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One Night Bride (Only Pretend Book 2) by Snow, Nicole (1)


Duty Bound (Skye)

A man brings a woman to her knees three times in a lifetime: once with his passion, once with his promise, and once when he shows her his heart .

Our love just trashed the cardinal rule. I think it hurts because he's not the one to blame .

It's my own fault I'm on my knees crying, knowing it's too late. There won't be a fifth time to fall down and let him save me .

I don't even recognize my own reflection in the spotless mirrors. I'm on my hands and knees, crawling the university's polished marble floors, suffering the earthquake left in his wake .

Tremors are all I have since he walked out. It shouldn't be such a surprise .

Oh, I knew there'd be heartbreak .

That was in the cards since the night we met, and branded in the morning after, when he thrust this stupid ring on my hand that's become emotional corrosion. It's a tiny diamond paradox worth more than this building. Hell and happiness in equal balance .

Snatching it off my finger, I hold it up, asking for the hundredth time how it's possible to love and hate an object this much .

I need to start seeing it differently. It's an absurd, teasing remnant of something we never had .

Something I was foolish to ever hope for .

“Ridiculous,” I whisper, voice trembling .

Ridiculous and beautiful .

Somehow, it's more priceless than the heavy Roman bust laying against my hand. I knocked it off the table in my fit after he stormed off. Thank God it didn't break. I don't need to cause more grief for a school I've already cheated .

I sigh, gently holding the artifact, looking for cracks through my tears. One day, the end will come for this eighteen hundred year old statue, just like it does for everything, but not today .

Staring is a mistake. The longer I do, the worse the pain twists my intestines .

If I deserve this – and after the anger and disappointment in his eyes I certainly do – I still don't like it .

It just isn't fair .

The dead things I've devoted my life to get off easy. They stay dead, inert and timeless as the Marcus Aurelius face I didn't break, thank God again. Their existence is abstract, casual, painless .

Everything I wish I had when I remember my last words, before I put the look on his face that destroyed me. “Stop making me your problem. I don't need you, and neither does Vinnie. We'll handle it like we always have. I'll pay back the money and move on. I don't want your damn job or your money, Cade. It's over. I'm sorry .”

I don't know how he held my gaze without exploding. The sadness in his soft blue eyes was enough to drown any woman with a conscience – even a shrinking one like mine .

His last words were brutal. “And what about love, Skittle? You want to stand here and tell me you don't need that, too ?”

I shook my head. I turned my back. I didn't answer .

Coward me didn't look back. Just watched him in the mirror on my desk, one more tool we use to help clean the museum pieces .

The same thoughts looped in the space of ten seconds, over and over, shaken to a core I was so sure no man would ever break. Everything I desperately wanted to, but wouldn't let myself say .

Damn it, Cade, can't you see I have to do this ?

Don't you know it's for our own good ?

Can't you fucking see what you've done to me ?

He doesn't. I didn't give him the chance. And so I'm on my knees alone, gently wiping grit off this ancient bust with my shirt, surrounded by a wealth of history, art, and learning that feels like poverty after his blazing blue eyes .

Cade is nothing now. Just another needle in my heart. Toxic venom, denial, and loss .

I'm not cut out for this hero thing, especially when I can't tell him the real reason we'll never work .

It's for my good, and for his, and for Vinnie's. If I could make him understand, then maybe it wouldn't hurt so bad to lose it all .

There were no second options .

I'm a smart young woman. I don't need another PhD to know pursuing this...this thing with a man who promised me the world would be the end. The consequences, the danger, just keeping him around wouldn't end our love. It could easily cost us our lives. Apocalyptic, guaranteed .

Loving him already is .

And that part, I can't control, when a man this rare poached my heart .

Cade is the unthinkable, the one I didn't plan for .

Scary, sexy perfection in lightning blue eyes and a five o'clock shadow. Muscle and depth. Jagged smirks and piercing smiles .

He's everything I secretly craved. Everything I never should've tasted. Everything guaranteed to ruin me if I let Mr. Relentless seep into the screwed up, imperfect chasm called the life of Skye .

The grief will come, but I'll get over it. There isn't another choice .

I cut him lose because I swore I'd fix the nightmare staring me in the face .

I'm not doing this for me. It's for my little brother, my sins against my school, and the asshole who still owns a piece of my soul. The very same asshole I don't need Cade's help with because he's done more for me than I deserve .

You can live without his help, I tell myself, with no confidence whatsoever it's true .

But without his love? I'm almost as ruined as the moments when I thought I had it .

