year ago, Lila is the epitome of responsible. Steadfast. Strong. She’s pulled herself out of the train wreck of her childhood, proud to be a professor at Tulane University and laying down roots in a city she’s grown to love. But when some of her female students are viciously murdered, Lila’s shaken to the core and unsure of whom she can trust in New Orleans. When the police detective assigned to the murder case comes to investigate, she’s even more surprised to find herself staring into the eyes of the man that made her toes curl last year. In an attempt to move on from the tragic loss of his wife, Asher Smith moved his daughter and himself to a new city, ready for a fresh start. A damn fine police lieutenant, but new to the New Orleans force, Asher has a lot to prove to his colleagues and himself. With a murderer terrorizing the Tulane University campus, Asher finds himself toeto-toe with the one woman that haunts his dreams. His hands, his lips, his body know her as intimately as he’s ever known anyone. As he learns her mind and heart as well, Asher wants nothing more than to keep her safe, in his bed, and in his and his daughter’s lives for the long haul. But when Lila becomes the target, can Asher save her in time, or will he lose another woman he loves?

ABOUT KRISTEN PROBY: New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Kristen Proby is the author of the popular With Me in Seattle series. She has a passion for a good love story and strong characters who love humor and have a strong sense of loyalty and family. Her men are the alpha type—fiercely protective and a bit bossy—and her ladies are fun, strong, and not afraid to stand up for themselves. Kristen spends her days with her muse in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys coffee, chocolate, and sunshine. And naps. Visit her at Website Facebook Twitter Author Goodreads Novel Goodreads

Also by Kristen Proby The Boudreaux Series: Easy Love The With Me In Seattle Series: Come Away With Me Under the Mistletoe With Me Fight With Me Play With Me Rock With Me Safe With Me Tied With Me Breathe With Me Forever With Me The Love Under the Big Sky Series (published by Pocket Books): Loving Cara Seducing Lauren Falling for Jillian Baby, It’s Cold Outside: An Anthology with Jennifer Probst, Emma Chase, Kristen Proby, Melody Anne and Kate Meader

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Table of Contents Book Description About Kristen Proby Also by Kristen Proby Foreword Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Epilogue Also From 1001 Dark Nights An excerpt from Easy Love by Kristen Proby Special Thanks

One Thousand and One Dark Nights Once upon a time, in the future… I was a student fascinated with stories and learning. I studied philosophy, poetry, history, the occult, and the art and science of love and magic. I had a vast library at my father’s home and collected thousands of volumes of fantastic tales. I learned all about ancient races and bygone times. About myths and legends and dreams of all people through the millennium. And the more I read the stronger my imagination grew until I discovered that I was able to travel into the stories… to actually become part of them. I wish I could say that I listened to my teacher and respected my gift, as I ought to have. If I had, I would not be telling you this tale now. But I was foolhardy and confused, showing off with bravery. One afternoon, curious about the myth of the Arabian Nights, I traveled back to ancient Persia to see for myself if it was true that every day Shahryar (Persian: ‫ﺷﻬﺮﯾﺎر‬, “king”) married a new virgin, and then sent yesterday’s wife to be beheaded. It was written and I had read, that by the time he met Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, he’d killed one thousand women. Something went wrong with my efforts. I arrived

in the midst of the story and somehow exchanged places with Scheherazade – a phenomena that had never occurred before and that still to this day, I cannot explain. Now I am trapped in that ancient past. I have taken on Scheherazade’s life and the only way I can protect myself and stay alive is to do what she did to protect herself and stay alive. Every night the King calls for me and listens as I spin tales. And when the evening ends and dawn breaks, I stop at a point that leaves him breathless and yearning for more. And so the King spares my life for one more day, so that he might hear the rest of my dark tale. As soon as I finish a story… I begin a new one… like the one that you, dear reader, have before you now.

Prologue ~Asher~ “You should consider moving here,” Mike says and takes a pull of the long-neck bottle of his beer, then shifts his gaze from the baseball game on the screen above the bar to me. We’re in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans, at some bar on Bourbon Street, having a few beers after a long day of work. I shake my head. I’ve heard this line from my brother at least a dozen times since he and his wife moved here from New York last year. “I’m happy in Seattle. Casey’s happy in Seattle.” “Casey will be happy wherever you’re happy,” Mike replies. “Don’t you want to be close to family?” “I’d be kicking your ass all the time,” I reply. “You’d be begging me to leave in a week.” “You could try, little brother,” Mike says with a smirk. “The force could use you.” I shrug a shoulder and drink my beer. I like working for the Seattle force. I have a dependable partner. Casey does well in school. But there’s no family for us there, and I admit it’s hard when my babysitter bails on me. Being a single father fucking sucks. “I’ll think about it.” Mike nods and checks his phone when it lights up with a text. A group of girls behind us are laughing loudly, clearly having a good time. I wonder if it’s a bachelorette party. “Franny’s wondering when I’m coming home,” Mike says with a smile. “I’m getting laid, buddy.” I laugh and shake my head as I take a drink of my beer. “Good for you, buddy.” “Yes, she is good for me,” he agrees. “Ten years and two kids later and you still get that shit-eating grin on your face.” I smile, happy for my brother. “Of course, I love her.” He shoves his phone in his pocket, swallows the last of his beer, and claps his hand on my shoulder as he climbs off his stool. “I’m out. See you tomorrow.” “Goodnight.” Suddenly, the sexy redhead from the group behind me is standing next to me at the bar, blinking her glassy green eyes. “Hi there.” “Hi.” “Having a good time?” I ask with a grin.

“Yes.” She blinks some more, and then her eyes widen in recognition. “I know you!” “You do?” I’m quite sure I’d know if I’d met this woman. “Yes! You were on the plane with Lila yesterday. Asher?” “That’s right.” I take her offered hand and shake it, immediately remembering the gorgeous woman I caught in my lap on the plane. “Is Lila with you this evening?” And if she is, how in the ever-loving hell did I miss her? “Yep. She’s my BFF. We drink together. One time in college we made out, but it was no biggie.” “Okay.” I laugh, wishing I’d been there to see that. “You didn’t ask for her number.” She scowls and pokes her finger into my chest. I look down at it, then glance up at her with a raised brow. “You just assaulted an officer.” “I did?” She swallows hard. “Yes. I might have to arrest you.” “With handcuffs?” She smiles gleefully, clearly excited at the thought. “Would you like me to arrest you with handcuffs?” “Hell to the yes!” “Kate?” There’s suddenly a very tall, very irritated man standing behind the fiery redhead, staring daggers into me. I can’t help but laugh. “I’m talking to the hot Asher,” she says, not turning to look at him. “I assaulted him, and he’s a cop, and he’s going to put me in handcuffs.” “No, I don’t believe he will.” I laugh again. “There’s nothing going on here, man.” “Come see Lila!” Kate takes my hand, pulling me from my stool to the table behind us. Most of the women have cleared out, leaving just a few, including the sexy as fuck woman I met on the plane yesterday. “Where did everyone go?” “Declan took them home,” Lila replies, and her hand stops midway between the table and her lips, holding her drink. Her violet eyes widen when she sees me. “Hi.” “We meet again.” I sit next to her, my fingers itching to plunge in her dark hair and brush it over her shoulder. “How are you, Lila?” “Fine.” She clears her throat and smiles at me. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” “A happy coincidence,” I reply softly. “You look beautiful.” And she does. Her eyes are a bit glassy from the alcohol, her cheeks just a little flushed. Her hair is straight and falls down her back and over her slim shoulders. Before I can ask her questions about her trip here, or anything about her, we are soon pulled into the conversation with the others at the table. But when Kate asks Lila if she’s ready to go,

I’m shocked when Lila responds with, “I’m gonna have Asher take me home.” “Atta girl!” Kate high-fives Lila, making me chuckle, then turns her sights on me. “And listen up, buddy. If you hurt her, I don’t care if you really are a cop, I’ll make your life hell. Okay?” “Okay.” I nod soberly, glad that Lila has such fiercely loyal friends in her life. And I barely know her. “I hope that’s okay,” Lila says and turns to me with an embarrassed smile. “More than okay.” I can’t help it. I have to touch her. I tuck her hair behind her ear with my fingertip and then drag it down her jawline. “But I don’t think I want to take you home and end the evening.” “I don’t either,” she whispers, her eyes fixed on my lips. She licks hers, and just like that I’m hard as fuck. “And that’s very unlike me.” “Oh?” She nods soberly. “I don’t do this sort of thing.” “What sort of thing would this be?” I lean into her, enjoying the smell of her, the way her eyes dilate as I get closer. “Pick up strange men.” “Well, I’m not exactly a stranger. I mean, you’ve already been in my lap, after all.” I smile down at her, enjoying the way her cheeks redden at the memory of her falling into my lap on the plane yesterday. “You didn’t seem to mind.” Oh, trust me sweetheart, I didn’t mind at all. “Would it be okay if I took you back to my hotel? It’s a couple blocks away.” “You’re bold,” she says with a flirty grin. “And I think I’d like that.” I stand, take her hand, and pull her to her feet, then lead her out of the bar and onto the busy street. She’s in mile-high heels, which are going to look fantastic over my shoulders, but are not appropriate for walking around New Orleans. When she stumbles about a block away from the hotel, I simply lift her in my arms and carry her the rest of the way. “You’re strong.” She loops her arms around my neck and presses her nose to my cheek. “And you smell good.” “And if you keep running your fingers through my hair like that, I’m going to fuck you right here, against the side of the hotel,” I inform her, my voice completely calm but clear. She simply laughs and kisses my cheek. “I’m sure we wouldn’t be the first people to fuck against the side of this hotel. This is New Orleans.” She smirks as I set her on her feet by the elevator. “True enough.”

When the elevators arrive, she saunters in, leans her back against the far wall, and crooks her finger at me, inviting me to join her. And who the fuck can resist that? “You’re sexy,” I murmur and kiss her forehead. She plants her hands on my sides, gripping my shirt in her small fists. God, she’s the sexiest thing I’ve seen in a very long time, and not only is coming here with me out of character for her, it’s completely new to me too. I don’t do one-night stands. Fuck, I don’t date much. Having a young daughter will do that to you. “So are you.” The elevator arrives on my floor. I escort her calmly to my room, open the door and motion for her to lead me inside. And as soon as the door closes, I grip her shoulders in my hands and spin her, pinning her back against the door with my body. I plant my hands on either side of her head and lean in, not kissing her. Not yet. Her eyes are wide, staring at my lips again, pulse thrumming, panting. She’s so fucking sexy I can hardly breathe. “I want to fuck you, Lila.” “Oh good.” She swallows. “We’re on the same page. I want to fuck you too.” “No, sweetheart.” I grin and lower my face beside hers. I’m not touching her, but I can feel her. Our skin is almost touching, and I know I’m making her crazy. I’m making me fucking crazy. “I’m going to fuck you.” I drag my nose along her earlobe and grin when she shivers. “But first, I think we could use something to cool us off.” “Cool us off?” she whispers. Without touching her, I back away, take her hand and walk to the small wet bar in my room, open a bottle of Patrón that one of the guys at the precinct gave me, slice a lime and reach for the salt shaker sitting on my room service tray from lunch, relieved that I forgot to set it in the hallway on my way out this afternoon. “Have you ever done body shots?” I ask her. She’s watching me closely, her hip leaning against the counter, arms crossed over her chest. “No.” She shakes her head and bites her lip. “Wanna do them with me?” “Yes.” “I’ll go first.” I pull her to me, her stomach against my pelvis, and push her hair over her shoulder. “Tip your head back, please.” She complies, and I lick a short path down the side of her neck, making her breath

catch. God, she’s so damn responsive. I shake a little salt on the wet spot, then lick it clean, take the shot, and suck on the lime. Her eyes never leave me. I love that she’s not shy. “My turn,” she says as she unbuttons my shirt and pushes it aside. She stands on her tiptoes and licks right under my collarbone, as that’s as high as she can reach, then repeats the process, making me even harder at the feel of her sweet lips and tongue on my skin. When she’s done, I turn her around and lick down the back of her neck, her shoulder, and pull the strap of her dress down her arm, drag my fingertips over her skin, making her shiver again. After I take the shot, she holds the lime up to my lips, offering it over her shoulder. This is fucking sexy as hell. One more. One more for her then I’m getting her naked. I can’t stand it. She motions for me to lean back on the counter, giving her access to my stomach, and proceeds to drive me out of my fucking mind with that sweet mouth of hers. When she takes the lime from my fingers, I lean in and pull it out of her mouth with my teeth and spit it in the nearby sink, then take her face in my hands and lower my mouth to hers, finally kissing her the way I’ve been needing to. She tastes like lime and tequila and pure heaven, and the next thing I know, we’re stripping out of our clothes, leaving a trail to the bed. I lay her on her back. She’s only wearing a scrap of black underwear. And a come-hither smile that would tempt any saint. Rather than covering her body with mine, I drag my hands down her torso, from her shoulders, over her breasts, her ribs, and hips. And I grip onto her panties with my teeth and pull them down her legs, then toss them over my shoulder and spread her legs wide. “Fuck, Lila. You are gorgeous.” “You’re not so bad yourself,” she says breathlessly. “Can I touch you now? You’re really far away.” “Not yet.” “But I’m tingly.” I smile up at her. “Tingly?” “Mmm,” she nods and closes her eyes as my fingertips glide up and down her inner thighs. “Your lips on my neck made me all tingly.” “Did the tequila help?” I ask dryly. “Didn’t need the tequila.” She gasps as my fingertip finds her pink lips. She’s shaved clean and wet as fuck. “I’m going to tease you a bit,” I murmur and push my finger inside her, then pull it out and push it through her folds, up to her clit and back down again, making a circle over and over. Her hands grip the sheets at her hips and the muscles in her thighs tighten.

“Asher,” she groans. “Seriously.” “Seriously what?” God, she is wet. And tight. And she’s going to feel like heaven when I finally slide inside her. “Seriously, fuck me!” I don’t need any further invitation. I lean in and latch on to her clit, pulling it into my mouth and sucking hard as I fuck her with my fingers. She jackknifes up, coming amazingly, crying out. Her hands latch onto my hair as she grinds her pussy against my mouth, riding out her orgasm. Finally, she lets go, and I travel up her amazing body, leaving wet kisses on her torso, her nipples, her neck. I scoot her further up the bed and reach for a condom, quickly cover myself and kiss her hard as the head of my cock rests at her opening. She raises her legs, hitching them around my hips, but I pull them even higher, brace them on my shoulders, and push inside her, all the way. “Oh. My. God.” Her eyes close. Her hands grip onto my arms. “Open your eyes,” I command her and begin to move, slowly at first, as she watches me, her eyes glassy, not from the alcohol now, but from pure, unadulterated lust. My hips pick up speed. My pelvic bone hits her clit with every thrust, and I have to brace myself on the headboard for leverage. She reaches down and presses her fingertips to her clit, making me almost fucking lose it. There is nothing hotter than watching a woman touch herself. Unless you’re fucking her while she touches herself. She clenches around me, hard, bites her lip, and I know she’s about to come. Jesus, I’m going to come with her. “Harder,” she whispers, and I gladly comply, pushing and pulling faster, a bit harder, and suddenly, the bed… falls. Our gazes collide, but I don’t stop. A fucking tsunami couldn’t stop me now. I simply shift so we don’t fall, holding her in place with my free arm. “Oh my God,” she whispers. “Gonna come.” “That’s right, Lila. Come for me,” I croon to her, on the edge myself. “Come with me.” She comes apart, squeezing me so tight I have no choice but to follow her right over the edge. I collapse on top of her, panting, sweating, and already thinking about round two when she starts to giggle beneath me. “We broke the bed,” she says and pushes her fingers into the hair at the back of my neck. I grin and press my lips to her cheek. “We did.”

