“I don’t want anyone to be mad at me,” she admits.

“Lily …”

“My mom would get mad at me when I caused trouble. But I only did it because I was so jealous of my sisters taking up all of her time, especially Rose.” Lily looks down, her voice small. “But she was just a baby. I didn’t realize the pressure my mom was under, how unhappy she was, how sick she was over … everything. I acted out because I wanted her attention, and bad attention is better than none at all, right?”

Christ, my heart feels like it’s splitting in fucking two for this woman.

“And then she killed herself. For a long time, I thought it was because of me. Of what I did to her,” she admits, her voice soft, her words hollow.

“How old were you?”

“Six.”

I tug her back against my chest before she can say another word and hold her close. As close as I can get her. I press my mouth to her forehead, breathe in the delicious scent of her hair, her skin. “It wasn’t your fault. You do realize this, right?”

“Uh-huh.” She doesn’t sound very convincing. “She was having an affair, too. Rose discovered that recently, after reading our mom’s old diaries. She didn’t love our dad. She didn’t want to be a part of our family anymore.”

“I’m not going to abandon you,” I tell her vehemently, and I mean it. I fucking mean it. I want this girl—I care for her. Most likely I’m falling in love with her, too—as freaky as that is to think about; I can’t focus on my twisted views on love and relationships right now, though.

I need to take care of her, this woman who is still like a broken little girl deep down inside. I hate that. I want to fix her. I want to reassure her that everything’s going to be okay. That I’m going to be here for her no matter what.

It’s crazy, how fast I’ve fallen for her, but I’m done denying it. Full disclosure, I promised myself. That’s how I plan on treating Lily from now on. She deserves the truth, no matter what.

She says nothing and I worry that she thinks my words are meaningless. That she’s heard this all before and still ended up hurt and alone. Not only do I need to tell her these things and make these promises, but I also need to show her that I mean it.

“You ready to go back home?” I ask, my voice muffled against her hair.

Lily doesn’t say a word, but she does slowly wrap her arms around my waist and I close my eyes, letting the mixture of satisfaction and relief roll through me.

“Thank you,” she whispers. “For helping me.”

I pull away slightly and slip my hand under her chin, tilting her head up so her gaze meets mine. “I will do anything for you, princess. Anything. I want you to know that.”

She nods and presses her lips together. I want to kiss her, but … not now. Not like this. She’s upset. Mad at me. I push myself on her and she could use it against me later. And I couldn’t handle that. I need to approach her just right. Prove to her that I will do right by her. Whatever it takes, I will prove to Lily that we should be together.

“Anything,” I whisper again, tucking her hair behind her ear, drifting my finger across her cheek. Her skin is soft and warm, her eyelids flutter, and it takes everything within me not to haul her in close and kiss her.

“Max,” she murmurs but says nothing else. Just closes her eyes as my hand falls away from her cheek. She leans her head against my chest, tucks her face in close, and I hold her. Savor the feeling of her in my arms.

This is what I need, what I’ve been missing for what feels like my entire life. I had no idea she would come to me as the wild-and-crazy party-girl heiress Lily Fowler, but I’m not complaining.

She is the woman for me.

Chapter twenty-six

Lily

I KNOCK ON THE DOOR and take a step back, dropping my head so I can study the floor, my shoes. Reaching up, I tuck my hair behind my ear, note my trembling fingers, my fidgety behavior. My heart is racing like I just ran a marathon and I swear my throat is so dry, I probably won’t be able to squeak out a word.

“You’ll be fine.” Max settles a large, warm hand on my shoulder and gives me a reassuring squeeze. He’s standing just behind me, like my own personal shadow, and I want to turn to him and say thank you. Hug and kiss him as a show of my gratitude.

But I remain fixed in place, waiting for the door to open.

I hear the sound of footfalls coming from inside and then the door swings wide open, my sister standing there holding the handle, an inviting smile on her face. “Lily! You’re early.”

“I couldn’t wait any longer,” I tell her. Violet shoots Max a questioning look. “Violet, this is my … friend, Max Coleman.” At least I know his last name now.

“Hello.” She holds her hand out to him and he takes it, giving it a polite shake. My sister has always had impeccable manners. I admire that about her. I admire lots of things about Violet. Rose, too. Have I ever told them? No.

I need to rectify that.

“Nice to meet you,” Max says, his voice gruff, his handshake firm. I see the assessing way Violet studies him and I wonder what she sees. I’ve never introduced a man to my sisters before, though Violet doesn’t know exactly what happened between Max and me. Rose, on the other hand, knows most of it. Does Violet believe me when I call him my friend? Or does she think I’m bringing some random dude that I bang to her apartment?

Not that I’m banging him anymore … another thing I’d like to rectify.

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