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“Ryder!” It was a high-pitched, keening cry as he licked her to the most intense, most overwhelming, orgasm of her life.

“I’ve got you, baby,” he whispered as he thrust two fingers inside of her at just the right angle to prolong her climax. “I’ve got you.”

And though she knew it was stupid—and very probably emotionally disastrous—she let herself believe him. And slid deeply, irrevocably into love.

Chapter Seventeen

Something had changed. Ryder didn’t know what it was, but somehow, in the middle of the most intense sex of his life, something had shifted deep inside of him. And frankly it scared the shit out of him.

He wanted Jamison. Wanted her for himself in a way he hadn’t wanted anything in a very long time. Or, more accurately, in a way he hadn’t let himself want anything. Not since Carrie.

If he was honest with himself, that was what terrified him. Not the fact that he felt something for the first time in a very long time. But the fact that Jamison did as well. Oh, she could talk a good game about no strings fun and taking care of herself, but he’d seen the way she looked at him earlier. Had recognized it, because he knew he had the same damn look on his own face.

He didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want anything from the crazy, fucked up life he led to leak over onto her. He hadn’t been worried about that with Carrie and she had suffered for it, had paid the ultimate price. And Jamison had already been attacked once. He’d done the best he could to make her safe on this trip, as had Jared. But nothing was guaranteed and he’d be damned if he let her suffer the same way Carrie had, being attacked backstage by some loser whose band never had a chance of going huge—even before he’d been put on trial for rape. Not that the charges had stuck—Carrie had been so messed up on prescription drugs by the trial that her testimony had been “suspect,:” and he hadn’t been able to do a damn thing about it. Except shoulder the blame for her pain and her addiction and watch as she slipped further and further away from him. The thought of going through it again, of seeing Jamison suffer the way Carrie had, woke him up in the middle of the night, drenched in a cold sweat.Besides, if he was being honest, he’d admit that this thing between Jamison and him didn’t have a shot of working out. Sure, she could use her degree cooking for the band, could write her cookbookanywhere, but the fact of the matter was Jamison craved stability. She would never let herself live the way her mom had, and he couldn’t see himself living any other way. Not when staying in one place too long made him feel claustrophobic. Like he couldn’t breathe or think.

No, the best thing to do would be to end their relationship now. Before she got any more attached. Before he forgot all the reasons he couldn’t be the man she needed.

Part of him wanted to go talk to her right then, but it wasn’t practical. Night was falling over Houston, which meant the fans would be hitting the venue any minute now. Since the last thing he wanted to do was run the gauntlet tonight just to get to the stage, he needed to hit the dressing room pretty damn quickly. With a wave to Gerald, one of the band’s security guards, he ducked backstage. Headed for the dressing room the concert promoter had designated for Shaken Dirty. The concert didn’t start for a couple of hours, but he wanted some time to think. To just be.

He pulled up short when he saw Jared leaning against the wall outside the dressing room, cell phone in his hand.

“Hey, man. Everything okay with Victoria?” Ryder asked. He couldn’t think of another reason Jared would be standing in the hallway looking so grim-faced when his fiancée had to be around somewhere.

“Yeah, she’s fine, I guess. She went shopping a few hours ago and I haven’t heard from her.”

“Security’s with her, right?”


“So she’s fine.” Ryder smiled at him. “Probably just wanted to get something special for the show tonight.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.” Still, he checked his cell for the third time in as many minutes.

“And then I figure we won’t be seeing you anywhere except on stage for the next few days.”

Jared’s teeth came together with a snap. It was Ryder’s first clue that there was more on his mind than Victoria—an idea that was reinforced when his best friend said, “Kind of like we haven’t been seeing much of you around lately?”

He froze at the too casual tone in Jared’s voice. They’d been friends long enough for him to know that when Jared pulled it out, shit was about to go bad. “You got something you want to ask me?”

“I thought I just did.”

Fuck. “Jared—” He held out a placating hand even though part of him wanted to tell the other man to screw off. That what was between him and Jamison was nobody’s business but theirs. But that wasn’t fair, either, not when he knew Jared was just looking out for his sister.

“You told me you were going to stay away from her.”

“I thought I was. I’d planned to.”

“Shit.” Jared looked like he’d been run over by the tour bus. “So you really are fucking around with Jamison?”

Ryder’s back went up immediately. “Don’t talk about her like that. Jamison doesn’t fuck around.”

“I was talking about you.” But some of the angry shock had faded. “So it is serious?”

He didn’t have a fucking clue what to say to that, knew that he’d be damned whatever came out of his mouth. But he couldn’t just stand there with his thumb up his ass all night either. He needed to tell Jared something and the best he could come up with was, “Jamison’s special.”

Jared didn’t look impressed. “I’m well aware of that. It’s why I warned you to stay the hell away from her.”

“I tried! Sleeping with my best friend’s little sister wasn’t exactly on my agenda, you know.”

Jared winced. “I could have gone my whole fucking life without hearing those words come out of your mouth.”

“Seems fair, considering I could have gone my whole life without saying them.”

Jared didn’t respond right away and silence stretched, taut and dangerous, between them. “Why her?” Jared finally asked. “You could have picked anyone. Why’d you go after Jamison?”

