Yeah. She sits beside me on my bed. I’m sorry. I cry. She stays with me until I can’t cry any longer. Christmas Day. Mainly I hang out beside the tree and attempt to read one of my presents. It’s a book about a man-eating tiger, but I can’t muster up any of my usual enthusiasm. My parents don’t ask me to help them in the kitchen, and Gen picks up the extra slack. Even Hattie silently takes over my portion of the dirty dishes. That’s when I know things are really bad. I peek at my phone before bed and discover only two missed calls. No messages. Either he’s getting the picture, or he’s respecting my Christmas Tree Agnosticism. Even thinking that phrase hurts. May I come in? But Gen is inside before I can answer. I drop the phone back between my socks and slam the drawer shut. I used a desk drawer, she says. When my girlfriend broke up with me. Sarah broke up with you? Now I feel awful about that, too. Yeah. Right after Thanksgiving, actually. Did she call you a lot afterward? No. Gen gives me a sad smile. I hid my phone for the opposite reason. Oh. I’m sorry. She shrugs. Doesn’t matter. It sucks either way, right? I sit on my bed, and she sits beside me and places her head on my shoulder. We’re the same height. Strangers have often mistaken us for twins. Do you still miss her? I ask. A little. It’s better every day, though. Why’d you break up? She sort of laughs. Apparently, I’m domineering. I’m replaceable. Gen lifts her head, hackles raised. He said that? No, but it’s true. He fell for me because I was there. I could’ve been anyone. Don’t say that. Why do you say things like that? Because that’s what happened. She stares at me in disbelief. You’ve always been so hard on yourself. I stare at my hands. I am hard on myself. But isn’t it better to be honest about these things before someone else can use them against you? Before someone else can break your heart? Isn’t it better to break it yourself? I thought honesty made people strong. Hey. Gen nudges me. Show me what’s in the tube. My head shoots up, and she shrugs. I saw him drop it off yesterday. I can’t stop myself. How’d he look? Like you’d torn out his heart and stomped on it with your tallest stilettos. I’m a bad person. I’ve hurt him. I never wanted to hurt him, and somehow it happened anyway. Do you really think breaking up with him was the right thing to do? Gen asks. I don’t know. But I shake my head. That’s not true. It was right. It was. But you still love him. I swallow. Yeah. A lot. Yeah. She pauses. Would it make it better or worse if you showed me what’s in the tube? Ohmygod. You’re relentless. The word was ‘domineering’. Get it right. Ugh. Fine. Gen opens my sock drawer. I had a feeling I’d find you here, she tells the tube. She pops off the top and gently taps out the paper. She unrolls it. Whoa, Nelly. Shit. I’d forgotten he drew us naked. So. You guys were serious. Please, Gen. Don’t. Is that a Joshua tree? On an island? Yeah. Well…fuck. That’s a really romantic gift. I know. He’s good. The art, she clarifies. I mean, he was good when he was a freshman, but this doesn’t look like it was drawn by someone in high school. Not even a talented someone in high school. This is, like, the real deal. Will you please stop complimenting my ex-boyfriend? Ex-boyfriend. The word tastes sick on my tongue. I hadn’t even let myself think it until now. Every single part of me wants to take the word back. I’m just saying he’s talented. Why don’t you tell me more about Sarah? Gen rolls up the drawing and slides it back into the tube. You win. But she’s wrong. I’ve lost everything. One miserable week and no phone calls later. No messages. New Year’s Eve. There’s shouting and singing and general drunken revellery down on the street. Our neighbours have been blasting dubstep for the last three hours. I’ve been watching television in my bedroom alone. Just like Josh and I talked about on our first date. Ten minutes until midnight. Josh and I were planning to meet at Kismet. We were going to ring in the new year with a kiss. I’ve never had a New Year’s kiss. Nothing about this decision has gotten any easier. That awful word torments me. Ex-boyfriend. I can’t accept it as the truth. I don’t think…I don’t…I don’t know why I’m doing this any more. I think I freaked out that night in the car. I know I freaked out. And I have a very deep, very ugly gut feeling that I’ve made a mistake. Josh told me that I’ll never know what kind of person I am if I don’t take any risks. Apologizing would be a risk, grovelling would be a risk, begging for his forgiveness on my knees would be a risk. What have I done? I love him. Of course he’s worth the risk. Suddenly, I’m ripping off my pyjamas and throwing on a dress and coat and boots. I’m racing past my sleepy parents in the living room, and I’m shouting that I’ll be right back. I’m ignoring their cries of concern. I’m running downstairs, onto the pavement, across the street. The air is frosty and sharp, and the wind is strong. Josh, I’m coming. I know you’re there. Please don’t leave. I tear around the corner, and there it is. My beacon of hope. I race towards its glowing front window, dodging taxis and bumping into a guy being shouldered home by a friend. There’s a loud cry of anger, but I keep running until I burst through Kismet’s shining glass door. The café is still open. But it’s empty. Two employees are sitting at a table. They look up at my entrance, surprised. Excuse me, but is there a guy here? I’m panting, but I have to raise my voice over the loud rock music blasting from the speakers. Was there a guy here? About my age?
