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He will think me weak. He will die thinking me weak.

I don’t give a shit anymore.

I’m fighting for what I care for and I’m going to fight for it if I spend the rest of my days in the shadows, making sure my girl’s all right.

TWENTY-TWO

DECISION

Melanie

“I want to go home.”

Those are the first words that pop out of my mouth the next day when Greyson stands at my hotel room door, all in dark clothes, freshly shampooed hair. Not my prince. Not my knight in shining armor. Rather my villain in black.

“I really want to go home,” I repeat in a hoarse, broken voice. “I’ve thought about . . . our conversation and I just want to go home today.”

That’s all I say.

Not, hey. Not good morning. I don’t even comment on the box he holds, or the gerbera daisy he’s loosely holding in his hand, like the one he pinned to the wall in my parents’ home. Emotion seizes me as I remember that day, how real he was, how fun it was.

Those who play together, stay together . . .

That’s not true, Nana. Sometimes men just play with you and break you.

I can’t even say Greyson didn’t warn me.

I feel like a vampire just sucked all the blood out of my heart as I open the door wider to let him in. The room shrinks as he enters, his gaze never leaving mine as he sets everything down on the coffee table as if he’s probably just realized I don’t want any presents. I don’t even want to have a birthday.

“Hey,” Pandora greets him from where she was having coffee at a small dining table. It’s the first time she doesn’t sound so hostile toward him. Maybe because we talked all morning about it, she finally convinced me, and I convinced myself that he IS ALL WRONG FOR ME.

But now that he’s close, it’s so hard to believe that.

I can feel his grief as he follows me to my bedroom.

My insides scream at me to launch myself into his arms and work it out. How can we not work it out? He’s owned me. For over four months, he, and everything he is, has owned me. But I need him to let me go or he will break me.

I’m too much of a romantic; he’s too hardened, too cold with what he’s done all his life.

When I close the door to my room, suddenly I turn, and he pulls me to him and kisses me. We kiss, not fighting it, instead melting into each other’s mouth as we kiss longer than we’ve ever kissed. Minutes and minutes and minutes. My wanting body sinking into his hard one, his hands holding me by the small of my back tightly pinned to him. Our tongues move faster than ever, starved, as we memorize each other’s taste, the silkiness of our kiss. Until he groans and yanks himself free and heads toward the window.

I see him struggling to pull up his walls again. Walls I wrecked because I wanted him to love me. He does. I know he does. It was in his touch and the desperation in his eyes right now, like he wants to let me go, but can’t.

He stands facing the window, hands in his pockets in that take-on-the-world stance of his that I love. Every inch of me knows he’s aware of me, but he doesn’t acknowledge me until he speaks, without turning, his voice so raw it scrapes my insides like a saw. “Are you sure leaving’s what you want?”

“I’m sure,” I say, my voice also like sandpaper.

His voice breaks with huskiness when he adds, “Derek can drive you to the airport then.”

“I can take a cab.” I take a step toward him and stop. What am I going to do? Hug him? I can’t. I need to break this.

I see the gloves he threw on the bed and lovingly take them in one hand, needing to feel them one more time. He turns and looks at me, and it cuts me to look into his eyes. His proud Greyson King eyes. I drop my eyes to the ground and start blinking.

“Whoever you end up with, just know you were mine first. A part of you will always be mine. When you find your prince charming, the one who has everything you’re looking for, perfect, you’ll still be my f**king princess and not any other’s.”

My eyes water because his words hurt, the truth in them hurts as I press his gloves into his hands. “Please let it go, even that part.”

“I could make you love me, Melanie. I can make you choose me.”

I start crying and set my head on his chest, and he inhales my hair. “Is it what you want? I’ll be your plaything and you’ll be my playboy, and every night you’ll do bad things and then come back to make love to me, and I’ll be in heaven when I’m in your arms, and in hell when I’m out of them and these arms are doing something terrible.”

