“She’s almost eighty years old and the only person she’s ever been able to talk to is my grandfather. He’s been gone a decade and he’s still the only person she can talk to.”
He pauses for a moment, his brow growing weighted. When he speaks again, his voice is lower, hushed—like these are words he hasn’t let himself think, let alone say aloud.
“My brother has been away on military service for the last two years. He was discharged three months ago and he hasn’t come anywhere close to home. But even before that, he stopped taking my calls. I haven’t spoken to Henry in six months and I have no idea why.”
I think of the video—of the way Nicholas pulled his little brother into his arms, held him close and tight. Protected him, tried so hard to make him smile. And I know immediately how much this silence must hurt him. I can almost feel it in my own heart—the breaking of his.
“My cousins hate me,” he goes on, in a lighter tone. “Like, ‘I think they would literally try to poison me when they come to visit if they thought they could get away with it’ kind of hate.”
His mouth quirks up in an almost-smile and a snort that bubbles from mine.
“They hated my father, too…and all because his mother was born before theirs.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because if you think your family is the only one with dysfunction in it, you’re wrong.” His hand runs through my hair like he can’t help himself, sliding the strands behind my ear. “Mine has that particular market cornered.”
He’s quiet after that. Waiting for me to take my turn—he doesn’t say it, but I know. He wants me to crawl out on that shaky limb with him.
And if it breaks…at least we’ll fall together.
“My father’s an alcoholic.”
The words feel awkward, strange. It’s the first time I’ve said them.
“Not in a mean or violent way…He drinks when he’s sad. And he’s been sad every day since my mother died.” I look around the coffee shop, my voice quivering. “This place was her dream—she was Amelia. If it goes under, if he loses this last piece of her…I don’t know what he’ll do.”
“He barely talks to Ellie. Some days he can’t even look at her…because she reminds him so much of our mom. She pretends like it doesn’t bother her, but…but I know it guts her.”
Quiet tears trickle from the corners of my eyes, and Nicholas brushes them away with his thumb.
“And she’s gonna leave. She’s gonna go and she’ll never come back—and I want that for her, I do. But I’ll still be here…all alone.” I gesture to the door. “I think that’s why I haven’t gotten the lock fixed. Sometimes, I dream that I can’t get out. I pull and pull on the door but I’m stuck. Trapped.”
“Sometimes I dream I’m walking through the palace and there are no doors or windows,” Nicholas says, roughly. “I keep walking and walking, but I don’t go anywhere.”
I move closer, resting my hands on his chest, feeling hard, solid muscle and the strong, steady thrum of his heart beneath my palm.
“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone,” he asks. “Something no one else knows about you.”
It takes only two heartbeats for me to answer.
“I hate pies.”
Nicholas starts to laugh—but when I go on, it dies on his lips. “I used to love helping, watching my mom make them, but now I hate it. The way they feel in my hands, the way they smell—it makes me sick to my stomach.” I look up into his face. “Now you. Tell me something you’ve never told anyone.”
“I hate the bowing. Last month I met a World War II veteran who saved three of his mates in battle—he was wounded, lost his eye. And he bowed to me. What the fuck have I ever done that a man like that should bow to me?”
He shakes his head, lost in the thought.
The soft touch of my fingers along his jaw finds him again. And in that moment, something shifts…changes. My chest rises faster, my breaths come quicker, and the heart beneath my hand pounds just a little more fiercely.
Nicholas stares at my mouth. “If you could go anywhere, do anything, what would it be?”
This answer takes longer, because there isn’t one.
“I don’t know. It’s been so long since doing anything else was even an option…I stopped imagining.”
I lean in closer, inhaling his scent—spice and ocean and something decadently, uniquely him—a scent I would happily drown in.
“What about you?” I ask, the words rushing. “If you could do anything, right now, what would you do?”
His thumb slides across my bottom lip, stroking it slowly, gently…intently.
“I would kiss you.”
The air leaves the room. All of it. Or maybe I just forget to breathe. I might pass out and I don’t care, as long as Nicholas kisses me before the world goes black.
“Please,” I manage, breathlessly.
He doesn’t rush it. He takes his time. Savoring.
One arm wraps around my waist, pulling me sharply up against him. I feel him everywhere—the hard touch of his thighs, the flat planes of his stomach, the hot press of his thick, firm cock. My inner muscles clench around emptiness, needy. Seeking.
Nicholas’s other hand slides up my spine, burying itself in my hair, and he cradles my head in his palm. And his eyes—the whole time, those simmering green eyes drag over my skin, consuming every inch they touch.