Crap. Even I knew the double deep was a bad sign.

He jumped up from where he sat, full of the excited energy that infused him whenever a call came, and shrugged into his jacket. “You’ll be okay?” He leaned down and kissed the top of my head, the same treatment he’d given to his mom and Grace earlier. And of course, it didn’t escape his mother’s notice.

I nodded my head weakly. “Of course. Be safe.” For the first time I felt a pang of worry uncoil in my belly. Cohen regularly put himself in harm’s way. It wasn’t something I wanted to dwell on, so I said a silent prayer, pushed the worry away, and fixed a smile on my face. The realization struck me that him leaving meant I was staying. With his mother. And sister. And Boo Boo. Lord help me.

I helped his mom clear the table and load the dishwasher. We worked side by side in relative silence, but I could tell something was on her mind—more than just Cohen’s well-being on his call.

She clutched the casserole dish in her hands, looking down at it thoughtfully. I braced myself for what she might say. “Cohen’s a special young man.”

“I completely agree.” I offered a smile, trying to show her that we were on the same team, and despite what she thought my intention was not to hurt him.

“He’s been through a lot in his life. I’m not sure what he’s told you, but Grace and I really rely on him, and we…can’t have anything changing that.”

Oh-kay. I was basically being told to back off from her son, and that he was going to remain a Mama’s boy. “We’re not dating, Denise. We’re just friends.” I stood my ground, my voice never wavering.

She nodded, drawing her lips together tightly. “I know. I can just see that there’s something between you. Be careful with him, he’s important to us.”

“I understand.” I nodded, taking the dish from her hands and relaxing a little.

Grace came in and tugged on my shirt. “Can you come play with me? Cohen never plays Barbies.”

Denise smiled at her daughter, her eyes crinkling in the corners, and I noticed that her eyes were the exact same shade of blue as her son. “Go ahead. I’ve got this.”

I trailed behind Grace, following her through the tiny house and into her bedroom. The walls were painted cotton-candy pink and an equally cheerful hot-pink bedspread screamed little girl. But the worn carpeting and drafty window warned of a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Toys were scattered haphazardly across the floor, apparently having exploded from a toy chest shoved into the corner. She seemed to know where everything was, though, and led me to the spot where she kept her Barbies. I joined her on the carpet beneath the window and she handed me a deranged looking Barbie that had recently suffered the unfortunate accident of having all her hair cut off at the scalp. We weren’t going to be playing Beauty Salon Barbie, it seemed.

I spotted a plastic bag full of doll clothing and pulled it closer.

“All right, Grace. How about we play Shopping Mall and take Barbie to try on some different outfits?”

Grace nodded enthusiastically and I dumped the bag on the floor with a sigh, sorting shirts, pants and dresses into piles. While being with Grace was certainly less stressful than hanging out with Denise, I still prayed that Cohen wouldn’t be gone long.

A couple of hours later, a sweaty and worn out Cohen returned to his mother’s house to pick me up. His excitement to go on the call had drained away, and had been replaced by somberness at what he’d just seen and experienced. I’d learned not to ask questions, but instead knew that if he wanted to share the details, he would. During the lake house weekend, I’d heard him telling some of the more difficult stories to Aiden. Like the time a car went over the bridge into the Chicago river, and Cohen, being a certified rescue diver, went in after the woman trapped in the vehicle. He’d delivered babies and fought fires and arrived on the scene of fatal accidents more times than he could count in the last few years.

I gave him a reassuring hug, and his expression lifted just a bit, then I went to the kitchen to retrieve my casserole dish. In Cohen’s presence, Denise was nothing but polite and friendly, her earlier demeanor gone but not forgotten.

We said our goodbyes and left, since it was past Grace’s bedtime already.

I said nothing about his mother attempt to warn me off on the drive home. It was dark outside and the hum of the highway kept Cohen lost in his thoughts, a slight smile playing on his lips.

