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“Tell me you love me,” he said, still toying with my nipple.

“I love you.”

“No you don’t. You’re just saying that ‘cause you want to come.” He rose to look me in the eye with an evil grin. I was done for. “I don’t believe you at all.”

I grabbed his face, mashing our lips together, kissing him hard. Showing him how I felt. Between my legs, his hand never stopped working, driving me out of my mind. Fingers pumped into me again and again. It was almost enough, but not quite. God, the knot building inside of me. So close.

“Do you love me, Anne?” He sat back on his heels, sliding his fingers in and out of me, making the pressure grow.

“Yes.”

From the edge of the bed he grabbed a condom wrapper, ripping it open with his teeth. “Lots?”

I nodded, fighting for breath.

“Like, lots and lots? Or just a little lots?”

“What?”

With a grin, he rolled on the condom. “How much do you love me? How many lots?”

“Mal …” I couldn’t make sense of the question. My hands fisted in the pillow behind my head.

“See, this is what I mean.” He set his arm beside my head and lowered himself over me. Slowly he slid his fingers out of my sex and lined up his cock. I tried to keep my eyes open, but it was a losing battle. My eyelids drifted down. I was lost to the sensation of his thick length pushing into me, making a permanent place for himself. We fit just right.

“I love you more,” he said. Then his fingers slid around my clit, giving me what I needed, applying the perfect pressure to set me alight. I exploded. The fire inside of me burning out of control. But so long as I held on to him, it was okay. My legs held him tight, my hands anchoring him to me, bound around his neck. The muscles in my pu**y grabbed at his cock, greedy and needing.

And he groaned, pressing his cheek into mine.

I drifted back to reality, awareness returning ever so gradually. Mal started moving, slowly at first, sliding in and out. Little shudders wracked me with each stroke.

“Liar,” I whispered, remembering what he’d said. “I love you more.”

He smiled, thrusting into me. “Prove it.”

I wrapped him up in my legs and arms, bringing his mouth to mine, giving him everything. Trusting him with everything. Because I’d finally found someone who could take both the good and the bad, the sad and the happy. I wanted to do the same for him.

He was being so careful, but there was so much emotion built up inside of him. I could feel it, coursing beneath his skin, raging behind his eyes.

“Harder,” I urged him.

He picked up the pace.

“Stop holding back.”

“Anne …” His jaw was tensed, his green eyes ablaze.

“Do it. Give it to me. I can take it.”

Mal didn’t need any more prompting. He gathered me up against him, our skin slapping as he pounded into me. Our h*ps hit hard, his c**k driving deep into the heart of me. It was like standing in a storm, frightening and beautiful both. I’d never trusted anyone to be this rough before, to take things this far. He hammered into me. His teeth fixed on my neck, marking me, as his hand gripped my ass cheek, holding me to him. The whole of him shuddered against me as he buried himself deep and came. He shouted my name, his mouth still pressed against my skin.

I kept my arms and legs tight around him, making him collapse on top of me. The heavy weight of him pinned me to the bed. I could hold on to him forever.

We lay there in silence. My face was wet where he pressed his cheek against it. His sweat or tears, I don’t know, but he shook for a long time. I petted his hair and stroked his back, running my fingers up and down his spine.

“I love you,” I said. “So much I can’t say.”

He trailed his lips against my jaw. “I believe you.”

EPILOGUE

A month later …

“I’m not sure about this.” I sat on the side of our bed, cuddling Killer. He’d tolerate it for short periods, but the way his butt was wriggling my time was nearly up. Puppies tended to only have two speeds in my limited experience. Stop and go. It wasn’t unusual to find him fast asleep face down in his food bowl now and then after a hard day’s playing.

“What do you want to do?” asked Mal.

“I don’t know.”

He looked around our bedroom, leaning a hip against the end of our brand-new gigantic four-poster bed. Mal had insisted we needed it and gone into great detail regarding plans for its usage. Apparently I was to play the part of the sacrificial lamb, regularly tied down and offered up to the gods of o**l s*x. As a fate, I found this to be not even remotely dire. Also, the bed was a far sturdier structure than the one from my apartment. If and when we decided to do more bed jumping, he assured me this one wouldn’t die on us.

Mal made living fun. But today was a different matter entirely.

“They’ll start arriving soon,” he said. “You’ve been working your ass off. The food’s all ready. Everything’s organized and you wanted to do this. This was your idea. But if you really think turning tail and running away like a cowardly little lion is best, then that’s okay with me too. I’ll even help you live with the shame and regret for the rest of your life.”

I slumped. “Oh god, you bastard.”

“I love you, pumpkin.”

“I love you too. I’m just not very good at this stuff.” I set Killer down and he immediately chased down the empty Diet Coke bottle. It was his favorite toy since being forced to give up eating Mal’s Chucks. His unofficial aunts, Lizzy, Ev, and Lauren bought him every dog treat and toy under the sun, but he would not be swayed from his redneck ways. Best dog ever.

Someone knocked on the door out in the living room area.

Killer might have been my first birthday present. But the real one was the condo opposite David and Ev’s, where Mal and I now lived together. Pets were allowed there. What did you say to a guy who bought a condo so you could have the dog you missed out on as a child? Actually, I didn’t say anything. I gave him a b**w j*b once I stopped crying. He seemed to appreciate it. Besides, he already knew I loved him. I pretty much told him constantly.

