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I closed my eyes, just enjoying his touch. “I loved it. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

He stroked my hair at that.

“That’s because you were made for me. But I still need to give you a few days to recover now, and that’s regrettable.” He suddenly slapped my ass.

“Get dressed, Buttercup,” he told me, moving to the overnight bag he’d left by my bedroom door.

He dug into it, pulling out boxer briefs, then moved into my closet. I hadn’t realized he had clothing hanging in there. And much more than a night’s worth, which I found curious. Maybe he just liked to have his pick of clothes, I mused.

He moved from his clothing to my own, grabbing a white sundress with sunflowers on it. He handed it to me. “Wear that,” he told me. I didn’t protest. It was comfortable enough. I grabbed a bra and some panties out of my dresser. He followed me there, digging through the drawer without asking. “Nice,” he said. “I ordered you a few dozen more pairs. The last line of defense between me and your pussy is bound to take some casualties.”

I laughed at the visual. Strange, controlling, funny man, I thought.

I went into my bathroom to get dressed. James was too distracting.

After I’d changed, I texted Stephan that we were almost ready, and that I’d come knock on his door when it was time.

Stephan always looked like a model, but he never needed more than ten minutes to get ready. I found it both convenient and infuriating, depending on the time of the month.

I sat down at my vanity and used the blow-dryer for about a minute on my hair. I would let it air dry the rest of the way. It would be pin straight when it dried, so I wouldn’t worry about it. I put on just a touch of makeup.

James had dressed quickly, and sat on my bed, watching me, his hair damp. He wore a pair of navy cargo shorts that let me admire his long, muscular calves. He paired it with a light gray V-neck shirt that was tight enough to be distracting. It was the most casually dressed I’d ever seen him.

He combed his fingers through his hair and seemed to be ready to go.

I glared at him. “It’s not right, someone looking that good with so little effort,” I told him.

He just smiled at me.

I put my watch on, though I usually didn’t wear a watch anywhere but work, where it was required. I thought it would please James. I was right. He rubbed my shoulders, his eyes warm as he studied me in the mirror. I leaned into the caress, closing my eyes. His hands were positively magical. He stopped, pulling me to my feet by my hands.

“Let’s go.”

An SUV stretch limo was parked outside, and I shot him an arch look. “Isn’t that a bit much for errands?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “I need to do some work while you guys run inside. I thought it would be more comfortable.”

He pulled on my hand, tugging me to Stephan’s house. He knocked, and Stephan pulled the door open almost immediately.

He grinned at us, stepping out and locking up. He wore some plaid cargo shorts and a light blue polo. He was in his full Abercrombie glory today.

Stephan kissed my cheek in greeting. “Good morning, beautiful. You are positively glowing today,” he told me, and I blushed.

James squeezed my hand.

We headed to my favorite art supply store first. It was across town, so I stocked up on supplies when I went there, since I didn’t make it often. James was practically plastered to my side in the limo, an arm thrown around my shoulders. Stephan sat on a seat that faced the side of the car, lounging comfortably.

“I could get used to this. Thanks for driving us, James,” Stephan said with a happy smile.

James just nodded pleasantly, a hand absently stroking my hair. It was a little awkward at first, but I made myself relax into his hold. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his touch. In fact, my reluctance had more to do with liking it too much.

Stephan’s phone dinged a text at him, and he took it out, muttering, “Excuse me.”

He gave a little whoop when he read the message. “Nice. Damien and Murphy have a line that mirrors all of our New York trips this month. I knew they were trying for it for the last few months, but they kept getting bumped. Their new bid starts this week, so they’ll be on our layover this weekend.”

I smiled. “Nice,” I said.

I saw James looking a question at me. I tried to interpret the flight attendant speak into English for him. “Damien and Murphy are pilot friends of ours that always fly together. They just got a new schedule, and we’ll be doing all of our New York layovers with them.”

“Melissa will love Damien,” Stephan muttered, texting furiously.

“And we won’t have to watch her hooking up with that married captain anymore,” I said, studying James. I didn’t want him to feel left out of the conversation.

“Why will she love Damien?” James asked Stephan, his voice bland.

“Well, he’s a captain, so he makes a decent paycheck. Also, he’s hot. He has an australian accent and looks like Colin Farrell.” As Stephan spoke, he never once looked up from his phone. Was he tweeting about it? Who knew?

I laughed. “He actually does. I never thought of it.”

“Melissa will be chasing him like a bitch in heat.”

I blanched a little at Stephan’s harsh choice of words. It wasn’t like him, but I knew why he disliked her so strongly. She’d brought out his protective side with the way she’d treated me.

