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Ben shifted on the bed, the first sign that he was uncomfortable. “We’ve spent a lot of time together . . . occasionally it got physical.”

“And you and Braydon . . . together . . . you shared her?”

He nodded. “Yes, that was just once, as I told you.”

I unconsciously scooted away from him. “How long has this been going on?” My voice was tiny, just a rasp as my throat threatened to close.

“Fiona was my first. So . . . since I was eighteen.”

Holy fuck! He was twenty-three now. Five fucking years? He’d been sleeping with her for five years? Not to mention you never forgot your first. Never. She was the friend of his mom’s that had taken his virginity. I felt physically ill. They were forever linked through their ongoing and obviously intimate affair.

I’d always had this underlying suspicion that she was in love with him, and now I understood why. Their relationship was so much deeper and more complicated than I’d ever imagined. It wasn’t some drunken hookup after a Fashion Week party with Braydon like I’d originally assumed. It was so much more.

Ben shifted closer and reached for my hand. I quickly snatched it away, fisting my hands in my lap.

“It was just sex, Emmy. It didn’t mean anything.”

I wanted to hit something. If he honestly believed sex didn’t mean anything—especially an ongoing relationship with the same person for five years—he was an idiot, .“I hate that she knows every intimate detail about you . . . things I thought were ours . . . she’s felt you inside of her . . . many more times than I have.”

He hung his head. “I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner. I haven’t been with her in months. Since before you and I got together.”

I felt so naïve. It was too much to take in. He’d never said we were exclusive . . . yet still, I’d never imagined something like this. I felt hurt, betrayed, shattered into a million pieces. My poor heart thumped unevenly in my chest.

“How dare you wrap me up in this . . . seduce me . . . say it was just sex . . . all the while knowing Fiona is my boss, who I already have a tough relationship with. Did you ever even think about my career? What she’d do to me when she found out you weren’t sleeping with her because you had a new plaything?”

He didn’t respond but his eyes widened, telling me he hadn’t considered it.

As I sat on the edge of my bed, my knee bouncing wildly, several things clicked into place at once. Suddenly everything made sense. The fact that he’d only slept with three girls before me was a result of his ongoing affair with Fiona. He didn’t need to date, or go looking for a hookup. She traveled with him wherever he went, cock-blocked him from dating other girls, and gave him regular sex. God, I hated her.

“Ben, I can’t do this.”

He bit down, his eyes blazing with fire. ”I’ve spent the whole day trying to figure out how to tell you this. . . . I don’t want anyone else, Emmy. And after last night with Braydon, I don’t ever want to see anyone touch you again. I want you to be mine. I want a real relationship—just you and me. And now I’ve apparently fucked it up before we even got started.”

I didn’t argue; I just twisted my hands in my lap, unsure how I felt about his little declaration. Was he just saying all that because I was mad about Fiona?

“Do you want me to go?” His voice was soft and low.

I nodded, unable to meet his eyes. “Yes. I need to think. Alone,” I added.

He released a slow breath. “I’m sorry, Emmy. I told you my past was fucked up. I knew I’d ruin things somehow. But I swear, I never slept with her once you and I started seeing each other.”

I had no doubt she’d propositioned him several times, so his abstaining should have made me feel better. But it was a shitty consolation prize. “I need time.” And I needed an ugly cry. No one needed to see that.

“Okay,” he said softly, rising from the bed. He bent down and pressed a tender kiss to my forehead. “I’m sorry.”

The door closing behind him was an ominous sound. I curled into a ball on the center of the bed, wrapping my arms around myself. I felt sick, humiliated, completely disoriented.

I let myself fall apart, sobbing quietly into a pillow until it was thoroughly soaked and I’d given myself a headache. Sometime later, I rose from the bed, heading off in search of a pain reliever.

When I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I winced at the girl staring back at me. My eyes were puffy and swollen; my hair was tangled and damp around my face from the onslaught of tears. I needed to pull it together.

I swallowed two pain relievers with a glass of lukewarm tap water and splashed cool water on my cheeks. I grabbed my phone and crawled back into bed. It was stupid, considering I’d kicked him out, but still, the ache in my chest intensified at seeing I had no new messages.