She starts to laugh in earnest now. “We seriously broke the bed.” I push away from her and brush a piece of hair off her cheek. “Looks like it.” “Right on.” She holds her fist up and I bump it with mine. “Good job.” I smirk and roll us onto the floor, dragging the blankets with us. “Let’s try for amazing job.”

Chapter One ~Lila~ “Do you have a minute, Lila?” I glance up from the essay on Harriet Tubman that has me riveted. The student who wrote this paper did her research and clearly loves the topic. Standing in the doorway of my office is the dean of my department at Tulane University, Rick Wilson. “Of course.” I smile politely and gesture to the chair across from me. “Have a seat.” Rick, who is usually a happy, cheerful man, is sober today as he lowers into the chair. He leans forward and takes a deep breath, and I’m afraid I already know what he’s going to say. Don’t say it. “I don’t think there’s an easy way to tell you this, Lila.” I shake my head and close my eyes. “Who is it?” He sighs, and I open my eyes to find him rubbing his mouth with his fingers in agitation. “Leslie Fisher.” My heart sinks as I think of the sweet, blonde girl in my Women’s History class. “What happened to her?” “The same as the other two.” He sighs again and stares at me with sad eyes. “She was raped and beaten, left for dead.” My head whips up. “She’s not dead?” “She wasn’t when they found her. She was taken to the hospital, but I don’t have an update.” He didn’t kill her! “Maybe she’ll be able to tell the police who did this.” Tears fill my eyes at the horror that my student must have gone through. “Three in one month, Rick.” “I want to know what in the hell is happening on my campus,” he mutters in frustration. “That’s what we would like to know as well.” Our heads whip up at the sound of a woman’s voice in my doorway. She’s petite, with her blonde hair in a ponytail, dressed in jeans and a simple gray T-shirt. Her eyes are hard, mouth grim. And standing right behind her is…Asher. “Can I help you?” How are the words even coming out of my mouth? How is Asher at my office? How did he find me here?

“I’m Detective Jordan,” the woman replies as she and Asher step into my office. “And this is—” “Asher,” he says, interrupting her, earning a look of surprise from his partner. “My lieutenant,” she adds. “We would like to ask you a few questions, Ms. Bailey.” I frown, still watching Asher, whose dark eyes haven’t left my face. “I’m happy to answer any questions you have. Can you tell me how Leslie is?” “No,” Asher answers, his eyes narrowing just a bit. “Mr. Wilson, may we speak with Ms. Bailey alone, please?” “Are you okay?” Rick asks me softly. “Of course.” I nod and smile reassuringly while my insides quake. No, I’m not okay! The man I had the most incredible one-night stand with in my life just walked through my door! “If you’ll be in your office, we will stop in and speak with you when we’re done here,” Asher says. “No problem.” Rick turns back to me. “Call me if you need me.” Asher shuts the door behind Rick and takes a seat across from me while Jordan paces behind him. “Obviously you know that young women are being murdered on campus,” Jordan says. “Yes.” He’s looking at me like I’m a stranger. Maybe he doesn’t remember me. I mean, it was only one night. One fantastic, incredible night, but still. And we’d been drinking. And why am I obsessing over this when young women are being killed at the university where I work? What kind of a horrible person am I? “They’re all students in your US Women’s History class.” Asher leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “And in your weekly study group.” “Yes, they were students who were in the study group. We meet twice a week.” “Do you lead the study group personally, or do you assign an aid to do it?” Jordan asks. “I lead it,” I reply. “Why?” she asks. “I like working with the students. I like to be able to help them.” I shrug as I think about my group of lively, funny students, and my heart hurts all over again. “Is there any news on Leslie?” “We can’t tell you that,” Jordan replies softly. “I’m sorry. I know it must be hard.” “Do you know your students well?” Asher asks. “Not all of them.” I tap my finger on the desk. “But I do get to know the ones in the

study group fairly well because it’s such a small group. They’re good kids.” “Kids who are failing your class,” Asher adds. “Not all of them.” I frown. “Some of them just need the extra help. And just because they struggle doesn’t mean they deserve what’s happening to them.” “Of course not,” Jordan agrees. “What do you know about what’s happening, Lila?” “I’ve seen the news reports, of course, and heard rumors.” “Okay, what do you think you know?” “That the girls have been raped and beaten to death, in the evening, after study group.” I swallow hard and fight to keep tears at bay. “I wish I knew if Leslie was okay.” “She’s not,” Asher replies abruptly. “I’m sorry. She passed away during the night.” “Oh.” Now I can’t stop the tears. “Oh, she was just a kid.” “They’re all kids,” Jordan says and walks around the desk to pat my shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss.” “Lila,” Asher says, leaning forward again. “I need you to think back over the past few months and try to remember if you’ve seen or heard anything unusual. A person or people hanging around after your study group that shouldn’t be there. Have the students mentioned anything?” I’m shaking my head no as I try to think back. “There’s been nothing suspicious,” I reply. “We meet in the library, so there are always different people coming and going, but I haven’t noticed anything off.” “We’d like for you to cancel the study group for the rest of the semester,” Jordan says. “No way,” I reply immediately. “These kids need the help. Without it, they could fail, and I don’t want that for them.” They’re such good kids. Beautiful, smart, with their whole lives ahead of them. They deserve everything wonderful in the world. They should be dating and eating pizza and stressing over finals. They shouldn’t be lying in the damn morgue. “People are being killed,” Asher says, looking at me like I’m being stupid. “Canceling the group makes sense.” “We don’t know for sure that he’s targeting the kids in my group,” I insist. I can hear the ridiculousness in my own ears. “Do we?” “No,” Jordan replies. “We don’t have evidence of that.” “Well then, unless you do, I’m not canceling.” I hold Asher’s narrowed gaze with my own. “You can’t make me.” “Oh, yes. I can.” He sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “But I won’t. For now. But come on, Lila. Be reasonable. Change the time or the place of the group.”

I sigh in relief as he pulls a card out of his pocket and passes it to me. “Okay,” I concede. “I’ll change the days of the week that we meet. And I’ll make sure they come and go in groups.” Asher nods. “I’ll be in touch. But I want you to call if anything trips a red flag. I’m serious, Lila. Anything.” “I will,” I promise. “You look good,” Asher says softly and offers me half a smile. I raise a brow in surprise. “I didn’t think you recognized me.” “Of course I did.” “You know each other?” Jordan asks with a jolt. “It’s been about a year,” I reply. “Nine months,” Asher corrects me. “You’ve only lived here for six,” Jordan says to Asher, who just shrugs. He moved to New Orleans? “I’d like a list of everyone in your group,” Asher says, ignoring Jordan. “It changes a lot, depending on who needs help and when. But I can get you a list of the regulars.” “Good.” He stands and follows Jordan to the door, then turns back and smiles at me. “It’s good to see you, Lila.” I nod, but before I can answer, he’s gone. I immediately reach for my phone and call my best friend, Kate. “If you’re canceling lunch today, I will punch you in the neck the next time I see you.” “You know, hanging out with all those Boudreaux boys has made you really violent.” I smile as I lean back in my chair, thinking of my best friend and her new family. Kate hit the mother lode when she found her Eli and his family. “And I’m not canceling, I just needed to tell you something and it won’t wait for lunch.” “Okay. Shoot.” “First of all, there’s been another murder, Kate. Another girl from my class.” “Oh no. Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” At the sound of my friend’s voice, I’m sad all over again. I didn’t know Leslie well, but she was a happy, sweet girl. “Me too.” “What else is going on?” “Asher just left my office.” Silence.

“Kate?” “Asher, of the hottest sex in the history of the world, Asher?” You have no fucking idea, sister. “Yes, that Asher.” “How did he find you?” “He’s the lieutenant assigned to the case. He was here to ask me questions.” “I didn’t think he lived here.” I can hear the frown in her voice, and the sound of her pen slapping against her desk. “It seems he moved here about six months ago.” “Please, for the love of God, tell me you got his number.” I grin. “He gave me his card, yes.” Kate squeals on the other end of the phone, making me laugh. “Right on!” Not that I’ll ever get the guts up to call him. Unless I get drunk again. Maybe I should drink more often. “It was weird. At first I didn’t think he recognized me, but then toward the end he said it was good to see me.” “I like him.” “You don’t know him,” I reply and roll my eyes. “He’s hot. Sorry, babe,” she says to Eli, who must be in the room with her, “and he has a good job. You could do worse.” “Gee, thanks.” I chuckle and glance at the time. “Okay, I’ll see you at lunch.” “Oh, I can’t.” “What? Throat punch, Kate.” “I was actually going to cancel. I’m sorry. I had a meeting come up.” “And by meeting do you mean hot office sex with your ridiculously sexy billionaire boyfriend?” I ask dryly and try like mad to shove away the jealousy that spears through me. But, come on, Eli is hot. And rich. And so in love with Kate it’s disgusting. “Well, there could be some of that, yes,” Kate confirms with a laugh. “You’re ditching me for sex. What ever happened to sisters before misters?” “Do you need me?” she asks soberly. “Because I can cancel the office sex, I mean, meeting, and still meet you.” “No.” I laugh, so happy that I live close to my best friend again. “I’m okay. A little

sad, but okay.” “Let’s reschedule for beignets tomorrow morning,” she suggests. “Will you get out of bed early enough for that, or will Eli talk you into a meeting then too?” “Well, I can’t make any promises,” she replies with a smile in her voice. “You’re disgusting. Enjoy your meeting. I’ll see you in the morning.” I hang up, and suddenly all of the events from that night nine months ago come flooding back and I have to bite my lip and cross my legs at the sudden burst of pure lust that shoots through me, even making my fingertips tingle. That one night with Asher was better than all of the other nights I’ve had with other men combined. The man knows his way around a woman’s body. And he lives in New Orleans now.

Chapter Two ~Asher~ “So, that was interesting,” Jordan says as we jog down the steps of Lila’s building on the Tulane University campus toward the parking lot. “We didn’t really find out anything we don’t already know,” I reply, deliberately misunderstanding her. “Right. That’s what I meant.” She rolls her eyes, making my lips twitch. “For someone who’s supposed to play the bad cop, you were sucking at it. And that’s not like you. You play bad cop really well.” I’m not about to tell her that it took everything in me to not stalk around that desk and pull Lila into my arms and kiss the fuck out of her. Or that all I could think about while looking at her was the way she moved beneath me, the sounds she made, the way she smelled while I was deep inside her, losing my ever-loving mind. Seeing her again was a punch in the gut. I’m surprised I was able to speak at all. And now that I know that my Lila is this maniac’s focus, all I can think about is tucking her away and making sure she’s safe. There’s no way in hell I’m telling my partner that. I’ll never live it down. “I didn’t need to play bad cop,” I reply and slip my Ray-Bans on my face. “She’s not a suspect.” “Not right now.” I glance down at Jordan then shake my head as we climb in my car. “And what was up with you telling her about Leslie dying?” “It’ll be all over the news in about twenty minutes,” I reply softly. “There’s no reason to not tell her.” “I’m surprised you didn’t tell her about the notes left on the scene too.” I scowl and throw the car out of gear before pulling out of the parking space and turning to Jordan. “Do you have something to say?” She sighs and shakes her head. “God, I sound like a jealous girlfriend. It’s just that the sexual tension in that room was off the charts, Ash. I’ve never seen you like that.” “We’ve been partners for six months, not years. There’s plenty you haven’t seen.” She nods and then grins at me. “Whatever happened between you two must have been off the hook.” You have no fucking idea. “Does your husband know that you have such a raging crush on me?” I put the car

back in gear and pull out of the parking lot. “Whatever. Don’t flatter yourself. I have a hot man at home.” “If you say so.” I turn toward the precinct and toss her a glance. “Are you saying my husband isn’t hot?” she asks as though she’s offended. “I’m a dude. I’ll never say that another dude is hot.” “Well, I’m a woman, and I’m telling you he is.” “Right.” I laugh and shake my head. “Back to Lila.” “Yes, back to Lila.” She clears her throat, and I can tell she wants to ask questions, but instead, she just clears her throat again. “I guess you’ll be stuck to her like glue.” “In light of those notes left on the scenes, yes.” Rage fills me at the thought of anyone wanting to hurt Lila. And with the rage is a new emotion now that I know she’s the same sweet woman that I spent one unforgettable night with last summer: Fear. “We don’t know for sure that the threats are pointed at her,” Jordan says reasonably. “Her name isn’t mentioned. He could mean another teacher.” I shake my head, hoping she’s right, but knowing in my gut that she’s not. “I don’t think so. Each of the victims is from her study group. If they were just in one of her classes, I could agree that it might be a crazy coincidence. But this is too focused. All three were studying in that group minutes before they were attacked. And all three of the notes are angry. Very angry. He’s making her pay for something.” “I agree,” she says with a sigh. “I’ve seen murders before, Asher. This is New Orleans, after all. But I’ve never seen anything quite this…evil.” I nod. “Have you?” she asks. I nod again, slowly. “Once.” “In Seattle?” “Yes. We had a serial killer there about four years ago.” And the motherfucker destroyed my life. “He killed eight women before we caught him.” “What’s up with the serial killers in Seattle? Is it all the rain that sends people over the edge?” She bites her thumbnail and looks out the passenger window. “There are no more killers in Seattle than other parts of the country.” “Hello. Green River Killer. He killed, like, eight hundred women. That counts for a lot.” “Good point,” I mutter and think back on the man four years ago who made the Green River Killer look like a Boy Scout troop leader. There is no way in hell that anything like that will touch Lila. “So, you’re going to look out for Lila,” Jordan says, mirroring my thoughts.

“Yes. I’m going to stick close to her. This fucker isn’t going to touch her.” I glance over to find Jordan watching me thoughtfully. “How well do you know Lila, Asher?” “Not well,” I reply truthfully. “You seem pretty passionate about keeping her safe for someone who doesn’t know her well.” I shrug a shoulder as we get stopped in traffic. “It’s my job to keep her safe.” “Right.” She nods once and is smart enough to not say any more. Lila. I cursed myself as an idiot for months after our night together for not getting her number, or at least her last name. I wanted to call her, to see her again, but she told me she lived in Denver, and God knows that trying to maintain a long distance relationship is next to impossible. But she lives here. Yes, I’ll be sticking very close to Lila, and not just because it’s my job. From the minute she fell into my lap on that airplane, my hands have itched to touch her. Running into her again in that bar was the best stroke of luck I’ve ever had, and that night with her was off the fucking charts. I can’t resist her. For the first time in years, I don’t want to resist her. I simply want her. * * * * “Daddy! My purple shirt is dirty!” I swear ripely as the toast pops up in the toaster, burnt to a damn crisp, and lean on the countertop, my head down, praying for patience. “You wore the purple shirt yesterday,” I remind her as she bounces into the kitchen of our small townhouse and wrinkles her adorable little freckle-covered nose. “You burned it again.” “I know.” “I like the purple shirt.” “You can’t wear it every day.” I kiss the top of her head and toss the black bread into the garbage, ready to start over. “Aren’t you going to be late for school?” “No, it’s Thursday.” She rolls her eyes, looking suddenly much older than her ten years, making me smile. “It’s late start day at school.” “Your favorite day of the week.” I pick her up off her feet and set her on the

countertop where I can look her in her gorgeous green eyes. Eyes the same color as her mother’s. “How are you, bubba?” “Good.” She giggles and holds her fist up for a fist-bump, which she seems to suddenly think is the funnest thing ever. Especially the explosion part. “I need my purple shirt.” She sticks her lower lip out and bats her eyelashes at me. Damn it, she’s adorable. “That doesn’t work on me,” I lie. “Please?” She grips my cheeks in her small hands and pulls my face to hers, leaning her forehead against mine playfully. “I love you, Daddy.” She’s staring me in the eyes. “I love you too.” My lips twitch, and I want to laugh, but I’m very proud of myself for standing firm. “May I please wear my purple shirt?” “No.” “But Masie will be wearing purple, and I promised that I would wear purple too, and that’s the only purple shirt I have!” God, give me patience. “Enough.” I kiss her forehead and lift her onto her feet. “Find another shirt. Masie will not die of disappointment.” “No, but I might,” she says with a scowl. “Hello?” Franny calls out as she lets herself in the front door. “Sorry I’m running late. This morning sickness is ridiculous.” I smile at the pretty blonde woman my brother had the sense to marry and kiss her on the cheek. “You’re fine. It’s late start today, and I don’t have to be to work for a while yet. In fact, if you have things handled here, I’ll go for a run.” “Daddy won’t let me wear my purple shirt,” Casey says, ratting me out to her aunt. “You wore it yesterday,” Franny says, making me smile and Casey deflate in defeat. “Besides, he’s the boss. What he says goes.” “When do I get to be the boss?” Casey asks, folding her arms over her chest. “When you grow up and start paying your own bills,” I reply. “So, you okay here?” “Maybe.” Fran leans on the countertop and crosses her arms, studying me with pure calculation on her pretty features. “Okay.” “Does this run take you past Café du Monde?” “It can.”

