There was a soft cough, and we turned to see our plated feast, served apologetically by a blushing twenty-something blonde. “Thank you.” I said, eyeing the steak. As much as my stomach wanted to dive in head first, I didn’t want to lug around a full stomach while naked next to January. I cut the steak in half and moved toward the lobster. There was no need to waste good food. I glanced at my watch. 9:30.

“Shit.” I widened my eyes in what I hoped was a plausible expression of dismay.

“What?”

“I never dropped my civics paper off. It’s due tonight.”

“Is it finished?” Brad brought a fresh piece of lobster to his mouth.

“Yeah. I finished it last week, which is why I haven’t even thought about it. When we leave here, can we swing by the house and grab it? If we drive over to campus, it’ll only take five minutes for me to run it inside the Economics building and put it under my professor’s door.”

He feigned irritation. “God, that sounds inconvenient. I didn’t sign on for all this when I decided to date a younger woman.”

“When you decided? You’ve been dating younger women for seven years.” I grinned at him. “Besides, I’ll withhold dessert if you are responsible for me getting anything other than an A in that class.”

He shot me a devious look. “I could just take my dessert.”

“Au contraire. I’m ninety-nine percent sure that’s illegal in this country.”

He scoffed. “Trust me, by the time I’m done, you’ll be begging me to violate every part of you.”

I rolled my eyes. “You overestimate your abilities, Mr. De Luca. And you are taking me on my ‘younger woman’ errand. It’s part of the fiancé obligation.”

His mouth twitched. “I’ll take you on your errand, but only because you look so beautiful, and because I can’t seem to tell you no.”

“Then you, Mr. De Luca. Better dig in. I plan on you needing a lot of energy tonight.” I watched his mouth curve, his fork move, and that delicious mouth open. My mind went crazy with thoughts of the evening, and I watched Brad signal for our waitress.

♥♥♥

There was, of course, no civics paper. Brad idled in the driveway, and I took the side entrance, leaving the lights off inside and walking through to the back, where I opened the doors to the large porch. Three porch chairs were occupied; their inhabitants rose at my presence. A girl moved forward, smiling briefly, and extended her hand. “January.”

She looked as devastatingly beautiful as her photos, no trick photography or Photoshop used to enhance her looks. I smiled, wondering if my nervous appraisal showed. “I’m Julia. Please come in.”

We moved as a group, two men, close in size to Brad, flanking the woman, their eyes moving everywhere, sizing up me and the situation in seconds. I led them upstairs and gestured toward the guest room. “If you would, please wait here, and we will be back in about a half-hour. Your security can sit outside the door; there are chairs in the bedroom that they can use. I left instructions in the room.” January nodded and one of the men spoke.

“I’m going to need to see ID for both you and Mr. De Luca.”

Right, ID. Riley had mentioned that, for the safety of the girl, proof of our identity would be required and would be documented. I left them in the hall and moved to the bedroom, closing the door and going to the closet, my fingers moving rapidly across the safe’s dial until it was open and our passports were in my hand. I locked the safe and returned, passing over the identification. “Here are our passports. Riley said you will return them after the event?”

He nodded, passing them to his partner, who reviewed them with a small penlight, then pocketed them.

I glanced downstairs, worried about the time we were taking. “We’ll be back shortly. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but there are cameras throughout the house, and an alarm will trip if anyone exits or enters. You’ll know when we return because the alarm will sound briefly, and I will turn on all of the lights.”

The man on the left grinned at me. “I understand and appreciate the information. We take no offense.”

I nodded to them and to the girl, then headed back downstairs, snagging my school bag on the way and arming the alarm before returning to Brad’s car.

I had chosen the diversion carefully, picking an errand that would take enough time for our food to settle, but one that would not leave Riley’s staff in the house unattended for too long of a period. I had worried about that detail of the plan, but Beverly had been quick to assure me of their trustworthiness. She had used The Montley House almost a dozen times, regarded every interaction a perfect transaction, and seemed to have boundless faith in every employee of The House.

My stomach was tight, a knot of rolling emotions as Brad’s car rumbled back from campus, his face calm, his hand reaching across the center console and holding my own. I forced my fingers to be loose, normal, as his thumb ran gently across my palm.

My other hand moved, reaching into my purse and wrapping around my phone. I could change my mind. Text and cancel this entire thing. January and the two protectors would leave, Brad and I would return, and we would go upstairs and have solo, break-the-bed sex. That would be enough. We were enough. We had proved that, again and again, with night after night of incredible makemytoescurl f**king. The threesomes, the parties, those were fairy dust sprinkled on the magic that we were, a way to remind us of the incredibleness of what we share.

Then Brad turned down Estate Drive, which led home. Home. Amazing that I already thought of it in that way. In four short months it would be. I would haul in boxes and hangers and picture frames, and it would go from his to ours. The Estate Drive sign meant time was up, and I couldn’t possibly text anyone, cancel anything now. I needed to put on my game face and stop being insecure. I hadn’t started dating this man, hadn’t agreed to marry this man, without being confident of my sexual ability. And now, with the blonde waiting upstairs, I had the opportunity to give him the best birthday present of his life. I allowed excitement in, the nervous anticipation turning into arousal, and grinned, the expression hidden in the dark car. I reached for the door handle as he put the car in park.

Chapter 44

Brad smiled. It had been a good birthday. No mess, no fuss, no drama. A great dinner at Centaur with the woman who had stolen his heart. And now, home. Before, it had been simply a house, a place where he bedded women, ate Martha’s cooking, and slept. Now, with Julia’s light and warmth and messy adorableness, it had become more. He had begged, bribed, and seduced—all in an attempt to get her to move in. But she had stubbornly resisted, returning most nights to the hovel she called a home. And every night she slept away from him, he worried. He unlocked the door, disengaging the alarm, and felt the presence of her pass behind him, her hands flicking on lights as her heels clicked through the kitchen.

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