Someone knocked on the door, again.

My shoulders jumped.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded. He held his hand out to me and I took it, letting him lead me through the hallway, into the living room.

“You won’t leave?” I asked, hating the way my knees were knocking.

“I won’t leave. I’ll be at your side the whole time.”

“Okay.” I smiled. “Not that I’m some pathetic weakling using you for a crutch or a safety blanket or anything.”

“Hey,” he said, grasping my chin gently. “You’ve been my crutch for the last month and a half. Given me whatever I needed whenever you could. We lean on each other, pumpkin. It’s all good.”

“Thank you.”

He sketched a bow. “Thank you.”

It was ridiculous really, what a monster I’d made of this situation in my head. But I could slay dragons with him at my side. Without a doubt. I stood up straight, took a deep breath. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you are. All of our friends are coming. Everyone’s got your back, Anne,” he said. “This will be the best day before Thanksgiving dinner ever.”

We were spending the actual Thanksgiving at his eldest sister’s place in Idaho. Lori had died not long after we flew back to Coeur d’Alene, the day after our reunion. It had hit Mal hard. It still hit him hard, but there’d been no more slamming his fist into walls or wiping out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every other night. He did get quiet and withdrawn sometimes. He always came back to me, though.

“You can do this,” he said. And I believed him.

He opened the door and there stood Lizzy and Mom. Mom gave me a cautious smile. Her carrot-colored hair had more gray in it than I remembered and lines softened her face. If anything, she seemed more nervous than me, the way her fingers were clasped tight in front of her.

“Hi, Mom.” I stepped forward, almost kissing her cheek but not quite. It was a really close call. Maybe next time. “Mom, this is Mal. Mal, this my mother, Jan.”

“Hey, Jan. Nice to meet you.” Mal moved forward to greet her, all smiles. But his hand never left mine.

Worry lined Mom’s face further at the sight of Mal. Her words were nice enough, however, as they exchanged pleasantries. Everything would be fine. We’d get through this. Because the fact was, my life here was good. It had been before Mal came along. And now it was even better. Astronomically so. If my mom and I could move forward and have some sort of functioning relationship, then that was great. If not, I’d survive.

“Come see their place, Mom. It’s gorgeous. Mal bought it for Anne for her birthday.” Lizzy winked at me, ushering Mom past us and into the condo. Giving me a moment to catch my breath, bless her.

I was extremely fortunate because our home was, indeed, gorgeous. The floor was covered in a very cool, slightly sparkly, black Italian tile. Our walls were pristine white and the furniture gray with splashes of turquoise. Despite the layout being the same, it had a different feel to it than Ev and David’s place. Speaking of which, they made excellent neighbors. They loved puppysitting Killer. Or at least Ev did. David still bore some resentment over my dog’s chewing of a leather guitar strap or two and peeing on their rug. Some people were so judgy.

Mal and David hung out often, with Ben and Jimmy drifting between their own places and the two condos. The Stage Dive Family never blinked at my inclusion. Something I was profoundly grateful for. They’d even made sure Lizzy felt welcome. Though her continuing crush on Ben still gave me pause.

“Check out the size of their bathtub, Mom.” Lizzy’s voice drifted down the hall along with Mom’s answering words of admiration. It was a big tub. And Mal and I made full use of it. I hardly missed the old claw foot tub from the apartment at all.

“All good?” he asked me quietly, ignoring Killer’s scratching at his jeans-clad leg.

“Yes.” I turned my face up to his and slipped my hand around his neck. Without a word, he leaned in, fitting his mouth to mine and giving me everything and then some. By the time he finished I was breathing heavy, feeling flushed.

“Break it up.” Ben groaned, swinging a bouquet of bright flowers in one hand. “You’ve got guests, for f**k’s sake.”

“Aw, that’s sweet. You bring me flowers, Benny?” Mal asked, rubbing a hand up and down my back.

“Hell no. I bought your hot girlfriend flowers.” He handed the heavy bunch over to my waiting arms.

“Thank you, Ben.” I smiled, charmed.

“Well, your hot girlfriend and her equally hot little sister.”

I narrowed my eyes at him.

The big man smiled. Such a shit stirrer.

“Where’s the rest of them?” asked Ben. He scooped up Killer and then settled himself in the corner of the couch, turning on the TV. With one hand he flicked through channels, with the other he proceeded to rile up my puppy. Soon crazed baby-sized barks, snapping, and growling filled the air. Killer adored Mal, but Ben wasn’t too far behind in his doggy affections.

“They’ll be here soon,” said Mal.

“You heard Lena quit?”

I just about jumped. “What? No. When?”

“Couple of days ago. Jimmy is not pleased.”

Mal gave a low whistle but otherwise didn’t comment. His gaze went to the hallway, where Mom and Lizzy were winding up their tour on account of them running out of places to look.

“Quick,” Mal said, bringing his face close to mine.

“What?”

“This.” He covered my mouth with his, sliding his tongue into my mouth. Generally kissing me stupid. Whatever mocking statement Ben made, I missed it. Only kissing Mal mattered. His hands cupped my ass, fingers kneading. My toes curled and my senses went wild. By the time he pulled back, my lips were wet and most definitely so were things downstairs. It took a long minute for me to catch my breath.


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