I’m halfway out the gate, up the gravel driveway toward the street, when a warm hand closes around my bicep.
I freeze in the driveway, chest heaving, eyes stinging. I don’t want to turn around. To see the expression on his face when he confirms it. “I have to go, Caleb,” I say.
“I’m sorry. Those women, Beth’s neighbors, they can be real judgmental assholes at times. But they don’t know me, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Judgmental attitude aside,” I respond slowly, “they’re not wrong, are they?” I finally turn around, and find him frowning at me, hurt in those stormy gray eyes.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not upset at you, Caleb.” I shake my head, chest tight. “Just at myself. This was… stupid. I should have known; this is just business. I let myself get in too deep, let myself believe it was something it isn’t.”
“Stop right there.” He closes the gap between us, gripping my other arm now, his hands tight around my shoulders. “Carmine… This is not just business.”
I swallow hard. Keep my eyes locked on his.
He bites his lip and shakes his head once, hard. “I didn’t want to say anything, not yet. I didn’t want to freak you out. But… I haven’t seen anyone else. Not since I first saw you.” His frown twists a little. “Not since some time before that either, actually.”
My brows draw in confusion. “What do you mean?”
He jerks his head back over his shoulder, gesturing at the party. “A couple months ago, one of Beth’s neighbors found the site I work for. She called my mother, told my entire family back in London.”
My jaw drops. “I’m sorry, that’s…”
“It was shitty, but you know what, it turned out fine. I didn’t want to hurt my parents any more, so I swore I’d change jobs. Find another way to put myself through school. I nearly had enough money saved up for my full degree anyway. I tried to pull my info from the site, but they have a contract, annual policy.” He sighs and rolls his eyes. “They made me leave up my details until the year is out. But it was up to me to decide whether I wanted to accept any job offers I got in the meantime. I didn’t. Not since this whole thing blew up. I’ve ignored every booking request I’ve gotten… Until yours.”
“Why mine?” My voice comes out a whisper. I’m too scared to raise it. Too scared this moment will shatter, turn out to be a dream.
Caleb leans closer, his mouth inches from mine. “I had to see you. I had to know if you were as bold and sexy as you sounded in that message.” He shakes his head, eyes still fixed on mine. “I can’t explain it, it’s… I’ve never met a woman so confident about what she wants, so open and forthright about what she enjoys.” He smirks a little. “And, it didn’t hurt that you’re every inch as kinky as I am.”
I laugh, eyes still locked.
“I was too weak to resist you, Carmine. I had to see you. Find out if you were as filthy hot in person.” He tilts his head forward until his forehead comes to rest against mine. “And damn, you did not disappoint. You’re everything I imagined and more.” He cups my cheek, and I tilt my face toward his. His lips find mine, a slow, searing kiss that I feel all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes.
When we break apart, it’s hard to catch my breath.
“That’s the real reason I never charged you,” he murmurs. “I don’t want to be escort and client. I want to be more. I really, really like you, Carmine, and…” His eyes search mine for a long moment. “I want you. All of you.”
This time, when his lips crash into mine again, I let myself fall into the kiss. I twine my hand through his hair, part my lips, trace his tongue with mine.
We kiss until we hear Beth in the backyard, shouting for the kids to come cut the cake. Then we break apart, breathless, and clasp hands again, grinning.
“We can sneak out if you want,” he says.
But I shake my head. I know what this means to him. “Fuck those bitchy neighbors,” I reply, lifting my head high. “Let’s go show them what a real happy couple looks like.”
He laughs, and I elbow his side gently.
“Besides,” I point out, “we need to taste how our masterpiece of a cake turned out.”
After the birthday party, Caleb drives me back to my place. On the way, I cave and check my phone, asking Lara about the bakery. But she sends back a happy, smiling selfie with Jen and Carl—they finished all the orders on time. No stress necessary.