My friend’s eyes burned into me.I wanted him to leave, but he wouldn’t. He’d never given me room to mope in my past, and he sure as hell wouldn’t now. He believed I’d grown up; lost my diabolical need to hurt. What he didn’t know was I was better at negotiating deals with the monster living inside me. Those needs weren’t gone. The anger and rage at the filth of the world hadn’t faded. If I could trade places with one of the mercenaries I’d hired and kill a few traffickers with my bare hands, I would. I wasn’t growing soft in my old age. I was growing more and more lethal.
It was yet another reason why I’d condemned myself to this future. Because the alternative was too fucking terrifying to contemplate.Have you told her yet? Frederick refilled his glass, keeping pace with me. Thank hell the helicopter was on standby to take me home because we would be over the limit within minutes.Last night, I’d restrained myself. I’d had the strength to soul search and compartmentalize what I needed to say to Tess. Tonight was about giving myself some freedom.
If Frederick wanted to drink with me, then fine and fucking dandy. No.I shrugged, taking another shot.
You have to get it out in the open, Q. You’ve never kept any secrets before. He massaged his neck from working all day. Besides, she’s already guessed. She said she’d seen the paperwork. She’s smart.
I know she’s smart. But I’ve given no indication of wanting this before now. I even told her at the start of our relationship that I didn’t want it at all. Why would she put two and two together?over. His fingers slide through my hair and hold it back while I scrub. His physical presence against me is soothing. The face powder, mascara, false eyelashes, and blush disappear. I dry my face, and my eyes find his in the mirror. My skin is bare and pink. He stares back with unguarded desire. Nathan clears his throat from the doorway, and we startle. So what are we going to do about your hair? he asks. My heart falls. I guess I’ll wear a different wig. Something simple. Maybe . . . maybe I can help, Cricket says. I do have some experience. With hair. I frown. Cricket. You’ve had that same hair your entire life. Don’t tell me you style it that way yourself. No, but . . . He rubs the back of his neck. Sometimes I help Call with hers before competitions. My eyebrows raise. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said it was a seriously embarrassing skill for a straight guy. You’re the best, I say. Only you would think that. But he looks pleased. It’s in this moment that I finally register what he’s wearing. It’s a handsome skinny black suit with a shiny sheen. The pants are too short—on purpose, of course—exposing his usual pointy shoes and a pair of pale blue socks that match my dress exactly. And I totally want to jump him. Tick tock, Nathan says. I scooch past Cricket, back into my bedroom. He gestures to my desk chair, so I lift my skirts up and around the back, and I find a way to sit down. And then he finger-combs my hair. His hands are gentle and quick, the movements smooth and assured. I close my eyes. The room is silent as his fingertips untangle the strands from roots to tips and run loose throughout my hair. I lean back into him. It feels like my entire body is blossoming. He leans over and whispers in my ear, They’ve gone. I look up, and, sure enough, my parents have left the door ajar. But they’re gone. We smile. Cricket resumes his work, and I nestle into his hands. My eyes close again. After a few minutes, he clears his throat. I, um, have something to tell you. My eyes remain shut, but my eyebrows lift in curiosity. What kind of something? A story, he says. His words become dreamlike, almost hypnotic, as if he’s told this to himself a hundred times before. Once upon a time, there was a girl who talked to the moon. And she was mysterious and she was perfect, in that way that girls who talk to moons are. In the house next door, there lived a boy. And the boy watched the girl grow more and more perfect, more and more beautiful with each passing year. He watched her watch the moon. And he began to wonder if the moon would help him unravel the mystery of the beautiful girl. So the boy looked into the sky. But he couldn’t concentrate on the moon. He was too distracted by the stars. I hear Cricket remove a rubber band from his wrist, which he uses to hold a twist of my hair. Go on, I say. I hear the smile in his voice. And it didn’t matter how many songs or poems had already been written about them, because whenever he thought about the girl, the stars shone brighter. As if she were the one keeping them illuminated. One day, the boy had to move away. He couldn’t bring the girl with him, so he brought the stars. When he’d look out his window at night, he would start with one. One star. And the boy would make a wish on it, and the wish would be her name. At the sound of her name, a second star would appear. And then he’d wish her name again, and the stars would double