I dialed Ellie, too dazed to even calculate what time it was in New York.

She answered on the third ring. “Emmy!”

“Hi,” I croaked. Damn voice sounded like a man. Awesome.

“Em? What’s wrong?”

In some ways I was relieved she instantly knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t think I was capable of pretending, or making polite small talk right now. I took a deep breath and pulled the covers up to my chest. “You know my bitch of a boss who I hate?”

“Fiona, right?”

“Yeah. Well, I just found out Ben’s been sleeping with her on and off for five years.”

“Christ.”

“Yeah.” I let that sink in and fought off a fresh wave of tears. Speaking the words out loud was about to turn me into a faucet again.

“So he’s been seeing you both? Fucking asshole.”

“No. He said he hasn’t been with her since he and I began . . . whatever it was we had.”

“Do you believe him?” she asked, her voice rising in uncertainty.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Yeah. I think so. I don’t think he’d lie about it. He’s told me whatever I asked. And he’s been with me pretty much every night, so . . .”

“Ohh-kay . . .” Ellie drew out the word, like she was mulling something over. “You guys were just casual . . . physical . . . no strings attached . . . not exclusive . . . right?”

“I guess,” I confirmed.

“Hmm. And he said the relationship with her is over . . . now that he’s seeing you?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Emmy. You’re my girl and I’ve got your back no matter what, so if you tell me we need to castrate him, we will. We’ll put it on the fucking calendar and it’s done. But babe, honestly . . . you knew how he approached relationships. And this was something he was doing long before he met you. And then stopped once he started seeing you.”

I blew out a frustrated breath. “You think I’m overreacting?” I quickly remembered the date and noted it was possible that PMS was rearing its ugly head a few days early.

“Well . . . it’s possible that this feels like a bigger deal because it was with Fiona—who you despise. But it’s totally up to you. Do you even want to continue this fuck-buddies relationship if your heart’s in the game and his isn’t? That can be dangerous, too.”

I remembered Ben’s solemn look when he told me he wanted to do this for real—no one but us. “Actually, he told me today that he wanted a real relationship with me. Just the two of us . . . no one else.”

Ellie remained silent for several long seconds. “Wow.”

I didn’t know how to interpret her awestruck silence. “What?”

“It sounds like this is what you wanted all along. You said he’s a great guy and you’re falling for him. And now he wants a relationship, but because of who he slept with before he ever started seeing you, you’re going to hold that against him?”

It did sound stupid when she put it that way. But I wouldn’t cave. Even if I was tempted to. Not that easily. Him sleeping with Fiona for five freaking years was a huge deal. She was my boss. His boss, too, in a sense. That was messed up.

It wasn’t something I could just overlook and laugh off. I had to see Fiona every day, knowing they’d been together. I shuddered at the thought. Realizing Ellie was still on the line, I thanked her for the advice and said good-bye, needing time to process.

I shuffled into the bathroom and turned on the faucet to fill the tub. Escaping into a steaming hot bubble bath and shutting off my brain was the only thing I wanted tonight.

19

Ben

I didn’t want Emmy to think I’d brought up the idea of a monogamous relationship between us to smooth over my past with Fiona. That wasn’t the case. Not at all. I should have told her about Fiona sooner, or not answered the door that morning. It was a shitty thing I’d done—shoving Emmy into the bathroom and closing the door. Like that would erase the problem.

I knew Fiona and I had a fucked up past. But honestly, it never bothered me. She was an attractive woman, and neither of us was looking for a relationship. We stayed in the same cities where we didn’t know anyone else, and we were both typically single. Sex was nothing but convenient—a purely physical release. But I understood why Emmy hated that Fiona had experienced the pleasures of my body. I considered Braydon a good friend, and I fucking hated that he’d seen Emmy’s gorgeous, plump breasts, that he’d tasted how sweet she was and heard the soft whimpering sounds she made when she came. That experience had opened my eyes. I didn’t ever want to share her again. She was mine, and selfishly I wanted her all to myself.

