He leaned down, catching my mouth, the kiss soft and forgiving.

I closed my eyes, sighing into his mouth. “But no more secrets.” I pulled away, opening my eyes, seeing relief in his, his body moving, arms wrapping around me, pulling my body tight to his, his mouth lowering to mine, a tentative kiss that turned deeper at my acceptance. He gripped my body and walked us both backward, until my back hit solid wall, and he braced his arms on either side of my head, locking me into his frame, his hard body grinding against mine.

When his mouth finally released mine, my hands tight in his hair, I looked up, shifting against him and eliciting a quick breath from his mouth. “So? Did your fabulous plan work last night?” His earlier joviality had to have been caused by something.

“I’m working on it.”

“Well, I don’t want to be a nag or anything, but I do want to live, to graduate, to grow old with someone.”

“I know. Don’t worry, I will protect you. From now on, relax.”

I sighed, leaning against the ridges of his body, resting my head on his chest.

“What happened to the print?” His chest vibrated with the words.

“The what?”

“The print. Above my bed.”

I snorted. “Sorry. It was a little dated anyway, don’t you think?”

He laughed softly, pressing his lips against my hair. “You gonna replace it?”

I wrinkled my nose, trying to imagine me, naked, on a fur rug, stretched out over Brad’s bed. “We can find a nice landscape or something to fill that space.” I heard Martha holler something from downstairs, and I straightened, leaving the warmth of his arms.

“Come to bed,” he commanded. “I have plans for you.” I felt his hand move up, sneaking under my tank, and I ducked away, under his arm, eliciting a frown from him.

I ignored his delicious body, lit by the morning sun. “I am about to start chewing on you if I don’t get something to eat. You can have your way with me after breakfast, if your ridiculous libido can make it that long.” I stepped backward toward the stairs, his expression changing and mischief entering his face. I spun and sprang to the stairs, thundering down them, his feet just steps behind, and we burst into the kitchen—scaring the crap out of Martha, my butt hitting a stool before he could get me.

I smiled at him smugly, grabbing a fresh strawberry from a fruit plate and popping it in my mouth. He wore dark pajama pants, no shirt and a bemused expression. It was unfair how incredible he made the combination look. He took a seat next to me and we said good morning to Martha.

Martha didn’t waste time in shelling out breakfast—warm French toast, bacon and cheese grits. I scarfed it all down, and she had seconds ready before I even had a chance to ask.

“I grabbed that plate of jambalaya still at the top of the stairs. You didn’t eat it last night?”

I shook my head sheepishly. “I was still pouting when you came up. I didn’t realize you had food.”

Her mouth thinned into a line that could only be described as petulant. “That was good jambalaya you wasted.”

“I’m sure it was. Any left over that I could eat for lunch?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Think about whether there is any left over?”

“Think about whether I’ll give you another chance at it.”

We grinned at each other and she put another piece of toast on my plate. I looked at Brad. “So, what’s the plan for today?”

He smiled at me, surprisingly cheerful despite our bleak situation. “Let me make a call. Then I’ll let you know.”

He stepped outside, onto the deep back porch, his grin disappearing, a somber fix settling on his face. He walked down the steps and through the grass to the pool. Sitting down on one of the chairs that lined the blue water, he pulled out his cell. He looked at it a moment, thinking. He had gone to bed last night confident, his arms wrapped around Julia, content in recognizing his future. One with her. A woman who had unknowingly consumed him. Love, an idea he had tossed out with every other conventional theory, had tackled him unprepared. Tackled and possibly trapped him. Julia’s blowup had terrified him. In coming to terms with his feelings, he hadn’t considered the possibility of her leaving him. Now, having stared into that reality, knowing the effect it had on him, after only this short relationship...how would he handle it after six months of dating, or marriage, or kids? He had practically been brought to his knees upstairs. There was no way he’d survive it if he fell any further. She was so young. He barely knew love, almost missed it when it came and he had years of experience on her.

She had bent. When he had lost it, failed to control his emotions, she had wavered. What would she do next time? When he failed her, when he stumbled. She would run, leaving him broken and alone.

But this wasn’t a typical situation. He could either risk his heart or risk her safety. And, when it came down to that, the choice was easy. He closed his eyes, affirming his decision. Then he made the call.

His father didn’t answer, the automated voice mail picking up instead. Brad ended the call and waited, sitting in the sun. After a few minutes his phone rang, showing a blocked number.

“Hello.”

“What is it, Bradley?”

“There has been a new wrinkle you should be aware of. Tell the boys to hold off the bloodshed until we can talk.”

“Every hour that passes is more risk, you know that. I cannot extend any more—”

“Tomorrow morning. I’ll come over for breakfast. If you don’t think the information I give you then is worth your time, you are free to act. I will never give you my blessing, but I am asking you to listen to this information.”

There was silence, crackly, then his father’s gravelly voice. “Tomorrow morning. After that you will have exhausted my courtesy.”

“I understand.” Brad pulled the phone from his ear and ended the call.

* * *

THE MAGIANO PATRIARCH hung up the phone and looked into his reflection in the ornate gold mirror in his study. He looked older, his skin grayer than it should be. He decided to sit outside this afternoon, to get some sun. He needed to take care of himself, to ensure that he would be around for a long time. Long enough to convince Bradley to return to the family, to take his rightful place as head of the organization. He was the only one intelligent enough to keep it powerful. His other two sons had allowed power to corrupt them, had lost sight of proper business sense in the illicit world of blood, competition and status. Legitimizing the businesses would weaken them, but that would be Brad’s choice. He needed to mend fences with his son before it reached the point where Brad would have that powerful decision to make. This girl threatened that possibility, with both her life and her death. Brad had always needlessly involved himself in rescue plights, had always stood in the way of the family’s proper conduction of business. But this was a different type of stand. For Brad to put himself into the equation, to throw his life on the line, put him in a difficult predicament. Difficult, but an easy decision all the same. Family came first, and she was not family. He could not risk the entire family for one son and his temporary girlfriend.

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