He turns me a little in his arms, and when he holds me close again, he’s rubbing my shoulder like I’m the one who needs comfort.
“I stopped making any kind of effort to engage with him, and it was like the biggest source of stress in my life was removed. I stopped. I thought, when he wants to be a father to me, he’ll make the move.”
“And he hasn’t?”
Josh keeps talking like he hasn’t even heard me.
“The thing that gets me is, when I switched to doing an MBA at night while working at Bexley, he was unimpressed. Like he’d had any kind of opinion. Like I wasn’t even noticed or acknowledged enough to disappoint. But I have. Over and over, my entire life. My career is a joke to him.”
I’m surprised by how angry I’m getting. I think of Anthony, his face permanently twisted into a sarcastic expression.
“He’s lost something special in you. Why is he like this?”
“I don’t know. If I knew, maybe I could change it. He’s just been that way with me, and most people.”
“But Josh, this is what I don’t get. You’re so overqualified for what you do at B and G.”
“We both are,” he tells me.
“Why do you stay?”
“Prior to the merger, I nearly quit every day. But I already had the family reputation as a quitter.”
“And post merger?”
He looks away, and I see the edge of his mouth beginning to curl in a smile.
“The job had a few good things about it.”
“You enjoyed fighting with me too much.”
“Yeah,” he admits.
“How did you end up working at Bexley, anyway?”
“I applied for twenty jobs in a fit of rage. It was the first offer I got. Richard Bexley’s lowly servant.”
“You didn’t even care? I wanted to work for a publisher so badly I cried when I heard I’d got the job.”
He has the grace to look guilty. “I suppose you’d think it was unfair if I got the promotion now.”
“No. The process is based on merit. But Josh, you’ve got to know. It’s my dream. B and G is my dream.”
He doesn’t say anything. What could he say?
“So you really didn’t bring me along to show Mindy you’d moved on with some hot little dweeb?”
I know his face better than my own, and I can’t see a trace of a lie. When he speaks, there is none.
“I couldn’t face him without you. I am an embarrassment. Dropped out of med school, administrative job, lost the girl to my brother. I’m nothing to him. Mindy and Patrick can have ten children and be married for a hundred years for all I care. Good luck to them.”
I let myself say it. “Okay. I believe you.”
We sit in silence for a moment before he speaks again. “The worst thing is, I keep wondering what I’d be now if I’d stuck with medicine.”
“I’ve got so much inside me I have no idea about. I’m like the mayor of a city I’ve never seen.”
He smiles at my phrasing. “If you knew the kind of little miracles happening every moment you breathe in, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. A valve could close and not open; an artery could split, you could die. At any moment. It’s nothing but miracles inside your tiny city.” He presses a kiss to my temple.
“Holy shit.” I clutch at him.
“You wouldn’t believe the stats on people who go to bed one night and never wake up. Normal, healthy people who aren’t even old.”
“Why would you tell me this? Is this what you think about?”
There’s the longest pause. “I used to. Not so much anymore.”
“I think I preferred it when I thought I was full of white bones and red goo. Why am I now thinking about dying tonight?”
“Now you see why I can’t do small talk. Sorry Dad scared you about the cake. He’s jealous he can’t let himself go enough to enjoy something. I don’t think I’ve eaten cake in a few years. Man, it was good.”
“Filthy little pigs, the pair of us. Want to go downstairs and see if there’s any left?”
He looks at me with guarded hope. “You’re not leaving?”
I remember my plans to get the bus home. “No, I’m not leaving.”
It’s helpful he’s still sitting on the dresser. It means when I step closer and take his face in my hands, I can reach him with only a little tiptoeing. It means I can feel the tingling sparks jumping in the air between our lips, his sigh of relief that tastes sweeter than sugar. His pulse jumps under my fingertips. It’s a pretty convoluted game we’ve played to make it to this moment.
It’s helpful he’s still sitting on the dresser, because I can pull his lips to mine.
When I kiss him, his exhalation is long, until he’s surely completely empty. I want to fill him back up. I don’t realize it until a few minutes of dreamy, melting minutes have passed that I’ve been talking to him with my kiss. You matter. You’re important to me. This matters.
I know that he understands, because there is a fine tremor in his hands as he slides one fingernail up the side seam of my dress, across my shoulders to my nape. He tells me things, too. You’re who I want. You’re always beautiful. This really matters.
