Impatience mixes with a sense of dread and I close the distance between us, leaning over her, pressing my fists into the mattress at her hips. “Don’t talk in circles. What aren’t you telling me?”

“Those tests they are doing on your mom. I don’t think the results are going to be good, and neither does your dad. He collapsed.”


“What? My father collapsed? When? How is he?”

She grabs my arms. “He’s okay. It was just emotional. I promise. He broke down and cried, and—”

“My father cried?” My father never cries. He’s a rock. A boulder when he has to be.

“He needs you. They both do. That’s why I came to change places.”

I shove off the bed and run a hand through my hair. “What do they think is wrong with my mother?”

“They wouldn’t tell me, and your father just said it was bad. I told him I’d come and get you. He wanted me to come and get you.”

Pressing my fingers to the bridge of my nose, I’m fighting the dark haze of something dangerously familiar; something I haven’t felt for years and swore I’d never feel again. I turn away from her and put distance between us, shoving my hands onto the wall, letting my head fall between my shoulders. A splintering pain spikes in my head, and I fight a flashback to a moment in my past I don’t want to see. I am not going back there. And I damn sure am not going to lose my mother or my father.

Crystal’s hand comes down on my arm. “Mark—”

I drag her in front of me, against the wall. “Why would you come here?”

“I told you—”

“I know what you told me, but you aren’t family. You barely know me. You’ve known my mother only a year. Why would you do this? Why would you—”

“Your mother,” she says, her voice cracking, “she’s a special person, and you . . .” Her hand settles on my chest, over my heart, and I let her leave it there. I can’t make her move it. “I know,” she continues, her voice a soft whisper, “you’re holding up the world on your own. I saw that when you were in New York. And I know what alone feels like. It sucks really badly. And it makes everything hurt worse.”

“And you’re going to make me less alone?”

“You can count on me. Call that a friend or a good employee. Call it whatever you want, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

She’s here. She’s not going anywhere. Those words beat down on me. No one can make that promise. I know this, and I live with this in mind, but it doesn’t seem to matter. This moment isn’t about the future. It’s about need. Suddenly, this woman is the answer to everything I can’t solve, everything I feel and don’t want to feel.

My fingers slice into her hair and I drag her mouth to mine. “I’m using you. I’m f**king you. I’m never going to be anyone you deserve.”

She laughs, a bitterness to the tone. “Then we won’t deserve each other.” She grabs my tie. “And I’m never going to be your submissive.”

“I’m more than clear on that point,” I assure her, and my mouth comes down on hers, my tongue pressing past her lips, caressing, stroking, taking. And she’s kissing me back, her arms wrapping around me, her br**sts smashed against my chest. I feel her hunger, taste her passion, as if this is her escape, too, as if she is running from something I don’t know, burying it in this kiss. It calls to me, drives me to want more, tells me she does know loneliness. She knows pain, and it’s that pain that’s bringing us here, to this moment. It’s why I crave every touch, every stroke of her tongue.

But as the lust and hunger build inside me, turning into something dark and uncontrollable, desperation rises in me and with it the fear that losing control means never having it again. I turn her to the door, forcing her hands to the wall, and tugging her jacket down her arms, toss it aside. Shrugging off my own, I free my arms, then loosen my tie.

The soft rasp of her erratic breathing is erotic, enticing, and I can almost taste her desire. Pressing into her, my hands go to her hips, my lips to her ear. “I told you outside that I own you while you’re here.” My hands caress her slender rib cage, then upward, until I fill my hands with her br**sts.

She arches into the touch, her back into my chest, her hard ni**les against my palms. “And I said you did, but I don’t think that’s what you need from me.”

Something about the way she says the words splinters down my spine and burrows into my soul, the truth of her words jolting me. I find myself leaning into her, my face buried in the sweet floral scent of her hair. I know what I need, and she can’t give it to me. No one can.

“You’re wrong,” I say, shoving down her dress, pinching her ni**les. “I need to own you. I do own you in this place.”

“Because the rules say so?” she challenges.

I turn her to face me, pressing my hand on the wall by her head. “Yes. Because the rules say so.”

“Rules make you think. Don’t think, Mark. Just forget it all, and f**k me.”

Her words hit some raw, exposed nerve, and suddenly I’m kissing her, and I don’t know which one of us moves first, or if we move together. She reaches for my tie and I let her. I’m so out of myself and into what this woman has me feeling that I don’t even care. And for the first time in nearly a decade, I lose myself in a frenzy of removing clothing. Hers. Mine. Ours. There is no command that she undress. No command that she undress me. There are just our hands, our mouths, our bodies pressed together. And I let her touch me freely. Her hands on my chest, my arms, and yes, wrapping my cock. Her touch is like freedom, escape, and the answer to that mindless burn that needs satisfying. There are no games, none of me tormenting us both with the anticipation. I can’t get inside her soon enough.

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