I looked at James. His eyes were cold. Something had upset him. Was he upset that Melissa would hook up with Damien? Was he interested in her? Had she given him her number, like she’d said? I didn’t want to ask him, so I looked away.

We were turning down Ramrod Street when I explained to James. “We might take awhile in there. They have a station where you can build your own frames, and Stephan needs to frame a picture.”

James just nodded, getting his laptop out of it’s case. “Do you have a grocery list?” he asked.


He held out a hand. “I’ll give it to Clark. He can grocery shop next door. Stephan, if you have a list as well, I’ll take it. I’ll cover the groceries.”

I started to protest. James just held up that hand. “You’ll be cooking for me for the next few days. It seems a fair trade to me. Stephan, will you come have dinner with us tonight?”

Stephan accepted the invitation happily. I sent James a warm look. He knew how to butter me up, that was for sure.

“Do you both like sushi?” James asked.

We both nodded.

“Good. There’s actually a very good place about five minutes from here. We’ll stop by there when you’ve finished.” With that, he gave his attention to his laptop, dismissing us.

We got out of the limo, grinning at each other.

“Your boyfriend is bossy,” Stephan told me teasingly.

I grimaced. “He’s not my boyfriend. We’ve only known each other for a few days. And I don’t think he does the girlfriend thing.”

He raised a brow. “So what does he do?”

I waved a hand at the limo. “He does this thing. I think he furiously pursues short, private, physical relationships.”

Stephan gave me a slightly troubled frown. “And how do you feel about that?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I don’t want to think about it too much. The thought of something permanent terrifies me, so maybe this will be ideal for me.”

He reached for my hand, looking sad. “Don’t get hurt, Buttercup.”

I shrugged. “Life hurts. As long as it doesn’t kill us, we weather it.”

He swallowed, nodding. I knew he wanted to say more, but he held his tongue to keep the mood from getting dark, as it could.

I stopped on the sidewalk before entering the store, looking at him squarely.

“I think he’s good for me, in a way. I can’t seem to resist him, and I have to face my fears when I’m with him. I find it liberating, if a little terrifying.”

I paused, taking a few deep, even breaths.

“I think I’m going to do it. I’m going to the police. I need to tell them what I saw,” I told him quietly, referring to the decade old incident that still haunted me.

His gaze searched mine. He knew what I meant, but he wanted to know why.

“I just need the closure. It’s always somewhere at the back of my mind. And I’m tired of living with the fear. If I testify, maybe that monster will be behind bars where he can’t touch me. And some sort of justice might bring me some semblance of peace.”

He nodded. “Just tell me when. I’ll be there with you.”

“Soon. Maybe after this James thing blows over. A week or two.”

His hand tightened on mine. “I get why a relationship would terrify you, of all people. But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve more than a fling with this guy, or that you shouldn’t try for something more.”

I just shook my head. “I can’t even entertain the notion right now, Stephan. Not with James. Trust me, I’m fine with what it is. I would feel better, though, if you approved.”

He put his arm around me, squeezing. “I approve of anything that makes you happy. But if you’re hurt at the end of this, that rich bastard is gonna have to sue my ass, because I will I beat the shit out of him.”

I was shocked by his words, though his tone was almost light. I studied him intently. He, like me, had a long and sordid history with violence.

Stephan had been raised with a strict mormon upbringing. He was an old-fashioned gentleman because of it, which I always found irresistibly charming. I was also convinced that this was what had made him a hopeless romantic, always thinking everyone should get a happy ending, with their one true love. This charmed me as well. He had so many deeply ingrained, good, wholesome qualities that I had always believed stemmed from his deeply religious beginnings. But he hadn’t quite fit into the mold his parents had designated for him.

Stephan had been nine when his uncle had begun to abuse him sexually. The sicko had been his father’s brother. He’d also been a pillar of their religious community, holding a position a few steps higher than Stephan’s own father.

Stephan’s father had looked up to his older brother, and when a ten-year-old Stephan had tried to talk to his father about it, he had been sharply reprimanded. Stephan had told me that there had been no violent abuse from his father before that time. But there was plenty after that.

His father had called Stephan a liar, while still blaming him for events he wouldn’t even admit ever happened. He’d begun to take offense at every little thing Stephan had done, calling the young boy ‘wrong’, and ‘queer’.

The beatings had increased and escalated until Stephan had begun to fight back. He was big from an early age, and he had told me he’d made a decent attempt at defending himself against his father, after a time.

Stephan put up with the near-constant abuse until he was fourteen, when he said he’d become so fed-up he didn’t even care if he lived anymore. He had confessed to his parents then that he was gay. His father had beaten him severely, taking nearly as much damage himself from a then strong Stephan, then ordered him to leave.