“You just lost me.”

“I couldn’t get married. I’ve never been tested or tried. I’m so lacking in experience and mettle and strength. I’m boring. I’m not ready to be a wife to Elijah when I haven’t even lived. Who am I offering him? I don’t even know the girl who would have recited her vows.” I roll my lips together. “And then I saw her coming up the steps of the church. My cousin, Addison. My father had an affair over two decades ago, but gosh, it might as well have happened yesterday. Addison is the daughter of the woman my father strayed with. The family turned their backs on Addison’s mother. Addison, too. But I’ve never seen anyone so full of…everything. She’s lived. She’s been tested. I needed that. I need to live. To learn what I can do myself. Otherwise I have no idea what I’m bringing to a marriage.

“My mother has brought up my father’s affair every single day since it happened. We’re the wives. Girls like Addison and her mother are just distractions. She used to say that to me, over and over, before I was old enough to even understand.” I shake my head. “I think some part of me believed my mother’s nonsense about us being only wife material until I saw Addison. I believed wife material was the goal. But…can’t I be a wife and a distraction? Can’t she?” I turn to Jason and find him watching me with shadows in his eyes. “I don’t want to be boxed and tied up with a bow.”

The silence stretches. “What is your plan?”

“Spend some time learning me. Just…being.” I lift a shoulder and let it drop. “Maybe when I go back, Elijah won’t look right through me. I have to try, don’t I?”

It doesn’t feel right, confiding that last part to Jason. Which is why I force myself to say it. The reaction Jason stirs in me is confusing and I can’t allow it to continue. It’s wrong when such a short time ago, I was pledged to someone else. And could be again in the future.

“You’ll go back to him when this is all over.”

The question is delivered in such a flat tone, I’m not sure it’s a question. Even if it was, it doesn’t feel right answering in the affirmative with Jason watching me. So I stay silent and let him interpret my answer. Yes. I can’t escape my reality forever.

Jason’s hands flex at his sides. “You can come and go as you please just as easily from our place. I won’t get in your way.” His voice sounds rusted as he drags out the suitcase from under the motel bed, tossing it onto the mattress. “Let me know when you’re done packing and I’ll carry it down.”

With that, he leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

And I’m surprised to find the finality of that click scares me a little.

*

Jason and I do not speak on the ride home.

We do not speak as he carries my suitcase up the stairs attached to his garage, where the boat seems to sit in quiet judgment. Or when I walk into the medium-sized studio behind him, carrying the wedding dress of doom over one arm. He leaves my things beside a full-size bed and returns a few minutes later with linens and some towels, setting them on the counter of a small eat-in kitchen with an off-handed grunt.

There was tension between Jason and me from the beginning and I’ve never understood it, so I’m not going to try now. He’s a complicated man with control issues. I’ve simply been lucky enough to land in his perceived jurisdiction. Enough said.

He rubs a hand along the back of his neck, nods and stomps from the studio, leaving me standing alone among the dust motes and scent of pine air freshener.

I pace to the window just in time to catch him entering the house, the door rattling on its hinges when he slams it behind him. Without a command from my brain, I pick up my right foot and stomp it down hard, a headache creeping in through the back of my skull.

All right, maybe I’ll try and unpack the reason for the tension between Jason and me just a little before I unpack my suitcase.

Crazy as it seems, I think maybe Jason wants to have sex with me. Might as well lay it out there bluntly. I might be unaccustomed to mating rituals of the super alpha, but after his reaction to finding out I recently belonged to another man—and very well could again—there’s no denying his…attraction. I can only assume he finds it unacceptable that I’m not simpering at his feet, grateful for crumbs of attention from the almighty war god.

Listening to my brain lie to itself, I slump down into the single kitchen chair. I remember how he froze up at the beer tour, visibly incapable of explaining his hasty entrance. I remember him outside of the motel, asking me to let him protect me. Jason Bristow isn’t the kind of man who accepts attention from a woman as his due. But it’s possible he wants mine—and I’m not free to give it to him.

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