He had everything he needed in his mother and sister—well, almost everything. I knew he was waiting for the right girl to come into his life. I don’t think he realized that the bar was raised too high, that his mother was overbearing and that he just seemed too…perfect.

Regardless, I knew the right girl would be lucky to have him, and acknowledged the fact that in a tiny, unused corner of my heart, I held out hope that girl might be me.

***

I headed up to my bedroom alone, needing some space from Cohen and the dinner that had stirred up strange sentiments about family and life that I hadn’t felt in a while.

I glanced around at what used to be my favorite spot in my beautiful townhome, the window seat in my bedroom that overlooked the back yard. Now that I knew Cohen’s bed sat above me in exactly the same spot, I couldn’t quite look at it the same way. I trailed my fingers along the champagne-colored fabric I custom-ordered for the seat covering, and the stack of coffee table books I’d neatly arranged there. My fingers skimmed over the spines of the books. I didn’t give a crap about Patisseries of Paris, or Dog Breeds of Westminster, or Buildings of the New York Skyline, I just thought the stack of books looked interesting, intriguing. But instead—much like my life—they were dull and lifeless and without meaning.

I sat on the seat and stared out into the darkness. The past several years of my life tumbled through my brain and I realized that I’d been afraid to graduate from college. To actually begin living my life. I’d hidden in the shelter and routine of student life, like I could pretend his death never happened, knowing I could never again open myself up to that kind of pain. But all I’d succeeded in doing was stunting myself from living. It was no wonder Ashlyn thought Cohen and I were a good match. And we probably were, when you looked at our emotional levels, our maturity. I’d done everything in my power to stop myself from experiencing anything even remotely real. When all I’d succeeded in doing was accumulating a collection of worthless things, and worked my way through more than enough men to fill several little black books. All I felt was empty and hollow.

I moved from the seat to my bed and pulled a throw pillow into my lap. I picked up my cell phone and dialed my mom, deciding that it’d been too long since we’d spoken.

She could tell something was wrong, even though the only words I’d uttered were “Hi Mom.”

“What’s got you all tangled up? How’s school?”

“School’s fine, Mom.” I let out a slow sigh. “It’s just…I’ve been thinking lately…about Paul.”

“Oh, Eliza Jane, don’t do that to yourself. Dr. Carson told you. None of that was your fault. It’s time to move on honey. ”

“It’s Liz, Mom. Liz.”

She huffed softly into the phone. “That’s not your name. That’s the cold, hard version of yourself you’ve tried to become, honey. It’s time to get back to being you.”

Easier said than done. She’d given me this same talk numerous times, and I knew it was better to keep my mouth shut than try and argue with her. “There’s someone I’ve sort of been seeing, and his family and relationships are really important to him. I know you think it’s time, but I can’t seem to get over the hurdle of losing Paul like that and, I mean, look at your and Dad’s relationship. It’s not exactly a winning endorsement for love and marriage.”

“I’m happy you’re seeing someone, honey, but leave it to you to jump fifty steps ahead, into marriage and babies. Just take it one day at a time. And as for your dad and I…you think I regret marrying him?” She chuckled. “No Eliza, I don’t. I got you and your brother out of the deal. Those first fifteen years of marriage were the happiest time in my life. I don’t regret them at all. Things eventually changed between me and your dad, and while I wouldn’t wish for that to happen to anyone, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

I bit my lip, weighing this new information. Hearing my mother, who was once so bitter and jaded about men after her divorce tell me that she’d do it all over again, was shocking. I didn’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to realize that I’d been hiding behind my parents’ divorce and subsequent falling out as an excuse to avoid commitment in my own life.

It was hard to realize, even though it should have probably set my mind at ease.

“He sounds like a nice guy. I bet Paul would have liked him.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

My heart thudded painfully in my chest, as if to remind me it was still there. “I’ve gotta go, Mom. Thanks for the advice.”

I clicked off the phone and tossed it on my bed.

Maybe I should just come clean with Cohen. But no, I knew I couldn’t do that. Once he learned the real truth about me, he wouldn’t want me anymore. I wouldn’t be able to live up to his ridiculously high expectations. I wasn’t perfect. Not even close.