into four. And four became eight, and eight became sixteen, and so on, in the greatest mathematical equation the universe had ever seen. And by the time an hour had passed, the sky would be filled with so many stars that it would wake his neighbors. People wondered who’d turned on the floodlights. The boy did. By thinking about the girl. My eyes open, and my heart is in my throat. Cricket . . . I’m not that. He stops pinning my hair. What do you mean? You’ve built up this idea about me, this ideal, but I’m not that person. I’m not perfect. I am far from perfect. I’m not worth such a beautiful story. Lola. You are the story. But a story is just that. It isn’t the truth. Cricket returns to his work. The pink roses are added. I know you aren’t perfect. But it’s a person’s imperfections that make them perfect for someone else. Another pin slides into place as I catch sight of the back of his hand. A star. Every star he’s drawn onto his skin has been for me. I glance at my doorway to make sure it’s still empty, and I grab his hand. He looks at it. I trace my thumb around the star. He looks at me. His eyes are so painfully, exquisitely blue. And I pull him down into me, and I plant my lips against his, which are loose with surprise and shock. And I kiss Cricket Bell with everything that’s been building inside of me, everything since he moved back, everything since that summer, everything since our childhood. I kiss him like I’ve never kissed anyone before. He doesn’t move. His lips aren’t moving. My head jerks back in alarm. I’ve acted rashly, I’ve pushed him too quickly— He collapses to his knees and yanks me back to his lips. His kiss isn’t even remotely innocent. There’s passion, but there’s also an urgency verging on panic. He pulls me closer, as close as my dress and my chair allow, and he’s gripping me so tightly that I feel his fingers press through the back of my stays. I pull back, gasping for breath. Reeling. His breath is ragged, and I place my hands on his cheeks to steady him. Is this okay? I whisper. Are you okay? His reply is anguished. Honest. I love you. Chapter thirty-four Moonlight shines into my bedroom and reveals his fragile state. I didn’t say it so you’d say it back, he says. Please don’t say it if you don’t mean it. I can wait. I rise and detach my gown from the chair. And then I help him stand, and I place his hands around my waist. I lean onto my tiptoes, rest my fingers against the back of his neck, and kiss him gently. Slowly. His tongue finds mine. Our hearts beat faster and faster, and our kisses grow hotter and hotter, until we burst apart from breathlessness. I smile, dizzily, and touch my swollen lips. These are not the kisses of a sweet, wholesome boy next door. I draw him closer by his tie and whisper into his ear, Cricket Bell, I have been in love with you for my entire life. He doesn’t say anything. But his fingers tighten against the back of my bodice. I ache to press my body into his, but my dress is making full contact impossible. I wiggle into a slightly better position. He glances down and notices that I’m still wearing a certain blue something, and, this time, it’s his index finger that wraps underneath my rubber band. I shiver wonderfully. I’m never taking it off. Cricket brushes the delicate skin of my wrist. It’ll fall off. I’ll ask you for another one. I’ll give you another one. He smiles and touches his nose to mine. And then he spasms violently and pushes me away. Someone is coming upstairs. Cricket grabs the songbird off my desk and shoves it into my hair as Andy pops his head in. My dad gives us a look. Just making sure everything is okay. It’s getting late. You should get going. We’ll be down in a minute, I say. You’re not even wearing shoes. Or makeup. Five minutes. I’m timing it. Andy disappears. And it’ll be Nathan up here next, he calls out. So what do you think? Cricket asks. You’re good. Very, very good. I poke his chest, giddy with the knowledge that I can touch him now whenever I want. How did you get so good? It’s safe to say that you’re the one who brings it out of me. He pokes my stomach. But I meant your hair. I’m beaming as I turn toward the mirror, and . . . OH. The updo looks professional. It’s tall and splendid and elaborate, but it doesn’t overwhelm me. It complements me. This is . . . it’s . . . perfect. You will never tell anyone I did that on pain of death. But he’s grinning. Thank you. I pause, and then I look down at my pale blue fingernails. You know that thing you said about someone being perfect for someone else? Yeah? My eyes lift back to his. I think you’re perfect, too. Perfect for me. And . . . you look amazing tonight.You always do. Cricket blinks. And then again. Did I black out? Because I’ve daydreamed those words a thousand times, but I never thought you’d actually say them. THREE MINUTES, Andy calls from downstairs. We break into nervous laughter. Cricket shakes his head to refocus. Boots, he says. Socks. I point them out, and while he