“Beignets!” Casey exclaims and claps, bouncing on her feet, the purple shirt clearly forgotten. “Can we have some? Please?” “Maybe,” I reply with a laugh, but when I turn to walk away, Fran grips my arm in her small but surprisingly strong grasp. “You don’t understand. I’m pregnant, and this baby wants beignets. Today.” She points to her still flat belly, mutiny in her eyes. “Do we understand each other, Smith?” “You just assaulted an officer.” “I’m married to an officer. You don’t scare me.” “Beignets!” Casey shouts and high-fives Fran. “Well, I’d be a stupid man to try to come between a pregnant woman and food.” “And you’re not stupid, my friend,” she replies with a satisfied smile. “Plus, you’ll be the baby’s favorite uncle.” “I’m already the favorite uncle.” “Bring those beignets, and yes, you are.” I laugh as I jog upstairs to my bedroom, quickly change into a tank and shorts, lace my shoes, plug my earphones in my ears and set out. The French Quarter is a few miles from our townhouse, which is the perfect distance for a run. Fall Out Boy blasts in my ears as my feet pound on the concrete. The sidewalks are uneven, making me watch my step carefully. It’s a gorgeous early spring day, warm and sunny. The sunlight filters through the leaves of the massive oak trees that line the boulevards. This city is not only rich in history, but it’s just plain beautiful. Moving here last fall was the best thing for both Casey and myself. She made friends quickly in school, and with Fran and Mike so close by, I never have to worry about who is going to help out with her. And with a promotion from detective to lieutenant, I can’t complain a bit about my job. I enjoy the work here more than I ever have. The music in my ears stops as my phone begins to ring. Without breaking my stride, I answer while pulling my tank off and tucking it into my shorts at my waist, letting it hang over my hip. “Smith.” “Do not tell me you’re having sex,” Matt, my former partner from Seattle, says. “I’m running, asshole.” I grin as I cross Canal Street, over the tracks, into the French Quarter. “What’s up with you?” “I’m just checking on you. How are things in the Big Easy?” “Busy.” “It’s kind of weird to have you breathing heavy in my ear,” Matt complains, his voice

completely serious, but I can just imagine him grinning. “We used to run together all the time.” “Yeah, but the heavy breathing wasn’t in my ear.” “How’s the family?” I ask. “How’s Nic?” “She’s gorgeous.” “I know that,” I reply. “I’m glad she finally made an honest man of you.” He chuckles. “We might come down there, spend a few days in a couple weeks.” “Look, man, I’m sorry I missed the wedding.” I grimace. “If this fucker hadn’t started killing these girls right before—” “I get it. It’s fine.” And I know he means it, but regret hangs heavily in my gut. I love Matt, as if he was my own brother, and Casey and I both adore Nic, his new wife, as well. I was looking forward to their wedding. But, duty called. Duty always calls. “So, what brings you to New Orleans?” “Neither of us has ever been. I want to get away for a few days and we don’t have time to go out of the country. With her bakery, and the force, we can’t take that much time off of work.” “Will she bring some cupcakes with her?” I ask with a smile. God, that woman can bake. “Casey would love it.” “Don’t bullshit me. You would love it.” “Tomato/tom-ah-to,” I reply. “I’ll mention it to her. What dates work?” “Nothing works. I’ll make it work, though. I’m in the middle of a serial case. Maybe I can bounce some ideas off you.” “The Tulane University case?” he asks with surprise. “You’ve heard of it?” “A serial killer makes the national news, partner.” I grin at the nickname. “Don’t worry about us. Just make time for dinner. We can show ourselves around.” “I’ll make time,” I reply as I approach the green and white awning of Café du Monde. Sitting at a table at the edge of the seating area is a pretty redhead and gorgeous brunette, and I smile widely as I slow down to a walk. “I have to go, partner. Just e-mail me the details. Looking forward to seeing you.” “Me too. See you soon.” I end the call and approach the wrought iron railing that the girls are sitting next to, their heads together, talking and nibbling on beignets.

Lila licks her lips and my dick immediately stirs to life. I want to feel that tongue on me. “Good morning, ladies.” They both look up in surprise. Kate smiles, and Lila’s mouth drops open as her eyes roam up and down my naked torso, making me chuckle. She likes what she sees. Which is damn convenient because she’s about to see a lot of me.

Chapter Three ~Lila~ “These should be illegal,” Kate says and takes a bite of her piping-hot, powdered sugar-covered nugget of deliciousness. I simply nod in agreement because my mouth is too full of my own nugget of deliciousness to speak. When I finally swallow and take a drink of my coffee, I lick my lips and smile at my friend. “Thanks for tearing yourself away from sexy Eli to have breakfast with me.” “I don’t have to be with him 24/7,” she says with a roll of the eyes. “Besides, he had to leave early for a morning meeting.” “So things are still going well?” I ask before taking another bite. “Yep,” she replies. “We have our moments when we want to strangle each other, which I assume is normal when you live with someone¸ but then we just have crazy awesome sex and all is better.” I laugh. “Well, here’s to crazy hot sex.” I salute her and take a sip of coffee. “Not that I remember.” “That’s your own fault,” Kate says. “You could so get laid.” “I’m not exactly the one-night stand type, and I don’t have time to date.” “Bullshit and bullshit.” “Excuse me?” “You had a one-night stand with Asher, and you do have time to date, you just choose not to.” “My job takes up a lot of my time,” I insist and glance over at a man as he starts to play his saxophone not too far away. “And I don’t usually do the one-night stand thing. I’m way too responsible for that.” “Everyone’s job takes up a lot of time,” Kate says and waves me off as if I’m being ridiculous. “It’s all about priorities. If seeing someone is important, you’ll make room for him.” She tosses me her sly Cheshire cat grin and pulls another beignet apart before popping part of it in her mouth. “And now that Asher is back, you can make room for him.” “I knew you were going to start with this.” “What’s wrong with Asher?” “Nothing.” Not even one thing. I stop talking and can’t help the smile that slips on my lips. “God, nothing is wrong with him. You saw him.” “I rest my case.” “But just because we had one hot night together doesn’t mean I should start dating him. I don’t even know that he’s still single.” And if he’s taken, he should be ashamed of

himself for the way he looked at me yesterday. “We don’t know that he’s not,” she reminds me. “God, you’re cynical when it comes to men.” “Hello, pot.” “I’m not cynical. I had reasons for my trust issues.” I cover Kate’s hand with mine, already sorry for my remark. “I know. And I have my reasons for being cynical.” “A deadbeat dad and an absent mom are not the best reasons to be cynical.” I bust out laughing at the ridiculousness of that statement. “I think those are two very good reasons, actually.” “You aren’t your parents.” “You’re right. I’m not an alcoholic pothead or an irresponsible woman without a maternal bone in her body.” “No, you’re neither of those things. You’re so much better than that.” She takes another bite. “Look, you can’t stay celibate your whole life.” I frown at that thought. “It’s been so long since I had sex, I don’t even know if my vagina still works,” I admit in a whisper, making Kate laugh. “Trust me, it works.” “How do you know?” She simply continues to laugh. “Good morning, ladies.” Our heads both whip up at the deep, sexy voice, and I’m suddenly staring at a very sweaty, very half-naked, Asher. Oh Jesus. “Good morning,” Kate says beside me, but I’m not paying attention to the words they’re saying. My mouth goes dry at the sight of Asher’s naked torso. He’s wearing running shorts, with his shirt tucked into the waist at his hip. He has earbuds in his ears, leading to his phone in his pocket. He’s panting from his run, and sweat is running down his forehead, his cheek. His fucking amazing chest. One drop of sweat slowly makes its way down his sternum to his chiseled abs, and it takes everything in me to not lean over and lick it off. Down, girl. “Lila?” “What?”

Asher’s eyes are laughing as he props his hands on his hips, watching me. “How are you?” “Oh, I’m fine.” Kate snickers beside me, earning a kick to the shin from me. “You look amazing,” he replies and offers me that half-smile. The one that promises all kinds of amazing naughtiness and has kept me up many a night over the past nine months. “Thank you,” I murmur. Why am I so shy with him now? That night at the bar, I was confident. I knew exactly what I wanted, and that was him. I wasn’t shy. I didn’t hesitate. And now I feel tongue-tied and hot. Probably because now I know what he’s capable of. “I’m coming to your study group tonight,” he says as he pops the earbuds out of his ears. “Why?” I ask with surprise. “I’m going to escort you home.” “Oh, that’s so nice,” Kate says with a dreamy sigh, and I roll my eyes at her. “That’s not necessary,” I reply. “I’ll be fine.” “In case you missed it, there’s a killer out there, Lila,” Asher says, his handsome face perfectly serious now. His jaw is square and strong, and covered in just a little black stubble. His hair is a complete sweaty mess. He’s half naked. He’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, and yet just those few words out of his mouth have my blood running cold. “I’ll be there,” he repeats before I can say anything. He smiles again and winks at Kate, then pins me in his hot stare once more. “I need to get some beignets home to Casey.” “Who’s Casey?” Kate asks before I can. “My daughter.” He backs away, watching me, and I’m struck dumb. “I’ll see you tonight.” And with that, he saunters away. “He has a daughter,” I say when he’s out of earshot. “Sounds like it,” Kate replies with a nod. “Holy fuck,” I whisper, suddenly mortified. “He’s married!” “We don’t know that,” Kate says with a frown. “Hello? He has a daughter.” “So he said.” “I had sex with a married man.” I swallow, mortified. “I’m a home wrecker.” “Okay, stop.” Kate waves her hands in front of her, getting my attention. “He said he

was taking beignets home to Casey. Not his family, or his wife, or to them. Just to her.” “Maybe he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.” “Lila.” Kate pushes her fingers on her eyebrows, as if I’m giving her a headache. “He could be divorced. Widowed. Maybe he never married the mother. Maybe she left as soon as the baby was born.” “Oh God.” I frown and immediately feel sorry for the little girl. I can see her in my head, a sweet brunette girl who looks just like her daddy, crying and pining for her mother who abandoned her as a baby. “Wait. I’m getting very dramatic here.” “Yes.” Kate nods. “Stop it. He’s probably divorced.” “Right.” “And he’s clearly still interested in you,” she adds and sips the last of her coffee. I shrug one shoulder, as if it doesn’t matter. “He has a kid.” “So?” “I don’t do kids,” I remind her. “I don’t want kids, and I certainly don’t get involved with men with kids.” Because as much as that little voice in the back of my head tells me that having a child of my own would be the most amazing thing in the world, I just can’t take the chance that I would be as big a failure as my own parents were. “Get over yourself,” Kate says as she rolls her eyes. “Stop focusing on what you won’t do. Because maybe you will.” Right. “Maybe not.” “Such a Debbie Downer. Nobody wants to fuck a Debbie Downer.” “I’m just being realistic. I’m responsible, remember?” “You’re kind of a pain in the ass. He’s nice. He’s hot. Maybe you can just do the friends with benefits thing. No harm, no foul.” “Oh. You could be onto something.” Kate smiles smugly. “I’m a smart one.” * * * * He’s been wandering through the library for the past thirty minutes, waiting for me to finish with my group, and making it very hard to focus on my students. And that kind of pisses me off. If these kids are taking the time to be here, I need to be here.

“Okay guys, you’re doing great,” I say as they begin to filter out of the small study room that I have on reserve for us twice a week. “I’ll see you in class on Monday. And remember what I said! Be safe out there.” “I so appreciate your help, Lila,” Colin says. This is the second semester in a row that he’s had to take this class. I hated having to fail him last semester, and I’m so happy that he’s doing better now. He’s a good kid. Friendly with the other students, happy-go-lucky. He’s small in stature, with a shaved head, smiling eyes, and always quick to make a joke. We all enjoy him. “You’re welcome,” I reply with a smile. “You’re doing so much better, Colin.” “Well, as much as I like you, I’d rather not take the same class again.” “I understand.” “Thanks Lila.” Cheyenne, a pretty girl with short, bleach blonde hair says as she walks out. “See you Monday.” “Travel in groups! It’s dangerous out there!” “I’ll walk her to her car,” Colin offers with a wink and drapes his arm around Cheyenne’s shoulders. “You’re safe with me, cupcake.” The students are all gone as I close my computer and put it in my bag, along with a pen and the scarf I had on earlier but had to take off when it got too warm. I flip off the light and close the door behind me as Asher approaches from across the library. God, the way he moves should come with a warning label. Warning: May cause brain loss during movement. He moves effortlessly, as though he’s completely comfortable in his own skin. And he should be. His skin is pretty damn impressive. His dark hair is messy, as usual, as though he’s been shoving his fingers through it. He shaved the stubble off his chin, probably when he showered after his run. He’s dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, and I want to rip them off of him. Right here, right now. What the hell is up with my hormones? He has a daughter! And probably a wife. “Hey,” he says with a smile. “You really don’t have to walk me home,” I reply. “It’s not far.” “It’s not here in the library, is it?” I smirk. “Of course not.” “Then I need to walk you home,” he replies and places his hand on the small of my

back as he leads me out of the library. He takes my computer bag from me and carries it for me. And if he wasn’t married, that might be the swooniest thing I’ve ever seen. “It’s nice tonight,” I comment as we walk across campus and into the nearby neighborhood where my apartment is. “It’s warming up.” “It is,” he agrees. “Summer will be here before we know it.” “This is me.” I gesture to my building and take my bag from him. “I’ll be fine from here.” “I’d like to walk you in,” he replies seriously. I glance up to see his mouth firm. “Why?” “I want to make sure your place is empty.” I roll my eyes. “Look, I understand that young girls are being killed, and it’s heartbreaking and horrific, but I hardly think that the killer is waiting for me in my apartment.” “Lila.” He stops me on the sidewalk and takes my shoulders in his hands, his hot gaze on mine. “There are things happening with this investigation that I can’t tell you about. I need you to trust me. I need you to cooperate with me.” “Okay.” I back out of his touch, making him frown. “But your wife might have an issue with you coming into my apartment. Especially after last summer.” I turn to walk ahead of him, but he pulls me to a stop again, and this time he looks… angry. And maybe a little confused. “I’m not married.” I blink, but before I can speak, he continues. “Did you think that because I mentioned Casey this morning that I’m married?” I shrug. “I’m a single dad.” And with that he turns and walks ahead of me. “I’m sorry.” “It’s fine.” But then he stops again and scowls at me. “No, it’s not fine. Do you seriously think that I’d fuck you the way I did last summer if I were married?” “I don’t know you.” I’m surprisingly calm now that I know that he’s not married. “It’s not like we’ve actually had conversations about ourselves.” “Well, let me make myself perfectly clear; I’m not a cheater. Casey’s mom is gone. I’m not married. I don’t have a girlfriend.” “Okay.” I nod as he steps a little closer. He drags his fingertips down my cheek, but doesn’t kiss me. He’s really good at the sexy, get really close and make me want it thing.