Cade and I never had chemistry .

We had alchemy. The scariest, best, most heart-binding kind that's meant to burn nuclear and then wink out .

The time is now, even though it hurts. There's no more to waste sacrificing my heart .

In just a couple seconds, I'll get off this glossy floor and tell myself one more time I'm doing right .

I'll repeat it until it loses its meaning because then I won't know it's a blatant lie .

I'm in too deep to pinpoint whenever the truth stopped mattering .

What we had, ridiculous and beautiful, was real .

And it still is. It's overwhelmingly real in the steady hurtful throb in my temples, which tells me I haven't seen the last of Cade Turnbladt, as insane as that seems .

Fresh ache pools in my knees. So does fear .

It's not the crazy, impossible thing I have to figure out over the next few days .

It's because I have a sick feeling they haven't begun to kneel for this man, and if I do it a fifth time, none of us might stand again in one piece .

* * *

Four Months Ago

“C ough drop, sug?” Adele throws the bag down next to me, spilling a few cherry red drops bleeding through their white wrappers across the bathroom counter .

I shake my head, never taking my eyes off the mirror. Doesn't she know I was just clearing my throat in case someone requests a song? I'm not sick. I wouldn't dare perform for the clients with a bug, but I guess some of the other girls who go all the way don't share my concerns .

“Suit yourself,” she snaps, stepping over to Ruby. Her frown deepens when she swats the girl on the butt. “What did I tell you last time? An inch higher up the thigh and lower at the top. They need to see you to figure out whether you're worth their time and money, dearie .”

“Yeah, okay. Understood.” Ruby adjusts her cocktail dress .

“And you, again,” Adele says, returning her jade huntress eyes to mine. “I'd better see some proof those lessons are paying off. Last time, a couple of the older guys said you were off key. Remember you're getting off lightly, Skye, considering you don't do the after-shows. Now, I don't care if you're Harry's niece or whatever. But I do have a business to run, and I expect improvements .”

I don't say anything. Silence pisses her off even more, but not enough to keep her berating me .

Waiting until I hear her heels click across the bathroom floor and the door swing open, I release my sigh, casting it into the mirror .

I look good tonight. At least half-human. The expensive creams I really can't afford on this salary took out the bags under my eyes. That always goes far with the kind of men I'm starting to get used to entertaining .

They love to look me in the eyes when I sing, hunched over the piano, a strangely intimate gesture I never expected at the start of this .

They say I have beautiful eyes, like a full storm drifting in. I'm not sure if it's a blessing, or a curse .

Certainly, they're the only thing mom left behind, and that could easily make them either .

“That was close. You got off easy,” Ruby says, flashing a messy smile as she does her lipstick. “She's losing out big keeping you from the after-shows, ya know. You have a clue how many men want to take you home most nights ?”

Of course I do. I'm the one they can't have, at least not in full, and it makes me top prize. I watch my eyes narrow in the reflection, trying to control the loathing in the pit of my stomach .

I'm not like her, this desperate whore, selling herself after every performance to the man with the shiniest platinum watch. I'm not like any of the other girls, who work for Adele willingly .

I'm one degree removed. On the right side of the thin, dark line that involves teasing strangers, without actually sharing their beds .

This isn't some high horse. I was knocked off whatever stallion used to show me right and wrong a long time ago .

I close my eyes, ignoring the pop tune Ruby starts humming to herself .

Just another night. Nothing special. I remember why I'm here. I think about the debt I'm paying, the only thing that's keeping Vinnie and me fed, sheltered, and alive .

This is a job. It's desperation. It's temporary .

I've done it for the better part of a year. Three, sometimes four 'performances' every month, as Uncle Harry calls them. It should be easy money for a grad student in a subject that should give a bright future flipping burgers .

Then I remember how I almost had it all, how easily I could've taken myself around the world and paid for Vinnie's treatments, if only that stupid fucking box hadn't gotten lost in the mail. I'm reminded what I did to get it, how I thought nothing about breaching laws and ethics, if only it would've meant money for my dreams, my family .

If only, is a demon no matter how many times it beats me over the head .

If only I'd been able to ship the thousand year old jewelry I took from under the university's nose .

If only I'd gotten it into my uncle's dirty hands to sell on the black market .

If only he'd paid my cut, I wouldn't be here tonight, shaking my ass like one more of Adele's girls for the oh-so-rich, oh-so-handsome men of Seattle's upper crust, who totally aren't investing in their latest pump and dump side candy, many cheating on their wives by showing up for our 'performances .'