finishes prepping them, I mascara my lashes, powder my face, and gloss my lips. The makeup is dropped into my purse. I have a feeling I’ll need retouching before I come home. Cricket sweeps me up by my waist and carries me to the bed, and I’m lifting my skirts as he sets me down on the edge. His eyes widen, but it turns into more laughter when he sees how many layers are underneath. I grin. There’s more than panniers under here. Just give me your foot. From downstairs: ONE MINUTE. Cricket kneels and takes my left foot into his hands. The sock comes on too fast. My boot squeaks as he slides it over my leg. His careful, quick fingers lace it all the way up to my knee, where they linger ever so slightly. I close my eyes, praying for the clock to stop. He tugs and tightens the buckles. And then he repeats everything on the other side. Somehow, this is the sexiest thing that has ever happened to me. I wish I had more feet, I say. We can do this again. He tightens the last buckle. Anytime. There’s a knock against my door frame as Betsy eagerly bounds toward us. My parents are both here. Cricket helps me stand. Nathan’s expression softens into astonishment. Wow. I hesitate. Good wow? Standing ovation wow, Cricket says. The way everyone is staring makes me nervous again. I turn toward the mirror, and I see . . . a magnificent gown and beautiful hair and a glowing face. And the reflection smiling back at me is Lola. One more, Andy says. From the side, so we can see the bird in your hair. I turn my head to pose for another picture. This is the last one. Did you get a shot with the boots? Nathan asks. Show us the boots. I lift my hem and smile. Tick tock.
I am trying really hard not to use the word ‘fabulous’ right now, Andy says. But I feel fabulous. My parents take two more rounds of pictures—one with both of us and one with just Cricket—before we make our escape into the foggy night. Getting to the sidewalk requires folding the panniers, lifting my skirts, and stepping sideways down the stairs. We’re walking to my school, because it’s close. Also, because I can’t fit into a car. Hey! There they are! Aleck appears on the porch next door. Abby is on his hip. I wave, and her eyes grow HUGE like when she saw the wild green parrots in the park. Ohhhh, she says. You guys look great, Aleck calls down. Crazy. But great. We grin our thanks and say goodbye. Unsurprisingly, the dress makes it difficult to maneuver down the sidewalk—I frequently have to turn to the side, and hand-holding is tricky—but we make our way down the first block. Are they still watching? I ask. Cricket looks back. All four of them. My stomach is fluttering, but the butterflies are happy and anticipatory. We’re both waiting for the same moment. We finally turn a corner, and Cricket pulls me into the purple-black shadows of the first house. Our mouths crush against each other. My hands rake through his hair, tugging him closer. He tries to back me against the wall, but I bounce off it. Our lips are still touching as we laugh. Hold on. I hoist up the structure of my dress, but I fold it the other way this time, so that the lifted, flat surface is in the back. Okay. Try again. He does it slowly this time, pushing his entire figure against mine, using his h*ps to press me against the house. It doesn’t matter how much fabric is between us, the solid strength of his body against mine is electric. Charged. And then our arms are enveloping and our fingers are digging and our mouths are searching and our bodies find this lock. And if I’m the stars, Cricket Bell is entire galaxies. The winter wind spirals around us, cold and bitter, but the space between us is hot and sweet. His scent makes me ravenous. I kiss his neck in a downward trail, and I can’t hear it over the wind, but I feel him moan. His fingers easily, gracefully slide through the laces of my stays and work their way around the chemise underneath. They stroke only the smallest square of my back, but the tremor runs the full length of my spine. Our mouths clasp again. We press against each other harder. His fingers slip out of my stays. They move from my back to my front, and for the first time ever, I wish this dress were less complicated. My next one will be much smaller, a single layer, with a thin silk that will allow me to feel everything. Cricket breaks away, his eyes wild. We have to stop. If we don’t stop now . . . I know. Even though all I want to do is keep going. But he wraps his arms around me, and he holds me as if I were about to fly away with the wind. He holds me until our hearts stop pounding so furiously. He holds me until we can breathe again. The fog is still heavy, and the sidewalks are packed, but everyone sees us coming. They part aside with claps and cheers. Our smiles as are full as our hearts. As we promenade down the glittery sidewalks of the Castro, I feel as if we’re in a music video. A woman with a pompadour gives Cricket a fist pump, and the man with the Care Bears tattoo who owns