And he’s single. Thank God. “Let’s get you inside,” he whispers and kisses my forehead, sending electricity from my head to my feet, then takes my hand and leads me to my door. “Stay here.” “Asher—” “Stay here,” he repeats, and waits for me to unlock the door before he walks in, leaving me on my doorstep. This is ridiculous. I step inside and shut the door, toss my purse and keys on the nearby table, and lay my computer bag on the dining room table. “So help me God, Delila, if you don’t start listening to me, I’ll spank your ass.” I twirl at his angry voice, my jaw dropped. “Excuse me?” “You heard me.” “One: how do you know my full name?” “I’m leading this investigation. I know more about you than you’re probably comfortable with.” Well, that fucking sucks. “Two: try to spank my ass and I’ll knock you on yours.” His lips twitch. “Good girl.” “You’re an arrogant ass.” “I’m not arrogant, I’m doing my best to keep you safe.” He advances on me and pins me against the door, his hands flat on the wood, on either side of my head, his mouth inches from mine, stealing the breath from my lungs. “Nothing is going to happen to you, Lila.” “I’m safe, Asher.” “Yes, you are. I’m making sure of it.” Just when I expect him to kiss the ever-loving hell out of me, he gently cups my face in his hands, his thumbs trace circles on my cheeks, and he lowers his face to mine. He nibbles the corner of my mouth sweetly. “I’ve dreamed of this mouth,” he whispers. My hands find their way to his ribcage, bunching his T-shirt in my fists. Jesus, I want to fucking climb him. “The chemistry between us is crazy,” I reply. “I know.” He swallows hard and kisses down my jaw to my ear. “You’re so damn beautiful, Delila.” “I hate my name,” I whisper. “Why?”

“Because it’s an old lady name.” “I love your name.” God, he’s intoxicating me. I’m numb from the pleasure, and yet, I’m more sensitive than I’ve ever been. And that doesn’t make any sense. None of this makes any sense. “I want to spend tomorrow with you.” I open my eyes to find his on me, narrowed just a little. His hand has drifted down my side to my hip, but he’s still holding the other side of my face in his strong hand. “To protect me?” I ask. “That’s only part of it.” He kisses me chastely. “I want to be with you. Do you have tomorrow off for the holiday?” “Yes.” I give a little nod. “Okay.” “Okay.” He kisses me one more time, bites my lower lip, then takes a deep breath and leans his forehead on my shoulder. “I have to go. Lock this door and stay smart, Lila. I’ll be back in the morning.” “Okay.” “Oh, and I’ll have Casey with me.” He winks. “You’ll like her.” “Oh. Okay.” Is okay all I know how to say? I watch as he leaves, lock the door behind him, and take a deep, cleansing breath. Dear sweet Jesus, that man is potent. And he’s a good guy. A good guy with a kid. The thought would normally scare me, but I feel a smile spread across my face at the thought of watching him with a little girl. Does she have him wrapped around her finger? How is he with her? I’m suddenly looking forward to tomorrow.

Chapter Four ~Asher~ “Is Lila your girlfriend?” Casey asks as we drive from our townhouse to Lila’s apartment. I grin at her in the rearview. “No. She’s a friend.” How do I explain to my daughter that Lila is so much more than a friend, but not my girlfriend, when I don’t even understand it yet myself? I’ve never introduced Casey to a woman that I’m interested in. No one has ever made me consider keeping them around for the long haul, and I’m not going to bring someone into Casey’s life just to have them say good-bye again. But I actually want Casey to meet Lila, and that has me more than just a tad nervous. “And why are we hanging out with her today?” “Because I’m looking after her for a little while. You’ll like her. She’s nice.” “Is she nice enough to maybe eventually be your girlfriend?” she asks hopefully. I simply chuckle, my heart hitching a bit at the longing in Casey’s pretty green eyes, and park in front of Lila’s building, then lead Casey up to Lila’s door. I knock and scowl when Lila opens the door without even asking who is on the other side. “What if I had been the bad guy?” “Are you the bad guy?” she asks with one brow raised, and damn if I don’t want to kiss that smirk right off her gorgeous face. “He’s the good guy¸” Casey replies seriously. “You must be Casey,” Lila says with a smile and holds her hand out to shake my daughter’s. “I’m Lila.” “You’re pretty,” Casey says. “You’re prettier,” Lila replies as she grabs her handbag and keys. “Do you know where we’re going?” “Breakfast,” Casey says and glances up at me for confirmation. “Breakfast,” I agree. “Perfect. I’m starving.” Lila offers her hand to Casey, and together they walk hand in hand toward the car. Watching them together, the tall, slim brunette and my small, slim redhead, makes my heart catch. I’ve never imagined bringing a woman into our lives full time. Casey is happy and well adjusted the way things are, and asking her to accept someone new has always seemed rather selfish of me.

It never occurred to me that she might need, or even want, a woman in our lives. And damn if Lila doesn’t look perfectly comfortable with my daughter. “Do you have a place in mind?” Lila asks, and she and Casey climb into the car and buckle themselves in. “I do.” I grin at her and wink as I back out of the parking lot. “You’ll see.” There’s a little hole-in-the-wall joint not far from Lila’s place that Casey and I love. It’s busy today, but we’re quickly shown to a table in the back corner with a view of the street. I sit with my back to the window, as always, with Casey next to me so I can keep an eye on the room. I never sit with my back to a room. “They have the best pancakes,” Casey announces, setting her menu aside. “May I please have bacon with mine, Daddy?” “Of course,” I reply and kiss her head, then glance up to find Lila watching us. “How old are you, Casey?” she asks. “Ten,” Casey replies and sips her water. “I’ll be eleven in seven months and one week.” “That soon?” Lila asks with a laugh. “What grade are you in?” “Fourth.” “Lila is a teacher,” I tell Casey. “What grade do you teach?” “I am a college professor,” Lila says. “Wow. You must be really smart.” She’s brilliant. Lila laughs and orders pancakes and bacon for herself and Casey when the waitress arrives. “Make it three,” I say. “You have very pretty hair,” Lila tells Casey, who preens from the compliment. “It’s just like my mom’s,” Casey says innocently, and the stab to my heart is immediate. It’s lessened with time, thankfully, but in these simple moments, it catches me off guard. “It’s really curly. And red.” She wrinkles her nose. “That explains it,” Lila says, looking at me with surprised eyes. “I was expecting you to have dark hair like your daddy.” “Nope. I got the red.” Casey sighs. “And the freckles.” “You know, my best friend has red hair and freckles, and she’s just as gorgeous as you are.” Casey smiles up at me, then back at Lila. “Cool.”

“So what are our plans for the rest of the day? Surely you don’t intend to try to entertain me all day.” Lila takes a sip of her water, watching me over the rim. “I do intend to entertain you all day. And don’t call me Shirley.” Lila laughs, a happy, loud laugh that makes my stomach clench. She tosses her hair over one shoulder and shakes her head at me. “You’re silly.” “He’s really silly,” Casey agrees and claps her hands as our pancakes and bacon are served. “But he’s handsome. Don’t you think?” “She’s really subtle,” I inform Lila dryly. She simply pours maple syrup on her pancakes, so much that I wince and then chuckle at her. “Do you want some pancakes with your syrup?” “Maybe.” She winks at me and turns her attention back to Casey. “Yes, your daddy is handsome.” “And he’s smart. And he has a good job. And he can fix things.” “Really?” Lila takes a bite of her bacon and leans in like Casey is about to tell her all of life’s secrets. “What can he fix?” I watch Casey, also interested to hear what it is, exactly, that I can fix. “Well, he unclogged the toilet when I accidently dropped his phone in it and flushed.” “Oh my.” “And our stove stopped working and he replaced the lelement, and now it works again.” “I replaced the heating element in the oven,” I correct her, but she’s ignoring me. “And at Christmas time, half of the lights on our Christmas tree wouldn’t light, but he figured it out and made them come back on!” “That is impressive.” I chuckle and munch on my bacon, enjoying the banter between these two amazing girls. Casey is chattering about my skills in painting the living room, clearly trying to convince Lila that she and I should be together forever, and Lila is listening. Not halfassed the way some adults do when they’re humoring a kid and want to get on with their day. Casey has Lila’s undivided attention, and it terrifies me to realize that she just…fits. Which is ridiculous because I hardly know her. One night in bed with her and a few conversations does not a life-long relationship make. And yet, I know she’s smart. So much smarter than me. She’s kind. She’s funny. And fuck me, she’s sexy as I don’t know what. And seeing her here, with my kid, she’s attentive and sweet. A man could fall in love with her. Where the hell did that come from?

“I have a joke!” Casey announces. “Okay, shoot,” Lila says. “Why did the peach go out with the prune?” “Why?” Lila and I ask at the same time. “Because it couldn’t find a date!” Casey busts out laughing. “Get it?” “Yes,” I reply, chuckling, and catch Lila’s humor-filled gaze with my own. “You’re a funny girl.” “This was delicious,” Lila says as she lays her napkin on her empty plate. “You were right. Best pancakes ever.” “They’re pretty good,” I agree. “When I was a kid, my mom—” “I have to tell you about Masie!” Casey says, interrupting me. “Hey.” I give her the Dad Stink Eye. “I understand that you’re enjoying Lila’s company, but that’s no reason to be rude. Apologize please.” “I’m sorry for being rude,” Casey says. “Excuse me, Daddy?” “Yes.” “May I please tell Lila about Masie?” My phone buzzes in my pocket as Lila laughs. “Yes, go ahead and tell her.” Casey begins to chatter about her best friend as I answer. “What’s up?” “We have another one.” Jordan’s voice is clipped, and I can hear road noise as she drives. “I’m on my way to the scene now.” “On my way.” I motion for the waitress and pay the bill without looking at it. “We have to go, girls.” “What’s wrong?” Lila asks. I hold her gaze and shake my head quickly. I won’t discuss the details of my job around my daughter. She knows that I investigate murders, that I catch the bad guys, but that’s it. I see things that no ten-year-old should ever be privy to. “I have to drop you home, then take Casey to my brother’s and get to work.” “I thought you had today off,” Casey says with a sigh. “Did someone die?” “Yes, baby.” I kiss her head as we walk to the car. “I’m sorry.” “You don’t need to make the extra trip. You can leave Casey with me.” “Are you sure?” “Really?” Casey says excitedly. “Oh, that would be so cool.” “I’m sure,” Lila says with a smile, but her eyes are worried as she lays her hand on my arm. “Is it what I think it is?”

“I’m not sure,” I lie. I don’t want to tell her anything until I see the scene and find out exactly what’s going on. “Could be.” Lila simply nods and sits back in the seat with a sigh, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. I take one of her hands in mine and kiss her knuckles. “It’s going to be okay.” She nods and I glance in the rearview at my daughter, who is watching us carefully with a wide grin on her perfect face. She gives me a thumbs-up and winks, as though she’s my buddy, and I can’t help but laugh. God save me from ten-year-old matchmakers. * * * * I approach the scene, a small apartment on the edge of Tulane University campus. There is yellow DO NOT CROSS tape everywhere. Men in uniform are directing people away from the building. Girls are crying, sitting on the curb. Jordan rushes over to me. “Have you gone in?” I ask as we walk briskly to the apartment where the vic was killed. “No, I was waiting for you.” We’re gloving up as we approach the door. No one is inside. “Who secured the scene?” “I did, sir.” A young uniformed officer is standing near the open doorway. He swallows hard as I approach. His nametag reads Tanner. “Did anyone disturb the scene, Tanner?” “I don’t think so, sir. The victim’s friend called it in when she arrived to take Ms. Roberts to coffee. They had a date.” “Did she touch anything?” “She denied touching anything. She walked in, saw the vic, and called 911. She was standing here when we arrived. I made a visual confirmation that the victim was deceased, sealed the door, and called it in.” “Good job.” I nod, break the seal of the yellow tape on the door, and walk inside, Jordan right behind me. She has her camera out, already taking photos of the tiny apartment. “Do we know if she lived alone?” “The friend confirmed that she lived alone,” Tanner says from the doorway. He’s young, but he’s smart and respectful. He has potential.

“Where is the vic?” “In the bedroom.” Tanner swallows hard. “It’s pretty gruesome, sir.” Jordan and I look at each other and walk to the bedroom. “Sonofabitch,” Jordan whispers as we take in the scene before us. There is blood spatter everywhere—the walls, the floor, the furniture. Even the ceiling. The victim, Cheyenne Roberts, is lying on the bed facedown. I remember her from last night when she left the library. A pretty young blonde. Happy. Carefree. So fucking young. I doubt her own parents would recognize her now. Her face has been torn off. Her fingers cut off at the knuckles. And her intestines are strung from one side of the room to the other. Jesus Christ, what the ever-loving fuck? Why didn’t I shut that damn group down? Or escort all of the girls home myself? “Oh my God, Asher.” “Take photos, Jordan.” She swallows hard, then pulls herself together and begins to systematically work the scene with me, taking photos, sweeping for any clues. There’s nothing I can see. Nothing but blood and tissue and absolute horror. Except for the note, covered in blood. The handwriting is likely the victim’s, just like the previous three. Do you see what happens to know-it-all bitches, Lila? Bitches who think they’re better than everyone else? They get their fucking face ripped off. I hope you enjoy the last few days of your pitiful life because I’m about to end it. Jordan snaps photos of the note before I seal it up and pray there is a print on it. But there won’t be. This fucker is careful. “The ME just arrived,” Tanner calls from the living room. “Are you ready for him?” “Send him in,” I confirm. Pierce, the best Medical Examiner in Louisiana, steps into the room and swears ripely. “Poor girl,” he says with a sigh. “What the fuck, Asher?” “My sentiments exactly,” I reply. “Can you give me a TOD?” He nods and works his magic, testing her body temperature. “She’s been dead for roughly twelve hours.” “Not long after study group,” I murmur. “We’re done with her. I want a full sweep after you take the body. Prints, hair, everything. If there’s something here, I want it.” I march out of the apartment, rage boiling in me. “I’ll meet you at the office. I want

those pictures printed right away so we can add them to the board. We’re missing something. We’re starting from the beginning.” Jordan nods and walks to her car as I walk to mine, climb in, and speed all the way back to the office. I need to look at my notes. He’s getting more violent. More angry. I’m stalking through to my office when my phone rings. “Captain, I’m walking into my office right now.” “I want a report, in my office, in an hour.” “You’ll have it.” I end the call and hold on to my temper by the skin of my teeth as Jordan joins me, shutting the door behind her, the new crime scene photos in her hands, which she passes to me and I begin to add them to the murder board I have in the center of the room, covered in photos and notes on the previous victims. “She was twenty-one,” Jordan says as she reads the report on her iPad. “Sociology major. Decent grades. No boyfriend that we know of.” “Where is she from?” “Excuse me?” I turn to look at her. “Her hometown.” “Shreveport,” Jordan replies. “What are you thinking?” “I’m thinking that we’re missing something. Maybe the connection is as simple as being from the same town.” “Asher, the connection is Lila.” I prop my hands on my hips and stare at the photos of four girls who shouldn’t be dead. My heart stills at Lila’s name. “Asher.” “I know.” “Are you going to be able to handle this? After everything you went through with your wife—” “My wife doesn’t have anything to do with this.” But Jesus Christ, I can’t go through losing someone else to a maniac. “You know what I mean.” “Are you saying I can’t do my fucking job?” I spin and glare at her. “I’m doing the job, Jordan.” “I’m not saying that. But it’s clear that you have feelings for Lila.” “Is it?”