If he really felt something for me—he’d have to prove it. It might be deceitful to test him this way—to see how far he was willing to go—but I needed this. I need him to show me I was worth risking everything for. To put his money where his mouth was and make me his.

How could I return his sentiment by risking my heart, if he wasn’t willing to risk his body? There was only one solution. I needed to seduce Cohen once and for all, and then I would see where we stood. Now that I’d made this decision, my belly danced with nerves. Could I really go through with this? And everything it might mean?

I had to. I had to know how Cohen really felt about me. And how I would respond to him in turn.

Chapter 15

Despite all the crazy self-talk running through my mind all day, I knew what I needed to do. It was time to put my big girl panties on and deal. The talk with my mom the night before weighed on me. For five years I’d protected my heart like it was my damn job, because I’d seen firsthand how easily it could all be ripped away from you. And though I wasn’t ready to put it all on the line just yet, I knew I needed to open myself up to Cohen more than I had thus far.

I hoisted the brown paper sack I was holding onto my hip as I knocked on his door.

Cohen stood before me, looking solemn in worn jeans, a white T-shirt and bare feet. “Hey, come in.” He pulled the door open wider. “Are you back, Easy E?” His words were full of deeper meaning, and I gave a brief nod.

“With a peace offering.” I held up the bag, filled with cartons of Chinese food and a six-pack of imported beer that I knew was his favorite.

He smiled, a big, genuine grin that showed his perfectly straight white teeth and hit me full force just how gorgeous this man was. “Thank God. I’m tired of sleeping with that damn dog. And with you back, I don’t feel bad kicking him out of my bed.”

I laughed and crossed the threshold to his apartment. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, I didn’t say I was staying the night.” But I knew I would. I’d missed Cohen something fierce. I busied myself in the kitchen, loading up two plates with the Chinese food when he came up behind me and wound his arms around my waist, caging me in against the counter. I felt his warm breath tickle the back of my neck.

“Don’t tease me, Eliza. You come over here, bearing food and beer and offering yourself up to me…don’t expect me to not take what you’re offering.”

What was I offering? Had I really thought this through? What did Cohen think my being here meant, exactly? He brushed his nose along the back of my neck, inhaling my scent. “You don’t understand the effect you have on me,” he whispered.

I swallowed and turned in his arms so I was facing him, and looked up to meet his eyes. Without my heels I felt miniature against him, barely clearing his chin. He lowered his mouth to mine, but he didn’t kiss me right away like I expected.

“Why are you here? What do you want?” he whispered against my lips.

“Everything,” I blurted without thinking.

His mouth claimed mine in a passionate kiss, his lips moving against my own as his tongue swept inside. I eagerly matched his kiss, swirling my tongue with his in a dance that was anything but delicate. He suckled my bottom lip and bit at the soft flesh. The sting of pain was unexpected and hot, and I let out a soft whimper.

He pulled back and met my eyes. “Is that what you need? For me to take control? You need me to be rough?” he breathed, his voice deep and coarse. His large hands framed my face and rather indelicately he forced my chin up, gripping my jaw and neck. “Is that what I need to do to get through to you?”

I squeaked out a response as he knitted his hands underneath my hair and gently pulled so my head tipped back and he could take my mouth again.

I liked this side of Cohen, this strong man I knew was in there the whole time. I liked not having to think for a change, and my brain reveled in the emptiness that followed. I turned over all rational thought and logic to the moment and just felt. Cohen. And everything he had to offer.

I leaned into him, hungry for more contact and loving the feel of the length of his firm body pressed against mine. There was only one way to test how he really felt about me—and, I supposed, how I really felt about him too. I didn’t know why it’d taken me so long to realize what the solution to all this Cohen-obsessing was. He wouldn’t be out of my system until we slept together.

New plan.

I needed to face my fears and make him face his. Was he really willing to make me his? And perhaps more importantly, was I willing to make him mine?

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