That's the cold truth. Maybe never had a high horse. My moral compass always pointed toward desperation .

Sometimes I wonder if I deserve this. Uncle Harry let me keep the loan, after all, the down payment he gave us for tuition and a part-time caretaker for my bratty little brother .

Ruby leaves with the other girl, both of them laughing, leaving me alone .

I look into the mirror one more time, drawing a breath .

“It's not forever. Be in the now. Get this over with,” I whisper to myself in the quiet .

It doesn't help because I'm lying so hard about the last part. There's no end in sight .

I owe Uncle Harry a lot of money, and what little I have left is running out .

* * *

“M y, what a crowd! Any special requests tonight? It's nice to see so many handsome gentlemen who know a good song. What are you boys hungry for? Jazz...classical...contemporary...or just me?” I smile, staring across the ballroom, ending my words with a cringe-worthy wink .

No matter how many times I do this, it never feels normal .

We're thirty floors above downtown Seattle in a ritzy ballroom that's half glass. I'm sitting at a piano that probably costs more than the stupid jewelry that put me here, trying not to scream .

The men in their suits lost interest as soon as Adele told them I was off limits. This is an older, hornier crowd. They're hunkered around Ruby and another girl, Ambrosia, running several hands up their legs while they sway to my gentle background score .

“I'll bite. I'm a sucker for Sinatra.” I look up, and see a man far younger than I expect considering his request .

“You play beautifully,” he says. Almost like it's a real rehearsal, and not a flimsy excuse for a high end peep show .

I smile, embarrassed by the blush lighting up my cheeks. He looks older than me, but not by much, five or six years, maybe. Late twenties, if not early thirties, and dangerously handsome .

He sits on the edge of my bench. Very bold .

I'm expecting him to get grabby and this to get creepy, probably in the next few seconds .

I clear my throat loudly, hoping it'll keep his hands away a while longer. “Sorry. I'm a little rusty with this stuff. Any particular song ?”

“Surprise me,” he says, a rich warmth in his deep voice. It sends an instinctive chill up my spine .

This better not be insta-lust. I've never been a big believer .

But I can't deny the goosebumps painting my skin. My fingers push the keys, trying to find their focus. I try to make it obvious I'm not watching his every move out the corner of my eye .

I'm halfway through Fly Me to the Moon, the only thing I'm able to reconstruct by memory, before I start relaxing .

He isn't moving closer. He isn't doing anything he shouldn't. He's just staring, admiring, and it's not just my nipples beginning to pucker .

This man is too well behaved. What the hell is he hiding ?

His blue eyes glisten. If I could step outside myself for a second, I'm sure I'd actually look beautiful reflected in his eyes. Not at all like the stuffy, desperate creature I become every time I perform, and never this bad because he's the first client who's easy on the eyes .

“Sing,” he whispers, leaning in, his gaze intensifying. “Sing for me. You know the words ?”

“Vaguely.” It's better to be honest. Especially when my body is betraying more than it should .

I don't know this stranger. I don't trust his eyes, however kind. If he's here, he's come to get his rocks off, whatever his face says to the contrary .

And it's not just his baby blues doing the talking. We share a look while we sing, his deep voice mouthing each line perfectly, refreshing my memory as we go .

His looks are napalm, a gradual burn destined to sink beneath my skin the longer I'm trapped in his gaze. I spend as much time studying his six foot something godliness tucked into the suit as I do his face. Every gorgeous angle tells me something new .

His sandy blonde hair frames his brow, the lower dusting on his powerful jaw another accent .

His broad shoulders look more like they belong to a Viking groomed into a crisp suit than tech CEO number one hundred in this sleepless, greedy city .

His eyes are kind, like I mentioned, but there's a harsher understanding in their layers. A warning. Do not fuck with me, they say .

Ironic, I guess, considering he's the first man I've encountered at these wretched events who makes me wonder what it'd be like to do the unthinkable. To leave the room with him just like the other girls .

You've lost it, I tell myself, catching the crazy thought. But I don't know how the hell to stop .

I just play on, finishing the song, going out with a low, long note .

“Lovely,” he says, once my hands are off the keys. My turn to pull my eyes off him. I do it slowly, reluctantly, even. “You're pretty well put together for a woman playing the piano buck naked .”

My cheeks go to a hundred and twenty degrees. I knew the asshole had to emerge sooner or later, but I didn't need to be reminded how exposed I really am .