“Crystal.” She shakes her head and leans her hip on my desk. “She needs to be told about the notes.” “No.” “Asher, he named her specifically. He threatened her. She needs to know so she can protect herself.” “I’m protecting her.” “God, you’re stubborn. Telling her about the notes—” “Will only terrify her.” “It would terrify me,” she agrees. “But if I found out later that you’d withheld that information from me, I’d be mighty pissed off.” I sigh and rub the back of my neck. “You’re right. I don’t like it, but you’re right.” “If you weren’t in love with her, I wouldn’t have to talk you into telling her.” “I’m not in love with her.” I smirk and shake my head. “Right. That’s why you’re rubbing your heart right now.” I glance down, surprised to find that I am, indeed, rubbing my aching heart. The thought of anything happening to her sends a panic through me that I haven’t felt in four years. It’s terrifying. And she and my daughter are alone right now. “Get comfortable,” I say and pull my phone out of my pocket. “We’re going to be here a while. I want to go back to the very beginning and read every report, every note all over again while we wait for the ME and crime scene reports to come in.” “You okay?” “Just do the job, Jordan.” She nods as I dial Mike’s number. “Hey, man.” “Hey, I need you to do me a favor.”

Chapter Five ~Lila~ “I love peanut butter sandwiches,” Casey informs me as she nibbles on her sandwich, sans crust, with her little fingers propped up to keep her drying nails from getting messed up. “And this nail polish is so pretty!” “I love it too.” I finish my sandwich and sit back on the couch, watching the sweet girl as she eats delicately. “Thanks for letting me polish your nails.” “Are you kidding? This is great! Can we play in your makeup?” I have a moment of panic as I think of the expensive stash of makeup in my drawers, and then figure, why not? You only live once. “Sure. Let’s go.” I lead Casey into my bathroom and spread eye shadows, blush, liners, mascara, and lipstick on the countertop. Her pretty green eyes widen at my loot. “Wow,” she says reverently. “You don’t look like you wear that much makeup.” “That’s the secret.” I wink at her and study her coloring, wanting to choose just the right shades for her. “You don’t want to look like you wear a lot. You choose colors that accentuate what you already have.” “You’re smart.” I laugh and choose an eye shadow. “I’ve just been doing this for a really long time.” “Can I do you after you do me?” “I’m already wearing makeup.” “You could take it off,” she says. “True. Okay, I’ll take it off.” I grab my makeup remover and wipe off my eye makeup, then smile at Casey. “Awesome.” I boost her up onto the counter so she’s eye level with me, making it easier to work, and choose a brush. “Close your eyes.” She complies and sits still as I brush eye shadow on her eyes, add liner, mascara and blush. I don’t want her dad to show up and think that I’ve turned his daughter into a harlot. But playing with makeup is fun. Hell, I loved playing with it at her age. I still do. “So, you’re definitely a girlie girl,” I comment. “Yes. Do you have glitter?” I chuckle and reach for a bronzer with sparkles in it. “Glitter coming right up.” “Right on.” She offers me her fist to bump, and I comply with a laugh just as my phone pings with an incoming text.

Asher: Thanks for helping me out. Not sure how long I’ll be here, so my brother Mike is going to stop by and get Casey. It’s okay to open the door to him. I just love how he’s now dictating who I can open the door to. “That’s your dad. Your uncle Mike is going to come get you.” “Already?” she asks with distress. “But we’re having a spa day!” My lips twitch. “You’re right. I’ll take care of it.” Can you give us at least an hour? We are having a spa day. And don’t get mad at me for putting makeup on her. “You’re really pretty,” Casey says as she watches me text. “Like, really pretty.” “Thank you, sweetheart.” No problem. Thank you for being so patient. There is no need to be patient with this adorable girl. She’s funny and smart and enjoys the same things I do. Why would I need to be patient with her? My pleasure. Really. I tuck my phone away and make the finishing touches on Casey’s makeup, and it occurs to me that for someone who doesn’t do kids, I’ve taken quite a shine to this sweet girl. And what’s not to love? She’s smart and respectful and funny. Asher has done an amazing job with her. They’re both special. How could any woman have left them? “Okay, you can look now.” “Oh!” she exclaims when she turns around. “I’m so pretty!” “Yes you are.” “I haven’t had this much fun since my mom died.” What? I school my features, trying not to let her see that she’s shocked the hell out of me. Her mom died? She chooses some colors and goes to work on my face. “I’m sorry that your mom passed away, sweetie.” “Yeah, it was a long time ago.” I cringe when she chooses the blue eye shadow and begins brushing it on. She doesn’t talk about her mom anymore, and I decide not to press her, but I do need to talk to Asher. How horrible for both of them. When Casey is finishing up with me, the doorbell rings. “That must be your uncle.” “Oh man,” she whines and hops down from the counter. “Can’t I just stay with you?”

“Your dad wants you to go hang out with your uncle.” I open the door to find a man that looks almost exactly like Asher in my doorway, with a beautiful woman at his side. “Hi. I’m Mike.” “Lila.” I shake his hand and invite them in. “This is my wife, Fran.” “Why can’t I stay with Lila?” Casey whines. “We are having a girls’ day.” “Your daddy doesn’t know how long he’s going to be at work today,” Fran says with a smile. “You look beautiful.” She glances up at me. “I think Casey got the better end of this deal.” “She did good,” I reply with a laugh. “Here, let’s send a selfie to your dad.” I pull my phone out of my pocket, snap a photo of the two of us, and text it to Asher. “We’re going to go pack your bag, munchkin. You’re gonna stay with us tonight,” Fran says. “Sleepover!” Casey exclaims. “You should come too, Lila!” “I have work,” I reply. “But maybe I’ll see you again soon.” “Thanks for keeping her,” Mike says with a grin. “Asher said he’ll come over here when he’s done. Lock your door.” His face sobers and he pins me in a I’m an authority figure and you’ll do what I say look. “Let me guess, you’re a cop too?” “Guilty.” “I will lock the door. I will not let anyone in unless they have the password and know the secret handshake.” “You’re a smart ass,” Fran says with a smile. “I like you.” * * * * I can’t run. Why can’t I run? I can hear someone coming for me, and it’s dark, and I have to run, but my feet won’t move. Heavy breathing is getting closer. I’m sweating, and trying to scream, but no sound comes out. Suddenly, it occurs to me that it’s a dream. Wake up! Banging on my front door finally rips me from the nightmare. I sit up, my heart racing, eyes searching the room, and realize I must have fallen asleep on the couch. “Lila!” More banging. I check my phone to find three missed texts and a missed call, all from Asher. I pull the door open and am immediately tugged against him, his arms wrapped

tightly around me and his face buried in my neck. He walks us inside and kicks the door closed, all without loosening his grip. “Hey,” I croon and hold on just as tight. He needs this. I can feel it. “Asher, are you okay?” “I just need a minute.” He takes a deep breath, and suddenly I’m in his arms and he’s carrying me to the couch. He sits, with me in his lap, and continues to hold on tight. “You’re kind of scaring me,” I whisper. My fingers brush through the soft, thick hair at the back of his head soothingly. “I just want to hold you for a minute,” he whispers. God, he’s strong, and solid and…safe. His big hands rub up and down my back, as if he’s reassuring himself that I’m here. His breathing is choppy. “We need to talk.” “Yes, we do.” We so do. “Are you okay?” He pushes me away, just far enough to look in my eyes. He brushes my hair away from my cheeks, his eyes worried. “I’m fine.” “You didn’t answer me. My texts or call.” “I fell asleep.” I cup his face in my hands. “I just fell asleep.” He closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath, and when he opens his eyes again, he’s more in control now. “Was Casey okay? Did she give you any problems?” “Casey is amazing,” I reply truthfully and see his eyes soften with love and affection for his daughter. “I loved having her here.” He nods and holds on tight when I try to shift away, off of his lap. “Stay here, please.” “Okay.” I frown and watch him. His eyes are tired. “Lila, there was another murder.” He swallows hard. “Who?” I whisper, not really wanting to hear the answer. “Cheyenne.” “Oh.” The tears come, falling down my cheeks unnoticed. “Oh, she was such a good kid.” “I know.” He frowns and looks down, and I know he’s not telling me everything. “What else happened, Asher?” “He’s getting more violent, Lila. I’m not going to give you details because I can’t, and because you don’t need that living in your head.” Jesus, what did he do to her? “Okay.” “And…”

He grows quiet again. “And?” He won’t meet my gaze. Finally, he closes his eyes and swears under his breath, then looks up at me with eyes that are tormented and scared as hell. “And what, Asher?” “And you’re a target.” “What?” I shake my head. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a student.” “What I’m about to tell you is confidential. This hasn’t been released to the media.” He brushes my hair over my shoulder tenderly. “With each victim, the killer has left a note. Threats. He talks about wanting revenge. But he’s never specified a name before.” “But he did this time.” Asher nods and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it, and shows it to me. “This is a photocopy.” I read the note and feel my blood run cold. “Oh my God.” I begin to shake and find myself caught up in Asher’s arms again. He’s rocking me now, holding me close. I can’t get close enough. “Why?” I whisper. “Asher, I don’t understand. Oh my God! Those poor girls! They were all tortured and killed because of me?” I pull out of his hold and stand, pacing the floor. I’m shaking. I can’t breathe. “This is my fault.” “Stop it, Lila. It’s not your fault.” I whirl on him. “He’s after me.” I shake my head wildly. “Who would do this?” “Is there an ex out there somewhere that would want to hurt you?” He stands and takes my shoulders in his hands, rubs my arms firmly, trying to soothe me. “I haven’t dated since I’ve been here,” I reply truthfully. “And I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. I’ve had boyfriends, but those relationships ended on decent terms. There are no weirdos in my background, just guys that it didn’t work out with.” “We are going to catch this guy,” he promises me. He cups my face in his hands and looks deeply into my eyes. “I promise. Nothing is going to happen to you. I’m not going to lose you to this.” I hug him tightly and his words hit home. I’m not going to lose you. “Speaking of losing someone.” My voice is soft as I pull away. “Casey told me about her mom. I’m so sorry for your loss, Asher.”

His lips firm, but he doesn’t look sad or upset. He looks simply resigned. “It’s been four years,” he says. “What did Casey tell you?” “Just that she hadn’t had that much fun since her mom died.” He nods. “I was investigating another serial murderer in Seattle at the time. He was an evil bastard.” “Aren’t they all?” I ask dryly. “Yes.” He brushes his fingertips down my cheek. He can’t stop touching me. “He decided to play with the police, specifically the men who were trying to find him.” “No,” I whisper. “He killed her. It was staged to look like a car accident, but he confessed later to making that accident happen. Missy died instantly.” “Oh, Asher. I’m so sorry.” “How do you tell a six-year-old that her mama isn’t coming home?” His voice is rough. “How do you bury your young wife and raise your daughter alone?” The enormity of it hits me, and all I can think about is comforting him. Loving him. I offer him my hand. “Come with me.” He follows me silently into my bedroom. I lead him onto the bed, over the covers, our clothes still on, and snuggle up to him, holding him close. “Is this your way of comforting me?” he asks. His lips tip up into a half-smile. “It’s all I have,” I reply with a shrug. It’s more than I’ve ever offered to anyone else in my life. I’m letting my walls down with this man, and as much as it scares me, I can’t stop. “I’m okay, baby. It’s been a while. We’ve healed.” “Yes, but I just found out, and I’m hurting for you, Asher.” “God, you’re sweet.” He rolls me onto my back and kisses me softly, his hand resting on my jaw and neck. His lips are soft, sure. He teases me with his tongue as he eases his big body over mine and settles in to kiss the hell out of me. It’s pure heaven. “Tell me I can stay,” he whispers against my lips. “What about the investigation?” “We’re done for the night.” “You can stay,” I reply. He smiles and nibbles his way down my neck. His hands slip under my shirt and work it up over my head, then he discards my bra. “You’re beautiful.” I smile shyly as he pulls a nipple into his mouth and lazily teases it, blows on it, then sucks some more. I tug his shirt up impatiently, getting caught up under his arms. His skin

is warm and smooth over strong muscles. “Can we take this off?” I ask. He sits up and in one fluid motion, pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it aside, then covers me again. He unfastens my jeans and slips his hand inside while his mouth travels down my torso, making me shimmy and squirm. The things this man does with his mouth are insane. His fingertips find my sweet spot and my hips surge up off the bed as electricity shoots through my body, sending fire along every nerve. “God, you’re so responsive. Do you know how long I’ve dreamed of your sweet little body?” “Nine months,” I pant with a smile. “Yes, I know exactly how long.” He chuckles and bites my stomach right next to my navel. “You’ve been in my dreams for months. I wake up aching for you.” Is it possible to come from words alone? “Asher, I need you.” “I’m right here, baby.” “Need you inside me.” I bury my fingers in his hair and hold on tight as his mouth continues the journey around my torso, along my ribs, under my breasts. Who knew that the spot under my breasts was so fucking sensitive? He’s pulling my jeans down my legs, effortlessly, and kissing his way down to my hip. “Trust me, I’m about to be inside you. God, you smell good.” “I don’t wear perfume.” He grins up at me knowingly. Naughtily. God, I want to devour him. “Not that kind of smell, Delila.” He sniffs against my hip. “You smell like you want me to make love to you.” “I so want you to make love to me.” He growls as he makes quick work of sliding off his jeans, slips on protection, and covers me. He holds me tenderly, his forearms under my shoulders. His pelvis is cradled in mine, and he thrusts slowly back and forth, sliding his cock in my folds, hitting my clit each time. “Oh my God,” I whisper. He kisses my lips as he pulls his hips back, and suddenly the tip is at my entrance, pushing inside. I’d forgotten how big he is. “We’ll take it easy,” he assures me, watching me carefully. “God, you’re so tight.” “Or you’re big,” I reply breathlessly, loving the way he feels as he eases inside me. “You feel so damn good.”

“You’re amazing.” He stops when he’s buried inside me completely and leans his forehead against mine. “So fucking amazing.” I clench around him and smile when he groans. “God, don’t do that.” I do it again. “Lila, this won’t last.” “We have all night, Lieutenant,” I reply and clench again, circling my hips. “I’m right here. Let go.” His eyes shoot open, hot and intense, and he begins to move in long, steady, measured strokes, hitting every delicious nerve ending inside me, until I’m right there with him, ready to come out of my skin. “Gonna come,” I whisper. “With me,” he replies hoarsely. He grips my ass in one hand, tilting me up to meet him fully, and we come apart, crying out, clinging to each other. “Amazing,” he whispers and kisses my lips softly. So fucking amazing. * * * * “Why aren’t you sleeping?” he whispers against my ear, then kisses me there. He’s spooned up behind me, his arms around me, holding me tight. “Maybe I am,” I reply with a grin. “I can hear your wheels turning,” he says and nudges me onto my back so he can see my face. He rests his hand on my belly and kisses my nose. “Talk to me.” “I’m—” I look to the ceiling, searching for my words. “Sated? Impressed with my manliness? Ready to come again?” “Confused,” I reply with a sigh. “And impressed with your manliness.” “What are you confused about?” I turn and hide my face in his chest, enjoying the way the light dusting of hair feels against my skin, but he cups my cheek in his hand and guides me back to look me in the eyes. “What are you confused about, sweetheart?” “How can I be this happy with you when there is a maniac out there killing my students, and he has some kind of crazy fixation on me? Does it make me a selfish person?” “No.”