I’d never wanted a relationship before, but this hit me like a smack to the head. I wanted all that and more with Emmy. My sweet southern belle. The idea of calling myself her boyfriend put a stupid little grin on my face. And now, before we’d even started, I’d fucked it up already. It almost made me rethink what I was doing. Almost. But I knew I would fight for her. I just had no idea how. My texts over the last few days had gone unanswered and I wasn’t bold enough to show up at her door and risk getting sent away. I missed her. And once again, I wasn’t sleeping for shit.

I decided to call Braydon. He knew me and he’d gotten to know Emmy a little, too—too much, in my opinion. But maybe he’d have some advice. He was in London doing a small fashion show, and I had no clue what his schedule might be. I’d opted not to do the show. I had the luxury of being a bit more selective with the jobs I took. I sent him a text, unsure if he had time to talk.

Me: Hey . . . I need help with Emmy. Call me.

Braydon: I’m in. ; )

Me: No. Not for that, fucktard. Call me.

A few minutes later my phone rang. “Hey, man,” I greeted him.

“I was just thinking about you guys. Well, not you. But Emmy. Mmm . . .” He made a low humming sound in his throat.

“Well, stop thinking about her, asshole. That’s never happening again.”

“Whoa, getting a little possessive, aren’t we? That’s new for you.”

“Yeah, no shit. All this is new for me. I think I’m falling for her, man.”

“Wow. Big Ben’s growing up. That’s huge, man.”

Dick. “Well, she’s not talking to me right now.”

Braydon chuckled. “What’d you do? Lemme guess . . . she wants you to get an APA now and you won’t?”

“This isn’t about your dick or its stupid-ass jewelry, dude. And no, I’m never getting my junk pierced.” I stood from the bed and began pacing the room, suddenly restless. I explained Emmy’s already strained relationship with Fiona and the hurt in her eyes when I told her about our past. Braydon stayed quiet, listening to the whole thing. I blew out a heavy sigh. “I need to get her back. What do I do?”

“You need to show her what she means to you. Make her understand how special she is to you. Make her forget all about Fiona.”

That did make sense. “So how do I do that?”

“You have to think about the things she likes . . . if she’s into poetry, you write her a poem . . . or if her favorite food is sushi, you find the best Japanese restaurant to take her to. Shit like that.”

Okay . . . that was pretty good.

“Thanks, man.” Now I just needed to think about what to do to show her how I felt.

Christ. I wasn’t good with feelings. This should be interesting. . . .

20

Emmy

That week after Ben’s confession about his relationship with Fiona was hell, but I threw myself into my work. Being Fiona’s bitch was the perfect distraction. I thought about Ben often, a dull ache always present inside my chest, but I did my best. I woke groggy and unrested, went about my day, and collapsed into bed each night clutching my phone. I had to talk myself out of calling him at least six hundred times. I called Ellie instead.

I’d successfully ignored his few texts, one adorably addressed to “Tennessee.” It was difficult not to cave, but I deserved better. I knew I did. And the daily pep talks from Ellie helped remind me. Ben would need to try harder if he actually wanted a go at a real relationship. I needed to make sure he was committed to this idea. I wanted to see him work for it. I needed to make sure he was serious about me before jumping back in, because I was his, body and soul.

Slipping out of my heels, I was ready to collapse on the bed when a knock at the door stopped me. My heart thumped unevenly, and I wondered who it could be. It was a delivery from the concierge.

Opening the door wider to accommodate him, the concierge wheeled in a cart and unloaded several items onto the table: a glass vase of flowers, a six-pack of Hap & Harry’s Tennessee Lager—one of my favorites from home—and a white bakery box full of blueberry muffins. What in the world?

Once the concierge had left, I tried to make sense of this delivery. The deep purple irises on tall, vibrant, green stems had a light, floral scent that reminded me of home. The notecard attached to the vase of flowers said, “State flower of Tennessee.” Oh . . . that was interesting. All my favorites from home. Did irises even grow in France? And I doubted they sold this brand of beer. Had Ben done this? Flown these in just for me?

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