“Topless. I'm still wearing heels and a thong.” A minor correction. Not that I want to give him incentive to check. “And yeah, I try. It's kinda my job .”

“Is it? I wonder. You didn't fool me for a second with that pretty, but empty smile, Skittle,” he says, sliding across the bench. I don't move while he reaches up my neck. His fingers trace its curve and stop in my hair, flicking the blue and pink alternating highlights. “You're a sore fucking thumb. Too indie, too colorful, too authentic to be like the rest. You remind me of my favorite candy. Tell me, do you actually like this? Or are you just here for the tips ?”

I shrug. I don't tell him I could care less. The ballers who always show up at our performances rarely leave more than a few hundred dollars behind after finding out I'm not getting in their car later. A paltry dent in my seven figure debt slavery .

“Aw, come on,” he says, smiling through my silence. “I'm just making talk. Your business isn't mine beyond naming your price. How much for the night ?”

“Sorry, not for sale,” I snap, standing up, folding my arms across my very bare chest. “Neither am I. I'm musical entertainment only. If you want a night cap service, the others here are more than happy to –“

“Dreadfully sorry for any disappointment or frustration, sir.” Adele cuts me off, appearing out of nowhere behind us. She grabs at the stranger's shoulder, digging her emerald green nails in. They match her jungle eyes. “I should really start putting a disclaimer next to this one on the entertainment listing .”

Or remove me altogether, I think, holding my words, aiming a dirty look at the madam .

“Bull. How much for the night?” He repeats the same question, reaching into his pocket, keeping his eyes glued to me, rather than the woman trying to negotiate .

My heart sticks in my throat. Adele doesn't give me another look, just flicks her hair over her shoulder, and repeats the line I've heard a hundred times. “You'll have to accept my apologies, sir. Again, she doesn't work overtime outside tonight's venue. No private shows. If you'd like, I'd be more than happy to introduce you to our other girls, who are free to be far more accommodating than –“

“I'll ask you again since you didn't hear it the first time – how much? ” He's opening a small leather folio and taking out a pen. I realize it's his checkbook a second later. Adele frowns sourly, unused to clients putting up a fight .

“I'm sorry, sir. This one, she's special. I'm afraid I can't allow you...” She drifts off when he turns the checkbook toward her .

“Do I need another zero in there, or what? Tell you what, I'll keep writing, and you just say when we're good .”

His pen moves for another second. Adele clears her throat, whips her head around, and gives me a look I've never seen before .

Panic .

It's infectious, too. My heart drums so heavy in my chest blood roars into my ears, deafening for a few rough seconds .

“Let's go over here a minute, shall we?” Her arm is around me. Like she seriously wants me to hear her out, and forget the guarantee from my uncle, her boss' boss .

“I'm not going home with him,” I say, once we're alone in a corner across the ballroom. An autumn rain pelts the windows, this city hellbent on reminding us how bone-chilling it can be as we drift toward the holidays .

“I can't make you, obviously. I'm asking you to consider it. He's offering a considerable sum for a night. At least ten times more than any of my girls normally average. Plenty left over after my cut, when we're talking that much money .”

“Oh, joy. A crumb of my debt, maybe. Pop the champagne,” I say, motioning toward the endless bottles of Dom being replenished near the snack bar .

Anger curls lines through Adele's face. Pretty impressive because I'm sure she's on her third face lift. “Skye, let me ask you something...are you stubborn, or just stupid ?”

I blink, surprised to see her soulless cool falling apart. “You're kidding, right? I said from the very beginning what I'd do, and what I wouldn't when I took this job .”

“Yes, yes. Mr. Coyle was very clear.” She shakes her head, preening her lips like she's bitten something sour. “Still...just between you and me, you're a foolish, selfish girl not to consider it. That man over there isn't offering money. He's offering time. Do you know how many nights you won't have to do this if you'll just get in his bed for one night ?”

Dozens. A hundred, maybe, considering how little I usually earn doing this. Sighing, I lower my eyes, and think about my misery waiting at home .

Vinnie's latest application for medical aid hasn't gone through yet. I'm skeptical the state even covers what he needs. The stuff that works best is too experimental. I've been lucky to keep him on it this long, but next month...the seizures could come back any time .

I bite my bottom lip. Adele jabs a long painted fingernail into my skin, just above my right boob and under my throat. “Think carefully, is all I'm saying, Skye. Please. Nobody wants to drag this out any longer than we need to. Not me, not my boss, and certainly not –“

“I'm not saying yes.” I take a wide step back, batting her hand away. “But...I guess...I'm not saying no, either .”

