The sport was a close contact one, most moves requiring limbs to be tangled, bodies pressed in solid contact, faces inches away from each other, breaths commingling as he straddled me, taking aggressive stances that I would try to combat. Ben was often surprised by my aggression, my intent focus on how to best administer pain while in different defensive positions. But his reports back didn’t surprise Brad. Brad knew behind my sweet exterior was a need for control, one that often asserted itself during sex, or in other small ways of manipulation. It simmered below my skin, rising to a boil if provoked.

A SLAP. Hopefully, I would never use it.

♥♥♥

“Good. Again.”

I released my arms, freeing Ben’s neck, and waited for him to stand. “I think I got it.”

“You’re still holding your breath when you choke me. And you’re thinking out the moves. It needs to become second nature to you.” He stood, his hands settling to his waist, the dim theatre room lighting putting much of his face into the shadows.

“One more time. Then I’ve got to take a shower.” I didn’t know the time, no clock in the room, but it felt late. And I had promised to meet Olivia at the library, both of us facing mid-term finals.

“I’ll step in.” Brad’s voice came from behind my head, and I turned to see him in the doorway, his dress clothes still on, though he had lost his jacket at some point in the evening.

I frowned. “I don’t want to mess up your clothes.”

He held out a hand, sending a cocky grin down at me. “I’ll let a beautiful woman mess up my clothes any day.”

“Wrong answer,” I grumbled, accepting the hand and yanking it unnecessarily hard when standing.

“I’m sorry, love. I’ll let your beautiful ass mess up my clothes any day.” He winked at me, stepping backward slightly on the blue mat, until we were at least ten feet apart.

It wasn’t about his clothes. I sucked at defending myself against Brad. He was so much bigger, stronger, than Ben. I couldn’t fully wrap my arms around his chest, my moves had to be done perfectly in order for my light weight to properly influence and affect his large mass. And I was not, as much as I’d like to admit it, perfect. Far from it. Most days, I felt like I was two steps above mediocre. I was reminded of my lack of proficiency every time Brad stepped onto the mat.

“Go ahead baby.” I gestured with my hands. “Give me your best shot.”

His best shot ended up forcibly grabbing me, moving me to the floor where he proceeded to pull up my shirt. Took his time groping my chest. I let him enjoy it, putting up a mock struggle until the moment his frisky hand wandered far enough to the right. Then I jumped into action, trapping the arm and rolling, taking it with me to a place that it wasn’t meant to go, a place that meant broken bones or disconnected sockets. And for once, my mediocrity didn’t interfere, and I heard his hand, the three strong slaps against the mats. I released him, rolling over, his arm snagging me into place, a smile on his face as he stole a quick kiss from me. “Not bad, baby. Not bad.”

Chapter 35

Not bad was screaming its way up my shoulder. I winced, taking a break from my textbook and rolled the joint, stretching the limb carefully right and then left, the action catching the attention of Olivia.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just sore.”

She snorted, the perturbed sound catching my attention in the quiet library.

“What?”

“That from some crazy sexual acrobats?” She raised an eyebrow at me over the cover of her textbook.

“No. Working out with Ben.”

“That is so weird. You rolling around on a mat with Brad’s best friend.”

“It’s not sexual, O. It’s self-defense. You should come sometime.”

“As you’ve mentioned a hundred times before. I have Mace. As do you. There’s no need for you to be a black belt to boot. And the CIA-level security system he just installed at your house? Was the retinal eye scan not available? Plus, since when does a trophy wife need protection? You gonna get mugged while walking through Neiman Marcus?” She kept her gaze on her book, my attempt to catch her eyes futile.

“I’m not gonna be a trophy wife.” I ignored the other attacks, the ground covered ten times before. She didn’t know about the attempt on my life eight months before. Didn’t know about Brad’s family or the hidden threats that would exist for the rest of my life. It was something I would never tell her, along with the side of our sex life that involved strangers and kink. She already had enough reservations about Brad, enough irritation toward the man who had stolen her best friend.

She set down the book, her eyes finally meeting mine. “You’re twenty-one. He’s thirty-four. You’re hot. Driving a BMW. Carrying a hard-working family’s second mortgage around on your finger. Probably won’t work a day in your life. Nothing about that screams trophy wife?”

I studied her face, the anger in it. Why was she mad? Where was this hostility coming from? Was it too much to ask that she be happy for me? “You’re forgetting, in that ridiculous equation of yours, that I love the man.”

“No. You’re dazzled by him. Without the money, without his man-whore reputation that presents a challenge, you would have dropped him by now. Not run around, letting him orchestrate your every move.” She closed her notebook, capping the pen, and stood, sliding the items off the desk and into her book bag, the worn item in sharp contrast to the barely-used Louis Vuitton carryall that slouched carelessly by my tennis shoes.

I stood, fighting to keep my voice low, aware of the attention we were attracting from the others at our table. Pens had stopped scratching, eyes stopped reading, an eavesdropping silence blanketed the entire area. “Don’t presume to know how I feel. You have no idea of my feelings, and I shouldn’t have to—at every interaction with you—defend my actions and validate my love.” I watched with dismay as she bent, hefting her book bag over her shoulder.

“Whatever. Becca’s the one who blows sunshine, not me.” She pulled out her cell, her fingers moving over the screen, doing godknowswhat as she turned away. “See you later, Jules.”

I watched her go, my eyes on her as she moved past the main desk, pressing the buttons for the elevator, waiting for the car, and then stepping on, her head never lifting from her phone, never turning to look, my last glimpse the blue material of her book bag as she stepped onto the car.

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