the environmentally friendly dry cleaners gives us both wolf whistles. Or maybe just Cricket. He does look hot. We turn the last corner toward my school, and he pulls me into the privacy of another gap between houses. I look up at him teasingly through my eyelashes. You know, I just reapplied my lip gloss. But Cricket is suddenly nervous. Very nervous. His expression fills me with apprehension. Is . . . everything okay? I ask. He places a hand inside the inner pocket of his suit jacket. I wanted to give you this for Christmas, and then for New Year’s. But I couldn’t get it ready in time. And then I thought it’d make a better gift for tonight anyway, assuming, of course, that you’d come with me to the dance. But then I couldn’t give it to you in your bedroom, because it was too bright inside, so I had to wait until we were outside, because it’s dark outside— Cricket! What is it? He swallows. Sohereitis, Ihopeyoulikeit. And he removes his hand from his pocket and thrusts a slender golden object into my palm. The disk is warm from his body heat. It’s round like a makeup compact, and there’s a tiny button to open it, but it’s deeper than a compact. And the metal has been etched with stars. The sound of my heart is loud inside my ears. I’m almost afraid to open it. It’s perfect as it is. Cricket takes it and holds it at my eye level. Press the button. I extend a shaky index finger. Click. And then . . . the most wondrous thing appears. The lid pops back, and a miniature, luminous universe rises up and unfolds. A small round moon glows in the center, surrounded by tiny twinkling stars. I gasp. It’s intricate and alive. Cricket places the automaton back into my palm. I cradle it, enchanted, and the stars wink at me lazily. The moon is what took so long. I had trouble getting the cycle correct. I look up, mystified. The cycle? He points to the real moon. She’s a waxing gibbous—a slice of her left side is dark. I look back down. The little moon is almost entirely illuminated. A slice of its left side is dark. I’m stunned into silence. So you won’t forget me when I’m gone, he says. I raise my eyes in alarm. Cricket reacts quickly. Not gone-gone. I meant during the week, when I’m at school. No more moving. I’m here. I’m wherever you are. I let out a relieved breath, one hand clutching my tight stays. You haven’t said anything. He plucks at a rubber band. Do you like it? Cricket . . . this is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. His expression melts. He enfolds me into his arms, and I rise on my platform tiptoes to reach his lips again. I want to kiss him for the rest of the night, for the rest of our lives. The one. He tastes salty like sea fog. But he tastes sweet, too, like . . . Cherries, he says. Yes. Wait. Was I talking out loud? You taste like cherries. Your hair smells like cherries. You’ve always smelled like cherries to me. Cricket presses his nose against the top of my head and inhales. I can’t believe I’m allowed to do that now. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that. I bury my face against his chest and smile. Someday I’ll tell him about my teacup. The sound of laughter and music floats through the night air, swirling and ephemeral. It’s beckoning us. I look up and deep into his eyes. Are you sure you want to do this? A high school dance? You don’t think it’s . . . kind of lame? Sure, but aren’t they supposed to be? Cricket smiles. I don’t know. I’ve never been to one. And I’m happy. I’m really hap— And I interrupt his words with another ecstatic kiss. Thank you. Are you ready? he asks. I am. Are you scared? I’m not. He takes my hand and squeezes it. With my other, I hitch up the bottom of my dress. My platform combat boots lead the way. And I hold my head high toward my big entrance, hand in hand with the boy who gave me the moon and the stars.Chapter One Well, this officially goes down as my crappiest birthday ever. Hands down, Gwen Day moaned. She looked up to meet the sympathetic eyes of her friends, Mia Gentry and Crystal Webber. I’m finished with men. I mean, what do you even need them for anymore? Crystal, who was newly divorced, nodded her head in agreement. You got that right, girl. I have a vibrator that’s always hard, doesn’t talk back or leave the toilet seat up, or dribble toothpaste in the bathroom sink. I’ve come more in the last six months with my plastic boyfriend than all of my combined years with my ex. If I’d had one of those suckers when I was twenty, I’d have never gotten married. Beside Crystal, Mia gave them a sheepish look. Um . . . well . . . I like my man just fine and trust me . . . he’s always hard whenever I want it. You suck, Crystal grumbled. The rest of us don’t have a perfectly wonderful, hottie boyfriend like Seth Jackson. You could at least share him, you know. Have you two considered broadening your horizons with a threesome? Because I’d totally be up for it. Wiggling her brows, she added, I seem to remember you mentioning a certain threesome