Adele's eyes go wide. I'm not looking at her anymore, though .

I'm staring past to the sculpted enigma still waiting patiently on the bench, his eyes never moving off mine. I don't know anything about him beyond the fact that he's here, he likes Sinatra, and he's a good deal younger than the other vain, horny men crowding Ruby and Ambrosia like flies .

He could be anyone. Anything. I don't even have a name .

There's no telling whether he's classy, or just crude. And what's he escaping chasing high end escorts – a wife who's clueless about his antics when he's 'just working late ?'

An addiction to beautiful women who won't say no ?

Hell, maybe he's into stuff no ordinary woman would ever do without him paying through the nose for it .

I'm blind, deaf, and dumb about what I'm getting into if my answer, my risk, is anything except a resounding no .

I look at him again. Normally, I'd say his looks, his money, and his obvious ambition wouldn't make selling my virginity so bad. If he isn't a total demon under the Adonis exterior, it still might not be terrible, especially when I think about what happens if Vince's latest medication runs out .

I can't watch him have another seizure. Jesus, and what happens if he has one while the nurse who checks in on him while I'm working isn't there ?

“We don't have all night. Make up your mind so I can tell the client, one way or another,” Adele says, tapping her tall black heel .

“Let me talk to him privately, please.” I don't wait for her approval. Before Adele has time to take a step, I'm walking toward the sly, demanding wolf on the bench .

It's a miracle my legs work when my stomach is nothing but knots .

* * *

“T hree ground rules if you want me,” I tell him, as soon as we're alone. “You won't take my phone. You won't walk away without giving Adele your check tonight, and it damn sure better not bounce .”

“That's two,” he says, a smirk creeping across his face. He's too good at making me blush, and want to look anywhere except his endless blue pools .

I do a quick look around to make sure no one hears us. Then I lean in, so close I get a lungful of his cologne. I'm not sure if it's intoxicating by itself, like the ritzy brands are, or if it's only when it's mingling with his masculine scent. “We have to use protection .”

There's no excuse for mumbling it in his ear like a clueless school girl. None, maybe, except for the fact he grabs my wrist, and locks his hand around it .

“Fuck, Skittle. You must really need it bad. I never brought up sex – you did .”

What the hell does that mean? My eyes flick to his. I wonder if I'm being gamed .

It doesn't make sense. No man in his class would come out for an evening like this, with Adele's women, if they weren't looking for the obvious .

“I don't understand,” I whisper, trying not to let his stern gaze paint my face red a third time .

“You shouldn't. This isn't the time or place to talk details .”

“Okay, can you stop the riddles and tell me what you really want ?”

The smirk lining his handsome face gets wider. “Don't know. Can you get dressed and follow me out to my car ?”

My saner instincts are in full rebellion. I should stand, walk away, and cut this weird evening short, even if it means less pay .

But then I think about Vinnie's prescription. The pills will be gone in two weeks, maybe less .

Anything could happen if he doesn't have a refill .

Last time he went without, he collapsed in my arms while he was playing a video game, twitching and choking, making every button I tapped on my phone to dial 9-11 feel like a rosary. He's counting on me, damn it .

The stranger stands and tugs my arm once. “You coming, or what?” he asks .

I am .

I have to take this risk .

* * *

I 'm in his sleek black sedan ten minutes later, riding in the passenger seat, a burgundy camisole that goes past my knees wrapped tight for protection .

I'm no closer to knowing if I'm doing the right thing, or making my biggest mistake .

He doesn't say a word, just gives me that smug, self-assured smile, taking us through the Seattle night .

“How can you be so cool at a time like this? The run up know.” I'm hoping provoking him brings some answers .

“How are you so nervous when you walk around flaunting that sugarplum hair, Skittle? These colors scream courage. Don't fuck with me.” His blue eyes glow, so much confidence shining through it puts the moon to shame. “Not yet, anyway,” he adds, looking up my body, before he puts his eyes on the rain spattered streets again .

“So, we are doing this? You and me? Tonight?” Oh, God. It's starting to hit me. What have I done ?

“You're spending the night with me, yeah. That's why I popped that fat check in your madam's hand. Haven't decided yet if it means naked or not .”

I stare through him while he isn't looking my way. I try, and fail, tenderly biting into my bottom lip, annoyed and intrigued all at once. If he's putting on a show, it's a good one .

“Do you have a name? Or do you just want to keep the Mr. X shit going through sunup ?”