“We’re having sex—” “Lila, it’s not selfish. We’re living our lives while we try to figure the rest of it out. We haven’t forgotten it.” “I’m never going to forget it,” I whisper. “No,” he agrees quietly and kisses my forehead. “You won’t.” “How do you do this? Every day?” I hold on to him more tightly as I realize just how dangerous his job is. “Why do you do it?” “I’ve always wanted to be a cop,” he replies. “But why homicide?” “Someone has to stand for the dead, Lila.” He kisses my forehead again, tenderly, but I can feel the energy pumping through him. “Someone has to stand over them and take care of them. To get that closure for their families. To make sure that the animal who killed them pays for it.” “But at what cost? Asher, what you see every day—” “Makes me a better cop and a better man.” He rolls away, onto his own back, and I follow him, bracing myself on his chest, watching him pull his thoughts together. “I’ve seen the worst of humanity there is, Lila. And I’ve seen the best.” “You are the best.” He tilts his head and searches my gaze for a long moment. “Thank you.” I shrug, suddenly embarrassed at speaking my thoughts out loud. “Tell me something about you.” I blink at him. “What about me?” “Tell me something about your childhood.” “You don’t want to know about my childhood, Asher.” His eyes narrow. “Yes. I do.” I bite my lip and watch him quietly, but he doesn’t insist. He just waits. And here, in the dark and in the quiet of this honest moment, I trust him. “I didn’t know my mom.” His gaze snaps to mine in surprise. “You were raised by your dad?” I smirk. “If you can call it that. Mom left before I could crawl. I was a mistake and she didn’t want me.” Asher reaches up to tuck my hair behind my ear, but I flinch away. I don’t want him to touch me while I tell him this. “Dad was an alcoholic and enjoyed the occasional recreational drug.” “Lila—” “It could have been worse. And there were long stretches of time when he’d sober up

and things would be relatively normal for a while. But inevitably, he’d fall off the bandwagon and I’d be left to fend for myself.” “You should be so proud of yourself,” he says softly. “I am,” I agree. “My life could have gone very badly had I not had Kate in my life, and a fierce stubbornness. I made my mind up early on that I wouldn’t end up like my father.” “You’re amazing,” he says. “I’m strong,” I reply. “Okay, so back to the original statement. What are you confused about? Because I don’t think you’re confused about the sex we just had in light of the circumstances.” “You’ve made me rethink things that I thought I believed,” I admit softly. “Such as?” I shake my head and am embarrassed to feel my eyes fill with tears. “What is it, baby?” “I’ve been very good at keeping my heart safe, Asher. I don’t long for children, because I don’t think that I’d be a good parent given what I come from. I don’t have onenight stands, but I also don’t think about being with anyone for the long term.” His eyes flare, but he stays quiet, waiting for me to finish. “But—” I swallow hard. “But?” “I enjoy you. I enjoy Casey.” “We enjoy you too.” I nod, ridiculously happy to hear those words. “So, we’ll just enjoy each other,” he adds with an encouraging smile. “And see where it goes from there.” He pulls me back into his arms and kisses my cheek, then my lips. “We’ll just see where it goes,” I whisper, liking the sound of that but knowing that I’m quickly losing my heart to this amazing man and his daughter.

Chapter Six ~Asher~ “Wake up, sleepy head.” I climb onto the bed, steaming mug of coffee in hand, and lean over to kiss Lila’s forehead. I can’t seem to keep my hands—or my lips—off of her. And she doesn’t seem to mind. “Want to,” she mumbles and frowns, her eyes still closed. “Come on, Delila, wake up.” She sniffs the air. “Do I smell coffee?” “Yes.” I grin and climb off the bed, then saunter naked toward the bathroom. “It’ll be in the bathroom with me.” “I don’t want it that bad!” she calls out. Okay, so she’s not a morning person. She can’t be perfect. “I’m naked,” I reply. “You have twenty seconds to get your sweet ass in the shower with me before I come haul you in myself.” “Whatever, caveman,” I hear her mumble, and my heart stumbles with the immediate love I feel for her. I haven’t felt this in…four years. I recognize it. I’m in love with her. How it managed to happen so fast, I don’t know. And while I do recognize it, it feels different this time. Not better or worse, just different. Because she’s not Missy. She’s Lila. I’m not replacing what I had, I’m adding to what I have now, and that feels pretty fucking good. I start the water, set a condom inside the shower because I want to take her there this morning, sip the coffee, and grin when I feel her move up behind me, press her spectacular naked body against my back and a kiss to my shoulder. “Good morning,” she whispers sweetly. “Good morning.” “May I please have some coffee now?” I snort. “You don’t have to put on the sweet act, darlin’. I’ll share my coffee.” “Thank God,” she says and takes the mug out of my hand, then downs it in three big gulps. “Uh, that was hot.” “Thank God,” she repeats with a grin and steps into the shower. “So is this!” Her voice is a high-pitched shriek. “Do not turn it down,” I order her and step in with her.

“Are you trying to burn me?” “You’ll drink boiling hot coffee but you won’t shower in hot water?” “This isn’t hot. This is…” She flails her hands about. “This is really hot.” “Brain not working yet?” I kiss her forehead and laugh when she pinches my ass. She’s smiling, her eyes shining and happy, still a little sleepy, and her skin is still warm from bed and soft, and I can’t stand it. I need her. Now. I lift her and brace her against the wall of the shower, making her cry out at the cold against her back. “What the hell?” “Need you,” I murmur against her sweet mouth. I hold the condom up to her lips, and she grips the wrapper in her teeth, helping me rip it open. I roll it on, then boost her up and slide inside her, and nothing has ever felt so fucking good in all my life. “Do you know how damn good you feel?” “If it’s anything like how you feel, it’s pretty damn good,” she replies and bites my lip. “Didn’t we do this just a few hours ago?” “We made love a few hours ago,” I reply and hold on to her ass in the palm of my hands, just this side of too rough. She gasps and bites her lip. “That was life-affirming sex.” “What’s this?” she asks and gasps again as I begin to move hard and fast, chasing both of our orgasms. “This is good, old-fashioned fucking,” I growl against her neck. “I want you hard and fast, right here in the shower.” “You’re getting it,” she replies and leans in to bite my shoulder as she comes hard, her legs gripping on to my hips like vices, grinding her pelvis against my own. “Christ, Asher.” “That’s right,” I murmur and feel myself go blind as my balls lift and tighten with my own release. “Just me.” “Just you.” * * * * “I’m going to need you to pack a bag,” I inform Lila as I tug my shirt over my head and finger-comb my hair. She’s already dressed, looking sexy as fuck in a red sundress that I want to peel off her. God, I’m out of control.

“Why?” she asks with a frown. “Because you’re going to come stay with me until we catch this fucker.” She slides her feet into black flip-flops, then props her hands on her lean hips, and I know I’m in for an argument. “No, I’m not.” “Yes. You are.” She narrows her eyes at me. God, she’s magnificent when she’s pissed. “You know, I’m happy to take precautions, and you can boss me around all you want in the bedroom—” “Like that, do you?” “But you will not tell me where I’m going to live.” “Look, Lila.” “No, you look.” She’s pacing now, really worked up, and it’s a sight to behold. “I’ve worked long and hard for my independence. I’m not a stupid woman.” “Didn’t say you are.” “And I know how to look out for myself! I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I didn’t have a mom, Asher. My dad was drunk most of the time. I’ve held jobs and taken care of myself since before I could do algebra.” “I still can’t do algebra,” I reply, trying to keep it light, but my hands are in fists now at the thought of a young Lila taking care of herself. Her father should have his face beat in. “I’m not going to be your pawn, that just does as you say. I’m not one of your officers.” “No, you’re not.” I pull her to me now, drawing her into my arms, and hug her tight. She melts into these hugs like she doesn’t get them often, and that just softens me toward her even more. “You’re not my pawn, Lila. You’re everything.” “Excuse me?” she whispers, not looking up. “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, baby, but this isn’t a quick fuck for me. You’re not just a job for me.” “What am I?” I swallow hard and kiss her head. “You mean more to me than any woman has in a very long time. Let me protect you. I can’t just pack up my daughter and move in with you. If it was just me, I would. I need you to come to me.” “That’s the other thing.” She pushes out of my arms and stomps away. “Casey.” I still and my heart stops. “Are you saying you have a problem with my daughter?” “No!” She whirls around, eyes wide, and I immediately calm. “I adore her. Asher, I can’t bring whatever this could be to your house. I would die before I put Casey in

danger!” “You’re in danger here, Delila. No one is in danger at my house. The killer has no reason to know that you’ll be with me. I don’t like knowing that you’re miles away from me. I can’t get here in time if something were to happen.” I pace away and push my hands through my hair, suddenly frustrated. “Damn it, Lila, I need you with me.” “Casey—” “Will be fine.” I turn back to her. “Do you honestly think that I’d willingly put my daughter in danger? She’s safe, just like you will be if you come with me.” She chews on her lip, giving it some thought, and if I wasn’t already completely in love with her, her concern for Casey would have pushed me right over. “Okay,” she says cautiously. “But when you’re not home, Casey should stay with Mike and Fran.” I frown, but she continues before I can say anything. “Not because I don’t love spending time with her, but because no one would follow her to Mike’s house. If you’re not home to protect her, she shouldn’t be alone with me. Just in case.” I cup her face in my hands and everything in me is screaming to tell her I love her. “Thank you,” I say instead. “You won’t be thanking me when I use up all the hot water and burn toast.” I grin. “I already burn the toast.”

Chapter Seven ~Lila~ It’s been two weeks since Cheyenne was killed. Two weeks without so much as a leaf blowing the wrong way in the trees. Spring has bloomed in New Orleans, making the city seem fresh and bright. I’ve attended four funerals in the last month, and the sadness of the loss of the girls hangs heavily around me, despite the brightness of early summer. The killer has been quiet —too quiet—and I can’t help but worry that something could happen at any moment. Classes are out for the weekend, and Asher’s friends, Matt and Nic, from Seattle are coming to visit for a few days. In fact, their plane should have landed not long ago. They’re going to meet us at home. I mean, Asher’s townhouse. Except, it’s come to feel like home over the past two weeks. Most of my clothes have managed to migrate there, much to Casey’s delight. She thinks it’s awesome that every night is a sleepover, and she’s loved getting to know Kate and Eli, who have been invited over for dinner several times. I’ve refused the four hundred and twenty-three offers to sleep in his bed from Asher. I don’t feel comfortable sleeping with him with Casey there. I don’t want to confuse her. Hell, I’m confused enough for both of us. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t sneak into the spare bedroom with me after she goes to sleep. There have been a few times that he’s carried me into his bed to make love to me because he wants to have me there. Jesus, I’m in love with him. With both of them. Who knew? “Lila!” I spin on the sidewalk to find Colin and Stacy, both from my US Women’s History class, running toward me. “Hi, guys. What’s up?” “We wanted to see if you’ve graded our essays yet.” I grin at them and shake my head. “I’m sorry, not yet. I’m going to grade them over the weekend.” “Do you ever take a day off?” Colin asks with the shake of his head. He’s just about my height, dressed casually in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Stacy, his roommate and best friend, is a plump girl with curly blonde hair and big brown eyes. They’re holding hands, as they always do. College kids seem to be very affectionate with each other.

“Once in a while,” I reply with a laugh. “What are you guys up to?” “I have a date tonight,” Colin says and wiggles his eyebrows. “New guy I met the other day at Starbucks.” “I want to meet this guy,” Stacy says and pokes Colin in the ribs. “He’s probably not good enough for you.” “They never are, darling,” Colin replies and kisses Stacy on the cheek. “Do you have fun plans this weekend, Lila?” “Yes, actually. I have friends coming in from out of town.” “Awesome.” Stacy grins and checks her watch. “Oh, hell. I have to go pick my baby sister up from school. Give me a ride, Colin?” “You guys stick close together,” I add sternly. “I want you to stay safe.” Colin’s eyes grow sad. “If I’d stayed with Cheyenne longer, she wouldn’t have—” “You don’t know that,” Stacy says and kisses his cheek. “It’s not your fault. The police even told you so.” His eyes narrow a bit at the reminder of being interrogated after Cheyenne’s death. “She’s right,” I reassure him. “You couldn’t have known what would happen after you took her home. But be safe out there, you guys.” “Sure. See you next week, Lila.” “Bye guys.” I wave, get in the car, and take off toward home. I mean, Asher’s townhouse, damn it. When I pull into the driveway, I see a strange car parked behind Asher. They beat me here. “You brought me strawberry cupcakes!” Casey exclaims as I walk through the front door. She launches herself into a petite brunette’s arms, hugging her tight. “I missed you so much, Nic!” “I missed you too,” Nic replies and hugs her back, then catches my eye. “You must be Lila.” “Guilty,” I reply with a smile. “And you’re Nic.” “She makes the best cupcakes in the whole world,” Casey informs me and bites into a pink cupcake. “I’ve heard,” I reply with a laugh. “I brought about two dozen, all different kinds.” Nic shakes my hand, then simply pulls me into a hug. “It’s so nice to meet you.” “You too.” “Hey, baby,” Asher says as he and a tall man—a tall, impossibly handsome man— walk into the room. Asher plants a firm kiss on me and looks into my eyes. “You okay?”

“Great.” I smile at Matt. “I’m Lila.” “Matt.” He shakes my hand and pulls me away from Asher and into his arms, hugging me tight. “And you’re gorgeous. Why are you with that asshole? Sorry, Casey.” “It’s okay,” she says without looking up from her cupcake. “You might want to stop touching her,” Asher says with mutiny in his eyes, only making Matt hug me tighter. “Ignore him,” Nic says with a laugh. “You know how he loves to piss you off.” “He’s good at it.” I pull out of Matt’s hug and reach for a cupcake. Chocolate deliciousness explodes in my mouth. “Marry me.” I turn to Nic. “Divorce him and marry me. I don’t leave the toilet seat up, and I totally understand PMS.” She laughs and shakes her head. “Sorry. I’m all his. But I can ship cupcakes down here whenever you want.” “I love you,” I tell her earnestly as I lick frosting off my fingers. I glance up at Asher in time to see a strange look cross his face, but then he seems to catch himself and grins. “We all love Nic. I tried to talk her into marrying me at least a dozen times before they got married.” “My loss,” Nic says with a shrug and a smile, then melts into her husband’s side when he wraps his arm around her shoulders. He leans in and whispers something in her ear, making Nic blush. “Not here,” she whispers to him. “Newlyweds,” Asher says just as the doorbell rings. “That’s Masie!” Casey exclaims and runs for the door. “We’re having a sleepover!” “Wait!” Asher and Matt both yell at the same time, bringing Casey up short. “You don’t just open the door, Casey. We’ve discussed this,” Asher says as he stomps toward the door. “But it’s just Masie,” Casey says. “You don’t know that,” Asher replies. “Things still intense down here?” Nic asks. “Not really.” I shrug and snatch up another cupcake. Strawberry this time. “Things have been quiet for a few weeks now. It’s weird.” I bite into the cake and immediately know what all the fuss is about. It’s absolutely delicious. “Seriously, you should make these for a living.” Nic laughs. “You’re right, I should.” I wink at her, perfectly aware that Nic owns a successful cupcake bakery in Seattle. Asher loves his friends and has told me all about them. He and Matt were partners for nearly ten years.