fantasy featuring Suzy Merimon and her hubby, Gray. The conversation between her close friends had distracted Gwen momentarily from her pity party but she soon returned to brooding. She had no interest in her vibrator, although she agreed with Crystal that men were completely overrated. She had thought all of that was changing for her when she met McKinley Powers. His company handled the security for Danvers International, where she worked. He was drop-dead handsome with his short military haircut that he still favored even after leaving the Marines, not to mention his rock-hard body that never failed to make her heart race and knees tremble. The fact that he was a genuinely nice guy was an added bonus. When they had first started dating, Mac had been more than content with her taking things slow request, which maybe should have been her first red flag. After they’d been going out for a month, he still hadn’t put any type of pressure on her to move beyond kissing. By the end of the next month, she was horny and frustrated. It had seemed like he was the one now wanting to take it slow when she was ready to rip the clothes from his buff body. They had engaged in some make-out sessions that never progressed past second base. He always pulled back when he got too close to third base, and dammit . . . crossing home plate had become just a distant dream. Gwen knew all of the books said never to let a man determine your self-worth, but she had been really struggling with that one after Mac’s silent refusal to have sex with her. Until she finally put all of the pieces together and figured out that it might not be who she was that was the problem, but more important, who she wasn’t—Ava Stone. Mac was good friends with the Stone siblings, who also worked for Danvers. There was Declan, who had served with Mac in the military; Brant, who was Declan’s older brother; and then there was Ava. She was an attractive blonde Gwen had seen around the office on several different occasions. She had come to understand that there was possibly something more than friendship between Mac and Ava when she witnessed Mac completely losing it because his coworker and good friend, Dominic Brady, had given Ava a ride on his Harley. Mac had been so upset that warning bells had gone off in Gwen’s head. From that point on, her relationship with Mac was on borrowed time and she knew it. He had become more distant than ever. He forgot to call her, didn’t return her calls, and was just generally unavailable, physically and emotionally. So, one evening she had gone to his house to talk and just to spend some time with him, and he’d taken off almost immediately after receiving a call concerning Ava. Gwen had decided to wait it out and see if he came back home. When he finally did, hours later, they had ended it. There was no fight, no ugly words, or insults. It was very civilized. Gwen might not be happy with Mac for dating her while he was hung up on Ava, but he had been honest with her in the end and she knew that it had really upset him to hurt her. Her self-esteem had been limping along since that evening—until Mia had dropped her bombshell this morning. Mia had heard from her friend Suzy that Mac and Ava had gotten married over the weekend in Las Vegas. Gwen definitely hadn’t been expecting that blow. She had figured she would be tortured for a while seeing them as a couple around the office. She had never expected Mac to break up with her and then almost immediately tie the knot. God, was she now the woman men dated right before they found the one? She had been so lost in thought that she almost jumped from her seat when Mia’s hand landed on her arm, shaking it excitedly. I know—let’s have a girls’ night tonight! Seth’s leaving this afternoon on business for a few days so I’d love to go out. How about you, Crystal? Gwen was secretly hoping that the other woman would veto the whole thing because she wasn’t really in the mood to socialize. She just wanted to go home, eat herself into oblivion, and watch some man-hating movies on Lifetime. Of course, she’d probably run right into Dominic at the apartment complex where they both lived. Geez, she needed to move now. Wasn’t it just her luck to live doors away from Mac’s friend? Dominic was already so annoying . . . okay hot—completely, smoking hot—but still annoying. It was no one’s business if she peeked through her blinds every time she heard his boots in the hallway. Yes, dear Lord, she had to admit to herself that she could distinguish the sound of his tread from the rest of her neighbors. He just looked so good in his cargo pants and those tight shirts. And some evenings she was even lucky enough to catch him in all of his masculine glory after returning from a run. Shirtless . . . and wearing those low hanging shorts he favored. She loved the sight of his hard body with those rippling muscles, glistening sweat, the tattoos, the . . . Hmmm? Gwen looked around to see both Mia and Crystal staring at her.