He laughs. It's a rich, resonate tone starting in his chest and ending in the dark, giving it more life than it deserves. “Cade. I'd tell you my last name, but you'd butcher it like everybody else. It's a fit for these Icelandic good looks .”

“Try me,” I say, folding my arms. His car does a sharp turn, and we roll into Edgewater Park, the exclusive city quarter that seems to house half the rich perverts who attend Adele's shows. “I was a language student, once .”

I don't tell him I'm still in grad school. He could be a demented stalker freak, for all I know, and the last thing I want is a maniac in my ordinary life, the one where I'm still an archeology student with a perfect GPA and international accolades .

“Turnbladt,” he says, giving me another quick glance. I repeat the name without skipping a beat. His smile wants to spread to my lips, and I hate it. I'm not here to impress him for anything that isn't covered in that check. “Very good. You've heard of me, then .”

“Nope. What, you're a Senator, or something? You look a little young. I don't follow politics .”

Again, his infuriating, sexy chuckle rings in my ears. “Too sane for that shit-show. There are easier ways to make money without getting on my knees for shady pricks all day. No offense .”

Ass. I bat my eyes, unsure whether I should grind it into him that I don't normally go home with strange men .

I just serenade them in the buff, let them ogle me, and stir the disappointment in their eyes when they find out they can't do more. Totally no big deal .

“You look offended,” he says, almost like he's surprised. I turn my head, staring out the window, beguiled by the lights illuminating the big houses on the coast. “Sorry, Skittle. Didn't know you were serious about that good girl act. Figured it was just a sales tactic .”

“Enough with the suspense. Who are you?” I look at him again, convinced I'll give this one more chance before I fling the door open, step out, and get my far too easily offended ass an Uber home .

“The Turnbladt in Randolph-Emerson-Turnbladt. Biggest financial firm on the West Coast. We make money for the guys who already live, breathe, eat, and shit diamonds, and we're damn good at it .”

I frown. The name is familiar, surprisingly. I try to remember why .

I don't read business journals, but I do like true crime. “You mean the place with the kid who killed that other kid years ago ?”

Cade's temples bulge, clenching his jaw. “Yeah, and that was a long time ago, Skittle. That kid is a good man now. He just so happens to be my best friend. Watch your mouth if all you've got is gossip from guys looking for their next blog click .”

“It's not like I went to Maynard Academy to find out,” I say, shrugging. Whatever went down there years ago, it was all over the local press when I was just a teen. I'm glad I wasn't part of it. “I went to a normal school .”

“Am I supposed to be impressed?” his car slows, turning up a long, winding driveway .

“Excuse me?” I'm not sure whether to be more alarmed by the sudden bitter note in his voice, or shocked to my core by the elaborate castle we're approaching. His place is downright palatial, a mega-mansion glowing in front of the dark waters. He must not have a wife or live-in girlfriend to screw around on, I guess, or else he's rich enough to afford several places this grand .

“Don't look so wounded. I didn't mean it to sting. I'm not impressed by the mundane, Skittle. Wouldn't have picked you tonight if I wanted the same crap I get everywhere else – a girl who jumps to my beck and call the second I wave money in her face. You had me at hard-to-get .”

So, it's a game to him after all. He wants me because I'll make him work for me. Does he do this constantly ?

Does it even matter ?

There's another barb growing on my tongue when I see my brother again. I can't screw this up when it hasn't gone completely off the rails. I need to make the most of it. I need that money, and maybe it's worth a few bruises to my ego .

“Show me inside,” I say, motioning to the fancy double doors hiding his Pacific castle .

“You recover fast. I like that,” he says, pulling the car to the curb .

He kills the engine, steps out, and rounds his way to my door. I draw a deep breath before taking his hand, and let him help me out .

If there was ever a time I wanted an out of body experience, it's now .

Whatever comes next, it's for Vincent. It's for the debt on my Uncle's ledger, and the poison karma in my soul. It's so I'm better than mom before she took herself out of this horrible world .

Mostly, I think, it's to prove to myself that I can shut up, play along, and dig myself out of this pit just for one night .

* * *

T he wine bottle's cork blows like a gunshot. I jump, turn, and see him filling two crystal glasses .

Deep red liquid sloshes high near the rim. Apparently, moderation isn't his style .

Stepping into the room, he slides one glass over. I take it, and can't hide how quickly I gulp it down my throat .

There's no point. I'm seeking courage, and the liquid kind will do tonight .

I'll need it to face the mess I've gotten myself into. Not to mention the thought of his hard Viking body pressed against mine, wedged between my legs, taking what I always thought I'd give a man who deserves it .

