Alex took a deep breath, knowing he’d have to put on an award-winning performance here. Either that or come clean, and he was not willing to do that, not yet anyway. Valerie had been a licensed realtor for less than a full week, and already she was talking about closing her first deal. She’d ordered study material and booked a conference on passing her broker’s test two years from now, damn it. Sal had been right about yet another thing. Valerie was no doubt going to be insanely successful. While he was proud of her work ethic and happy for her doing so well so fast, he refused to let her in on what a pathetic ass she was dating.

He pretended to be momentarily confused about what she was talking about. Then opened his eyes wide. “Gwyneth?” he asked, and her glare went more severe.

“Gwyneth?” Her eyes opened wider, but she looked even more disgusted. “This must be a new one.”

“No,” he said, taking a few steps closer to her, but she held her laptop case in front of her defensively. “No, no, babe. That’s just someone I ran into on my way back to the car. Come on, Valerie,” he said in a tone that made him feel like the devil himself. “You said things had changed. You wouldn’t just turn on me like this. She’s the only one I can think Monica might have seen me with, but we walked together for a little bit and that was it. I told her about you. I said I’d be telling everyone one by one, and she’s not even someone I’ve ever dated, but I’m making sure everyone knows.”

Valerie stared at him, still looking unsure, so he took another cautious step forward, relieved when she didn’t flinch. She took a deep breath. “I texted you,” she said.

Alex reached for his phone holster slowly, not taking his eyes off her. “When?”

“Don’t read it,” she said quickly.

He lifted a brow as he began to lift the phone out of the holster, glad that he seemed to have talked her down.

“Don’t, Alex, please,” she said, her face full of remorse suddenly. “I’m sorry.”

Under normal circumstances he might’ve been tempted to check her text anyway. Maybe even been a little annoyed by her reaction. But she was just being the Valerie he’d turned her into, and he felt like a total dick for that. She’d picked up on his unease since they’d had breakfast at the restaurant, and she’d been right to question it even though she hadn’t done so verbally that morning. She’d probably thought about it all day and then got the call from Monica. Of course she’d been livid. Of course she’d assumed the worst.

So instead of looking at his phone, he slipped it back into the holster and opened his arms. “Don’t be sorry, Valerie. It’s what you’ve come to expect from me, and that’s my own damn fault. This change won’t be easy, but I’ll convince you yet that I’m truly serious about this.”

This was no longer an act. He meant every word of what he’d just said from the bottom of his heart. He sincerely hated what he was doing to her even if he wasn’t. Yet, as usual, his pride was bigger than the fear of losing her, and the inner debate continued. He wasn’t doing anything to her. He’d never hurt her. Not intentionally. Not the way he knew she was expecting. Not anymore.

Bringing his arms around her, he kissed the side of her head. “Let’s forget about it. I should’ve just called or texted you and given you a heads up. I’m sorry.”

She shook her head instantly, looking up at him. “Alex, no—”

“Yes, I am,” he said firmly. “I deserve this kind of reaction.” He kissed her, hoping they could move on and just drop the subject. Having her in his arms—devouring her mouth—was already doing things to him. “I missed you so much today,” he said, lifting her into his arms.

Instantly, she wrapped herself around him, and she kissed him back just as passionately. He rushed to the bedroom, never once taking his lips off her. He wanted to make love to her. Make her scream in ecstasy. It wouldn’t make up for what he’d done, what he still had to continue doing, but he could at least make her forget even if it was just temporarily. He needed something to alleviate the guilt brought on by his unyielding pride.

When he put her down on the bed, she was instantly on her knees, pulling the zipper of his pants down. “I don’t care what you say,” she said as she wrapped her hand around his erection. “I’m sorry,” she said as she lowered her face and kissed the tip then licked it. She peered up at him, the remorse in eyes replaced with playful humor. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to react. Let me make it up to you.”

As much as he wanted to protest—tell her he was the one who should be going above and beyond tonight to make it up to her—it was impossible to do so, not with her lips wrapped around him and her tongue doing things that had his legs going weak already.

He groaned, running his fingers through her hair. He didn’t deserve her. She didn’t deserve his stupid ass. But, Jesus, there was no way he could stop her now. Over the years, Valerie had pretty much perfected her technique, and within minutes, he was ready to burst.

It was as incredible as it always had been, and afterwards, when he lay next to her in bed trying to catch his breath, the guilt seeped in again. He lifted himself to his elbow and turned to her, caressing her face. “Baby, I totally get why you’d react to the way you did tonight.”

She started to shake her head, but he placed his finger on her lips before she could say anything.