“Well, Casey is off for her sleepover,” Asher says as he rejoins us in the kitchen. “She’ll be back tomorrow morning. She wants to go on the cemetery tour with us.” “Fun,” I reply. “I haven’t done the cemetery tour yet.” “How long have you lived here?” Matt asks as he lays his hand on the back of Nic’s neck, massaging gently, as if she belongs to him and touching her is second nature to him. It’s sexy as hell. “Since last fall,” I reply and swallow the last of my cupcake. “But I jumped right into work and haven’t taken the time to explore the city. So, thanks for letting me tag along this weekend.” “You’re not tagging along,” Asher says and kisses my cheek. “Not coming isn’t an option.” “Oh right,” I reply and frown. “Because you’re keeping tabs on me.” “No, because I don’t want to be without you,” he whispers in my ear. “Keeping tabs on you is the excuse I use.” I roll my eyes, but I’m lit up inside. When he says things like that, I can’t help but swoon. “What are we doing this evening?” Nic asks. “I’m hungry.” “Are you okay?” Matt immediately asks her, concerned. “I’m fine.” Nic turns to me. “Don’t mind him. He freaks out when I talk about food. I’m diabetic.” “Punishments happen when you make light of it,” he says calmly, as if he’s reminding her, and my eyebrows climb into my hairline. “Excuse me?” “It’s okay,” Nic assures me. “These are punishments that I like.” I glance at Asher, who just coughs into his fist and pretends not to say, “Pervert,” making us all laugh. “Okay then.” I glance around, clearly missing the joke. “Well, it’s about dinner time anyway. Why don’t we head into the French Quarter to eat?” “Perfect,” Nic says. I nod my head in agreement and remember that I was supposed to stop by my apartment after class to change into a cute sundress and matching bra and panties I’d bought about a month ago, just in case I ever started to date again. This counts. “Why don’t you guys go ahead?” I cover the cupcakes and set them aside before I devour the rest. “I will meet you. I have to swing by my apartment.” “No.” Asher frowns and crosses his arms over his chest. “No way.” “You’re being silly.” I roll my eyes. “I’ll be there in just a little bit.” “There’s a killer out there,” Asher reminds me. “No.”

“I’ll ride with her,” Nic offers with a smile. “We’ll have girl time that way. You can drive Matt into the French Quarter, get us a table, have a beer, and we’ll be right behind you.” Asher shakes his head, but I lay my hand on his arm. “Asher. Nothing has happened in weeks. We’ll be fine.” “What do you need at your apartment?” I grin and bat my eyelashes. “Casey isn’t coming home tonight. That means I get to sleep with you all night. And I might have something pretty to show you.” His face softens, and he cups my jaw in his hand, then leans in and presses his lips to mine. “Okay. Please be careful.” “Don’t you know? Careful is my middle name.” * * * * “So,” Nic begins about five minutes away from the townhouse. “Tell me about Asher.” “Well, he has dark hair, gorgeous eyes. He’s tall, not quite as tall as Matt. His arms are To. Die. For. Seriously, he’s got muscles on his arms for days.” Nic laughs. “Okay, tell me about you and Asher.” I glance at her, to find her smiling at me. “Well, I’m completely in love with him.” “Duh.” I blink and change lanes. “That obvious, huh?” “Oh yeah.” Nic nods. “What do you love about him?” “His arms,” I reply immediately and then sober as a flood of responses fill my head. “The way he holds me. His arms are hot, but they’re also strong and when he holds me, it’s the safest I’ve ever felt.” I turn down my street. “His laugh. Sharing his coffee with me in the morning. The way he touches my face when he kisses me. How much he loves his daughter, and how he parents her.” “That’s a lot.” “And it’s only the beginning,” I reply honestly. “There’s so much to love about him.” I pull to a stop, put the car in park, and turn to my new friend. “You’re right.” Nic smiles reassuringly. “There is a lot to love about him, and I’m very glad that you see that. How did you meet?” “On an airplane last summer.” I grin, cut the engine, and turn to look at Nic. “I fell in

his lap.” “In his lap?” She giggles. “Do tell.” “Well, we had arrived here, and I was standing, trying to get my bag from the overhead compartment, and this man pushed me, sending me right into Asher’s lap.” I worry my bottom lip between my teeth. “I noticed his arms then, too. He laughed, planted his hands on my hips, and helped me up.” “Hot,” Nic says and waves her hand over her face. “So hot,” I agree. “Was that a test?” “Of course.” “Did I pass?” “With flying colors. You’re good for him. I see changes in him, all for the better. His eyes aren’t sad anymore.” Her own eyes fill with tears as she thinks. “And when he looks at you, he lights up. It’s beautiful, and I’m happy for both of you.” “Thank you.” Her words have lit me up inside. “I’ll be back in a few.” “I’ll be here,” she says and pulls her phone out of her bag. “I’ll just text my sister-inlaw, Brynna, and let her know we arrived safely.” “Great.” I jog up the steps to my apartment and let myself in. It’s strange to be here. It almost doesn’t feel like mine anymore. It smells musty, the way a place does when you’ve been on an extended vacation. I walk back to the bedroom, grab the dress and underwear from my closet, and am about to change when I hear footsteps behind me. “You can make yourself at home. I wouldn’t want to wait in the car either. It’s hot out there. I’ll be right out.” “Hello, Lila.” I spin, shocked that it isn’t Nic that’s let herself into my apartment, but Colin from class. “Colin? What are you doing in here?” “Oh, you didn’t hear me knock? I’m sorry.” He looks nervous and apologetic, so I smile reassuringly. “It’s okay, but what can I help you with? I’m on my way out.” “Oh, I just have a couple questions about class.” I frown at him, alarm bells going off like crazy. “You can ask me all the questions you want on Monday. I’d like for you to leave, please.” His face transforms from apologetic and nervous to simply…evil. A slow grin spreads over his face. His eyes grow cold. “I’m not leaving, Lila.” “What the hell is this, Colin?”

“Don’t you remember?” He’s circling me now, cracking his knuckles almost absentmindedly. “I have a date tonight.” “Yes, with the guy from Starbucks.” He nods, that creepy smile still on his face. “No. With you.” My heart kicks up into overtime, and a cold sweat breaks out over my skin. Colin is the killer! “Colin, I don’t know what you want, but I’m quite sure we can talk about this.” “Oh, we’re going to talk about it. We’re going to do a lot of talking, actually.” He’s advancing on me. My mind is racing, trying to figure out how to get past him, out of this room and outside. “You’re going to get really tired of talking. And then I’m going to cut your tongue out of your pretty little mouth.” “What?” I can’t breathe. I can’t think. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Colin. And my boyfriend knows where I am.” He laughs, the sound of it raking down my spine, making me want to throw up. “You don’t have to go willingly, Lila.” I try to run, but he grabs my arm, yanks me against him, and hits me on the head with something hard, making me black out cold.

Chapter Eight ~Asher~ “So, things are going well with Lila.” Matt sips his soda and watches me across the table of the crowded restaurant. I check my watch for the fifteenth time. The girls should be here by now. “They are.” I smirk. “Are we going to get all girlie and talk about our feelings now?” “I like her,” he says. “She’s good for you.” She’s fucking amazing. “Am I supposed to feel guilty, man?” I ask and glance out the window to the busy French Quarter. “For what?” “For moving on. For falling in love again. I loved Missy, you know I did. And it killed me when she died.” If it weren’t for Casey, I don’t know how I would have survived losing her. “Missy would be pissed that you’re even thinking about feeling guilty,” Matt replies. “Asher, you didn’t die. It’s okay to move on and live your life.” “Missy would be pissed,” I agree with a laugh. “What does Casey think of her?” My heart softens as I think of how great Lila is with my daughter. “She loves her. They have a good time together. And Lila is so patient with her. And she listens, you know? She doesn’t brush Casey off.” “I’m happy for you, friend.” “Yeah, thanks. How is the family?” “They’re all crazy,” Matt replies with a laugh. “There are so many of us now, when we get together it’s absolute chaos.” “And you wouldn’t have it any other way,” I reply dryly. Matt’s phone rings. “Hey, little one. Are you on your way?” He frowns, catches my eye, then puts the call on speaker and sets the phone on the table. “Okay, you’re on speaker. What’s going on?” “Lila was gone longer than I thought she would be,” Nic says, her voice shaky, and my entire body goes cold. “I went up to see what the hold up was, and she’s not here.” “What do you mean she’s not there?” I ask, immediately throwing bills on the table for our drinks and heading for the door. “She’s gone. Her door was wide open and she’s not here.”

“Don’t touch anything, Nic,” Matt says, right behind me, racing to the car. “We’re on our way. Go back to the car and lock the doors.” “I’m sorry,” she says with tears in her voice. “It’s going to be okay,” Matt assures her as I start the car and speed into traffic, headed to Lila’s. I pull my own phone out and call Jordan. “Hello.” “He’s got Lila.” My heart stops, saying the words out loud. “He took her from her apartment. I’m on my way there now.” “I’ll be there in ten.” She hangs up and I immediately call dispatch. “This is Lieutenant Asher Smith. I have a possible abduction, connected to an ongoing case, at 4268 Tulane Avenue. I need all available units to respond.” “Copy that, Lieutenant,” Dispatch responds. “Sending all available units.” I hang up and swear ripely. “We’re going to find her,” Matt says calmly, but his hands are in fists. I know he’s as worried as I am. “Walk me through it.” I spend the ten minutes to Lila’s apartment filling Matt in on the specifics of the case. Fuck protocol. Lila’s life is at stake. I pull into the parking lot, next to Lila’s car. Nic rushes to Matt and hugs him tightly. “I’m so sorry. She was gone for like twenty minutes, and I thought I should check. I should have gone in with her.” “No, then we might be looking for both of you.” Matt holds her face and looks her in the eyes intently. “I want you to take Lila’s car and go to Asher’s.” “I should stay and help—” “That was not a question, Nicole.” Matt’s voice is hard. “I want you out of here.” “My address is in the GPS,” I tell her as I run past and up the stairs to Lila’s apartment. The door is still standing open. I search each room, praying that Nic’s wrong and she really is here, but the rooms are empty. “When was she taken?” Jordan asks as she runs into the apartment, Matt right behind her, and I’m shocked to see my brother bring up the rear. “Less than thirty minutes,” I reply. “Thanks for coming, Mike.” “I heard the call come in. I wasn’t far away. What do we know?” “Jack shit,” I reply with frustration and pace the room. “We know he took her.” “Do we know that for sure?” Jordan asks. “She wouldn’t just leave. Yes, he took her.”

My phone rings in my pocket, and I pray it’s Lila, but it’s Kate’s office number, Lila’s best friend. I send it to voice mail and shove my fingers through my hair. “Uniforms are pulling in,” Mike says as he looks outside. “Send them out on foot patrol,” I instruct him. “I want this entire neighborhood canvassed.” “He might have taken her in a car.” I frown, fighting to think clearly. “I doubt it. Nic would have seen Lila being dragged to a car in the parking lot. Lila would have screamed.” “Not if he took her out the back,” Matt replies grimly. “They could be anywhere by now.” My phone rings again. Kate. This time I accept the call. “Kate, I don’t have time to talk.” “Lila’s on my cell phone.” Her voice is scared. “I can’t hear everything that’s happening, but she keeps saying Colin. She sounds scared. What is happening?” “Colin?” I ask and search wildly for Jordan. “Is she still on the line?” “Yes.” “Do not hang up, do you hear me?” I put Kate on speaker. “Put it on speaker and hold it up to your phone.” “Okay, but you can’t hear much. What’s happening, Asher?” “Lila’s in trouble, and you’re going to help me find her, sweetheart.” “I’m calling in to get a trace on Lila’s cell,” Jordan says, her phone already to her ear. “Please, Colin, you don’t have to do this.” My gut seizes at Lila’s scared voice, but I’m so relieved to hear that she’s still alive. “Kate, put your cell on mute. I don’t want any noises to go through Lila’s phone. I don’t want Colin to hear us.” “I already did that,” Kate says. “I did it as soon as I realized Lila was in trouble.” “Good girl,” Matt says. “And who the fuck is Colin?” “It has to be Colin Forester, from her history class,” Jordan says then speaks back into her phone. “Yes, I need a trace on 504-555-3297, now. There’s a live call on it right now.” “Talk to me about Colin,” Matt says. I rack my brain, trying to picture the boy. “He’s in her class and the study group. Roughly five foot six, bald. He had solid alibis for every murder.” “He escorted Cheyenne home the night she was killed,” Jordan adds. “And had an alibi ten minutes later,” I remind her. “His roommate said she heard him come home. But could she be covering for him?”

Jordan speaks into her phone again, barking instructions for the trace on Lila’s phone. “Bald?” Matt asks with a frown. “Like, he might have a full head of hair if he let it grow?” “Yes.” My eyes narrow. “Son of a bitch. He shaves so he doesn’t leave evidence. Where is that trace?” “They’re working on it,” Jordan says. “No, please don’t,” Lila says through my phone. “Asher, he’s going to hurt her,” Kate says urgently. “He just said something about her fingers.” Jordan and I lock gazes. “He has a thing for cutting off his victims fingers.” “Motherfucker,” Mike mutters. “Get an address for Colin,” I tell my brother. “No need, we have a trace,” Jordan says, her eyes confused. “Where is she?” “Asher, she’s here.” “Clearly she’s not,” I reply angrily. “What the fuck?” “The address is here.” “She’s in another apartment,” Matt says. “Fan out,” I order and head for the door. “Break down every fucking door in this complex.”

Chapter Nine ~Lila~ “Wake up, Lila.” My head is screaming. “Come on, I didn’t hit you that hard. Don’t be a pussy or this won’t be any fun.” “I need to throw up.” “Fine. There’s a bucket next to you.” He sighs, as if he’s horribly disappointed in me. “I really thought you’d be a better sport than this.” I reach for it and lose my lunch, then open my eyes and take in my surroundings. I’m on a couch in an apartment that looks very much like mine. Colin from my class is sitting in a chair across the room from me. “I’m not tied up?” I ask inanely. Jesus, I’ve been kidnapped, and all I can think to say is I’m not tied up? “If you try to run, I’ll simply kill you,” he replies calmly. His face, his body, everything about him is perfectly steady, as though he does this every day. “Tying you up would take some of the fun out of what I have planned.” He stands and begins to pace the room. I glance over to the front door to see that it’s locked with a padlock. No escaping that way. Colin is rattling around in the kitchen, and I take this opportunity to pat my pockets, praying for my phone, and find it. I have time to dial the last number I called, lock it, and stuff it back in my pocket before he comes back in the room. Please, Kate, pick up. “Now that you’re awake, I’ll start setting up.” He smiles happily, even joyfully, and begins laying syringes and different medical instruments on the coffee table. “We can chat while I work.” “Why are you doing this?” “Well, it’s easier to have these things on hand so I don’t have to go back and forth to the kitchen.” He laughs at his own joke, having a great time, and I just feel like I have to throw up again. God, how am I going to get out of this? “Colin, I like you.” “Do you?” He smiles, then all expression leaves his face. “Is that why you flunked me out of your class last semester?” “You failing the class had nothing to do with whether I like you.” “I didn’t fail!” he yells angrily. “You flunked me!”

I swallow hard as I watch him reign in his temper. “I’ve never failed a class before, you know.” He begins laying tools out again, perfectly calm. “I am in pre-med. I don’t fail classes. I had to pay for that fucking class twice.” “Really? All of this because you failed a class?” “I DON’T FAIL CLASSES!” “Why did you hurt those girls?” I ask, trying to distract him by changing the subject. “Because I was trying to scare you.” He smiles smugly. “And it worked. Eventually. At first you didn’t seem very scared, so I just made more of a mess and got your attention.” “You tortured them?” “Of course.” He shrugs, like it’s no big deal. “Well, I didn’t torment the first one the way I wanted to. I was nervous with her. So, I fucked her, then I beat her until she died.” I swallow hard, wanting to throw up again. Jesus, what those girls went through, all because of me. “But, hey, live and learn, you know?” He winks. “It was so easy to fool all of you. Did you seriously think I was gay?” “I didn’t really pay attention.” “Sure you did.” He sits back on his heels and tips his head to the side. “I told you I had a date with a boy.” “Okay.” “Now you’re just trying to hurt my feelings. I know you’ve been paying attention to me.” He shakes his finger at me. “You’re a naughty girl.” “Colin, you don’t have to do this.” “I begged you not to fail me.” “I asked you to come to study group so I could help you,” I remind him, stalling for time. “Your study group is a fucking joke,” he replies. “But, I found some fun playmates that way. That last one? Cheyenne? What a cock tease.” “She was your friend.” And sweet, and young. “She led me on,” he replies sharply. “She wanted me.” I take a deep breath, praying that Kate has heard this and called Asher. Where is Asher? What if this maniac kills me and I never get to tell Asher that I love him? What about Casey? Tears fill my eyes, making Colin laugh. “Tears don’t work on me, Lila. All of the others cried too.”