“You got a name, or should I keep calling you Skittle ?”

I hesitate. At least he's named me after a candy I actually like – that's worth something, isn't it? It takes another heavy pull of wine before I answer. “Skye,” I say softly .

“Skye.” It rolls off his tongue like the shallow sip he takes a second later. I watch his throat force it down, eyes locked on his muscles, powerful and elegant when they're just acting out their nature. “Pretty name. Not what I'd expect from one of Adele's girls. Hell, I'm starting to believe you're honest about the stuck up virgin act .”

“Whatever,” I say, turning my back. His eyes are still fixed, staring through me. Why is it so easy for him to see what I've tried so hard to hide ?

Why doesn't it bother me like it should ?

Crap. I can't be so smitten, so soon .

“Have a seat,” he says, pulling me toward a large ivory sectional against the massive windows. It must be gorgeous during the day, but even at night I can see the tinsel gold warmth bathing the marinas around the bay, every dock and boathouse as magnificent as his .

“Let's cut the bullshit,” he says, running one hand up my thigh .

Double crap. I stop, lungs full of cement, bracing for the inevitable. This is it. The beginning and the end of me .

“Tell me what you were really doing working for Adele, if you're not here to fuck your way to riches?” I open my eyes, and see his narrowed, locked on mine, demanding answers .

I expected seduction. Not an interrogation .

“It's a living. My business. You don't see me asking about yours.” I shrug, rolling my shoulders. “Do you seriously want to know ?”

He's silent. “Yeah, now who's putting who on?” I whisper .

I don't expect his hand on my cheek, pulling me closer, controlling my neck with a swift, but gentle precision. There's no denying his experience, or the thousand new goosebumps it kisses on my skin. “I like to know who, or what, I'm dealing with, beautiful,” he growls. “You're in my house, less than an hour from my bed. You could be anything: thief, druggie, serial killer .”

It's my turn to laugh. Maybe it's just the wine tickling my brain, but there's almost something innocent in this sudden doubt, this concern dripping out of Mr. Tall, Dark, and Relentless .

Where the hell was it before he decided to throw down six figures for one night ?

“You promised we'd use protection. Don't know what you're worried about. Something tells me you enjoy a good mystery,” I say, bold fingers braced against his chest, teasing and exploring. He's even harder than I thought. I feel through his shirt. I can't believe a man who must have spent his life in an office clicking keys developed a body like this .

“Mystery, yeah. Not a fucking ambush. I look before I leap, Skittle. Had a perfect view of the first fiery hoops I jumped through like a damn poodle to get you here. How many more are you hiding ?”

Holy shit, he's serious. I pull away, settling onto the sofa next to him, staring into the night .

It's weirdly cold without his embrace, those thick, heavy hands surrounding me only seconds ago .

“I don't know what to tell you. You're the one who paid to bring me here...right? I thought you'd do whatever risk assessment you needed before you plunked down the cash .”

“That only happens when you talk to me, Skittle. Sing. Crisp and clear and beautiful as you did when I asked for Ol' Blue Eyes. What's in this for you, if money isn't your angle? I've seen enough to know it isn't. Never seen anybody treat a check for a hundred-K like a trip to the fucking dentist .”

I'm desperate, but I'm not stupid. I can't tell him the truth. “Sex is the angle, isn't it? I mean, really? You need my life's story to cleanse your conscience or something? Before we run off to bed and ...”

I can't even say it. Tears sting my eyes. Maybe they'd come anyway after I slept with him, but this warm up, this bitter probing in my heart ...

It shouldn't be happening. It's almost like I'm not the only one who's only here because I'm at my wit's end .

“You want to know? Fine. You tell me first, what the hell's going on? If you don't want my body, then what? What is it you're really after ?”

“Skittle...” He whispers it long and slow. There's a smolder in his eyes, a warning, and also a shortcut to melting everything below my waist. “I hired you to do a job. Entertain me. You can interpret that however you want, but first I want answers .”

I stiffen, knocking back the rest of the wine in my glass. Maybe I shouldn't hide it. After all, isn't he seeing a secret side of me already ?

Screw it. Here goes ...

“I'm sure you're a smart man to have all this,” I say, waving my hand across the Turkish rug underneath us, beneath the sparkling chandelier overhead. “Use your brain. Do you think I'd be here if my life were roses? If I didn't have to be? If I had a trust fund from my dead father to put myself through grad school, or knew the right people to get a better job with a dress code fancier than naked, or maybe if my little brother wasn't a few missed pills away from fucking dying ?”

