“Like what?”

Several words flashed through my mind at once. Docile. Soft. Mine. “Submissive,” I settled on.

Emma pursed her lips as though tasting the word. “I didn’t know I was.”

“With me you are.”

She couldn’t argue.

Inhaling a deep breath against the rush of sudden and unexpected emotion, I took her hand. The way she placed her hand in mine was so natural, so effortless. And her small palm fit perfectly inside my much larger hand.

“Should we go?”

“Home?” The hint of disappointment in her voice was unmistakable.

“No. I have somewhere else in mind.” I was changing my plans for her. This might take me down a dangerous path, but fuck it. I was too far in to walk away now. “Are you hungry?”

For more than cock this time, my naughty brain supplied. I brushed my thumb against her full lower lip again, unable to stop myself.

Her expression was guarded, but happy. “I could eat.”

Whisking her away today had been impulsive, the need to see her welling up inside me until it couldn’t be refused any longer, as was my suggestion we continue our date with dinner. Apparently, Emma brought out a spontaneous side to me I didn’t know I had.

“Let’s get out of here.” I ushered her into the cart and drove her toward the grassy hill on the vineyard where the chopper would be waiting to take us wherever I asked. I was thinking about the casual neighborhood pizzeria I hadn’t been to in forever. “Do you like pizza?”

Her answering smile told me everything I needed to know.

• • •

“Alyssa?” I gritted my teeth, forcing down the string of curse words I wanted to let rip. “A moment of your time, please?”

“Right away, Mr. Kingsley.”

I’d asked her to call me Gavin about four thousand times over the past year and a half, but that never seemed to faze her. Not that I was going to complain; I appreciated the formality. Growing up the way I had, I wasn’t going to criticize a show of respect.

Strolling in a second later, Alyssa stopped in front of my desk. “What did you need?”

I took a deep breath and composed myself. “These summary reports are all messed up.”

She frowned. “I double-checked them. Everything should be spot-on. You’re probably just not used to the new format.”

“New format?” I felt my temples starting to throb.

Alyssa nodded, taking a step toward my desk. “Yes. It was Cooper’s suggestion. Let me show you. It takes some getting used to.”

Fucking Cooper. How many times had I uttered that phrase over the past two weeks? Good fucking question.

While Alyssa gave me a quick tutorial on the various tabs of the spreadsheet, my mind wandered back to my day at the vineyard with Emma last weekend.

Reflecting on the way I’d pushed her to her limits, I felt my heart kick up a notch. She’d given in so easily, riding my hand and murmuring soft, pleasure-filled whimpers as she got closer, and then coming apart so beautifully, despite the risk of us being discovered by the ever-attentive staff.

And then when she wanted to pleasure me? I didn’t have the stomach to turn her away again. I’d let her drop to her knees on the dusty pine floor and take me. Watching her force my wide length into her mouth and cradle me in her delicate hands? Fuck. I almost got hard just remembering it.

Even better yet was her refusal to take part in the game Cooper and I had lured her into. Her strength continued to arouse me.

“That will be all, Alyssa,” I barked, realizing my assistant was still standing there.

Stifling an eye roll, Alyssa turned and strolled from my office. She closed the door behind her, clearly annoyed.

But I wasn’t worried about my assistant. My mind was already spinning on when I could see Emma again. My gaze drifted toward the wall of windows where little pings of rain were hitting the glass. I needed to plan another date, something different this time. Something more intimate.

It was time to make my move, time to say to hell with all my brothers’ ominous warnings and take what was mine.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Gavin

Friday evening, I picked up Emma from her neat little brownstone.

“No driver tonight,” she murmured, climbing in beside me.

I reached out toward her, gripping her hand in mine. “I wanted you all alone. I’m selfish like that.”

The smile she treated me to was warm and dazzling. “Are we on our way to the restaurant?” she asked at the rapidly changing scenery. We’d entered a seedier part of town, someplace I doubted she’d ever seen. For her sake, I hoped she’d never been here.

I shook my head and turned down the side street that led to my destination. I still remembered this area like the back of my hand, though it had been many years since I’d visited.

“Not just yet. There’s something I want to show you first.”

Lately, for no reason at all, my mind would wander to memories of my childhood, to my mother. I remembered her traipsing around the apartment in the evenings, long after I should have been asleep. She’d turn on her ancient record player, listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis. The music was so bluesy and sad, but with a hidden depth. It fit my mother perfectly. Beautiful and tragic, all at the same time.

I recalled the way she’d lean over the side of the lumpy twin mattress I shared with Cooper and press a soft kiss to my forehead. She wore a white satin robe, tied loosely at the waist. I remembered catching a glimpse of the white satin panties she wore, and the peek of a cherry-tipped breast, and while I was still too young to understand, I knew enough to know I shouldn’t look but wanted to all the same. It was simple curiosity. I knew the parts my brothers and I had, basic utilitarian things used for pissing and nothing else. I knew enough to know my mother was different, saw the way men would stop and stare at her, and shout lewd things to her on the street. She must have had something special under that robe, but what, I didn’t know.

We repeated the same scenario night after night. After dinner, she’d drink a glass of something so strong, the scent of it on her breath made my eyes sting when she kissed my head. She’d dress in a white jean miniskirt or a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a halter top, then fix her makeup and hair. Then she’d tell Quinn to lock the door and not answer it for anyone.

I remembered the hot tears that stung my eyes when I begged her to stay, which I inevitably did night after night. She’d ruffle my hair and chuckle at me, not even giving me a backward glance as she lifted the arm on her record player, silencing it before strolling out the apartment door.

I didn’t understand what she did for a living, and had fought with the boys at school who told me my mom spread her legs for money. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that Quinn confirmed the truth and I’d finally accepted it. I didn’t talk to my mother for a week after that, until she’d finally snapped at me and told me to grow up. So, I had. And a few years later, she was gone.

Even as I drove Emma through the streets I used to wander, I found myself growing increasingly quiet. I couldn’t bring myself to burst her bubble. She’d grown up so differently, probably hadn’t known this life existed, which was fine by me. I didn’t want to see the pity in her eyes, didn’t want her to know about the struggles, the weeks we ate nothing but hot dogs because we’d run out of money, the schoolyard fights I’d gotten into when a classmate accused my mother of sleeping with his father.

Maybe it was stupid to come here, but reflecting on the fact that I’d pushed her so hard on our date and she’d given in so beautifully, I’d wanted to do something different this time, something to let her into my world just a tiny bit more.

I stopped beside an alley that was filled with garbage, broken-down furniture, and an overflowing dumpster. It was quite a sight.

“Gavin?” she asked, her voice steady but filled with questions.

“I know you think you know me and you’ve got me figured out, but it wasn’t always like this. I told you that I came from nothing.”

Emma nodded, her eyes widening as she took in our surroundings again. “Where are we?”

My very humble beginning was splayed out for her to see, and instead of making me feel bare and exposed, I simply felt numb.

***

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