“Are you going to rape me, Colin?” “Of course.” He shakes his head like I’m an idiot. “Did you get my notes? I’m surprised you didn’t know this was coming. I sent notes for you.” “With the victims.” He simply raises a brow. “I saw the last one.” “See, that’s where I fucked up.” He sighs dejectedly. “I should have sent them to you directly and not left them with the girls. But, I thought it was more dramatic that way. It didn’t occur to me that the cops wouldn’t show them to you.” “Is that why you named me specifically in the last one?” “Yeah. But then you had to spread your legs for that fucking cop and he took you away.” He glares at me. “God, you’re such a whore. What was the purpose of moving into your building, knowing your schedule better than my own, if that dick was just going to suddenly decide to protect you and take you away?” He’s been living in my building? “I thought you lived with Stacy.” “I rented this place under my mom’s name.” He smiles, proud of himself again. “I come and go as I please, and watch you. Well, I watched you until that fucker of a cop moved you in with him. You must be an amazing fuck.” He grins. “I’ll find out for myself soon enough.” “He’s going to come looking for me, Colin.” Bile has risen in the back of my throat. “True. So we better get started.” He claps his hands gleefully and reaches for a syringe. “I planned this all perfectly. I didn’t leave even one clue for the cops. Why do you think I shave my head? I shave my whole fucking body so I never leave any hair behind. No DNA. No prints.” “So you’re just going to murder me in your apartment?” I ask calmly. “You’ll get caught.” “I’ll claim I found you.” He shrugs carelessly. “Everyone thinks I’m weak and sweet. They’ll overlook me.” He comes at me with the syringe. “What is that?” “Oh, don’t worry. It won’t kill you. It’ll just make you really groggy so I can have fun with you without you fighting me.” “Colin, please.” I try to scramble away, but he sticks the needle in my arm and shoots it into my body. “See? Otherwise you’ll fight me.” He smiles and walks away. “Don’t worry, it’ll make you sleepy, but I’ll keep you awake.” He grabs hedge trimmers and inspects them. “I think that after I fuck you, I’ll take your fingers off first.”

Jesus, I’m going to be sick. I’m sweaty now, panting, and already starting to feel fuzzy. “Please don’t do this,” I whisper and feel myself start to slip into sleep, but suddenly Colin slaps me across the face. “No sleeping,” he says harshly. “You’re gonna want to feel me inside you, Lila. I’m fucking amazing.” “No.” He lifts my dress, knocking my phone out of my pocket and onto the floor, face down, thank God. “You won’t need that anyway.” He reaches for my panties. My arms are heavy. Everything is heavy. I can’t fight him off. Suddenly, the door is knocked open with a crash and Matt rushes in, yelling, “In here!” as he attacks Colin, pulling him off of me and punching him in the jaw. “You can’t hit him,” Jordan says from the doorway. God, I’m sleepy. My eyes close, but I try to stay awake to hear what’s happening. They saved me! “I’m not on the job,” Matt says calmly and I hear him hit Colin again. “Baby?” Asher! “Baby, wake up.” His hands are on my face and I fight to open my eyes. He looks scared. “Lila, stay with me.” “Can’t stay awake.” “What did you give her?” Matt asks, but I don’t hear Colin respond. “Gotta sleep.” “I need an ambulance—” I hear Jordan’s voice call for the ambulance, and I can feel Asher’s amazing hands slip under me and lift me against him. God, I love his arms. There is nothing better than being in his arms. “Love you,” I whisper into his neck. “God, I love you too, baby. You’re going to be okay.” I smile, relieved, and I can’t fight it anymore. I’m so heavy. * * * * “Open those gorgeous eyes, baby.” My head hurts. I can’t move. It feels like I’m moving through water. What happened?

Was I in an accident? And then it all comes crashing back. Colin, knocking me out, evil, telling me about the girls. He’s going to kill me! I lash out, struggling to move, but when I open my eyes, it’s Asher holding me, his mouth grim and eyes hard. “Asher?” “You’re safe, Lila. You’re okay. Shhh.” The tears come fast and hard and I collapse against him as he joins me on the hospital bed, holding me tight, crooning to me as I cry out the fear. “I was so scared,” I whisper. “About ten years have been taken off my life today,” he agrees and plants his lips on my head. “You’re so fucking smart, Lila. Calling Kate was genius.” “It worked?” “Perfectly. She called me and we traced your phone. That’s how we found you.” “Thank God.” I hold onto him tightly. “Colin?” “In custody, bragging about his victims. He’s going away for a very long time.” I nod, suddenly sad for him too. “He’s just a kid.” “He’s a fucking murderer, Lila.” “I know.” I frown and pull back so I can see Asher’s face. “Thank you, for finding me. For rescuing me.” “I will always find you,” he replies and wipes my tears away with his thumbs. “God, Lila, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t find you in time. It was the most helpless, worthless feeling in the world. You’ve become one of the two most important people in my life. I can’t lose you.” “I’m right here.” I grip on to his wrists. “Asher, I love you. I was so sad that I might not get to tell you that. I know it happened fast, and it seems crazy, but I am so in love with you and Casey both, and the thought of not having you in my life is…devastating.” “Ah sweetheart.” He kisses my forehead, then my lips. “I love you.” “Can I come in?” Casey asks from the doorway. “Of course.” I grin at the sweet girl as she walks to the bed and climbs right up with me, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Are you okay?” she asks with wide, worried eyes. “I’m still a little groggy, but I’m doing much better.” “Daddy was scared,” she whispers to me and I feel Asher grin beside me. “I was scared too,” I reply and brush her pretty red hair over her shoulder. “But I’m

fine.” “Okay.” She suddenly frowns. “When can you come home?” I blink rapidly at the question. Home. But the townhouse that Asher and Casey share isn’t my home. “In a few hours,” Asher replies. “As soon as the stuff making her tired is out of her body.” “You can take me to my apartment,” I say softly, secretly scared to death of staying even one minute in that place alone. “Why?” he asks, sincerely puzzled. “It’s my home.” “No it isn’t,” Casey interrupts. I simply look between both of these people that I’ve come to love so much. Asher takes my hand and kisses my knuckles. “Home is where we are, Lila.” I feel tears fill my eyes and try to blink them away. “Don’t you want to stay with us?” Casey asks. “Of course,” I reply and kiss her cheek. “Of course I do.” “But you’re not staying in the spare bedroom anymore,” Asher informs me. “Of course.” I grin and am suddenly swept up in Asher’s strong arms, held close to his chest, and I hold my arms out for Casey, who happily joins us. Home. Home is where they are.

Epilogue One Year Later ~Asher~ She’s in my arms, which is exactly where she belongs, and where I intend to keep her for about the next sixty years. The music is soft and slow. Twinkling lights are in the trees overhead, the ancient oak trees are heavy with Spanish moss, and about fifty of our nearest and dearest are looking on as I dance with my wife for the first time. “I’m so glad we had the wedding here,” Lila murmurs happily. “It was so nice of Kate to hook up with a family that has a gorgeous bed and breakfast in the bayou.” “So nice of her,” I agree with a smirk. “You make me laugh.” “I’ll make you laugh for a long time,” she says sweetly. Her long hair is swept back from her face, and the dress she’s in is amazing. I know that ten years from now I won’t remember exactly what it looked like, but I’ll remember that she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. “You’re a good dancer,” she says. “Those lessons paid off,” I reply and roll my eyes. “Why did we do the lessons again?” “Because it was fun, and so we could dance here like this.” “I don’t need lessons to dance with my wife.” Her smile is bright and wide, and makes the breath catch in my lungs. “You say the sweetest things. Is that going to stop now that I’m the ball and chain?” I chuckle and kiss her forehead, breathing her in. “You’re not the ball and chain.” “Battle-ax?” “No.” “The old lady?” “Stop.” I kiss her lightly, earning applause from our family and friends. “You’re the best part of my life, Delila. From day one, life has been so easy with you. You fell into my lap on that plane, and since that moment, all I could see, all I wanted, was you.” “You saved me,” she whispers in return. “And I don’t mean from Colin.” “I know.” She leans in and lays her cheek on my chest, breaking the hold we learned in class, and we’re just swaying back and forth now, under the twinkling lights, in the fresh night air of the bayou, and nothing has ever felt so right in my life.

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Easy Love Boudreaux Series, Book 1 By Kristen Proby Now Available! Click here to purchase. Did you enjoy your time in New Orleans? Here is an excerpt from EASY LOVE, book one in the Boudreaux Series, available NOW from all major retailers! * * * * My head whips up to stare at Eli. He shoves his hands in his pockets and swears under his breath as he hangs his head then glances back up at me, looking at me like he doesn’t really want to be here, and he’s not quite sure if he likes me. “You don’t have to stay,” I inform him stiffly. “I don’t expect you to work today at all, from here or the office.” “Why ever not?” I lean back in the chair and frown up at him. “You’re paying me to work.” “You’ve traveled all morning, Kate. Settle in. Eat something. In fact, let me take you out to eat something.” “I don’t think that’s necessary.” “I do.” He removes his suit jacket after taking his sunglasses out of the inside pocket and drapes it over the back of the sofa. He rolls the sleeves of the white shirt that molds over his muscled torso all the way up to his elbows, unbuttons the top two buttons, and removes his soft blue tie. “That’s better. Go change into something more comfortable, and I’ll feed you the best jambalaya you’ve ever had.” “I’ve never had jambalaya before,” I reply with a raspy voice. I can’t tear my eyes off his broad shoulders. “This will ruin you for all other jambalaya; I promise you.” I frown and meet his gaze, trying to figure him out. “Are you sure?” He nods and waits expectantly. I have a feeling not many people say no to Eli Boudreaux. “I’m not going to sleep with you.” The words are out of my mouth before I can reel them back in. I feel my face flame, but I tilt my chin up and square my shoulders firmly. “I didn’t invite you to,” he replies calmly, but his eyes are full of humor.

I nod and walk back to the bedroom to change into a light summer dress, slather on sunblock with SPF 4000 to protect my white, freckled skin, and then rejoin Eli, who is now looking out my windows. “You’re always looking out windows,” I remark with a smile. He turns to me and his eyes heat as he looks me up and down, and I suddenly feel very exposed. “You’ll burn, cher.” “I’m wearing sunblock.” “Do you always argue?” he asks. “I don’t argue.” He holds my gaze for a moment and then tosses his head back and laughs, shakes his head, and leads me out into the hot afternoon. “Let’s go this way first.” He turns to the left and rests his hand on the small of my back again, ever the gentleman, walking me down Royal Street. If you’d asked me yesterday if I thought I’d be walking in the French Quarter with the sexiest man I’d ever seen by my side, I would have told you to consult a doctor. And Eli Boudreaux is sexy. But he’s not mine, and he never will be. He’s my boss, and he’s being kind. I take a deep breath, determined to pull my head out of the gutter and enjoy New Orleans, when Eli pulls me into a trendy shoe and accessory shop called Head Over Heels. “Shoes!” I exclaim, already salivating. Okay, so the man is showing me shoes. I might sleep with him after all. “Hats,” he corrects me. “Holy crap, what are you doing here?” A woman with short, dark hair and full lips smiles from behind the counter. “Kate needs a hat,” Eli replies and grins as his sister launches herself into his arms and holds on tight. “Been a minute,” she whispers in his ear in the same New Orleans drawl. Eli grins. “You saw me at Mama’s last Sunday.” “Been a minute,” she replies and steps back, smiling at me. “Hi, Kate. It’s good to see you again.” “You too, Charly.” I’m pulled into another hug—the Boudreaux family is an affectionate bunch, and the middle sister, Charlotte, is no different from the rest. “What can I do for you two?” “Kate needs a hat,” Eli repeats. “I do?” “Oh, yes, sugar, you do,” Charly replies with a nod. “We need to keep the sun off your face and shoulders. Let’s see…” She leads us to the back of the shop and pulls three

hats off the wall, all wide-brimmed and pretty. “I think green is your color, with that beautiful auburn hair and your pretty green eyes.” “Thank you, but this hair is about to be a curly tangled mess with all this humidity.” “I know the feeling. I’ll make a list of hair products to use while you try these on.” She jogs back to her counter as I plop the first hat on my head. It’s pink, not quite as widely brimmed as the green, and makes me look like a mushroom. “Try the green one,” Eli suggests, but instead I pull on one with a rainbow of colors. It looks like a box of Crayolas exploded all over it. Eli just watches me in the mirror with humor-filled eyes and crosses his arms over his impressive chest. “You do have beautiful hair.” “Thank you.” His jaw ticks. If he doesn’t like giving out compliments, why does he say anything at all? “Oh no, dawlin’, the green one,” Charly says as she rejoins us. I smirk as I put the green hat on and sigh as I realize that she and Eli were right. “Looks like this is the winner,” I say with a grin. “I’ll take it.” I pull my wallet out of my handbag, but Eli lays his hand over mine and shakes his head. “Bill me,” he tells Charly, who smiles and nods happily, while handing me a list of hair products to try, waving at us as Eli leads me back out into the heat. “Feel better?” “Hmm,” I murmur, but, oh, God, yes, it feels so much better. “Thanks for the hat.” “You are welcome,” he replies, his accent making me squirm again. I met this man just a few hours ago, and so far, everything he does makes me squirm. Not good. Not good at all. “Tell me about yourself,” I say, surprising myself. All I know is, I need to get my brain on something other than the mass of testosterone walking next to me. We cross the street, me on the outside, and Eli immediately trades places with me, tucking me next to him away from the street. “Chivalry isn’t dead,” I whisper. “No, dawlin’, it’s not.” He flashes me a quick smile before leading me to a café with beautiful courtyard seating. “It’s surprisingly cool in here,” I murmur after we’re seated. “The trees keep it cool,” the waitress says with a smile. “Need a minute with the menu?” “Do you eat seafood?” Eli asks me. “Yes,” I reply. “Good. We’ll both have the seafood jambalaya, please.” The waitress nods and walks away, leaving us alone. “Now, tell me more about your plans to catch the person stealing from my company.” “You didn’t answer my question first,” I reply, and butter a piece of the bread the

waitress just set down for us. “What question?” “Tell me about you.” “I don’t matter.” His voice is calm, but sure. Final. He leans back, folds his arms, and shutters immediately close over his eyes. Interesting. “It’s your company, so yes, I do believe you matter.” “All you need to know about me is that I’m your boss, you’ll be paid timely, and I expect nothing but your best on this job.” I set my bread on a small white plate and lean back, mirroring his pose with my arms crossed. “Actually, I believe it was Savannah who hired me, and I don’t ever give less than my best. Ever.” He raises a brow and cocks his head to the side. “Beau, Savannah, and I hold equal shares and equal interest in the company. All three of us are your bosses, Kate.” “Understood.” He watches me for several minutes. I can’t figure him out. He has moments of being so kind, nice, and I think he may be attracted to me, and then the walls come slamming down and he’s distant, impersonal, and borderline rude. Which is it?

On behalf of 1001 Dark Nights, Liz Berry and M.J. Rose would like to thank ~ Steve Berry Doug Scofield Kim Guidroz Jillian Stein Dan Slater Asha Hossain Chris Graham Pamela Jamison Jessica Johns Richard Blake BookTrib After Dark InkSlinger PR and Simon Lipskar

Table of Contents Book Description Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Epilogue