Damn it. I regret the last part instantly. I regret all of it, spilling my spaghetti like this, more than the ice cold tear of honesty pouring down one cheek .

Then Cade gives me the look I don't expect .

Sympathy. Exactly what I didn't want tonight after the lengths I've gone to keep this a cold, emotionless transaction .

And yet, the cracks are there. It's falling apart, and so am I. I don't even fight when his arms go around me, and he pulls me in, running his fingers through my hair with a goosebump-inducing murmur. “Shhhhhh .”

“Sorry. I didn't mean to lose it like this. I never –“

“Skye, stop. Just let me hold you. I wanted answers, but I'll wait if it means souring you like this. I'm not a total asshole .”

No, just a sneaky one. His face sinks down to mine while I'm on his lap, staring up at him, trembling like an unsure kitten. We touch foreheads. Heat bristles through me where our skin connects, and then it rips up my spine .

I can't stop crying .

Not when I see so many faces in my mind. Adele, Vince, Uncle Harry, mom ...

Judgment. Dependence. Evil. Fear .

Yes, in that order .

This can't be what he paid for. It certainly isn't what I wanted to deliver. I don't think I'm in any condition to deliver what he's after. Not sex, or anything else. Not after breaking down in front of him like this .

But his lips don't seem to care. They brush mine once before they come in hard .

I can't remember the last time I kissed a boy, but it was never like this .

They were boys at their worst: messy, inexperienced, incomplete .

This is a man with hungry lips. This is a kiss that consoles even when it commands. This is respect, domination, and the sweetest tongue I've ever tasted, laid against mine like he owns it .

It quiets the sadness for a few merciful seconds .

There's nothing silent about the moan that boils up, though. Not when he grips my face tighter, pulling me into him, tasting me deeper, fiercer, fully .

Sweet Jesus. It's too much, too fast .

I'm grateful when he lets me up for air. But I'm also torn, wondering why it feels so good and so natural. Blame it on the wine, I decide. It's a hell of a drug when it's mixed with raw, seething emotions .

I know I've failed him. But it's a disappointment I think I can live with after that kiss, that heat and heart I've been missing for God knows how long .

“Cade, look, I'm sorry for all this, again. I'm a mess. There's your truth. Just let me up, I'll take my things and go. I'll make sure Adele knows to give you back every penny, and –“

“You're drunk, Skittle. You're not going anywhere except straight to bed,” he growls, running his hands under my shoulders, drawing me to his lap. “Don't fight me. Please .”

Please. It echoes in my ears because I'm definitely intoxicated. What little fight I have when I try to stand, slip out of his grip, and fall back against him when he mirrors my movement fades in a few slurred words I can't believe I'm oozing. “Nah, nah, I'll be fine, Cade. I'll be...outta your hair...right after we ...”

After I make an utter ass of myself, apparently .

Because that's what I'm sure I do in the minutes between standing up, secure in his arms, and when I slump against his guardian chest .

Darkness, regret, and shame consume me, but they don't destroy .

He won't let them .

Tonight, I know I'm his. Not in any way I imagined before I let this stranger buy my soul, but his nonetheless .

* * *

T here's a strange warmth around me all night long. Weird because his place is comfortable, but I'm never able to sleep this easy without a blanket, not even when I'm drained .

I realize somewhere in the middle of the night it's him. He hasn't let go since he carried me to bed. We're on his vast mattress, soft as a cloud and just as dreamy, still fully clothed .

Vaguely, I remember him waking me up a couple hours after the first time I passed out, dropping several Tylenol in my hand. He lifts a glass of water to my lips and I take several sips .

“Drink this and go back to sleep, beautiful. You're okay. You're safe. You're mine,” he whispers .

Such confidence in those words I believe them, and fall asleep again the instant my head hits the pillow .

He keeps the angel act going until morning. That's when I wake up from the calmest, darkest sleep I can remember, without the usual worries putting nightmares in my head .

“Cade?” I whisper his name once, searching, studying his outline .

He's sitting at the edge of the bed, tall and straight. Almost like he's waiting for me .

“Mornin',” he says, doing a slow turn. There's a smile on my face, merging with the early sunrise. I want to reach over, grasp his hand, and thank him for taking care of me. So many lesser men wouldn't have put up with this crap. They would've thrown me out or worse .

Then I notice the thing on my hand that wasn't there last night, and the hell I've expected breaks open .



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