He toys with the zipper of my dress for a tiny, jingling eternity, and then pulls it down. It makes a sound like a needle dragging across a record. He deepens the kiss, and I push closer in between his knees, and wild horses could not drag me away from this man and this room. I will kiss him until I die of exhaustion. When I feel the sharp edge of his teeth on my lips, I know I’m not alone in this.
I let the dress drop and step out of it, bending to pick it up. Self-consciousness prevails and I hide behind it a little, until I look so silly that I have no choice to hold it aside. I had to wear an ivory bodysuit under the dress, like a little swimsuit, to give it a smooth line, and it has little suspenders holding up my stockings. Sleepysaurus, it ain’t.
Josh looks like he’s been stabbed in the gut.
“Holy shit,” he says faintly.
I hand him the dress and put my hand on my hip. His eyes eat every line and curve of me, even as his hands neatly fold my dress in half. My legs are ridiculously short, and I don’t have the benefit of my heels, but the way he looks at me makes my tiny knees weak.
“You’ve gone a bit quiet on me here, Josh.” I slide my finger under the shoulder strap of this ridiculous thing I’m wearing, and pause. I see his throat swallow.
I put my hands on his neck, squeeze briefly in a strangle, then slide them down. He’s so solid, heavy, the heat radiating from within the muscles flexing under my palms. I step in closer, and put my face into his throat, and breathe him in. I close my eyes and beg myself to remember this. Please, remember this when you’re a hundred years old.
His hands slide down my waist to take my butt in both hands, and when I begin to kiss his throat he squeezes me tighter.
“Shirt off. Come on now.” My voice is rough and cajoling. He begins unbuttoning his shirt, looking dazed. When he shrugs out of the shirt I can see his back in the reflection of the dresser mirror. “You’ve still got paintball bruises. I do too.”
My free hand is groping along his chest, and I break off the kiss to watch myself do it. The muscles are all stacked together like LEGOs. I press my fingertips to watch his flesh give. His hands haven’t moved from my ass, but his fingertips have slid down to stroke the little ribbons holding up my stockings. To stop myself from making an embarrassingly loud moan I kiss him again, wriggling closer to him.
“I had it all planned.” He finally finds his voice again, moving me backward smoothly to the bed. He hauls the coverlet away and lays me back against the sheets with easy strength.
“It was going to be a little more romantic than a hotel room.”
Josh, thinking about romance? My heart can’t take it. He captures my mouth in a kiss, and it’s so gentle I could cry.
“See,” he says into my mouth. “I don’t hate you, Lucy.”
His tongue touches mine, tentative, shy. He drops himself down on his elbows, caging me with his biceps, and it triggers the memory of him pressing me against a tree, shielding me, covering me.
I was always covering for you.
I sigh, and he breathes it in. “That’s it . . .”
I stretch and wriggle underneath his weight. “You’re so big. It gets me hot.”
“And you’re so tiny. It makes me wonder about all the ways we’ll fit together. It’s all I’ve been thinking about since the day we met.”
“Oh, sure. The momentous day you looked at me, head to toe, then out the window.”
He’s giving my throat the softest bites imaginable. He slides his fingers into mine above our heads and we’re now holding hands. How did we get back here? To this tender place after the blaze of anger burned us both up? It’s so sweet, so completely soft and gentle and Josh.
“If we do this tonight, I’m not going to let you get weird on me.” His eyes are solemn as he braces himself up a little. “Are you going to have one of your infamous freak-outs?”
“I don’t know. Very possibly.” I try for a joke but he’s not remotely amused.
“I wish I knew how much I have of you. How much do I get?” He’s kissing me on the throat again, fingers tightening on mine.
“Until the interviews, you get it all,” I say into his skin, and he lets out a shaky breath, like I’ve offered him forever, not a few days.
We begin kissing again, and the friction of my thigh against his groin is spurring him into a slightly heavier rhythm. His mouth is wet, soft, delicious. The moment he stops, even to take a proper breath, I tug him back.
After an eternity, he tangles his hand in the strap on my shoulder. He runs it lasciviously through his fingers pulling it taut, releasing it with the faintest snap, and then does it again.
“The zip’s at the side,” I tell him. Technically I think I begged him.
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