A rush of nerves settled in the pit of my stomach at the thought of my house. At this point, I wasn’t even sure I could afford to keep it, never mind remodel, but thinking about it only made my heart ache. It had been my grandmother’s, and the memories I had there couldn’t be replaced.
I shoved aside the harsh light of reality and settled back into my fantasy world.
For the next few minutes, I let myself daydream. Would his name be something masculine and old-fashioned, like Jack or Michael? Or maybe something unexpected, like Finn or Ansel? I’d waited for this moment for so long, I made myself slow down and savor it.
By the time I pushed my way through the front doors of the library, I was almost trembling with excitement to find out. I slowed as I entered the foyer, stopping to wave to Stan, the library’s technical assistant. He was a nice guy, but it grossed me out how he brought the periodicals into the men’s room with him.
Slowing down briefly to flick on the overhead fluorescent lights, I continued behind the counter and down the short hallway that led to my office. I swung open the frosted glass door with Emma Bell, Head Librarian emblazoned across it in gold and black, and rushed in with a sigh.
Mrs. Duncan retired last year after spending forty years as the head librarian, and now the job was mine. I loved it, loved everything about this sleepy library, but in this moment, the last thing on my mind was work.
Shutting the heavy oak door behind me, I let out a shaky breath and sank down into my stiff wooden chair. Opening my palm, I revealed the card and the little indents where the corners of the paper had pressed into my skin.
My lips twitched into a smile as I finally allowed myself to read what it said.
My fake boyfriend’s name was Gavin, and it was freaking perfect. My smile widened. A hot name for a hot man.
There was no contact information, no phone number, not even an email address, which was . . . strange. Not that I would have contacted him. God, what would I say? “Hi, I’m the mousy brunette librarian who stares at you at the coffee shop.”
No, thanks. His rejection was one humiliation I’d rather forgo.
What was Forbidden Desires? It was apparently a company he ran or owned. Swirling my mouse across the mouse pad to wake my laptop, I typed Forbidden Desires into the search engine and waited while the outdated machine slowly populated the results.
A lot of questionable websites came up, so it took me a few tries to locate the correct one. But when I did, I still didn’t think it could be right. Not really. Yet the photo of him there was undeniable.
My mouth fell open and I stared at his image, so chiseled and handsome. And just like that? All my theories about him being a corporate ladder climber died on the vine. Because Gavin Kingsley, whoever he was, was into something a whole lot more sinister.
My pulse hammering, I quickly closed the browser and turned. Bethany was smirking in my office doorway, her slender arms crisscrossing her thin frame.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She raised her palms in front of her. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
I shook my head, willing myself to calm down. “No worries. You just startled me. What’s up?”
“We have a ten o’clock field trip coming in, and then an author reading in the Steinbeck Room at eleven. Do you know how many people we’re expecting? I just want to make sure we’re ready.”
I flipped through the stack of folders on my desk and handed her the one that read Special Events across the top. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” She smiled. “And you might want to grab the Lysol. Stan just went into the bathroom with a stack of reading material again.”
I nodded and cringed. “On it.”
Bethany was in charge of marketing and public outreach, and we’d become good friends in the last six months. We occasionally got together on the weekends, meeting up for dinner or to try a new yoga class.
All of that had transpired more recently. Or, as I was now calling this era in my life, PN.
Post-Nathan. Maybe I should rebrand that, though. Call it something like NE—New-Emma— to put a more positive spin on it.
But I wasn’t new. I was just finally able to be myself for the first time in a long time.
Blinking, I tried to force myself not to think about the time before now, or what I might call that.
The Dark Ages.
The Bad Times.
The Emotional Upside Down.
I did the things my therapist had told me not to do. I thought of how I should have known better, should have seen the abuse coming from a mile away. How I should have walked away when I first realized how Nathan isolated me from my friends and family. How I’d lost three years believing he loved me, thinking he would change.
It was painful, even now, so many months later, but I reminded myself of what my therapist had said. My family had forgiven me and were happy to have me back. I was making new friends. My life was on track.
Now all I had to do was forgive myself and move on.
But if what I’d seen online was any indication, I still had no reason to trust myself, especially when it came to men. Gavin Kingsley was clearly trouble. Maybe if I researched him more, though, I’d find his situation was different from what it appeared.
Maybe . . .
“Emma! Code Brown!” Bethany shouted from down the hall, and I sat up a little straighter.
Shoving my thoughts away, I rose from my desk and followed her into the hall, armed with my trusty bottle of air freshener and disinfectant. As much as I wanted to keep reading about Gavin, I had to focus on work, and then tonight? I would look at the website again and find out exactly what kind of man I was dealing with.
To my surprise, it didn’t take long to get Gavin off my mind. Between the absence of my head children’s librarian on field trip day and three readings, I found myself trudging toward my bus stop at the end of the day in what felt like record time.
And when I got home? I had two things on my mind: a nice hot bath and Gavin Kingsley.
• • •
Sinking into a bubble bath that was almost too hot, I released a sharp breath.
I’d wanted to unwind, give myself a chance to relax before I revisited the website, but even thinking about it made my shoulders tense.
On the About Us page, there hadn’t been much information, just a picture of three men, all of whom looked relatively similar in that they were stunningly attractive with bright, inquisitive eyes. Gavin stood in the middle, his smile a little less warm and open than that of the others.
I closed my eyes, thinking of the way he’d dropped his card into the jar at the coffee shop.
It had been on purpose. There was no doubt.
He’d wanted someone—maybe me?—to know the truth. That he was the president of what appeared to be a rather kinky dating site.
I still couldn’t wrap my head around it. All these months, I’d fantasized about him being some sexy attorney or investor, not a man involved in something so depraved.
From what I could gather on the website, it wasn’t a sleazy operation where money exchanged hands for sex. It was more upscale than that—a CEO needs a date for a charity gala type of thing.
But, still. It was called Forbidden Desires. Surely some secret fantasies were being acted out. Surely it wasn’t all innocent. It reeked of rich, powerful men who got what they wanted, and took it by force when necessary.
My skin broke out into goose bumps despite the warm water.
Inhaling a deep, calming breath through my nostrils, I lifted my favorite novel from its resting place beside the tub, opened the worn pages, and pushed the swirling thoughts from my brain.
My damp fingers soothed the deep crease on the dog-eared page as my eyes skimmed the words. I nearly knew the whole thing by heart.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul. Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII” was a favorite, and his words slid through me like a knife through softened butter.
After reading a few pages but not absorbing much, I stepped from the tub and toweled off. My mind was still firmly on that silky business card I’d nabbed earlier.
My old house was drafty and cold, so I wrapped myself in a plush floor-length robe before wandering to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of chocolate milk from the carton in the fridge.
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