“First of all, I didn’t go after her. I kind of got broadsided by this whole thing. And secondly, why not Jamison? She’s smart, funny, beautiful, caring. Plus she listens, you know? She understands things that other people don’t.”

With Jamison, what he liked best was holding her after they had sex. Not that the sex wasn’t good—it was amazing, incredible, absolutely mind-blowing. But at the same time he really enjoyed talking to her. She had a wicked sense of humor that only came out after a couple of orgasms and he loved seeing it. Just like he loved being the only one who did see that side of her.

“Holy shit. You’re in love with her.”

Panic assailed him. “I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t have to. You think I don’t recognize the stupid look on your face? It’s the same one I get when I talk about Vicki.”

“How would you know?”

“Wyatt took a picture once. He takes great delight in tormenting me with it. Telling me how whipped I am.”

Ryder snorted. “You are whipped.”

“I am. And it’s a good feeling, my friend.” He turned serious again. “You and Jamison—”

“Are new. We’re really new, so if you want to take a shot at me, I’ll give you one free one. But after that I’m fighting back.”

“Dude, I’m not going to hit you.”

Ryder relaxed a little. “Thanks, I—”

“Then again…” Jared’s fist plowed into his jaw without any warning, sent Ryder flying back into the wall.

“Shit!” he yelled, clutching his injured jaw. “What the fuck? I have to sing in a couple hours.”

“Yeah. I figure that should make it nice and painful.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to hit me.”

“I wasn’t. Then I remembered you slept with my baby sister. You should be grateful a sore jaw is all you’ve got.” He was grinning when he said the last.

Ryder glared at him, but didn’t argue. Jared had a point.

But then Jared’s smile faded, was replaced by a seriousness that was rare for his friend. “Don’t hurt her. I know you’ve got some really bad shit in your past, but Jamison’s isn’t all sunshine and roses. You know that.”

“Just like you have to know that the absolute last thing I want to do is hurt Jamison.”

“That’s not a promise.”

Ryder shook his head. How could it be when he knew how very likely it was that he would screw things up? It was the one guarantee in his life, the one thing he was exceptionally good at.

Jared wasn’t his best friend for nothing. He could see from the look on his guitarist’s face that the other man knew exactly what he was thinking. “Shit, Ryder.” He sighed. “Then be prepared for a lot worse than a punch in the jaw if you do hurt her.”

“That sounds fair.”

“You think?” Jared asked with a roll of his eyes.

Ignoring his friend’s sarcasm, Ryder stopped him as he went to open the dressing room door. “Don’t tell anyone about Jamison and me, okay? I’m not ready for it to go public.”

For some reason that made Jared smile all over again. “Tell who what? I know nothing.”

Ryder snorted. “Let’s keep it that way.”

As the dressing room door closed behind Ryder and her brother, Jamison let out a low, shaky breath and tried to pretend she hadn’t walked up in time to hear the very last part of their conversation. After all, it was none of her business if Ryder wanted to keep their “arrangement” a secret.

And what were they now, anyway? An item? A couple? Fuck friends? Or were they not even that? If Ryder didn’t want anyone to know they were sleeping together, there had to be a good reason. And if it wasn’t worry over Jared finding out, the only other explanation she could come up with was he was afraid the press would get ahold of her. Nothing like a few rabid paparazzi to break a relationship wide open.

But he had to know she was used to the paps. She was around Jared enough when the group wasn’t touring that she’d dealt with her fair share of them—and pretty well, if she did say so herself. So if he wasn’t worried about protecting her from the invasive questions and photos, why all the secrecy? Why the need to keep their relationship away from public consumption?

In her head, there was only one answer and it was the one she wanted least to believe. Not after the hours they’d spent in bed together that morning and certainly not after the way Ryder had made love to her in the bathroom. For the first time in her adult life, she’d felt like she really was beautiful. That her man saw her in a way she’d never been able to see herself.

Only now she was finding out that man didn’t want anyone else to know he was with her. She’d been around the block enough to know that most men were pretty territorial when it came to the women they were with, so if Ryder wasn’t being like that, it was because he really didn’t think of her as his. He didn’t want her, not the way she wanted him.

It was stupid to be upset by that now—she was the one who’d set the rules, after all. But how could she have known that her feelings for Ryder would deepen, would become so overwhelming, so quickly? She’d wanted him forever, had grabbed on to him with both hands when she got the chance. And to hell with the consequences.

Getting angry at Ryder, being hurt, wasn’t fair. Not when all he’d done was abide by the rules she had set. But knowing that in her head and understanding it in her heart were two different things, especially when each day she fell deeper and deeper in love with him. How could she not when he was

so kind and considerate and sweet to her when they were alone? Of course it had been easy to be blinded by the affection, and the sex. Was still easy, because even as she died inside at this new knowledge that he didn’t love her, not like she loved him,, she also knew that she wasn’t going to do anything drastic. It wasn’t like she had any intention of putting a stop to their relationship. Not when she so desperately wanted to hold, and be held by him.

Shoving the pain down deep inside of herself, she crossed the hall to Shaken Dirty’s dressing room. She’d come to find out if they wanted her to cook this afternoon or if they were just planning on eating the buffet that was currently being laid out in the green room.

Determined not to let what the hurt she felt affect the way she did her job—or anything else—Jamison shoved the dressing room door wide open. And walked straight into hell.