“I own this body, Mel,” he says, rubbing up my curves. “Every inch. These hands know how to love you more than they know how to do what they do.”

I wipe my tears. “I’ve liked you owning it. Every inch. But the love of my life can’t do what you do. He can’t.”

He cups my face. “He does,” he says, tenderly.

I swallow as I have to acknowledge it. “But I wish he didn’t.”

I shake my head, but he looks at me with those piercing hazel eyes with little flecks of green that seem to glimmer right now. “And yet it’s a part of me,” he says huskily, stepping forward. “I’m not your prince, I’m everything you don’t want and you still want me. You need me, Melanie, you’ve been waiting for me. Let go of the idea of who I should be and—”

“No! No, I don’t want to be in love with you! Not you!” I push him away.

“Baby, I won’t let it blacken you, it only needs to blacken me. You won’t know about anything that needs to be done. Anything . . .”

“No! I couldn’t bear to know you’re doing anything like that, Grey!”

He lets go and steps away to face out to the street, the sunlight hitting his face in every beautiful angle, and my brain still seems to have enough cells working for me to register what is happening. Grey and I are breaking up. I wanted love, and I found it, and I’m going to let it go because . . . it’s not like in the dreams, the stories, it’s not like I imagined.

I feel stabbed in the chest by what I’m doing, but every instinct of self-preservation in me tells me I have to go.

Which makes it hurt inside when Greyson turns to me, cups my face, and tips my head back to his, his voice resolute.

“The Underground will be more organized than it was with my father. Melanie, I’ll keep a cool head . . .”

“You can’t ask me to stay by your side while you blackmail people, intimidate people . . .”

He groans and closes his eyes. “It will be business. Nobody will get hurt. Understand that I can’t just drop this. There are livelihoods . . . fighters who live for this. Your friend . . . her husband, Riptide . . . they thrive, they breathe, they adore the Underground!”

“I know! I know it’s a dark that has to be, I just can’t be in it. I’m afraid !” I cry. The admission clouds his eyes with torment, and I don’t know if he realizes maybe what I’m most afraid of is the way I feel for him, and the fact that he’s everything I never wanted, and suddenly all I want.

My chest aches as I touch his cheek and look into his eyes and absorb the way he’s looking at me. “You are so heart-stoppingly beautiful and such a good man, in here. When I think of you I want to think of who you were when you were with me, Greyson.”

“You’d rather love the fantasy than the real man,” he says, and it clearly hurts him.

“No, it’s a real man I’m hurting for right now. It’s a real man I’m in love with.” I swallow. “Brooke said you were my Real. That’s what she calls the love of her life now. But you are not my Real, Greyson. You’re my knight in leather gloves who went rogue.”

“God, you’re tearing me open, Melanie.”

I swallow and take his palm and put his gloves there, quietly accepting the fact that I know who he needs to be, and as he curls his fingers around those gloves, he curls his fingers around me. His eyes fall to my lips, and then he kisses my lips, a sudden brush, as if he can’t help himself, then he pulls me back.

“You have three seconds,” he says, “to go.”

It hurts, as if I’m ripping a little piece of my heart, and I can’t know of anyone else but my sister who could take me from this man’s side. The opposite of my every dream and fantasy, and suddenly all I want. “Two seconds, Mel.”

“Grey, stop me . . .” I suddenly say. Omigod I can’t believe I’m leaving him!

“One.”

God, he won’t stop me.

For all his criminal ways, he won’t subject me to this life. His life.

I turn around and grab my suitcase with everything I’d brought here and shut the door behind me. Then I stand there, crying against the utter silence in the room where I left him. Pandora stands and goes to get her own suitcase in silence.

I have slept all over Seattle, and I’ve never once felt like a whore until I broke this man’s heart.

In an ideal world you only love the perfect man.

But it’s not an ideal world. I love an imperfect man who sins, lies, steals, blackmails, and how odd to know already—even though the years have not passed—that not even my Mr. Perfect or Prince Charming will ever, ever live up to the one I just left.

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