Crystal smirked. Honey, where was your head at? You just moaned and your eyes went crossed. And you have some drool on your chin, Mia pointed out helpfully. Gwen felt her face flush as she quickly ran a hand across her mouth. Darn it, there was drool there. Freaking Dominic Brady! I . . . er . . . was just thinking about dinner. Yeah, sure. Crystal grinned. Whatever you say. So anyway, how about drinks at Hawks tonight? Mia rubbed her hands together. Ohhh, going the sports bar route, I like it. Seth would hate it, so it sounds perfect to me. Gwen found herself agreeing. Surely an evening out with her friends was better than sulking at home. After all, her ass was big enough and adding another pint of ice cream to it wasn’t going to help things any. Tonight she would have fun and forget all about Mac—and Dominic. How hard could that be? * * * Dominic Brady sprawled back on his sofa with a big sigh of contentment. Jet lag was a real kick in the ass. Maybe he was just getting old, but flying to Vegas and back in less than forty-eight hours was not something that he cared to do often. When he was in the Marines, he and his friends had lived for quick trips like that. They’d get a few days off and make the most of it. Sin City was a frequent destination back then. Now, just being home in his apartment in Myrtle Beach was much closer to heaven than the bright lights and the scantily clad women on the strip. Yeah, hell, only thirty-three and he officially sounded old. The trip this weekend had been for a good cause, though. One of his best friends had gotten married to the woman he’d loved all of his life. It had been a long, rocky, and uncertain road for them, but Mac and Ava had finally worked it out and Dominic couldn’t have been any happier for them. He and Mac, along with Gage Hyatt, owned a company together called East Coast Security. They monitored and provided security for many high-end companies, including Danvers International, which housed their headquarters. For Dominic, the job and the location fit him perfectly. His family lived in Georgia, so he was close enough to visit when he wanted and far enough away to keep his nosy mother and sister out of his business. He loved them dearly, but they had been trying to find him the right woman, since he was potty trained. If he still lived closer to home, they’d be herding single women past him like an assembly line. The fact that his sister had married her high school sweetheart and promptly popped out two kids put only that much more pressure on him. He had just started on his second Corona and was watching SportsCenter when he heard a sound at his door. It was more like someone moving against the frame than knocking. Biting off a curse, he reluctantly put his beer down on the coffee table and went to check. It was likely no one coming to visit him. His neighbor at the end of the hall liked to party, and even though he always tried to keep the noise down, occasionally there were a few lost strays in the hallway. Dominic checked the peephole, then pulled back in surprise. This was a new one. He could make out the crown of someone’s head and that was about it. He stood there for a few moments, hoping that the person would just move on. When he heard nothing but silence, he came to the resigned conclusion that he was either going to have to leave them there all night or open the door and encourage them to move on. Swinging the door open suddenly might not have been the best idea, Dominic concluded, when a soft body landed against his. He heard a feminine giggle, then a whoops! He froze in place when hands started roaming his chest and then his torso. Mmmm, you are sooo hard. . . . I knew you would be. What the hell? Just as he registered that what he thought was brown hair through the peephole was actually dark red, his interloper looked up, and he gasped in shock. Gwen? Dominic, she purred back, blinking at him with wide eyes like an owl. Her hands continued to roam and he didn’t know whether to be thrilled or sorry that he was wearing nothing but a pair of basketball shorts. Her hands on his bare skin were having a direct effect on his cock and the silky material wasn’t doing much to contain it. On the other hand . . . it felt good . . . no, amazing. Maybe he was asleep and this was a dream. There was no way Gwen Day, the woman he’d wanted from the first moment he saw her, was here now, touching him . . . damn near everywhere. Er . . . Gwen . . . babe, did you need something? He almost groaned aloud when her hand dropped to cover the bulge in his shorts. You could say that, she moaned as she pushed him back a few steps before shutting the door behind her. Just when he thought this encounter couldn’t get much weirder—or hotter—she leaned down, grabbed the hem of the slinky black dress she was wearing and pulled it over her head in a move that would make a stripper proud. Then she stood before him in nothing but a black lace bra, tiny matching panties, and black strappy sandals. He was completely and totally screwed. Still trying to be the voice of reason for some crazy reason, Dominic held out a calming hand, saying, Babe, what’re we doing here? I mean . . . God, you’re gorgeous! All right, maybe that last line had slipped out before he could stop himself, but holy hell, how was he supposed to stay calm when Gwen was standing in front of him, practically naked, with a come-hither look in her eyes that was making him pant like a dog in heat? She began to prowl forward and he walked uncertainly backward—which he figured out was a big mistake when he tripped over his coffee table and landed in a heap on the sofa. Oh goody, she rubbed her hands together as she stopped a few inches from where he had landed. It looks like we’re both on the same page. Then . . . she dropped down to straddle his waist, and it was all over for him. When she grinned before pulling a strip of condoms out of her bra, he almost professed his love on the spot. Who was this woman? She certainly looked like his beautiful neighbor, but that was where the similarities ended.He’d caught her checking him out on more than one occasion, and yes, in his fantasies, he had wanted to believe that she desired him as he did her. But she’d never given him any outward reason to believe that was true. He had certainly never imagined her showing up on his doorstep like a wet dream. So he forced himself to ask one last time, Are you sure about this? In answer, she ground herself against him before licking his neck. Well . . . that meant yes in his book. He put his hands on what he had come to think of as the Holy Grail . . . her ass. It was firm, round, and drove him to distraction. Dominic had never been one to desire a skinny woman. He loved soft, lush curves and to him, Gwen had the perfect body. His only problem was deciding where he wanted to lavish his attention first. I need you inside of me, Gwen murmured as she bit his ear. As if to prove that point, she plastered her body against his chest, freeing his hips, before saying urgently, Shorts off, condom on. Dominic had always been something of an alpha male so this role change was not only different for him, but it was also surprisingly sexy as hell. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this uncoordinated as he did his best to push his shorts down and then fumble to put the condom on his throbbing erection without causing it to blow early. At this point, he was hanging on to his composure by a mere thread. After what was probably seconds but felt like hours, he was sheathed and past ready to feel her around him. All right, baby, let me take care of you. Yes . . . God, yes, she breathed throatily. I need to take my panties . . . Refusing to let her up, he ripped one side of her flimsy excuse for panties and then the other. She lifted her hips slightly and he pulled the fabric free, sending it sailing somewhere nearby. He ran a finger through her cleft, finding it wet and swollen. Dom . . . I’m ready, now please! Putting a supporting hand under her ass, he raised her body before bringing her down onto his waiting shaft. He held himself still as she cried out, afraid that he’d hurt her by going too fast. Okay, baby? he asked as he stroked her hip soothingly. Gwen rose to her knees, so that he almost slid out of her wet heat before she bottomed out on him once again. Harder, Dom! Her demands broke what little control he had left. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close enough to devour her lips, while pumping his hips at a ruthless pace into her tight passage. Soon, they were nothing but a tangle of shifting limbs, grinding bodies. Dominic bit, sucked, and licked every available inch of her skin, and it drove him to distraction when she did the same. He’d never really thought he would enjoy having his own nipples nipped, but damned if it wasn’t off-the-charts hot. He wanted to make it last for hours, but all too soon, he felt the familiar tingle at the base of his spine. When Gwen started to spasm around him, he was helpless to hold back any longer. But his orgasm seemed to go on forever as black dots danced through his vision. Dominic collapsed backward as all of the blood that had been gathered down below finally redistributed throughout his body. He grazed his hand lazily up and down Gwen’s spine as she nestled against him. He knew he needed to get up and dispose of the condom, but he figured he could do that when she inevitably freaked out and ran from his apartment. He was braced and waiting for that to happen. Hell, he felt almost like the woman in this scenario, wanting to cuddle and talk about feelings and crap like that. When Gwen sat up, he dropped his hand, already trying to distance himself. He was floored when she licked her lips and gave him a lopsided smile. If you don’t mind, I’m going to need to do that again. Can we? Please? Well, hell, it was official. He had gone and lost his heart to the girl next door . . . and his best friend’s ex. In true fashion, he never took the easy route. Chapter Two Gwen woke up and looked around the darkened room for the glow of her alarm clock. Her head was throbbing and her body was sore—in places it hadn’t been in quite some time. Just about the time that thought hit home, she realized two things. First, there appeared to be an oven at her back and second, there was an unfamiliar weight across her waist. Holding her breath, she moved her hand along the anchor holding her in place and hissed in shock when a voice suddenly sounded in her ear. Baby, you’ve pretty much sucked me dry, but if you give me five minutes, I’m sure I’ll have something for you. It appeared that he wasn’t lying because the something was currently digging rather impressively into her backside. Panicked, she jumped from the bed and promptly crashed into a hard object. Oww, damn! she cried as she tried to get her bearings. She was holding her injured hip in one hand and trying to locate a light switch with the other when suddenly the room was bathed in brilliance. The term bull in a china shop had new meaning as she flailed around, temporarily blinded. Whoa, darling, hold still before you break your neck, said a husky voice right before a set of strong hands encircled her hips—her naked hips. You’re going to bruise this beautiful body, and I’ll be forced to lick it better. Suddenly, it hit her with the force of a freight train. Dom-Dominic. She blinked a few more times before letting her eyes wander down his body. Naked and big—very big. Dominic. We had sex, like a whole lot of sex, didn’t we? she blurted out. We did. He grinned wolfishly, then licked his lips. I must say, Red, you’re a whole helluva bag of surprises that I would have never expected, but I’m damn sure thrilled to discover them.